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John Chrysostom on the gift of eternal life
January 18, 2020
John Chrysostom was a preacher in Antioch in the late 300s. Though he preached repentance and holiness and complained about those who did not follow his teachings, he was very popular. In 398, he was kidnapped by a government official and forcibly consecrated bishop of Constantinople, the second most honored bishopric in Christendom (ref: https://www.christianitytoday.com/history/people/pastorsandpreachers/john-chrysostom.html).
Chrysostom is not John's last name. It is Greek for "Golden Tongue," and to this day he is renowned for his brilliant preaching.
One of the things I struggled with as young Christian was Romans 2:6-7, which describes eternal life as a reward for doing good. This is not what I was taught as a new Christian, and I struggled for years to reconcile that passage with verses like Romans 6:23, which calls eternal life a gift. (You can read how I reconcile Romans 2:6-7 with the "apart from works" passages at https://www.christian- history.org/sola-fide.html.
Today, I thought I would let "Golden Tongue" John tell you about those verses. We still have commentaries from Chrysostom on the whole New Testament. (It can be a little hard to tell where the quotes start and end in an email, so I am separating Chrysostom's words with lines.
On Romans 2:6-7, John writes, "Since [the apostle Paul] had become awe-striking and harsh by discoursing [in verses 1-5] of the judgment and the punishment that shall be, he does not immediately, as one might expect, enter upon the vengeance, but turns his discourse to what was sweeter, to the recompense of good, saying as follows:
"'To them who by patient continuance in well doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life.'
"Here also he awakens those who had drawn back during the trials, and shows that it is not right to trust in faith only. For it is deeds also into which that tribunal will inquire.
"But observe, how when he is discoursing about the things to come, he is unable to tell clearly the blessings, but speaks of glory and honor. For because those things transcend anything man has, he has no image of them taken from [the things of man] to show, but by those things which have a semblance of brightness among us, even by them he sets them before us as far as may be, using glory, honor, and life. For these are what men earnestly strive after, yet those things are not these [glory, honor, and life], but much better than these, inasmuch as they are incorruptible and immortal. See how he has opened to us the doors toward the resurrection of the body by speaking of incorruptibility. For incorruptibility belongs to the corruptible body. Then, since this was not enough, he added glory and honor. For all of us are to rise incorruptible, but not all to glory, but some to punishment, and some to life."
So Chrysostom takes Romans 2:6-7 quite literally. He even says faith only is not enough, but deeds will also be asked about on the final judgment day.
Of course, this is what Romans 2:6 says specifically, that we will be judged by our deeds. And Chrysostom's wording is not much different than James's words in our Bible, where he writes, "... we are justified by works and not faith only" (Jam. 2:24).
Then what does he do with Romans 6:23, where Paul says that eternal life is a gift. As it turns out, he takes that literally, too, and gives and explanation that takes nothing away from his expounding of Romans 2.
[Quoting Romans 6:23] "For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life, though Jesus Christ our Lord.
"After speaking of the wages of sin, in the case of the blessings, he has not kept to the same order [or, relation]: for he does not say, 'the wages of good deeds,' but 'the gift of God,' [in order] to show, that it was not of themselves that they were freed, nor was it a due they received, neither yet a return, nor a recompense of labors, but by grace all these things came about. And so there was a superiority for this cause also, in that He did not free them only, or change their condition for a better, but that He did it without any labor or trouble upon their part: and that He not only freed them, but also gave them much more than before, and that through His Son."
In other words, though eternal life is rewarded to those who do good, as Romans 2:6-7 says, the good deeds they did were "not of themselves" but "by grace all these [good deeds] came about." Thus, rewarding a person for good works done by grace, is not "a due they received," nor "a return," nor "a recompense for labors." From front to back, it is a gift, both the good deeds, and the reward for good deeds.
I hope that's helpful. Trying to resolve Romans 2:5-8, Romans 3:28, Romans 6:23, and James 2:24 puzzled me for six years until I got help from the early church fathers.
Till next time, may God give you grace and peace,
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