Today I wrote on Facebook that I would pay my entire retirement account if by doing so I could magically impart an understanding of the preface of Matthew J. Thomas’ new edition of Paul’s “Works of the Law” in the Perspective of Second-Century Reception. (Full reference is at the bottom of this post; page numbers will be given for the quotes.)
The book is described as “theologically explosive” by famed New Testament scholar, N.T. Wright. In other words, N.T. Wright is excited about the book. It is, however, way over the head of most readers. Most notably, it is Matthew Thomas’ “example” of “the broader patristic framework of salvation” I want to share with you. Without some familiarity with the church fathers, you cannot understand this quote; therefore, I am going to explain it. This quote is backing from a notable source for the “framework of salvation” I have been teaching in so many of my blog posts.
A helpful example of this framework is found in Irenaeus’s Against Heresies 4.27. Irenaeus describes how Old Testament figures merited less punishment for their sins since they acted apart from the Spirit’s empowerment, and those in the new covenant should not despise them for their faults for neither they nor we are justified by ourselves, but rather by Christ’s Advent. On the other hand, those in the new covenant are now held accountable at a higher level, having now been the recipient of this saving power to which the patriarchs only looked forward. Recognizing that most will be demanded of those to whom Christ has given the most, Irenaeus counsels his readers to not judge these prior figures, but rather to fear lest we be cut off, which he illustrates using Paul’s image of the olive tree from Romans 11. Such a framework underlies discussions on salvation in patristic sources, in which statements of “salvation by grace” and “judgment by works” are regularly presented with great emphasis in the same sources, and even in the same passages. (Along with examples noted in this book, 1 Clement 30-35 and Polycarp 1-2, see also the striking passage in the earliest preserved Christian homily, 2 Clement 1-4.) The lack of tension between these principles becomes clear when it is recognized that these sources regard God’s grace as transformative, so that one is able to live in a way that will be judged favorably on the last day. (p. xvi)
Explanation of The “Broader Patristic Framework of Salvation”
You need to know first that “Patristic” is a reference to the church fathers. The “church fathers” are not some mysterious group, but “church fathers” are simply all those Christians who wrote letters and books during the first few centuries of the church. Those “church fathers,” across the board, claims Matthew Thomas, had one central idea about salvation. That central idea is the “broader framework” he speaks of. It was that …
… initial justification is completely by grace apart from works of any sort, and that the final judgment (or final justification) is based on the outworking of this grace in one’s subsequent life. (p. xv)
In other words, the church fathers agreed with most modern evangelicals (and the apostle Paul) that we are initially saved by grace apart from works of any sort. We are saved by “faith only” and “grace only.” On the other hand, they also say that salvation is not finalized until the judgment, where we will be judged by how we live out that grace through the rest of our lives. This last point is rejected by modern evangelicals, but it, like initial justification by grace through faith, agrees with Paul (1 Cor. 6:9-11; Gal. 5:19-21; 6:7-9; Eph. 5:3-8) and Peter (1 Pet. 1:17; 2 Pet. 1:10-11).
A few years ago, I was pleasantly surprised to find out John Piper wrote an article espousing a very similar “framework of salvation”. He was castigated for it (e.g., here and here) because, as said, evangelicals in general reject that last part of the early fathers “broader framework.”
Explanation of Matthew Thomas’ “Example” of the Patristic Framework of Salvation
The quote at the top of the page begins by referencing Irenaeus, a church father of the second century. Irenaeus, Thomas points out, said that Old Testament Jews would suffer less punishment for their sins because they were not empowered by the Holy Spirit, like Christians are. Those of us who are under the New Testament will be more accountable for the way we live because we have received a saving power that those in the Old Testament could only look forward to. (You do not have to take Thomas’ words, I linked the references he gave so you can read them too.)
This should not cause us, says Irenaeus, to judge those who were under the Old Testament. They did not have the same power we have. Instead, it should cause us to fear so that are not cut off. Irenaeus references Romans 11:19-22, where the apostle Paul warns Christians not to get haughty. Paul tells Christians in that chapter that Israelites have been partially hardened leading to their being cut off from the fig tree (representing either true Israel or Christ himself). Christians have been grafted into the fig tree in their place, but we are not to be haughty about it, but fear. If God cut off the original branches, he will cut us off as well if we do not continue in his kindness.
