A Comparison Between Patristic and Reformation Soteriology

By Adam Lloyd Johnson, Ph.D.

There was little dispute over the doctrine of salvation among the early church fathers, at least not directly. The larger debates during this era though, such as the deity of Christ and the nature of the Trinity, were intertwined with, and sometimes rooted in, soteriological concerns. As John Behr points out, there were two basic axioms that directed the theological reflection of the church in its first few centuries: “The first is that only God can save. It is God who is at work in Christ. . . .The second axiom is that only as a human being can God save human beings.”1 For instance, the church fathers understood that the debate over the nature of Christ was important because it had direct implications to soteriology.

From what the church fathers wrote about soteriology, it seems there was a general consensus. They emphasized faith in Christ as necessary for salvation. Ignatius (d. 108), in reference to the Old Testament prophets, wrote that “. . . they also have announced the Gospel, and are hoping in him and waiting for him, by faith in whom they also obtain salvation, being united with Jesus Christ.”2 Irenaeus (d. 202) wrote that “. . . men can be saved in no other way from the old wound of the serpent than by believing in him who, in the likeness of sinful flesh, is lifted up from the earth upon the tree of martyrdom.”3

The church fathers also believed that salvation in Christ resulted in a changed life, a life of love and good works. In the context of his pending martyrdom, Ignatius (d. 108) wrote that acceptance of Christ by faith resulted in death and a resurrection with Him, a birth into a new life.4 Justin Martyr (d. 165) wrote, “. . . [L]et those who are not found living as [Christ] taught be understood to be no Christians, even if they profess with their lips the precepts of Christ.”5

The first major soteriological controversy came about in the fifth century. A monk named Pelagius (d. 418) felt that many were using the concept of human sinful nature as an excuse for immorality. If people are born predisposed to evil, then ultimately it is out of their control; they have no choice but to sin. Pelagius argued that if this were true, we could not be held responsible for our sinful choices. Instead, he taught that God’s commands to do good implicitly meant that humans have the ability to obey them. If people could not freely choose between good and evil, then the rewards and punishments in Scripture would make no sense. Therefore he claimed that people did not inherit an ingrained disposition to sin. People cannot blame their sin on anyone or anything but their own free will. This reasoning led him to understand grace as additional help from God that humans earn as a reward for making good choices.

Augustine (d. 430) opposed Pelagius and developed what eventually became the established position on salvation for the Catholic church. He argued that God created humans with free will but through the fall they had become completely enslaved to sin. Everyone shared in Adam’s guilt and therefore every person is born with a sinful disposition to rebel against God. This dire state can only be overcome by God’s unmerited grace because, if left alone, nobody would ever choose God; He has to take the initiative in salvation by giving them faith. In order to keep salvation a completely divine work, Augustine maintained that even faith itself was a gift from God. Thus, he combined salvation with the notion of predestination and taught election to mean that God unconditionally chooses to save only some. To these elect He gives a special inner work of grace which ensures their salvation.

Another contentious issue in the early church was the belief that baptism somehow transmitted salvific grace. This did not necessarily exclude faith: “Faith and baptism” according to Basil (d. 324), are “. . . two kindred and inseparable means of salvation: faith is perfected through baptism; baptism is established through faith; and both are completed by the same names.”6 He wrote that “. . . the confession of faith leads us to salvation upon which baptism follows, sealing our assent.”7 By the end of the fourth century, this sacramental view of baptism was the official orthodox position, as can be seen in the creed from the Council of Constantinople in 381 AD, also known as the Creed of Nicaea: “. . . we confess one baptism for the remission of sins.”8

While some church fathers argued against it, infant baptism also became the orthodox position, again largely because of Augustine’s influence.9 The rationale behind this practice came from the doctrine of original sin, the belief that every person is born with sin inherited from Adam (Rom. 5:12). They believed infant baptism was necessary to remove this original sin. The church fathers did not view baptism as a meritorious human work that earned God’s favor. They insisted that human nature is ultimately passive toward the transforming power of God, that “. . . it is receptive to the divine, to be transfigured in union with God… it is transformed, rather than transforms itself.”10

By the sixteenth century, the church’s teaching on salvation had changed substantially. Scholastic theology had developed the view that salvation was a process that took place in people as they perfected themselves.11 This perspective arose in part from the emphasis Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274) placed on developing virtues through practice, ideas generated from his study of Aristotle.12 This scholastic position viewed grace as a substance which was infused into a Christian, allowing him over time to develop actual intrinsic righteousness.13 Justification then was more than simply being declared righteous; it entailed actually being transformed by Him into a righteous person.

After Aquinas salvation was understood by most as the work of God whereby He makes someone righteous in this life. A person achieves justification before God by developing a just life. The result was that faith was joined together with righteous works to accomplish salvation. Hence, salvation was in part a reward merited by a person’s own righteousness.14 It is important to note that officially these works were not produced by the person themselves but were the result of God’s infused grace; a person is righteous to the extent that grace has transformed their character. On a practical level though, most understood this to mean that they had to do good works to earn more grace from God, grace that would give them strength to become even better.

