What the Early Christians Believed About Salvation

I’ve previously written several articles on this site about salvation. It’s the subject I’m most passionate about because it’s the single most important topic “under the sun.”

As Jesus so perfectly taught, what does it profit us if we gain the entire world and lose our soul?

I don’t want any soul to be lost.

Unfortunately, there are many different views among believers today about what a person must do to be saved.

Have you ever wondered what the early Christians believed, practiced and taught about what one must do to be saved?

I’m talking about the Christians who were personally taught by the apostles and by those who knew the apostles.

Who better to teach us about the New Testament Scriptures than those who knew the men who penned the words.

Thankfully, a number of their writings have been preserved, so we can know for ourselves. And I have good news—really good news: they all believed the same thing on this most important issue.

But first, a warning and a request: Your present understanding may be different than these men.

Don’t allow any differences to cause you to stop reading.

Read the entire article.

Check the sources for yourself.

Compare these views with the Scriptures.

But ask yourself: If my views are different than the early Christians, what are the possible reasons? Is it possible that I could be mistaken or misled?


Let me begin by informing you about the sources I’m using.

The quotes below from the early Christians (in general, those living between 100-325 A.D., with an emphasis on the first 2 centuries) are taken from Philip Schaff’s ten-volume series The Ante-Nicene Fathers.

I quote frequently from David W. Bercot‘s Will The Real Heretics Please Stand Up and A Dictionary Of Early Christian Beliefs.

Bercot has studied these writings since 1985 and is extremely knowledgeable about them. He, too, uses Schaff’s The Ante-Nicene Fathers for his sourcing.

The citations following each quote below in the format of “1.13” indicate volume 1, page 13 of The Ante-Nicene Fathers

You can also access the contents of The Ante-Nicene Fathers here.


I’ll be brief here, but I owe this article an introduction.

In 2009, I began an in-depth personal Bible study of the first century church—when they met, where they met, why they met, what they did together, how they lived.

Through that study I realized that the Bible says relatively little about the details of early church meetings, leaving the door open for significant flexibility of Christians. However, I still had a hunger to know more about these initial questions, so I began reading these post-New Testament writings.

Unlike Scripture, these writings were not divinely inspired, and the difference between their writings and Scripture is obvious, adding weight to the inspiration—the GOD-breathed-ness—of the Bible.

As of this writing, I have read Schaff’s entire first volume, and significant portions of other writings, but have by no means read them all. That work continues. But I feel a sense of urgency to post this now.

Every day, I read where other believers promote doctrine that is different than what the Scriptures teach about salvation, which is in reality a different gospel (Gal. 1:6-10).

It breaks my heart that many of these people will refuse to accept any amount of evidence that shows their view is inaccurate.

At the same time, there are also true seekers out there who are looking for truth and evidence, whose intent is to find eternal life—which is to know Jesus, and that’s why I want everyone to have this information. I pray you are a true seeker, because if so, Jesus has promised that you will find.

What The Early Christians Believed About Salvation

As Bercot introduced this chapter in Will The Real Heretics Please Stand Up, 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. . . . On the other hand, they frequently labeled some of my beliefs as heretical. The same would probably be true of many of your beliefs.” 
—David W. Bercot, Will The Real Heretics Please Stand Up, p. 56.

Bercot was faced with the same reality that many people face as they examine these writings.

I also have had certain beliefs challenged by the writings of these early Christians. Some things I have changed my mind on because of their logic and understanding of Scripture; others I’m convinced they misunderstood.

But on the most important of issues: salvation, I completely agree with their conclusions, because their conclusions are in harmony with Scripture.

Salvation is Found in Jesus Alone

The early Christians were laser focused on Jesus—on following and becoming like Him. They well understood that salvation only comes through the Messiah.

A man cannot otherwise enter into the kingdom of God than by the name of His beloved Son. Hermas (c. 150), 2.48.

But there is no other [way] than this: to become acquainted with this Christ. . . Justin Martyr (c. 160), 1.217.

It is impossible to reach the Father except by His Son Jesus Christ. Cyprian (c. 250), 5.508.

(I am including a tiny subset of what these men wrote about these topics. I figure that most people reading this article believe that Jesus is the only way to the Father.)

