Justification by Faith and the Early Church

Justification by Faith and the Early Church

One of the biggest misconceptions about Christianity is that in order to become a Christian one must first be a "good" person.  This misconception comes from all sorts of places including the distorted witness of Christians and churches.  However, this distortion is not something new, it has been running rampant all throughout church history.  In fact, one of the central issues that the apostle Paul dealt with were people who were distorting the gospel with unnecessary and burdensome requirements.  His response was recorded in the book of Galatians where he passionately teaches that men and women are justified, not by being a good person or by doing good works, but by faith in Jesus Christ (Gal. 2:16).

This doctrine was not only important for Paul but it was the central issue in the Protestant Reformation and it is at the heart of Christianity.  In fact, this doctrine is so important that Martin Luther said, “If the article of justification be lost, then is all true Christian doctrine lost.”[1]  This statement was especially significant in Luther’s day since the Roman Catholic Church had declared that Luther was teaching heretical doctrines.   In fact, during the council of Trent, the doctrine that sinners are justified by faith alone was officially ruled a heresy by the Roman Catholic Church.

Now there are many ways to respond to this claim, but I often hear, from Roman Catholics, that justification by faith alone is not a doctrine that was taught in the early church.  In reality, the doctrine of justification by faith alone is constantly being criticized by Roman Catholic theologians as being an invention of men like Martin Luther and John Calvin.  If these Reformers did invent this doctrine then we won’t find it in the teachings and writings of the early church, and we would be in danger of believing a false gospel.  The problem, for Roman Catholics, is that we do find this doctrine in the early church!  Consider this quote from Clement of Rome:

“And we, therefore, who by his will have been called in Jesus Christ, are not justified of ourselves or by our wisdom or insight or religious devotion or the holy deeds we have done from the heart, but by that faith by which almighty God has justified all men from the very beginning.  To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.”[2]

Now my Catholic friends may point out that the Roman Catholic Church does teach that justification is by faith[3] but rejects that justification is by faith alone.   So this would apparently mean that the quote from Clement of Rome does nothing more than teach what the Roman Catholic Church has always taught, because he makes no mention of faith alone.  While it is true that Clement of Rome does not specifically write the words ‘justified by faith alone’ this is the doctrine that he teaches.

Clement’s letter strips away every pretense and means by which men try to justify themselves before God and leaves faith, and faith alone, as the sole instrument to justify men before God.  Clement writes that men are, “not justified of ourselves or by our wisdom or insight or religious devotion or the holy deeds we have done from the heart” but rather “by that faith by which almighty God has justified all men from the very beginning.”[4]  Notice again how faith stands by itself as the sole instrument that justifies sinful men before a righteous God!  By the way, this letter was written around A.D. 96-97 which makes it one of, if not, the earliest documents we have from the early Church Fathers.[5]  In other words, the Reformers did not invent the doctrine of justification by faith alone, but rather, they sought to restore and contend for the “faith that was once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 1:3).”

[1] Luther, Martin. Commentary on Galatians. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Kregel Classics, 1978), xvi.

[2] Richardson, Cyril. Early Christian Fathers. Reprint edition. (New York: Touchstone, 1995), 58.

[3] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1987.

[4] Richardson, Early Christian Fathers, 58.

[5] Ibid, 34.