David W. Bercot obtained his Bachelor of Arts degree summa cum laude from Stephen F. Austin University and his Doctor of Jurisprudence degree cum laude from Baylor University School of Law. He is an Evangelical Protestant who has been willing to study what the earliest Christians (around 100 A.D.) had to say about their beliefs. He has written articles for various journals about the early Christian church and frequently lectures on the subject of early Christianity.
When I first began studying the early Christian writings, I was surprised by what I read. In fact, after a few days of reading, I put their writings back on the shelf and decided to scrap my research altogether. After analyzing the situation, I realized the problem was that their writings contradicted many of my own theological views.
This is not to say that I found no support for any of my beliefs in the early Christian writings. Their understandings corroborated many of my views. On the other hand, they frequently taught the opposite of what I believed, and they even labeled some of my beliefs as heretical. The same would probably hold true of many of your beliefs.
To illustrate, these next few chapters discuss five beliefs that were accepted by nearly all the early Christian. These five examples are not the hardest of their beliefs for us to accept, but neither are they the easiest. You may find that you agree with their views on some of these matters, but it's unlikely that you'll agree on all of them. Please understand that I'm not asking you to accept their teachings on these matters. I'm only asking you to hear them out.
If there's any single doctrine that we would expect to find the faithful associates of the apostles teaching, it's the doctrine of salvation by faith alone. After all, that is the cornerstone doctrine of the Reformation. In fact, we frequently say that persons who don't hold to this doctrine aren't really Christians.
The story we usually hear about church history is that the early Christians taught our doctrine of salvation by faith alone. But after Constantine corrupted the church, it gradually began to teach that works play a role in our salvation. Fairly typical of the scenario painted is the following passage from Francis Schaeffer's How Should We Then Live? After describing the fall of the Roman Empire and the decline of learning in the West, Schaeffer wrote: "Thanks to the monks, the Bible was preserved-along with sections of Greek and Latin classics....Nevertheless, the pristine Christianity set forth in the New Testament gradually became distorted. A humanistic element was added: Increasingly, the authority of the church took precedence over the teaching of the Bible. And there was an ever-growing emphasis on salvation as resting on man's meriting the merit of Christ, instead of on Christ's work alone."1
Like Schaeffer, most evangelical writers give the impression that the belief that our own merits and works affect our salvation was something that gradually crept into the church after the time of Constantine and the fall of Rome. But that's not really the case.
The early Christians universally believed that works or obedience play an essential role in our salvation. This is probably quite a shocking revelation to most evangelicals. But that there's no room for doubt concerning this matter, I have quoted below ( in approximate chronological order) from early Christian writers of virtually every generation-from the time of the Apostle John to the inauguration of Constantine:
Clement of Rome, who was a companion of the apostle Paul2 and overseer of the church in Rome, wrote, "It is necessary, therefore, that we be prompt in the practice of good works. For He forewarns us, 'Behold, the Lord comes and His reward is before His face, to render to every man according to his work.' ...Let us therefore earnestly strive to be found in the number of those who wait for Him, in order that we may share in His promised reward. But how, beloved ones, shall we do this? By fixing our thoughts on God by faith. By earnestly seeking the things that are pleasing and acceptable to Him. By doing the things that are in harmony with His blameless will. And by following the way of truth, casting away from us all unrighteousness and sin."3
Polycarp, the personal companion of the apostle John, taught, "He who raised Him up from the dead will also raise us up-if we do His will and walk in His commandments and love what He loved, keeping ourselves from all unrighteousness."4
The letter of Barnabas states: "He who keeps these [commandments], will be glorified in the kingdom of God; but he who chooses other things will be destroyed with his works."5
Hermas, who may have been a contemporary of the apostle John, wrote, "Only those who fear the Lord and keep His commandments have life with God. But as to those who do not keep His commandments, there is no life in them....All, therefore, who despise Him and do not follow His commands deliver themselves to death, and each will be guilty of his own blood. But I implore you to obey His commands, and you will have a cure for your former sins."6