The Role of Grace and Faith in Salvation

These writers knew very well the essential nature of faith in pleasing GOD, and the truth that none of us could stand without GOD’s grace.

All of these persons, therefore, were highly honored, and were made great. This was not for their own sake, or for their own works, or for the righteousness which they wrought, but through the operation of His will. And we, too, being called by His will in Christ Jesus, are not justified by ourselves. Nor are we justified by our own wisdom, understanding, godliness, or works that we have done in holiness of heart. Rather, we are justified by that faith through which, from the beginning, Almighty God has justified all men. Clement of Rome (c. 96), 1.13.

Therefore, let us not be ungrateful for His kindness. For if He were to regard us according to our works, we would cease to be. Ignatius (c. 105), 1.63.

Into this joy, many persons desire to enter. They know that “by grace you are saved, not of works,” but by the will of God through Jesus Christ. . . . Polycarp (c. 135), 1.33.

No one, indeed, while placed out of reach of the Lord’s benefits, has power to procure for himself the means of salvation. So the more we receive His grace, the more we should love Him. Irenaeus (c. 180), 1.478.

Faith is power for salvation and strength to eternal life. Clement of Alexandria (c. 195), 2.360.

It is the office of Christ’s Gospel to call men from the Law to grace. Tertullian (c. 207) 3.432.

Are We Saved By Faith Alone?

“The early Christians universally believed that works or obedience play an essential role in our salvation.” 
—David W. Bercot, Will The Real Heretics Please Stand Up, p. 57.

Consider these quotes from early Christians: 

The way of light, then, is as follows. If anyone desires to travel to the appointed place, he must be zealous in his works. . . . He who keeps them will be glorified in the kingdom of God. However, he who chooses other things will be destroyed with his works. Barnabas (c. 70-130), 1.148, 149.

We are justified by our works and not our words. Clement of Rome (c. 96), 1.13.

. . . that He may both hear you, and perceive by your works that you are indeed the members of His Son. . . . Faith cannot do the works of unbelief, nor unbelief the works of faith. . . . The tree is made manifest by its fruit. So those who profess themselves to be Christians will be recognized by their conduct. . . . It is better for a man to be silent and be [a Christian], than to talk and not be one. Ignatius (c. 105), 1.51-55.

Therefore, brethren, by doing the will of the Father, and keeping the flesh holy, and observing the commandments of the Lord, we will obtain eternal life. Second Clement (c. 150), 7.519.

Only those who fear the Lord and keep His commandments have life with God; but as for those who do not keep His commandments, there is no life in them. Hermas (c. 150), 2.25.

We . . . hasten to confess our faith, persuaded and convinced as we are that those who have proved to God by their works that they followed Him, and loved to abide with Him where there is no sin to cause disturbance, can obtain these things. . . . Each man goes to everlasting punishment or salvation according to the value of his actions. Justin Martyr (c. 160), 1.165, 166.

We will give account to God not only of deeds (as slaves), but even of words and thoughts (as being those who have truly received the power of liberty). For under liberty, a man is more severely tested as to whether he will reverence, fear, and love the Lord. . . . God desires obedience, which renders [His worshippers] secure—rather than sacrifices and burnt-offerings, which avail men nothing toward righteousness. Irenaeus (c. 180), 1.482.

When we hear, “Your faith has saved you,” we do not understand Him to say absolutely that those who have believed in any way whatsoever will be saved. For works must also follow. Clement of Alexandria (c. 195), 2.505.

And there are many, many more writings about this.

As Bercot observed, the early Christian writers consistently understood the Scriptures to teach that our actions play a role in our salvation, and this cannot be ignored.

To the early Christians, faith, grace and obedience weren’t mutually exclusive, but rather worked hand-in-hand, producing the righteousness GOD desires.

And lest you incorrectly conclude that these early Christians didn’t know the Scriptures very well, let me assure you they did.

In fact, I’m embarrassed when I compare the knowledge and ability to recall GOD’s word these brethren possessed without the tools that we have today.

In fact, in Will The Real Heretics Please Stand Up (p. 63), Bercot cites the following quote from Josh McDowell’s Evidence That Demands a Verdict:

J. Harold Greenlee says that the quotations of the Scripture in the works of the early Christian writers “are so extensive that the N.T. [New Testament] could virtually be reconstructed from them without the use of New Testament manuscripts.” . . .

