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:
In Heaven: a location that is glorious beyond human comprehension, in the presence of
In Hell: a dreadful place of eternal torture in which one has no hope of relief or
mercy, in the absence of God.
gospels (Mark, Matthew, Luke) emphasize that salvation is earned by
- by individual works. The Book of James agrees with this assessment.
The Gospel of John generally
explains that salvation is attained through faith in Jesus as the son of God.
The Pauline epistles mainly describe salvation as being obtained by
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.
Groups within the early Christian movement:
During the first two centuries following Jesus' execution, there were three main
divisions within the Christian movement:
Jewish Christianity was centered in Jerusalem and founded by Jesus'
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.
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
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.
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." 2All of the early Christian writers "who discussed the subject of
salvation presented the same view." Some examples are:
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."
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..."
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
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
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
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..."
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
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
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
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
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
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:
loving behavior towards your neighbor, enemies and persecutors;
abstaining from lusts
giving away what you posses to the needy
do not murder, commit adultery, fornication, theft, abortion, infanticide
do not be prone to anger
do not engage in sorcery, witchcraft, enchanting, astrology
share all things with your brother
do not eat food that was sacrifice to idols
baptize in living water in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
fast on the 4th day of the week
recite the Our Father prayer three times a day.
beware of false prophets
elect honorable Christians to be bishops and deacons.
be ready at all times for the second coming of Jesus, which they expected would come
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.
C.S. Clifton, "Encyclopedia of Heresies and Heretics", ABC-CLIO, Santa
Barbara CA, (1992)
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.
Clement of Rome, "Letter to the Corinthians," Chapters 34 & 35.
Polycarp, "Letter to the Philippians," Chapter 2.
Hermas, "Shepherd," Book 2, Comm. 7; Book 3, Sim. 10, Chapter 2.
Justin Martyr, "First Apology," Chapter 10
Clement of Alexandria, "Rich Man," Chapters 1 & 2.
Origen, "Of First Things," Preface, Chapter 5.
Hippolytus, "Fragments from Commentaries," "On Proverbs"