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1 Clement, Chapter 21

Faith, Judgment, and Good Works

1 Clement Chapter 21 brings up a subject that is critical to understanding both Scripture and the early church fathers: faitn, judgment, and good works.

This chapter can be read at ccel.org.

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Take heed, beloved, lest His many kindnesses lead to the condemnation of us all, unless we walk worthy of him, and with one mind do those things which are good and well-pleasing in his sight.

For the sake of full disclosure, sometimes the parenthetical and bracketed additions to the text in The Ante-Nicene Fathers are unnecessary. In fact, this is so common it is annoying. I have removed "[For thus it must be]" that the translator added to make two sentences out of the quoted sentence.

This sentence is exteremely important. The church in Rome, by the pen of Clement, wrote to the church in Corinth telling them that they will be condemned if they do not do what is "good and well-pleasing in [God's] sight." The condemnation under discussion is not a disciplinary punishment from God in this life to purify the Corinthian church; it is the eternal fires of Gehenna that he is threatening. I will explain how I know this, but first let's talk about Gehenna, Hades, and hell.

Gehenna, Hades, and Hell

I have a thorough study on these words in PDF form at https://www.rebuildingthefoundations.org/support-files/hell-hades-gehenna-worksheet.pdf, but I will give you the short version here.

The Greek words gehenna and hades are both translated "hell" in many translations, though they are completely different places. Gehenna is named after the valley of Gehinnom, which was Jerusalem's garbage dump. It is symbol of the spiritual fire that destroys the souls and bodies of humans (Matt. 10:28, where the word hell is gehenna). Hades on the other hand is the underworld place where all the dead go in Greek mythology. Jesus and the apostles adapted the Greek myth to portray the place of the dead. Hades is the equivalent of the Hebrew sheol, which is also the place of the dead. (In the Old Testament, though, Sheol was not generally seen as a place where people are alive as Hades is in the New Testament—cf. Luke 16:19-31, where "hell" is Hades.)

According to both ancient and modern theology, the dead were in Hades without their bodies (as souls) until Jesus died, went to Hades, preached there (1 Pet. 4:6), overthrew the devil and death (Eph. 4:8; 1 Cor. 2:8; Matt. 12:29; Mark 3:27; Luke 11:21), and rose again. Modern Protestant theology generally teaches that Jesus emptied the good side of Hades (where Lazarus the beggar was in the bosom of Abraham) when he rose. Early Christian theology taught that Hades would not be emptied until judgment day (Rev. 20:13, where "hell" is Hades).

That is a complicated subject, and I recently had an argument (a friendly one) in my blog comments on the soul, Hades, and eternal judgment. Nonetheless, what I just described is generally accurated. While the average Baptist is surprised to hear about Hades and its emptying, Baptist seminaries teach what I described.

I did not conduct a study of Baptist seminaries, and there may be exceptions. I am just saying that there is nothing controversial that I wrote in this section. Let's move on to what is extremely controversial in evangelical circles, but is nonetheless obvious in both the Scriptures and the early church fathers once it is pointed out.

Faith, Works, and Eternal Judgment

Here are some facts—not doctrines or theories, but simple facts— about the New Testament.

  1. Whenever Paul mentions "faith apart from works," he is always speaking of justification or salvation in the past tense (e.g., Rom. 3:28; Eph. 2:8-9; Tit. 3:5).
  2. When Paul talks about inheriting eternal life or the future kingdom of God, he talks about works without mentioning faith.
  3. This pattern holds true in 1 Clement and all the early Christian writing up through A.D. 250. It probably holds true longer than that, but I have not verified that myself.

I quoted Clement, above, as writing, "Take heed, beloved, lest His many kindnesses lead to the condemnation of us all, unless we walk worthy of him, and with one mind do those things which are good and well-pleasing in his sight." He also wrote:

And we, too, being called by his will in Christ Jesus, are not justified by ourselves, nor by our own wisdom, or understanding, or godliness, or works which we have done in holiness of heart; but by that faith through which, from the beginning, Almighty God has justified all men. (ch. 32)

And ...

