Justification in the Early Church – The Early Perspective on Justification

200 Early Church picWelcome to the last post of this series which gives a survey of what the early church fathers have written about justification and works of law with reference to Paul. Click this link to go to the first post with the contents.

In this post I will draw together the various views of all the early church fathers I have quoted from.


Overarching Story

To draw the series together I need to frame it and tell a story.

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The Story of Israel

What I have called the ‘Story of Israel’, the length of time between Moses, the giving of the law and Jesus runs well over a thousand years.

During those many years the people of Israel were by and large the only people of God. They were entrusted with the scriptures, what we know as the Old Testament (or Covenant). They had a long line of prophets and kings. They were instructed by the LORD through Moses to obey the law (of Moses). This law both defined their understanding of morality and distinguished them from the other nations. The Gentiles.

These Gentiles, the other nations were outsiders, strangers to the faith, they did not obey the law of Moses and were considered wicked in the sight of God.

The Story of Jesus

I have posted a series on what the early church believed is the gospel before. The time where the people of Israel, now just the Jews, were considered the only people of God neared its end when Jesus came.

During the gospel Jesus alluded several times to the introduction of Gentiles into the people of God (Mt 12.18,21; Lk 2.32). There were Gentiles who put their faith in him recognised him for who he is (Mk 7.26; Mt 8.5-13; Mk 15.39). Jesus absolved the need to obey various commands in the law of Moses (Mk 7.18-19; 12.1-14; 12.33). He said he fulfilled the law (Mt 5.17).

Jesus died on the cross and on the third day rose from the dead.

Acts of the Apostles

As we see in Acts, Jesus ascended to heaven and the apostles proclaimed the gospel to the people. First the Jews, then the Samaritans and then the Gentiles (Acts).

With more Gentiles coming to faith, some Jewish believers sought to impose the law of Moses on them. Remember Israel was instructed by the LORD to obey the law of Moses and on and off had done so for more than a thousand years. Failing to observe what God commands is an omissional sin and long term habits and beliefs are hard to change.

But what Jesus said and did in the gospel changed all that. A new set of rules were in play.

When these Gentile newcomers came to believe in Jesus and the same God, the early Christians had a council meeting (Acts 15) about it on whether the Gentile believers needed to be circumcised and observe the law of Moses. They came to the conclusion the Gentiles didn’t. They were acceptable in God’s sight without having to observe the law.

So for more than a thousand years the people of Israel, those who obeyed the law of Moses, were considered the only people of God. Righteous in his sight.

Then Jesus comes along and changes everything. Gentiles come to faith and all of a sudden, there are different groups of people coming under the one banner of Christianity. Not all of them were observing the law of Moses.

200 Early Church Jew GentileThe diagram above highlights various groups of Jews and Gentiles to Christianity.

Initially the Christian movement was primarily Jewish. The early preaching of the apostles caused many Jews to believe Jesus is in fact the promised messiah.

Then came a slow trickle of Gentiles who believed in Jesus. At first the Jewish Christians may have outnumbered the Gentile Christians, but soon after ward more and more Gentiles turned from idolatry to Christ and the Christian movement became increasingly Gentile. Jewish Christians became the minority and we don’t hear much from them after Acts. Certainly the early church fathers were not Jewish Christians. They were Gentile Christians.

Christianity soon consisted primarily of Gentile believers. Gentile believers who did not observe the law of Moses.


Here is a basic outline of my understanding of how the expression ‘justified’ and its cognates can be used to describe a believers life. A fuller outline can be seen in my New Perspective page. See also my Mindset series where I argue for these distinctions.

000 Justified MindsetAs per the table above I believe there are three parts in a believers life in which justification language can be applied.

Sinners become Righteous by Christ’s death

When a person hears the gospel and by God’s sheer grace comes to faith, they appropriate the benefits of Christ’s death on the cross (Rom 5.8-9). They repent of their sins and those sins are forgiven (Rom 4.6-8). They are made righteous by his one righteous act (Rom 5.19). They are expected to make a practice of righteousness from here on in (1 Cor 6.11; 1 Jn 3.7).

This is the first and necessary step to the second form of justification.

People of God are Identified as Righteous by some means

James is the easiest example of this kind of justification. A person is justified by works and not by faith alone (Jas 2.21-24). That is – a person is identified as righteous by their good works and their faith (in Jesus and God). God and people are also justified in their words (Rom 3.4; Mt 12.37). Wisdom is justified by her deeds (Mt 11.19; Lk 7.35). Paul says the doers of the law will be justified (Rom 2.13).

Righteousness in and of itself tends to bear a meaning closely related to innocence, uprightness, holiness and blamelessness. It concerns morality and ethics. However the expression is also used in conjunction with a variety of images such as covenant (blessing, promise, law of Moses), law court (condemnation, judgment), slave market (set free, slavery, dominion, reign) and sacrificial imagery (blood, death). In these contexts it tends to carry additional inferences depending on the imagery being used.

