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A previous question of mine, "What is the biblical basis for the belief that good works are the fruits of faith?" provides examples of Protestant faith statements using the formula, "good works are the fruits of faith," and asks for the biblical basis of that belief.

The answers to that question so far have confirmed my initial thought that the Bible does not say in plain words that good works are the fruits of faith, but that this formula derives from interpretation of various biblical statements.

Here, then, is a follow-up question:

Where in Christian history did the saying, "Good works are the fruits of faith," originate? What theologian or Christian doctrinal statement first used it? Did it originate among Protestant theologians, or was it already in existence in Christian writings prior to the Protestant Reformation?

(Note: For the purposes of this question, statements that use close synonyms for or variants of "good works" and "faith" are acceptable, as are statements that use a different word order, and so on, as long as it is basically the same statement. However, I am specifically not asking for statements that good works are the fruits or result of salvation, or of love for God, or of God working within a person, and so on—even if these things are seen as happening through or from or as a result of faith—or of anything else that isn't precisely faith as that is understood within historical or Protestant Christianity. I am looking for the first use within Christian history of the formula, "Good works are the fruits of faith.")

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    The Council of Trent anathematizes the belief that God works are the fruits of justification, but I'm guessing this is not what you want. Commented Mar 10, 2017 at 1:42
  • @MattGutting That is, as they used to say, "Close, but no cigar." :-) Commented Mar 10, 2017 at 1:55
  • The closest to what you are asking is actually the opposite in that faith is the fruit of the Spirit. >Galatians 5:22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, otherwise there seems to be no other scripture making such a reference. that has long been the scripture used in the Baptist faith to imply that the two are intertwined.
    – BYE
    Commented Mar 10, 2017 at 13:46
  • @BYE This question is specifically not asking for the biblical basis for the statement. That's what the earlier, linked question asks for. Commented Mar 14, 2017 at 16:55
  • @KadalikattJosephSibichan Unfortunately, the comments are not meant for discussion. However, I would be happy to take it up with you in The Upper Room if you're interested. Commented Mar 15, 2017 at 5:39

3 Answers 3

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+50

Clement of Rome, Clement of Alexandria, and Didymus the Blind said things that could be mistaken for the formula, but don't fit all the criteria. The first one to use it unmistakably is Origen, in passing, followed by Augustine, also in passing, though he frequently says other things that are near-hits. It's not until the Protestant Reformation that the formula becomes ubiquitous.

Early approximations and misses

Clement of Rome (d. c. 100), in his letter to the Corinthian church, commends them by stating a connection between their faith and virtue. At least two English translations (Lightfoot and Hoole) have Clement say that their faith is "virtuous," while one (Keith; ed. Donaldson, Roberts) has him phrase it as "fruitful of virtue." I don't believe the Greek justifies the latter translation, or at least not for our purposes in this question, but I thought it worth a mention since Keith's translation seems at first glance to apply so strikingly (if one grants a correspondence between "virtue" and "good works").

Clement of Alexandria (150 - 215) implies that neither love nor good works could exist without faith as their "foundation":

Love, on account of its friendly alliance with faith, makes men believers; and faith, which is the foundation of love, in its turn introduces the doing of good.
Stromata, Book 2, Chapter 6

According to Didymus the Blind (313 - 398), faith accomplishes two things, salvation and good works:

A person is saved by grace, not by works but by faith. There should be no doubt but that faith saves and then lives by doing its own works, so that the works which are added to salvation by faith are not those of the law but a different kind of thing altogether.
Commentary on James 2:26b via the Ancient Christian Commentary series, page 34; no full English translation is available

Origen

Origen (185 - 254), contemporary of Clement of Alexandria, explicitly identified faith as the root out of which the fruit, good works, grows:

This faith, when it has been justified, is firmly embedded in the soil of the soul like a root that has received rain, so that when it begins to be cultivated by God's law, branches arise from it that bring forth the fruit of works. The root of righteousness, therefore, does not grow out of the works, but rather the fruit of works grows out of the root of righteousness, that root, of course, of righteousness that God also credits even apart from works.
Commentary on Romans 4.1.18

Augustine

Augustine of Hippo (354 - 430) uses the formulation at least once, seemingly borrowing from Origen, and close variants a number of other times.

