Sermon on the Mount – What kind of people will receive eternal life?

This is the second in a series of articles that explain why, if Jesus said that “not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law” (Matt. 5:18), the church council in Acts 15, a decade or two later, decided that Gentiles do not have to comply with the Law. The current article provides an overview of the Sermon of the Mount as the necessary context to answer this question.  The articles in this series are:

1. Jesus came to fulfill the Law.
2. Sermon on the MountCurrent article
3. Not the smallest letter shall pass from the Law.

SUMMARY

Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount to teach His followers what kind of people they must be. For example, He listed the types of people that are blessed, exhorted His followers to be “the salt of the earth,” warned against sins such as murder and adultery, and urged His hearers to be reconciled to their enemies and even to love their enemies.

In this way, Jesus taught His hearers what kind of people they must be to be saved and, therefore, to be rewarded with eternal life. This is implied by the many indications in this sermon to:

      • The end-time judgment;
      • The future “kingdom of heaven;”
      • Your reward in heaven” and
      • The broad way “that leads to destruction.” 

IMMORTAL SOULS

Many people from all religions believe that people have immortal souls and will, therefore, never die. However, Jesus’ statement that “the way is broad that leads to destruction” (7:13) implies that He did not believe that people have immortality. Rather, He said,

Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” 

Jesus’ descriptions of hell, and the worm that does not die, must, therefore, be understood symbolically. See the article on Eternal Life.

JUDGED BY THEIR DEEDS

Since Jesus taught people how to live to be saved, He believed that people will be judged by their deeds. Many Christians believe that God saves people irrespective of what kind of people they are. They get this idea mostly from Paul’s writings. However, as a search on the word “deeds” will show, Paul, in various places, stated that “the doers of the Law will be justified” (Rom. 2:13) by grace, we might add. Jesus similarly taught, “not everyone who says to Me, `Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter” (Matt. 7:21).

– END OF SUMMARY – 

WHAT KIND OF PEOPLE THEY MUST BE

Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount to teach His followers what kind of people they must be.  For example:

He began the sermon by listing the types of people that are blessed, such as “the gentle,” and “those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Matt. 5:3-12).

He then exhorted His followers to be “the salt of the earth” and “the light of the world” (5:13-16). In other words, their influence on other people must be to preserve life.

After the verses on which this article focusses (5:17-20), He taught on sins such as murder, anger, insulting other people, adultery and divorce, making oaths, revenge, doing good things to be seen by other people, trust in earthly riches and a critical spirit.

In contrast to these sins, Jesus urged His hearers to seek to be reconciled to their enemies, to love their enemies (5:38-47) and to “forgive others for their transgressions” (6:14).

He also addressed the worries of this world and advised His hearers to trust God: “Your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.” “Will He not much more clothe you?” (6:25-34)

View The Sermon on the Mount for a good discussion.

TO RECEIVE ETERNAL LIFE

In this way, Jesus taught His hearers what kind of people they must be to be saved and, therefore, to be rewarded with eternal life. There are many indications in the Sermon on the Mount that Jesus’ focus was on the end-time judgment and eternal life. These include:

Judgment – “In the way you judge, you will be judged” (7:2; cf. 5:22, 25).

Enter Kingdom of Heaven – “Not everyone who says to Me, `Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter” (7:21; cf. 5:3, 19, 20).

Reward – “Your Father … will reward you” (6:18; cf. 6:1, 5, 6) and “your reward in heaven is great” (5:12).

Destruction and hell – “The way is broad that leads to destruction” (7:13). “The way is narrow that leads to life” (7:14). That “destruction,” Jesus said, is in “the fiery hell” (5:22; cf. 5:29, 30). “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (7:19). 

THE BOOK OF REVELATION

The striking similarities between Jesus’ sermon and the “new earth” (Rev. 21:1), as described in the Book of Revelation, further support the conclusion that Jesus said all these things to prepare people for the final judgment:

He said, “those who mourn … shall be comforted” (5:4) and “the gentle … shall inherit the earth” (5:5). Similarly, on the “new earth,” God “will wipe away every tear from their eyes” and “there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain” (Rev. 21:1, 4).

The pure in heart … shall see God” (5:8). Similarly, on the “new earth,” “they will see His face” (Rev. 22:4) and “God Himself will be among them” (Rev. 21:3). 

The peacemakers … shall be called sons of God” (5:9; cf. 5:45).  Similarly, on the “new earth,” “I will be his God and he will be My son” (Rev. 21:7).

Jesus said, “it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell” (5:29; cf. 5:22; 7:19). Similarly, in Revelation, the “abominable and murderers and immoral persons and sorcerers and idolaters and all liars, their part will be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death” (Rev. 21:8).

PEOPLE ARE NOT IMMORTAL

Many people from all religions believe that people have immortal souls and will, therefore, never die. Christians obtain this mostly from Jesus’ teaching on hell and from the book of Revelation, for example:

Jesus described “hell” as “the unquenchable fire … where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:43-48).

However, as shown in the article on Eternal Life, Paul taught that only God’s people will receive eternal life. This is, actually, also what Jesus taught.  He said,

Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” 

Jesus’ descriptions of hell, and the worm that does not die, must be understood symbolically.  Hell is to see your husband or wife and children and even your pets in perfect health and to know you must die because of the person that you have become. In the presence of the Lamb and His angels (Rev. 14:10 – not in the presence of Satan), they will suffer when they realize God did everything in His power to save them to this eternal and beautiful life, but they refused to come to Him. Now, to protect the happiness of the universe, God must “destroy both soul and body in hell.