I’ll now walk us through examples of where the early church applied justification language to believers and order it according to these categories.

Gentile Sinners become righteous by Christ’s death

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Mathetes letter to Diognetus is a prime example of the justification of the ungodly through Christ’s death on the cross.

Book Ante Nicene Fathers“But when our wickedness had reached its height, and it had been clearly shown that its reward, punishment and death, was impending over us; and when the time had come which God had before appointed for manifesting His own kindness and power,

how the one love of God, through exceeding regard for men, did not regard us with hatred, nor thrust us away, nor remember our iniquity against us, but showed great long-suffering, and bore with 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!

Having therefore convinced us in the former time that our nature was unable to attain to life, and having now revealed the Saviour who is able to save even those things which it was [formerly] impossible to save, by both these facts He desired to lead us to trust in His kindness, to esteem Him our Nourisher, Father, Teacher, Counsellor, Healer, our Wisdom, Light, Honour, Glory, Power, and Life.”

(Roberts, A., Donaldson, J. & Coxe, A.C. eds., 1885. The Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus. In The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus. The Ante-Nicene Fathers. Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, p. 28., SweetExchange)

I think Pelagius also has a good quote on this same concept when discussing Rom 5.1;

“He [Paul] has discussed the point that none of them is JUSTIFIED by works, but all by faith, and he proves this with the example of Abraham, of whom the Jews think they alone are children.

He has also explained why neither race nor circumcision but faith makes people children of Abraham, who was JUSTIFIED initially by faith alone.

Now, having finished this argument, he urges them to be at peace, because none is saved by his own merit, but all are saved in the same way by God’s grace.” (cf. Rom 5.1; SavedByGrace)

Its possible Clement of Rome’s reference to being ‘justified by that faith‘ could be included in this grouping. However as I argued there Clement is not clear by what he means by ‘that faith’. From the context it looks like he is referring to God’s ongoing work in peoples lives, not just the starting one off event.

Book Cooper The Righteousness of One An Evaluation of Early Patristic Soteriology in Light of the New Perspective on PaulJordan Cooper in his book The Righteousness of One: An Evaluation of Early Patristic Soteriology in Light of the New Perspective on Paul’ points out the quotes from Clement and Mathetes pointing out quite rightly they speak of people initially coming to faith. He uses these to argue the early church did not hold New Perspective positions. I disagree because I’ve seen numerous other quotes supporting NPP interpretations from the second century.

Lets move to the next form of justification in their writings.

Gentile Christians identified as the righteous by their faith in Christ and not by works of law

45 Justify Frame - Christian and JewishAt this point keep in mind I am no longer referring to the point where an unbelieving sinner first comes to faith and becomes righteous. I assume this has already transpired.

I refer now to believing Christians and primarily Gentile believers. The early church, including the fathers were primarily Gentile believers who did not observe the law of Moses.

Historical Context of the early church

At the beginning of the series I quoted McGrath saying,

Book McGrath Iustitia Dei History of Doctrine of Justification“It must also be appreciated, however, that the early fathers do not appear to have been faced with a threat from Jewish Christian activists teaching justification by works of the law, such as is presupposed by those Pauline epistles dealing with the doctrine of justification by faith in most detail (e.g., Galatians).” (p32, McGrath, A.E., Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification)

McGrath is right to point out Jewish Christians didn’t threaten the early fathers or Gentile Christians. In fact I don’t think there were many Jewish Christians at all. Christianity was predominately Gentile. What I did find was Jewish unbelievers questioning the Gentile Christians about their beliefs and practices.

Eusebius for example says;

Book Ante Nicene Fathers“And on the other side I set the accusation of the Jews, in which they claim to be justly incensed against us, because we [Gentile Christians] do not embrace their manner of life, though we make use of their sacred writings.” (Eusebius, Proof of the Gospel, Ch 1)

After a long argument Eusebius says;

“And, therefore, we reject Jewish customs, on the ground that they were not laid down for us, and that it is impossible to accommodate them to the needs of the Gentiles, while we gladly accept the Jewish prophecies as containing predictions about ourselves.” (Eusebius, Proof of the Gospel, Ch7)

Unbelieving Jews were still scattered about the Roman Empire. Gentile Christians claimed to believe in the same God as the unbelieving Jews. They also believed that Jesus was the promised Christ.

I found that discussion about works of the law and justification cropped up when the early church fathers explained:

  1. why they did not observe all the commands in the law of Moses, and
  2. their relationship to the Old Testament scriptures, and
  3. they still worship the same God as the Jews.

Their explanations were directed towards unbelieving Jews and Gentiles and even the Gentile Church at large.

At this point it will be helpful to have a quick look at the commands of the law of Moses.

The Law of Moses

The following list describes most of the commands in the Law of Moses.

  • Love God and Neighbour
  • Honour Parents

These two seem to refer more to attitudes that potentially lead to various actions rather than actions themselves.

  • Circumcision
  • Festivals and holidays
  • Worship and Sacrifice
  • Purity and Washings

Other than circumcision, these commands involved regular works throughout the entire calendar year. Circumcision and Sabbath observance also functioned as signs.

