June 6, 2013

John Chrysostom & Justification by Faith Alone

by Nathan Busenitz

chrysostomJohn Chrysostom (c. 344–407) was a fourth-century church leader who is best-known for his eloquent expository preaching. In fact, it was because of his oratorical gifts that he came to be known as “Chrysostom” which means “Golden Mouth.” As the bishop of Constantinople, he was one of the most influential church leaders of his day.

Because he preached verse-by-verse through most of the New Testament, it is relatively easy to discover Chrysostom’s perspective on key biblical texts. What follows, then, is a series of excerpts from Chrysostom’s sermons — centered around the theme of justification by faith alone.

1. Regarding the Faith of Abraham (in Genesis 15) —

The patriarch Abraham himself before receiving circumcision had been declared righteous on the score of faith alone: before circumcision, the text says, “Abraham believed God, and credit for it brought him to righteousness.”

(John Chrysostom, Cited from Fathers of the Church, Vol. 82, Homilies on Genesis 18-45, 27.7 [Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1990],  167.)

2. Regarding Romans 4-5 —

Now since the Jews kept turning over and over the fact, that the Patriarch, and friend of God, was the first to receive circumcision, he wishes to show, that it was by faith that he too was justified. And this was quite a vantage ground to insist upon. For a person who had no works, to be justified by faith, was nothing unlikely. But for a person richly adorned with good deeds, not to be made just from hence, but from faith, this is the thing to cause wonder, and to set the power of faith in a strong light.

(John Chrysostom, Homilies on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans, Homily 8; re: Rom. 4:1–2.)

What is the “law of faith?” It is, being saved by grace. Here he shows God’s power, in that He has not only saved, but has even justified, and led them to boasting, and this too without needing works, but looking for faith only.

(John Chrysostom, Homilies on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans, 7.27.)  

3. Regarding Romans 11:6 —

Why then are you afraid of drawing nigh, since you have no works demanded of you?

. . . Let us then give thanks, that we belong to them that are being saved, and not having been able to save ourselves by works, were saved by the gift of God. But in giving thanks, let us not do this in words only, but in works and actions. For this is the genuine thanksgiving, when we do those things whereby God is sure to be glorified, and flee from those from which we have been set free.

(John Chrysostom, Homilies on Romans 11)

4. Regarding 1 & 2 Corinthians —

God allowed his Son to suffer as if a condemned sinner, so that we might be delivered from the penalty of our sins. This is God’s righteousness, that we are not justified by works (for then they would have to be perfect, which is impossible), but by grace, in which case all our sin is removed.

(John Chrysostom, Homilies on the Epistles of Paul to the Corinthians, 11:5; NPNF 1 12:334; ACCS NT 7:252; cited from Thomas Oden, The Justification Reader, 61.)

5. Regarding Galatians 3 —

And this he [Paul] removes, with great skill and prudence, turning their argument against themselves, and showing that those who relinquish the Law are not only not cursed, but blessed; and they who keep it, not only not blessed but cursed. They said that he who kept not the Law was cursed, but he proves that he who kept it was cursed, and he who kept it not, blessed. Again, they said that he who adhered to faith alone was cursed, but he shows that he who adhered to faith alone, is blessed. And how does he prove all this? for it is no common thing which we have promised; wherefore it is necessary to give close attention to what follows. He had already shown this, by referring to the words spoken to the Patriarch, ‘In thee shall all nations be blessed,’ (Genesis 12:4.) at a time, that is, when Faith existed, not the Law.

(John Chrysostom, Commentary on Galatians, 3:8.).

6. Regarding Ephesians 2:8-9 —

Even faith, [Paul] says, is not from us. For if the Lord had not come, if he had not called us, how should we have been able to believe? “For how,” [Paul] says, “shall they believe if they have not heard?” (Rom. 10:14). So even the act of faith is not self-initiated. It is, he says, “the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8c).

(John Chrysostom, Homily on Ephesians 2:8; IOEP 2:160; ACCS NT 8:134; cited from Thomas Oden, The Justification Reader, 44.)

For by faith alone He saved us. . . . Instead of a certain manner of life, He brought in faith. For that He might not save us to no purpose, He both Himself underwent the penalty, and also required of men the faith that is by doctrines

(John Chyrostom, Homily on Ephesians 2:11–12)

7. Regarding Ephesians 2:10 —

God’s mission was not to save people in order that they may remain barren or inert. For Scripture says that faith has saved us. Put better: Since God willed it, faith has saved us. Now in what case, tell me, does faith save without itself doing anything at all? Faith’s workings themselves are a gift of God, lest anyone should boast. What then is Paul saying? Not that God has forbidden works but that he has forbidden us to be justified by works. No one, Paul says, is justified by works, precisely in order that the grace and benevolence of God may become apparent.

