The Gospel According to Church History (PART 5) By Nathan Busenitz

In part 4 of this series, we compared the apostolic doctrine of justification by grace through faith alone with modern Roman Catholic claims to the contrary. That New Testament emphasis (on a gospel of grace apart from works) became the foundation for the Protestant Reformation and its central tenet of sola fide. The biblical teaching on that issue remains the authoritative basis on which an evangelical understanding of the gospel is built.

But while modern evangelicals rightly conclude that the doctrine of sola fide is founded in Scripture, many wrongly assume that there is relatively little support for that position in pre- Reformation church history. Nothing could be further from the truth. Over the next two installments in this series, we will survey 25 early Christian leaders—each of whom affirmed the truth that justification is through faith alone and not on the basis of works.

Let’s start with Clement of Rome. Clement pastored the church in Rome from about AD 90 to 100. That means, as a church leader, he was a contemporary of the apostle John. He was also a disciple of the apostle Paul, and he is even mentioned by Paul in Philippians 4:3. So, his testimony is very early. Because he was a pastor in Rome, the Roman Catholic Church considers him to be the fourth pope. But listen to what he wrote in his letter to the Corinthians. This is one of the earliest Christian documents that we have outside of the New Testament. In chapter 32 of his epistle, he says this:



1. Clement of Rome: And we [Christians], too, being called by His will in Christ Jesus, are not justified by ourselves, nor by our own wisdom, or understanding, or godliness, or works which we have wrought in holiness of heart; but by that faith through which, from the beginning, Almighty God has justified all men; to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.1



It does not get much clearer than that. We are justified through faith and not through good works. To Clement’s voice, we can add a chorus of others:



2. Polycarp of Smyrna (c. 69–160): I rejoice that the secure root of your faith, proclaimed from ancient times, even now continues to abide and bear fruit in our Lord Jesus Christ. He persevered to the point of death on behalf of our sins; and God raised him up after loosing the labor pains of Hades. Even without seeing him, you believe in him with an inexpressible and glorious joy that many long to experience. For you know that you have been saved by a gracious gift—not from works but by the will of God through Jesus




Note: Much like Augustine (who was quoted in the Part 4 of this series), Polycarp emphasized the reality that salvation is a gracious gift that comes through faith alone. At


the same time, however, genuine faith is never alone. It inevitably produces fruits of obedience. Thus, Polycarp could tell his readers that the secure root of their faith would bear fruit in the Lord Jesus Christ.



3. Ignatius of Antioch (c. 50–c. 110): But to me Jesus Christ is in the place of all that is ancient: His cross, and death, and resurrection, and the faith which is by Him, are undefiled monuments of antiquity; by which I desire, through your prayers, to be justified.3



4. Epistle to Diognetus (second century): He gave His own Son as a ransom for us, the holy One for transgressors, the blameless One for the wicked, the righteous One for the unrighteous, the incorruptible One for the corruptible, the immortal One for them that are mortal. For what other thing was capable of covering our sins than His righteousness? By what other one was it possible that we, the wicked and ungodly, could be justified, than by the only Son of God? O sweet exchange! O unsearchable operation! O benefits surpassing all expectation! That the wickedness of many should be hid in a single

righteous One, and that the righteousness of One should justify many transgressors!4



5. Justin Martyr (100–165): In his debate with a Jewish man named Trypho, Justin refers to Christians as “those who repented, and who no longer were purified by the blood of goats and of sheep, or by the ashes of an heifer, or by the offerings of fine flour, but by faith through the blood of Christ, and through His death.”5



6. Origen of Alexandria (185–254): A man is justified by faith. The works of the law can make no contribution to this. Where there is no faith which might justify the believer, even if there are works of the law these are not based on the foundation of faith. Even if they are good in themselves they cannot justify the one who does them, because faith is lacking, and faith is the mark of those who are justified by God.6



(Origen again) For God is just, and therefore he could not justify the unjust. Therefore he required the intervention of a propitiator, so that by having faith in him those who could not be justified by their own works might be justified.7