This scholastic understanding of salvation caused people much anxiety about their salvation. As Lindberg explained, “. . . [N]o matter how grace-assisted their good works, the burden of proof for these works fell back upon the performers, the more sensitive of whom began asking how they could know if they had done their best.”15 While this insecurity provided the fuel for the reformation, it was Martin Luther’s (d. 1546) notion of unmerited grace that provided the igniting spark.16 Through his study of Scripture he learned that justification was not something one achieved but was freely given and received by faith.17 People could indeed have certainty of their salvation because it was not based on what they could do, but on God’s acceptance of them regardless of what they have done.18 The scholastic notion of salvation had caused people to trust in the wrong thing, on what was inside them instead of God’s external promise to them.

Luther taught that justification was not a change in a person’s life, but a change in their situation before God. By claiming God could declare sinners righteous, even though their lives did not yet reflect it, he made a distinction between two types of righteousness.19 There is a foreign righteousness imputed to a person from the outside, the righteousness of Christ that a sinner receives by faith. Then there is an actual righteousness which grows in a Christian’s life over time as they live out their new life in Christ. The key for Luther was that justification is based on the former, not the latter.20 In many ways this was a return to Augustine’s view of salvation, a shift from a Thomistic to an Augustinian understanding. In fact, Luther declared that “. . . the scholastics understood neither Scripture nor Augustine.”21

More so than the other reformers, John Calvin (d. 1564) systematized this new position, first articulating how it was grounded in Scripture and then showing how it related to other doctrines. He explained that justification meant having your guilt forgiven, being seen innocent in the eyes of God.22 This gift of righteousness is received by faith alone apart from any human meritorious achievement. He also made popular again Augustine’s concept of predestination and the corresponding grace that is effective only to those God chose to save. This view of election is commonly the result of believing salvation is solely a work of God because it shuts the door on any possibility of human involvement. As Lindberg insightfully points out “. . . every theology that focuses on salvation as the sole work of God brings some form of election and predestination in its wake.”23

During the reformation, baptism once again became a heated issue, specifically its relationship to salvation. Most reformers continued baptizing infants but they viewed the practice differently than the scholastic Catholic Church. Luther, similar once again to Augustine, argued that the sacraments are not human works but gifts from God.24 Though salvation comes by faith, if salvation is to be totally of God, then faith must be given to us by God through the sacraments. Realizing that “faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17), Luther concluded that the Word comes to the element resulting in some sort of a visible Word.25 The Word is with and in the water such that if the Word was taken away, the water itself would accomplish nothing.26 Baptism then is bound to the Word, not the faith of the one being baptized. Faith does not make the baptism a reality; faith receives the baptism as the Word.27   

Calvin and Huldrych Zwingli (d. 1531) disagreed with Luther on the issue of baptism. They understood baptism to be only an external sign, a testimony to the community, not a conveyor of grace or of faith.28 They continued to baptize infants though because they thought it analogous to the circumcision of the old covenant. To them it was an external sign of grace that had already been given through the Word. Various fragmented groups, sometimes referred to as a whole as the Anabaptists, began to believe only those who were old enough to repent and profess faith should be baptized. Lindberg points out that “. . . the controversy revolved around the ancient metaphysical question of the relationship of inner and outer reality, spirit and matter, reality and sign.”29 They claimed that Luther’s view promoted cheap grace because it did not require faith and discipleship first before baptism.30 Baptists in England adopted a similar view as can be seen in their original 1644 London Confession of Faith.     

It is important for Christians today to know how various soteriological positions developed over the centuries. Christians can learn a tremendous amount from the arguments and counter-arguments made by people who came before that spent a lifetime studying and thinking about these issues. Such an understanding helps keep Christians from error as they try to present God’s truth to a lost world. Christians should strive to communicate the biblical plan of salvation as clearly as possible because, as can be seen from history, the slightest error can greatly cloud the message and cause people to put their faith in the wrong thing. We should be diligent to present ourselves approved to God as workmen who do not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the Word of truth (2 Tim. 2:15).


[1] John Behr, The Way to Nicaea (vol. 1 of The Formation of Christian Theology; Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001), 75.

[2] Ibid., 86.

[3] Ibid., 116.

[4] Ibid., 92.

[5] Ibid., 101.

[6] John Behr, The Nicene Faith (vol. 2 of The Formation of Christian Theology; Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2004), 324.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 377.

[9] Carter Lindberg, The European Reformations (2d ed.; Malden, Mass.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 193.

[10] Behr, The Nicene Faith, 480–481.

[11] Lindberg, The European Reformations, 60.

[12] Ibid., 65.

[13] Ibid., 342.

[14] Martin Luther as quoted by Lindberg, The European Reformations, 90.

[15] Ibid., 58.

[16] Ibid., 60.

[17] Ibid., 63.

[18] Ibid., 64.

[19] Ibid., 66.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid., 90.

[22] Ibid., 237.

[23] Ibid., 252.

[24] Ibid., 173.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid., 174.

[27] Ibid., 196.

[28] Ibid., 194.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid., 195.

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