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Reformation Invention or Historic Orthodoxy? Justification in the Fathers

Matthew Barrett, executive editor of Credo Magazine, has edited a new book with Crossway titled, The Doctrine on Which the Church Stands or Falls: Justification in Biblical, Theological, Historical, and Pastoral Perspective. Many factors contributed to the Protestant Reformation, but one of the most significant was the debate over the doctrine of justification by faith alone. In fact, Martin Luther argued that justification is the doctrine on which the church stands or falls. This comprehensive volume of 26 essays from a host of scholars explores the doctrine of justification from the lenses of history, the Bible, theology, and pastoral practice—revealing the enduring significance of this pillar of Protestant theology.

Today we are highlighting Gerald Bray’s chapter “Justification and the Fathers.” Here is an excerpt to get you started:

Faith, Not Works, Justifies

When speaking of salvation, the fathers of the church almost always described it as an act of God’s grace, freely bestowed on the undeserving. That was not an explicit denial of justification by works, but it amounted to the same thing in practice. As Ignatius of Antioch (d. ca. 118) wrote to the Magnesian church, “Let us not be ungrateful for God’s kindness. For if he were to reward us according to our works, we would cease to be.”16 Ignatius was not concerned to distinguish good works from bad—from his view, all human works, whether good or bad, were useless in trying to gain a reward from God. Elsewhere, in a letter to the church at Philadelphia, he made his position clear:

‘I heard some people say, “If I do not find it in the archives [Old Testament], I do not believe it in the Gospel.” . . . But for me, the archives are Jesus Christ . . . his cross and death and his resurrection and the faith which comes through him; by these things I want, through your prayers, to be justified.’[1]

It is true that Ignatius was writing while on his way to Rome, where he expected to meet a martyr’s death. He regarded that as the fulfillment of his Christian discipleship, and this has often been taken to imply that he did not believe in justification by faith alone.[2] But the two things are not the same. Discipleship involves the imitation of Christ, which may extend to suffering a death like the one he suffered, and if we are Christians, then we are called to walk in his footsteps—the apostle Paul said as much on more than one occasion. Justification, however, is something else. Ignatius had no intention or desire to claim that he would have earned his place in heaven by being willing to suffer and die for Christ, as if some less sacrificial kind of death might have produced a different result. He knew that even if he were to be lost at sea, which was by no means impossible, he would still be justified by the blood of Christ! To be chosen to die a martyr’s death (in imitation of Jesus’s own death on the cross) was a privilege, but it was not the ground of his salvation, which was always and could only be what Jesus had done on his behalf.

In a similar vein, the anonymous Epistle to Diognetus, written sometime in the second century, says,

“Being convinced at that time of our unworthiness of attaining life through our own works, it is now, through the kindness of God, graciously given to us. Accordingly, it is clear that in ourselves we were unable to enter into the kingdom of God. However, through the power of God, we can be made able.”[3]

Writing at about the same time, Polycarp of Smyrna (ca. 70–156), quoting Paul in his letter to the Ephesians, said, “You know that ‘by grace you have been saved, not by works’ [Eph. 2:8–9], but by the will of God through Jesus Christ.”[4] This is not as clear a statement of justification by faith alone as we might wish, but it is consonant with that doctrine and has to be read in its historical context, where a quotation from Paul on the subject would undoubtedly have been understood in the same way. A very similar statement can be found in Irenaeus of Lyons, a disciple of Polycarp and like him also originally from Smyrna, who wrote, “No one . . . has power to procure for himself the means of salvation. So the more we receive his grace, the more we should love him.”[5] He expressed the same idea more clearly when he said,

“Christ redeems us righteously by his own blood. As regards those of us who have been redeemed, [he does this] by grace. For we have given nothing to him previously. Nor does he desire anything from us, as if he stood in need of it.”[6]

Irenaeus was a great proponent of the hermeneutical method of reading Scripture known as recapitulation, a term that he seems to have retrieved from Ephesians 1:10.[7] According to this theory, the history of the world from Adam to Christ was one of a continuous fall into ever deeper sin. When things had gotten as bad as they could, God sent his Son to redeem the world by going over (recapitulating) each step that had led to the catastrophe and putting it right. Just as the original fall had been the work of one man and not a cooperative effort, so redemption from sin was also the work of one man:

“For as by the disobedience of the one man who was originally moulded from virgin soil, the many were made sinners, and forfeited life; so it was necessary that, by the obedience of one man, who was originally born from a virgin, many should be justified and receive salvation. . . . God recapitulated in himself the ancient formation of man, that he might kill sin, deprive death of its power, and vivify man; and therefore his works are true.”[8]

Irenaeus’s point was that just as the fall of man had been accomplished by a single individual, with no assistance from anyone else, so our rescue from the consequences of that fall was also the work of one person acting alone. This was the principle of recapitulation at work—sin and salvation parallel each other but move in opposite directions.

Read Dr. Bray’s entire chapter in The Doctrine on Which the Church Stands or Falls.


[1] 17. Ignatius of Antioch, Epistle to the Philadelphians 8, in ANF, 1:84, following Holmes, Apostolic Fathers, 108–9.

[2] 18. Daunton-Fear tends to agree with this assessment. “Another Gospel?”, 11–13.

[3] Epistle to Diognetus 9, in ANF, 1:28. Here the Lightfoot/Harmer translation is somewhat better than in the case of Ignatius, though it is still rather weak. Cf. Holmes, Apostolic Fathers, 302.

[4] Polycarp of Smyrna, Epistle to the Philippians 1, in ANF, 1:33. Cf. Holmes, Apostolic Fathers, 123.

[5] Irenaeus of Lyons, Against All Heresies 4.13.3, in ANF, 1:478.

[6] Irenaeus of Lyons, Against All Heresies 5.2.1, in ANF, 1:523.

[7] Quoted by him in Against All Heresies 1.10.1, in ANF, 1:330. English translations of the verse typically obscure this meaning by translating the Greek word “recapitulate” as “unite” or something similar. Even so, there is no reason to suppose that Paul subscribed to the same hermeneutic as Irenaeus.

[8] Irenaeus of Lyons, Against All Heresies 3.18.7, in ANF, 1:448. Cf. 3.16.9, in ANF, 1:444, where Irenaeus quotes Rom. 5:9, making it plain that we have been justified by the shed blood of Christ.

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