  • Idolatry and Foreign Worship
  • Sorcery and Divination
  • Murder and Violence
  • Sexual Immorality
  • Stealing
  • False Witness and Dishonesty
  • Coveting
  • Food laws

These commands are all prohibitions against some sort of behaviour. They were behaviours people should not do.

  • Firstborn
  • Property, Land and Servants
  • Punishment and Restitution
  • Social Justice and the Poor
  • Vows
  • Trumpets
  • Clothing
  • War practices
These last groupings of commands did not involve regular practice for most of the people. Only on certain events were they required.
I believe the Hebrews on the whole thought of the law of Moses as a unity. When they referred to the commands in the law, there use of ‘law’ reflects the whole law. But on occasion did speak of specific sections in the law of Moses, not the whole.
  • The Decalogue,
  • when they refer to ‘unclean’ (Cleanliness and Purification laws)
  • Acts uses the word ‘customs’ (6.14; 21.21; 26.3; 28.17)
  • when the refer to sacrifices and offerings (temple laws)
  • ‘sexual immorality’ (forbidden sex acts in the law)
  • ‘days, months, seasons years’ Gal 4.10 (Jewish calendar observances), ‘a festival’ Col 2.16 (Jewish holidays and festivals)
  • ‘Food or drink’ (Col 2.16) ‘Never eaten anything unclean’ Acts 10.14 food laws
  • works of law, ‘works’ or ‘deeds’ are observable actions. Not what I’ve described as the attitudes or prohibitions.

All the commands in the law were of course obligatory for the Jews. God commanded them. Refusing to observe any of the commands was a moral issue. A sin of commission or omission.

That being said, the laws I have categorised as ‘actions’ stood out more than any other. In a mixed Jew – Gentile society they marked out the Jews as the people of God. These laws in particular were both morally obligatory and functioned as ‘boundary markers’.

Paul’s statements

It probably helpful to get a refresher on some of Paul’s statements which mention justification and works of law.

19 Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. 20 For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. (Rom 3.19-20)

28 For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. 29 Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, 30 since God is one—who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith. (Rom 3.28-30)

9 Is this blessing then only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? For we say that faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness. 10 How then was it counted to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised. 11 He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well, 12 and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised. (Rom 4.9-12)

15 We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; 16 yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified. (Gal 2.15-16)

With these in mind, lets have a look at how the early church answered the three points I mentioned above regarding the historical context of the early church.

Why didn’t the Gentile believers in the early church observe the Law of Moses?

Trypho the Jew explains the how some Jews thought about Gentile Christians who did not observe various commands in the law of Moses.

Book Ante Nicene FathersTrypho:

“But this is what we are most at a loss about: that you, professing to be pious, and supposing yourselves better than others, are not in any particular separated from them, and do not alter your mode of living from the nations, in that you observe no festivals or sabbaths, and do not have the rite of circumcision;

and further, resting your hopes on a man that was crucified, yet you expect to obtain some good thing from God, while you do not obey His commandments.

Have you not read, that soul shall be cut off from his people who shall not have been circumcised on the eighth day? And this has been ordained for strangers and for slaves equally.

But you, despising this COVENANT rashly, reject the consequent duties, and attempt to persuade yourselves that you know God, when, however, you perform none of those things which they do who fear God.

If, therefore, you can defend yourself on these points, and make it manifest in what way you hope for anything whatsoever, even though you do not observe the law, this we would very gladly hear from you, and we shall make other similar investigations.”

(Justin Martyr. (1885). Dialogue of Justin with Trypho, a Jew. In A. Roberts, J. Donaldson & A. C. Coxe (Eds.), The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume I: The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus (A. Roberts, J. Donaldson & A. C. Coxe, Ed.) Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 199, Introduction)

Notice how Trypho links commandments of God including circumcision, the Sabbaths and festivals with the covenant. Justin will eventually reply;

Book Ante Nicene FathersJustin:

“God demanded by other leaders, and by the giving of the law after the lapse of so many generations,

that those who lived between the times of Abraham and of Moses be JUSTIFIED by circumcision, and

that those who lived after Moses be JUSTIFIED by circumcision and the other ordinances – to wit, the Sabbath, and sacrifices, and libations, and offerings;… For you are not distinguished in any other way than by the fleshly circumcision, as I remarked previously.

For Abraham was declared by God to be RIGHTEOUS, not on account of circumcision, but on account of faith. For before he was circumcised the following statement was made regarding him:

‘Abraham believed God, and it was accounted unto him for RIGHTEOUSNESS.‘ [Gen 15.6]

And we [Gentile Christians], therefore, in the uncircumcision of our flesh, believing God through Christ, and having that circumcision which is of advantage to us who have acquired it – namely, that of the heart – we hope to appear RIGHTEOUS before and well-pleasing to God:”

(Justin Martyr. (1885). Dialogue of Justin with Trypho, a Jew. In A. Roberts, J. Donaldson & A. C. Coxe (Eds.), The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume I: The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus (A. Roberts, J. Donaldson & A. C. Coxe, Ed.) Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 245, AbrahamCounted)

Justin argues Gentile Christians do not have to be circumcised or observe the Sabbath, and sacrifices, and libations, and offerings. Rather they ‘appear’ righteous before God because of their circumcised hearts which believe in God through Christ.

