Church Fathers vs. the “Reformation Pillar” of “Faith Alone”

Church Fathers vs. the “Reformation Pillar” of “Faith Alone” January 31, 2018

Cover (613 x 923)

Excerpts from the second chapter of my book, Catholic Church Fathers, entitled, “Salvation, Justification, Penance, and Related Issues”.

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Protestant Definitions of Justification by Faith Alone

Justification, as thus defined, is therefore a declarative act, as distinguished from an efficient act; an act of God external to the sinner, as distinguished from an act within the sinner’s nature and changing that nature; a judicial act, as distinguished from a sovereign act; an act based upon and logically presupposing the sinner’s union with Christ, as distinguished from an act which causes and is followed by that union with Christ. (Augustus Strong [Baptist], Systematic Theology, Westwood, New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell, 1967 — originally 1907 — p. 849)

(1) Justification is an instantaneous act and not, like sanctification, a continued and progressive work.

(2) Justification is an act of grace to the sinner, who in himself deserves condemnation.

(3) . . . It does not produce any subjective change in the person justified. It does not effect a change of character, making those good who were bad, those holy who were unholy. That is done in regeneration and sanctification . . . It is a forensic or judicial act . . . It is a declarative act in which God pronounces the sinner just or righteous . . .

(4) The meritorious ground of justification is not faith; we are not justified on account of our faith, considered as a virtuous or holy act or state of mind. Nor are our works of any kind the ground of justification . . . The ground of justification is the righteousness of Christ . . . including His perfect obedience to the law as a covenant and His enduring the penalty of the law in our stead and in our behalf.

(5) The righteousness of Christ is in justification imputed to the believer. That is, it is set to his account, so that he is entitled to plead it at the bar of God, as though it were personally and inherently his own.” (Charles Hodge [Presbyterian], Systematic Theology, abridged one-volume edition by Edward N. Gross, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1988 — originally 1873, 3 volumes — p. 454)

Grace and works are antithetical . . . Grace of necessity excludes works of every kind, and more especially those of the highest kind, which might have some show of merit. But merit of any degree is of necessity excluded if our salvation be by grace . . .

The sins which are pardoned in justification include all sins, past, present, and future. (Ibid., 458, 461)

Clement of Rome (d. c. 101)

Let us take Enoch, for example, who was found righteous in obedience and so was taken up and did not experience death. (Letter to the Corinthians / First Clement, 9: 3; Lightfoot / Harmer / Holmes, 33; cf. 11:1; 12:1)

Abraham, who was called “the Friend,” was found faithful in that he became obedient to the words of God. (Letter to the Corinthians / First Clement, 10: 1; Lightfoot / Harmer / Holmes, 33)

Take care, dear friends, lest his many benefits turn into a judgment upon all of us, as will happen if we fail to live worthily of him, and to do harmoniously those things which are good and well-pleasing in his sight . . . It is right, therefore, that we should not be deserters of his will. (Letter to the Corinthians / First Clement, 21: 1, 4; Lightfoot / Harmer / Holmes, 40)

Since, therefore, all things are seen and heard, let us fear him and abandon the abominable lusts that spawn evil works, in order that we may be shielded by his mercy from the coming judgments. For where can any of us escape from his mighty hand? And what world will receive any of those who desert him? (Letter to the Corinthians / First Clement, 28: 1-2; Lightfoot / Harmer / Holmes, 44)

Let us therefore join with those to whom grace is given by God. Let us clothe ourselves in concord, being humble and self-controlled, keeping ourselves far from all backbiting and slander, being justified by works and not by words. (Letter to the Corinthians / First Clement, 30: 3; Lightfoot / Harmer / Holmes, 44-45)

All, therefore, were glorified and magnified, not through themselves or their own works or the righteous actions which they did, but through his will. And so we, having been called through his will in Christ Jesus, are not justified through ourselves or through our own wisdom or understanding or piety or works which we have done in holiness of heart, but through faith, by which the almighty God has justified all who have existed from the beginning; to whom be the glory for ever and ever. Amen. (Letter to the Corinthians / First Clement, 32: 3-4; Lightfoot / Harmer / Holmes, 45-46)

