Yet there are other Christian churches who teach that works are a necessary part of salvation, citing the words of James when he wrote, "What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? Can faith save him? Even so faith, it if hath not works is dead, being alone" (James 2:14,17).
One side of this argument states that we are saved strictly by grace alone, without the need to perform any work, while the other side declares that we are saved by both the grace of God and by our own personal works. Even though each side of this argument uses numerous scriptural passages to support their teachings, each one claims that it's the other side who is not properly understanding these biblical verses. Then how can we know for sure which side is teaching the correct doctrine? That's important to know because our salvation depends on the having the right answer to that question.
Those who believe in salvation strictly by grace point to their long history, beginning back in the 1500's when the Protestant movement began. They argue that since this has been the established, agreed upon doctrine for almost 500 years, this historical evidence validates their position. The other side argues that the Catholic church has believed in works as a condition of salvation for the past two thousand years and that history therefore proves the validity of their position. The Protestants claim that the Catholics have distorted the true teachings of Christ, while the Catholics maintain that it is the Protestants who have corrupted those same teachings.
So we are still left with the question of how can we know for sure which concept of salvation is the correct one?
The surest way of understanding what the New Testament teaches is to ask the writers themselves to explain their own words. For example, wouldn't it be nice if we could go to the apostle Paul and say, "Paul, what exactly did you mean when you wrote this?" or "Here's what is sounds like you are saying. Is that what you really mean?" As good as that would be, unfortunately, that is no longer possible.
However, even though such an idea may not be feasible, it's not as impossible as it may at first seem. While we can't directly ask the apostles questions ourselves, the earliest Christians certainly could and did. Today we have the words the apostles wrote but the earliest Christians had these plus many more they heard the apostles speak. As such, the earliest Christians who lived during the time of the apostles had the greatest understanding of what the apostles taught. And it is by looking at the writings of those who lived during this time and seeing how the earliest Christians practiced their beliefs that we can get a more accurate understanding of what the apostles wrote in the Bible.
Over the centuries, after the apostles had died, many letters and books were written by various believers in Christ which have survived to our day. And it is from these that we can gain a better understanding of what and how the Christians understood the teachings of the apostles. But there are some drawbacks to studying these extra-biblical writings.
The first is that there are numerous letters and books written by ancient professing Christians which the church back then, as a whole, condemned because their doctrines were not in agreement with the traditionally accepted teachings of the church.
Second, even when we look at the writings of those who officially spoke for the church, as more time passed between the death of the apostles and the writings of these authorized Christian leaders, the more changes we see in their doctrine. For example, on the subject of baptism, as we look at what the church leaders taught in 500 A.D. we find that it is not exactly the same as what was taught in 200 A.D. Therefore, if we want to get a more accurate picture of what the apostles actually taught we would do better to study those writings that were made as close to the death of the apostles as possible.
Yet, even when we do this, there is still a third problem that must be considered, which is that these non-biblical writings were not produced by men with apostolic authority. That is to say, they were not writing under divine inspiration. Instead, many times their writings contained what they thought the scriptures meant rather than accurately expressing what the apostles believed. Men such as Tertullian and Origen who lived near the end of the second and beginning of the third century (180 - 220 A.D.) were brilliant Christian theologians but they also tended to interpret scripture according to the way they understood it. Nevertheless, many of their ideas became the standard that the Church adoped for its beliefs.
This doesn't mean they were necessarily wrong in their understanding (although they might have been) because many of the issues they wrote about were things the apostles never addressed. Therefore, these theologians played an important and necessary role in filling gaps in our knowledge. But, at the same time, it also means that we don't really know what the apostles themselves would have said if they had faced these same issues.
As stated earlier, one way to overcome this problem is to place greater emphasis on the writings of those Church leaders and other orthodox members of the Christian community who lived as close to the time of the apostles as possible. In this way, we would expect to find their thinking to be much closer to that of the apostles. The further in time we get away from the apostles, we find that the more independent and original people became in their thinking.
Another way to overcome this problem is to look at what the writer declares the Church as a whole believed. In this way, we avoid the problem of confusing Church doctrine with the personal opinions of the writer. When the writer is explaining what the commonly held belief was among the Christians community, even though we may not agree with his statements, we at least get to see how the Church as a whole understood the gospel at that point in time.