I’ve found similar arguments in prominent early church fathers;

Why didn’t the Gentile believers in the early church observe the Works of Law?

McGrath says about the works of law.

Book McGrath Iustitia Dei History of Doctrine of Justification“The relationship between faith and works is explored, yet without moving significantly beyond a modest restatement of Paul’s original statements, in which the phrase`works of the law’ is generally interpreted as general human achievements, rather than a more specific cultic demand, peculiar to Israel’s identity.”

(p32, McGrath, A.E., Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification)

I found the expression ‘works of law’ is mentioned several times in the Patristic commentaries on Romans and by Augustine. I found the early church would regularly speak about circumcision, the Sabbaths and festivals, the sacrifices and purification and washing rituals in very similar way to which Paul would refer to ‘works of law’ in Galatians and Romans. I found very similar lines of argumentation in the early church which follow a similar track to the New Perspective.

Consider Augustine’s writings against Faustus for example;

Book Ante Nicene FathersFaustus:
“… This preparatory supply is found, on inquiry, to consist of Sabbaths, circumcision, sacrifices, new moons, baptisms, feasts of unleavened bread, distinctions of foods, drink, and clothes, and other things, too many to specify. …

Besides, there is that terrible curse pronounced upon those who abide not in all things that are written in the book of the law to do them (Dt 27.26; cf. Gal 3).

With the fear of this curse appearing to come from God on the one side, and with Christ on the other side, seeming, as the Son of God, to say that he came not to destroy these things, but to fulfill them, what was to prevent me from becoming a Jew? The wise instruction of Manichæus saved me from this danger.

6. But how can you venture to quote this verse against me? Or why should it be against me only, when it is as much against yourself? If Christ does not destroy the law and the prophets, neither must Christians do so. Why then do you destroy them? Do you begin to perceive that you are no Christian?”

(Augustine of Hippo, 1887. Reply to Faustus the Manichæan. In P. Schaff, ed. St. Augustin: The Writings against the Manichaeans and against the Donatists. A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series. Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, pp. 234f., Faustus)

Faustus will go into detail asking Augustine about each of these commands in the law of Moses trying to press his point about Jesus destroying the law or fulfilling the law.

Augustine will respond saying that Jesus fulfills the law in two ways. First he enables by the Spirit his people to fulfill the moral law. Second he says the ceremonial commands both predicted the coming of the Christ and were fulfilled in his person and work.

Replying to each question Faustus asked, Augustine will explain why Gentile Christians do not observe circumcision, the Sabbaths and festivals, the sacrifices and purification and washing rituals and how Jesus as fulfilled them.

After many of these specific arguments Augustine will refer to these commands as the ‘works of law’.

Book Ante Nicene FathersAugustine:
“… But in the case of those who had no such training [Gentiles], but were brought to Christ, the cornerstone, from the opposite wall of circumcision, there was no obligation to adopt Jewish customs.

If, indeed, like Timothy, they chose to accommodate themselves to the views of those of the circumcision who were still wedded to their old sacraments, they were free to do so.

But if they supposed that their hope and salvation depended on these works of the law, they were warned against them as a fatal danger. So the apostle says:

“Behold, I Paul say unto you, that if ye be circumcised, Christ shall profit you nothing;” (Gal 5.2)

that is, if they were circumcised, as they were intending to be, in compliance with some corrupt teachers, who told them that without these works of the law they could not be saved.

For when, chiefly through the preaching of the Apostle Paul, the Gentiles were coming to the faith of Christ, as it was proper that they should come, without being burdened with Jewish observances—

for those who were grown up were deterred from the faith by fear of ceremonies to which they were not accustomed, especially of circumcision; and if they who had not been trained from their birth to such observances had been made proselytes in the usual way, it would have implied that the coming of Christ still required to be predicted as a future event.” (ibid, WorksOfLaw)

Its fairly clear from Augustine’s response he has associated the ‘works of law’ with the commands about Sabbaths, circumcision, sacrifices, new moons, baptisms, feasts of unleavened bread, distinctions of foods, drink, and clothes.

These are the early Roman commentaries in particular which define ‘works of law’ in a similar way to what Augustine has done above;

In addition I would draw upon the examples from Justin Martyr and Ireneaus as argument for the early church’s understanding of the expression.

What scripture did the Gentile believers in the early church use to show they did not have to observe the works of law?

In Romans 4 and in Galatians, Paul quotes Genesis 15.6. The verse is as follows;

6 And he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness. (Gen 15.6)

It speaks about Abraham and his faith in God and his promise of offspring. Of this verse and the blessings associated with belief Paul says in Romans 4;

9 Is this blessing then only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised?

For we say that faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness.

