Dan Popp
The early church and salvation
A layman reads The Ante Nicene Fathers
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By Dan Popp
January 12, 2010

How can a man be righteous before God? (Job 9:2b NKJV)

This is the Question of all questions, isn't it? More important than Where did I come from, or What is my purpose in life, each of us must find out What does God require of me? The New Testament makes Job's ancient query personal, and adds a sense of desperation: What must I do to be saved? (Acts 16:30).

This article continues a series of observations on the writings of the early Christian church leaders the so-called Ante Nicene Fathers. In order to understand the purpose, scope and context of this series, please read its introduction. In that opening piece I mentioned that there are some passages of sublime beauty in these texts from the dawn of the Christian era. You're about to read a few of them.

For by grace...

    [Before Christ appeared] He sought to form a mind conscious of righteousness, so that being convinced in that time of our unworthiness of attaining life through our own works, it should now, through the kindness of God, be vouchsafed to us; and having made it manifest that in ourselves we were unable to enter into the kingdom of God, we might through the power of God be made able. But when our wickedness had reached its height, and it had been clearly shown that its reward, punishment and death, was impending over us; and when the time had come which God had before appointed for manifesting His own kindness and power, how the one love of God, through exceeding regard for men, did not regard us with hatred, nor thrust us away, nor remember our iniquity against us, but showed great long-suffering, and bore with us, He Himself took on Him the burden of our iniquities, He gave His own Son as a ransom for us, the holy One for the 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! Having therefore convinced us in the former time that our nature was unable to attain to life, and having now revealed the Saviour who is able to save even those things which it was formerly impossible to save, by both these facts He desired to lead us to trust in His kindness.... Mathetes, Epistle to Diognetus Chapter 9

    And [the Jewish Patriarchs], therefore, were highly honored, and made great, not for their own sake, or for their own works, or for the righteousness which they wrought, but through the operation of His will. And we, too, being called by His will in Christ Jesus, are not justified by ourselves, nor by our own wisdom, or understanding, or goodness, 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 for ever and ever. Amen. Clement of Rome, First Epistle to the Corinthians Chapter 32

    For as it was not possible that the man who had once for all been conquered, and who had been destroyed through disobedience, could reform himself, and obtain the prize of victory; and as it was also impossible that he could attain to salvation who had fallen under the power of sin, the Son effected both these things.... Irenaeus, Against Heresies Book 3, Chapter 18.2

    It was the Lord Himself who saved them, because they could not be saved by their own instrumentality; and, therefore, when Paul sets forth human infirmity, he says: 'For I know that there dwelleth in my flesh no good thing,' showing that the 'good thing' of our salvation is not from us, but from God. Irenaeus, Against Heresies Book 3, Chapter 20.3

"God the Father...had compassion on His own handiwork, and gave to it salvation, restoring it by means of the Word that is, by Christ in order that men might learn by actual proof that he receives incorruptibility not of himself, but by the free gift of God." Irenaeus, Against Heresies Book 5, Chapter 21.3

    No ambassador, nor angel, but the Lord Himself saved them; because He loved them, and spared them, and He took them up, and exalted them. And all this was, not the works of righteousness which we had done, nor because we loved Thee ... but Thou, O Lord, of Thine own self, and of Thine ineffable love toward the creature of Thine hands, hast confirmed Thy mercy toward us, and, pitying our estrangement from Thee, hast moved Thyself at the sight of our degradation to take us into compassion. Hence, for the future, a joyous festival is established for us of the race of Adam, because the first Creator of Adam of His own free-will has become the Second Adam. And the brightness of the Lord our God hath come down to sojourn with us, so that we see God face to face, and are saved. Therefore, O Lord, I seek of Thee to be allowed to depart. I have seen Thy salvation; let me be delivered from the bent yoke of the letter. I have seen the King Eternal, to whom no other succeeds; let me be set free from this servile and burdensome chain. I have seen Him who is by nature my Lord and Deliverer; may I obtain, then, His decree for my deliverance. Se me free from the yoke of condemnation, and place me under the yoke of justification. Deliver me from the yoke of the curse, and of the letter that killeth; and enrol me in the blessed company of those who, by the grace of this Thy true Son, who is of equal glory and power with Thee, have been received into the adoption of sons. Methodius, Oration Concerning Simeon and Anna, Chapter 8

Through faith...