The good worker receives the bread of his labor confidently, but the lazy and careless dares not look his employer in the face. It is, therefore, necessary that we should be zealous to do good, for all things come from him. For he forewarns us: “Behold, the Lord comes, and his reward is with him, to pay each one according to his work.” He exhorts us, therefore, who believe in him with our whole heart, not to be idle or careless about any good work. (Letter to the CorinthiansFirst Clement, 34: 1-4; Lightfoot / Harmer / Holmes, 46-47)

Let us therefore make every effort to be found in the number of those who patiently wait for him, so that we may share in his promised gifts. But how shall this be, dear friends? If our mind is fixed on God through faith; if we seek out those things which are well-pleasing and acceptable to him; if we accomplish those things which are in harmony with his faultless will, and follow the way of truth, casting off from ourselves all unrighteousness and lawlessness, covetousness, strife, malice and deceit, gossip and slander, hatred of God, pride and arrogance, vanity and inhospitality. (Letter to the Corinthians / First Clement, 35: 1-5; Lightfoot / Harmer / Holmes, 47)

Let us, therefore, join with the innocent and righteous, for these are the elect of God. (Letter to the Corinthians / First Clement, 46: 4; Lightfoot / Harmer / Holmes, 54)

Blessed are we, dear friends, if we continue to keep God’s commandments in the harmony of love, that our sins may be forgiven us through love. For it is written: “Blessed are those whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will reckon no sin, and in whose mouth there is no deceit.” (Letter to the Corinthians / First Clement, 50: 5-6; Lightfoot / Harmer / Holmes, 56)

[S]urely will the one who with humility and constant gentleness has kept without regret the ordinances and commandments given by God be enrolled and included among the number of those who are saved through Jesus Christ, through whom is the glory to him for ever and ever. Amen. (Letter to the Corinthians / First Clement, 58: 2; Lightfoot / Harmer / Holmes, 61)

Ignatius of Antioch (d. c. 110)

[T]hose who profess to be Christ’s will be recognized by their actions. For the Work is not a matter of what one promises now, but of persevering to the end in the power of faith. (Letter to the Ephesians, 14:2; Lightfoot / Harmer / Holmes, 91)

Justin Martyr (d. 165)

[E]ach man goes to everlasting punishment or salvation according to the value of his actions. (First Apology, Chapter XII; ANF, Vol. I, 177)

[F]or not those who make profession, but those who do the works, shall be saved, according to His word: . . . (First Apology, Chapter XVI; ANF, Vol. I)

[T]hey who choose the good have worthy rewards, and they who choose the opposite have their merited awards. (First Apology, Chapter XLIII; ANF, Vol. I)

So that if they repent, all who wish for it can obtain mercy from God: . . . not as you deceive yourselves, and some others who resemble you in this, who say, that even though they be sinners, but know God, the Lord will not impute sin to them . . . how can the impure and utterly abandoned, if they weep not, and mourn not, and repent not, entertain the hope that the Lord will not impute to them sin? (First Apology, Chapter CXLI; ANF, Vol. I)

Irenaeus (d. 202)

God has given that which is good, and those who do it will receive glory and honor because they have done good when they had it in their power not to do so. But those who do not do it will receive the just judgment of God, because they did not do good when they had it in their power to do so. (Against Heresies, IV, 37, 1; commenting on Romans 2:7; Bray, 59; ANF, Vol. I: 519)

This able wrestler, therefore [having just cited Paul in 1 Cor 9:24-27], exhorts us to the struggle for immortality, that we may be crowned, and may deem the crown precious, namely, that which is acquired by our struggle, but which does not encircle us of its own accord . . . (Against Heresies, IV, 37, 7; ANF, Vol. I)

Clement of Alexandria (d. 215)

[W]hen we hear, “Thy faith hath saved thee,” we do not understand Him to say absolutely that those who have believed in any way whatever shall be saved, unless also works follow . . . No one, then, can be a believer and at the same time be licentious . . . those that have been glorified through righteousness. (Stromata / Miscellanies, Chapter XIV; ANF, Vol. II)

Tertullian (d. 225)

A good deed has God as its debtor, just as an evil has too . . . . Further, no deed but an evil one deserves to be called sin, . . . (On Repentance, Chapter II; ANF, Vol. III)

Hippolytus (d. 236)