10 How then was it counted to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised.

11 He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised.

The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well, 12 and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised. (Rom 4.9-12)

Paul is alluding to Abraham’s life events.

45 Abraham life eventsUsing Genesis 15.6, his argument is that Gentile believers are counted righteous in God’s sight without having to observe the law of Moses. Abraham is the example of pre-Mosaic faith and righteousness.

More so than any other justification text – the early church used Genesis 15.6 and Paul’s argument in Romans 4 to argue Gentile believers were righteous in God’s sight without having to observe the works of law or the law of Moses.

I’ve already quoted some examples. Another such example is in Tertullian’s writings as he explains Galatians.

Book Ante Nicene Fathers“We have received, therefore, the promise of the Spirit,” as the apostle says, “through faith,” (Gal 3.14)

even that faith by which the JUST man lives, in accordance with the Creator’s purpose. What I say, then, is this, that that God is the object of faith who prefigured the grace of faith. But when he also adds,

“For ye are all the children of faith,” (cf. Gal 3.26)

it becomes clear that what the heretic’s industry erased was the mention of Abraham’s name; for by faith the apostle declares us to be “children of Abraham,” and after mentioning him he expressly called us “children of faith” also. But how are we children of faith? and of whose faith, if not Abraham’s? For since

“Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for RIGHTEOUSNESS;”(Gen 15.6; cf Gal 3.6)

since, also, he deserved for that reason to be called “the father of many nations,” whilst we, who are even more like him in believing in God, are thereby JUSTIFIED as Abraham was, and thereby also obtain life—since the JUST lives by his faith,—

it therefore happens that, as he in the previous passage called us “sons of Abraham,” since he is in faith our (common) father, so here also he named us “children of faith,” for it was owing to his faith that it was promised that Abraham should be the father of (many) nations.

As to the fact itself of his calling off faith from circumcision, did he not seek thereby to constitute us the children of Abraham, who had believed previous to his circumcision in the flesh?

In short, faith in one of two gods cannot possibly admit us to the dispensation of the other, so that it should impute RIGHTEOUSNESS to those who believe in him, and make the JUST live through him, and declare the GENTILES to be his children through faith.

Such a dispensation as this belongs wholly to Him through whose appointment it was already made known by the call of this self-same Abraham, as is conclusively shown by the natural meaning.”

(p434-435, Tertullian. (1885). The Five Books against Marcion. In A. Roberts, J. Donaldson, & A. C. Coxe (Eds.), P. Holmes (Trans.), Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian (Vol. 3, p. 431). Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company., JustifiedAsAbraham)

Dispensations and the Pre-Mosaic Saints

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Following the same line of argumentation, the early church believed there were several dispensations in salvation history. They drew upon this overarching salvation history framework when explaining why they did not observe the law of Moses.

They would refer to the ‘pre-Mosaic Saints’ or the righteous men before the law of Moses. They would name Adam, Seth, Enoch, Noah and Abraham and say the Gentile Christians have like faith and piety as these men and are justified on the same grounds.

Ireneaus is a good example of how they refer to these men with respect to the giving of the law of Moses.

Book Ante Nicene Fathers2. And that man was not JUSTIFIED by these things, but that they were given as a sign to the people, this fact shows,—that Abraham himself, without circumcision and without observance of Sabbaths,

believed God, and it was imputed unto him for RIGHTEOUSNESS; and he was called the friend of God.” (cf. Gen 15.6)

Then, again, Lot, without circumcision, was brought out from Sodom, receiving salvation from God.

So also did Noah, pleasing God, although he was uncircumcised, receive the dimensions [of the ark], of the world of the second race [of men].

Enoch, too, pleasing God, without circumcision, discharged the office of God’s legate to the angels although he was a man, and was translated, and is preserved until now as a witness of the just judgment of God, because the angels when they had transgressed fell to the earth for judgment, but the man who pleased [God] was translated for salvation.

Moreover, all the rest of the multitude of those righteous men who lived before Abraham, and of those patriarchs who preceded Moses, were JUSTIFIED independently of the things above mentioned, and without the law of Moses.

As also Moses himself says to the people in Deuteronomy:

“The LORD thy God formed a covenant in Horeb. The LORD formed not this covenant with your fathers, but for you.” (Dt 5.2-3)

(Irenaeus of Lyons, 1885. Irenæus against Heresies. In A. Roberts, J. Donaldson, & A. C. Coxe, eds. The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus. The Ante-Nicene Fathers. Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, p. 481., AbrahamImputed)

More examples can be found in the works of:

Righteousness and Covenant

Faith, obedience, pleasing God, being commended as righteous, receiving and inheriting the promises are all bound up together in Hebrews 11. After speaking about the faith and righteousness of Abel, Enoch and Noah the author of Hebrews will say;

13 These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar. (Heb 11.13; cf. Heb 11.39)

The author of Hebrews associated the declaration of righteousness with receiving God’s covenant promises and inheriting the kingdom even though these men lived and more than a hundred years before the covenant was given. The promises and the inheritance are issued retrospectively to all the righteous.