According to most biblical scholars, John was the last living apostle. However, the exact date of his death is unknown. Some say he died as early as 95 A.D. while others put it as late as 100 A.D. Around this same period of time there were several prominent leaders of the church, such as Clement, Polycarp, and Ignatius, who wrote numerous letters to the Christians, advising them on doctrine and on living the faith. What makes their works so important is that all of these men had been close associates of the apostles and had served directly with them before becoming ordained as bishops under the hands of one of the apostles. Clearly, they fully understood the doctrine taught by the apostles. Therefore, their writings can give us additional insight into the correct understanding of what the apostles meant by their words. However, many of their letters are just as open to various interpretations as are the words of the apostles.
Somewhere around 100 A.D. in Samaria, Flavius Justinus was born to a Roman colonial administrator. During his formative years, Justin, as he was known as, received the best education of that time. He spoke and wrote classical Greek and Latin, and was taught in music, mathematics, and, more importantly, philosophy, having studied under Plato. As an adult, he opened his own school of philosophy which is how he made his living. It wasn't until somewhere around age thirty-two that Justin one day met an elderly man who taught him about Jesus Christ. Because of his philosophical background, Justin became intrigued by this new religion and began to investigate it more closely and, within a short period of time, he became a true believer in Jesus. Now, instead of teaching the philosophy of Plato and Socrates, he began teaching the philosophy of Christ. He opened his first Christian school in the city of Ephesus but later moved to Rome where he opened another school.
In the early second century philosophers were more like debaters, engaging in a deliberate contest of disputes with others. As a Christian, Justin now eagerly entered into debates with anyone he could, seeking to influence and convert people to the Christian faith through logic and reason. Because of his education, he was quite skilled in the use of words, the science of logic and the art of persuasion. Because of this he became one of the champion defenders of Christianity.
However, during this same period of time, Christians were considered by most Gentiles to be detestable and were viewed as a threat to their civilized culture. Because of this, a variety of false and slanderous accusations were ciruclated against them. As a result, many Greeks and Romans felt that the very existence of the Christian faith was a threat to Roman society itself. So successful were these attacks that merely to be accused of being a Christian was enough to have people arrested, tortured, and sometimes put to death.
Having witnessed this persecution himself, Justin, the Christian philosopher, decided to take a stand in defense of Christianity. Somewhere between 150 and 155 A.D. he wrote a letter to Emperor Antonious Pius, appealing to the Emperor's sense of fairness and justice by explaining what it was that Christians actually believe. His purpose was to illustrate how Christians were better citizens of Rome than most people. Drawing on his vast knowledge of Roman culture and philosophy he compared the behavior and beliefs of other noted Romans to those of Christians to show that there was no justification for the Emperor to fear or punish those who were followers of Jesus. This letter of his is know as Justin's "First Apology." The word apology, as used here, means "in defense of" or "a vindication of." Later, he wrote a "Second Apology," this time to the Roman Senate, mostly refuting the claim that Christians were engaged in immoral conduct.
Because of this first letter we are able to gain valuable insight into the beliefs and practices of Christians who lived during the beginning of the second century (100 - 150 AD). And, because of his command of the language, we are able to gain a much clearer understanding of what it was the Christians at that time believed more than from any other written record we have up to then.
It seems that Justin's First Apology did have some effect on slowing down the persecutions of Christians but later, when Marcus Aurelius became Emperor, things changed for the worse. It was under his reign, somewhere around 165 A.D., that Justin was arrested, along with six of his students and tried before the Roman Perfect, Junius Rusticus for the crime of being a Christian. When they refused to renounce their faith in Christ all seven men were put to death by beheading. Because of this, we now referred to him as Justin, the Martyr, or simply, Justin Martyr.
Justin wrote his "First Apology" approximately fifty years after the apostle John had died and his work was subsequently highly valued, not only by the orthodox church leaders of his time, but also those who lived centuries later. Therefore, if we want to know what the apostles taught concerning salvation it would be extremely beneficial for us to examine what Justin Martyr had to say on the subject.
He wrote in Chapter VIII, "We seek the abode that is with God, the Father and Creator of all, and hasten to confess our faith, persuaded and convinced as we are that they who have proved to God by their works that they followed Him and loved to abide with Him where there is no sin to cause disturbance, can obtain these things."
According to what Justin wrote, as quoted above, Christians believe that those who seek to live in the place where God, the Father, lives both confess and have been persuaded and are convinced that only those "who have proved to God by their works that they [do] follow him" and who also have a desire to abide in a place where there is no sin, are the only people who can live with God in heaven.