He, in administering the righteous judgment of the Father to all, assigns to each what is righteous according to his works . . . the justification will be seen in the awarding to each that which is just; since to those who have done well shall be assigned righteously eternal bliss, and to the lovers of iniquity shall be given eternal punishment. (Against Plato, 3; ANF, Vol. V, 222-223)

Origen (d. 254)

[B]elievers are to be instructed not to think that it is enough merely to believe [lacking fruit]; they ought to realize that the just judgment of God will reward each one according to his works. (Commentary on Romans [2:5]; Bray, 57-58)

Let no one think that someone who has faith enough to be justified and to have glory before God can at the same time have unrighteousness dwelling in him as well. (Commentary on Romans [4:2]; Bray, 109-110)

Cyprian (d. 258)

There is need of righteousness, that one may deserve well of God the Judge; we must obey His precepts and warnings, that our merits may receive their reward. (On the Unity of the Church, 16; ANF, Vol. V, 423)

Lactantius (d. 320)

[W]e may either lose that true and eternal life by our vices, or win it by virtue. (Divine Institutes, 7:5; ANF, Vol. VII, 200)

Hilary of Poitiers (d. 368)

Election, therefore, . . . is a distinction made by selection based on merit. (On Psalm 64 [65], section 5; Jurgens, I, 386)

Athanasius (d. 373)

[E]ach one will be called to judgment in these points–whether he have kept the faith and truly observed the commandments. (Life of Antony; NPNF 2, Vol. IV, 205)

Basil the Great (d. 379)

In like manner they which have grieved the Holy Spirit by the wickedness of their ways, . . . shall be deprived of what they have received, their grace being transferred to others; . . . meaning complete separation from the Spirit. (De Spiritu Sancto, chapter 15; NPNF 2, Vol. VIII)

It is yours according to your merit to be “ever with the Lord” . . . (De Spiritu Sancto, Chapter 28; NPNF 2, Vol. VIII)

Gregory Nyssa (d. 394)

[F]aith without works of justice is not sufficient for salvation . . . (Homilies on Ecclesiastes, 8; Jurgens, II, 45-46)

Ambrose (d. 397)

Nor again is any one more blessed than he who is sensible of the needs of the poor, and the hardships of the weak and helpless. In the day of judgment he will receive salvation from the Lord, Whom he will have as his debtor for the mercy he has shown. (On the Duties of the Clergy, Book I, 11, 39; NPNF 2, Vol. X)

But the sacred Scriptures say that eternal life rests on a knowledge of divine things and on the fruit of good works. (On the Duties of the Clergy, Book II, 2, 5; NPNF 2, Vol. X)

John Chrysostom (d. 407)

“Is it then enough,” saith one, “to believe on the Son, that one may have eternal life?” By no means. . . . let us not suppose that the (knowledge) spoken of is sufficient for our salvation . . . Since though he has said here, “He that believeth on the Son hath eternal life,” . . . yet not even from this do we assert that faith alone is sufficient to salvation. And the directions for living given in many places of the Gospels show this. (Homily XXXI, 1, On John 3:35-36; NPNF 1, Vol. XIV)

Here Paul stirs up those who had fallen away during the persecutions and shows that it is not right to trust in faith only. For God’s tribunal will demand deeds as well. (Homilies on Romans, 5; commenting on Romans 2:7; Bray, 59; NPNF 1, Vol. XI: 362)

Hence I beseech you, let us be zealous in practicing those very deeds (by no other way, in fact, is it possible to be saved) . . . (Homilies on Genesis 47,18; commenting on Romans 2:13; Bray, 66; Deferrari, Vol. 87: 24)

For what he saith is this, “Your salvation is not our work alone, but your own as well; . . . for not through believing only cometh your salvation, but also through the suffering and enduring the same things with us. (Homily on the Second Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians; on 2 Cor 1:6-7; speaking as if from St. Paul’s perspective; NPNF 1: Vol. XII, 277)

[L]et us have a regard for our own salvation, let us make virtue our care, let us rouse ourselves to the practice of good works, that we may be counted worthy to attain to this exceeding glory, in Jesus Christ our Lord . . . (Homily IV on Ephesians 2:10; NPNF 1: Vol. XIII, 68)

Jerome (d. 420)

