In Part 5 of this series, we considered the testimony of thirteen early Christian leaders—from Clement of Rome to Augustine of Hippo—each of whom affirmed the doctrine of justification by faith alone. This installment will pick up where we left off, surveying another dozen historical church leaders on this important topic.
We will begin with Jerome, the foremost scholar of the late-fourth, early-fifth century. As a noted linguist and Bible translator (whose work on the Latin Vulgate is still highly regarded today), Jerome’s testimony represents the height of Christian scholarship before the medieval period.
14. Jerome (347–420): We are saved by grace rather than works, for we can give God nothing in return for what he has bestowed on us. 1
(Jerome again) God proposed to save by faith alone those whom he foreknew would believe.2
(Jerome again) You have received by faith alone the Holy Spirit who is not received except by the righteous. … Abraham believed and it was credited to him as righteousness. Likewise also for you faith alone suffices as righteousness.3
Note: Jerome uses the phrase “sola fide” on numerous occasions throughout his writings.4
To Jerome’s testimony we can add a chorus of voices from late antiquity and the early medieval period:
15. Ambrosiaster (fourth century): All thanksgiving for our salvation is to be given only to God. He extends his mercy to us so as to recall us to life precisely while we are straying, without looking for the right road. And thus we are not to glory in ourselves but in God, who has regenerated us by a heavenly birth through faith in Christ.5
(Ambrosiaster again) These are the true riches of God’s mercy, that even when we did not seek it mercy was made known through his own initiative.6
(Ambrosiaster again) God gave what he promised in order to be revealed as righteous. For he had promised that he would justify those who believe in Christ, as he says in Habakkuk: ‘The righteous will live by faith in me’ (Hab. 2:4). Whoever has faith in God and Christ is righteous.7
(Ambrosiaster again) They are justified freely because, while doing nothing or providing any repayment, they are justified by faith alone as a gift of God.8
(Ambrosiaster again) It is determined by God that whoever believes in Christ shall be saved and have forgiveness of sins, not through works but through faith alone, without merit.9
(Ambrosiaster again) How then can the Jews think that they have been justified by the works of the law in the same way as Abraham, when they see that Abraham was not justified by the works of the law but by faith alone? Therefore there is no need of the law when the ungodly is justified before God by faith alone.10
(Ambrosiaster again) [On Rom. 1:11] For the mercy of God had been given for this reason, that they should cease from the works of the law, as I have often said, because God, taking pity on our weaknesses, decreed that the human race would be saved by faith alone, along with the natural law.11
(Ambrosiaster again) [On Rom. 2:12] For if the law is given not for the righteous but for the unrighteous, whoever does not sin is a friend of the law. For him faith alone is the way by which he is made perfect. For others mere avoidance of evil will not gain them any advantage with God unless they also believe in God, so that they may be righteous on both counts. For the one righteousness is temporal; the other is eternal.12
(Ambrosiaster again) [On Rom. 3:27] Paul tells those who live under the law that they have no reason to boast basing themselves on the law and claiming to be of the race of Abraham, seeing that no one is justified before God except by faith.13
(Ambrosiaster again) [On Rom. 4:6] “righteousness apart from works”: Paul backs this up by the example of the prophet David, who says that those are blessed of whom God has decreed that, without work or any keeping of the law, they are justified before God by faith alone.14
16. Marius Victorinus (fourth century): The fact that you Ephesians are saved is not something that comes from yourselves. It is the gift of God. It is not from your works, but it is God’s grace and God’s gift, not from anything you have deserved.15
(Victorinus again) He did not make us deserving, since we did not receive things by our own merit but by the grace and goodness of God.16
(Victorinus again) For the patriarchs prefigured and foretold that man would be justified from faith. Therefore, just as it was reckoned as righteousness to Abraham that he had faith, so we too, if we have faith in Christ and every mystery of his, will be sons of Abraham. Our whole life will be accounted as righteous.17
17. Prosper of Aquitaine (390–455): And just as there are no crimes so detestable that they can prevent the gift of grace, so too there can be no works so eminent that they are owed in condign [deserved] judgment that which is given freely. Would it not be a debasement of redemption in Christ’s blood, and would not God’s mercy be made secondary to human works, if justification, which is through grace, were owed in view of preceding merits, so that it were not the gift of a Donor, but the wages of a laborer?18
(Prosper again) Faith that justifies a sinner cannot be had except for God’s gift, and it is not a reward for previous merits.19