In Chapter X he wrote. "We have received by tradition… and we have been taught, and are convinced, and do believe, that He [God] accepts those only who imitate the excellences which reside in Him, temperance, and justice, and philanthropy, and as many virtues as are peculiar to a God who is called by no proper name. And we have been taught that he in the beginning did of His goodness, for man's sake, create all things out of unformed matter; and if men by their works show themselves worthy of this His design, they are deemed worthy, and so we have received - of reigning in company with Him, being delivered from corruption and suffering."
Notice that Justin is not expressing his own opinion concerning the subject of works. In this quote he clearly states that what Christians believe are those things they have received from the traditions that have been handed down by the apostles and which have been taught throughout the church. And what is it that Christians back then as a whole both were convinced of and believed? Namely, that God accepts only those who imitate (mimic, impersonate, follow after, model themselves after) those excellent qualities God Himself possesses. And what qualities are these? Justin mentions "temperance and justice and philanthropy and as many [other] virtues as are peculiar to God."
Furthermore, he states that in the beginning, out of His own goodness, God designed and created the earth "for man's sake." Therefore, if men show God "by their works" that they are worthy of what God has designed for them then He will deem them worthy of reigning and living in His company, thereby delivering them "from corruption and suffering."
Again, it needs to be noticed that Justin isn't expressing his own personal ideas about salvation but is explaining what the entire Christian community has been taught from the apostles and which all believers in Christ accept as being true.
In Chapter XII he wrote, "Each man goes to everlasting punishment or salvation according to the value of his actions. For if all men knew this, no one would choose wickedness even for a little, knowing that he goes to the everlasting punishment of fire: but would by all means restrain himself, and adorn himself with virtue, that he might obtain the good gifts of God, and escape the punishments."
Justin declares that whether man ultimately goes to everlasting punishment (hell) or goes to everlasting salvation (heaven) depends entirely upon the value or merit of his actions. Justin then concludes that if men really understood what awaits them no one would ever commit a wicked deed, even just a little. Instead, he says that men would restrain themselves from doing evil by every means available to them and would adorn themselves with every form of virtue so that they could receive the good gifts God has in store for the righteous and thereby escape the punishments that will come upon the wicked.
In Chapter XVI he wrote, "Let those who are not found living as He taught, be understood to be no Christians, even though they profess with the lip the precepts of Christ; for not those who make profession, but those who do the works, shall be saved, according to His word: Not every one who saith to Me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven, but he that doeth the will of My Father which is in heaven (Matt. 7:21)."
What about those who profess to be Christians but who don't live as Jesus taught? Justin wrote that they are not to be considered a Christian, even though they may profess a belief in Christ. He explained that what makes a person a Christian is not whether they make a profession of faith in Jesus but if they do the works Jesus taught His disciples. He further added that only "those who do the works [of Jesus] shall be saved." To prove his point he quoted what Jesus Himself stated when He said, "Not everyone who saith to me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven, but he that doeth the will of My Father which is in heaven." This is how they understood what this verse of scripture meant. It must be kept in mind that this is not Justin's personal opinion on the matter but, instead, reflects those teachings that were handed down by the apostles and taught as truth by the Church.
In Chapter XXVIII he wrote, "In the beginning He [God] made the human race with the power of thought and of choosing the truth and doing right, so that all men are without excuse before God; for they have been born rational and contemplative."
According to what Justin said, Christians believed man was born with the power of choosing the truth and doing what is right. And the reason why God created man this way is so that all men could become accountable for their own actions. Therefore, they cannot say that it wasn't in their power to do what was right and good. Since man has been born with the ability to think rationally and to contemplate what God commands him then he has no excuse for not doing what is right.
In Chapter XLIII he wrote, "We have learned from the prophets, and we hold it to be true, that punishments, and chastisements, and good rewards, are rendered according to the merit of each man's actions. Since if it be not so, but all things happen by fate, neither is anything at all in our power. For if it be fated that this man be good, and this other evil, neither is the former meritorious nor the latter to be blamed. And again, unless the human race have the power of avoiding evil and choosing good by free choice, they are not accountable for their actions, of whatever kind they be. But that it is by free choice they both walk uprightly and stumble… They who choose the good have worthy rewards, and they who choose the opposite have their merited rewards. For not like other things, as trees and quadrupeds, which cannot act by choice, did God make man: for neither would he be worthy of reward or praise did he not himself choose the good, but were created to this end; nor if he were evil, would he be worthy of punishment, not being evil himself, but being able to be nothing else than what he was made."