In his first apology, written sometime before 150 A.D., Justin Martyr told the Romans, "We have been taught...that He accepts only those who imitate the virtues that reside in Him-self-restraint, justice, and love of mankind...And so we have received [this teaching] that if men by their works show themselves worthy of His design, they are deemed worthy of reigning in company with Him, being delivered from corruption and suffering."7
Clement of Alexandria, writing in about 190, said, "The Word, having unveiled the truth, showed to men the summit of salvation, so that either repenting they might be saved, or refusing to obey, they might be condemned. This is the proclamation of righteousness: to those who obey, rejoicing; to those who disobey, condemnation."8 And again, "Whoever obtains [the truth] and distinguishes himself in good works shall gain the prize of everlasting life....Some people correctly and adequately understand how [God provides necessary power], but attaching slight importance to the works that lead to salvation, they fail to make the necessary preparation for attaining the objects of their hope."9
Origen, who lived in the early 200s, wrote, "The soul...[will] be rewarded according to what it deserves, being destined to obtain either an inheritance of eternal life and blessedness, if its actions shall have procured this for it, or to be delivered up to eternal fire and punishments, if the guilt of its crimes shall have brought it down to this."10
Hippolytus, a Christian overseer who lived at the same time as Origen, wrote, "The Gentiles, by faith in Christ, prepare for themselves eternal life through good works."11 He again wrote, "[Jesus], in administering the righteous judgment of the Father to all, assigns to each what is righteous according to his works....Justification will be seen in the awarding to each that which is just; to those who have done well, there will be justly assigned eternal happiness. The lovers of wickedness will be assigned eternal punishment....But the righteous will remember only the righteous deeds by which they reached the heavenly kingdom."12
Cyprian wrote, "To prophesy, to cast out demons, and to do great acts upon the earth are certainly a sublime and admirable thing. However, a person does not attain the Kingdom of Heaven even though he is found in all these things unless he walks in the observance of the right and just way. The Lord says, 'Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in your name and cast out demons in your name and performed other powerful works in your name? And then I will confess to them, I never knew you. Depart from me you workers of evil.' [Matt. 7:22-23] There is need of righteousness so one may deserve well of God the Judge. We must obey His precepts and warnings that our merits may receive their reward."13
Finally, Lactantius, writing in the early 300s, explained to the Romans, "Why, then, did He make [man] frail and mortal?...[So] He might set before man virtue, that is, endurance of evils and labors, by which he might be able to gain the reward of immortality. For since man consists of two parts, body and soul, of which the one is earthly, the other heavenly, two lives have been assigned to man. The first, which is appointed for the body, is transitory. The other, which belongs to the soul, is everlasting. We received the first at our birth. We attain to the latter by striving, that immortality might not be available to man without some difficulties.... For this reason He has given us this present life, that we may either lost the true and eternal life by our sins, or win it by our virtue."14
In fact, every early Christian writer who discussed the subject of salvation presented this same view.
No, the early Christians did not teach that we earn salvation by an accumulation of good works. They recognized and emphasized the fact that faith is absolutely essential for salvation, and that without God's grace nobody can be saved. All of the writers quoted above stressed this fact. Here are just a few examples:
Clement of Rome wrote, "[We] are not justified by ourselves. Nor by our own wisdom, understanding, godliness, or works done in holiness of heart. But by that faith through which Almighty God has justified all men since the beginning."15
Polycarp wrote, "Many desire to enter into this joy, knowing that 'by grace you are saved, not of works,' but by the will of God through Jesus Christ [Eph. 2:8]."16
Barnabas wrote, "To this end the Lord delivered up His flesh to corruption, that we might be sanctified through the remission of sins, which is effected by His blood."17
Just Martyr wrote, "Our suffering and crucified Christ was not cursed by the law. Rather, he made it manifest that He alone would save those who do not depart from His faith . . . .As the blood of the passover saved those who were in Egypt, so also the blood of Christ will deliver from death those who have believed."18
Clement of Alexandria wrote, "It follows that there is one unchangeable gift of salvation given by one God, through one Lord, benefiting in many ways."19 And again, "Abraham was not justified by works, but by faith [Rom. 4:3]. Therefore, even if they do good works now, it is of no advantage to them after death, if they do not have faith."20
You may be saying to yourself, "I'm confused. Out of one side of their mouths they say we are saved because of our works, and out of the other side they way we are saved by faith or grace. They don't seem to know what they believed!"
