In his new book Pillars of Grace: A Long Line of Godly Men, pastor and author Steven J. Lawson examines the lives of 23 early “pillars” of the Christian faith; men, who, Lawson says “stabilized the church by upholding God’s Word, thereby strengthening the household of faith.”

In the first article of this series, we discussed how Justin Martyr and the Apologist Fathers clearly understood the dominant worldview of their day and, as a result, had insight into the hot button issues where the gospel could be brought to bear upon philosophical thinking. In the second part of our interview, we examined the role of higher education and philosophy, and how each affected Justin Martyr’s ministry. Now, in this third installment, we look specifically at how the doctrines of grace developed through the teachings of the Apologist Fathers. 

You say that Justin and many of the other apologists sometimes wrote in contradictory terms, especially with reference to free will and sovereign grace. Were the doctrines of grace still developing? Why the contradictions?
There seems to be some ambiguity among the early Church Fathers regarding what we today call the doctrines of grace. I believe there are several reasons for this: First, the sovereignty of God in salvation requires careful study and thinking through some of the most profound truths of Scripture. It takes time for people to fully understand and embrace them, and these early leaders were no different. Second, not everyone in the ancient world initially had access to all 66 books of Scripture. Having the entire canon of Scripture is certainly a luxury we have today. But not everyone in the first centuries enjoyed this privilege. Instead, the early Christians merely had portions of the New Testament, as the canon was still in the process of being copied, distributed, and recognized. It would not be until the end of the fourth century, at the Council of Carthage in 397, that the Church endorsed all 66 books of the Bible. So, there was a limited access for the early Church Fathers to the entire Bible.

Third, the primary concern of the early Fathers was proclaiming the gospel to a pagan culture. The most urgent issue these men faced was spreading the message of Jesus Christ and making its truths known. Fourth, the early Church Fathers were embroiled in many controversial debates that demanded their attention and efforts, particularly those surrounding the defense of the Trinity. That God is one God, who exists eternally in three Persons, is something we take for granted in our present generation. But it took intense study, fierce debate, and disputing to hammer out this most foundational truth. The unitarian heresies of the first centuries forced the early Apologists to give their complete attention to establishing the doctrine of the Trinity. Matters of sovereign grace would have to wait.

Another urgent controversy demanding their focus was the hypostatic union of Jesus Christ—the truth that the Second Person of the Godhead is fully God yet fully man, not half-God and half-man. Coming to grips with this cardinal doctrine required great effort and focused attention on the part of the Apologist Fathers to plainly articulate this essential truth.

With all of this said, the Apologist Fathers were enveloped in matters of primary importance to the Christian faith that required their undivided attention.

Nevertheless, the seeds of sovereign grace were being sown throughout these early centuries. These early church leaders were making clear statements regarding the doctrines of grace, though stated in embryonic form. Yet, at the same time, they often contradicted themselves. In one place, we see them speak of sovereign grace. But then, two paragraphs later, they will follow up with [contradictory] statements as they affirm free will. They do so seemingly unaware of the contradiction. It would not be until the beginning of the fifth century that a controversy with a British monk named Pelagius would force Augustine to respond with careful theological statements to define the relationship between sin and grace.

Let’s just imagine somebody sitting in a church pew: an accountant, a housewife, a teacher. Why do they need to know about Justin Martyr and the Apologists?
When I first wrote this material in Pillars of Grace, it was to teach a men’s Bible study in our church. I taught the material in these chapters to our men because I wanted them to know what we believe places us in close association with the greatest pillars of the Christian faith. As we look around today, it often seems otherwise. We often appear to be small islands of Calvinism in the midst of vast oceans of Arminianism. Yet, throughout the centuries, God has greatly used the men most committed to the doctrines of grace. I wanted our men to see that we, given what we believe, are moving in the right direction. We are embracing the very truths of Scripture. As such, we stand on the shoulders of these great men who have gone before us. We stand in a long line of Godly men!

I think many contemporary churches today, whether intentional or not, have the attitude that the church started twenty years ago. They are, sadly, anti-tradition, anti-establishment, anti-whatever has been done in the church in previous centuries. To be sure, there is value in rejecting empty religious tradition. But there should be caution exercised. Being ignorant of the past often disconnects one from a full understanding of the truth. In my own seminary experience, I learned more theology in my church history classes than I did in my theology classes. When you study church history, you immediately go to the primary theological issues. This is to say, a survey of historical theology allows us to pinpoint the pivotal doctrines upon which history turns. 

There is a great motivational value to study theology as it is wrapped around the lives of these early spiritual stalwarts. We observe that they paid a high price for what they believed, and it challenges us to do likewise. These men embraced truth, often at the cost of their own lives. There is a reason why we call Justin Martyr a “martyr.” These early men had to hold their ground for what they believed.

So, I would say to the businessmen and the housewives of our day that we need to be introduced to these colossal figures because they challenge us to hold fast to our convictions with courage and boldness. My prayer is that God would raise up men and women who would valiantly proclaim the truth of God’s sovereignty in this very hour.

Dr. Steven J. Lawson is the senior pastor of Christ Fellowship Baptist Church in Mobile, Ala. He  is also a teaching fellow with Ligonier Ministries and a visiting professor at the Ligonier Academy of Biblical and Theological Studies. Lawson has written 15 books, including Foundations of Grace, The Expository Genius of John Calvin, The Unwavering Resolve of Jonathan Edwards, and Famine in the Land.