What did the Early Church Believe about Salvation?

church photoOne of the most important issues for us should be human salvation. Of course, this only makes sense to you if you believe that people NEED to be saved – or rescued – from something. Well, the Bible teaches that all have sinned and have fallen short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23), that the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23), that sin and iniquity separates us from God (Isaiah 59:2), that God will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel (2 Thessalonians 1:8,9) and that eternal life means knowing God personally (John 17:3). All this means that people are in desperate need of salvation. Everyone needs to be rescued from sin and its consequences. For apart from God we can’t have eternal life, and unless sin is dealt with somehow, a person will remain cut off from God and eternally rejected by God. To be rejected by God and cast out into the place prepared for the devil and his angels is something so horrific that every one of us needs to be sure we are getting it right on this issue of human salvation and what GOD says it takes.

All true Christians agree that Jesus Christ died to pay for our sins, and that He rose again, conquering death. But what does it take to actually receive forgiveness of sins and be 100% sure of going to heaven and partaking in the joys of the Kingdom of God and the New Earth which will follow? This is where Christians often disagree. Christians follow different teachers, leaders and doctrines on this, the most important of issues as far as we personally are concerned. There might be more important issues as far as God is concerned, but for us, we need to be interested in whether we are truly right with God. After that we need to be concerned about glorifying God as much as we can.

No one believes they are deceived, or they would change their opinion. A lot of Christians take comfort in the idea that their particular flavor of Christian doctrine is “right”. So the Orthodox say, even by the way they name their churches, that they are right. They have the label that they are right in all matters. Calvinists frequently refer to the way they think as “sound doctrine” or as the “Doctrines of Grace”, which the implication that they are right, and all who disagree are wrong. Roman Catholics say they are the One True Church established by Christ. One leader in the so-called “Radical Grace Reformation” has stated that no one since the apostle Paul really got the correct understanding of what grace until he recently did, so we should all follow what he teaches. And so on. The problem is that all these groups contradict each other on various points. And maybe they are all partly right and partly wrong. But if someone is wrong enough to miss out on Eternal Life, that really matters. It really does.

What counts more than what any one of us thinks is what God thinks. That is true, even if what God thinks and what God reveals is different to what is comfortable for us. I hope you will agree with me that what we have recorded as the words of Jesus and the words of the apostles should carry a lot more weight than what anyone else says. Of course, many will give lip service to this, but when push comes to shove what they mean is that their interpretation of what Jesus and the apostles said should carry more weight than anything else. This could be true for any of us, so I think that we need to examine as much of the evidence as we can, and let that lead us where it will, rather than trying to force everything into the theological mold we have adopted. An honest, humble heart will see the value of at least attempting this.

It is possible to take one or two texts of the Bible and give a particular interpretation of those verses so much weight that nothing else the Bible or even the New Testament says to the contrary can change your mind. I think we can see this in many discussions about the relationship of faith and works to salvation. Martin Luther taught us that justification is by “faith alone”. He added the word “alone”. In His preface to the New Testament, Martin Luther wrote:

“If I had to do without one or the other either the works or preaching of Christ I would rather do without His works than His preaching. For the works do not help me, but His words give life, as He Himself says. Now John writes very little about the works of Christ, but very much about His preaching. But the other Evangelists write much of His works and little of His preaching. Therefore John’s Gospel is the one, tender, true chief Gospel, far, far to be preferred to the other three and placed high above them. So, too, the Epistles of St. Paul and St. Peter far surpass the other three Gospels—Matthew, Mark and Luke. 

“In a word, St. John’s Gospel and his first Epistle, St. Paul’s Epistles, especially Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians, and St. Peter’s first Epistle are the books that show you Christ and teach you all that it is necessary and good for you to know, even though you were never to see or hear any other book or doctrine. Therefore St. James’ Epistle is really an epistle of straw, compared to them; for it has nothing of  the nature of the Gospel about it. “

So when James says that “You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only.” (James 2:24)  modern evangelicals mostly follow Luther, rather than the Bible. Luther said that the letter of James (the brother of Jesus and acknowledged leader of the church in Jerusalem) wrote was really an “epistle of straw” and most evangelicals schooled in the idea of justification by faith only regardless of how you live would call what James teaches heresy. They would probably say that anyone saying what James said doesn’t understand the true gospel.

But many of us like what Luther said, because we like to think that our sins and disobedience to God that comes out of a refusal to trust in God’s wisdom and love aren’t something that will keep us out of the Kingdom of Heaven. But what if James the brother of Jesus is right and your pastor’s interpretation of Paul’s writings are wrong? What if all the many verses that teach that God requires obedience to the gospel for salvation are right after all?

David W. Bercot, in his book, “Will the Real Heretics Please Stand Up” writes concerning what Luther wrote:

Luther claimed that the only reason he preferred the Gospel of John over the other three gospels was that it contained more of Jesus’ preaching. But that isn’t true. The Gospel of Matthew contains nearly twice as much of Jesus’ preaching as the Gospel of John.