Those that remain will never forget this extreme emotional torment, symbolized by the “the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever” (Rev. 14:11). God “will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Rev. 21:4), but they will never forget the ones they love.

JUDGED BY DEEDS

Since Jesus taught people how to live to be saved, He believed that people will be judged by their deeds.

Some Christians think that God saves people irrespective of what kind of people they are. This is another topic about which preachers get worked up about. They get this idea mostly from Paul’s statements that man is not saved “by the works of the Law” (e.g. Gal. 2:16) but by grace. However, “the works of the Law” refer to the ceremonial rituals of the Jewish Law. It does not describe what kind of person one is. 

In this regard, we find a fundamental distinction between “works” and “deeds” in the New Testament. As a search on the word “deeds” will show, Paul stated in various places that people will be judged by their deeds. (e.g. Rom. 2:6; 4:6-7; 8:13; 2 Cor. 5:10). “The doers of the Law will be justified” (Rom. 2:13), but without deserving eternal life by their deeds. “The doers of the Law will be justified” by grace, we might add. This is also what Jesus taught. In this sermon, He said, “not everyone who says to Me, `Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter” (7:21; cf. 5:3, 19, 20). Remember also the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matt. 25:31-).  Make no mistake, we will be judged by our deeds, but saved by grace.

ARTICLES IN THIS SERIES

Jesus came to fulfill the Law. – A study of Matthew 5:17-18 – Jesus did not come to abolish but to fulfill the Law and the prophets. What are “the Law and the Prophets” and how did Jesus fulfill them?

Sermon on the Mount – Jesus taught His followers what kind of people they must be to be rewarded with eternal life. Jesus did not believe that people have essential immortality and taught that they will be judged by their deeds.

Not the smallest letter shall pass from the Law.  Jesus said that not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished.” Why then did the Acts 15 Church Council, a decade or two later, decide that Gentiles do not have to comply with the Law? Paul’s letter to the Galatians explains the decision.

Articles on Galatians – Since Galatians explains the decision of the Church Council, these articles are, in a sense, part of the series on Galatians.

Theories of Atonement: Did Christ die to pacify God’s wrath?

SUMMARY

If Jesus did not die, we could not be saved. On this we agree, but there are different Theories of Atonement that attempt to explains HOW His death atoned for the sins of God’s people. 

One horrible distortion of the gospel is that God was angry and that Christ died to pacify His anger. According to the Bible, Christ was the Means of reconciliation but it was God that took the initiative to save us.

A softer variation of this theory is that sin distorts Justice, that Justice demands that someone must suffer and that Jesus died to restore the equilibrium of Justice. However, how can it be just to torture an innocent Person for the sins of other people? 

Another variation on the theme is that Jesus lived a sinless life and that His righteousness is imputed to sinners.  This is better than the previous versions because it takes the focus away from God’s wrath. However, this theory is based on a literal interpretation of and emphasis on the word “justified,” which is only one of several Metaphors of Salvation.

People sometimes say that God was reconciled to His creatures, as if God was changed by Christ’s death. However, Paul always wrote that people are reconciled to God; never the other way round.  In other words, Christ’s death did not change the Father. 

A very different explanation is that sin gave Satan ownership of this world. He held humanity captive. However, became part of humanity and His death triumphed over the evil spiritual forces. 

The moral influence theories of atonement suggest that believers are moved to repent and reunite with God when they see God’s love expressed through Jesus’ life and death.  This is certainly true but does not explain why Jesus had to die.

THEORIES OF ATONEMENT

It is generally accepted that, if Jesus did not die, we could not be saved:

God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. (Romans 5:6-8, NRSV)

The difficulty is to explain HOW His death atoned for the sins of God’s people. There are many different explanations of this:

PAID THE REQUIRED PRICE

Some say that Christ, by His death, paid the required price, but to whom was the price paid?  It was not paid to God, for we were held prisoner by Satan.  Neither was it paid to Satan, for what could God owe to Satan?

GOD WAS ANGRY

Others propose that God was angry and that Christ died to pacify God’s anger. However:

(1) MAN IS HOSTILE.

Firstly, it is not God that was hostile to man; we were hostile to Him:

You were formerly alienated and hostile in mind, engaged in evil deeds” (Col. 1:21). (This implies that evil deeds” are acts of aggression against God.)

We previously “were enemies” (Rom. 5:10).

Belonging to the race of Adam, we are born alienated from God. People are angry with Him. They try to exclude Him from their lives in all possible ways.  A common method is to insult God by using His name in vain and even to use His name as a swearword.

(2) GOD TOOK THE INITIATIVE.

Secondly, the Father is not angry with His enemies. rather, it was God that took the initiative to save man (Col. 1:22); not the other way round.  For example:

God so loved the world that He gave His only Son (John 3:16). See also Romans 5:6-8, quoted above.

Colossians 1:20-22 uses the word “through” four times, explaining what God did through Christ.  “The Father … made peace through the blood of His cross” (Col. 1:19-20). The Father “has now reconciled you in His (Christ’s) fleshly body through death” (v22). Christ was the Means of reconciliation, but it was the Father who redeemed us.

It is the Father who has qualified us to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints (Col. 1:12), who delivered us from the power of darkness and who transferred us into the kingdom of the Son (Col. 1:13).

To say that sin made God angry and that He was eager to punish us, but that Christ took our punishment and pacified God is a blatant contradiction of the Bible, for God so loved the world that He sent His only begotten Son.

RECONCILED TO HIS CREATURES.

People sometimes say that God was reconciled to His creatures, as if God was changed by Christ’s death on the cross, but the word translated reconcile is used a number of times in Paul’s writings, and it always says that people are reconciled to God; never the other way round.

To reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross” (Col. 1:20)

Reconcile them both (Gentiles and Israel) in one body to God through the cross” (Eph. 2:16)

While we were enemies we were reconciled to God” (Rom. 5:10)

God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ” (2 Cor. 5:18)

We beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (2 Cor. 5:20)

In other words, Christ’s death did not change the Father’s attitude towards people; it is man that changed. 

JUSTICE DEMANDS THAT SOMEONE MUST SUFFER.

As a child, growing up in reformed circles, I often heard that sin perverts justice, insults God’s honor and that God’s righteousness or justice demands that someone had to suffer. Therefore, Jesus suffered what we deserve so that we receive what He deserves: Jesus died to restore the equilibrium of Justice in the universe. 

This formulation is a bit softer than to say that God was angry, but it still is a horrible perversion of the grand Bible message.  It presents God as subject to Justice.  And how can it be just to torture an innocent Person for the sins of another? 

The most important message of the Bible is that God so loved the world so much that He gave His only begotten Son to redeem us. That is the foundation of every other doctrine. To corrupt the doctrine of God’s love is to corrupt the entire Bible, for it permits man to justify and continue his own mad anger and cruelty.

The Bible reveals the infinite God as wise, loving and just. The concepts in the Bible are infinitely high above the thoughts of man, and continually elevates man’s mind.  To say that the suffering of an innocent person would satisfy God’s justice seems utterly inconsistent with His character.

CHRIST’S RIGHTEOUSNESS IMPUTED TO SINNERS

Another variation on this theme is that Jesus lived a sinless life and that His righteousness is imputed to sinners.  This is better than the previous versions because it takes the focus away from God’s anger or justice and focuses on the wonderful message that Jesus remained without sin even when subjected to the greatest possible temptation and torture. 

However, this theory presents salvation as a mechanical process, similar to the Jewish system where they thought that they are justified by the ceremonies and rituals of the Mosaic Law. See the article Justified! for a further discussion of this view:

That article asserts that “justified” is only one of several Metaphors of Salvation, and we should not, therefore, interpret the word ‘justify’ literally and emphasize it over the other metaphors when trying to explain how a person is put right with God.

TRIUMPH OVER EVIL SPIRITUAL FORCES

A very different explanation is that sin gave Satan ownership of this world. Humanity was his captives. However, Christ’s death was a triumph over evil spiritual forces which “disarmed” Satan and his followers (Col 2:15), rendered them “powerless” (Heb. 2:14) and threw them “down to the earth” (Rev. 12:9).  In this explanation, that which prevented man’s salvation was not with God – His anger or His justice – but sin.

This was the view held by the church until Anselm confused the matter in the 11th century. It is also the explanation which I prefer. In the following articles I explain how it is that Satan has any right if God is almighty, and how Christ destroyed Satan’s rights:

(a) Christ’s death proved that God judges rightly.
(b) Why Jesus had to die

MORAL INFLUENCE

A still further alternative explanation is that believers are moved to repent and reunite with God when they see God’s love expressed through Jesus’ life and death.  This is called the ‘moral influence theory’.  This is certainly true but does not explain why Jesus had to die.

CONCLUSION

Granted, this is a rather superficial discussion of the Theories of Atonement.  I hope to study this subject in more detail in the future.  Other useful resources which the reader may consult include the following:

Joshua Thurow surveys the various ways Christians have thought about Jesus’s unique atonement through his death.

Noah Worcester does not find any reason to accept the “penal substitution” theories of atonement, on which God’s holiness requires him to punish someone in order to forgive, so that Jesus takes the punishment due us, cooling off God’s wrath, enabling him to forgive. But he does find evidence that according to the New Testament, Jesus’ sacrifice was a demonstration of God’s love for us.

 

 

By grace through faith are people saved but God judges our deeds.

SUMMARY

THE DISTORTED GOSPEL

Paul wrote the letter to the Galatians to oppose Jewish Christians who told the Gentile Christians, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” Their purpose was to force Gentile Christians to comply with the Law of Moses.  They argued that man is “justified by the works of the Law.” Their “Law” was the Law of Moses, as interpreted through their traditions. They used the Law both as the norm for human behavior and as the means of salvation.

WORKS ARE NOT DEEDS

Paul opposed the view of the Jewish Christians and said, “by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified.” However, Paul also wrote, “God … will render to each person according to his deeds.” There is a big difference between “works” and “deeds.” “The works of the Law” was a technical term that the Jews employed to refer specifically to the rituals and ceremonies of the Law of Moses. The “deeds,” by which Paul wrote we will be judged, refer to moral behavior, or the absence of it.

DIFFERENT LAW

Furthermore, the “Law,” to which the Jewish Christians referred was the Law of Moses while the “law” in the phrase “the doers of the Law will be justified” is “the Law of Christ.”  The Law of Christ refers to Christ’s explanation of God’s eternal moral principles, for example in the Sermon on the Mount.  It is against this “Law of Christ” that our “deeds” are judged.

The Acts 15 Church Council decided that Gentile Christians do not have to observe the Law of Moses.  God gave the Law to Israel to serve as their guardian, but only “until the seed would come.” It would, therefore, be wrong to strive to comply with the Law of Moses, except to the extent to which Christ incorporated the principles of that law into His teachings.

BY GRACE THROUGH FAITH

The Jewish Christians and Paul, therefore, taught two different norms for human behavior. They also preached two different means of justification. While the Jews thought that man earns justification through the rituals and ceremonies of the Law of Moses, Paul maintained that “through the Law comes the knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20). Rather, Paul taught that man will be justified by grace through faith:

The doers of the Law will be justified” (Rom. 2:13) but man does not earn redemption through his deeds, for man is unable to comply with the Law. Therefore, no person deserves to live.  Rather, people are “justified as a gift by His grace.” This means that God’s judgment is subject to His grace, which is His merciful kindness.

