The “Broader Framework” of Salvation at the Heart of the Apostle Paul’s Teaching

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.

Reference

Thomas, M.J.. 2020. Paul’s “Works of the Law” in the Perspective of Second-Century Reception. InterVarsity Press.

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.
This entry was posted in Bible, Early Christianity, Evangelicals, Gospel, Holiness, Modern Doctrines, Rebuilding the Foundations and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to The “Broader Framework” of Salvation at the Heart of the Apostle Paul’s Teaching

  1. Kal El Anakin Skywalker says:

    My limited research on True Faith of which the top 12 meanings of “Faith ” = Allegience, Commitment, Confidence, Dedication, Devotion, Dicipleship, Faithfulness,Fidelity, Loyalty, Obedience,Trust, And in this Saintly, Christian, Bibical context this is how one accepts,activates, grabs hold of, obtains,recieves, Holds on to True Grace within the New Covenant Framework of Salvation Soteriology. Thank You Paul,The Atonement It Is The Central Doctrine, Washing My Garment/Robe In His Blood, In His Eternal Debt/Grace, He Died To Make Man Holy, Its Not Just 6 Wods To a Song, They Have Eternal Meaning,

  2. Sonny says:

    Amen! may we share! the balance was,is always there. God does not confuse his obedient and worshipping children at any point of the transformation. The shouting voices, the cultists, the goats & tares, the divided theologians that spawn division, denomination, and base all on unity under their flag. Come King Jesus

  3. cgatihi says:

    Thank you for this thoughtful (as usual) post, Paul.

    This last quote of yours from Matthew Thomas:

    “… 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”

    reminded me of this quote from Jon Barclay’s “Paul and the Gift”:

    “The divine gift in Christ was unconditioned (based on no prior conditions) but it is not unconditional (carrying no subsequent demands).”

    Barclay, John M. G.. Paul and the Gift (p. 500). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Kindle Edition.

    That line alone to me is worth the entire book. You read this book by Barclay. I was looking at it this evening and happened again across this other gem that reminded me of your post “Are we sinners saved by grace?” and my comment about “simul justus et peccator”:

    Luther attempted in several ways to express the permanent, and structurally basic, incongruity of grace in the life of a believer, most famously in the phrase simul justus et peccator. The strongest exegetical base for that notion comes from Romans 6–8, but it draws on what now seems to most a faulty reading of Romans 7–8 as a dialectical depiction of two dimensions of the Christian life.14 If, to the contrary, 7:7-25 describes life “in the flesh” before becoming a believer (cf. 7:5), not a continuing aspect of the believer’s life, Luther’s simul … peccator looks less convincing. Yet Romans 6–8 does express the permanent paradox of grace in the life of the believer, only in a different form. The believer is here described as both mortal and eternally alive, simul mortuus et vivens. On the one hand doomed to death, in a body that is bound by mortality, believers are also and at the same time the site of an impossible new life, whose origin lies in the resurrection of Jesus and whose goal is their own future resurrection (8:11).

    Barclay, John M. G.. Paul and the Gift (pp. 501-502). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Kindle Edition.

    “simul mortuus et vivens” rather than “simul justus et peccator”. That’s helpful.

    • Hi cgatihi and thanks for your encouraging reply to me on the previous post.

      I actually find this stuff really interesting. I’ve not come across Thomas, but I have skimmed through Barclay’s book (and read his shorter grove summary) of his work. His phrase “unconditioned” is really useful for understanding the reception of grace.
      I also understand that another scholar by the name of Matthew Bates has done some interesting work on unpacking the term “faith”, and I think he comes to the conclusion that it does involve action or “faithfulness” when used in the NT, not simply believe that a fact is true.

      In practice, however, I find myself stuck in a quandary with all of this. On the one hand I’m fed up with a lot of wishy washy nonsense in the UK (where I am) charismatic evangelical church today – the emphasis is very much on unconditional love, and unconditional grace (without either being properly defined) and not much serious bible exposition and application. Teaching like the above from our friend Paul, from Thomas and even from folks such as N.T. Wright (I have a bookshelf shelf which is almost exclusively Wright) really challenges this shallow way of thinking.

      On the other hand, however, I am painfully aware of my own lack of apprehension of grace in my own life, and have been for many years. The way Paul and Matthew Thomas present this seems to work well in practice if one has had a dramatic and experiential conversion event – where Christ becomes real to you, his love magnified in your heart, and the chains of sin’s power seem to fall off (as expressed in the hymn “And Can it Be”, one that I love despite a lot of what it says being foreign to my experience).

