Justification in the Early Church – 10 – Origen

200 Early Church picWelcome to this series of posts giving 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 of the whole.

In today’s post we look at Origen (c.e. 185-254). Origen was a scholar and early Christian theologian who was born and spent the first half of his career in Alexandria. He was a prolific writer in multiple branches of theology, including textual criticism, biblical exegesis and hermeneutics, philosophical theology, preaching, and spirituality written in Greek. He wrote several statements concerning justification including the first commentary on Romans. It is a long post.

200 Early Church Jew Gentile

Origen against Celsus (Book 2)

One of the many writings of Origen was a long winded argument against the teachings of Celsus.

“Celsus was a Greek writer in the second century who criticized Christianity as a threat to the stable communities and worldview that the “pagan” religious and social system sought to uphold. His work as a whole has been lost, but when the third century theologian Origen sought to answer Celsus’ charges in a work appropriately called Against Celsus, he preserved most of Celsus’ criticisms.” (http://www.bluffton.edu/~humanities/1/celsus.htm)

Christian Jews still observed the law of Moses

Chapter 1

“let us proceed to consider what he has to say to the converts from Judaism. He asserts that “they have forsaken the law of their fathers, in consequence of their minds being led captive by Jesus; that they have been most ridiculously deceived, and that they have become deserters to another name and to another mode of life.”

(Origen. (1885). Origen against Celsus. In A. Roberts, J. Donaldson, & A. C. Coxe (Eds.), F. Crombie (Trans.), Fathers of the Third Century: Tertullian, Part Fourth; Minucius Felix; Commodian; Origen, Parts First and Second (Vol. 4, p. 429). Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company.)

Celsus argues the Jews who became Christians no longer observed the law of Moses. The issue here is not about Gentiles and their lack of observance. Its about Jewish Christian practice. The first Christians were Jews.

Origen responds speaking about the apostles. All the apostles were Jews.

“Nay, Peter himself seems to have observed for a considerable time the Jewish observances enjoined by the law of Moses, not having yet learned from Jesus to ascend from the law that is regulated according to the letter, to that which is interpreted according to the Spirit, – a fact which we learn from the Acts of the Apostles.” (p429, ibid)

What follows here is a brief discussion of Peter’s vision in Acts 10.

“Now observe how, by this instance, Peter is represented as still observing the Jewish customs respecting clean and unclean animals. And from the narrative that follows, it is manifest that he, as being yet a Jew, and living according to their traditions, and despising those who were beyond the pale of Judaism, stood in need of a vision to lead him to communicate to Cornelius (who was not an Israelite according to the flesh), and to those who were with him, the word of faith.

Moreover, in the Epistle to the Galatians, Paul states that Peter, still from fear of the Jews, ceased upon the arrival of James to eat with the Gentiles, and “separated himself from them, fearing them that were of the circumcision;” and the rest of the Jews, and Barnabas also, followed the same course.

And certainly it was quite consistent that those should not abstain from the observance of Jewish usages who were sent to minister to the circumcision, when they who “seemed to be pillars” gave the right hand of fellowship to Paul and Barnabas, in order that, while devoting themselves to the circumcision, the latter might preach to the Gentiles.

And why do I mention that they who preached to the circumcision withdrew and separated themselves from the heathen, when even Paul himself “became as a Jew to the Jews, that he might gain the Jews?”

Wherefore also in the Acts of the Apostles it is related that he even brought an offering to the altar, that he might satisfy the Jews that he was no apostate from their law.

Now, if Celsus had been acquainted with all these circumstances, he would not have represented the Jew holding such language as this to the converts from Judaism: “What induced you, my fellow-citizens, to abandon the law of your fathers, and to allow your minds to be led captive by him with whom we have just conversed, and thus be most ridiculously deluded, so as to become deserters from us to another name, and to the practices of another life?” (p429–430, ibid)

Origen relates the ongoing observance of the law of Moses by the Jews in certain situations. Peter observed the law, up till the time of his vision in Acts 10. Origen understands the law was no longer binding on the Jews, rather optional. The apostles observed the law (in particular various ceremonies) to assist in gospel ministry to the Jews. But where Gentiles were present, it was important to act in a way that the Gentile believers did not feel they had to observe it.

