1. Overview
  2. Early Church & the Reformation
  3. Early Church on the Law and Gospel Distinction

Early Church on the Law and Gospel Distinction


The references to Early Church authors within this work should not be construed as an unequivocal endorsement of all their views. Rather, they are presented to illustrate a consistent thread of understanding within the early Christian community: the entirety of the Old Law had transitioned, making Christ the consummate standard of obedience. This observation underscores that such teachings aren't novel but deeply rooted in early Christian thought. Readers are encouraged to dive deeper, engaging critically with both the Early Church writings and the broader Biblical context to gain a nuanced understanding of this pivotal theological transition.

Justin Martyr (100–165 AD)

A philosopher turned Christian apologist, Justin sought to reconcile the faith with reason. He penned multiple apologetic works defending Christianity to the Roman Empire and was eventually martyred for his faith.

"For the true spiritual Israel, and descendants of Judah, Jacob, Isaac, and Abraham (who in uncircumcision was approved of and blessed by God on account of his faith, and called the father of many nations), are we who have been led to God through this crucified Christ."
Dialogue with Trypho, Chapter 11

"But if some, through weak-mindedness, wish to observe such institutions as were given by Moses, from which they expect some virtue, but which we believe were appointed by reason of the hardness of the people's hearts, along with their hope in this Christ... yet choose to live with the Christians and the faithful, as I said before, not inducing them either to be circumcised like themselves, or to keep the Sabbath, or to observe any other such ceremonies, then I hold that we ought to join ourselves to such, and associate with them in all things as kinsmen and brethren."
Dialogue with Trypho, Chapter 47

"The new law requires you to keep perpetual sabbath, and you, because you are idle for one day, suppose you are pious, not discerning why this has been commanded you: and if you eat unleavened bread, you say the will of God has been fulfilled. The Lord our God does not take pleasure in such observances: if there is any perjured person or a thief among you, let him cease to be so; if any adulterer, let him repent; then he has kept the sweet and true sabbaths of God."
Dialogue with Trypho, Chapter 12

Ignatius of Antioch (35-108 AD)

Ignatius was the third bishop of Antioch and a student of John the Apostle. He was martyred in Rome and is known for his letters that provide valuable insights into early Christian theology.

"For if we still live according to the Jewish law, we acknowledge that we have not received grace... If, therefore, those who were brought up in the ancient order of things have come to the possession of a new hope, no longer observing the Sabbath, but living in the observance of the Lord's Day, on which also our life has sprung up again by Him and by His death—whom some deny, by which mystery we have obtained faith, and therefore endure, that we may be found the disciples of Jesus Christ, our only Master."
Letter to the Magnesians, Chapter 8-9

"It is absurd to name Jesus Christ, and to Judaize. For the Christian religion did not embrace the Jewish. But the Jewish the Christian, that every tongue which believeth might be gathered together to God."
Letter to the Magnesians, Chapter 10

Irenaeus (130-202 AD)

A disciple of Polycarp (who was a disciple of John the Apostle), Irenaeus is best known for his work "Against Heresies," which refuted Gnostic teachings. He emphasized the importance of apostolic succession to maintain true teaching.

"For the law, since it was laid down for those in bondage, used to instruct the soul by means of those corporeal objects which were of an external nature, drawing it, as by a bond, to obey its commandments, that man might learn to serve God. But the Word set free the soul, and taught that through it the body should be willingly purified. Which having been accomplished, it followed as of course, that what lately was a bond, tying the soul to God, becomes now a bond to unite the body; in order that both soul and body, being perfectly purified, might be conjoined and brought into liberty."
Against Heresies, Book IV, Chapter 15, Paragraph 2

"For all these do not contain or imply an opposition to and an overturning of the [precepts] of the past, as Marcion's [system does]; but [they exhibit] a fulfilling and an extension of them, as the Lord did say: 'Unless your righteousness shall exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.'"
Against Heresies, Book IV, Chapter 13, Paragraph 1

Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD)

One of the most influential theologians in Christian history, Augustine's writings have shaped Western Christianity and philosophy. His works, like "Confessions" and "City of God," are considered foundational Christian texts.

"The Law was given that grace might be sought; and grace was given, that the Law might be fulfilled."
On the Spirit and the Letter, Chapter 54

Tertullian (160-225 AD)

An early Christian apologist, Tertullian is often called the "father of Latin Christianity." He is credited with coining Latin theological terms that became fundamental in Western Christianity.

"But Christ, you say, fulfilled the law. In what way? By teaching? Did He not therefore rather teach the disciples to transgress the law, when He did away with the Sabbath, and fasts, and circumcision, and permitted the use of all kinds of food?"
Against Marcion, Book V, Chapter 4

"We are not under the law of Moses, but under grace."
Against Marcion, Book II, Chapter 20

Clement of Alexandria (c. 150–215)

A prominent theologian of the early Church, Clement was a key figure at the Catechetical School of Alexandria. He endeavored to bridge the wisdom of Christian teachings with the broader intellectual traditions of his time, providing a richer context for understanding faith.

“Before the advent of the Lord, philosophy was necessary to the Greeks for righteousness. And now it becomes conducive to piety; being a kind of preparatory training to those who attain to faith through demonstration.”
Stromata, Book 1, Chapter 5.

Athanasius (293-373 AD)

"For the Word of God was made man, and He who was Son of God became Son of Man that He might deign to unite the human race with God and by such communion with the Word to deify man... It is clear therefore that the Savior had no need of the law when He was made man, but rather He Himself is the giver of the law. Hence, Paul was right in saying: 'But when the fullness of the time was come, God sent His Son, made of a woman, made under the law.' But if, as the heretics think, the Word of God was a creature, how is it that He is above the law, and yet in the subjection of the law? For we are no longer under a guardian, as Paul says, nor as children any longer have we the law for our tutor."
Against the Arians, Discourse 3, Chapter 24

John Chrysostom (349–407)

Known as "Golden Mouthed" for his eloquent sermons, he was Archbishop of Constantinople and a pivotal figure in early Christian theology. His profound expositions of the New Testament have made him a revered figure in Christian history.

"There is no need to say... that one must go up to heaven, or cross a great sea, and then receive the commandments, but things so great and grand hath God made of easy access to us. ... 'In thy mouth and in thy heart' is the source of salvation. ... That He is Lord then, is plain from the resurrection. ... Since then the righteousness is greater, and light and easy to receive, is it not a sign of the utmost contentiousness to leave what is light and easy, and set about impossibilities? ... The Law is galling, but grace is easy. The Law, though they dispute never so much, does not save; Grace yieldeth the righteousness resulting from itself, and that from the Law likewise."
Homilies on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans, Homily XVII.

Questions that Challenge Your Current Understanding

  1. How did the Early Church writers differentiate between the obligations and practices associated with the Mosaic Law and the teachings of Jesus Christ?

  2. In what ways did Early Church authors emphasize the transition from the Old Law to recognizing Christ as the ultimate standard of obedience?

  3. Ignatius of Antioch mentioned that living according to the Jewish law would indicate a lack of received grace. How did he reconcile the practices of the early Jewish Christians with this viewpoint?

  4. How did Irenaeus articulate the relationship between the Old Testament Law, its corporeal commands, and the liberation brought by the teachings of Christ?

  5. Several Early Church authors suggested that while the Law was a form of bondage or instruction, grace and faith in Christ lead to true freedom. How was this theme evident across different authors?