Skip to main content

Salvation from the Perspective of the Early Church Fathers

Chris Erickson March 16, 2010 4 Comments

The disputes between Catholicism and Protestantism, as well as amidst the various Protestant traditions themselves, should, if nothing else, cause one to wonder what the earliest Christian communities thought on any subject being contested. What did those who learned their faith directly from the preaching of the Apostles themselves say regarding man’s salvation? For this, of course, we turn to the writings of these Early Church Fathers.

The writings of the Church Fathers—respected Christian teachers of the early centuries recognized as special witnesses of the Christian Faith because of their antiquity, orthodoxy and personal sanctity—allow us a glimpse into that early window of Christian life and thought.

The earliest Fathers were conversant with the apostles themselves, and therefore were unparalleled in their position to receive extensively accurate instruction in Christian Faith. One such person was an Eastern (Greek) Father, Polycarp of Smyrna (AD 69-156). Irenaeus of Lyons (AD 130-200) had this to say about Polycarp:

But Polycarp also was not only instructed by the apostles, and conversed with many who had seen Christ, but was also by the apostles in Asia appointed bishop of the Church in Smyrna, whom I also saw in my early youth, for he tarried on earth a very long time…having always taught the things which he had learned from the apostles, and which the Church has handed down… (Against Heresies 3:3; AD 191).

What exactly did these first Christians believe and teach with regard to salvation? It is important to note that these Christian teachers of antiquity were not attempting to define precise theological points of doctrine; they were more concerned with general concepts, instructions, and admonitions for living the Christian faith in a time of often intense persecution. Therefore, we won’t find the early Fathers engaged in dissecting a particular Pauline phrase in order to understand the Christian concept of justification. Moreover, such an approach would be foreign to the early Church since it can lead to misconceptions:

Those who are particular about words, and devote their time to them, miss the point of the whole picture (Clement of Alexandria, The Stromata, Bk. II, Ch. 1, AD 150-215).

Nonetheless, the Fathers of the Church had written on related matters concerning salvation, such as the role of faith and grace, the role of obedience, righteousness, baptism, etc. From these we can ascertain the mind and thought of the early Christian communities concerning salvation.

A common mistake often made is to misrepresent the Fathers by choosing selective quotations that bolster one’s own personal beliefs, discarding those that do not. It will hopefully be obvious to the reader that this study has avoided that error.

Clement of Rome (AD 96)

The earliest Christian document outside the New Testament writings comes to us from Clement of Rome: The Letter of the Church of Rome to the Church of Corinth (commonly known as Clement’s First Letter). It was so highly esteemed in Christian antiquity that for a while it was even accepted as part of the canon of Scripture in Egypt and Syria. Many scholars believe Clement is identified as the Clement mentioned by Paul in Philippians 4:3. Regardless, Clement was the bishop of Rome at the close of the first century. He was familiar with St. Paul’s Epistles, and he certainly believed and taught that we are justified by faith:

And we, therefore…are not justified of ourselves or by our wisdom or insight or religious devotion or the holy deeds we have done from the heart, but by that faith by which almighty God has justified all men from the very beginning (ch. 32:4).

One might determine that Clement held a Reformed view of justification; however, Clement had more to say on the subject. In fact, it would lead future critics to say that Clement moved away from Pauline teaching toward ethical interests. Actually, Paul and Clement were saying the exact same thing. They both spoke of salvation in terms of requiring a comprehensive response on the part of the Christian: believing that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior and living a life of holiness. Hence Clement would not only write of being justified by faith, but he would also say:

We should clothe ourselves with concord, being humble, self-controlled, far removed from all gossiping and slandering, and justified by our deeds, not by words (ch. 30:3).

Is the reader led to conclude that there exists an inherent self-contradiction in Clement’s letter? Or was Clement promulgating the essential truth of the Gospel notwithstanding Paul’s teaching on the necessity of faith for salvation? Clement did not understand Paul to be offering an either/or proposition, but rather both/and. According to Paul sin and grace are entirely opposed. “For what participation has justice with injustice? Or what fellowship has light with darkness?” (2 Cor. 6:14).