A person doesn’t need to be very perceptive to see what Luther’s real motive was. The Bible books Luther disparaged happen to be the very books that indicate that obedience is necessary for salvation. For example, in Matthew we find such sayings as “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven” (Matt. 7:21); and “he who endures to the end will be saved” (Matt. 24:13). James tells us that “a man is justified by works, and not by faith only” (Jas. 2:24). Luther was willing to stoop to disparaging the Word of God just to advance his own theology. It is no wonder that most of modern, liberal theology began in Lutheran seminaries.

In short, I see a sharp contrast between the integrity of the early Christians and that of the founder of the Reformation. How much confidence could we have in the New Testament canon if it had been compiled by Luther rather than by the early churches? At the same time, how much confidence can we have in our evangelical doctrines that came from Luther?”

So Is The Orthodox Church or the Roman Catholic Church in line with the Apostles?

A careful study of Church History will reveal that there are significant changes to how the churches operated beginning with the time of Constantine the Great and the Edict of Milan which officially recognised and tolerated Christianity as well as other religions. Constantine gave church leaders power, riches and kudos. He gathered the church leaders from around the Empire to define what Orthodox Christianity was and to stamp out some of the rampant heresy going around. This resulted in the Nicene Creed amongst other things. I don’t see anything wrong with the Nicene Creed, but it is a hardly an adequate description of what it means to follow Jesus, nor does it equip you fully to know what you must do to be saved. Belief in Jesus was starting to be defined in terms of mental assent to certain correct doctrines, rather than a living relationship with a living Lord who must be trusted and obeyed on the Way to Heaven and Eternal Life.

At the same time, the way was being prepared for a kind of centralised top-down bureaucratic approach to Christianity which would enable popes and bishops to spread heretical practices and doctrines with little or no resistance from the biblically illiterate and now largely nominal adherents to a more socially inclusive, worldly Christianity. So the effect of Constantine and the subsequent mixture of paganism and Christianity was severely detrimental to the Christian Cause and the real knowledge of God. Armed with political power at their side, bishops (like Augustine of Hippo a century or two later) could even advocate for the violent persecution and murder of Christians with whom they disagreed! And this actually happened! (Research about the Donatists for more information on this). 

The Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches both evolved out of a mixture of genuine Christian teaching with the corrupting influences of paganism and political power – but in slightly different ways. It isn’t hard to show that a lot of the things that many followers of these religions do is totally out of line with what the Bible teaches. It is especially easy with the Roman Catholic Church which forbids its “priests” to marry (see 1 Timothy 4:1,2) and teaches that Mary is a co-redemptrix with Jesus Christ. So while Luther had his serious errors which led many to practice a kind of Christianity in which obedience to Christ and His commands was considered optional at best, the Roman Catholics and Orthodox had their own strange idolatrous mixes and adulteries with worldly power, which resulted of course in a lot of the abominations which happened in the name of Christ throughout Church History.

Faith Working through Love is What Counts – Actually

For [if we are] in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, but only faith activated and expressed and working through love. (Galatians 5:6, AMP)

The only kind of faith that counts for anything is a faith activated and expressed and working through love. Now if the teaching that there is a kind of “saving faith” which has nothing to do with walking in love (which is obedience to Christ’s commandments), then Paul isn’t telling the truth here!  If there is some kind of faith which simply trusts that Christ has done it all for us, and that we don’t have to do anything to enter heaven except trust that He has done it all for us, then actually that kind of faith should count for something also! But apparently only faith activated by and expressed and working through love counts for anything. And salvation is something. So who is right? Paul or Luther?

Now it is true that we can never enter the Kingdom on the basis of works alone. None of our good works will earn us a pass to heaven (Ephesians 2:8,9). But after the initial faith in Jesus that receives Him as Lord and Savior from sin, for this to mean anything real we need to continue in the kind of faith that works by love. Anything that is not love is sin. Anything that is not faith is sin. We are fools to go on sinning wilfully if we expect to find heaven at the end of our life (Hebrews 10:26-29). Therefore, we need to press into God with all we have, realising that our efforts alone cannot save us, but also that Christ will give grace to those who are truly willing, so that they can obey Him! And this is important! Salvation involves a co-operation between human choices and divine grace. And this is what the early church writers who came immediately after the apostles and were therefore best qualified to know believed.

What Did the Church Leaders of the Second Century Believe and Teach?

I will quote again from David Bercot’s book – “Will the Real Heretics Please Stand Up?” You can find the his sources at the back of his book.