In the Jewish thinking, you don’t need God: You are saved by what you do.  In contrast, grace depends on God. Grace means that your salvation will always be subject to God’s judgment.

God’s grace is available to all people, but only some are saved. There is, therefore, another factor in judgment that makes a distinction between people, and that is faith. People are saved, not by grace only, but “by grace … through faith.”  Faith replaces works in the Jewish thinking of salvation. Faith is internal, while works are external. Our faith is reflected in what we want to do rather than what we actually do. God will save the people that want to comply with His law, even though they often fail:

Grace and faith cannot be separated, for because God justifies humans by grace, He evaluates their faith, rather than their literal deeds. 

CONCLUSION

Paul taught:

A different law (Law of Christ versus the Jewish Law of Moses) and
A different means of justification (by grace through faith versus the Jewish “works of the Law.”)

God elects people to be saved, but not independent of what they are or do.  He elects people for what they really are, which is something that only God is able to see. 

PURPOSE OF THIS ARTICLE

Paul wrote the letter to the Galatians to oppose “false brethren” (2:4)—including, “men from James” (2:12)—who taught a distorted “gospel of Christ” (Gal. 1:7). These were Christian Jews who told the Gentile Christians, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1). Their purpose was to force Gentile Christians to comply with the Law of Moses.

The purpose of the current article is to explain the difference between what Paul taught and the distorted gospel.

WHAT THE JEWS TAUGHT

These Jewish Christians justified their demand by arguing that man is “justified by the works of the Law” (Gal. 2:16). Their “Law” was the Law of Moses, but there are indications in Galatians that the traditions played a large role:

Paul, was previously extremely zealous for the Ancestral traditions (1:14).

Peter used to eat with the Gentiles, but after certain men came from Jerusalem, he withdrew and held himself aloof, fearing the party of the circumcision (2:12). This rule, that Jews may not eat with Gentiles, comes from the Traditions of the Elders; not from the Law of Moses.

The “bondage” (Gal. 2:4) was, therefore, both to the Law of Moses and the Traditions.  The Jews interpreted the “Law” through their traditions.

But the point is that these Jewish Christians used the Law and the traditions as:

(1) Norm for human behavior and also
(2) Means of salvation, claiming that people are saved by “the works of the law.” In other words, they taught that a person must earn salvation.

PAUL’S TEACHING

Paul opposed this view and said, “by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified” (Gal. 2:16). However, Paul also wrote:

The doers of the Law will be justified” (Rom. 2:13; cf. Rom. 14:10; Gal. 6:2-8).

God … will render to each person according to his deeds” (Rom. 2:5-6).

We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad” (2 Cor. 5:10; cf. 2 Cor. 11:15).

It almost seems as if Paul contradicted himself and that he agreed with the Jews:

Jews: man is “justified by the works of the Law
Paul:
“the doers of the Law will be justified.”

So, what are the difference between their teachings?

WORKS ARE NOT DEEDS

Firstly, the Jews referred to “works” (the works of the law) while Paul referred to “deeds.” There is a big difference between these two terms:

The works of the Law” was a technical term that the Jews employed to refer specifically to the rituals and ceremonies of the Law of Moses.

The “deeds” by which we will be judged (e.g. Rom. 2:5-6), as Paul used the term, refer to moral behavior.

Some further examples to show that we will be judged by our “deeds:”

If you are living according to the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Rom. 8:13).

We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad” (2 Cor. 5:10).

DIFFERENT LAW

Secondly, the “Law,” to which the Jewish Christians referred, was the Law of Moses while the “law” in the phrase “the doers of the Law will be justified” (Rom. 2:13) is “the Law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2).

Paul uses the word “law” often in his writings, but with different meanings:

Sometimes “law” refers to the first five books of the Bible; the books of Moses, for instance in the phrase “the Law and the Prophets” (e.g. Rom. 3:21).

At times, the “law” was “the book of the law” (Gal. 3:10) which Moses wrote up and put beside the ark.

And sometimes “law” refers to the Ten Commandments specifically (e.g. Rom. 13:10). Another “law” which Paul referred to is “the Law of Christ” (e.g. Gal. 6:2).

LAW OF CHRIST

Another example of “the Law of Christ” in Paul’s writings is where Paul wrote that he, himself, is:

not … under the Law … though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ” (1 Cor. 9:20-21).

The Law of Christ is, therefore, God’s law, but it is not the Law of Moses. It refers to Christ’s teachings; namely, the “commandments we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus” (1 Thess. 4:2).

See the article Law of Christ for a discussion of this law. It refers to God’s eternal moral principles, which also forms the foundation of the Law of Moses.

Jesus enacted “the Law of Christ” when He said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations … teaching them to observe all that I commanded you” (Matt. 28:19-20).

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus discussed the Ten Commandments and some other Old Testament laws, but then gave His own version of those laws, starting with the words, “But I say to you” (e.g. Matt. 5:44). This is, in other words, how Jesus formulated His law.

It is against this “Law of Christ” that our “deeds” are judged.  Those that sin will die, for “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23) but those that “are putting to death the deeds of the body, … will live” (Rom. 8:13). (See Eternal Life and Death in Paul’s Letters.)

LAW OF MOSES ABROGATED

In summary, we can interpret Galatians 2:16 as saying that man is not justified by the works of the Law of Moses but the doers of the “Law of Christ” will be justified.