Meats, drinks, festivals, new moons and Sabbaths

Chapter 2

“For it is there [in the Gospel according to John] related that Jesus said:

‘I have yet many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now. Howbeit when He, the Spirit of truth, is come. H will guide you into all the truth: for he shall not speak of Himself; but whatsoever He shall hear, that He shall speak.’ (Jn 16.12-13)

And when we inquire what were the ‘many things’ referred to in the passage which Jesus had to say to his disciples, but which they were not yet then able to bear, I have to observe that, probably because the apostles were Jews, and had been trained up according to the letter of the Mosaic law,

He was unable to tell them what was the true law, and how the Jewish worship consisted in the pattern and shadow of heavenly things (Col 2.16-17), and how future blessings were foreshadowed by the injunctions regarding meats and drinks, and festivals, and new moons, and sabbaths.

These were many of the subjects He had to explain to them; but as he saw it was a work of exceeding difficulty to root out of the mind opinions that have been almost born with a man, and amid which he had been brought up till he reached the period of maturity, and which have produced in those who have adopted them the belief that they are divine, and that it is an act of impiety to overthrow them; and to demonstrate by the superiority of Christian doctrine, that is, by the truth, in a manner to convince the hearers, that such opinions were but ‘loss and dung,’ (cf. Phil 3)

He postponed such a task to a future season – to that, namely, which followed His passion and resurrection. For the bringing of aid unseasonably to those who were not yet capable of receiving it, might have overturned the idea which they have already formed of Jesus, as the Christ, and the Son of the living God.

“And see if there is not some well-grounded reason for such a statement as this,

‘I have many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now;’ (Jn 16.12)

seeing there are many points in the law which require to be explained and cleared up in a spiritual sense, and these the disciples were in a manner unable to bear, having been born and brought up amongst Jews.

I am of opinion, moreover, that since these rites were typical, and the truth was that which was to be taught them by the Holy Spirit, these words were added.

‘When He is come who is the Spirit of truth, He will lead you into all the truth;’ (Jn 16.13)

as if He had said, into all the truth about those things [ceremonial observances] which, being to you but types, ye believed to constitute a true worship which ye rendered unto God.”

“And so according to the promise of Jesus, the Spirit of truth came to Peter, saying to him, with regard to the four-footed beasts, and creeping things of the earth, and fowls of the air:

‘Arise, Peter; kill, and eat.’ (Acts 10.13)

And the Spirit came to him while he was still in a state of superstitious ignorance; for he said, in answer to the divine command,

‘Not so Lord; for I have never eaten anything common or unclean.’ (Acts 10.14)

He instructed him, however, in the true and spiritual meaning of meats, by saying,

‘What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common.’” (Acts 10.15)

(Origen against Celsus Book 2, Ch 2)

Origen gives an interpretation of Jn 16.12-13 which attempts to explain why the apostles initially continued to observe the ceremonies in law of Moses after Jesus resurrection. He points forward to the time when the LORD revealed to Peter by visions that all foods were clean, going even further as we know to highlight believing Gentiles are clean in the sight of God.

Discussion whether Gentile believers ought to observe Jewish Customs

He says, in addition, that “all the Christians were of one mind,” (Acts 4.32) not observing, even in this particular, that from the beginning there were differences of opinion among believers regarding the meaning of the books held to be divine.

At all events, while the apostles were still preaching, and while eye-witnesses of (the works of) Jesus were still teaching His doctrine, there was no small discussion among the converts from Judaism regarding Gentile believers, on the point whether they ought to observe Jewish customs, or should reject the burden of clean and unclean meats, as not being obligatory on those who had abandoned their ancestral Gentile customs, and had become believers in Jesus.

