In researching how much the Reformers relied on or referenced the early church fathers, I ran across this article on The Old Jamestown Church blog.
That particular post defends the Reformation view of salvation by faith alone with citations from church fathers, going all the way back to Clement of Rome in the 1st century.
Though I would normally commend someone for quoting the early Christians so copiously, I cannot leave their selectiveness unchallenged.
Far-Fetched Interpretations and Verses Versus Verses
Sometimes a far-fetched interpretation can seem entirely reasonable, until you look at the other things that Jesus, or an apostle, or one of the early Christians wrote.
The quote from Clement seems to be a rousing recommendation for our modern claim that we go to heaven by faith alone:
All these (saints of old), therefore, were highly honoured, and made great, not for their own sake, or for their own works, or for the righteousness which they wrought, but through the operation of His will. And we, 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. (1 Clement)
I had to go find the chapter reference myself, though it was not hard to do. It’s in chapter 32.
Seems like an open and shut case, right? Clement believes exactly what we moderns believe. We “go to heaven” by faith alone.
Then why did he say …
Take heed, beloved, lest his many kindnesses lead to the condemnation of us all, unless we walk worthy of Him, and with one mind do those things which are good and well-pleasing in His sight. (ch. 2
If you can cite Clement from chapter 32, but you would never repeat what he said in chapter 21, then your interpretation of chapter 32 is far-fetched and should be rejected.
Simple as that.
It is the verses-versus-verses syndrome.
The Not Far-Fetched Interpretation
Neither Jesus, nor the apostles, nor Paul believed that anyone inherited or entered the kingdom of God by faith alone. To enter the kingdom of God means first facing the judgment, where you will be judged for your works (Matt. 25:31-46; John 5:28-29; Rom. 2:6; 2 Cor. 5:10; 1 Pet. 1:7; Rev. 20:11-15).
Instead we are born again by faith alone. We obtain grace to live this life by faith alone. We are converted to Jesus by faith alone.
Clement speaks like Paul speaks. Speaking of our current state in Jesus or of the transformation in the past that put us inside of the King, they speak of faith apart from works, granted to us by the blood of Jesus. Speaking of the judgment, in the future tense, they speak of living by the life of Jesus, walking in the Spirit, doing good works, and doing “those things which are good and well-pleasing in his sight.”
Here’s Polycarp speaking the same way:
Faith, past and present tense:
… into which joy many desire to enter, knowing that by grace ye are saved, not of works, but by the will of God through Jesus Christ. (Letter to the Philippians 1)
Works, future tense:
But the One who raised Christ from the dead will raise us also, if we do his will, walk in his commandments, love what he loved, and keep ourselves from all unrighteousness, greed, love of money, evil speaking, and lies. In addition, we must not return evil for evil, accusation for accusation, blow for blow, nor curse for curse. (ch. 2)
Go through Paul’s letters and see if you don’t see that pattern followed, excuse me, religiously.
James speaks of faith and works together. Read through James 2:14-26, and you will see that even James follows the pattern. He speaks of the whole of our salvation, from start to finish, and so he addresses faith and works and says that we are not justified by faith alone.