Matthew Thomas explains that this “framework,” as illustrated by Irenaeus, is at the heart of everything the church fathers say about salvation. In other words, every time those fathers write about salvation, they have in mind a salvation that they received in the past by faith, and which they now have to live out going forward if they want to be “saved from wrath” (Rom. 5:9-10) at the judgment.
What is important to note here is that, to the fathers, to be saved by faith apart from works is not just to be forgiven, but far more. It is to be transformed. The purpose of being saved by faith alone is transformation and empowerment. To fail to be transformed, to fail to use that power, is to be cut off at the final judgment.
Thomas goes on to explain, and yes, this is all in that one paragraph, that there are a lot of passages in the church fathers in which “salvation by grace” and “judgment by works” are emphasized together in the same passages. Thomas gives three examples, including the one that first struck me when I began reading the fathers: Polycarp 1-2.
Polycarp 1-2 means the letter Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, wrote to the Philippians between A.D. 110 and 140, chapters 1 and 2. In chapter one, he quotes Ephesians 2:8-9, writing, “by grace ye are saved, not of works” (ch. 1). Despite this solid confirmation that salvation is by grace, not works, in the next chapter he writes, “He who raised [Jesus] up from the dead will raise up us also, if we do His will, and walk in His commandments” (ch. 2).
Thomas is saying that church fathers do this regularly, combining statements that salvation is freely given in response to faith and without works with statements saying that if we want to be saved at the judgment, we must have works. They say both, and seem to see no contradiction between the two thoughts. He then explains that the “lack of tension between these principles”—their ability to believe both initial justification by grace and judgment by works without seeing any contradiction between the two—is based upon their belief that “grace” was “transformative.” Once a person receives grace, that person is transformed so that “they are able to live in a way that will be judged favorably on the last day.”
The Judgment and Sinless Perfection
The early church fathers could only say that we are saved by grace but also judged by works because they believed that grace enabled us “to live in such a way that will be judged favorably on the last day.” This is only possible—that is, one can only hope to be “judged favorably on the last day”—if the judgment does not require sinless perfection.
We must understand that sinless perfection is a Calvinist concept that may not have been invented by John Calvin himself, but which certainly did not exist before the Reformation. God expects holiness from us—we cannot see him without it (Heb. 12:14)—but holiness is not sinless perfection. There is not and has never been a sinlessly perfect person except Jesus. That is not a problem because sinless perfection is NOT God’s standard and never has been. I have written numerous posts refuting that idea. Matthew Thomas is establishing that the church fathers agree. No one can expect to “live in a way that will be judged favorably” if only sinless perfection will be judged favorably.
It took me some time to realize that the “sinless perfection judgment” of the Calvinists is why so many evangelicals cannot hear anything about works. Now that I do see it, I have been emphasizing more and more just who will be judging us.
We will be judged by our Lord Jesus, the one who loved us and gave himself for us. He was given the right to judge us by our merciful heavenly Father who has no pleasure at all in the death of the wicked (Ezek. 18:23). Instead, he patiently waits to send Jesus because he doesn’t want anyone to perish, but instead to come to repentance (2 Pet. 3:9).
It is well worth reading God’s description of the judgment in Ezekiel 18:20-30. God calls that judgment just. We are going to face that judgment. That judgment is conducted by the God who does not enjoy the death of the wicked and wishes everyone would repent.
We are not going to be judged by the merciless God of the Calvinists. We are going to be judged by the God who “forgives iniquity, transgression, and sin” (Ex. 34:6-7) and “abundantly pardons” (Isa. 55:7); the one whose mercies are “new every morning” and “never come to an end” (Lam. 3:22).
That Judge promised never to stop doing a good work in us (Php. 1:6); promised to confirm us to the end, so we would be blameless on that last day (1 Cor. 1:8); and assured us that if we would simply “continue in the faith, grounded and settled,” then Jesus would present us “holy and blameless” in his sight (Col 1:22-23).
You might ask, doesn’t “blameless” mean “sinless perfection”? It would be a good question because although it does not mean perfection, it does mean “without spot or blemish.” “Sinless” would be an acceptable translation. Jesus is going to present us, then, “holy and sinless.” How is this not the “sinless perfection” judgment of the Calvinists?