(Origen. (1885). Origen against Celsus. In A. Roberts, J. Donaldson, & A. C. Coxe (Eds.), F. Crombie (Trans.), Fathers of the Third Century: Tertullian, Part Fourth; Minucius Felix; Commodian; Origen, Parts First and Second (Vol. 4, pp. 468–469). Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company.)

Origen highlights the initial Jewish Christians were of one mind soon after they came to faith. But notes the difference when Gentiles came to believe. ‘There was no small discussion’ whether they should observe the Jewish customs, alluding to Acts 15.

Origen’s Commentary on Romans

Origen wrote the first ever commentary on Romans. His commentary comes in two parts. Origen, Commentary on the epistle to the Romans Books 1-5 and Books 6-10 (Trans. Scheck, Thomas, P). They can be purchased from the Catholic University of America Press. The remaining quotes come from this reference.

I’ve tried to be fair in quoting what seems most relevant to my discussion on justification. I will be quoting from sections which support my view on the New Perspective as well as those which challenge them. I cannot quote everything.

Book 1: Romans 1

Set apart for the gospel

Rom 1.1

1 Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, (Rom 1.1)

Origen’s Interpretation

(5) ‘Set apart,’ he says. ‘for the gospel of God.’ Other passages of Scripture speak of the gospel of Christ, as the evangelist Mark writes, ‘The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, as it is written in Isaiah the prophet.’ In truth since Christ is the Word, and ‘in the beginning he was with God, and the Word was God,’ (Jn 1.1) then the gospel of God and the gospel of Christ signify one and the same thing. (p66)

Origen believes the gospel according to Mark (gospel of Jesus Christ) and the gospel of God are one and the same.

From the faith of the old covenant to the new faith of the gospel

Rom 1.16-17

13 I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that I have often intended to come to you (but thus far have been prevented), in order that I may reap some harvest among you as well as among the rest of the Gentiles. 14 I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish. 15 So I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome. (Rom 1.13-15)

Origen’s Interpretation

The logical order might be, ‘Just as I have fruit among the other nations, the Greeks and barbarians, the wise and foolish, to whom I am a debtor, thus for my part I am eager to proclaim the gospel to you also who are in Rome; for I have never been ashamed to preach the gospel among any nation because the power of God is in it for salvation to all who believe, first for the Jew and then for the Greek.’

For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed which had been concealed previously, being hidden in the law. But it is revealed to those who go from the faith of the old covenant to the new faith of the gospel; just as it was predicted in the prophet: The ‘righteous’, even if he is still under the law, by believing in God and in his servant Moses, ‘lives out of faith.’ And when he comes to the gospel from the faith of the law he is led to faith in Christ and thus advances from faith to faith. (p82-83)

Rom 1.16-17

16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.” (Rom 1.16-17)

Origen’s Interpretation

The RIGHTEOUSNESS of God is revealed in the gospel through the fact that with respect to salvation no one is excluded whether he should come as a Jew, Greek, or barbarian. For the Saviour says equally to all, ‘Come to me, all you that labour and are burdened.’ (Mt 11.28)

But concerning the words ‘from faith to faith’ we have already said above that the first people who had believed God and his servant Moses were also in the faith; from this faith they now transfer over to the faith of the gospel. But it says this from the testimony of the prophet Habakkuk, ‘the righteous lives by my faith.’ (Hab 2.4) Either it means that he who is under the law must believe the gospel as well, or that he who is under the Gospels must also believe in the law and the prophets. For a person does not possess complete life who has one but not the other. (p87)

Origen associates the righteousness of God with a movements between covenants. From faith to faith.

Book 3: Romans 3

Nothing that is flesh can be justified by the law of God

Rom 3.9-18

[9] What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, [10] as it is written:

“None is righteous, no, not one;

[11] no one understands; no one seeks for God.