Oh, but they did. Our problem is that Augustine, Luther, and other Western theologians have convinced us that there's an irreconcilable conflict between salvation based on grace and salvation conditioned on works or obedience. They have used a fallacious form of argumentation known as the "false dilemma," by asserting that there are only two possibilities regarding salvation: it's either (1) a gift from God or (2) it's something we earn by our works.
The early Christians would have replied that a gift is no less a gift simply because it's conditioned on obedience. Suppose a king asked his son to go to the royal orchard and bring back a basket full of the kings' favorite applies. After the son had complied, suppose the king gave his son half of this kingdom. Was the reward a gift, or was it something the son had earned? The answer is that it was a gift. The son obviously didn't earn half of his father's kingdom by performing such a small task. The fact that the gift was conditioned on the son's obedience doesn't change the fact that it was still a gift.
The early Christians believed that salvation is a gift from God but that God gives His gift to whomever He chooses. And He chooses to give it to those who love and obey him.
Is their understanding really that strange? I so often hear evangelical Christians say that welfare should only be given to those persons who are truly deserving. When they say that certain poor persons are "deserving," do they mean that welfare constitutes wages earned by such persons? Of course not. They still consider welfare to be a gift. Simply because a person is selective in his giving, it doesn't change the gift into a wage.
Recently when I was explaining the early Christians' understanding of salvation to a group of believers, one of the ladies was a bit disturbed. She exclaimed in annoyance, "It sounds to me like they needed to read their Bibles more!"
But the early Christians did read their Bibles. As Josh McDowell points out in Evidence That Demands a Verdict:
Tertullian (A.D. 160-220) was a presbyter of the Church in Carthage and quotes the New Testament more than 7,000 times, of which 3, 800 are from the Gospels . . . .
Geisler and Nix rightly conclude that "a brief inventory at this point will reveal that there were some 32,000 citations of the New Testament prior to the time of the Council of Nicea (325)."21
|•"Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven." (Matt. 7:21).|
|•"He who stands firm to the end will be saved" (Matt. 24:13).|
|•"All who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out-those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned" (John 5:28, 29).|
|•"Behold, I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to everyone according to what he has done" (Rev. 22:12).|
|•"Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers" (1 Tim. 4: 16).|
Other Scripture passages they cited are listed at the end of this chapter.
So the real issue isn't a matter of believing the Scriptures, but one of interpreting the Scriptures. The Bible says that "it is by grace you have been saved, through faith-and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God-not by works" (Eph. 2:8,9). And yet the Bible also says, "You see then how that by works a man is justified and not by faith alone" (Jas. 2:24 KJV). Our doctrine of salvation accepts that first statement but essentially nullifies the second. The early Christian doctrine of salvation gave equal weight to both.
As was pointed out earlier, the early Christians didn't believe that man is totally depraved and incapable of doing any good. They taught that humans are capable of obeying and loving God. But they also believed that for a person to live obediently throughout his entire life, he needed God's power. So obedience wasn't totally dependent on human strength, nor totally dependent on God's power. It was a mixture of both.
To them, salvation was similar. The new birth as spiritual sons of God and heirs of the promise of eternal life is offered to all of us purely as a matter of grace. We do not have to be "good enough" first. We do not have to earn this new birth in any way. And we do not have to atone for all the sins we have committed in our past. The slate is wiped clean through God's grace. We are truly saved by grace, not by works, as Paul said.
Nevertheless, we also play a role in our own salvation, according to Scripture and the early Christians. Fist, we have to repent and to believe in Christ as our Lord and Savior in order to avail ourselves of God's grace. After receiving the new birth, we also have to obey Christ. Yet, obedience itself is still dependent on the continuing grace of God's power and forgiveness. So salvation begins and ends with grace, but in the middle is mans' faithful and obedient response. Ultimately, salvation depends on both man and God. For this reason, James could say we are saved by works and not by faith alone.
Sine the early Christians believed that our continued faith and obedience are necessary for salvation, it naturally follows that they believed that a "saved" person could still end up being lost. For example, Irenaeus, the pupil of Polycarp, wrote, "Christ will not die again on behalf of those who now commit sin because death shall no more have dominion over Him . . . . Therefore we should not be puffed up . . . . But we should beware lest somehow, after [we have come to] the knowledge of Christ, if we do things displeasing to God, we obtain no further forgiveness of sins but rather be shut out from His Kingdom"22 (Heb. 6:4-6).