18. Theodoret of Cyrrhus (393–457): All we bring to grace is our faith. But even in this faith, divine grace itself has become our enabler. For [Paul] adds, “And this is not of yourselves but it is a gift of God; not of works, lest anyone should boast” (Eph. 2:8–9). It is not of our own accord that we have believed, but we have come to belief after having been called; and even when we had come to believe, He did not require of us purity of life, but approving mere faith, God bestowed on us forgiveness of sins.20
(Theodoret again) The Lord Christ is both God and the mercy seat, both the priest and the lamb, and he performed the work of our salvation by his blood, demanding only faith from us.21
(Theodoret again) I consider myself as wretched—in fact, wretched three times over. I am guilty of all kinds of errors. Through faith alone I look for finding some mercy in the day of the Lord’s appearing.22
19. Cyril of Alexandria (412-444): For we are justified by faith, not by works of the law, as Scripture says (Gal. 2:16). By faith in whom, then, are we justified? Is it not in him who suffered death according to the flesh for our sake? It is not in one Lord Jesus Christ? Have we not been redeemed by proclaiming his death and confessing his resurrection?23
(Cyril again) For truly the compassion from beside the Father is Christ, as he takes away the sins, dismisses the charges and justifies by faith, and recovers the lost and makes [them] stronger than death. . . . For by him and in him we have known the Father, and we have become rich in the justification by faith.24
20. Leo I of Rome (400–461): The devil sees himself robbed of all his tyrannical power and driven from the hearts of those he once possessed, while from either sex thousands of the old, the young, the middle-aged are snatched away from him, and no one is debarred by sin—either because of his own sin or original sin—where justification is not paid for [by] merits but simply given as a free gift.25
21. Fulgentius (462–533): The blessed Paul argues that we are saved by faith, which he declares to be not from us but a gift from God. Thus there cannot possibly be true salvation where there is no true faith, and, since this faith is divinely enabled, it is without doubt bestowed by his free generosity. Where there is true belief through true faith, true salvation certainly accompanies it. Anyone who departs from true faith will not possess the grace of true salvation.26
22. Oecumenius (6th century): Abraham is the image of someone who is justified by faith alone, since what he believed was credited to him as righteousness. But he is also approved because of his works, since he offered up his son Isaac on the altar. Of course he did not do this work by itself; in doing it, he remained firmly anchored in his faith, believing that through Isaac his seed would be multiplied until it was as numerous as the stars.27
23. Ildefonsus of Toledo (d. 657): The beginning of salvation comes from faith, which, when it is in Christ, is justification for the believer.28
(Ildefonsus again) God, who makes the unclean clean and removes sins, justifies the sinner apart from works.29
On the fact that good works are the fruit of salvation:
(Ildefonsus again) Faith unadorned with works is not only lacking in beauty, but is in fact dead.30
24. Julian of Toledo (642–690): The righteousness of faith, by which we are justified. This faith is that we believe in him whom we cannot see, and that, being cleansed by faith, we will eventually see him in whom we now believe.”31
25. Bede (673–735): Although the apostle Paul preached that we are justified by faith without works, those who understand by this that it does not matter whether they live evil lives or do wicked and terrible things, as long as they believe in Christ, because salvation is through faith, have made a great mistake. James here expounds how Paul’s words ought to be understood. This is why he uses the example of Abraham, whom Paul also used as an example of faith, to show that the patriarch also performed good works in the light of his faith. It is therefore wrong to interpret Paul in such a way as to suggest that it did not matter whether Abraham put his faith into practice or not. What Paul meant was that no one obtains the gift of justification on the basis of merits derived from works performed beforehand, because the gift of justification comes only from faith.32
Clearly, based on the twenty-five church fathers we have surveyed (in this article and the previous one), it is impossible to claim that the doctrine of justification by grace alone through faith alone is without historical warrant. It was not a Reformation invention. Rather, it was both the teaching of the apostles in the New Testament, and a conviction that was championed by many in the early church. The Protestant Reformation recovered the purity of that great gospel truth within the church.
In light of this, a final question must be raised. If the Reformers reclaimed a view of justification that reflects the teaching of the church fathers, when and how did the Roman Catholic system of synergistic sacramentalism develop, such that it came to be the predominant soteriology of the late middle ages? We will attempt to briefly answer that question next month in the final installment of this series.
Notes: The Gospel According to Church History – Part 5 Notes:
1 Jerome, Epistle to the Ephesians, 1.2.1; PL 26:468B ; ACCS NT 8:132; cited from Thomas Oden, The Justification Reader, 48
2 Jerome, Commentary on the Pauline Epistles, Romans 8.28–29; Joel C. Elowsky, We Believe in the Holy Spirit, 98.
3 Jerome, Commentary on the Pauline Epistles, Galatians 3.6; Cited from Joel C. Elowsky, We Believe in the Holy Spirit, 98).