[12] All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”

[13] “Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.” “The venom of asps is under their lips.”

[14] “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.”

[15] “Their feet are swift to shed blood;

[16] in their paths are ruin and misery,

[17] and the way of peace they have not known.”

[18] “There is no fear of God before their eyes.” (Rom 3.9-18)

Origen’s Interpretation

(2) … But if all are under sin, consequently there shall be no grounds for the self-exaltation of one group against the other since both come to salvation not on the basis of their own RIGHTEOUSNESS but on the basis of God’s mercy. (p188) …

(9) … it is shown from this that Paul is speaking of the natural law, which with the exception of the first period of childhood, exists in all men. And thus he was quite JUSTIFIED in saying, ‘For we have charged that all Jews and Greeks are under sin.’ This is also why to my way of thinking, it was not contrary to reason for certain sages to have stipulated that every type of mortal receives the ability to discern right and wrong when he arrives at the age when natural law enters his life. (p192) …

(11) So then, in what he has said here, ‘No one living will be JUSTIFIED in your sight,’ he did not mean for this to be understood in the sense that no one living will be JUSTIFIED, but ‘in your sight,’ that is to say, no one will be JUSTIFIED in God’s sight. For however JUST someone may be, however holy he may be, not only among men but even among the higher and more eminent creatures, it is certain that in comparison with God he cannot be JUSTIFIED. (p193) …

Rom 3.19

[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. (Rom 3.19)

Origen’s Interpretation

Consequently in the present passage as well, which says, ‘We know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law,’ we need to examine carefully which law he means is spoken to those who are under the law, and through which it says to them that it strips them of every excuse so that they are not able to find any excuse for their own sins. … All these individuals [Cain, Joseph’s brothers, Job] are plainly shown to have recognised their sin. Consequently it is concluded from this that the Apostle Paul is not speaking about the law of Moses, that ‘the law speaks to those who are under the law,’ but instead about natural law, which is written in men’s hearts. (p203) …

Rom 3.20

[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 3.20)

Origen’s Interpretation

(7) … “Because by works of the law shall no flesh be JUSTIFIED.” For this statement certainly would seem to have been spoken only of those who are placed in the flesh.

However those who want instead to defend the former interpretation will carefully observe the sense in which the Apostle has said, “no flesh is JUSTIFIED by works of the law.”

For the works of the law concern those who are in the flesh, but the meaning of the law pertains to those who are in the spirit, that is to say, no higher orders of heavenly offices.

“By works of the law, therefore, shall no flesh be JUSTIFIED in his sight,” should be understood, in my opinion, that nothing that is flesh and that lives according to the flesh can be JUSTIFIED by the law of God.

Just as the same Apostle says elsewhere, “Those who are in the flesh cannot please God,” and again in another passage, “For the wisdom of the flesh is hostile to God; for it is not subjected to God’s law – indeed it cannot be.” The prophet also says, “All flesh is grass”; and in the Gospel it is written, “It is the Spirit that gives life; the flesh profits nothing.” It is based upon such things, then, that he says that from the law of God “no flesh will be justified before him.” (p206f)


Origen refers to the ‘works of law’ and argues Paul is speaking about the ‘natural law’. Much later he will give another description of the ‘works’ he believes Paul commonly argues against (Chapter 11 below).

Origen refers to Rom 3.20 and argues Paul is speaking about ‘those who are placed in the flesh’. In Paul, those who are in the ‘flesh’ are contrasted with those who are in the ‘Spirit’. Unbelievers and believers.

‘Nothing that is flesh and that lives according to the flesh can be justified by the law of God’. This leaves open the possibility that those who live by the Spirit can be justified by the law of God. This is how Rainbow interprets it.

In the next section Origen anticipates a possible objection that Paul is here speaking about the natural law.

