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.