January 28, 2014

The Gospel in Church History (Part 4)

by Nathan Busenitz

Clement of RomeClick here to read Part 1, Part 2, or Part 3.

The gospel of grace was both proclaimed and preserved in the earliest decades of church history. It was overwhelmingly affirmed by the apostles at the Jerusalem Council (in Acts 15), such that Paul could later tell the Ephesians, “By grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph. 2:8–9).

Shortly after the Jerusalem Council, Paul wrote a letter to the churches he had planted on his first missionary journey. That letter, known as the book of Galatians, admonished its readers not to acquiesce to the works-righteousness of the Judaizers. To do so, Paul stated, would be to embrace another gospel—one which was not really good news at all (Gal. 1:6–9). The apostle went on to clearly explain that justification is not based on keeping the law, but is only granted by grace through faith in Christ (cf. Gal. 3:1–14). Given the theme of that epistle (justification by faith vs. justification by works), it is not surprising to learn that Galatians was Martin Luther’s favorite book of the New Testament, because in that text he found the gospel of grace so clearly revealed.

The New Testament emphasis (on a gospel of grace apart from works) became the foundation for the Protestant Reformation and its central tenet of sola fide. The biblical teaching on that issue remains the authoritative basis on which an evangelical understanding of the gospel is built. But while modern evangelicals rightly conclude that the doctrine of sola fide is founded in Scripture, many wrongly assume that there is relatively little support for that position in pre-Reformation church history. Nothing could be further from the truth.

As we continue this series, we will consider a number of Christian leaders from the patristic and medieval periods of church history who affirm sola fide. In today’s post, we will consider just three, starting with Clement of Rome (d. c. 99).

Clement pastored the church in Rome from about AD 90 to 100. That means, as a church leader, he was a contemporary of the apostle John. He was also a disciple of the apostle Paul and is likely mentioned in Philippians 4:3. So, his testimony is very early. Listen to what he wrote in his letter to the Corinthians. This is one of the earliest Christian documents that we have outside of the New Testament. In chapter 32 of his epistle, he said this:

And we [Christians], too, being called by His will in Christ Jesus, are not justified by ourselves, nor by our own wisdom, or understanding, or godliness, 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 forever and ever. Amen.

Clement of Rome, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 32.4.

It would be hard to say it any more clearly than that.

Another early testimony to this truth comes from Polycarp of Smyrna (c. 69–160), a disciple of the apostle John. Polycarp is famous in church history for his martyrdom. One surviving letter from Polycarp (his Epistle to the Philippians) echoes the truth of sola fide in the very first chapter. Here is what he wrote:

I rejoice that the secure root of your faith, proclaimed from ancient times, even now continues to abide and bear fruit in our Lord Jesus Christ. He persevered to the point of death on behalf of our sins; and God raised him up after loosing the labor pains of Hades. Even without seeing him, you believe in him with an inexpressible and glorious joy that many long to experience. For you know that you have been saved by a gracious gift—not from works but by the will of God through Jesus Christ.

Polycarp of Smyrna, Epistle to the Philippians, 1.2–3.

Third, consider the words of the anonymous Epistle to Diognetus, written around the mid-point of the second century. The letter is evangelistic, attempting to convince the unbelieving Diognetus to embrace Christianity. It is in this context that the writer explains the heart of the gospel, underscoring the reality of Christ’s finished work on the cross and the righteousness that believers receive from Him. The unknown author explained:

He gave His own Son as a ransom for us, the holy One for 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!

Epistle to Digonetus, 9.2–5.

These quotes represent just the tip of the iceberg—all coming from the earliest chapters in church history. They remind us of the glorious truth of the gospel—that we are saved by grace through faith in Christ alone. What a joy it is to recognize that gospel truth goes back long before the Reformation, through early church history to the apostles themselves.