It was an entirely new way of life that was required of the Christian to inherit God’s promises: faith and an inner conversion of the heart that would naturally show itself in good works of holiness. Clement believed that both Christ’s and Paul’s teaching held that if the latter is missing, the former is barren (cf. Mt. 7:21; Lk. 13:24; 1 Cor. 13:2; 15:1,2; James 2:14ff).

Clement taught that the Christian moral life is imperative for salvation, that faith and obedience is what God considers righteousness. Clement points out that our actions—our good deeds prompted by faith—is what God reckons as righteousness: “Why was our father Abraham blessed? Was it not because he acted in righteousness and truth, prompted by faith?” (ch.31:2-3). Clement further instructed the Church of Corinth that Abraham inherited God’s promises because of his (1) faith, (2) obedience and (3) hospitality:

It was obedience which led [Abraham] to quit his country, his kindred, and his father’s house, so that, by leaving a paltry country, a mean kindred, and an insignificant house, he might inherit God’s promises (ch. 10:2).

Because of [Abraham’s] faith and hospitality a son was granted to him in his old age (ch. 10:7).

Paul tells us that justification requires faith. Clement affirms that. But what does faith require? Paul says that faith requires (1) believing (cf. 1 Thes. 2:13; 2 Cor. 5:7), (2) obedience (cf. Rom. 1:5; 6:16), and (3) love [hospitality] (cf. Gal. 5:6), exactly what Clement said in Chapter 10 quoted above.

Paul and Clement accentuated the necessity of faith, that our salvation comes through faith in Jesus Christ, and nothing we can do of our own accord (including holy deeds of the heart) apart from that faith will gain us our salvation. But they both taught that faith requires conversion that proves itself in Christian moral living, works of grace—fruits of the Holy Spirit working in us. St. Augustine would later remark that

Without love faith can indeed exist, but can be of no avail” (De Trin. XV 18, 32).

Clement refers to several scriptural passages (Isa. 40:10; 62:11; Prov. 24:12; Rev. 22:12) to augment his plea to the Corinthians to persevere in doing good, which will eventually pay a reward:

We must, then, be eager to do good; for everything comes from Him. For he warns us: ‘See, the Lord is coming. He is bringing his reward with him, to pay each one according to his work’ (ch. 34:2,3).

What is this reward we are to receive, this pay according to our work? Eternal salvation. For what are we being paid—our works? Partially, yes, but correctly understood! It is “our” work only insofar as it is our cooperation with God’s grace as opposed to “the works of the Law.” Hence it is God’s work in us manifesting itself in the fruits of the Holy Spirit that lead us to salvation, beginning with faith, supported by faith, and persevering in faith. (Matt 10:22; Trent, sess. 6, ch. 8;).

Protestant traditions have generally objected to that on the principle that it would result in God paying us the reward of salvation for something we do. It would therefore cease to be gratuitous.

However, Paul condemns those who make salvation a wage or salary as if we can buy our salvation through our own works or deeds apart from faith and God’s grace. Paul doesn’t condemn receiving a payment/reward as a filial inheritance from God for those who have faith working in love (cf. Gal. 5:6), for those who do God’s commands. This type of labor can only boast in God. Thus St. Augustine’s famous adage: “When God rewards my labors, He only crowns His own works in me.”

Ignatius of Antioch (AD 35-107)

The writings of another Apostolic Father from the East, Ignatius of Antioch, are further testimony of how truly far back this teaching reaches. Ignatius tells us that along with baptism, faith and charity, our works will be our deposits to receive what is our due:

Let your baptism be ever your shield, your faith a helmet, your charity a spear, your patience a panoply. Let your works be deposits, so that you may receive the sum that is due you” (Letter to St. Polycarp, 6).

Is Ignatius telling us that we are due something from God? Our due is death as a result of sin. But what is our due after baptism, faith, charity and obedience to God’s will? Then, we are due God’s promises according to the conditions God set forth.

God did not have to offer us any conditional element. He did not have to offer us anything. It’s entirely gratuitous from beginning to end. His infinite love drove Him to put Himself in a position of “owing” something to man, if man would only love and obey Him. If we are to love Him, we must first believe in him (faith). And John 14:15 tells us that if we truly love Him, we will obey him (conversion, holiness, right living, good deeds, righteousness).