Clement of Alexandria (A.D. 150-212). 2,400 of his quotes are from all but three books of the New Testament.

Tertullian (A.D. 160-220) was a presbyter of the Church in Carthage and quotes the New Testament more than 7,000 times, of which 3,800 are from the Gospels….

Geisler and Nix rightly conclude that “a brief inventory at this point will reveal that there were some 32,000 citations of the New Testament prior to the time of the Council of Nicea (325).”

So please don’t accuse the early Christians of not reading their Bibles.

What Baptism Meant To The Early Christians

I highly recommend that you read Bercot’s chapter on baptism in Will The Real Heretics Please Stand Up.

Were it practical, I would quote the entire chapter here, because it says exactly what needs to be said.

Bercot points out that it was, in fact, the Gnostics who first taught the concepts of total depravity of the flesh and salvation by grace alone, and they were universally labeled as heretics (“deceivers and antichrists”) by the early church.

. . . it took the wind out of my sails when I discovered that the early Christians universally understood Jesus’ words [in John 3:5] to refer to water baptism.

And once again, it was the Gnostics who taught differently than the church—saying that humans can’t be reborn or regenerated through water baptism. Irenaeus wrote about them: “This class of men have been instigated by Satan to a denial of that baptism which is regeneration to God.”
—David W. Bercot, Will The Real Heretics Please Stand Up, p. 77.

I’ll let the early Christian writers speak for themselves on this matter:

Blessed are they who, placing their trust in the cross, have gone down into the water. . . . We indeed descend into the water full of sins and defilement. However, we come up, bearing fruit in our heart, having the fear [of God] and the trust of Jesus in our spirit. Barnabas (c. 70-130), 1.144.

I heard, sir, some teachers maintain that there is no other repentance than that which takes place, when we descended into the water and receive remission of our former sins. . . . Before a man bears the name of the Son of God, he is dead. But when he receives the seal, he lays aside his deadness and obtains life. The seal, then, is the water. They descend into the water dead, and they arise alive. Hermas (c. 150), 2.22, 49.

At our birth, we were born without our own knowledge or choice, but by our parents coming together. . . . In order that we may not remain the children of necessity and of ignorance, but may become the children of choice and knowledge, and may obtain in the water the remission of sins formerly committed, there is pronounced over him who chooses to be born again, and has repented of his sins, the name of God the Father and Lord of the universe. . . . And in the name of Jesus Christ . . . and in the name of the Holy Spirit. Justin Martyr (c. 160), 1.183.

This washing of repentance and knowledge of God has been ordained on account of the transgression of God’s people, as Isaiah cries. Accordingly, we have believed and testify that the very baptism which he announced is alone able to purify those who have repented. And this is the water of life. . . . For what is the use of that baptism which cleanses only the flesh and body? Baptize the soul from wrath and from covetousness, from envy, and from hatred. Justin Martyr (c. 160), 1.201.

There are some of them [Gnostics] who assert that it is unnecessary to bring persons to the water. Rather, they mix oil and water together, and they place this mixture on the head of those who are to be initiated. . . . This they maintain to be the redemption. . . . Other [heretics], however, reject all of these practices, and maintain that the mystery of the unspeakable and invisible power should not to be performed by visible and corruptible creatures. . . . These claim that the knowledge of the unspeakable Greatness is itself perfect redemption. Irenaeus (c. 180), 1.346.

Being baptized, we are illuminated. Illuminated, we become sons. . . . This work is variously called grace, illumination, perfection, and washing. Washing, by which we cleanse away our sins. Grace, by which the penalties accruing to transgressions are remitted. Illumination, by which that holy light of salvation is beheld, that is, by which we see God clearly. Clement of Alexandria (c. 195), 2.215.

Now, the teaching is laid down that “without baptism, salvation is attainable by no one.” This is based primarily on the ground of that declaration of the Lord, who says, “Unless one is born of water he has not life.” However, when this is laid down, there immediately arise scrupulous (or rather, audacious) doubts on the part of some. Tertullian (c. 198), 3.674, 675.

Matthew alone adds the words, “to repentance,” teaching us that the benefit of baptism is connected with the intention of the baptized person. To him who repents, it is saving. However, to him who comes to it without repentance, it will produce greater condemnation. Origen (c. 228), 9.367.