Tertullian wrote, "Some people act as though God were under an obligation to bestow even on the unworthy His intended gift. They turn His liberality into slaver . . . . For do not many afterwards fall out of grace? Is not this gift taken away from many?"23
Cyprian told his fellow believers, "It is written, 'He who endures to the end, the same shall be saved' [Matt. 10:22]. So whatever precedes the end is only a step by which we ascend to the summit of salvation. It is not the final point wherein we have already gained the full result of the ascent."24
One of the Scripture passages that the early Christians frequently cited is Hebrews 10:26: "If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left." Our preachers usually tell us that the writer of Hebrews wasn't talking about saved persons. If that's the case, the writer certainly didn't communicate it very effectively to his readers. All the early Christians understood this passage to be talking about persons who had been saved.
Incidentally, some of the quotations from the early Christians might make you think that they lived in eternal insecurity. But that's not the case. Although they believed that their heavenly Father could disinherit them if He chose to do so, the overall spirit of their writings who that obedient Christians didn't live with a constant morbid dread of being disinherited. Does an obedient son constantly worry and fret over the possibility of being disinherited by his earthly father?
As surprising as all of this may be to you, what I'm about to tell you is even more bizarre. There was a religious group, labeled as heretics by the early Christians, who strongly disputed the church's stance on salvation and works. Instead, they taught that man is totally depraved. That we are saved solely by grace. That works play no role in our salvation. And that we cannot lose our salivation once we obtain it.
I know what you're thinking: This group of "heretics" were the real Christians and the "orthodox" Christians were really heretics. But such a conclusion is impossible. I say it's impossible because the group I'm referring to are the gnostics. The Greek word gnosis means knowledge, and the gnostics claimed that God had revealed special knowledge to them that the main body of Christians did not have. Although each gnostic teacher had his individual version of teachings, they all basically taught that the Creator was a different God than the Father of Jesus. This inferior God had acted without the authority of the Father in creating the material world. This Creator botched things up and man is inherently depraved as a result. The God of the Old Testament is this inferior Creator who possesses different qualities from the God of the New Testament.
Because humans are the flowed work of this inferior God, they are totally unable to do anything toward their own salvation. Fortunately for mankind, the Father of Jesus took pity on humans and sent his Son for our salvation. However, because the flesh in inherently depraved, the Son could not have actually become a man. Rather, the Son of God simply took on the appearance of man. He was not truly man and he never really died or was resurrected. Since everything about man is inherently flowed, our works can ply no part in our salvation, but rather we are saved purely by the grace of the Father.25
In case you have any lingering doubts on whether the gnostics were true Christians, notice what the Apostle John himself said about them: "Many deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh, have gone out into the world. Any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist" (2 John 7). The gnostics were the ones who denied that Jesus had come in the flesh, and they are the ones to whom John was referring. He made it clear that they were deceivers and antichrists.
So, assuming our evangelical doctrine of salvation to be true, we are faced with the uncomfortable reality that this doctrine was taught by "deceivers and antichrists" before it was taught by the church.
The early Christian understanding of salvation was also based on these passages, among other: "The one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up" (Gal. 6:9). "For we must all appear in our true characters before the tribunal of the Christ, each to be repaid with good or evil for the life he has lived in the body" (2 Cor 5:10 GSP). "You may be sure that no one who is immoral, or greedy for gain (for that is idolatry) can have any share in the Kingdom of Christ and God" (Eph. 5:5 GSP).
"If we endure, we will reign with him! If we disown him, he will also disown us" (2 Tim. 2:12 GSP). "Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, that no one fall by the same sort of disobedience" (Heb. 4:11 RSV). "You will need endurance if you are to carry out God's will and receive the blessing he has promised" (Heb. 10:36 GSP). "If they have escaped the corruption of the world by knowing our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and are again entangled in it and overcome, they are worse off at the end than they were at the beginning. It would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than to have known it and then to turn their backs on the sacred command that was passed on to them" (2 Pet. 2:20, 21).
For other Scriptures cited by the early Christians, please see footnote 26.
Many evangelical Christians think that Luther's Reformation returned the church to the standards of the early believers. Many also suppose that today's evangelical Christians are teaching the same things as Luther. However, both of those assumptions are incorrect.