Ignatius was quoted above as saying, “let your works be deposits, so that you may receive the sum that is due you.” He would also say:

Therefore, let us not be ungrateful for His kindness. For if He were to reward us according to our works, we would cease to be (Epistle to the Magnesians, Ch. 5).

Again, do we conclude that another Church Father is self-contradictory? Or do we acknowledge a distinction present in the early Christian communities between our own works (works of the Law) that lead us to boast in ourselves, and the works of God in us built upon an interior conversion that can only lead to our boasting in God alone. To abandon that truth leads every early Christian writer to appear self-contradictory, it poses an apparent disharmony between Paul and James, and consequently leads to a Reformed view of justification.

Ignatius’ letters were written while on his way to martyrdom, and he recognized the importance of our actions “motivated by faith,” as opposed to a “momentary act of professing” that faith:

Those who profess to be Christ’s will be recognized by their actions. For what matters is not a momentary act of professing, but being persistently motivated by faith (The Letter of Ignatius to the Ephesians, ch. 14:2).

This is a corollary to our Lord’s warning in Matthew 10:22: “But he who endures to the end will be saved.”

Polycarp of Smyrna (AD 69-156)

Polycarp of Smyrna was an Eastern Father acquainted with Ignatius and well versed in Paul’s Epistles. In Polycarp’s Letter to the Philippians, he says: “…knowing that ‘you are saved by grace, not because of works’ (Eph. 2:5,9,9), namely, by the will of God through Jesus Christ” (ch. 1:3).

Polycarp affirms Pauline teaching, as did Clement and Ignatius. But he also affirmed the necessity of love, obedience and living a life of holiness. This is seen when Polycarp quotes St. Paul and then adds his own admonition, drawing from 1 John: “For ‘he who raised him from the dead will raise us also’ (2 Cor. 4:14; 1 Cor. 6:14; Rom 8:11), if we do his will and follow his commandments, and love what he loved (1 John 4:11,12), refraining from all wrongdoing” (ch. 2:2,3).

Let us remember that Polycarp conversed with the apostles, sat at the feet of St. John as Irenaeus tells us, and that the apostles obviously thought him to be a man of outstanding repute since they did appoint him Bishop of Smyrna. It would, then, be safe to say that Polycarp did not depart from Pauline thought, but instead felt quite comfortable to quote Paul and add his own qualifier “if we do…” Polycarp must have believed this was harmonious with the full corpus of Paul’s teaching and that of the other apostles.

Polycarp taught  that there were a number of moral commands to which the Christian must adhere in order to inherit the Kingdom. Faith without meeting these moral demands will not be enough. Polycarp argued that anyone occupied in these three things: growing in the faith, accompanied by hope, and led by love, has fulfilled the commandment of righteousness (ch. 3:2-3). Drawing from the Scriptures he would also say: “‘Whenever you are able to do a kindness, do not put it off’ (Prov.3:28), because ‘almsgiving frees from death’ [Tobit 4:10ff]” (ch. 10:2).

Justin Martyr (AD 100-165)

The Eastern Father Justin Martyr echoes the teaching of Ignatius insofar as he makes it clear that it is not those who “merely profess” Christ, but those who “do the works” the Saviour commanded that will be saved:

Those who are found not living as he taught should know that they are not really Christians, even if his teachings are on their lips, for he said that not those who merely profess but those who also do the works will be saved (cf. Matt. 13:42, 43; 7:15,16,19)” (The First Apology of Justin, ch.16).

Justin would also say that

Each man goes to everlasting punishment or salvation according to the value of his actions (The First Apology of Justin, ch. 7).

The matters of our religion lie in works, not in words (Hortatory Address to the Greeks, ch. 35).

Yet Justin also proves himself consistent with the other Fathers in affirming the necessity of faith:

For Abraham was declared by God to be righteous, not on account of circumcision, but on account of faith (Dialogue with Trypho, ch. XCII).

Athenagoras (2nd Century AD)

Athenagoras, an Eastern Father, argues that Christians must live in a strict moral manner, because they must give an appropriate account of all their life in order to receive the reward of salvation:

But since we are persuaded that we must give an account of all our life here to God who made us and the world, we adopt a temperate, generous, despised way of life. For we think that, even if we lose our lives, we shall suffer here no evil to be compared with the reward we shall receive from the great Judge for a gentle, generous, and modest life (A Plea Regarding Christians by Athenagoras, ch.12).