(John Chrysostom, Homily on Ephesians, 4.2.9. cited from Mark J. Edwards, ed., ACCS, NT VI: Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1998), 134. See also John Chrysostom. F. Field, ed., Interpretatio omnium Epistolarum Paulinarum per Homilias Facta (Oxford J. H. Parker, 1845-1862), 2:160.)

8. Regarding Colossians 1:26–28 —

To have brought humanity, more senseless than stones, to the dignity of angels simply through bare words, and faith alone, without any hard work, is indeed a rich and glorious mystery. It is just as if one were to take a dog, quite consumed with hunger and the mange, foul and loathsome to see, and not so much as able to move but lying passed out, and make him all at once into a human being and to display him upon the royal throne.

(John Chrysostom, Homilies on Colossians 1:26–28; Cited from Joel C. Elowsky, We Believe in the Holy Spirit, 98.)

9. Regarding 1 Timothy 1:15–16 —

For as people, on receiving some great good, ask themselves if it is not a dream, as not believing it; so it is with respect to the gifts of God. What then was it that was thought incredible? That those who were enemies and sinners, justified by neither the law nor works, should immediately through faith alone be advanced to the highest favor. On this head [topic] accordingly Paul has discoursed at length in his Epistle to the Romans, and here again at length. “This is a faithful saying,” he says, “ and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” As the Jews were chiefly attracted by this, he persuades them not to listen to the law, since they could not attain salvation by it without faith. Against this he contends, for it seemed to them incredible that a person who had misspent all his former life in vain and wicked actions should afterwards be saved by his faith alone. On this account he says, “It is a saying to be believed.”

(John Chrysostom, Homilies on 1 Timothy 1:15–16; cited from Joel C. Elowsky, We Believe in the Holy Spirit, 98.)

Nathan Busenitz

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Nathan serves on the pastoral staff of Grace Church and teaches theology at The Master's Seminary in Los Angeles.
  • Steve

    It seems pretty clear that the early church fathers held to baptismal regeneration. If this is the case, how did they also hold firmly to justification by faith alone? My Lutheran friend holds to both as well and sees no tension. What are your thoughts? Thanks!

  • Taka no Mi

    but ive seen RC papers that say Johnny Chyrsostom taught their version of salvation, and provide quotes from him to back it up!So then who is right? are you taking them outta context or are they?

    • That’s not exactly engaging the post, Tony. At the very least you should provide an example or two of quotes from John Chrysostom which seem to support a Roman Catholic understanding of salvation, along with the way that Roman Catholic scholars have handled/treated that quote. Without that, there really is no way for someone to honestly answer your question about whether RCC authors take Chrysostom out of context.

      Besides this, I think asking Nate if he’s taking the quotes out of context is the wrong way to go about the discussion. He has produced examples of primary-source quotes, and in underlining portions of them he’s highlighted where Chrysostom explicitly and unequivocally affirms justification by faith alone. With such explicit affirmations, any accusations of obscuring or misconstruing Chrysostom’s intent by taking these quotes out of context would require you to supply the context that you think is necessary to make a determination and demonstrate how Nate has done that.

      • Taka no Mi

        ok then if Chrysostom did teach what Protestants about salvation why did why did the RC make him a “Doctor of the Church” rather than burning him alive? Or suppressing all his work? any ways here is one ive found take a look-

        “For here he shows
        that the faith, so far from doing any disparagement to the “Law,” even
        assists it, as it on the other hand paved the way for the faith. For as
        the Law itself before bore witness to it (for he saith, “being witnessed
        by the Law and the Prophets”), so here this establisheth that, now that
        it is unnerved. And how did it establish? he would say.What was the
        object of the Law and what the scope of all its enactments? Why, to make
        man righteous. But this it had no power to do. “For all,” it says,
        “have sinned:” but faith when it came accomplished it. For when a man is
        once a believer, he is straightway justified. The intention then of the
        Law it did establish, and what all its enactments aim after, this hath
        it brought to a consummation. Consequently it has not disannulled, but
        perfected it. Here then three points he has demonstrated; first, that
        without the Law it is possible to be justified; next, that this the Law
        could not effect; and, that faith is not opposed to the Law.. For since
        the chief cause of perplexity to the Jews was this, that the faith
        seemed to be in opposition to it, he shows more than the Jew wishes,
        that so far from being contrary,it is even in close alliance and coöperation with it, which was what they especially longed to hear proved.

