I’ve been reading a delightful, two-volume historical theology text by David Beale, a longtime Professor of Church History at BJU Seminary. I’ve just finished the first volume, where Beale discusses what early church fathers taught about the doctrine of justification by faith.
Briefly, this doctrine is a summary of the clear Biblical teaching that:
- people are born inherently evil and wicked (indeed, as guilty criminals), and
- people are only justified (i.e. declared innocent) in God’s eyes when they repent and believe in who Jesus is and what He’s done (i.e. He lived a holy and perfect life in our place, He suffered, died and endured the punishment for our crimes, and He miraculously rose from the dead after three days to defeat Satan for us, as our representative)
- and, the merits of everything Jesus did for us (see above) are legally applied to our account when we repent and believe the Gospel
- so, Jesus’ perfect righteousness is imputed (or applied) to our account by God
The 1833 New Hampshire Confession of Faith puts it this way:
We believe that the great gospel blessing which Christ secures to such as believe in him is Justification; that Justification includes the pardon of sin, and the promise of eternal life on principles of righteousness; that it is bestowed, not in consideration of any works of righteousness which we have done, but solely through faith in the Redeemer’s blood; by virtue of which faith his perfect righteousness is freely imputed to us of God; that it brings us into a state of most blessed peace and favor with God, and secures every other blessing needful for time and eternity.
And, you can see a slightly different explanation from the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith (chapter 11):
Those whom God effectually calleth, he also freely justifieth, not by infusing righteousness into them, but by pardoning their sins, and by accounting and accepting their persons as righteous; not for anything wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ’s sake alone; not by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience to them, as their righteousness; but by imputing Christ’s active obedience unto the whole law, and passive obedience in his death for their whole and sole righteousness by faith, which faith they have not of themselves; it is the gift of God.
The big question
But, Christians want to know – where was the doctrine of justification by faith taught before the Protestant Reformation, in the 16th century? To be sure, the Bible clearly teaches it, so we know people believed it. But, who officially taught it? Where was it taught? Did the earliest Christians leaders, after the apostolic era, teach it?
Beale says there is no evidence for it. He wrote:
In the anonymous Epistle to Diognetus (unknown date), there is a brief but fluent expression of God’s giving His Son as a ransom to cover our sins and His giving our sins to His Son to justify us:
He Himself took on Him the burden of our iniquities, He gave His own Son as a ransom for us, the holy One for transgressors, the blameless One for the wicked, the righteous One for the unrighteous, the incorruptible One for the corruptible, the immortal One for them that are mortal. For what other thing was capable of covering our sins than His righteousness? By what other one was it possible that we, the wicked and ungodly, could be justified, than by the only Son of God? O sweet exchange! O unsearchable operation! O benefits surpassing all expectation! that the wickedness of many should be hid in a single righteous One, and that the righteousness of One should justify many transgressors! (9)
Reading that paragraph prompts a longing for more. Regrettably, however, there is not one extant treatise from the patristic centuries on the biblical teaching of forensic justification by faith alone, or on the blood of Christ as the only ground for justification. Many of the earliest fathers, such as Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp, and Papias obviously believed in the efficacious character of Christ’s blood and death. None denied it. Ignatius even speaks of the shedding of ‘God’s blood.’ Among the apologists, though, the emphasis is centered on the incarnation of the Logos, and the actual work of redemption is largely ignored. Origen packages it with a ransom deal with Satan and, in effect, Irenaeus’ detailed recapitulation theory ultimately fails to go beyond the idea of a ransom to the Devil. There is no hint of the blood of Christ being the basis for justification by faith alone. The biblical doctrine of forensic justification by faith suffered great neglect (1:484-485).
That doesn’t mean the post-apostolic leaders in the Christian church didn’t believe it or teach it. It just means we don’t have much on paper which proves they did. This is very interesting. The more I read of the early church fathers, the more I see they were men of their times and their writings (and, remember, we don’t have all of them) reflect their own contexts and challenges, just as ours do, too. They aren’t infallible men, and they certainly aren’t perfect. The Bible teaches the doctrine, even if early Christian leaders after the apostolic era didn’t write much about it.
We must always look to the Bible, the only infallible source of faith and practice God has given us.
How can a young man keep his way pure?
By guarding it according to thy word.
With my whole heart I seek thee;
let me not wander from thy commandments!
I have laid up thy word in my heart,
that I might not sin against thee.
Blessed be thou, O LORD;
teach me thy statutes!
With my lips I declare
all the ordinances of thy mouth.
In the way of thy testimonies I delight
as much as in all riches.
I will meditate on thy precepts,
and fix my eyes on thy ways.
I will delight in thy statutes;
I will not forget thy word (Psalm 119:9-16).
 The Reformed understanding of justification sees God imputing Christ’s righteousness because of His active and passive obedience; that is, because He both (1) obeyed God’s law for us perfectly, and (2) He suffered, bled and died in our place, for our sins. There are some evangelicals who do not believe Christ’s active obedience is part of imputation, and only speak of His death as the grounds of justification. Beale appears to fall into the latter category here, because he keeps referring to “Christ’s blood” and never mentions His perfect, sinless and holy life.
You can see this distinction between the 1833 New Hampshire Confession of Faith and the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith as they each define “justification.” I provided the relevant excerpts from both confessions, above. The 1833 NHCF does not mention Christ’s active obedience (i.e. His perfect and holy life, in our place). It only mentions His death. However, the 1689 LBCF specifically mentions both. Incidentally, the excerpt from the Epistle to Diognetus suggests both active (“the blameless One for the wicked”) and passive (“He gave His own Son as a ransom for us”) obedience.
I personally agree with and follow the Reformed view.