      I have not had such an experience though (despite praying for it much), and for me faith has very much been without experience or feeling, and mingled with much doubt. To hear then that I must be joyfully abounding in all kinds of good works, and utterly radical in my devotion to Christ on pain of damnation, this stuff does sound like condemnation. This paradigm of salvation would seem to have little room for clinging on with naked faith and trusting in God’s promises of forgiveness despite lack of experience and continued failings (though I’m NOT talking about some sort of “ticket to heaven” or “license to sin” here at all – we should all be struggling against sin).

      It’s something I have discussed quite a bit with Paul over the years and I am very grateful for his willingness to do so.

      I somehow get the impression that these scholar types like Thomas & Bates are not very interested in the pastoral implications of their work, though.

      Jon

      • Paul Pavao says:

        Jon, you wrote, “I somehow get the impression that these scholar types like Thomas & Bates are not very interested in the pastoral implications of their work, though.”

        I wonder about that sometimes too. I would be curious about their advice to you.

      • cgatihi says:

        Hi Jon,

        Thank you for sharing your heart. I appreciate the concern you raise and am sympathetic to the very real struggle you describe. I don’t think there are easy answers but I know there is a gracious God who will by no means cast out any who come to Him (John 6:37). I’m thankful that you have Paul and others in your life who can help you as you seek to follow our Lord Jesus, with all the associated challenges. I pray that the Lord will continue to give you more light and peace in the path of following Him.

        “To hear then that I must be joyfully abounding in all kinds of good works, and utterly radical in my devotion to Christ on pain of damnation, this stuff does sound like condemnation.”

        That does kinda sound like condemnation. But I’m not sure that’s what I hear Paul or Barclay or Bates or the NT necessarily saying. So where do you get that from? On the other hand, the alternative to what you’ve described can’t possibly be peace on the basis of a single decision (“easy believism”) because that isn’t in the NT either. Sounds like extremes on both sides and we need to find the proper NT “middle road.” In reading some of the writings of the “scholar types” we’ve mentioned, I don’t hear them pushing us toward either extreme but toward the proper NT “middle road.”

        Chris

        • cgatihi says:

          Hi Jon,

          Here’s a quote I tracked down in Bates’ “Salvation by Allegiance Alone” as he wraps up and is discussing practical implications:

          Although contemporary Christian culture tends to separate personal salvation and discipleship, allegiance is where they finally meet—and they don’t just meet, they embrace. For when we discover that saving “faith” means above all allegiance to Jesus the king, the intimacy between discipleship and salvation is easy to recognize. A person is not first “saved” by “faith” in Jesus’s death for sins and then, once that is secured, plugged into a discipleship program as an optional extra in hope that he or she might “grow.” On the contrary, a person is first saved when she or he becomes a disciple by declaring allegiance to Jesus the king—that is, when a person agrees to submit obediently to Jesus’s wise and sovereign rule so as to take up his way of life. If subsequently a person entirely ceases to maintain allegiance, that individual has left the road of discipleship, the one and only road to final salvation. We are only and ever (past, present, and future) saved by discipleship to Jesus, for to be a disciple is to have declared and enacted pistis unto Jesus the king.

          Bates, Matthew W.. Salvation by Allegiance Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works, and the Gospel of Jesus the King (p. 206). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

          So the point isn’t to be perfect (which only Jesus is) or “utterly radical” per se, but the point is to persist on the road of discipleship through all the challenges (Luke 8:15), a road in which disciples move at different paces and take different twists and turns. For what it’s worth, though I can’t speak decisively since I don’t know the details of your faith journey, I think your struggle in prayer and reaching out to brothers (such as Paul) to work through your doubts is part of that road of discipleship for you.

          Praying for God to help you persevere on that road of discipleship,
          Chris

          • Hi Chris

            Thanks again for your encouraging comments – you seem like a decent guy. I think I agree with you about the “middle road”. The question of where I get the condemnation notion from? It could be my own mind making things seem harsher than they actually are, and throwing the character of God into question.

            I think it is the questions relating to assurance that have plagued me over the years and often finding doubt and lack of clarity when looking within. I’m unsure about how much I should analyse my own life and try to discern the Holy Spirit in my life on the one hand, and focus on God’s promises and faithfulness on the other.

            Jon

    • Paul Pavao says:

      You and Jon are more well-read than me, I think. Thomas quotes Barclay’s “grace is unconditioned, but not unconditional” in his preface, so the fact you brought it up too shows you and Thomas are thinking on the same line!

  4. Jim says:

    This was a great post!

    I read the early Fathers practically every day. What you’ve shared here feels and sounds so normal to me! This is exactly how they talk. I need to get the book and read it.

    I often tell my friends who are Calvinist “don’t ever read the Early Church Fathers or you’ll have to re-think everything!

    On a side note, this is how the Orthodox Church has always viewed salvation.

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