Justified by the grace of God

Rom 3.21-24

[21] But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it [22] the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: [23] for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, [24] and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, (Rom 3.21-24)

Origen’s Interpretation

(2) In the above discussion we asserted that not about the law of Moses was it said, ‘Whatever the law says, it speaks to those under the law.’ Now someone will think that this was asserted in violation of the text rather than said truly, since he now sees that the term ‘law’ refers not to the law of nature but that of Moses. He would say that in the present passage the Apostle declares that the RIGHTEOUSNESS of God is disclosed through the law, and not only through the law but also through the prophets, so that without any ambiguity what is written should be understood as having been said about the law of Moses,

from which the RIGHTEOUSNESS of God is disclosed through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe, whether they come from the Jews or the Gentiles. These are JUSTIFIED, however, not by works but by the grace of God, through redemption accomplished for them by Jesus Christ himself.

This much he would say, he who would charge that the Apostle’s meaning, in these passages we have interpreted above, has been violently twisted by us. …

(4) What then? Shall we say that the Apostle is writing things that are mutually contradictory? … (p208-209)


Paul refers to the law again. This time Origen thinks he is speaking about something different. First the natural law, now the law of Moses. He asks the question if he has been mistaken in what he thinks Paul means by ‘law’ or if Paul has contradicted himself.

I believe Origen mistook what Paul meant by ‘works of law’ above, thinking it referred to the ‘natural law’. He gives weak excuses here and shows the early church did not always interpret Paul correctly.

Otherwise Origen repeats what Paul says with some modifications. He does not mention Paul’s statement ‘for all have sinned’. But he adds that people are not justified by ‘works’, then affirming people are justified by the grace of God. He adds that those who believe may consist of Jews and Gentiles.

He has made him our propitiator

Rom 3.25-26

[25] whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. [26] It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. (Rom 3.25-26)

Origen’s Interpretation

For at the consummation of the age, at the end of time, God disclosed his own RIGHTEOUSNESS and for the redemption price, gave him whom he made a propitiator.

If perchance he would have sent the propitiator earlier time, he would not have made propitiation unto God for so many of the human race as was accomplished at this time, when the world now appears to be filled with men.

For God is JUST, and the one who is JUST could not JUSTIFY the UNJUST; For that reason he wanted there to be the mediation of a propitiator so that those who were not able be JUSTIFIED by their own works might be JUSTIFIED through faith in him.

These things had to be said first, as much as pertains to the explanation of his discourse, in order that the apostolic reading might become clearer. (p217) …

So then he JUSTIFIES him who is of faith; just as it has also been written about Abraham, that ‘Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him for RIGHTEOUSNESS.’ Now if Abraham believed and was JUSTIFIED by faith, doubtless it will be logical that even now whoever believes in God through faith in Jesus Christ would be JUSTIFIED with the believer Abraham. (p225)


Origen refers to Jesus as a propitiator. Propitiation occurs when wrath is poured out and satisfied. Through Christ’s death on the cross, God has propitiated his wrath he would normally poured out on sinners.

Origen described the significance of the delay in sending Jesus to die. The longer he waited the more people he would make propitiation for. Origen says the world is filled with men at his time. I’m guessing he hasn’t been to China in our time two thousand years later.

Origen recognises for God to be just and justify people, he needed to deal with their sin and his wrath. He also recognises sinners can not be justified by their own works, and thus are justified through faith in him instead.

Origen will refer to Gen 15.6 again below giving some more information on how he views faith. For now he shows that people who ‘believe in God through faith in Jesus Christ’ will be justified as was Abraham.

Faith is the sign of those who are justified by God

Rom 3.27-28

[27] Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. [28] For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. (Rom 3.27-28)

Origen’s Interpretation

(2) … He is saying that the JUSTIFICATION of faith alone suffices, so that the one who only believes is JUSTIFIED, even if he has not accomplished a single work.