As was also taught by Paul, the Acts 15 Church Council decided that Gentile Christians do not have to observe the Law of Moses.  See Theological Implications of the Early Church. God gave the Law to Israel to serve as their guardian to keep them on the right path, but only “until the seed would come” (Gal. 3:19). Paul taught the “liberty which we have in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 2:4) and “freedom” (Gal. 5:1, 13). That liberty is freedom from the Law of Moses.

It would, therefore, be wrong to strive to comply with the Law of Moses, except to the extent to which Christ incorporated the principles of that law into His teachings. For example, people that want to keep the Sabbath must be able to justify that on Christ’s teachings. See Jesus taught more about the Sabbath than all the other nine commandments put together.

DIFFERENT MEANS OF JUSTIFICATION

So far, this article has made distinctions between:

The “works” by which the Jews said we are justified versus the “deeds” by which Paul said we will be judged.

The “Law of Moses” versus the “Law of Christ” against which our “deeds” will be measured.

The third difference is that the Jewish Christians and Paul preached two different means of justification:

The Jews thought that man is justified by the rituals and ceremonies of the Law of Moses.  For the Jews the law was their means of justification.  They taught that man is reconciled to God through the blood of sheep and goats. 

To argue against this error, Paul responded that man is not justified by the works of the Law.  He maintained that “through the Law (of Christ) comes the knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20). Metaphorically, “sinful passions … were aroused by the Law” (Rom 7:5). The law gives power to sin (1 Cor. 15:56) and is completely unable to justify man. 

Rather, Paul taught that man will be justified by grace through faith:

BY GRACE

The doers of the Law will be justified” (Rom. 2:13) but man does not earn redemption through his deeds, for man is unable to comply with the Law of Christ, which is God’s norm. Paul wrote:

All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace” (Rom. 3:23-24).

We will be judged by our compliance with God’s Law, which is the Law of Christ, but the judgment is subject to grace. Because no person is able to comply with God’s eternal moral principles, no person deserves to live.  God’s people are, therefore, justified by grace, which is God’s merciful kindness:

Eternal life is “the free gift of God … in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23).

By grace you have been saved” (Eph. 2:5).

In summary, justification by the “works of the Law” means that one earns justification by complying with the ceremonies and rituals of the Law of Moses.  In other words, you don’t need God: You are saved by what you do.  In contrast, grace depends on God. Grace means that your salvation will always be subject to God’s judgment:

If it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works” (Rom. 11:6)

So, if people are saved merely by grace, why was it necessary for Christ to die?  Could God not have forgiven people, simply in mercy?  Please see Why Jesus had to die.

THROUGH FAITH

God’s grace is available to all people, but, while we are all sinners (Rom. 3:9), only some are saved. There is, therefore, another factor in judgment that makes a distinction between people, and that is faith. People are saved, not by grace only, but “by grace … through faith” (Eph. 2:8; Rom. 5:1).  So, what role does faith play in justification?

FAITH IS THE ALTERNATIVE FOR WORKS

Firstly, faith replaces works in the Jewish thinking of salvation. It is the alternative for works. One is either saved by works or by faith. For example:

Referring to the Jews, Paul wrote, “they did not pursue it by faith, but as though it were by works” (Rom. 9:32).

A man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law” (Rom. 3:28).

Gentiles … attained righteousness … by faith; but Israel … did not pursue it by faith, but as though it were by works” (Rom. 9:30-32).

FAITH IS INTERNAL

Secondly, faith is internal, while works are external: “We walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7). God judges the heart; the inner being. 

FAITH IS WHAT WE WANT TO DO.

Thirdly, because we are unable to meet God’s standards, He judges us by grace. And because it is by grace, God judges our faith. And our faith is reflected in what we want to do rather than what we actually do.  God will save the people that want to comply with His law, even though they often fail:

The good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want” (Rom. 7:18-19; cf. 21-25)

Such people are regarded as “doers of the law” (Rom. 2:13). The person that does not want to comply with God’s law, will die (Rom. 8:13). In this way, God judges man’s inner being.  To say that man is justified by his want to do good is the same as saying man is justified by faith.

GRACE AND FAITH IS ONE SINGLE CONCEPT.

Fourthly, grace and faith, therefore, cannot be separated. To repeat, because God justifies humans by grace, He evaluates their faith, rather than their literal deeds.  Therefore, grace and faith are a single concept:

It is by faith, in order that it may be in accordance with grace” (Rom 4:16)

We can, therefore, explain Romans 2:13 as that the doers of the Law ‘do’ the Law by their faith, which is something which God is able to see, and which is reflected in what they want to do.

CONCLUSIONS

Paul taught:

A different law (Law of Christ versus the Jewish Law of Moses) and
A different means of justification (by grace through faith versus the Jewish “works of the Law.”)

SELF-JUSTIFICATION IS FOUND IN ALL AGES.

The error of the Jews is relevant in all times.  In all ages man is inclined to assume that one is saved by what you do.  This is the way by which everything else works in this life, and we make the mistake of assuming that God’s kingdom is like this world. 

We also see this error at the time of Luther, when the church taught that man is redeemed by complying with a set of rules, such as financial contributions to the church and self-deprivation and even self-mutilation. 

GOD’S ELECT

If “the doers of the Law will be justified” (2:13), does that contradict the indications in the Bible that God elects certain people?  Jesus, for instance, said, “for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short” (Mat. 24:22, cf. 24:24, 31), and Paul asked, “Who will bring a charge against God’s elect?” (Rom. 8:33)

It is proposed here that God does elect certain people, but not independent of what they are or do, as is taught in the Reformed tradition.  He elects people for what they really are, which is something that only God is able to see.  God judges man’s heart; his faith, motives and desires.  These things people are unable to judge.  The Atonement-series of articles shows that the War in Heaven is exactly about God, judgments and that Christ’s death demonstrated the rightness of God’s judgments.

