I’m not quite sure to what extent, but it is my suspicion that the earliest Christians understood salvation differently than we do. I also think the Bible writers themselves understood salvation, and the nuances of “faith”, “works”, “law”, and so on, differently than we.
While the Church Father’s did not agree on everything, when they speak with one voice on any particular subject I think wisdom dictates that we should listen and give their voice a great deal of weight.
Such is the subject of this post. It seems that in regards to the idea that once someone “believes unto salvation” that there is no chance they will not continue in that state to the end, our Father’s protest.
“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.” ~ Barnabas (c. 70-130)
“For the Lord has sworn by His glory, in regard to His elect, that if any one of them sin after a certain day which has been fixed, he will no be saved. For the repentance of the righteous has limits. Filled up are the days of repentance to all the saints. But to the unbeliever, repentance will be possible even to the last day… For the Lord has sworn by His Son, that those who denied their Lord have abandoned their life to despair.” ~ Hermas (c. 150)
“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)
“Those who do not obey Him, being disinherited by Him, have ceased to be His sons.” ~ Irenaeus (c. 180)
“God had foreseen… that faith – even after baptism – would be endangered. He saw that most persons – after obtaining salvation – would be lost again, by soiling the wedding dress, by failing to provide oil for their torches.” ~ Tertullian (c. 213)
“Certain ones of those [heretics] who hold different opinions misuse these passages. They essentially destroy free will be introducing ruined natures incapable of salvation and by introducing others as being saved in such a way that they cannot be lost.” ~ Origen (c. 225)
“Being a believing man, if you seek to live as the Gentiles do, the joys of the world remove you from the grace of Christ.” ~ Commodianus (c. 240)
“Let us press onward and labor, watching with our whole heart. Let us be steadfast with all endurance; let us keep the Lord’s commandments. Thereby, when that day of anger and vengeance comes, we may not be punished with the ungodly and the sinners. Rather, we may be honored with the righteous and with those who fear God.” ~ Cyprian (c. 250)
“As to one who again denies Christ, no special previous standing can be effective to him for salvation. For anyone of us will hold it necessary that whatever is the last thing to be found in a man in this respect, that is where he will be judged. All of those things that he has previously done are wiped away and obliterated.” ~ Treatise on Re-Baptism (c. 257)
“He put a seal upon him, for it is concealed as to who belong to the side of the devil and who to the side of Christ. For we do not know out of those who seem to stand whether they will fall or not. And of those who are down, it is uncertain whether they might rise.” ~ Victorinus (c. 280)
Et cetera, et cetera…
While they may disagree with one another on this point or that point, the one consistent theme which they seem to agree on is that even “after obtaining salvation” – as Tertullian puts it – one may be “disinherited by Him” (to quote Irenaeus) if they cease to be faithful (which is inextricably tied up to obedience according to Hebrews 4).
And by the way, I find Origen’s thoughts to be of particular interest. Apparently during the first few centuries of the Church – that is, prior to Augustine – it was the heretics who promised salvation “in such a way that they cannot be lost.”
It was the Gnostics – and then Augustine, Luther, Calvin and so on – who taught “once saved always saved.”