Clement of Rome who was taught by both Peter and Paul and was mentioned in Paul’s letter said:

“It is necessary, therefore, that we be prompt in the practice of good works. For He forewarns us, ‘Behold, the Lord comes and His reward is before His face, to render to every man according to his work.’ Let us therefore earnestly strive to be found in the number of those who wait for Him, in order that we may share in His promised reward. But how, beloved ones, shall we do this? By fixing our thoughts on God by faith. By earnestly seeking the things that are pleasing and acceptable to Him. By doing the things that are in harmony with His blameless will. And by following the way of truth, casting away from us all unrighteousness and sin.”

Irenaeus, the pupil of Polycarp, who was discipled by the apostle John wrote:

“Christ will not die again on behalf of those who now commit sin because death shall no more have dominion over Him…. Therefore we should not be puffed up…. But we should beware lest somehow, after [we have come to] the knowledge of Christ, if we do things displeasing to God, we obtain no further forgiveness of sins but rather be shut out from His kingdom” (Irenaeus Against Heresies bk.4, chapter 27, sec 2.)

Tertullian wrote: 

“Some people act as though God were under an obligation to bestow even on the unworthy His intended gift. They turn His liberality into slavery…. For do not many afterwards fall out of grace? Is not this gift taken away from many?” (Tertullian On Repentance, Chapter 6)

Cyprian wrote to his fellow believers:

“It is written, ‘He who endures to the end, the same shall be saved’ [Matt. 10:22]. So whatever precedes the end is only a step by which we ascend to the summit of salvation. It is not the final point wherein we have already gained the full result of the ascent.” (Cyprian, Unity of the Church – section 21).

He also wrote:

“To prophesy, to cast out demons, and to do great acts upon the earth are certainly a sublime and admirable thing. However, a person does not attain the Kingdom of Heaven even though he is found in all these things unless he walks in the observance of the right and just way. The Lord says, ‘Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in your name and cast out demons in your name and performed other powerful works in your name? And then I will confess to them, I never knew you. Depart from me you workers of evil.’ [Matt. 7:22,23] There is need of righteousness so one may deserve well of God the Judge. We must obey His precepts and warnings that our merits may receive their reward.” (Cyprian, Unity of the Church, sec. 15)

What Do the Scriptures Say about this Issue?

There is no doubt that the Scriptures teach that faith in Christ is indispensable to salvation. These ante-Nicene Christian leaders and writers agreed and there is plenty of evidence to back this up. However, the fact that these 2nd and 3rd century writers had these views expressed above should give us a clue to the commonly held interpretation of Scriptures that had to do with questions of salvation, faith, obedience, grace and law. Now, one could say that by the time the apostle John died the church had already forsaken the true understanding of salvation by grace through faith. But what if the Scriptures below and others like them should be taken at face value?

Or do you despise the riches of His goodness, forbearance, and longsuffering, not knowing that the goodness of God leads you to repentance? But in accordance with your hardness and your impenitent heart you are treasuring up for yourself wrath in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God, who “will render to each one according to his deeds”eternal life to those who by patient continuance in doing good seek for glory, honor, and immortality;but to those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness—indignation and wrathtribulation and anguish, on every soul of man who does evil, of the Jew first and also of the Greek; but glory, honor, and peace to everyone who works what is good, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For there is no partiality with God. (Romans 2:4-11)

Paul wasn’t misleading people about the way of salvation here. Do you think he was? 

The apostle John knew the Lord well and he wrote:

Now by this we know that we know Him, if we keep His commandments. He who says, “I know Him,” and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him. But whoever keeps His word, truly the love of God is perfected in him. By this we know that we are in Him. He who says he abides in Him ought himself also to walk just as He walked. (1 John 2:3-6)

“My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. ” (John 10:27).

Peter warned people could escape the pollutions of the world for a while through the power of Jesus and still be damned.

For if, after they have escaped the pollutions of the world through the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the latter end is worse for them than the beginning. 21 For it would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than having known it, to turn from the holy commandment delivered to them. (2 Peter 2:20,21)


And the writer to the Hebrews is extremely direct.

“Dear friends, if we deliberately continue sinning after we have received knowledge of the truth, there is no longer any sacrifice that will cover these sins. There is only the terrible expectation of God’s judgment and the raging fire that will consume his enemies. For anyone who refused to obey the law of Moses was put to death without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. Just think how much worse the punishment will be for those who have trampled on the Son of God, and have treated the blood of the covenant, which made us holy, as if it were common and unholy, and have insulted and disdained the Holy Spirit who brings God’s mercy to us. (Hebrews 10:26-29, NLT)

Many other Scriptures warn believers about the doom of those who practice the works of the flesh (Galatians 5:17-21), or try to serve God and Mammon (Matthew 6:24(, essentially being covetous idolaters. The Scriptures are plain. And there are so many of them. Just read the Gospel of Matthew through from start to finish, or any other book of the New Testament. Don’t refer to commentaries some of which seek to explain away the tough teachings verse by verse. Just read what God says and believe accordingly.

If you love, respect and fear God, wouldn’t you rather be safe than sorry on this point?


Michael Fackerell

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