It probably surprised you to learn that our present doctrine of salvation by faith is different from what the early Christians taught. It may surprise you even more to know that our doctrine of salvation is also different from what Martin Luther and other leaders of the Reformation taught. In fact, we teach only half of the Reformation doctrine of salvation.
While it's true that Luther sometimes said that man is "saved by faith alone," he also taught that man is so totally depraved that he is unable even to have faith in God or to accept the gift of salvation. Therefore, the only persons who have saving faith are those to whom God has given such faith. And God has given such faith only to those whom he arbitrarily predestined before the creation of the world. By "arbitrarily," I mean that, according to Luther, God's decision to give faith to some, and not to others, wasn't based on any desire, faith, righteousness, actions, or prayers on the part of the recipient.
In the end, Luther could only bemoan, "This is the highest degree of faith-to believe that He is merciful, the very One who saves so few and damns so many. To believe that He is just, the One who according to His own will, makes us necessarily damnable."1 So the Reformation didn't teach that man is saved by faith alone or that he is saved by accepting Christ. IT taught that the predestined are saved by grace alone and the rest of mankind are eternally damned. It's a popular myth that John Calvin introduced this doctrine of predestination, but Calvin was simply repeating established Reformation theology. So today, those who say that the offer of salvation is open to everyone contradict a basic Reformation doctrine.
After the Reformation, evangelical Christians tried for centuries to convince a scoffing world that our live sand eternal fates were arbitrarily predestined by God, and that this as a God we should love. How ironic, therefore, that originally it was the Christians who tried to convince a scoffing world that our lives and fates were not predestined.
The early Christians were strong believers in free will. For example, Justin Martyr made this argument to the Romans: "We have learned from the prophets, and we hold it to be true, that punishments, chastisements, and rewards are rendered according to the merit each man's actions. Otherwise, if all things happen by fate, then nothing is in our own power. For if it be predestined that one man be good and another man evil, then the first is not deserving of praise or the other to be blamed. Unless humans have the power of avoiding evil and choosing good by free choice, they are not accountable for their actions-whatever they may be . . . . For neither would a man be worthy of reward or praise if he did not of himself choose the good, but was merely created for that end. Likewise, if a man were evil, he old not deserve punishment, since he was not evil of himself, being unable to do anything else than what he was made for."2
Clement echoed the same belief: "Neither praise nor condemnation, neither rewards nor punishments, are right if the soul does not have the power of choice and avoidance, if evil is involuntary.3
Archelaus, writing a few decades later, repeated the same understanding: "All the creatures that God made, He made very good. And He gave to every individual the sense of free will, by which standard He also instituted the law of judgment . . . . And certainly whoever will, may keep the commandments. Whoever despises them and turns aside to what is contrary to them, shall yet without doubt have to face this law of judgment . . . . There can be no doubt that every individual, in using his own proper ;power of will, may shape his course in whatever direction he pleases."4
Methodius, a Christian martyr who lived near the end of the third century, wrote similarly, "Those [pagans] who decide that man does not have free will, but say that he is governed by the unavoidable necessities of fate, are guilty of impiety toward God Himself, making Him out to be the cause and author of human evils."5
The early Christians weren't simply speculating about this matter, but rather they based their beliefs on the following Scriptures, among others:
|•"For God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life" (John 3:16).|
|• "The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance" (2 Pet. 3:9).|
|•"The Spirit and the bride say, 'Come!' And let him who hears say, 'Come!' Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life" (Rev. 22:17).|
|•"I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life so that you and your children may live" (Deut. 30:19).|
So originally, it was the pagan world, not the Christians, who believed in predestination. Yet, in one of the strange quirks of Christian history, Martin Luther took the side of the pagan Romans against the early Christians. I do not mean that, in effect he took their side. I mean he literally sided with them! For example, Luther wrote concerning fate or predestination:But why should these things be difficult for we Christians to understand, so that it should be considered irreligious, curious, and vain, to discuss and know them, when heathen poets, and the common people themselves, have them in their mouths in the most frequent use? How often does Virgil [a pagan Roman poet] alone make mention of Fate? "All things stand fixed by unchangeable law." Again, "Fixed is the day of every man." Again, "If the Fates summon you." And again, "If you will break the binding chain of Fate."