Let’s discuss our part versus God’s part in our salvation.
“The One Who Practices Righteousness”
In the following, do not forget what we just learned about the judgment. The passages on the judgment describe a judgment in which a pattern of righteousness or, as in Matthew 25, a pattern of helping those in need is rewarded with eternal life. Paul explicitly says that the final judgment will be like this. In Romans 2:6-7, he tells us that those who “patiently continue to do good” will be rewarded with eternal life. In Galatans 6:8-9, he tells us that those who “sow to the Spirit” and “do not grow weary in doing good” will reap eternal life.
It is a pattern of doing good that is rewarded with and reaps eternal life. That is clearly stated in the passages we just looked at.
We must distinguish between what God requires of us in action, in doing good throughout our lives, and between the way God sees us when we obey him. Does God require us to be sinless? No, we will reap eternal life if we patiently continue to do good (Rom. 2:7). If, however, we patiently continue to do good, he will regard us as sinless.
The Scriptures make some very cool references to what God will do for us if we will do our part. One of the most significant things he will do for a person is “not impute sin” to him (Ps. 32:2; Rom. 4:8). Both David and Paul talk about how blessed a man, or woman, is who has received this gift. David says, “Blessed is he,” and Paul says, “Blessed is the one,” but who is that one?
That one, says the apostle John, is the one who “practices righteousness.” He warns us not to be deceived about this. There is just one kind of person to whom God grants the righteousness of Christ:
Little children, let no one deceive you; the one that practices righteousness is righteous just as [Jesus] is righteous. (1 Jn. 3:7)
The word “practices” is from the NASB. The King James has “does righteousness.” The Greek tense implies that the person who is “righteous as he is righteous” is a person whose life is marked my righteousness. This idea is throughout Scripture.
One of my favorite examples of this is Psalm 36:10: “O, continue thy lovingkindness to them that know thee and your righteousness to the upright in heart.” There is a righteousness which is not from us; it is from God. It is our responsibility to be “upright in heart,” and if we uphold that responsibility, then God will impart us his righteousness.
I am certain that some will point out that Paul said that this righteousness was imputed to Abraham by faith (Rom. 4). So it is, but we must remember Matthew Thomas’ point. Grace, to all those who first heard and read Paul, was transformative, and this was central to their concept of salvation.
Faith’s purpose is to give us access to grace (Rom. 5:2). This is why initial salvation is “through faith” and “by grace” (Eph. 2:8). Faith brings us “the grace of God that brings salvation” and which “teaches us to deny ungodliness and worldly lusts” (Tit. 2:11). “Sin will not have dominion over us because we are not under law, but under grace” (Rom. 6:14). Shortly after saying that Abraham received this blessing by faith, Paul writes, “For this cause it is of faith, that it may be according to grace” (Rom. 4:16).
The two concepts go hand in hand. Faith and grace cannot be separate because faith has its purpose the obtaining of grace. “By faith, we have access to this grace in which we stand,” wrote Paul in Romans 5:2.
Thus, there is no contrast between Paul’s statement that Abraham received the blessing by faith and James’ statement that Abraham received this blessing by works (Jas. 2:21-23). It is grace that transforms, empowering us to patiently continue to do good, and for those who do this, who “practice righteousness,” the righteousness of Christ is bestowed.
This is also why Peter could say that Jesus has given the Holy Spirit to those who obey him (Acts 5:32) and why the writer of Hebrews could teach that Jesus is the author of eternal salvation to those who obey him (Acts 5:9). By faith, we have access to God’s transforming grace. As long as we live by that grace, we can confidently “live in a way that will be judged favorably on the last day.”
We must remember that Christianity is a supernatural religion. If God does not do his part, it will be impossible for us to do our part. To borrow another quote from Thomas’s preface, “… while given without regard to prior worth, this grace is not without obligations on the recipient’s subsequent life, precisely because Christ’s justifying gift enables an obedience that is otherwise impossible” (p. xvi).
This reminds us of Jesus’ words to the apostles about how difficult it is for rich men to enter the kingdom of God. “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”
The same grace that can cause rich men to share generously without loving their own riches can empower us to live a life that will please God both on this earth and on the last day.
Thomas, M.J.. 2020. Paul’s “Works of the Law” in the Perspective of Second-Century Reception. InterVarsity Press.