(3) It is incumbent upon us, therefore, as those who are attempting to defend the harmoniousness of the Apostle’s writings and to establish that they are entirely consistent in their arrangement, that we should ask: Who has been JUSTIFIED by faith alone without works of the law? Thus, in my opinion, that thief who was crucified with Christ should suffice for a suitable example. … In the Gospels nothing else is recorded about his good works, but for the sake of this faith alone Jesus said to him, ‘Truly I say to you: Today you will be with me in paradise.’ If it seems appropriate, let us now apply the words of the Apostle Paul to the case of this thief and say to the Jews, ‘Where then is your boasting?’ Certainly it is excluded, but excluded not through the law of works but through the law of faith. For through faith this thief was JUSTIFIED without works of the law, since the Lord did not require in addition to this that he should first accomplish works, … From all of these things he is making clear that the Apostle is correct to hold that man is JUSTIFIED through faith without works of law.

But perhaps someone who hears these things should become lax and negligent in doing good, if in fact faith alone suffices for him to be JUSTIFIED. To this person we shall say that if anyone acts unjustly after justification, it is scarcely to be doubted that he has rejected the grace of justification. For a person does not receive forgiveness of sins in order that he should once again imagine that he has been given a license to sin; for the remission is not given for future crimes, but only past ones. (p227-228) …

(5) A human being is JUSTIFIED through faith. The works of the contribute nothing to his being JUSTIFIED. 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.’ (p228)


Origen’s commentary here primarily speaks about sinners who have no works and who do not know God. When they first come to faith in Jesus they are justified through faith without works of the law.

He then makes a distinction between those who do not know Jesus and are sinners and those who have come to faith and have received forgiveness. He sees the grace of justification and forgiveness only applying for past sins from that moment and not future ones.

He then speaks more about how he sees faith. Origen sees faith as a sign of those who have been justified by God. Faith is a sign of a person’s righteousness in God’s sight. He uses Abraham in Genesis 15.6 as the chief example.

The same God justifies Jews and Gentiles

Rom 3.29-31

[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. [31] Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law. (Rom 3.29-31)

Origen’s Interpretation

The explanation will be plain and easy: We claim that the circumcision refers to Jewish believers, and the uncircumcision, no less, refers to those who have been called to faith from the Gentiles. For the very same God JUSTIFIES members of both peoples who believe, and this is based not upon the privilege of circumcision or uncircumcision but in consideration of faith alone. (p230)


Origen recognises it is the same God who justifies the Jews (circumcision) and the Gentiles (uncircumcision) who believe. He counters the thought of some that circumcision was a privilege.

Book 4: Romans 4

God, who sees our hearts and knows those who believe in secret

Rom 4.1-3

[4:1] What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? [2] For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. [3] For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” (Rom 4.1-3)

Origen’s Interpretation

(2) … Fittingly he now produces the example of Abraham in order that these matters may be affirmed from the scriptures. He says, ‘If Abraham was JUSTIFIED by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God.’ He certainly discusses this not without dialectical logic. For suppose anyone who is JUSTIFIED  by works does not have anything to boast about before God. But it is certain that Abraham does have a ground for boasting before God. Therefore it follows that Abraham has been JUSTIFIED not by works but by faith since he necessarily has a ground for boasting before God. …

(3) 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. (p237-238) …

(6) Now you should not imagine that if someone has such faith, by which, having been justified, he may have a boast before God, that he would be able at the same time to have UNRIGHTEOUSNESS with it as well. For there is no common ground between faith and infidelity; there is no communion of RIGHTEOUSNESS with wickedness, just as light can have no fellowship with darkness (2 Cor 6.14-15). For if ‘he who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God’ (1 Jn 5.1) and ‘he who has been born of God does not sin’ (1 Jn 3.9; 5.18), it is plain that he who believes in Jesus Christ does not sin; and that if he sins, it is certain that he does not believe in him. Therefore the proof of true faith is that sin is not being committed, just as, on the contrary, where sin is being committed, there you have proof of unbelief. (p239)


Origen compares two kinds of justification. Justification by works and justification by faith. He says Abraham had a ground to be boasting before God. It was because of his faith.

