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What the Early Church Believed: Faith and Works

Did the Church Fathers believe that we are we justified by faith apart from works, as Protestants claim, or did they believe that our actions play a part in our justification, as the Catholic Church teaches?

As the following quotes show, the early Church Fathers recognized the role of faith and works in the process of salvation.

Clement of Rome

“Let us therefore join with those to whom grace is given by God. Let us clothe ourselves in concord, being humble and self- controlled, keeping ourselves far from all backbiting and slander, being justified by works and not by words….Why was our Father Abraham blessed? Was it not because of his deeds of justice and truth, wrought in faith?…So we, having been called through his will in Christ Jesus, were 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.” (Letter to the Corinthians 30:3, 31:2, 32:3-4).

Theophilus of Antioch

“Give studious attention to the prophetic writings, and they will lead you on a clearer path to escape the eternal punishments and to obtain the eternal good things of God. He who gave the mouth for speech and formed the ears for hearing and made eyes for seeing will examine everything and will judge justly, granting recompense to each according to merit. To those who seek immortality by the patient exercise of good works, he will give everlasting life, joy, peace, rest, and all good things, which neither has eye seen nor ear heard, nor has it entered into the heart of man. For the unbelievers and for the contemptuous, and for those who do not submit to the truth but assent to iniquity, when they have been involved in adulteries and fornications and homosexualities and avarice and in lawless idolatries, there will be wrath and indignation, tribulation and anguish, and in the end such men as these will be detained in everlasting fire” (To Autolycus 1:14 [ca. A.D. 181]).

Clement of Alexandria

“When we hear, ‘Your faith has saved you,’ we do not understand the Lord to say simply that they will be saved who have believed in whatever manner, even if works have not followed. To begin with, it was to the Jews alone that he spoke this phrase, who had lived in accord with the law and blamelessly and who had lacked only faith in the Lord” (Stromateis or Miscellanies 6:14:108:4 [post A.D. 202]).

Origen

“Whoever dies in his sins, even if he profess to believe in Christ, does not truly believe in him; and even if that which exists without works be called faith, such faith is dead in itself, as we read in the epistle bearing the name of James” (Commentaries on John 19:6 [A.D. 226-232]).

Cyprian

“You, then, who are rich and wealthy, buy for yourself from Christ gold purified in fire, for with your filth, as if burned away in the fire, you can be like pure gold, if you are cleansed by almsgiving and by works of justice. Buy yourself a white garment so that, although you had been naked like Adam and were formerly frightful and deformed, you may be clothed in the white garment of Christ. You who are a matron rich and wealthy, anoint not your eyes with the antimony of the devil, but with the salve of Christ, so that you may at last come to see God, when you have merited before God both by your works and by your manner of living” (Works and Almsgiving 14 [A.D. 252]).

Aphraates

“Great is the gift which he that is good has given to us. While not forcing us, and in spite of our sins he wants us to be justified. While he is in no way aided by our good works, he heals us that we may be pleasing in his sight. When we do not wish to ask of him, he is angry with us. He calls out to all of us constantly; ‘Ask and receive, and when you seek, you shall find’” (Treatises 23:48 [A.D. 336-345]).

Gregory of Nyssa

“Paul, joining righteousness to faith and weaving them together, constructs of them the breastplates for the infantryman, armoring the soldier properly and safely on both sides. A soldier cannot be considered safely armored when either shield is disjoined from the other. Faith without works of justice is not sufficient for salvation; neither is righteous living secure in itself of salvation, if it is disjoined from faith” (Homilies on Ecclesiastes 8 [ca. A.D. 335- 394]).

John Chrysostom

” ‘He that believes in the Son has everlasting life.’ ‘Is it enough, then, to believe in the Son,’ someone will say, ‘in order to have everlasting life?’ By no means! Listen to Christ declare this himself when he says, ‘Not everyone who says to me, “Lord! Lord!” shall enter into the kingdom of heaven’; and the b.asphemy against the Spirit is alone sufficient to cast him into hell. But why should I speak of a part of our teaching? For if a man believe rightly in the Father and in the Son and in the Holy Spirit, but does not live rightly, his faith will avail him nothing toward salvation” (Homilies on the Gospel of John 31:1 [circa A.D. 391]).

Jerome

” ‘But since in the Law no one is justified before God, it is evident that the just man lives by faith.’ It should be noted that he does not say that a man, a person, lives by faith, lest it be thought that he is condemning good works. Rather, he says the ‘just’ man lives by faith. He implies thereby that whoever would be faithful and would conduct his life according to the faith can in no other way arrive at the faith or live in it except first he be a just man of pure life, coming up to the faith by certain degrees” (Commentaries on Galatians 2:3:11 [A.D. 386]).

Augustine

” ‘He was handed over for our offenses, and he rose again for our justification.’ What does this mean, ‘for our justification’? So that he might justify us, so that he might make us just. You will be a work of God, not only because you are a man, but also because you are just. For it is better that you be just than that you are a man. If God made you a man, and you made yourself just, something you were doing would be better than what God did. But God made you without any cooperation on your part. You did not lend your consent so that God could make you. How could you have consented, when you did not exist? But he who made you without your consent does not justify you without your consent. He made you without your knowledge, but he does not justify you without your willing it” (Sermons 169:13 [inter A.D. 391-430]).

Augustine

” ‘But we know that God does not hear sinners; but if any man is a worshiper of God and does his will, that man God will hear.’ He still speaks as one only anointed. For God does listen to sinners too. If God did not listen to sinners, it would have been all in vain for the publican to cast down his eyes to the ground and strike his breast saying: ‘Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner.’ And that confession merited justification, just as the blind man merited enlightenment” (Homilies on the Gospel of John 44:13 [A.D. 416]).

Caesar of Arles

“I beg you, beloved brethren, let us consider more attentively why we are Christians and bear the cross of Christ on our forehead. For we ought to know that it is not enough for us that we have received the name Christian, if we do not do Christian works. If you say a thousand times that you are a Christian and continually sign yourself with the cross of Christ, but do not give alms according to your means, and you do not want to have love and justice and chastity, the name of Christian will profit you nothing….Above all, as I already said before, give alms to the poor according to your means. Present offerings to be consecrated on the altar; a man of means should blush to communicate in the offering of another. Those who are able should give either candles or oil which can be put in lamps. Know the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer yourselves and teach them to you children. I do not know how a man can call himself a Christian…when he neglects [this]” (Sermons 13:1-2 [ante A.D. 542]).

Gregory the Great

“Neither faith without works nor works without faith is of any avail, except, perhaps, that works may go towards the reception of faith, just as Cornelius, before he had become one of the faithful, merited to be heard on account of his good works. From this it can be gathered that his performance of good works furthered his reception of faith” (Homilies on Ezekiel 1:9:6 [A.D. 593]).

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