Justification in the Earliest Christian Fathers

R. Scott Clark
Professor of Church History & Historical Theology

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 courselves 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.