Irenaeus (AD 130-200)

Irenaeus, a Western Father, in his writings, Against Heresies, Book I, confirms the necessity of a life of love and holiness, as well as keeping our Lord’s commandments in order to receive eternal life:

But to the righteous and holy, and those who have kept his commandments and have remained in his love…he will by his grace give life incorrupt, and will clothe them with eternal glory (ch.10:1).

It is the entire gamut of the Christian moral life, according to Irenaeus, that brings salvation.

Irenaeus criticized the Gnostics of being “devoid of sense” because “they keep silent with regard to His judgments and all those things which will come upon those who heard His words, but have not done them. For it would better for them if they had not been born” (Against Heresies, Bk. IV, ch. XXVIII).

Irenaeus believed that conversion was dependent upon Christ’s grace, and apart from that grace, man has no power to procure salvation. The more we receive that grace, the more we are obligated to love Christ:

No one, indeed while placed out of reach of our Lord’s benefits, has power to procure for himself the means of salvation. So the more we receive His grace, the more we should love Him (Against Heresies, Bk. IV, ch. XIII).

Clement of Alexandria (AD 150-215)

Clement of Alexandria, an Eastern Father, will also speak of the necessity of believing and obeying if grace is to abound: “Rightly, then, to those who have believed and obey, grace will abound beyond measure” (Exhortation to the Heathen, ch. 5).

He presents “faith” as the first movement in a process that leads to salvation. That means more is required if we are to reach the goal of salvation:

We have discovered faith to be the first movement towards salvation. After faith, fear, hope, and repentance (accompanied by temperance and patience) lead us to love and knowledge (The Stromata, Bk. II, ch. VI).

Clement echoes the earlier Fathers, and we see a familiar teaching being handed down from the early Christians: 1) “‘For by grace we are saved—but not, indeed, without good works…For this, we have the greatest need of divine grace…” (The Stromata, Bk. II, ch. I); and 2) “The same from the foundation of the world is each one who at different periods is saved, and will be saved by faith” (The Stromata, Bk. VI, ch, VI).

Clement is simply teaching what he received from the earlier Christians, that salvation will require faith and conversion. Inner conversion will show itself externally in a life of holiness; without that, faith is barren. All is necessary and all is only made possible through Christ’s grace.

A Cloud of Early Witnesses (AD 160-320)

Tertullian (AD 160-223), a Western Father, recognized the necessity of both faith and doing God’s will in order to be saved. He exhorts “those who are justified by faith in Christ, and not by the Law, to have peace with God” (Against Marcion, Bk. V, ch. XIII). And he also writes:

We make petition, then, that He supply us with the substance of His will and the capacity to do it–so that we may be saved both in the heaven and on earth (On Prayer, part III, ch. IV).

Theophilus (approx. AD 180), an Eastern Father, spoke of a life of doing well and obeying God’s command to procure salvation:

To those who by patient continuance in well-doing seek immortality, He will give eternal life everlasting life” (Theophilus to Autolycus, Bk. I, ch. XIII). “For man drew death upon himself by disobeying. So, by obeying the will of God, he who wants to can procure for himself life everlasting (Bk. II, ch. XXVII).

Origin (AD 184-254), another Easter Father, would speak about having communion and friendship with God only if, along with faith, we lived our life according to the teaching of Jesus:

It is those who not only believe, but also enter upon the life that Jesus taught (Against Celcus, Bk. III, ch. XXVIII).

Cyprian (d. 258), a Western Father, did not think it was possible to have faith in Christ if you did not do what He commanded:

How can a man say that he believes in Christ, if he does not do what Christ commanded him to do? From where will he attain the reward of faith, if he will not keep the faith of the commandment? … He will make no advancement in his walk toward salvation, for he does not keep the truth of the way of salvation” (The Treatises of Cyprian, Treatise I, ch. II).

Cyprian believed that the righteous man is not only he who believes in God but he who lives in faith: “Assuredly, then, whoever believes in God and lives in faith is found righteous and is already blessed in faithful Abraham” (The Epistles of Cyprian, Epistle LXII, ch. IV). “Living in faith” to Cyprian was simply keeping the faith of the commandments, doing what Christ commanded.