God created us with free will, and we are not forced by necessity either to virtue or to vice. Otherwise, if there be necessity, there is no crown. As in good works it is God who brings them to perfection, for it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that pitieth and gives us help that we may be able to reach the goal. (Against Jovinian, Book II, 3; NPNF 2, Vol. VI)

Theodore of Mopsuestia (d. 428)

Paul . . . said it in order to counter those who concluded from this that anyone who wished to could be justified simply by willing faith. (Pauline Commentary From the Greek Church; commenting on Romans 3:28; Bray, 104-105)

Augustine (d. 430)

But if someone already regenerate and justified should, of his own will, relapse into his evil life, certainly that man cannot say: “I have not received’; because he lost the grace he received from God and by his own free choice went to evil. (Admonition and Grace [c. 427], 6,9; Jurgens, III, 157)

Now, if the wicked man were to be saved by fire on account of his faith only, . . . then faith without works would be sufficient to salvation. But then what the apostle James said would be false. (Enchiridion of Faith, Hope, and Love, Chapter XVIII, paragraph 3; NPNF 1, Vol. III)

Unintelligent persons, however, with regard to the apostle’s statement: “We conclude that a man is justified by faith without the works of the law,” have thought him to mean that faith suffices to a man, even if he lead a bad life, and has no good works. (A Treatise on Grace and Free Will; Chapters 18; NPNF 1, Vol. V)

[E]ven those good works of ours, which are recompensed with eternal life, belong to the grace of God, . . . the apostle himself, after saying, “By grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast;” saw, of course, the possibility that men would think from this statement that good works are not necessary to those who believe, but that faith alone suffices for them . . . “Not of works” is spoken of the works which you suppose have their origin in yourself alone; but you have to think of works for which God has moulded (that is, has formed and created) you. . . . grace is for grace, as if remuneration for righteousness; in order that it may be true, because it is true, that God “shall reward every man according to his works.” (A Treatise on Grace and Free Will; Chapter 20; NPNF 1, Vol. V)

Wherefore, even eternal life itself, which is surely the reward of good works, the apostle calls the gift of God . . . We are to understand, then, that man’s good deserts are themselves the gift of God, so that when these obtain the recompense of eternal life, it is simply grace given for grace. Man, therefore, was thus made upright that, though unable to remain in his uprightness without divine help, he could of his own mere will depart from it. (Enchiridion of Faith, Hope, and Love, chapter 107; NPNF 1, Vol. III)

This must not be understood in such a way as to say that a man who has received faith and continues to live is righteous, even though he leads a wicked life. (Questions 76.1; commenting on Romans 3:28; Bray, 105; Defferari, Vol. 70, 195)

He who made you without your consent does not justify you without your consent. He made you without your knowledge, but He does not justify you without your willing it. (Sermons, 169, 3; Jurgens, III, 29)

Someone says to me: “Since we are acted upon, it is not we who act.” I answer, “No, you both act and are acted upon; and if you are acted upon by the good, you act properly. For the spirit of God who moves you, by so moving, is your Helper. The very term helper makes it clear that you yourself are doing something.” (Sermons 156, 11; Jurgens, III, 28)

[N]either is the law condemned by the apostle nor is free will taken away from man. (On Romans 13-18; commenting on Romans 3:20; Bray, 96; Landes, 5, 7)

Theodoret (d. 466)

Well-doing is for a time, but the reward is eternal . . . Paul wanted to show that there are many rewards for those who are good. (Interpretation of the Letter to the Romans; commentary on Romans 2:7; Bray, 60; Migne PG 82 col. 69)

Overviews of Patristic Soteriology

If any one expects to find in this period [100-325], or in any of the church fathers, Augustin himself not excepted, the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith alone, . . . he will be greatly disappointed . . . Paul’s doctrine of justification, except perhaps in Clement of Rome, who joins it with the doctrine of James, is left very much out of view, and awaits the age of the Reformation to be more thoroughly established and understood. (Philip Schaff, HCC 2, 588-589)

Whereas Augustine taught that the sinner is made righteous in justification, Melanchthon taught that he is counted as righteous or pronounced to be righteous. For Augustine, ‘justifying righteousness’ is imparted; for Melanchthon, it is imputed in the sense of being declared or pronounced to be righteous. Melanchthon drew a sharp distinction between the event of being declared righteous and the process of being made righteous, designating the former ‘justification’ and the latter ‘sanctification’ or ‘regeneration.’ For Augustine, these were simply different aspects of the same thing . . .