(Origen again) [Regarding the thief on the cross]: Who has been justified by faith alone without works of the law? Thus in my opinion that thief was crucified with Christ should suffice for a suitable example. He called out to him from the cross, “Lord Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom!” In the Gospels, nothing else is recorded about his good works, but for the sake of this faith alone Jesus said to him,

“Truly I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”8


7. Didymus the Blind (c. 313-398): A person is saved by grace, not by works but by faith.

There should be no doubt but that faith saves and then lives by doing its own works, so that the works which are added to salvation by faith are not those of the law but a different kind of thing altogether.”9



8. Basil of Caesarea (329–379): Let one who boasts boast in the Lord, that Christ has been made by God for us righteousness, wisdom, justification, redemption. This is perfect and pure boasting in God, when one is not proud on account of his own righteousness but knows that he is indeed unworthy of the true righteousness and is justified solely by faith in Christ. And Paul boasts that he despises his own righteousness, seeking that

righteousness that is on account of Christ, which is the righteousness of God by faith.10



(Basil again) An eternal rest awaits those who have rightly contended in this life; not because of the merits of their works but from the grace of a most bountiful God, in which they have hoped.11



9. Athanasius (c. 296–373): For naturally, since the Logos of God was above all, when He offered His own temple and bodily instrument as a substitute for the life of all, He fulfilled by death all that was required.12



Note: The total sufficiency of Christ’s death on the Cross runs contrary to Roman Catholic doctrine, in which sinners must do more on their own to secure salvation.



10. Hilary of Poitiers (300–368): Wages cannot be considered as a gift, because they are due to work, but God has given free grace to all men by the justification of faith.13



Note: Significantly, Hilary explains that “faith justifies” some twenty times in his thirty- three chapter commentary on Matthew’s gospel. This is just one such example.



11. Ambrose (339–397): I have nothing, therefore, whereby I may glory in my works; I have nothing to boast of, and, therefore, I will glory in Christ. I will not glory because I am righteous, but because I am redeemed. I will not glory because I am free from sin, but because my sins are pardoned. I will not glory because I have done good to any one, or any one has done good to me, but because Christ is my advocate with the Father, and

because Christ’s blood was shed for me.14



(Ambrose again) Therefore let no one boast of his works, because no one can be justified by his works; but he who is just receives it as a gift, because he is justified by the washing of regeneration. It is faith, therefore, which delivers us by the blood of Christ, because blessed is he whose sins are forgiven, and to whom pardon is granted.15



(Ambrose again) “Ye behold the mysteries, ye behold the grace of Christ, and the grace of the Holy Spirit, which is conferred in some sort fortuitously; forasmuch as everyone is not justified by the Lord by reason of his works, but by reason of his faith.16



12. John Chrysostom (347–407): Even faith, [Paul] says, is not from us. For if the Lord had not come, if he had not called us, how should we have been able to believe? “For how,” [Paul] says, “shall they believe if they have not heard?” (Rom. 10:14). So even the act of faith is not self-initiated. It is, he says, “the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8c).17



(Chrysostom again) God allowed his Son to suffer as if a condemned sinner, so that we might be delivered from the penalty of our sins. This is God’s righteousness, that we are not justified by works (for then they would have to be perfect, which is impossible), but by grace, in which case all our sin is removed.18



(Chrysostom again) For as people, on receiving some great good, ask themselves if it is not a dream, as not believing it; so it is with respect to the gifts of God. What then was it that was thought incredible? That those who were enemies and sinners, justified by neither the law nor works, should immediately through faith alone be advanced to the highest favor. On this head [topic] accordingly Paul has discoursed at length in his Epistle to the Romans, and here again at length. “This is a faithful saying,” he says, “ and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” As the Jews were chiefly attracted by this, he persuades them not to listen to the law, since they could not attain salvation by it without faith. Against this he contends, for it seemed to them incredible that a person who had misspent all his former life in vain and wicked actions should afterwards be saved by his faith alone. On this account he says, “It is a

saying to be believed.”19



(Chrysostom again) To have brought humanity, more senseless than stones, to the dignity of angels simply through bare words, and faith alone, without any hard work, is indeed a rich and glorious mystery. It is just as if one were to take a dog, quite consumed with hunger and the mange, foul and loathsome to see, and not so much as able to move but lying passed out, and make him all at once into a human being and to display him upon

the royal throne.20



(Chrysostom again) What is the “law of faith?” It is, being saved by grace. Here he shows God’s power, in that He has not only saved, but has even justified, and led them to boasting, and this too without needing works, but looking for faith only.21