Here Justin amplifies and further explains what it is that Christians believe concerning man's ability to choose. He states that Christians "have learned from the prophets," and therefore consider it to be true, that whether we receive punishments and are chastised by God or whether we receive good rewards from God all depends upon the merit or value of the actions of each man. He argues that if this wasn't so, God would be unfair, for if one man does good and another does evil because that is the way he is made then man's actions are governed by fate. And if that is the case, when he does good he is not deserving of a reward nor is he to be blamed for his actions when he does evil. Unless we have the power within us to avoid doing evil and, by our own free choice, have the ability to choose to do good then we can't be held accountable for our actions, whether those actions are good or bad.
But Justin says God has given us the power to freely choose how we want to behave. Therefore, whether we walk uprightly before God or stumble and fall from God's ways is entirely up to us. As such, only those who choose, of their own free will, to do good are worthy of living with God while those who choose to do evil will merit the punishment God has prepared for the wicked.
Justin continues to explain that there are some things God has created that don't have the ability to choose how to behave. He uses as his example, trees and four-footed animals as things which must behave as they were created and cannot act any other way. But Justin says that this is not the way God made man. If man was created to do only good then he would neither be worthy of reward or praise. Likewise, if man was born evil and could do nothing else but evil then he would not be worthy of punishment because he could not act any differently.
Today, many of those who teach that salvation is through grace alone also teach that man was born in sin and therefore, no matter how hard he tries, cannot do anything else but sin. As evidence of this belief, they point to Isaiah 64:6 which states that all of our efforts to be righteous are like "filthy rags" before the Lord. As further proof that this is what the Bible teaches, they point to Romans 3:23 as confirmation that there is not one person who does what is right.
However, as we have just seen, Justin clearly and repeatedly states that the early Christians believed that salvation is determined by our actions and by the works we do. He further states that man has not been born inherently evil with no other choice than to do wrong but has the power within him to do what is right. If he fails to exercise that power properly then he will be rewarded with eternal punishment. If he chooses to do what is right, he will be rewarded with everlasting salvation.
So far, the works Justin has been referring to has to do with the qualities and virtues that God possess. But what about baptism? Is that a work necessary for salvation or is it merely a symbolic expression of one's faith? This is what Justin had to say on that subject:
In Chapter LXI he wrote, "As many as are persuaded and believe that what we teach and say is true, and undertake to be able to live accordingly, are instructed to pray and to entreat God with fasting, for the remission of their sins that are past, we praying and fasting with them. Then they are brought by us where there is water, and are regenerated in the same manner in which we were ourselves regenerated. For, in the name of God, the Father and Lord of the universe, and of our Savior Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit, they then receive the washing with water. For Christ also said, Except ye be born again, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven (John 3:5).
And this [rite] we have learned from the apostles this reason. Since at our birth we were born without our own knowledge or choice, by our parents coming together, and were brought up in bad habits and wicked training… [But, we] may become the children of choice and knowledge, and may obtain in the water the remission of sins formerly committed, there is pronounced over him who chooses to be born again, and has repented of his sins, the name of God the Father and Lord of the universe; he who leads to the laver the person that is to be washed calling him by this name alone. For no one can utter the name of the ineffable God; and if any one dare to say that there is a name, he raves with a hopeless madness. And this washing is called illumination, because they who learn these things are illuminated in their understandings. And in the name of Jesus Christ, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and in the name of the Holy Ghost, who through the prophets foretold all things about Jesus, he who is illuminated is washed."
In the days of Justin, when a non-believer had been preached to in a way that eventually persuaded them to believe in the Christian faith, before they could be baptized they first had to agree to live according to the way they had been taught. If a person agreed to this they were then instructed to pray, with fasting, entreating (imploring, pleading, petitioning) God to forgive them for the sins they had committed in the past. (It is interesting to note, that they did not believe that baptism forgive them of any sins they might commit in the future. As such, the early Christians believed that baptism washed away only past sins, not future ones.) And while they fasted and prayed, other Christians would likewise do the same in behalf of the new convert.