Let us cleave, then, to those to whom grace has been given by God. Let us clothe ourselves with concord and humility, ever exercising self-control, standing far off from all whispering and evil-speaking, being justified by our works, and not our words. (ch. 30)

Is Clement confused? Does he have multiple personality disorder? He says we are "being justified by our works" in chapter 30, but "not justfied ... by works we have done" in chapter 32. In this chapter, 21, he says we will be condemned unless we "do those things which are good and well-pleasing in his sight."

Of course, if Clement is confused, so is the apostle Paul. He wrote in Ephesians 2:8-9 that we have been "saved by grace through faith ... not of works," but just three chapters later say that immoral and greedy men have no inheritance in the kingdom of God and Christ (Eph. 5:5).

Polycarp is another early Christian leader who was possibly (likely?) appointed bishop by an apostle (John). His letter begins by quoting Ephesians 2:8-9, but in the next chapter he says that God will only raise us up with Jesus if we "do his will and keep his commandments." Again, if Clement is confused, then so is Polycarp.

Neither Clement nor Paul nor Polycarp are confused, though. Instead, they all believed and taught that we are born again by faith and thus delivered from the law of sin and death described in Romans 7 (Rom. 8:2). We are thus equipped by the Holy Spirit to "fulfill the righteous requirement of the law" IF we "walk according to the Spirit" (Rom. 8:3-4). IF by the Spirit, we put to death the deeds of the body, then we will live (Rom. 8:13). If we live according to the flesh, though, we will die (Rom. 8:12).

Some say, because they do not want to believe the apostle Paul nor the early church fathers, but prefer tradition, that the word "death" in Romans 8:12 and "life" in Romans 8:13 are speaking of physical death. This is nonsensical, however, because we all know that living by the Spirit will not save you from physical death, as millions of godly Christians throughout history can testify. Instead, Galatians 6:7-9 makes it clear that Paul is talking about eternal life and death.

We are saved, apart from works, to be freed from the slavery of sin (Romans 6, whole chapter), so that we can do good works (Eph. 2:10) by the Spirit (Rom. 8:3-14; Gal. 5:16-24) and thus be rewarded with eternal life (Gal. 6:7-9).

This is clear in Matthew (e.g., 7:21; 25:31-46), Peter (2 Pet. 1:3-11), and James (ch. 2). It is not so clear in John, who uses nuances of Greek tenses to teach the same things. Dionysius, a bishop of Alexendria, Egypt in the mid-third century, and a native Greek speaker, says that John's Gospels and letters "were written not only without error as regards the Greek language, but also with elegance in their expression, in their reasonings, and in their entire structure" (From Eusebius' Church History, Bk. VII, ch. 25, par. 25).

As a result, I wrote a section of my book, Rebuilding the Foundations, that covers John's use of Greek to convey these things. (Scroll down to "The Writings of the Apostle John.")

This is a long section of a long commentary, but this explanation is essential to understanding just that one line from Clement's letter. Christians may be condemned at the judgment if they do not walk worthy of the amazing gift (2 Pet. 1:3-4) that God has given us. Revelation 3:4-5 says this in almost those words. There is certainly no mistaking the meaning of those two verses except by willful self-delusion.

The Rest of 1 Clement Chapter 21

The rest of the chapter is simple. There is wonderful warning that it is better to offend men who exalt themselves, an obvious reference to the uprising Corinth was experiencing, rather than offending God. I am sure that like me, many of you can use that exhortation not to be intimidated by men or their positions, but to honor God.

Clement concludes the chapter by describing the Christian life, which is well worth repeating here. It includes some parental advice.

Let us reverence the Lord Jesus Christ,4100 whose blood was given for us; let us esteem those who have the rule over us; let us honour the aged among us; let us train up the young men in the fear of God; let us direct our wives to that which is good. Let them exhibit the lovely habit of purity; let them show forth the sincere disposition of meekness; let them make manifest the command which they have of their tongue by their manner of speaking; let them display their love, not by preferring one to another, but by showing equal affection to all that piously fear God. Let your children be partakers of true Christian training; let them learn of how great avail humility is with God—how much the spirit of pure affection can prevail with him—how excellent and great His fear is, and how it saves all those who walk in it with a pure mind.

Where to Go from Here

You can return Home, go to the index of commentaries, or go to my categorized index of artices. I also have a rough draft of what will be the Rebuilding the Foundations book