Job serves as a good example.  He was God’s elect, but Satan refused to accept God’s judgment and requested permission from God to test Job thoroughly.  For a discussion of this, see Why Satan thought he could succeed.

 

Historical Development of the Trinity Doctrine – Fifth Century Arianism

This is a further article in the series on the historical development of the Trinity doctrine.  The current article considers the development in the Fifth Century.  This article is also an overview of the events in the preceding century.

Summary

Early Church Fathers

Irenaeus
IRENAEUS

The church fathers of the first 300 years were not Trinitarians.  For them, the Father was “the only true god.”  They also had an extremely high view of Christ, namely that He was “born of the very substance of the Father” “before time began.”  Nevertheless, they saw the Son as subordinate to the Father, who is “the Head of Christ.”

Nicene Creed

COUNCIL AT NICAEA

After he legalized Christianity in 313, Emperor Constantine had a huge role in the formulation of the Nicene Creed of 325.  That creed elevates the Son to “true god from true god.” (I use the word “god” because the ancient languages did not have a word equivalent to our word “God.” In Greek they used the word theos, which is a general word for all gods.) 

Fifty Year Arian Period

The Council of Nicaea did not end the Arian controversy. Soon after Nicaea, Emperor Constantine became convinced that the Nicene Creed was not Biblical.  During the next 50 years, the emperors were Arian.  Arianism, therefore, dominated the church.  Religious freedom was not part of Roman culture.  During the fifty-year Arian period, the church converted many Germanic peoples to Arian Christianity.  At this time, also, large numbers of Germanic people began to migrate into the Roman Empire. 

In 380 Theodosius became emperor.  Being a zealous Nicene Christian, he immediately outlawed Arianism.  He so effectively persecuted Arianism that it disappeared among the elite in the empire.  However, the ‘barbarians’ remained Arian.

Barbarian domination of the Western Empire

After Theodosius’ death in 395, the ‘barbarian’ immigrants became a dominant part of the Roman Empire.  They tolerated figurehead Western Roman Emperors until 476, when an Arian Germanic chieftain deposed the last Western Roman Empire.  They divided territory of the western provinces between the Germanic tribes but these tribes continued to function as part of the Roman Empire.  Since these ‘barbarians’ were Arians, the Western Roman Empire was once again Arian dominated.

Roman Church in the Fifth Century

The Roman Church survived throughout this period. One reason is that the ‘barbarians’ intended to remain part of the Roman Empire and the Roman Church was officially part of the Roman system of government.  The emperors appointed the bishops and they were accountable to him. For that reason also, the Roman Church actually grew in strength.  

One consequence of the growing strength of the Church in Rome was that ‘barbarian’ nations converted to the Nicene Church, rather than to Arianism.  At the end of the fifth century, the Franks were the first.  The other nations converted to Nicene Christianity over the subsequent centuries.

Conclusion

The Roman Emperors decided what Christology the church should adopt.  The fact that the church today is dominated by the Trinity doctrine is the direct result of decisions taken by Roman Emperors.

These concepts will now be discussed in more detail.

Church Fathers of the First 300 Years

The church fathers of the first 300 years were not Trinitarians.  They described the Father alone as the “Lord God Almighty,” as “the only true god, the unbegotten and unapproachable” and as “Lord of the universe.”

But they also had an extremely high view of Christ: They wrote that He was “born of the very substance of the Father” “before time began.”  “Every knee should bow” before Christ Jesus.  But that is not because Jesus is the Almighty, but because it is “the will of the invisible Father.”  In other words, in their view, the Son is subordinate to the Father, who is the only true ‘god’.  Justin Martyr explicitly put Jesus “in the second place” next to God.  Irenaeus, quoting the New Testament, refers to the Father as “the Head of Christ.”  Polycarp, also quoting the Bible, identified the Father as Jesus’ God.

Nicene Creed (325)

After Christianity was legalized in 313, emperor Constantine had a huge role in the formulation of the Nicene Creed of 325.  While the Bible and the early fathers described the Father as “the only true god,” the Nicene Creed elevated the Son as Homoousios (of the same substance) as or with the Father and to “true god from true god.”  This elevates the Son to near equality with the Father.  The article Nicene Creed discusses whether that creed declares the Son to be fully EQUAL to the Father.

The words God and god

The reader might be surprised by the references to “god” rather than to “God.”  The reason is that ancient languages did not distinguish between upper case and lower case letters. Consequently, the Bible writers and these early fathers did not have a word that is exactly equal to the modern word “God,” which we use today as a name for one specific Being; the uncaused Cause of all things.  The ancient word which they used (theos in Greek) had a more general meaning and is equivalent to the modern word “god.” They used that same word for the Greek gods.

These early writers (Ignatius, Irenaeus), therefore, literally referred to the Father as “the only true god,” but to Jesus as “our god.”  To translate theos as “God,” with a capital “G,” is an interpretation.  Translators today, generally, assume the Trinity doctrine in which Jesus Christ is equal with the Father. Both are regarded as the uncaused Cause of all things.  Such translators translate theos, when it describes Jesus, also as “God.” 

It is important to know that that is an application of the Trinity doctrine and does not necessarily reflect the intention of the early writers.  