(Chrysostom again) Now since the Jews kept turning over and over the fact, that the Patriarch, and friend of God, was the first to receive circumcision, he wishes to show, that it was by faith that he too was justified. And this was quite a vantage ground to insist upon. For a person who had no works, to be justified by faith, was nothing unlikely. But for a person richly adorned with good deeds, not to be made just from hence, but from

faith, this is the thing to cause wonder, and to set the power of faith in a strong light.22



(Chrysostom again) And this he removes, with great skill and prudence, turning their argument against themselves, and showing that those who relinquish the Law are not only not cursed, but blessed; and they who keep it, not only not blessed but cursed. They said that he who kept not the Law was cursed, but he proves that he who kept it was cursed, and he who kept it not, blessed. Again, they said that he who adhered to faith alone was cursed, but he shows that he who adhered to faith alone, is blessed. And how does he prove all this? for it is no common thing which we have promised; wherefore it is necessary to give close attention to what follows. He had already shown this, by referring to the words spoken to the Patriarch, ‘In thee shall all nations be blessed,’ (Genesis 12:4.)

at a time, that is, when Faith existed, not the Law.23



(Chrysostom again) God’s mission was not to save people in order that they may remain barren or inert. For Scripture says that faith has saved us. Put better: Since God willed it, faith has saved us. Now in what case, tell me, does faith save without itself doing anything at all? Faith’s workings themselves are a gift of God, lest anyone should boast. What then is Paul saying? Not that God has forbidden works but that he has forbidden us to be justified by works. No one, Paul says, is justified by works, precisely in order that

the grace and benevolence of God may become apparent.24



(Chrysostom again) The patriarch Abraham himself before receiving circumcision had been declared righteous on the score of faith alone: before circumcision, the text says, “Abraham believed God, and credit for it brought him to righteousness.”25



13. Augustine (354–430): When someone believes in him who justifies the impious, that faith is reckoned as justice to the believer, as David too declares that person blessed whom God has accepted and endowed with righteousness, independently of any righteous actions (Rom 4:5-6). What righteousness is this? The righteousness of faith, preceded by no good works, but with good works as its consequence.26



(Augustine again) What is grace? That which is freely given. What is “freely given”? Given, not paid. If it was due, wages would be given, but grace would not be bestowed. But if it was really due, then you were good. But if, as is true, you were evil but believed on him who justifies the ungodly (What is, “who justifies the ungodly”? the ungodly is


made righteous), consider what by right hung over you by the law and you have obtained by grace. But having obtained that grace by faith, you will be just by faith—“for the just lives by faith.”27



We will continue our survey of early Christian leaders in Part 6 of this series. But even this is more than enough to demonstrate that the church fathers were no proponents of a synergistic, works-based form of justification. When the Reformers proclaimed the doctrine of sola fide, they were not only articulating that which is clearly taught in the New Testament; they were also echoing the gospel truth that had been championed by earlier generations of faithful pastors and church leaders.

Evangelical Christians today should be encouraged to see that truth so clearly defined and defended by the most well-known names in early church history.


Notes: The Gospel According to Church History – Part 5


1 Clement of Rome, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 32.4.


2 Polycarp of Smyrna, Epistle to the Philippians, 1.2–3; trans. by Bart D. Ehrman, The Apostolic Fathers, Loeb, 333–335.


3 Ignatius of Antioch, Epistle to Philadelphians, 8.


4 Epistle to Digonetus, 9.2–5; ANF 1:28; cited from Thomas Oden, The Justification Reader, 65.


5 Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, 13.