The importance of this development lies in the fact that it marks a complete break with the teaching of the church up to that point. From the time of Augustine onwards, justification had always been understood to refer to both the event of being declared righteous and the process of being made righteous. Melanchthon’s concept of forensic justification diverged radically from this. As it was taken up by virtually all the major reformers subsequently, it came to represent a standard difference between Protestant and Roman Catholic from then on . . .

The Council of Trent . . . reaffirmed the views of Augustine on the nature of justification . . . the concept of forensic justification actually represents a development in Luther’s thought . . . .

Trent maintained the medieval tradition, stretching back to Augustine, which saw justification as comprising both an event and a process . . . (Alister McGrath, Reformation Thought: An Introduction, 2nd ed., Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1993, 108-109, 115; emphases in original)

[O]ne can be saved without believing that imputed righteousness (or forensic justification) is an essential part of the true gospel. Otherwise, few people were saved between the time of the apostle Paul and the Reformation, since scarcely anyone taught imputed righteousness (or forensic justification) during that period! . . . . .

For Augustine, justification included both the beginnings of one’s righteousness before God and its subsequent perfection — the event and the process. What later became the Reformation concept of “sanctification” then is effectively subsumed under the aegis of justification. Although he believed that God initiated the salvation process, it is incorrect to say that Augustine held to the concept of “forensic” justification. This understanding of justification is a later development of the Reformation . . .

. . . a feature in Augustinianism which Protestants will no doubt find interesting is that God may regenerate a person without causing that one to finally persevere [City of God, 10.8] . . .

Augustine does not deny the freedom of the human will . . . He resisted the notion of double predestination, which argues that God not only decides to elect some to eternal life but also actively predestines others to eternal destruction . . .

. . . the distinction between justification and sanctification — which came to the fore in the Reformation — is almost totally absent from the medieval period . . .

Like Augustine, Aquinas believed that regeneration occurs at baptism . . . he held that not all the regenerate will persevere . . . Aquinas believed that humankind is unable to initiate or attain salvation except by the grace of God . . . he is completely dependent on God for salvation . . .

Whereas the Reformers distinguished forensic justification and progressive sanctification, Augustine and Aquinas did not . . .

Augustine never held the doctrine of ‘double’ predestination . . . and actually argued against it . . .

Before Luther, the standard Augustinian position on justification stressed intrinsic justification. Intrinsic justification argues that the believer is made righteous by God’s grace, as compared to extrinsic justification, by which a sinner is forensically declared righteous (at best, a subterranean strain in pre-Reformation Christendom). With Luther the situation changed dramatically . . . (Norman Geisler, Roman Catholics and Evangelicals: Agreements and Differences, co-author Ralph E. MacKenzie, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1995, 502, 85, 89, 91-93, 99, 222; emphasis in original)


Gerald Bray, editor [Thomas C. Oden, general editor of series), Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: New Testament VI: Romans, Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1998.

R. J. Deferrari, editor, Fathers of the Church: A New Translation, 86 volumes, Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1947 –.

William A. Jurgens, editor and translator, The Faith of the Early Fathers, three volumes, Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 1970 and 1979 (2nd and 3rd volumes).

P. F. Landes, editor, Augustine on Romans, Chico: California: Scholars Press, 1982.

Joseph B. Lightfoot and J.R. Harmer, translators, The Apostolic Fathers, second edition; edited and revised by Michael W. Holmes, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1989; first edition by Lightfoot originally published in 1891 (London: Macmillan and Co.).

Alexander Roberts and Sir James Donaldson, editors, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (“ANF”), ten volumes, originally published in Edinburgh, 1867, available online.

Philip Schaff, editor, Early Church Fathers: Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Series 1 (“NPNF 1”), 14 volumes, originally published in Edinburgh, 1889, available online.

Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, editors, Early Church Fathers: Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Series 2 (“NPNF 2”), 14 volumes, originally published in Edinburgh, 1900, available online.

Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Vol. II: Ante-Nicene Christianity: A.D. 100-325 (“HCC 2”), Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1976, from the revised fifth edition of 1910, available online.


(originally 10-24-07)


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