October 01, 2013
This is Part 10 in a series about why evangelicals should care about the early church. If you are just now joining us, you can read Part 1 here; Part 2 here; Part 3 here; Part 4 here; Part 5 here; Part 6 here; Part 7 here; Part 8 here; Part 9 here.
One of the things about the early church that troubles evangelicals the most is that the fathers seemed to advocate what we would call “works righteousness.” Why, we ask, did no one in the early church understand justification by faith correctly? One of the ways of answering this question is to say that they did understand justification by faith, or at least some of them did, but they did not express it the same way we do. Recently I’ve been studying the way the fifth-century Egyptian church father Cyril of Alexandria’s understood justification, and his way of articulating that great truth may have a lot to teach us today.
Justification is an ever-present theme in Cyril’s biblical commentaries (regardless of what book of the Bible he is commenting on), and there are two major differences between the way he describes justification and the way we often describe it in evangelicalism today. First, Cyril treats justification not in a forensic or legal framework, but in a participatory one. Think about how often we use either courtroom imagery or the idea of “exchanges” to describe justification. We imagine a situation in which a sinner is declared guilty but someone else—Christ—pays the penalty owed for the sin, or we talk about Christ taking our sin upon himself so that his righteousness could be given to us (“imputed,” we say, using the language of Romans 4) in exchange. And of course, these images are perfectly appropriate. But what Cyril focuses on that we often miss is the participatory framework that undergirds the legal imagery. Christ is the only one who is truly righteous, the only one who is righteous in and of himself. When we are united to him, then in him we receive his own righteousness. It is not just that God credits Christ’s righteousness to us, although that is also true. Even more fundamentally, Christ’s righteousness becomes our precisely because we are in him, we are united to him through the Holy Spirit.
The second way in which Cyril’s understanding of justification differs from ours is that he makes basically no distinction between justification and sanctification. We often argue that sanctification is the outworking of justification—once a believer has been declared righteous (justification), he or she becomes progressively more and more actually righteous and holy (sanctification). By distinguishing between these, we seek to combat the perceived mistake of Medieval Roman Catholicism by which it allegedly collapsed justification into sanctification. It may seem to us that Cyril is doing the same thing we think Medieval Roman Catholicism was doing, but he isn’t. Rather, the reason he makes no distinction between justification and sanctification is that he sees both of these as taking place at the beginning of faith and as being directly tied to the righteousness of Christ. Just as Christ is the only righteous one, so he is the only one who is holy in and of himself. When we are united to him, then in him we are holy (that is, sanctified), just as we are righteous in him.
It should be clear that Cyril’s understanding of justification is similar to ours, albeit expressed rather differently. More important, it should be apparent that his way of stating this central truth places even more emphasis on Christ than the way we express the truth of justification. The crucial point is not that faith alone justifies, as if any kind of faith in anyone or anything could justify a person. Rather, it is that Christ justifies us when we trust in him. Because he alone is righteous and holy, the only way we can be credited with righteousness is to be in him, to be united to him by the Holy Spirit.
We live in an age which places all of its emphasis on us, and in religion, that emphasis translates into the idea that if a person believes in something—in anything—then that person is “saved” or “fulfilled” or whatever. Our culture believes that the act of believing is what is important, not the content of what one believes. Christianity teaches otherwise: what ultimately matters is not so much whether one believes, but in whom one trusts. Perhaps Cyril’s way of describing justification can be useful to us as we try to explain this great truth of our faith to a society that thinks everything is about us. It isn’t. It’s all about Christ, the Son of God, the only holy and righteous one. Only in him can we become righteous before his Father.
Dr. Donald Fairbairn is the Robert E. Cooley Professor of Early Christianity. His responsibilities include further developing the Robert C. Cooley Center for the Study of Early Christianity at the Charlotte campus, which explores the historical foundations of the Christian faith.
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