Justification In The Earliest Christian Fathers

Perhaps the first post-Apostolic use of the New Testament verb “to justify” (δικαιόω) occurs in 1 Clement, written just after 100 AD to the same Corinthian congregation to whom Paul had written half a century earlier. There is no claim of authorship in the epistle but it has been traditionally ascribed to a “Clement.” Despite the various conjectures, we do not know who “Clement” was but we know that he was concerned about the behavior of the Corinthian Christians. In 8:4 (like Scripture the Apostolic Fathers are marked by chapters and verses) he quotes Isaiah 1:16–20 from the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew and Aramaic Scriptures, the Old Testament). “Vindicate the widow,” meaning to see to it that she receives justice or that her righteous cause is recognized. Used thus,“to vindicate” has a different sense than “to justify,” which means “to declare righteous.” A sinner cannot be vindicated but he can be justified. The righteous are vindicated. So, in 16:12 he uses it to refer to the vindication of Jesus’ righteousness, i.e., of the recognition of Jesus’ inherent righteousness. In 30:3, reflecting on Proverbs 3:34 (and perhaps James 4:6) he wrote of the Christian being vindicated by his works, i.e., of our good works giving evidence of our faith. So far, these uses of the verb are part of a broad and strong emphasis in the early fathers on the importance of sanctification in the Christian life.

The early Christians were under a terrible twofold pressure: the Jewish synagogues were using their legal status and superior social position to put the church and Christians in disfavor. The predominant pagan culture, to the degree they were aware of this little sect they were alternately irritated by their impiety (they did not honor the gods) and disgusted their refusal to be good Romans by following the state religion. So, they were under suspicion and the object of gossip and false rumors. There was much about their life that the early Christians could not control but one thing over which they had some control was how they behaved, how they represented their Lord, their faith, and their church.

1 Clement, however, did have something to say about justification. In 32:4 he wrote,

And so we, having been called through his will in Christ Jesus, are not justified of ourselves or through our own wisdom or understanding or piety, or works that we have done in holiness of heart, but through faith, by which the Almighty God has justified all who have existed from the beginning; to whom be glory for ever and ever, Amen (The Apostolic Fathers. Greek Texts and English Translations, 3rd ed., trans. Michael W. Holmes (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007).

In the previous chapter (the chapters in 1 Clement are typically shorter than e.g., those in Paul’s epistles) he had been exhorting the Corinthian congregation remember the history of redemption, e.g., how “Abraham attained righteousness and truth through faith” (31:2). In chapter 32 he reminded them of God’s free gifts to his people, how the Patriarchs were not “glorified and magnified…through themselves” nor through their “righteous actions” but through God’s “righteous will.”

Clement could hardly have been clearer. Were we to read 32:4 out of context, we might be excused for wondering which of the Protestant Reformers wrote it. That language, however, did not come to us from the Protestants. When they taught justification before God on the basis of Christ’s righteousness for us, received through faith alone, they were only following the earliest Christian fathers.

©2017 Westminster Seminary California. Republished by permission.

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  1. There is also, isn’t there, identification of the scarlet thread as a type of the blood of redemption? The whole of the first part of 1 Clement is great.
    When the letter goes on to introduce additional arguments, ostensibly for resurrection , but presenting something more akin to what George Bernard Shaw called the John Barleycorn tradition, and culminating in an appeal to downright myth (that of the pheonix), I seriously question whether it’s the same person writing. Is this whole second part an addition by an apologist for Rome, to try and give Clement as “Bishop of Rome” a quasi-apostolic authority over another church?

  2. Thank you for this post. You have helped me gain a greater understanding of the early church, and I encourage you to continue your steadfast work for the glory of God. Soli Deo gloria!

  3. Thank you for this quotation from Clement. It could not be any clearer, the doctrines of justification by grace alone, through faith alone in Christ alone and sanctification as separate from it, as fruit and evidence that this faith real, was not an invention of the Reformers, but it was robustly stated by the earliest church fathers.

  4. Do you see the early church fathers theology as consistent with the Reformers, or do you notice quite a bit of drift? When I read Ignatius letters and 1 Clement, they seem to believe a lot of what we believe today, even hints of support for elected elders and deacons, church councils. They seem to emphasis us believers as being elect and set apart by God’s grace alone. But on the other hand I did find Ignatius too eager to be persecuted, and maybe his doctrine of the trinity to simple??

    • Michael,

      Yes, generally. Certainly the Reformed thought that they were being faithful to the Fathers but we should be cautious about speaking about “the Fathers” as if they were all one thing. We’re talking about a 400-500 year period covering the development of the church, theology, piety, and practice in Asia Minor, Rome, the Mediterranean, Egypt, and North Africa. We’re talking about Greek-speaking writers in Alexandria and Latin-speaking writers in Rome and Tunisia. The church was dealing with different issues in the East in the the 2nd century than it was in the Latin-speaking churches in the late4th and early 5th centuries.

      The Reformed were quite willing to disagree with a patristic theologian when they thought that a father was wrong. Antiquity does not confer infallibility. The truth is, everyone is selective with the Fathers. The Cappadocians loved Origen. Most of the the Reformed thought he was a heretic. Still, the Reformed did see themselves as following the 2nd-century church in polity (contra the way the Romanists and others read Ignatius et al). They saw themselves as following the early practice of worship. We know with certainty that they did not use musical instruments. They saw themselves following Augustine’s view of human nature before and after the fall. They followed Augustine against Pelagius. They were with the Fathers against Arius. They believed the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. They were Chalecedonian in their Christology. Calvin was deeply influenced by the Cappadocians on the Trinity.

      So, there are real points of continuity and intentionally so.

    • And I find Ignatius’s exhortation not to celebrate the Lord’s Supper in the absence of an overseer just a little too convenient to Roman authorities wishing to herd meeting Christians in one place so they can pick them off in one go. Polycarp seems to have been captivated, but I found myself wondering whom Ignatius was really working for.

      • Anthony,

        1. Ignatius’ instructions to the churches, to observe the Lord’s Supper only in the presence of a minister (which is what Episkopos surely means, is not controversial. All the Reformed church orders in the 16th century had the same rule.

        2. Ignatius wrote his letters on his way to martyrdom. He was hardly a stooge of the Romans, if that’s what you’re implying.

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