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David W. Bercot wrote a book entitled “Will the Real Heretics Please Stand Up.” I do not know the religious affiliation of Mr. Bercot, but he found some interesting things in researching the writings of early believers (between 90 and 199 A.D.)
He said: “When I first began studying the early Christian writings, I was surprised by what I read. In fact, after a few days of reading, I put their writings back on the shelf and decided to scrap my research altogether. After analyzing the situation, I realized the problem was that their writings contradicted many of my own theological views.”
In discussing salvation and works, he said: “If there’s any single doctrine that we would expect to find the faithful associates of the apostles teaching, it’s the doctrine of salvation by faith alone…The early Christians universally believed that works or obedience play an essential role in our salvation. This is probably quite a shocking revelation to most evangelicals.” After quoting several early writers, he concluded, “In fact every early Christian writer who discussed the subject of salvation presented this same view...They recognized and emphasized the fact that faith is absolutely essential for salvation, and that without God’s grace nobody can be saved...Our problem is that Augustine, Luther, and other Western theologians have convinced us that there’s an irreconcilable conflict between salvation based on grace and salvation based on works or obedience. They have used a fallacious form of argumentation known as ‘false dilemma,’ by asserting that there are only two possibilities regarding salvation: it’s either a gift from God or it’s something we earn by our works.”
He said the early Christians “would have replied that a gift is no less a gift simply because it’s conditioned on obedience…the Bible says that ‘it is by grace you have been saved, through faith– and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works’ (Eph. 2:8,9). And yet the Bible also says, ‘You see then how that by works a man is justified and not by faith alone’ (Jas. 2:24 KJV). Our doctrine (referring to his denomination) of salvation accepts that first statement but essentially nullifies the second. The early Christian doctrine of salvation gave equal weight to both.”
As pointed out earlier, he continued, “the early Christians didn’t believe that man is totally depraved and incapable of doing any good. They taught that humans are capable of obeying and loving God. But they also believed that for a person to live obediently throughout his entire life, he needed God’s power. So obedience wasn’t totally dependent on human strength, nor totally dependent on God’s power. It was a mixture of both.
To them, salvation was similar. The new birth as spiritual sons of God and heirs of the promise of eternal life was offered to all of us purely as a matter of grace. We do not have to be ‘good enough’ first. We do not have to earn this new birth in any way. And we do not have to atone for all the sins we have committed in our past. The slate is wiped clean through God’s grace. We are truly saved by grace, not by works, as Paul said.
Nevertheless, we also play a role in our own salvation, according to the early Christians…Ultimately, salvation depends on both man and God. For this reason, James could say we are saved by works and not by faith alone.”
This man’s research surprised him, but the writings of the early Christians simply agree with the teaching of the New Testament writers. When Paul said that Abraham was not justified by works (Rom. 4:1-5), he was talking about perfect works, and when James says that Abraham was justified by works (Jas. 2:21), he was talking about obedience. Faith without works (obedience) is like the body without the spirit—it is dead (Jas. 2:26).
Copyright Midway Church of Christ 2014 This page last modified July 03, 2014