Likewise the early church was well aware of the association between righteousness and covenant. Their use of the Genesis 15.6 quote and righteousness was quite often interpreted with covenantal implications as well as moral. Consider the Epistle of Barnabas.


But let us see if this people [Christians] is the heir, or the former [the Jews], and if the COVENANT belongs to us or to them. … And in another prophecy Jacob speaks more clearly to his son Joseph, saying,

“Behold, the Lord hath not deprived me of thy presence; bring thy sons to me, that I may bless them.” (Gen 48.11,9)

And he brought Manasseh and Ephraim, desiring that Manasseh should be blessed, because he was the elder. With this view Joseph led him to the right hand of his father Jacob. But Jacob saw in spirit the type of the people to arise afterwards. And what says [the Scripture]? And Jacob changed the direction of his hands, and laid his right hand upon the head of Ephraim, the second and younger, and blessed him. And Joseph said to Jacob,

“Transfer thy right hand to the head of Manasseh, for he is my first-born son.” (Gen 48.18)

And Jacob said,

“I know it, my son, I know it; but the elder shall serve the younger: yet he also shall be blessed.” (Gen 48.19)

Ye see on whom he laid [his hands], that this people should be first, and heir of the COVENANT. If then, still further, the same thing was intimated through Abraham, we reach the perfection of our knowledge. What, then, says He to Abraham?

“Because thou hast believed, it is imputed to thee for RIGHTEOUSNESS (Gen 15.6; Rom 4.3):

“behold, I have made thee the father of those nations who believe in the Lord while in [a state of] uncircumcision.” (Gen 17.5; Rom 4.3)

(Roberts, A., Donaldson, J., & Coxe, A. C. (Eds.). (1885). The Epistle of Barnabas. In The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus (Vol. 1, pp. 145–146). Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company., Epistle)

Or even Eusebius a couple hundred years later;

“So there were before the Mosaic law other commandments of God, and ordinances not like those of Moses, other laws and precepts of Christ, by which they were JUSTIFIED. Moses clearly shews that these were not the same as his own enactments, when he says to the people:

“Hear, Israel, the ordinances and the judgments, all that I speak in your ears this day, and ye shall learn them, and observe to do them. The Lord your God made a covenant with you in horeb; the Lord did not make this covenant with your fathers, but with you.” (Dt 5.1-3)

See how distinctly he alludes to this covenant, when he says God did not give the same covenant to their fathers. For if he had said that absolutely no covenant was given to their fathers it would have been a false statement. For Holy Scripture testifies that a covenant of some kind was given both to Abraham and Noah.” (Ch 5 New Covenant)

So according to Eusebius ‘Holy Scripture testifies‘ people like Noah who was ‘justified‘ come under the covenant. Otherwise consider these statements from;

Faith is a sign of those Justified by God

NT Wright has argued that faith marks out in the present who will be vindicated in the future. His article on 4QMMT highlights this below.

Book Wright What Saint Paul really said“The sign that marked out in the present those to be vindicated at the future judgment was nothing more nor less than faith: faith in the God who raised Jesus, the God who had made promises to Abraham and had now, in the Messiah, kept those promises (Romans 4). … for Paul the sign was faith in Jesus the Messiah as the risen Lord. And the immediate corollary is of course that, whereas for MMT ‘the precepts of Torah’ meant drawing carefully and tightly the boundary lines between Israel and the Gentiles, and more particularly between the true Jews and those who, though Jewish, did not obey this set of precepts, for Paul this ‘faith’ was open to all, Jew and Gentile alike (10.11–13). Paul’s theology, like that of MMT, is covenantal and eschatological in form. But within the form there is radically different content.” (p14,16, 4QMMT and Paul: Justification, ‘Works,’ and Eschatology)

I found similar statements in the early church. Origen for example speaking about how sinners are justified without works echoes similar thoughts about faith as a sign drawing upon Genesis 15.6.

“But where there is no faith which JUSTIFIED the believer, even if one possesses works from the law, nevertheless because they have not been built upon the foundation of faith, although they might appear to be good things, nevertheless they are not able to JUSTIFY the one doing them,

because from them faith is absent, which is the sign of those who are JUSTIFIED by God.

This is what we have said above,

‘Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him for RIGHTEOUSNESS.’” …

“Through this entire passage, then, the Apostle clearly makes known that there are two kinds of JUSTIFICATION, one of which he designates as by works and the other by faith. He says that the one which is by works has a boast, but in itself and not before God. The one which is by faith, on the other hand, has a boast before God, as before the one who examines men’s hearts and knows who believes in secret and who does not believe. Therefore it is deservedly said that such a person has a boast before God alone, who sees his disposition of faith which is in secret.” (p228, p237-238, Origen, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans Books 1-5 and Books 6-10; Trans. Scheck, Thomas, P, FaithIstheSign, GodseesBelief)

Cyprian says something similar about ‘all being sealed by the sign of the Lord’ (Sign).

