Faith, Works, and the Early Church Fathers

A friend told me a couple times recently that the early church fathers disagreed among themselves a lot. I hope to get a chance to finish that conversation with him because that statement is just not true. They were far more united than we are!

A missionary and bishop (head pastor) in the late second century, wrote:

“The Church, having received this preaching and this faith, although scattered throughout the whole world, yet, as if occupying but one house, carefully preserves it. She also believes these points [of doctrine] just as if she had but one soul, and one and the same heart, and she proclaims them, and teaches them, and hands them down, with perfect harmony, as if she possessed only one mouth.” (Irenaeus, _Against Heresies_, Bk. I, ch. 10, par. 2)

Note: you can look up all my quotes from the early church fathers at www.earlychristianwritings.com.

Other Christians of that time period would give the same testimony. In fact, Irenaeus, who wrote the quote I just gave, and Tertullian, a Christian lawyer from Carthage about the same time, both argued against heretics based on the amazing unity of the Church.

“The Church” they were talking about are the churches we read about in the Bible (Rome, Corinth, Ephesus, etc.) and other churches those original churches started after the time of the apostles. The “heretics” were gnostics who denied that the God of Israel was the true God.

Why Modern Christians Say the Early Church Fathers Contradict Each Other

There are two reasons Christians say that the early church fathers contradict each other.

1. They are talking about arguments that arose in the fourth century and later, which were a product of growing corruption in the church. (Carnal men are argumentative men, Gal. 5:19-21; 1 Tim. 6:1-6.)

2. They don’t like what the early church fathers taught, so they hope the early church fathers disagree with each other.

3. They don’t understand the early church fathers because they don’t understand the Bible either.

Let me explain number 3.

Contradictions in Our Interpretation of the Bible

There are two verses in the Bible that seem to absolutely contradict. They are:

Romans 3:23: Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the Law.

James 2:24: You see then that by works a man is justified and not by faith only.

Martin Luther, the sixteenth-century Reformer, offered his doctor’s cap to anyone who could reconcile those two verses. His own reconciliation of those verses was that the Epistle of James was an “epistle of straw” that had “nothing of the nature of the Gospel about it.

It is obvious from the book of Acts (e.g., ch. 15) and from Galatians 2 that James did understand the Gospel and that James and Paul agreed on it. It is obvious from history that the churches of all the apostles got along just fine. They saw no conflict between Paul and James. The problem lies with Martin Luther’s understanding, not with a conflict between James and Paul.

When I first began reading the fathers I was thrilled to find this seeming contradiction in the letter of Polycarp to the Philippians:

“In whom, though now ye see Him not, ye believe, and believing, rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory; 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.”

and …

“But He who raised Him up from the dead will raise up us also, if we do His will, and walk in His commandments, and love what He loved, keeping ourselves from all unrighteousness …”

Polycarp’s Qualifications

Polycarp was the bishop (head pastor) of the church in Smyrna. Most historians think he was appointed by the apostle John. Smyrna was one of only two churches in Revelation chapters 2-3 that was not rebuked by Jesus. His credentials as a shepherd and teacher are as good as anyone’s who has ever lived outside of the apostles themselves.

I loved this seeming contradiction in Polycarp’s letter because it made it clear that Polycarp understood the conflict between Romans 3:28 and James 2:24. Polycarp’s “contradiction” is much like the “contradiction” between Paul’s words in Ephesians 2:8-9 and Ephesians 5:5.

In modern times, we wrestle with James 2 so much that we dare not simply repeat what James said, “So we see then that we are justified by works and not faith only.” Most evangelical churches would silence us for saying such a thing, but it is a Bible quote!

That is a problem. A big one!

The Solution

Polycarp did not have that problem. He knew that we “have been” saved (past tense) by faith apart from works, but that if we want to be raised up with Jesus on the last day (future tense), then we better have used the power of our salvation to produce good works through our life. This lines up with what Paul says in Ephesians 2:8-10 and explains why he could write both that passage and Ephesians 5:5.

Ephesians 2:8-10: For by grace have we been saved, and that not of ourselves, it is the gift of God, not of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works which God has prepared in advance for us to do.

Ephesians 5:5: For this you know, that no immoral, unclean, or covetous person has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.

If you want to delve more deeply into this subject, see my article at https://christian–history-org/sola-fide.html

About Paul Pavao

I am married, the father of six, and currently the grandfather of two. I run a business, live in a Christian community, teach, and I am learning to disciple others better than I have ever been able to before. I believe God has gifted me to restore proper foundations to the Christian faith. In order to ensure that I do not become a heretic, I read the early church fathers from the second and third centuries. They were around when all the churches founded by the apostles were in unity. I also try to stay honest and open. I argue and discuss these foundational doctrines with others to make sure my teaching really lines up with Scripture. I am encouraged by the fact that the several missionaries and pastors that I know well and admire as holy men love the things I teach. I hope you will be encouraged too. I am indeed tearing up old foundations created by tradition in order to re-establish the foundations found in Scripture and lived on by the churches during their 300 years of unity.
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7 Responses to Faith, Works, and the Early Church Fathers

  1. Paul Pavao says:

    You are welcome! ;-).

  2. Paul Pavao says:

    Hi Jon,

    Send me a FB message next week so I don’t forget this. I was gone part of last week, will be gone part of this week. I am swamped the next couple days both personally and work-wise. I’ll be back Monday and hopefully be less pressured.

  3. KatieAnn says:

    Hello brother Paul,

    Very nice article. agree with all you have said.
    Unfortunately for me, when I read or think about ‘works’, I am now confronted with the law (as in the law of Moses). It wasn’t until the past year that the meaning of ‘works’ became somewhat muddled. Before, I had always associated it with acts of kindness and the fruit of the spirit (such as humility, patience, etc.) James was a very devout Jew who faithfully kept the law of Moses. When he speaks of ‘works’, are we to assume he is referring to my original definition? Or, could it be that he is including the works of the law as well? Of course, this would be in contradiction to Paul’s teachings (esp. in Galatians). The word ‘commandments’ could also be confusing. Are we talking about the ten commandments, or perhaps the commandments of God as seen in the law of Moses, or the commandments of Jesus? Some people would say these are one in the same (I’m talking of those who believe we are still under the law of Moses).

    Not long after I was born again, I wrestled with the idea that believers are supposed to follow the law of Moses (the amount of Hebrew roots sites is alarming). I always felt a check in my spirit when considering it. I trust that is the Holy Spirit saying it is a false gospel.

    God bless!

    • Paul Pavao says:

      Sorry for the slow reply. I was traveling. It is true that what is meant by “works” is important. When I write “works,” I am not thinking of the works of the Law of Moses. When I think of the commands of Christ, I think of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7. I also think of James’s description of “true religion” in James 1:26-27. There we are told not to be defiled by the world and to take care of orphans and widows. This lines up with Matthew 25:31-46, where the difference between the sheep and the goats is whether or not they fed the hungry, clothed the naked, visited the sick, etc. It seems clear from the Bible overall that God cares most about taking care of the poor, the widow, the orphans, and avoiding being defiled by anger, sexual lust, envy, jealousy, etc. The route to doing all this is to get close to God so that he can shed abroad his love in our hearts by the Holy Spirit (Rom. 5).

      • KatieAnn says:

        Thank you, Paul! I appreciate you taking the time to answer in the midst of your busy schedule.

  4. Paul,

    Would you be possibly be up for having another Skype chat at some point?

    I have a few different topics I’d really like to hear your opinion on.

    Jon

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