6 Origen, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans; CER 2.136; ACCS NT 6:104; cited from Thomas Oden, The Justification Reader, 45.


7 Origen, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, 2:112; ACCS NT 6:102–3; cited from Thomas Oden, The Justification Reader, 63


8 Origen, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, 3.9.3; cited from Joel C. Elowsky,

We Believe in the Holy Spirit, 99.


9 Didymus the Blind, Commentary on James, 2:26b.


10 Basil, Sermon on Humility, 22; cited from Joel C. Elowsky, We Believe in the Holy Spirit, 98.


11 Basil, Homily on Psalm 114; cited from Joel C. Elowsky, We Believe in the Holy Spirit, 99.


12 Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Logos, 6–7, 9.


13 Hilary, Commentary on Matthew, re: Matt. 20:7.


14 Ambrose, Concerning Jacob and a Happy Life, 1.6; cited from G. Finch, A Sketch of the Romish Controversy, 220.


15 Ambrose, Letter 73; cited from G. Finch, A Sketch of the Romish Controversy, 220.


16 Ambrose, An Exhortation to Virginity; cited from George Finch, A Sketch of the Romish Controversy, 220.


17 John Chrysostom, Homily on Ephesians 2:8; IOEP 2:160; ACCS NT 8:134; cited from Thomas Oden, The Justification Reader, 44.


18 John Chrysostom, Homilies on the Epistles of Paul to the Corinthians, 11:5; NPNF 1 12:334; ACCS NT 7:252; cited from Thomas Oden, The Justification Reader, 61.


19 John Chrysostom, Homilies on 1 Timothy 1:15–16; cited from Joel C. Elowsky, We Believe in the Holy Spirit, 98.


20 John Chrysostom, Homilies on Colossians 1:26–28; Cited from Joel C. Elowsky, We Believe in the Holy Spirit, 98.


21 John Chrysostom, Homilies on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans, 7.27.


22 John Chrysostom, Homilies on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans, Homily 8; re: Rom. 4:1–2.


23 John Chrysostom, Commentary on Galatians, 3:8. Elsewhere Chrysostom writes, “For by faith alone He saved us. . . . Instead of a certain manner of life, He brought in faith. For that He might not save us to no purpose, He both Himself underwent the penalty, and also required of men the faith that is by doctrines” (cf. Chyrostom’s Homily on Ephesians 2:11–12).



24 John Chrysostom, Homily on Ephesians, 4.2.9. cited from Mark J. Edwards, ed., ACCS, NT VI: Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1998),

134. See also John Chrysostom. F. Field, ed., Interpretatio omnium Epistolarum Paulinarum per Homilias Facta (Oxford J. H. Parker, 1845-1862), 2:160.


25 John Chrysostom, Cited from Fathers of the Church, Vol. 82, Homilies on Genesis 18-45, 27.7 (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1990), 167. On a somewhat related note, Chrysostom elsewhere explains that faith alone saves, even apart from something as important as water baptism. He writes, “Attend to this, you who come to baptism at the close of life, for we indeed pray that after baptism you may have also this deportment, but you are seeking and doing your utmost to depart without it. For, what though you be justified: yet is it of faith only. But we pray that thou should have as well the confidence that comes of good works” (John Chrysostom, On the Second Epistle of St. Paul The Apostle to the Corinthians, Homily 2.8).


26 Augustine, Exposition 2 of Psalm 31, 7. Expositions of the Psalms 1-32, Part 1, edited by John E. Rotelle, trans. Maria Boulding (Hyde Park: New City Press, 2000), 11:370.


27 Augustine, Tractates on the Gospel of John, John 1:15–18, Tractate 3.9 in NPNF, 7:21; cited from Gregg R. Allison, Historical Theology, 501.[1]


[1] Dave Jordan, M. E. Pulpit Magazine February 2013 Vol. 02. No. 2.

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