Justin Martyr: The Early Church on Salvation

As many as are persuaded and believe that what we teach and say is true, and undertake to be able to live accordingly, are instructed to pray and to entreat God with fasting, for the remission of their sins that are past, we praying and fasting with them.” (From Martyr’s First Apology, Ch LXI, Christian Baptism, copied from ccel.org)

I’ve been reading through some early church material recently. A few questions have been intriguing me and causing me to look back at how the early church handled the issues we currently face. During my reading in Justin Martyr, I encountered a good many of fascinating texts. One of them deals with salvation. I posted it above since it seems antithetical to the modern evangelical attitude toward salvation. Today, far too often, have I encountered an idea that if you pray a prayer, sign a card, walk an aisle or kneel at an altar, then you are saved (if I’m not mistaken the SBC had the “sinner’s prayer” as a significant issue in the denomination recently). I don’t think such an idea is faithful with the material of Scripture. It seems the early church would have similar ideas about salvation. Let’s look into Martyr’s words.

Yes, there is an element of belief for Martyr and early Christians. But, you don’t see a period after “believe.” Rather, there is more. And it is this material that seems unpopular in modern preaching. For those who are going to follow Christ, before they begin their journey, they should “undertake to be able to live accordingly.” What does that mean? It means that not only believe the gospel, but one must understand that this belief will call you to a new life style. There is no getting around the life requirement of the gospel. And, people who are looking to Christ need to know that salvation is not intellectual assent to propositional truths (though there are propositional truths); salvation is following Christ, the God-man. It is not only believing as Christ believed, but striving to live as Christ lived. Do we fail? Yes. “We all stumble in many ways.” (James 3:2). But, can one actually call themselves a Christian if they don’t “undertake to live accordingly”?

It doesn’t seem the early church would say yes. Should we?

People need to hear the ethical and moral changes that will be required as a follower of Christ. Read through the Sermon on the Mount. Read through the Gospels. Read Paul’s letters and his exhortations to godly living (like Colossians 3). These are hard, hard passages. Jesus gives a parable about a king who is about to go to war. A king doesn’t rush into battle without considering whether he can win with his strength of force. If he can’t, he will seek terms of peace. Likewise, to follow Jesus, we must pick up our cross and follow.

Martyr didn’t just stop there, though. He also said new followers are entreated to pray and fast for the remission of their sins. Imagine standing at a pulpit and giving an altar call in which you don’t call people to the altar for salvation, but you call them to pray and fast for the next three days for their contrition of heart, remission of sins and an encounter with their own sin. Right from the start, would people implicitly get the seriousness of the faith? Would they catch the self-disciple that will be necessary to faithfully follow Christ?

But, they wouldn’t fast alone. “We”, the church (?), would pray and fast with them! The church would be participants in these new converts lives. It seems Christianity was less of a spectator sport. It seemed the faith engaged all members of the body of Christ.

I’m not trying to say the early church is necessarily the ideal. Yet, I do think we could learn a great deal from looking into how our brothers and sisters in Christ live the faith. The advantage of studying the early church is these members were a generation or two removed from the disciples. In other words, they seemed to have the most genuinely apostolic understanding of Christianity. We would do well to listen.



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