        But since after this grace, whereby we were justified, there is need
        also of a life suited to it, let us show an earnestness worthy the gift.
        And show it we shall, if we keep with earnestness charity, the mother
        of good deeds. Now charity is not bare words, or mere ways of speaking (prosrhseij) to men, but a taking care (prostasia)
        of them, and a putting forth of itself by works, as, for instance, by
        relieving poverty, lending one’s aid to the sick, rescuing from dangers,
        to stand by them that be in difficulties, to weep with them that weep,
        and to rejoice with them that rejoice. (Rom. xii. 15.) Homily 7,
        Commentary on Rom. 3:31. NPNF1: Vol. X, p. 380.”

        Catholic Commentary: Now, the Law’s purpose was to make us
        righteous. Luther’s idea is that it’s only goal was to show us how we
        are unable to keep it. Now, St. Chrysostom shows that yes the Law does
        not enable us to keep it, or to make us righteous. He shows that
        faith is not opposed to the law, but establishes the law. Also, it is
        not either faith or the law, but the faith cooperates with the law, in
        justification!!! The grace that is given must bear out in good deeds.
        He refers to charity as the ‘mother’ of good deeds. Now, he does not
        say that good deeds are extrinsic to one’s justification, but are
        necessary for this justification. So for St. Chrysostom, the Law, be it
        merely circumcision as Chrysostom shows that Paul is focusing on here
        in verses 28 & 29, or it is works of the moral law which does not
        justify the Gentiles (see his commentary on Rom. 3:20) and only makes
        them aware of the moral Law, does not justify in and of itself. Grace
        given by God gives us the power to be made righteous. However, when
        grace comes, the law can be fulfilled by us. And good works spring from
        faith and we must put forth works!!! The Law does not justify, but St.
        Chrysostom recognizes that is because the Law does not provide the
        grace necessary to keep the law. Grace through faith provides the power
        needed. Thus, Chrysostom at the same time denying that the Law
        actually justifies in and of itself, specifically teaches through grace,
        good works must be put forth. And he specifically makes the
        distinction between works that do not justify (works of the law) from
        those works that must be done in God’s good grace as necessary. He never
        puts grace empowered works as part of ‘works of the law’. But works
        and the law is still necessary, but it must be under the auspices of
        God’s grace, or it won’t be salvific.

        • If Chrysostom did teach what Protestants about salvation why did why did the RC make him a “Doctor of the Church” rather than burning him alive? Or suppressing all his work?

          I’m not sure there’s a clear answer to this question. It could be that they misrepresented the Fathers and only selectively quoted them in order to deceive people into their brand of heresy. It wouldn’t be the first time higher-ups in Roman Catholicism have done blatantly wicked things for the sake of maintaining their power and authority.

          It could be — and it’s more probable — that they entirely misinterpreted the Fathers on the key issues related to the Reformation, failing to interpret them properly because of a theological bias brought to the text rather than derived from the text (which is exactly what they also do with the Scriptures).

          I would say that that second answer is precisely the case in the quote you supply above. I don’t find any part of Chrysostom’s quote there that is at odds with Protestant teaching. He’s simply speaking of the Third Use of the Law. The Law cannot justify because it does not provide grace; it shows us that we need grace. After we are saved by faith, good works are the necessary fruit of justification, and the precepts in the Law now act as a guide in the pursuit of practical righteousness (even though perfect forensic righteousness has already been declared to be ours on the basis of Christ’s perfect righteousness imputed to us by faith alone). That’s what I see Chrysostom teaching.

          The Catholic Commentary imposes the interpretation that the good works Chrysostom speaks of, which are the necessary fruit of faith, are also the ground of one’s justification. In classic RCC style, the commentary confuses justification and sanctification, and the fruit with the root (i.e., good works are the necessary fruit of sanctification, but not the root; the root is faith alone).

          Now, we could argue back and forth about who’s interpreting that quote correctly, because it is a little ambiguous and is speaking of nuances that are only discerned with great care and devotion to the text of Scripture. But the point of the original post here is that the quotes Nate has provided are such clear affirmations of Chrysostom’s credence in sola fide that it would be impossible to show that we’ve misunderstood his intent and that there really is a way to harmonize a comment like, “They said that he who adhered to faith alone was cursed, but he shows that he who adhered to faith alone was blessed,” with the doctrine that we are not justified by faith alone.

          Hope that helps.

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