As shown above, the earliest church fathers had an extremely high view of Christ but did not regard Christ as equal to the Father.  I, therefore, prefer to use the word “god” rather than “God.”  I think that reflects the meaning of these ancient writers better.  For example, the phrase “true God” is a tautology, for there is only one true God.  But “true god” is a logical phrase.  See the article Jesus is our God for a further discussion of this crucial subject.

Fifty Year Arian Period (330-380)

The Council of Nicaea did not end the Arian controversy. The bishops went on teaching as they had before. Within a few years after Nicaea, Church leaders convinced emperor Constantine that the Nicene Creed was not Biblical.  During the 50 years after Nicaea, the emperors were Arian.  Arianism, therefore, in that period dominated to the church (See Fourth Century Arian Period.). 

Religious freedom was not part of the culture of the Roman Empire.  Just like Constantine exiled all church leaders who did not accept the Nicene Creed, the emperors after Constantine viciously persecuted the church leaders who taught the Nicene Creed. 

Many alternative creeds were formulated during that 50-year Arian period, such as the Long Lines Creed.

During those fifty years, the Gothic convert and Arian bishop Ulfilas went as a missionary to the Gothic tribes across the Danube.  Ulfilas translated the Bible in Gothic language and had success in converting the Goths to the Arian form of Christianity.  The conversion of Goths led to a widespread diffusion of Arian Christianity in the years 340 to 350 among other Germanic peoples as well, such as the Visigoths, the Vandals, the Lombards, Svevi, and Burgundians. (See the Wikipedia page on Arianism and the Britannica pages for Goth and Ulfilas.)

More or less at this time also people from the Germanic tribes began to migrate in large numbers into the Roman Empire.  (See Migration Period.)  Rome referred to them as “barbarians,” but they were the people that occupy most of Europe today.

Death of Arianism (380)

In 380 Theodosius became emperor.  He was a zealous Nicene Christian and immediately outlawed Arianism.  He so effectively persecuted Arianism that it disappeared among the elite in the empire.  However, not being subject to the Roman emperor, the ‘barbarian’ nations remained Arian.

Barbarian Control of the Western Empire

As discussed in The Fall of Rome, more and more ‘barbarian’ immigrants were recruited into the Roman army.  The Imperial forces became dependent on ‘barbarian’ soldiers.  They were also appointed in top positions in the military of the Western Roman Empire.  Since Roman generals always were very influential in the Roman Empire, this put the ‘barbarians’ in a very strong position. 

Theodosius was the last Roman emperor to rule the entire Empire. Soon after his death in 395 ‘barbarians’ were, in reality, in charge of the Western Roman Empire    But the ‘barbarian’ peoples were still treated as second class citizens by the Graeco-Roman population.  Therefore, to secure for themselves equal rights and permanent residency in the empire, the ‘barbarians’ revolted against the severe conditions of their tenure in the Roman Empire.  They sacked Rome in 410 and again in 455. (See Fall of the Roman Empire.)  

Although they dominated the Western Empire already from the beginning of the 400s (fifth century), they tolerated figurehead Western Roman Emperors until 476, when Odoacer—an Arian Germanic chieftain—deposed the last Western Roman Empire.  He soon conquered Italy. During the fifth century, the territory of the Western Empire provinces was divided between the Germanic tribes, particularly the Goths and Vandals.  However, to some extent, they still functioned as part of the Roman Empire.  In name at least, they were subject to the emperor in Constantinople.  For these reasons, historians today prefer to refer to the Transformation of the Western Roman Empire; rather than its Fall.  It was a slow process over decades and even centuries during which the ‘barbarians’ wrestled control of the Western Empire from the Romans. 

These ‘barbarians’ received their Christianity during the 50 years from 330 to 380 when Arianism dominated the church.  Theodosius had made an end of Arianism among the Roman people in 380, but now, through the ‘barbarian’ domination of the Western Roman Empire, it was once again Arian dominated.

The Roman Church in the Fifth Century

The Roman Church should have perished.

The Roman Church survived throughout this period. There are at least two reasons why we might have expected the Church in Rome to perish with the demise of the Western Empire:

Firstly, the Church in Rome was part of the government of the Roman Empire. 

CONSTANTINE THE GREAT

After emperor Constantine I legalized Christianity in 313 AD, the church became closely married to political powers of the times.  It became very different from what we know today as a church: It rather functioned similarly to a government department.  The emperor was the real head of the church.  He appointed bishops and they were accountable to him.  The emperor also had the final say with respect to controversies in the church, for example, with respect to Christology.  For example:

Emperor Constantine had a huge role in the decisions of the Council of Nicaea.  He called the council, presided over it, guided the discussions, proposed and enforced the important word Homoousios and exiled all bishops that did not agree.

When Theodosius I became emperor in 380, the imperial capital was solidly Arian. But he immediately outlawed all other forms of Christianity, exiled Arian bishops and banned Arians from the Council of 381.  The 381 Council was simply a formality.  (See Death of Arianism.)

Christianity, consequently, became wealthy and the religion of any ambitious civil official.

Secondly, the Church in Rome advocated Nicene Christology, while the Germanic peoples were Arians. 

Since Nicaea in the year 325, due to the fact that the Church functioned as a department of government, these two groups often exiled and persecuted one another.  Constantine’s successors—the emperors Constantius and Valens actively encouraged the church to reverse the Nicene Creed and exiled bishops adhering to the Nicene Creed, crushing the Nicene party (see Fourth Century Arian Period).  Theodosius, on the other hand, was a Nicene Christian and acted mercilessly against ‘heretics’. He was responsible for the first official executions of Christian ‘heretics’. [Jones 1964, p. 164]

The Roman Church Survived.

