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What the early Christians believed

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Salvation by faith, good works, or church sacraments?

Many Christians have faith in a literal heaven and hell, and believe in both the love and wrath of God. For them, personal salvation is of paramount importance. It determines where they will spend eternity:

bullet In Heaven: a location that is glorious beyond human comprehension, in the presence of God, or
bullet In Hell: a dreadful place of eternal torture in which one has no hope of relief or mercy, in the absence of God.

Unfortunately, the Christian Scriptures are not particularly clear about precisely what is needed for a person to be saved:

bullet The synoptic gospels (Mark, Matthew, Luke) emphasize that salvation is earned by good deeds - by individual works. The Book of James agrees with this assessment.
bullet The Gospel of John generally explains that salvation is attained through faith in Jesus as the son of God.
bullet The Pauline epistles mainly describe salvation as being obtained by belief in Jesus' resurrection.

Various modern-day religions and denominations teach diverse beliefs concerning salvation. Some say that is attained by way of faith, others through works, and still others via participation in church sacraments. Many say it is a combination of all three.

The writings of the early Christian leaders may be helpful here. They were not too far removed from the direct teachings of Jesus and the apostles. They might well be a more reliable source than later theologians of the Christian church.

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Groups within the early Christian movement:

During the first two centuries following Jesus' execution, there were three main divisions within the Christian movement:

bullet Jewish Christianity was centered in Jerusalem and founded by Jesus' disciples. They viewed themselves as a reform movement within Judaism. They worshiped and offered animals to be ritually sacrificed in the Temple. They observed all of the Jewish feast days. They were largely exterminated or scattered by the Roman army in 70 CE when the Roman army attacked Jerusalem. Remnants of this group continued to exist for many decades later. They eventually disappeared, having had relatively little effect on Pauline Christianity. Like other Jews from the 1st century CE, Jewish Christians believed that salvation came as a result of sacrificing in the temple and following the dietary and behavioral rules of the Torah.
bullet Gnostic Christianity was another group within Christianity. Their beliefs deviated from the teachings of Paul and from the Jewish Christians. They were  considered heretics by the rest of the church. They were particularly strong in the eastern Mediterranean, and almost became the dominant Christian movement in that area. Some Gnostics worked within existing mainline Christian groups, and greatly influenced their beliefs. Others formed separate communities. Still others were solitary practitioners. They were later persecuted, exiled and exterminated by the mainline church. They almost disappeared by the 6th century. One reason why they were condemned as heretics was their belief in salvation. They believed that humans are profoundly flawed and could not be saved through any good works or action of their own. They taught that God sent Jesus to impart knowledge to humanity so that they could ascend to heaven to be with God when they died. Their beliefs about salvation are close to that of conservative Christianity today - that salvation is attained solely by grace from God, and not by any good works that an individual may have done. But only individuals who knew special knowledge would attain heaven; the rest would be lost. 1
bullet Pauline Christianity was founded by St. Paul. It evolved into mainline Christianity - centered in Rome under the authority of the pope. The rest of this essay will deal with this movement within Christianity.

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Writings of early Christian leaders:

Author D.W. Bercot has studied all of the non-canonical Christian writers "from the time of the Apostle John to the inauguration of Constantine," whose literary works have survived. He reports that the "...early Christians universally believed that works or obedience play an essential role in our salvation." 2 All of the early Christian writers "who discussed the subject of salvation presented the same view." Some examples are:

bullet Clement of Rome (30 - 100 CE) was an overseer of the church at Rome. 3 He urged his followers to try to be among those who wait for the Lord "by doing the things that are in harmony with His blameless will."
bullet Polycarp (69 - 156) was an overseer of the church at Smyrna. He said that we will be resurrected when we die "if we do His will and walk in His commandments..." 4
bullet Hermas (? to 150) Little is known about his background. He wrote that only those who "fear the Lord and keep His commandments" will have eternal life. 5
bullet Justin Martyr (110 - 165) was a philosopher who converted to Christianity as an adult. He wrote that "if men by their works show themselves worthy of His design, they are deemed worthy of reigning in company with Him." 6
bullet Clement of Alexandria (150 - 200) was an elder of the church at Alexandria, Egypt. He wrote that only individuals who obtain the truth and "distinguishes himself in good works" shall gain eternal life. 7
bullet Origen (185 - 255) was an elder of the church at Alexandria, Egypt. He wrote that a soul would inherit eternal life if its "actions shall have procured this for it..." 8
bullet Hippolytus (170 - 236) was an overseer in a church in France. He said that Christians achieve "for themselves eternal life through good works." 9 Once in heaven, they will only remember "the righteous deeds by which they reached the heavenly kingdom." 10
bullet Cyprian (200 - 258) was overseer of the church in Carthage, North Africa. He wrote that a person can prophesy, conduct exorcisms and do "great acts." But he will not get to heaven "unless he walks in the observance of the right and just way." 11
bullet Lactantius (260 - 330) was a Roman teacher who lived in France. He wrote that a person either loses eternal life because of sinful behavior, or gains it by their virtue. 12

Many of the above writings can be seen in the Early Christian Writings. 13

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The Role of Faith:

The early leaders of the Christian movement appear to have accepted the writings of James and of the authors of the synoptic gospels - that good deeds and works play a critical role in salvation. However, they also appear to have accepted the writings of Paul and of the author(s) of the gospel of John - that faith and trust in Jesus is also an important component.

Today's theologians debate whether ones salvation is due to either works or faith. Early Christian leaders did not agree that it had to be one or the other. They believed that both works and faith are needed for salvation. D.W. Bercot eloquently explains: "The early Christians believed that salvation is a gift from God but that God gives his gift to whomever He chooses. And he chooses to give it to those who love and obey him" - i.e. God saves those who have trusted Jesus, and whose behavior follows God's commandments.

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The Didache

The Didache is subtitled "The teaching of the Lord by the Twelve Apostles to the Gentiles." It was written for the guidance of Christians circa 60 to 100 CE. Some theologians believe that "additions and modifications may have taken place well into the third century." 14 It contains 16 paragraphs, which deal with such topics as:

bullet loving behavior towards your neighbor, enemies and persecutors;
bullet abstaining from lusts
bullet giving away what you posses to the needy
bullet do not murder, commit adultery, fornication, theft, abortion, infanticide
bullet do not be prone to anger
bullet do not engage in sorcery, witchcraft, enchanting, astrology
bullet share all things with your brother
bullet do not eat food that was sacrifice to idols
bullet baptize in living water in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
bullet fast on the 4th day of the week
bullet recite the Our Father prayer three times a day.
bullet beware of false prophets
bullet elect honorable Christians to be bishops and deacons.
bullet be ready at all times for the second coming of Jesus, which they expected would come soon.

All of the instructions relate to an individual's behavior. This tends to confirm that the early church considered works to be of paramount importance.

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  1. C.S. Clifton, "Encyclopedia of Heresies and Heretics", ABC-CLIO, Santa Barbara CA, (1992)
  2. D.W. Bercot, "Will the Real Heretics Please Stand Up: A New Look at Today's Evangelical Church in the Light of Early Christianity," Scroll Publishing, Tyler, TX, (1989), Pages 63-72.
  3. Clement of Rome, "Letter to the Corinthians," Chapters 34 & 35.
  4. Polycarp, "Letter to the Philippians," Chapter 2.
  5. Hermas, "Shepherd," Book 2, Comm. 7; Book 3, Sim. 10, Chapter 2.
  6. Justin Martyr, "First Apology," Chapter 10
  7. Clement of Alexandria, "Rich Man," Chapters 1 & 2.
  8. Origen, "Of First Things," Preface, Chapter 5.
  9. Hippolytus, "Fragments from Commentaries," "On Proverbs"
  10. Hippolytus, "Against Plato," Section 3.
  11. Cyprian, "Unity of the Church," Section 15.
  12. Lactantius, "Institutes," Book 7, chapter 5.
  13. Early Christian Writings is at
  14. The Didache is at:

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Copyright 1999 to 2007 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance.|
Latest update: 2007-JUL-08
Author: B.A. Robinson

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