    Let us look stedfastly to the blood of Christ, and see how precious that blood is to God, which, having been shed for our salvation, has set the grace of repentance before the whole world. Let us turn to every age that has passed, and learn that, from generation to generation, the Lord has granted a place of repentance to all such as would be converted to Him. Noah preached repentance, and as many as listened to him were saved. Clement of Rome, First Epistle to the Corinthians Chapter 7

"And thus they made it manifest that redemption should flow through the blood of the Lord to all them that believe and hope in God." Clement of Rome, First Epistle to the Corinthians Chapter 12

"And as the blood of the passover saved those who were in Egypt, so also the blood of Christ will deliver from death those who have believed." Justin, Dialogue with Trypho Chapter 111

"For the law never hindered them from believing in the Son of God; nay, but it even exhorted them so to do, saying that men can be saved in no other way from the old wound of the serpent than by believing in Him who, in the likeness of sinful flesh, is lifted up from the earth...." Irenaeus, Against Heresies Book 4, Chapter 2.7

    The Father...confers incorruption for eternal life, which comes to every one from the fact of his seeing God. For as those who see the light are within the light, and partake of its brilliancy; even so, those who see God are in God, and receive of His splendour. But His splendour vivifies them; those, therefore, who see God, do receive life. And for this reason, He, although beyond comprehension, and boundless and invisible, rendered Himself [in Christ] visible, and comprehensible, and within the capacity of those who believe, that He might vivify those who receive and behold Him through faith. For as His greatness is past finding out, so also His goodness is beyond expression; by which having been seen, He bestows life upon those who see Him. It is not possible to live apart from life, and the means of life is found in fellowship with God; but fellowship with God is to know God, and to enjoy His goodness. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book 4, Chapter 20.5

"There is not a soul that can at all procure salvation, except it believe whilst it is in the flesh...." Tertullian, On the Resurrection of the Flesh Chapter 8

"Man cannot otherwise find grace with God than by believing the word preached by the Lord." Hippolytus Fragments from Commentaries III Scholia on Daniel, Chapter 1.12

In baptism...

It's impossible to convey to you in a reasonable space the connection the "Fathers" saw between baptism and salvation. They often wrote of "the waters of regeneration" or "the saving laver." Yet, generally speaking, they didn't see baptism as magic it didn't save people who continued to act like unsaved people.

"...Jesus Christ, who died for us, in order that, by believing in His death, ye may by baptism be made partakers of His resurrection." Ignatius, Epistle to the Trallians, long version

    Therefore, when the soul embraces the faith, being renewed in its second birth by water and the power from above, then the veil of its former corruption being taken away, it beholds the light in all its brightness. It is also taken up (in its second birth) by the Holy Spirit, just as in its first birth it is embraced by the un-holy spirit. Tertullian, A Treatise on the Soul Chapter 41

"[Jesus] was wont to promise salvation to every believer. 'Thy faith,' He would say, 'hath saved thee;' and, 'Thy sins shall be remitted thee;' on thy believing, of course, albeit thou be not yet baptised." Tertullian, On Baptism Chapter 11

Bearing fruit...

"If we please Him in this present world, we shall receive also the future world, according as He has promised to us that He will raise us again from the dead, and that if we live worthily of Him, 'we shall also reign together with Him,' provided only we believe." The Epistle of Polycarp, Chapter 5

    So it becomes you to eradicate this hope [as Abraham's biological offspring] from your souls, and hasten to know in what way forgiveness of sins, and a hope of inheriting the promised good things, shall be yours. But there is no other way than this, to become acquainted with this Christ, to be washed in the fountain spoken of by Isaiah for the remission of sins; and for the rest, to live sinless lives. Justin, Dialogue with Trypho Chapter 44

"If, indeed, you repent of your sins, and recognise Him to be Christ, and observe His commandments, then you may assert this; for, as I have said before, remission of sins shall be yours." Justin, Dialogue with Trypho Chapter 95

"For God at the first, indeed, warning [the Jews] by means of natural precepts, which from the beginning He had implanted in mankind, that is, by means of the Decalogue (which, if any one does not observe, he has no salvation), did then demand nothing more of them." Irenaeus, Against Heresies Book 4, Chapter 15.1