Origen says that God can see into men’s hearts and know if they believe or not. Hence we see the reason why God reckoned him with righteousness. Because he could see into his heart and he knew he believed. For this reason Abraham was justified by his faith.

Origen again counters any potential argument that believers continue in sin. Faith and sin cannot coexist. He even goes so far as to quote the Apostle John, ‘those who have been born of God do not sin’ (1 Jn 3.9). Something similar could be said of Rom 14.23 (‘whatever does not proceed from faith is sin’). I think Origen is referring to a person making a regular practice of sin (cf. 1 Jn 3.4,8,9), not an occasional one off sin. John makes a distinction from the regular practice of sin (‘keeps on sinning’, ‘practice of sinning’) from the occasional one-off sin (e.g. 1 Jn 2.1 ‘but if anyone does sin’).

In faith there is the gift of the one who justifies

Rom 4.4-5

[4] Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. [5] And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, (Rom 4.4-5)

Origen’s Interpretation

(13) What he says, ‘Now to the one who works, wages are not imputed as a gift but as something due. But to one who believes in him who justifies the ungodly, faith is reckoned as RIGHTEOUSNESS,’ seems as if to declare that in faith there is the gift of the one who justifies; in works, however, there is the RIGHTEOUSNESS of the one who repays.

(14) But when I consider the majesty of the passage in which he says that to the one who works it is repaid as something due, I can hardly convince myself that there could be any work which would demand from God repayment as something due. For even the fact that we are able to do anything at all, to think and to speak, we do through his gift and generosity. What debt will he have to pay back to us, seeing that his capital came first? Therefore, we must consider whether perhaps the words, ‘Now to the one who works, wages shall be imputed as something due,’ should instead be understood of the debt which is due for evil works (p243)


Origen says that faith itself is a gift from God. He realises that there is nothing people can do which would obligate God to repay them.

Blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not impute sin

Rom 4.6-8

[6] just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works:

[7] “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; [8] blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.” (Rom 4.6-8)

Origen’s Interpretation

(17) After these words … he adopts the testimony of the Psalms and says, ‘So also David speaks of the blessedness of the man to whom God credits RIGHTEOUSNESS apart from works: ‘Blessed are those whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not impute sin.’ For he sees that in these words it can be consequently proved that RIGHTEOUSNESS is reckoned to a person apart from works. This is why it seems to me that the Apostle understood that either RIGHTEOUSNESS or UNRIGHTEOUSNESS must dwell in a person who has cognizance [knowledge or awareness], through being old enough to distinguish good and evil. If this is so, no soul can be found without one of the two dwelling in it; and it is certain that if that [soul] should desist from evil, it would then be found in the good. But that soul is not in evil ‘whose iniquities are forgiven and whose sins are covered and against whom the Lord will not impute sin.’ It is therefore logical that it is in the good. (p244-245)


Origen again compares the periods before and after coming to faith. Before a person comes to faith they commit evil. Then they come to faith, receive forgiveness and desist from evil. From this point onwards the believer does good.

Blessedness can apply to him as well

Rom 4.9-12

[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)

Origen’s Interpretation

(2) He had said above that ‘Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as RIGHTEOUSNESS.’ He then showed, based on what was written in the Thirty-first Psalm [Ps 32], what blessedness a faith of this sort possesses, that to the one who believes, the Lord does not reckon sin. Therefore Paul now presents a question so that, through its response and the sequence of events itself, it might be taught that the blessedness of Abraham’s justification was not granted after he had been circumcised, but while he was still uncircumcised. But if Abraham was justified by faith while he was still uncircumcised, then everyone else who believes God, even if one is uncircumcised, can be justified through faith; and that blessedness can apply to him as well, which says, ‘Blessed is the one to whom the Lord will not impute sin.’ In this way Paul shows that it is not to just anyone that the Lord does not impute sin, but because of his faith he will not reckon sin against the one who has believed. (p246-247) …

For in my opinion the uncircumcised are those stones from which God is said to be able to raise up sons of Abraham (Mt 3.9; Lk 3.8). In them as well that which is written is fulfilled, ‘In you shall all the tribes of the earth be blessed.’ (p248)


Origen says Abraham’s justification and David’s blessing applies to the Gentiles as well as the Jews.