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.
  • bumbutcha

    Luther’s theological paradigm also caused him much vexation and dislike
    for the Book of James since he perceived those writings as going against
    his promulgation of sola fide. “You see that a person is justified by
    works and not by faith alone.” Js 2:24

    • Nate_Busenitz

      Actually, there is a significant amount of debate regarding Luther’s view of James. William Barclay, for example, quotes Luther as saying, “I think highly of the epistle of James, and regard it as valuable although it was rejected in early days.” (Martin Luther, as quoted by William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible Series, The Letters of James and Peter, Revised Edition, Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY, 1976, p. 7)

      Generally speaking, the Reformers did not struggle with James 2. They saw it as harmonizing with their understanding of “sola fide.” Luther’s counterpart in Wittenberg (Philip Melanchthon) articulated his understanding of James 2 in these words:

      A living faith is that which pours itself out in works. For he [James] speaks as follows (v. 18): ‘Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.’ But he does not say: ‘I will show you works without faith.’ My exposition squares most harmoniously with what we read in James: ‘So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.’ Therefore, it is obvious that he is teaching here merely that faith is dead in those who do not bring forth the fruit of faith, even though from external appearances they seem to believe.

      Philipp Melanchthon, “Love and Hope,” in The Library of Christian Classics [Hereafter, LCC] (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1969), XIX:112.

  • Tony Jiang

    if all those famous christian preachers believed in sola fide then the catholic church would have never praised them so much ,besides i found somethings that Clement of Rome said that contradicts your stuff Nathan. I love how you take things outta context to fit your own agenda
    Seeing, therefore, that we are the portion of the Holy One, let us do all those
    things which pertain to holiness, avoiding all evil-speaking, all abominable and
    impure embraces, together with all drunkenness, seeking after change,(3) all
    abominable lusts, detestable adultery, and execrable pride. “For God,” saith
    [the Scripture], “resisteth the proud, but giveth grace to the
    humble.”(4) Let us cleave, then, to those to whom grace has been given by

    The First Epistle of Clement, Chapters 30-34, found in Philip Schaff and Henry
    Wace ed., ed. Alexander Roberts & James Donaldson, Anti-Nicene
    Fathers (Hereafter initialed as ANF), Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., Peabody,
    Massachusetts, 1994, Vol. 1, pp. 13-14:

    • Nate_Busenitz

      Hi Tony,

      Thanks for your comment. I am well aware of Clement’s statement in 30:4. In fact, we discuss the entire portion (chapters 30-34) every fall semester in the Church History classes that I teach. My intent was not to conceal anything by quoting only a select portion from 32:4.

      You accuse me of taking things out of context, but if you consider the context of Clement’s argument in 30:4, you will see that it does not mitigate against his later statement in 32:4.

      In 30:4, Clement is making the point (much like James 2:14-26) that a mere profession of faith that lacks the fruit of good works is a dead faith. If you continue reading in chapter 30 (especially 30:7-8), it is clear that Clement’s point in 30:4 is that the reality of our Christian profession is vindicated or “justified” by the fruit of good works. In other words, the proof (or evidence) of our salvation comes not from mere words but from our good works. As James stated, “I will show you my faith by my works” (James 2:18). The Protestant Reformers would have wholeheartedly agreed with Clement’s point in that section — as would Augustine and many others in pre-Reformation church history.

      If, as you seem to suggest, Clement was teaching a doctrine of “justification by works” in a soteriological sense you immediately run into a major problem, since he flatly rejects that view just two chapters later.

      As Clement clearly teaches in 32:4:

      “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 wrought in holiness of
      heart, but through faith, whereby the Almighty God justified all men
      that have been from the beginning; to whom be the glory for ever and
      ever. Amen.”

      The context there is clearly soteriological, as Clement follows the theological arguments of Paul from Romans 4-5.

      Hope that helps.

      • Tony Jiang

        I am sorry but, you are trying to shoehorn the beliefs of modern day protestantism into that of some dead old guy, at anyrate you do realise that if Clement of Rome did really teach what you claimed he tought why does the Roman Church call him a “saint”? if he really did teach sola fide they would not so!

        here let me show you
        Chapter 32
        ” From him also [was descended] our Lord Jesus Christ according to the flesh. From him [arose] kings, princes, and rulers of the race of Judah. Nor are his other tribes in small glory, inasmuch as God had promised, “Thy seed shall be as the stars of heaven.” All these, therefore, were highly honoured, 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 godliness, 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. Amen”
        So we see that Clement’s quote (the one quote that I could find) that you took was totally out of context. When he made the quote that you noted, we see that surrounding it before and after was the necessity of works done in God’s grace for salvation. In Chapter 31 he says Abraham was blessed (and the context is speaking of justification), because of the act of offering Isaac on the altar. In chapter 34, Clement says that in justification it is requisite to actions to be well-doing. And i am pretty sure that is what the Catholic Church teaches, also in case you havent notice Clement never said said in that section you quoted anything about “faith ALONE” he said salvation was by believing but not by believing alone
        Chapter 50 says:
        “Blessed are we, beloved, if we keep the commandments of God in the harmony of love; that so through love our sins may be forgiven us.” In Chapter 50 he notes that a person must keep the commandments and that love (not faith alone) forgives sins. Clement notes that works are what must be judged before God to achieve salvation, and not even a hint of forensic justification, or Sola Fide.