The aim of this poet is to show that in the destruction of Troy, and in raising up the Roman empire, Fate did more than all the devoted efforts of men . . . . From which we can see that the knowledge of predestination and of the foreknowledge of God was no less left in the world than the notion of divinity itself. And those who wished to appear wise went so far into their debates that, their hearts being darkened, they became fools (Rom. 1:21,22). They denied, or pretended not to know those things which their poets, and the common fold, and even their own consciences, held to be universally known, most certain, and most true."6
From what I have observed, many-perhaps most-evangelical Christians say they believe in predestination. Yet, their prayers and actions show they really don't. Others simply throw up their hands, admitting, "I don't know what I believe."
The dilemma we face is that the Bible tell us to 'choose life that we may live,' (Deut. 30:19), but it also tells us that it does not "depend on man's desire or effort, but on God's mercy" (Rom. 9:16). On the one hand, the Scriptures teach that God is patient with us, "not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance" (2 Pet. 3:9). But on the other hand, it says, "God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden" (Rom. 9:18).
I have wrestled with these seemingly contradictory passages most of my adult life. SO it as very comforting to discover that the early Christians had logical-and Scripturally sound explanations for these seeming contradictions. In fact, their understanding about God's foreknowledge and man's free will are among the most reasonable I've ever heard.
In contrast, it was once again some of the gnostic teachers who taught that humans are arbitrarily predestined for salvation and punishment. Obviously, if we are totally depraved as a result of our being created by an unjust, inferior God (as the gnostics taught), our salvation can only come about by arbitrary election from God. In his work entitled On First Things, Origen addressed many of the Scriptural arguments the gnostics were using. He also answered some of the questions about free will and predestination that his students had posed to him. Here is an excerpt from Origen's discussion:"One of the doctrines included in the teaching of the Church is that there is a just judgment of God. This fact incites those who believe it to live virtuously and to shun sin. They acknowledge that the things worthy of praise and blame are within our own power.
"It is our responsibility to live righteously. God asks this of us, not as though it were dependent on Him, nor on any other, or upon fate (as some thing), but as begin dependent on us. The prophet Micah demonstrated this when he said, 'It has been announced to you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To do justice and to love mercy' [Mic. 6:8]. Moses also said, 'I have set before you the way of life, and the way of death. Choose what is good and walk in it' [Deut. 30:15].
"Notice how Paul also speaks to us with the understanding that we have freedom of the will and that we ourselves are the cause of our own ruin or our salvation. He says, 'Do you show contempt for the riches of His goodness, patience, and long-suffering, not realizing that God's goodness leads you towards repentance? But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are treasuring up wrath against yourself for the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God. God will render to each one according to his works. To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are contentious and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be anger, wrath and tribulation.' [Rom. 2:4-8].
"But certain statements in the Old and New Testaments might lead to the opposite conclusion: That it does not depend on us to keep the commandments and be saved. Or to transgress them and to be lost. So let's examine them one by one.
"First, the statements concerning Pharaoh have troubled many. God declared several times, 'I will harden Pharaoh's heart' [Exod. 4:21]. Of course, if Pharaoh was hardened by God and sinned as a result of being hardened, he was not the cause of his own sin. So he did not possess free will.
"Along with this passage, let's also look at the passage in Paul: 'But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? Shall the thing formed say to Him who formed it, 'Why have you made me like this?' Does the potter not have power over the clay-from the same lump to make one vessel unto honor, and another unto dishonor?' [Rom. 9:20,21].
"Since we consider God to be both good and just, let's see how the good and just God could harden the heart of Pharaoh. Perhaps by an illustration used by the apostle in the Epistle to the Hebrews, we can show that, by the same operation, God can show mercy to one man while he hardens another, although not intending to harden. 'The ground,' he says, 'drinks in the rain that falls upon it and produces crops for the farmer, being blessed by God. But the ground that produces thorns and briers is worthless, and is in danger of being cursed. Its end is to be burned' [Heb. 6: 7,8].
"It may seem strange for Him who produces rain to say, 'I produced both the fruit and the thorns from the earth.' Yet, although strange, it is true. If the rain had not fallen, there would have been neither fruit nor thorns. The blessing of the rain, therefore, fell even on the unproductive land. But since it was neglected and uncultivated, it produced thorns and thistles. In the same way, the wonderful acts of God are like the rain. The differing results are like the cultivated and the neglected land.
