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Faith, Works, and the Early Church Fathers
October 12, 2019

A friend told me a couple times recently that the early church fathers disagreed among themselves a lot. I hope to get a chance to finish that conversation with him because that statement is just not true. They were far more united than we are!

A missionary and bishop (head pastor) in the late second century, wrote:

"The Church, having received this preaching and this faith, although scattered throughout the whole world, yet, as if occupying but one house, carefully preserves it. She also believes these points [of doctrine] just as if she had but one soul, and one and the same heart, and she proclaims them, and teaches them, and hands them down, with perfect harmony, as if she possessed only one mouth." (Irenaeus, _Against Heresies_, Bk. I, ch. 10, par. 2)

Note: you can look up all my quotes from the early church fathers at

Other Christians of that time period would give the same testimony. In fact, Irenaeus, who wrote the quote I just gave, and Tertullian, a Christian lawyer from Carthage about the same time, both argued against heretics based on the amazing unity of the Church.

"The Church" they were talking about are the churches we read about in the Bible (Rome, Corinth, Ephesus, etc.) and other churches those original churches started after the time of the apostles. The "heretics" were gnostics who denied that the God of Israel was the true God.


There are two reasons Christians say that the early church fathers contradict each other.

1. They are talking about arguments that arose in the fourth century and later, which were a product of growing corruption in the church. (Carnal men are argumentative men, Gal. 5:19-21; 1 Tim. 6:1-6.)

2. They don't like what the early church fathers taught, so they hope the early church fathers disagree with each other.

3. They don't understand the early church fathers because they don't understand the Bible either.

Let me explain number 3.


There are two verses in the Bible that seem to absolutely contradict. They are:

Romans 3:23: Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the Law.

James 2:24: You see then that by works a man is justified and not by faith only.

Martin Luther, the sixteenth-century Reformer, offered his doctor's cap to anyone who could reconcile those two verses. His own reconciliation of those verses was that the Epistle of James was an "epistle of straw" that had "nothing of the nature of the Gospel about it.

It is obvious from the book of Acts (e.g., ch. 15) and from Galatians 2 that James did understand the Gospel and that James and Paul agreed on it. It is obvious from history that the churches of all the apostles got along just fine. They saw no conflict between Paul and James. The problem lies with Martin Luther's understanding, not with a conflict between James and Paul.

When I first began reading the fathers I was thrilled to find this seeming contradiction in the letter of Polycarp to the Philippians:

"In whom, though now ye see Him not, ye believe, and believing, rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory; into which joy many desire to enter, knowing that by grace ye are saved, not of works, but by the will of God through Jesus Christ."

and ...

"But He who raised Him up from the dead will raise up us also, if we do His will, and walk in His commandments, and love what He loved, keeping ourselves from all unrighteousness ..."


Polycarp was the bishop (head pastor) of the church in Smyrna. Most historians think he was appointed by the apostle John. Smyrna was one of only two churches in Revelation chapters 2-3 that was not rebuked by Jesus. His credentials as a shepherd and teacher are as good as anyone's who has ever lived outside of the apostles themselves.

I loved this seeming contradiction in Polycarp's letter because it made it clear that Polycarp understood the conflict between Romans 3:28 and James 2:24. Polycarp's "contradiction" is much like the "contradiction" between Paul's words in Ephesians 2:8-9 and Ephesians 5:5.

In modern times, we wrestle with James 2 so much that we dare not simply repeat what James said, "So we see then that we are justified by works and not faith only." Most evangelical churches would silence us for saying such a thing, but it is a Bible quote!

That is a problem. A big one!


Polycarp did not have that problem. He knew that we "have been" saved (past tense) by faith apart from works, but that if we want to be raised up with Jesus on the last day (future tense), then we better have used the power of our salvation to produce good works through our life. This lines up with what Paul says in Ephesians 2:8-10 and explains why he could write both that passage and Ephesians 5:5.

Ephesians 2:8-10: For by grace have we been saved, and that not of ourselves, it is the gift of God, not of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works which God has prepared in advance for us to do.

Ephesians 5:5: For this you know, that no immoral, unclean, or covetous person has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.

If you want to delve more deeply into this subject, see my article at

Thank you for being part of the Christian History for Everyman newsletter!

Paul Pavao

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