        • Tony Jiang

          also why would the rc make all these people saints if they taught dogmas so contrary to such impoirtant beliefts that they had if what you said was true nate?

          • Bro, are you arguing for Rome or something? The papists declared plenty of folks saints, sure, and they also gave plenty of Baptists lessons in indefinitely holding their breath underwater, so what exactly is your point?

          • Tony Jiang

            I love how you use the word “papist” do you also call black people the “n” word?

          • Perish the thought I should offend someone with a fried chicken as an avatar. Friend, take some time to read Eph.2, and I think that should help clear up some of your misguided and unscriptural RCC beliefs.

          • Tony Jiang

            It’s a roast duck NOT a fried chicken learn the difference yeesh…. And no I am not catholic, just an university history student who learned up on his religous history and the fact that you call Catholics papists shows that you might as well be calling black guys that “n” word

          • Learned up on his religious history from where? Wikipedia? Where it says the word “papist” is an “anti-Catholic slur”?

            The Reformers referred to the Roman Catholics as “papists” because one of the main tenets of Roman Catholicism is that the pope, not Christ, is the head of the church. Their devotion to the pope rightly earns them such a name. Further, to call them “Catholic” is really a disservice to the word, which refers to the universal church. That’s the sense in which it’s used in the Apostle’s Creed: “…in the holy catholic church [i.e., the universal church; Latin: “Ecclesiam catholicam”].

            To equate the term “papist” with a racial slur demonstrates either (a) an unfounded aversion to anything critical of Catholicism, or (b) the absolute height of ignorance. Based on your interactions on this and past threads, Tony, I’m guessing it’s the latter.

          • Tony Jiang

            no its a RELIGOUS slur, here let me help you http://www.thefreedictionary.com/papist

          • If “offensive” and “disparaging” are defined by the postmodern squishiness of our culture that finds any disagreement (especially on religious issues) offensive, then yes I suppose it’s an offensive term. But so is the statement that all Roman Catholics who firmly believe in the tenets of Roman Catholicism need to repent and trust in Christ alone for their righteousness. That is offensive and disparaging by our cultural standards. But it’s not akin to using a religious slur.

            You’ll notice some different entries on the list:

            1. a term used to refer to a Roman Catholic.
            2. of or pertaining to Roman Catholics.

            …originally, a Roman Catholic who was a strong advocate of the papacy

            …of or relating to or supporting Romanism; “the Roman Catholic Church”

            Like I mentioned above, the early Protestants and Puritans used the term in what one of those entries calls its “original” sense, and many Protestants who read men like Luther, Calvin, and the Puritans are familiar with the term and would have no reason to consider it to be any more “offensive” or “disparaging” than the word anathema that Paul uses in Galatians 1 to describe those who preach a different Gospel.

            I suppose when you run out of arguments you grasp at the straws of the asinine and inane.

          • Tony Jiang

            “I suppose when you run out of arguments you grasp at the straws of the asinine and inane.”
            i wouldnt be talking, you are the one that believes the earth is 6000 years old!.. i mean my chinese ancestors have been really smart to avoid the worldwide flood! and btw its impossible for you to prove that your religon is correct because of “impossiblity to the contary”

  • David Rogers

    Though it is a bit off-topic, is there not good evidence to suggest that, in spite of the retroactive bishop lists of Irenaeus and Hegesippus, there was no head bishop or “senior pastor” per se over the entire church at Rome before the last half of the 2nd century, and that Clement was at most a presbyter of one of several different house fellowships in Rome at the time?

  • Tony Jiang

    well the thing is Nate, i dont care if you are teaching revisionist history at your church or not and you are more than welcome to teach what ever you want at your place, but the fact still remains if all those Christians did really teach what you claim they did, it would not make alot of sense historicaly

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