"The acts of God are also like the sun, which could say, 'I both soften and harden.' Although these two actions are opposite, the sun would not speak falsely, because the same heat both softens wax and hardens mud. Similarly, on the one hand, the miracles performed through Moses hardened Pharaoh because of his own wickedness. But they softened the mixed Egyptian multitude, who left Egypt with the Hebrews.
"Let's look at another passage: 'So then it is not of him who wills, nor of him that runs, but of God who shows mercy' [Rom. 9:16]. Paul is not denying that something also has to be done by human means. But he gratefully refers the benefit to God, who brings it to completion. The mere human desire is insufficient to attain the end. The mere running does not in itself enable athletes to gain the prize. Nor does it enable Christians to obtain the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. Those things are only accomplished with the assistance of God..
"As if speaking about farming, Paul says, 'I planted, Apollos watered, and God made it grow. So then neither is he who plants anything, nor he that waters, but God, who made it grow' [1 Cor. 3:6,7]. Now we could not correctly say that the growing of crops is the work of the farmer alone. Nor of the one who irrigates. It is ultimately the work of God. Likewise, it is not as though we ourselves play no role in our spiritual growth to perfection. Yet, it is not completed by us, for God produces the greater part of it. So also with our salvation. What God does is infinitely greater than what we do."7
Can God Foresee The Future?
Although not believing in predestination, the early Christians strongly believed in God's sovereignty and in His ability to foresee the future. For example, they understood God's prophecies about Jacob and Esau to be a result of His foreseeing the future, not a result of His arbitrarily predestining those men to a particular fate. But they saw a significant distinction between foreseeing something and causing it.
I still remember the first time I read Jesus' words to Nicodemus: "Truly I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God" (John 3:5 NAS). I was a young boy at the time, and I was reading that verse in a small Bible study group. The teacher asked the question, "what does it mean to be born of 'water'?" I thought for a moment and quickly raised my hand. "Jesus must have been referring to water baptism," I blurted out, feeling proud of myself for having figured this out. However, to my chagrin, the teacher explained that this was a common misconception and that 'being born of water' was not water baptism.
Through the years I was able to correct others who mistakenly thought that this passage refers to water baptism. I felt very knowledgeable to be able to explain the "correct" view. So it took the wind out of my sails when I discovered that the early Christians universally understood Jesus' words to refer to water baptism.
And once again, it was the gnostics who taught differently than the church-saying that humans can't be reborn or regenerated through water baptism. Irenaeus wrote about them: "This class of men have been instigated by Satan to a denial of that baptism which is regeneration to God."1
In today's evangelical church, water baptism is often regarded as a rather insignificant matter, at least in the process of salvation. However, baptism carried the utmost significance to the early Christians. They associated three very important matters with water baptism:
1. Remission of sins. They believed that water baptism canceled all past sins. For example, Justin Martyr wrote, "There is no other way [to obtain God's promises] than this-to become acquainted with Christ, to be washed in the fountain spoken of by Isaiah for the remission of sins, and for the remainder, to live sinless lives."2
The based their views on baptism and remission of sin on the following Bible passages, among others:
|•"And now what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name" (Acts 22:16).|
|•"He saved us, not because of righteous thing we had done, but because of His mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit" (Titus 3:5).|
|•"Corresponding to that, baptism now saves you-not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience" (1 Pet. 3:21 NAS).|
|•"Repent, and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins" (Acts 2:38 NAS).|
Since this washing was completely independent of any merit on the baptized person's part, baptism was frequently referred to as "grace." I was surprised to find that the early Christians used the term "grace" to refer to a specific act such as baptism. Several years ago when our adult Sunday School class was studying the beliefs of the Roman Catholic Church, we discussed their use of the word "grace" to refer to sacraments administered by the priest. I remember thinking to myself, "Catholics sure can get things fouled up!" I realize now that the Catholic use of the term may be more akin to the way the New Testament Christians understood the word.
2. The New Birth. Based on Jesus' words to Nicodemus, the early Christians also believed water baptism was the channel through which a person was born again. Irenaeus mentioned this in a discussion about baptism, "As we are lepers in sin, we are made clean from our old transgressions by means of the sacred water and the invocation of the Lord. We are thus spiritually regenerated as newborn infants, even as the Lord has declared: 'Except a man be born again through water and the Spirit, he shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven'"3 [John 3:5}.
