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Church Fathers on Justification by Faith

Question: Are there examples from church history of leaders in the Catholic Church who taught salvation by grace through faith alone, or something approaching it?

Answer: Yes, definitely. Most of the quotations from the Church Fathers and Catholic scholars listed below were compiled by James Buchanan in his classic book "Justification" and listed in the abridged version, "Not Guilty" (Grace Publications).

  • Clement of Rome: "We also, being called through God's will in Christ Jesus, are not justified through ourselves, neither through our own wisdom or understanding, or piety, or works which we have done in holiness or heart, but through faith" (Epistle to Corinthians).

  • Ignatius: "His cross, and his death, and his resurrection, and the faith which is through him, are my unpolluted muniments; and in these, through your prayers, I am willing to be justified (Epistle to Philadelphians). Note: "muniments" are title deeds, documents giving evidence of legal ownership of something.

  • Polycarp: "I know that through grace you are saved, not of works, but by the will of God, through Jesus Christ (Epistle of Philippians).

  • Justin Martyr: "No longer by the blood of goats and of sheep, or by the ashes of a heifer...are sins purged, but by faith, through the blood of Christ and his death, who died on this very account (Dialogue with Trypho). "God gave his own Son the ransom for us...for what, save his righteousness, could cover our sins. In whom was it possible that we, transgressors and ungodly as we were, could be justified, save in the Son of God alone? ...O unexpected benefit, that the transgression of many should be hidden in one righteous Person and that the righteousness of One should justify many transgressors" (Letter to Diognetus).

  • Ireneus: "Through the obedience of one man who first was born from the Virgin, many should be justified and receive salvation."

  • Cyprian: "If Abraham believed in God and it was imputed to him for righteousness, then each one, who believes in God and lives by faith, is found to be a righteous person."

  • Athanasius: "Not by these (i.e. human efforts) but by faith, a man is justified as was Abraham."

  • Basil: "This is the true and perfect glorying in God, when a man is not lifted up on account of his own righteousness, but has known himself to be wanting in true righteousness and to be justified by faith alone in Christ."

  • Ambrose: "Without the works of the law, to an ungodly man, that is to say, a Gentile, believing in Christ, his "faith is imputed for righteousness" as also it was to Abraham."

  • Origen: "Through faith, without the works of the law, the dying thief was justified, because...the Lord inquired not what he had previously wrought, nor yet waited for his performance of some work after he should have believe; but...he took him unto himself for a companion, justified through his confession alone."

  • Jerome: "When an ungodly man is converted, God justified him through faith alone, not on account of good works which he possessed not."

  • Chrysostom: "What then did God do? He made (says Paul) a righteous Person (Christ) to be a sinner, in order that he might make sinners righteous... it is the righteousness of God, when we are justified, not by works...but by grace, where all sin is made to vanish away."

  • Chrysostom: "Again, they said that he who adhered to Faith alone was cursed, but he shows that hewho adhered to Faith alone, is blessed."

  • Augustine: "Grace is give to you, not wages paid to you...it is called grace because it is given gratuitously. By no precedent merits did you buy what you have received. The sinner therefore received this grace first, that his sins should be forgiven him...good works follow after a justified person; they do not go before in order that he may be justified...good works, following after justification, show what a man has received."

  • Augustine: "Now, having duly considered and weighed all these circumstances and testimonies, we conclude that a man is not justified by the precepts of a holy life, but by faith in Jesus Christ,--in a word, not by the law of works, but by the law of faith; not by the letter, but by the spirit; not by the merits of deeds, but by free grace."

  • Anselm: "Do you believe that you cannot be saved but by the death of Christ? Go, then, and ...put all your confidence in this death alone. If God shall say to you, "You are a sinner", say to him, "I place the death of our Lord Jesus Christ between me and my sin.""

  • Bernard of Clairvaux: "Shall not all our righteousness turn out to be mere unrighteousness and deficiency? What, then, shall it be concerning our sins, when not even our righteousness can answer for itself? Wherefore...let us flee, with all humility to Mercy which alone can save our souls...whoever hungers and thirsts after righteousness, let him believe in thee, who "justified the ungodly"; and thus, being justified by faith alone, he shall have peace with God."

We thank God that, despite the ferocious assault of the enemy on His church with all sort of false ideas, the core message of the Gospel was known, taught and believed by many throughout the centuries. The same is true today!

Further reading

Justification in the Ancient Church Fathers by James Buchanan (1519-1605) [read]

Dr Joseph Mizzi