He says God’s promise of all the tribes of the earth being blessed has been fulfilled in the Gentiles coming to faith.

Book 8: Romans 11

The works that Paul repudiates and frequently criticises

Rom 11.1-6

[1] I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! For I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. 2 God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. Do you not know what the Scripture says of Elijah, how he appeals to God against Israel? 3 “Lord, they have killed your prophets, they have demolished your altars, and I alone am left, and they seek my life.” 4 But what is God’s reply to him? “I have kept for myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal.” 5 So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace. [6] But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace. (Rom 11.1-6)

Origen’s Interpretation

(6) And he has added, ‘But if grace, it is no longer on the basis of works.’

One should know that the works that Paul repudiates and frequently criticises are not the works of RIGHTEOUSNESS that are commanded in the law, but those in which those who keep the law according to the flesh boast; i.e. the circumcision of the flesh, the sacrificial rituals, the observance of Sabbaths or new moon festivals (Col 2.18).

These, then, and the works of this nature are the ones on the basis of which he says no one can be saved (Eph 2.8-9), and concerning which he says in the present passage, ‘not on the basis of works; otherwise, grace would no longer be grace.’

For if anyone is justified through these, he is not justified gratis. But these works are by no means sought from the one who is justified by grace; but this one should take care that the grace he has received should not be in him ‘in vain,’…

(7) But if you do not cause grace to become vain, grace will be multiplied to you, and you will attain a multitude of graces as a reward for the good works, as he himself writes and as Peter says in his epistle, ‘Grace and peace be multiplied to you in the recognition of God’ (2 Pet 1.2) (p159)


Origen identifies the works which Paul regularly repudiates and criticises (e.g. Rom 3.20,28; Gal 2.16; Eph 2.8) are the Jewish works of circumcision, sacrifices, Sabbaths and festivals.

This goes a good way into defining Paul’s ‘works of law’ like several other of the early church fathers.

This finishes today’s post on Origen and what he has said about justification and works of law.

In the next post we look at Cyprian (c. 200 – 258). He was bishop of Carthage and an important Early Christian writer. He was born around the beginning of the 3rd century in North Africa, perhaps at Carthage, where he received a classical education. After converting to Christianity, he became a bishop soon after in 249. A controversial figure during his lifetime, his strong pastoral skills, firm conduct during the Novatianist heresy and outbreak of the plague, and eventual martyrdom at Carthage vindicated his reputation and proved his sanctity in the eyes of the Church. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cyprian)

He quoted Genesis 15.6 several times in conjunction with Gentiles being included in the church.

Copyright © Joshua Washington and thescripturesays, 2015. All Rights Reserved.


  • joseph

    Great work, Josh. I have often wanted somebody to rite an account of ‘Justification’ in the fathers pre Augustine, as I don’t think it can be dismissed or bypassed as readily as McGrath seems to do. Very interesting that the idea of ‘works of law’ – until Origin – as ceremonies and rituals seems to be basically consistent with the apostolic and pre-Niacene fathers, or at least with their central understanding of what Paul was on about. It is particularly interesting as I am certain I have seen people try to argue otherwise.

    You should write a book one day 😉



    • Thanks Joseph. Augustine has some really good stuff to say on it as well. Such that when I read Westerholm quote from the same section and completely ignore what he was saying that I was further confirmed in how biased he was against NPP.