In baptism, the coarse garment of your birth is washed. . . . You have once been washed. Commodianus (c. 240), 4.412.

He who has been sanctified, his sins being put away in baptism, and has been spiritually reformed into a new man, has become fitted for receiving the Holy Spirit. Cyprian (c. 250), 5.387.

Can A Saved Person Lose Their Salvation?

Since the early Christians believed that our continued faith and obedience are necessary for salvation, it naturally follows that they believed that a “saved” person could still end up being lost.
—David W. Bercot, Will The Real Heretics Please Stand Up, p. 65. 

Here’s some of what the early Christians wrote about losing one’s salvation:

We ought therefore, brethren, carefully to inquire concerning our salvation. Otherwise, the wicked one, having made his entrance by deceit, may hurl us forth from our life. . . . The whole past time of your faith will profit you nothing, unless now in this wicked time we also withstand coming sources of danger. . . . Take heed, lest resting at our ease, as those who are the called, we fall asleep in our sins. For then, the wicked prince, acquiring power over us, will thrust us away from the kingdom of the Lord. . . . And you should pay attention to this all the more, my brothers, when you reflect on and see that even after such great signs and wonders had been performed in Israel, they were still abandoned. Let us beware lest we be found to be, as it is written, the “many who are called,” but not the “few who are chosen.” Barnabas (c. 70-130), 1.138, 139.

[Written to Christians:] Since all things are seen and heard [by God], let us fear Him and forsake those wicked works that proceed from evil desires. By doing that, through His mercy, we may be protected from the judgments to come. For where can any of us flee from His mighty hand? Clement of Rome (c. 96), 1.12.

The apostates and traitors of the church have blasphemed the Lord in their sins. Moreover, they have been ashamed of the name of the Lord by which they were called. These persons, therefore, at the end were lost unto God. Hermas (c. 150), 2.41.

I hold further, that those of you who have confessed and known this man to be Christ, yet who have gone back for some reason to the legal dispensation [i.e., the Mosaic Law], and have denied that this man is Christ, and have not repented before death—you will by no means be saved. Justin Martyr (c. 160), 1.218.

Knowing that what preserves his life, namely, obedience to God, is good, he may diligently keep it with all earnestness. . . . Those who do not obey Him, being disinherited by Him, have ceased to be His sons. Irenaeus (c. 180), 1.522, 525.

He who hopes for everlasting rest knows also that the entrance to it is toilsome and narrow. So let him who has once received the Gospel not turn back, like Lot’s wife, as is said—even in the very hour in which he has come to the knowledge of salvation. And let him not go back either to his former life (which adheres to the things of sense) or to heresies. Clement of Alexandria (c. 195), 2.550.

God gives forgiveness of past sins. However, as to future sins, each one procures this for himself. He does this by repenting, by condemning the past deeds, and by begging the Father to blot them out. For only the Father is the one who is able to undo what is done. . . . So even in the case of one who has done the greatest good deeds in his life, but at the end has run headlong into wickedness, all his former pains are profitless to him. For at the climax of the drama, he has given up his part. Clement of Alexandria (c. 195), 2.602.

No one is a Christian but he who perseveres even to the end. Tertullian (c. 197), 3.244.

The world returned to sin . . . and so it is destined to fire. So is the man who after baptism renews his sins. Tertullian (c. 198), 3.673.

Some think that God is under a necessity of bestowing even on the unworthy what He has promised [to give]. So they turn His liberality into His slavery. . . . For do not many afterward fall out of [grace]? Is not the gift taken away from many? These, no doubt, are they who, . . . after approaching to the faith of repentance, build on the sands a house doomed to ruin. Tertullian (c. 203), 3.661.

A man may possess an acquired righteousness, from which it is possible for him to fall away. Origen (c. 225), 4.266.

It is clear that the devil is driven out in baptism by the faith of the believer. But he returns if the faith should afterwards fail. Cyprian (c. 250), 5.402.


The early Christians universally believed:

  • Salvation is to be found in Jesus alone.
  • We are saved by grace through faith.
  • Works matter—faith without works is dead. However, we do not earn our salvation through our deeds.
  • Our sins are forgiven when the believer is immersed in water.
  • After baptism, we must remain faithful to GOD or, by returning to a life of sin, we will lose our salvation. 

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