4 For example, Jerome uses the phrase “sola fide” some 15 times in volume 30 of the Patrologia Latina alone (cf. Joel C. Elowsky, We Believe in the Holy Spirit, 98).
5 Ambrosiaster, Epistle to the Ephesians, ACCS NT 8:134; cited from Thomas Oden, The Justification Reader, 47.
6 Ambrosiaster, Epistle to the Ephesians 2.4; CSEL 81.3:80; ACCS NT 8:131; cited from Thomas Oden, The Justification Reader, 48.
7 Ambrosiaster, Commentary on Paul’s Epistles; CSEL 81 ad loc.; ACCS NT 6:103; cited from Thomas Oden, The Justification Reader, 63.
8 Ambrosiaster, Commentary on Romans 3.24; cited from Joel C. Elowsky, We Believe in the Holy Spirit, 98.
9 Ambrosiaster, Commentary on 1 Corinthians 1.4; cited from Joel C. Elowsky, We Believe in the Holy Spirit, 97.
10 Ambrosiaster (fl. c. 366-384), on Rom. 4:5—Gerald Bray, ed., Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, New Testament VI: Romans (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1998), p. 112.
11 Ambrosiaster, cited from Gerald Bray, ed., Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, New Testament VI: Romans (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1998), p. 23.
12 Ambrosiaster, cited from Gerald Bray, ed., Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, New Testament VI: Romans (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1998), p. 65.
13 Ambrosiaster, cited from Gerald Bray, ed., Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, New Testament VI: Romans (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1998), p. 103.
14 Ambrosiaster, cited from Gerald Bray, ed., Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, New Testament VI: Romans (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1998), p. 113.
15 Marius Victorinus, Epistle to the Ephesians 1.2.9; BT 1972:152 (1256 A–B); ACCS NT 8:134; cited from Thomas Oden, The Justification Reader, 48)
16 Marius Victorinus, Epistle to the Ephesians 1.2.7; BT 1972:152 (1255C); ACCS NT 8:132; cited from Thomas Oden, The Justification Reader, 48)
17 Marius Victorinus, Epistle to the Galatians, 1.3.7. Mark J. Edwards, ed., Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, ACCS, 39.
18 Prosper of Aquitaine, Call of All Nations, 1.17; FEF 3:195, sec. 2044; cited from Thomas Oden, The Justification Reader, 46.
19 Prosper of Aquitaine, The Call of All Nations, 1.24; cited from Joel C. Elowsky, We Believe in the Holy Spirit, 97.
20 Theodoret, Interpretation of the Fourteen Epistles of Paul; FEF 3:248–49, sec. 2163; cited from Thomas Oden, The Justification Reader, 44.
21 Theodoret, Interpretation of the Letter to the Romans; PG 82 ad loc.; ACCS NT 6:102; cited from Thomas Oden, The Justification Reader, 62.
22 Theodoret, Letter 83; Cited from Joel C. Elowsky, We Believe in the Holy Spirit, 99)
23 Cyril of Alexandria, Against Nestorius, “The Dispensation of the Incarnation,” 61; Cited from Norman Russell, Cyril of Alexandria, 165.
24 Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on Hosea. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, 29.
25 Leo I, Sermon 49.3; cited from Joel C. Elowsky, We Believe in the Holy Spirit, 97.
26 Fulgentius, On the Incarnation, 1; CCL 91:313; ACCS NT 8:133-34; cited from Thomas Oden, The Justification Reader, 48
27 Oecumenius, Commentary on James 2:23; cited from Gerald Bray, ed., James, 1-2 Peter, 1-3 John, Jude, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, 33.
28 Ildefonsus, Journey through the Desert, 89 in Pelikan 3:27; cited from Gregg R. Allison, Historical Theology, 504.
29 Ildefonsus, The Virginity of Mary, in Pelikan, 3:27; cited from Gregg R. Allison, Historical Theology, 504.
30 Ildefonsus, Journey through the Desert, 83, in Pelikan, 3:27; cited from Gregg R. Allison, Historical Theology, 504.
31 Julian of Toledo, The Sixth Age, 2.14, in Pelikan, 3:27; cited from Gregg R. Allison, Historical Theology, 504.
32 Bede (673–735), on Paul and James, cited from Gerald Bray, ed., Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, New Testament XI: James, 1-2Peter, 1-3 John, Jude (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000), p. 31.