"And thus he who acts righteously shall escape the eternal punishments, and be thought worthy of the eternal life from God." Theophilus, Epistle to Autolycus Chapter 34

"...abstinence from what is evil, activity in doing good, by which salvation is acquired." Clement of Alexandria, The Stromata Book 7, Chapter 12

"[The Christian] puts forth energies corresponding to the worth of grace. For works follow knowledge, as the shadow the body." Clement of Alexandria, The Stromata Book 7, Chapter 13

Embracing Truth

"Whosoever wishes to see Jesus the Son of David must believe in Him through the Virgin's birth. He who will not believe this will not hear from Him the salutation, 'Thy faith hath saved thee.' And so he will remain blind...." Tertullian, Against Marcion Book 4, Chapter 36

"...who are conducted to the future life by this one thing alone, that they know God and His Logos, what is the oneness of the Son with the Father, what the communion of the Father with the Son, what is the Spirit, what is the unity of those three, the Spirit, the Son, the Father and their distinction in unity...." Athenagoras, A Plea for the Christians Chapter 12

For more references to the primitive church's views on the Godhead, see another article in this series, The early church and the Trinity.

Chosen, and Freely Choosing

"Day and night ye were anxious for the whole brotherhood, that the number of God's elect might be saved." Clement of Rome, First Epistle to the Corinthians Chapter 2

"The first of them...is called Faith. Through her the elect of God are saved." The Shepherd of Hermas Book 1, Vision 3, Chapter 8

"...us who are obedient to the Word and masters of ourselves, who have believed, and are saved by voluntary choice...." Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor Book 1, Chapter 6

"'He that believeth not is,' according to the utterance of the Saviour, 'condemned already.' And there is written in the Kings the judgment and sentence of the Lord, which stands thus: 'The Lord hears the righteous, but the wicked He saveth not, because they do not desire to know God.' For the Almighty will not accomplish what is absurd. Clement of Alexandria, The Stromata Book 4, Chapter 7

"He has dispensed His benefits both to Greeks and Barbarians, even to those of them that were predestined, and in due time called, the faithful and elect." Clement of Alexandria, The Stromata Book 7, Chapter 2

"Nor shall he who is saved be saved against his will...." Clement of Alexandria, The Stromata Book 7, Chapter 7

Confessing Faith in Christ

"He then, who denies the Saviour, denies life; for 'the light was life'. ... If one loves himself, he loves the Lord, and confesses [his faith] to salvation that he may save his soul." Clement of Alexandria, The Stromata Book 4, Chapter 7

Enduring to the End

"It is a slight thing to have been able to attain anything; it is more to be able to keep what you have attained; even as faith itself and saving birth makes alive, not by being received, but by being preserved." Cyprian, Epistle 6 (To Rogatianus the Presbyter) Section 2

Receiving Assurance

"And hence all men everywhere, whether bond or free, who believe in Christ, and recognise the truth in His own words and those of His prophets, know that they shall be with Him in that land, and inherit everlasting and incorruptible good." Justin, Dialogue with Trypho Chapter 139

    Hence, then, the one peaceful and trustworthy tranquility, the one solid and firm and constant security, is this, for a man to withdraw from these eddies of a distracting world, and, anchored on the ground of the harbour of salvation, to lift his eyes from earth to heaven; and having been admitted to the gift of God, and being already very near to his God in mind, he may boast, that whatever in human affairs others esteem lofty and grand, lies altogether beneath his consciousness. He who is actually greater than the world can crave nothing, can desire nothing, from the world. How stable, how free from all shocks is that safeguard; how heavenly the protection in its perennial blessings, to be loosed from the snares of this entangling world, and to be purged from earthy dregs, and fitted for the light of eternal immortality! He will see what crafty mischief of the foe that previously attacked us has been in progress against us. We are constrained to have more love for what we shall be, by being allowed to know and to condemn what we were. Neither for this purpose is it necessary to pay a price either in the way of bribery or of labour; so that man's elevation of dignity or power should be begotten in him with elaborate effort; but it is a gratuitous gift from God, and it is accessible to all. Cyprian, Epistle 1 (To Donatus) Section 14

© Dan Popp

 

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