Do Gentile Christians worship another god?

It was assumed all believers in the god of the Jews would observe God’s commands in the Old Testament. If they do not observe them them they probably don’t worship the same god. That’s the way the logic went and the early church had to address this question.

Tertullian is one example of the early church fathers responding to the charge Christians worship another god brought about by their refusing to observe the law of Moses.

Book Ante Nicene Fathers“If they [the Galatians] had at all heard of any other god from the apostle, would they not have concluded at once, of themselves, that they must give up the law of that God whom they had left, in order to follow another?

For what man would be long in learning, that he ought to pursue a new discipline, after he had taken up with a new god?

Since, however, the same God was declared in the gospel which had always been so well known in the law, the only change being in the dispensation, the sole point of the question to be discussed was, whether the law of the Creator ought by the gospel to be excluded in the Christ of the Creator?”

(Tertullian. (1885). The Five Books against Marcion. In A. Roberts, J. Donaldson, & A. C. Coxe (Eds.), P. Holmes (Trans.), Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian (Vol. 3, p. 432-433). Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company., GospelOfGod)

Now for the last event in a believers life, applied to justification and judgment.

Final judgment is a rendering according to works

000 early church timeline end judgmentTo a lesser extent I sought to find statements about how justification applies specifically to Christ’s judgment at the end times. However they are spread throughout.


The good servant receives the bread of his labour with confidence; the lazy and slothful cannot look his employer in the face. It is requisite, therefore, that we be prompt in the practice of well-doing; for of Him are all things. And thus He forewarns us:

“Behold, the Lord [cometh], and His reward is before His face, to render to every man according to his work.” (Ps 62.10; c.f. Rom 2.6)

He exhorts us, therefore, with our whole heart to attend to this, that we be not lazy or slothful in any good work. Let our boasting and our confidence be in Him. Let us submit ourselves to His will. Let us consider the whole multitude of His angels, how they stand ever ready to minister to His will. For the Scripture saith, “Ten thousand times ten thousand stood around Him, and thousands of thousands ministered unto Him,7 and cried, Holy, holy, holy, [is] the Lord of Sabaoth; the whole creation is full of His glory.” And let us therefore, conscientiously gathering together in harmony, cry to Him earnestly, as with one mouth, that we may be made partakers of His great and glorious promises. For [the Scripture] saith, “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which He hath prepared for them that wait for Him.”9


How blessed and wonderful, beloved, are the gifts of God! Life in immortality, splendour in righteousness, truth in perfect confidence, faith in assurance, self-control in holiness! And all these fall under the cognizance of our understandings [now]; what then shall those things be which are prepared for such as wait for Him? The Creator and Father of all worlds, the Most Holy, alone knows their amount and their beauty. Let us therefore earnestly strive to be found in the number of those that wait for Him, in order that we may share in His promised gifts.

But how, beloved, shall this be done?

If our understanding be fixed by faith towards God;

if we earnestly seek the things which are pleasing and acceptable to Him;

if we do the things which are in harmony with His blameless will; and

if we follow the way of truth, casting away from us all unrighteousness and iniquity, along with all covetousness, strife, evil practices, deceit, whispering, and evil-speaking, all hatred of God, pride and haughtiness, vainglory and ambition.

(Clement of Rome, 1885. The First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians. In A. Roberts, J. Donaldson, & A. C. Coxe, eds. The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus. The Ante-Nicene Fathers. Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, p. 14., Rendering)

He quotes Ps 62.12 as Paul does in Rom 2.6 and uses it to encourage believers to do good works in light of the coming judgment and reward.

Ignatius of Antioch (AD 35-107)

Let your baptism be ever your shield, your faith a helmet, your charity a spear, your patience a panoply. Let your works be deposits, so that you may receive the sum that is due you” (Letter to St. Polycarp, 6).

Polycarp of Smyrna (AD 69-156)

“…knowing that ‘you are saved by grace, not because of works’ (Eph. 2:5,9,9), namely, by the will of God through Jesus Christ” (ch. 1:3, Polycarp’s Letter to the Philippians).

“For ‘he who raised him from the dead will raise us also’ (2 Cor. 4:14; 1 Cor. 6:14; Rom 8:11), if we do his will and follow his commandments, and love what he loved (1 John 4:11,12), refraining from all wrongdoing” (ch. 2:2,3, ibid).

Justin Martyr (AD 100-165)

“Each man goes to everlasting punishment or salvation according to the value of his actions” (The First Apology of Justin, ch. 7).

Irenaeus (AD 130-200)

But to the righteous and holy, and those who have kept his commandments and have remained in his love…he will by his grace give life incorrupt, and will clothe them with eternal glory (ch.10:1, Against Heresies, Book I,).