In spite of these factors, the new Arian rulers in the Western Empire allowed the Church in Rome to continue unhindered.  Arianism and the Nicene church of the Roman people existed side by side in the fifth century (400’s) and beyond.  The Jewish Encyclopaedia describes the situation:

“Most Germanic peoples—such as the eastern and western Goths, as also the Franks, the Lombards, the Suevi, and the Vandals—were baptized into Arian Christianity.  These tribes settled in widely spread districts of the old Roman empire.  A large number of Jews, already resident in those lands, fell under Arian domination. In contrast with the domination of the orthodox church, the Arian was distinguished by a wise tolerance and a mild treatment of the population of other faiths.  This conduct was traceable in some degree to certain points of agreement between the Arian doctrine and Judaism.  The very insistence upon the more subordinate relationship of the Son to the God-father is much nearer to the Jewish doctrine of the Messiah than to the conception of the full divinity of the Son, as enunciated at Nicaea.”
(Kohler, Kaufmann; Krauss, Samuel. “ARIANISM”. Jewish Encyclopedia. Kopelman Foundation.)

The Wikipedia – State Church of the Roman Empire states that the tolerance of the Arian Germanic tribes towards other religions resulted in entirely separate Arian and Nicene (catholic) systems of churches and bishops in the previous Western Empire. 

Although the Arian Germanic tribes were generally tolerant towards Nicene Christians, the Vandal regime in North Africa tried to force their Arian beliefs on their North African Nicene subjects, exiling Nicene clergy, dissolving monasteries, and exercising heavy pressure on non-conforming Nicene Christians.  This matter will become important when we read of emperor Justinian’s efforts in the sixth century to regain control of the Western Empire, for the first ‘barbarian’ nation he attacked was the Vandals.

Why the ‘Barbarians’ tolerated the Roman Church

The Arian nations allowed the Roman (Nicene) Church to co-exist unhindered for at least the following reasons:

The ‘barbarians’, after they took control of the Western Empire, intended to remain part of the Roman Empire and the Roman Church was part of the Roman system of government; accountable to the emperor.  The ‘barbarians’ voluntary—in name at least—subjected themselves to the Roman Emperor, who reigned from the east. 

Religious persecution was part of the Roman culture.  Roman emperors always used religion to strengthen the unity of their vast empire and persecuted religions that threaten unity.  Religious persecution was perhaps not part of the ‘barbarian’ culture’.  (Who is ‘barbarian’ now?)

The Roman Church became stronger.

Actually, instead of perishing, the Church in Rome grew in strength after the ‘barbarians’ wrestled control of the western provinces from the original Graeco-Roman population (Britannica).  The reasons include the following:

The transformation of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century was a time of great political chaos and warfare and the well-organized church became the only stabilizing force. 

Another reason is the ‘moral’ support the Church in Rome received from the Roman Emperor.

Arian conversions to Nicene Christology

One consequence of the strength and influence of the Church in Rome was that ‘barbarian’ nations converted to the Nicene Church, rather than to Arianism:

The Franks and the Anglo-Saxons also were Germanic peoples but never were Arians. They entered the Western Roman Empire as Pagans.  

In 496 Clovis, king of the Franks, and one of the major Germanic king, converted to Nicene Christianity—as opposed to the Arianism of most other Germanic tribes.  Consequently, sometime between 496 and 508, Clovis I forcibly converted the Franks to Christianity. (So much for religious freedom!)  This led to widespread conversion among the Frankish peoples across what is now modern-day France, Belgium and Germany.  Three centuries later it led to Charlemagne‘s alliance with the Bishop of Rome.  This was the first of the Germanic peoples to convert to Catholic Christianity.

Æthelberht of Kent did the same for the Anglo-Saxons (see also Christianity in Gaul and Christianisation of Anglo-Saxon England)Visigothic Spain was Arian until 589.  The Lombards were Arians until the 7th century.

Conclusion

The first main conclusion from this article is that Roman Emperors had decided what Christology the church should adopt.  Emperor Constantine had a huge role in the formulation of the Nicene Creed.  During the next 50 years, the emperors Constantius and Valens were Arians.  Religious freedom was foreign to Roman culture.  Arianism, therefore, then dominated the church.  In 380 Theodosius—a zealous Nicene Christian—became emperor and immediately outlawed Arianism.  In the fifth century, the ‘barbarian’ immigrants dominated the Western Empire.  Since they were Arians, the West was Arian once again.  But they tolerated the Roman Church and it actually grew in strength.  Over the next centuries, the ‘barbarian’ nations converted to the Nicene Christology.

The fact that the church today is dominated by the Trinity doctrine is the direct result of decisions taken by Roman Emperors.

The second main purpose of this article is to explain how the Papacy rose to dominance.  This topic will be developed further by subsequent articles.

Articles in this series

Christology of the persecuted church (First 300 years)
 – Introduction
 – Polycarp
 – Justin Martyr – Current Article
 – Ignatius of Antioch
 – Irenaeus
 – Tertullian – work in progress

 – Origen – work in progress
 – Jesus is our god.
Fourth Century (State Church)
 – Council of Nicaea – A.D. 325 
 – The Nicene Creed Interpreted 
 – Fourth Century Arianism 

 – What did Arianism believe in the fourth century?
 – Long Lines Creed – one of the creeds during the Arian period
 – Death of Arianism – Emperor Theodosius
Fifth Century
 – Fall of the Western Roman Empire
 – Why the Roman Empire fell 
 – The Fall of Rome proves Daniel as a true prophecy.
 – Roman Church grew in strength in spite of Arian domination 
Middle Ages

 – The massacres of the Waldensians