When they were through fasting and praying, the convert was taken to a place where there was water and there they were "regenerated" in the same way that all other Christians had become "regenerated." To "generate" something means to make, create, produce, spawn, or breed it for the first time. When something or someone is "regenerated" they are remade, recreated, or rebreed. In this sense, the term "regenerated" as used by the early Christians had the same meaning as being "reborn" or being "born again." Hence, in the days of Justin, baptism was understood to be the means by which someone became "born again" as a Christian. Since it was believed that men's sins were washed away with water therefore baptism was often referred to by them as a "washing."
To explain the justification for this belief Justin quoted the words of Jesus when He said, "Except ye be born again, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven" (John 3:5). The way they understood this scripture was that without a person being born again (reborn, regenerated) by having their sins washed away with water (baptism) a person was not fit to enter into the kingdom of God. This is not merely Justin's own opinion or interpretation of the scriptures. He specifically states that the reason why Christians believe this about baptism is because this is what "we have learned from the apostles."
He then goes on to explain that when we were first born (i.e., generated) from our parents we came forth without any knowledge or choice in the matter. Furthermore, we were brought up and trained in bad habits to do that which is wicked through no choice of our own.
However, in the waters of baptism, when we are reborn, we do have a choice and we make that choice with full knowledge of what is expected of us. Therefore, we become "children of choice and knowledge." And, again, he states, that it is in the water that we obtain a remission of the sins which we had formerly committed before becoming baptized.
Next, the person who has chosen, by their own free will, to be born again and who has repented of all of their past sins is lead to a laver where there is water. Then, "there is pronounced over [them] the name of God the Father," and they are then "washed." They also referred to this washing as an "illumination" because they believed that when a person was baptized (reborn, regenerated, had their sins washed away) that their mind was "illuminated" thereby enabling them to better understand the things of God. To emphasis his point, Justin repeats that in order for a person to be "illuminated" they must first be "washed" (i.e., baptized).
In Chapter LXV he continues this explanation by writing, "We, after we have thus washed him who has been convinced and has assented to our teaching, bring him to the place where those who are called brethren are assembled, in order that we may offer hearty prayers in common for ourselves and for the baptized person, and for all others in every place that we may be counted worthy, now that we have learned the truth, by our works also to be found good citizens and keepers of the commandments, so that we may be saved with an everlasting salvation."
After a person had been convinced and has agreed to follow the things they were taught and had been washed (baptized) they were then brought to a place where other members of the church were assembled. There, everyone gave "hearty prayers" of thanks and gratitude to God, both for themselves and for the newly baptized person, as well as for all other Christians, wherever they may be, who were living as they've been taught and were therefore worthy of God's goodness. These are they who "have learned the truth" that it is "by our works" that we are considered to be good citizens of the kingdom of God. And good citizens are recognized by being "keepers of the commandments." And it is in this way that we may become "saved with an everlasting salvation."
In Chapter LXVII he wrote, "And we afterwards continually remind each other of these things… And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the president [of the congregation] verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of theses good things."
Every Sunday the baptized members of Christ's church, no matter whether they lived in the city or in the country, would gather together in one place and continually remind one another of the things Justin has explained. Their worship service would begin with the reading of portions of both the New and Old Testament scriptures. When this was finished, then the president of the congregation would get up and verbally instruct and admonish all in attendance to always imitate or follow after those excellent qualities which reside in God.
This is what the Christians of the early second century believed and this is how they practiced their belief.
Today, when most modern preachers want to convert someone to Christianity, they stress how salvation is not given because of any work we are required to do but simply because of the grace of God. Since Justin was writing to a non-believer in Christ, we would expect to see him spend a considerable amount of time talking about how salvation comes only through grace. Instead, we find just the opposite. In explaining to Emperor Pius what Christians believe concerning salvation, Justin continually emphasis the need for the performance of works as being essential and necessary, including the work of being baptized. What makes Justin's comments even more remarkable is that not once in his entire presentation does he mention God's "grace" (The word "grace" does appear one time in his writing but it is only used when he quotes from Psalm 96. And even here, Justin makes no comment on it. Interestingly, the way he quotes this scripture is different than the way it reads in our Bible.)
This letter of Justin is in full harmony with what other Christians of his time period have written. Therefore, it is abundantly clear that the Christians of the early second century were taught and fully believed that salvation was granted as a reward only to those who chose to live as God has commanded us and that it was through the performance of our works that we were then deemed worthy to enter into the kingdom of God and dwell there forever with Him. This, then, is the answer we would receive about how salvation is obtained if we were to ask the apostles.
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