Lactantius (AD 240-320), a Western Father, continues this same thought:

Labors that are endured and overcome all the way up until death, cannot fail to obtain a reward….And this reward can be nothing else but immortality (The Divine Institutes, Bk. III, ch. XII).

And again:

The spirit must earn immortality by the works of righteousness (Bk. IV, ch. XXV).

Basil the Great (AD 329-379)

Basil the Great, an Eastern Father, tells us of being “acceptable to God” through obeying the gospel, purging sins, and being active in good works:

He who would obey the gospel must first be purged of all defilement of the flesh and the spirit that so he may be acceptable to God in the good works of holiness (The Morals, 2, 1).

Speaking on penance, Basil believed that simply renouncing sins was not enough for salvation; rather, an act of penance was necessary as well:

Mere renouncement of sin is not sufficient for the salvation of penitents, but fruits worthy of penance are also required of them (The Morals, 1, 3).

Ambrose (AD 340-397)

The writings of St. Ambrose, a Latin Father, would be very much akin to St. Paul. Ambrose taught that faith—not works that would lead one to boast—is necessary for salvation:

God chose that man should seek salvation by faith rather than by works, lest anyone should glory in his deeds and thereby incur sin (In Ps. 43 Enarr. 14).

Ambrose would also say: “Without the support of faith good works cannot stand” (On the Duties of the Clergy, 2, 7). That means that with the support of faith, good works can stand. If they can stand, then they certainly do not lead one to boast in himself, they do not lead one to sin. Ambrose has in mind a distinction here between “works” leading us to boast in God and “works” leading us to boast in ourselves. These latter works can never stand, with or without the support of faith.

Ambrose would also confirm the sentiments of Clement of Alexandria insofar as faith is the first movement in a process when Ambrose said: “Faith is the beginning of a Christian man” (Explanation of Psalm 118: 20, 56, 57). This implies that there is more to follow, since faith is not said to be the beginning, the middle and the end of the Christian man, as if there were no other obligations. Furthermore, the whole chapter of Psalm 118, which is what Ambrose is commenting on, is a treatise on faith, obedience and love.

John Chrysostom (AD 347-407)

John Chrysostom, an Eastern Father, was very familiar with Pauline thought. In Chrysostom’s sermon on Ephesians 1:4-5, he asked why God chose us:

And why did [God] choose us? ‘That we should be holy and blameless before him.’ So that you may not suppose, when you hear that he chose us, that faith alone is sufficient, he goes on to refer to manner of life. This, he says, is the reason and the purpose of his choice—that we should be holy and blameless… Being holy is a matter of sharing in faith; being blameless is a matter of living an irreproachable life (Homilies on Ephesians, 1, 1-2).

Augustine of Hippo (AD 354-430)

St. Augustine, a Latin Father, taught that righteousness consists of doing good works:

How speedily are the prayers of people who do good works heard! For it is precisely in fasting, alms, deeds and prayer that our righteousness in this life consists (In Ps. 42 Enarr. I, 8).

But Augustine made the critical distinction that Paul made, that Luther refused to make:

We do the works, but God works in us the doing of the works (De Dono Perseverentiae, 13, 33).


What we find in the writings of the early Fathers is a consistent voice in early Christian life and thought affirming the indissoluble necessity of faith in our Lord and interior conversion that must show itself in a life of holiness. The only boasting that can be done is boasting in God’s work, “for apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). Catholic teaching is not only clearly present in early Christian life and thought, but it has remained remarkably consistent throughout twenty long centuries, faithfully handing down what it had received.

Are we to conclude that the Reformers of the sixteenth century better understood the tenets of the Christian Faith than these early Christian teachers? C. C. Martindale makes an interesting point: “It has been said that Protestants are often better than their creed, and Catholics never so good as their own” (The Gates of the Church,  from The Book of Catholic Quotations, ed. John Chapin, American Book-Stratford Press, New York; 1956, p. 116) .

Chris Erickson

Chris Erickson received his undergraduate degree in Theology from the Franciscan University of Steubenville.  He and his wife, Jody, married in 1987 and parents of six children, live in Hopedale, Ohio, twenty minutes from Franciscan University.

Share via
Copy link
Powered by Social Snap