3. Spiritual Illumination. The early Christians believed that the newly-baptized person, after receiving the Holy Spirit, had a clearer vision of spiritual matters, receiving illumination as a child of God and a citizen of His kingdom.
Clement of Alexandria discussed all three of these spiritual events associated with baptism: "This work is variously called grace, and illumination, and perfection, and washing. Washing, by which we cleanse away or sins. Grace, by which we see God clearly."4
In a letter to a young Christian friend, Cyprian explained his own baptism in a similar fashion, "Considering my character at the time, I used to regard it as a difficult matter that a man should be able to be born again . . . . Or that a man who had been revived to a new life in the bath of saving water could be able to put off what he had formerly been-that he could be changed in heart and soul, while retaining his physical body . . . . I used to indulge my sins as if they were actually a part of me, inherent in me. But later, by the help of the water of new birth, the stain of former years was washed away, and a light from above-serene and pure was infused into my reconcile heart. Then though the Spirit breathed from heaven, a second birth restored me to a new man."5
Baptism Was Not An Empty Ritual
In short, baptism in early Christianity was the supernatural rite of initiation by which a new believer passed from being the old man of the flesh to being a newly reborn man of the spirit. However, please don't think their practice as some empty ritual. The early Christian didn't separate baptism from faith and repentance. Baptism wasn't some magical ritual that could regenerate a person if it wasn't accompanied by faith and repentance. They specifically taught that God was under no necessity to grant forgiveness of sins simply because a person went through the motions of baptism.6 A faithless person was not reborn through water baptism.
In his First Apology, Justin Martyr explained to the pagans how faith, repentance, and baptism were inseparably intertwined: "Those who are convinced that what we teach is true and who desire to live accordingly are instructed to fast and to pray to God for the remission of all their past sins. We also pray and fast with them. Then we bring them to a place where there is water, and they are regenerated in the same manner in which we ourselves were regenerated. They then receive the washing with water in the name of God (the Father and Lord of the universe) and of our Savior Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit. For Christ said, 'Unless you are born again, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven'"7 [John 3:5].
One thing that particularly impresses me about the early Christians is that they never put God in a box. For example, they always believed that God would do what was loving and just toward pagans who had never had the opportunity to hear about Christ. Likewise, they believed that although baptism was the normal channel of grace and the means of rebirth, God was not necessarily bound by it. For instance, they believed that unbaptized babies who died in infancy could still be saved. It was Augustine, writing centuries later, who taught that all unbaptized infants are damned.
Another example was that of martyrs. Many new believers were martyred before they ever had a chance to be baptized. The early church knew that the God of love would not abandon such persons. The church said that, in a sense, they had been baptized in a baptism of blood. So although early Christians stressed the significance of baptism and its role in the new birth, they didn't portray God as a cold, inflexible Being who could work no other way.
Interestingly, we evangelicals seem to recognize the need for some type of initiation ceremony or rite of passage to mark the Christian rebirth. But strangely enough, we have generally rejected the historical ceremony of the baptismal rebirth and have developed our own special ceremony-the altar call. When Peter preached to the Jews on the day of Pentecost, his hearers asked him, "What shall we do?" (Acts 2:37). Did Peter tell them to walk up to the front of the crowd and invited Jesus to come into their hearts? No, he told them, "Repent, and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins" (Acts 2:38 NAS).
After Phillip explained the gospel to the Ethiopian eunuch, what did he do? He immediately baptized him (Acts 8:34-38). Likewise, when God demonstrated to Peter (by the outpouring of the Spirit on Cornelius) that Christianity was open to Gentiles, the firs thing that Peter did was to baptize Cornelius and his family (Acts 10:44-48). When Paul preached in the middle of the night to the 14Philippian jailer and his household, did Paul then hold an altar call? No! The Scriptures say, "then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house. At that hour of the night the jailer took them and washed their wounds; then immediately he and all his family were baptized" (Acts 16:32,33).
Since we feel the need to associate our spiritual rebirth with a fixed day and hour, why don't' we tie it to baptism, rather than to the altar call? Actually, the altar call and associate prayers are a product of the revival movements of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and they were unknown to any Christians before that time.