Clement of Alexandria (AD 150-215)

1) “‘For by grace we are saved—but not, indeed, without good works…For this, we have the greatest need of divine grace…” (The Stromata, Bk. II, ch. I); and

2) “The same from the foundation of the world is each one who at different periods is saved, and will be saved by faith” (The Stromata, Bk. VI, ch, VI).

Tertullian (AD 160-223)

We make petition, then, that He supply us with the substance of His will and the capacity to do it–so that we may be saved both in the heaven and on earth (On Prayer, part III, ch. IV).

Theophilus (approx. AD 180)

To those who by patient continuance in well-doing seek immortality, He will give eternal life everlasting life” (Theophilus to Autolycus, Bk. I, ch. XIII).

“For man drew death upon himself by disobeying. So, by obeying the will of God, he who wants to can procure for himself life everlasting (Bk. II, ch. XXVII).

Cyprian (d. 258)

“Assuredly, then, whoever believes in God and lives in faith is found righteous and is already blessed in faithful Abraham” (The Epistles of Cyprian, Epistle LXII, ch. IV).

John Chrysostom (AD 347-407)

And why did [God] choose us? ‘That we should be holy and blameless before him.’ So that you may not suppose, when you hear that he chose us, that faith alone is sufficient, he goes on to refer to manner of life. This, he says, is the reason and the purpose of his choice—that we should be holy and blameless… Being holy is a matter of sharing in faith; being blameless is a matter of living an irreproachable life (Homilies on Ephesians, 1, 1-2, Sermon on Ephesians 1:4-5).


One well known and controversial point NT Wright made in his What Saint Paul really said was;

Book Wright What Saint Paul really said

“The discussions of justification in much of the history of the church, certainly since Augustine, got off on the wrong foot – at least in terms of understanding Paul – and they have stayed there ever since.” (Tom Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said)

How should we consider Wright’s statement? Well, I mentioned in my very first post of this series various eras in our church history;

  1. The ‘Patristic Period’ is the time from the apostles right up the Augustine of Hippo. These are the writings I have been quoting from.
  2. The ‘Augustinian Period’ is the time from Augustine, mainly the Roman Catholic Church and up to the Protestant Reformation.
  3. The ‘Augustinian Reform Period’ is the time of the protestant reformation. Martin Luther and John Calvin are prominent examples.

And now, having reviewed many of the early church fathers I can display the following table to compare the evolving understandings of justification over church history;


(Justin Martyr, Ireneaus, Tertullian, Origen)


(Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Peter Lombard)


(Martin Luther, John Calvin)


(Sanders, Dunn, Wright)

Justification (1) and (2) Justification (1) and (2) Justification (1) and (2) Justification (1) and (2)
(1) Justification used to explain the event where sinners are made righteous in God’s sight (1) Justification used to explain the initial event and following process where sinners are made righteous. An inward change recognised by God. (1) Augustine’s understanding of justification divided up into Justification and Sanctification. Justification used to explain the legal declaration given to sinners when they come to faith in Jesus. Has nothing to do with an inner change. (Progressive) Santification used to explain the inward change in the believer during the course of their entire life. (1) Not carried forward? Misunderstood?
(2) Responding to the Jewish way of life, Justification used to explain Gentile believers are identified as righteous in God’s sight by faith and why they don’t observe the works of law commanded by God. (2) Not carried forward, no longer needed, forgotten and misunderstood (2) Not carried forward. (2) Used in an argument against Jewish nationalism.  Justification used to explain Jew and Gentile believers are identified as righteous in God’s sight by faith apart from the Jewish works of law.
Works of Law

Circumcision, Sabbath, Festivals, Sacrifices, Washings. Aka ‘Ceremonies’, ‘Sacraments’, and ‘Customs’. In some instances refers to the ‘natural law’

Works of Law

Not carried forward, no longer needed, forgotten and misunderstood

Works of Law

Good works, any work or action believed to gain a righteous standing before God

Works of Law

‘Boundary markers’ of the covenant which mark out God’s people among the nations. Circumcision, Sabbath, Festivals, Sacrifices, Washings.

It seems to me, for Wright’s statement to be true one has to show from the Patristic Period, use of justification language which follows the same line of thought as the New Perspective on Paul. I think we can now agree with Wright’s statement in the light of this series.

The early church’s historical context is the closest to Paul’s own and through these early church writings we can better understand Paul’s pastoral needs regarding the relationship of Gentile believers to Judaism and justification.

Establishing the validity of various New Perspective interpretations of Paul should take into account the presence of similar thought in the centuries immediately following the apostle and his contemporaries. It’s entirely logical to assume Paul’s understanding of justification and what he meant in Romans and Galatians would have been passed on orally to the generations of new Christians immediately following the apostles.

It is my contention the New Perspective on Paul has captured the historical context well and understood Paul’s statements within that context rightly. If one is familiar with the works of James Dunn and Tom Wright, they would see the same continuity of thought in the early church’s use of justification language and their references to the works of law.

I propose the New Perspective on Paul’s view of justification is not new. I propose it is the Early Perspective on Justification and should be recognised as such.

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