In one place he speaks of faith as having "fruits," but does not explicitly identify them:

Each one sees his own faith in himself. He does not see but believes faith to be in another. And he believes all the more firmly, the more he sees faith's fruits that it is accustomed to work through charity.
On the Trinity, Book 13, Chapter 2 (link is to a different translation)

In another place, he states that good works "proceed from" faith (and that both faith and good works come from God), but does not use the word "fruit":

Works proceed from faith, and not faith from works. Therefore it is from Him that we have works of righteousness, from whom comes also faith itself
On Grace and Free Will, Chapter 7

But elsewhere he borrows two images from Origen: that of good works as a structure rising from the foundation of faith (Origen, Romans, 4.1.5) and the one that chiefly concerns us, good works as the fruit which spring from the root of faith:

I have nothing but praise for the superstructure of action, but I see the foundation of faith; I admire the good work as a fruit, but I recognize that it springs from the root of faith. ... If faith is devoid of the will to love, it will equally be devoid of good actions. But do not spend too much time thinking about the works that proceed from faith: add hope and the will to love to your faith, and you will have no need to ask yourself what kind of works you should perform.
Exposition 2 of Psalm 31:3-5

Reformation

Just as Augustine borrowed the image from Origen, the reformation leaders undoubtedly borrowed it from Augustine. A sampling of the earliest uses in Protestant confessions will follow.

The Augsburg Confession (1535), Article 20, and Scots Confession (1560), Chapter 13, both say that the cause of good works is our reception of the Holy Spirit by faith. These two, according to the parameters of the question, do not use the formulation.

But later confessions would use the formula explicitly, while demonstrating their substantial agreement with the previous two. The Belgic Confession (1561), Article 24, compares good works to fruit and says that they proceed "from the good root of faith," which "regenerates us and makes us new creatures, causing us to live a new life and freeing us from the slavery of sin." The much later Westminster Confession (1646), Chapter 16, calls good works "the fruits and evidences of a true and lively faith," and states that the ability to do them is "wholly from the Spirit of Christ."

Similarly, the Second Helvetic Confession (1564), Chapter 16, says that faith "brings forth good fruit of all kinds, and good works," (the distinction, if any is intended, is unclear) and that "good works grow out of a living faith by the Holy Spirit" and "are done from God's grace through the Holy Spirit."

The characteristically terse 39 Articles (1563), Article 12, says without elaboration that good works "are the fruits of Faith, and follow after Justification."

Conclusion

Origen was the first to use the formula, building on Biblical teaching and imagery. It was then picked up by Augustine, whom the Reformation leaders consciously emulated, using it frequently. Since then, it has been widely used by Protestants.

However, it is also clear that whenever such authors were given the chance to expound on their meaning, they say "that good works are the fruits or result of salvation, or of love for God, or of God working within a person, and so on," often within sentences of using the formula.


I'm heavily indebted to We Believe in the Holy Spirit, ed. Joel C. Elowsky, particularly the section "The Giver of Life: In Justification," from which I got most of the church fathers quotes.

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    This is the kind of answer that makes me happy to participate in this site. Grazie Mille Commented Jun 17, 2017 at 14:48
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    @KorvinStarmast That's very kind of you to say. I'm waiting with bated breath for what Lee thinks of it. Commented Jun 18, 2017 at 0:20
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OP: Where in Christian history did the saying, "Good works are the fruits of faith," originate?

While not specifically using that phrase, the concept that good fruit comes from Godly faith arises very early:

I have greatly rejoiced with you in our Lord Jesus Christ, because ye have followed the example339 of true love [as displayed by God], and have accompanied, as became you, those who were bound in chains, the fitting ornaments of saints, and which are indeed the diadems of the true elect of God and our Lord; and because the strong root of your faith, spoken of in days340 long gone by, endureth even until now, and bringeth forth fruit to our Lord Jesus Christ, who for our sins suffered even unto death, [but] “whom God raised from the dead, having loosed the bands of the grave.”341 “In whom, though now ye see Him not, ye believe, and believing, rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory;”342 into which joy many desire to enter, knowing that “by grace ye are saved, not of works,”343 but by the will of God through Jesus Christ. (Polycarp, Epistle to the Phillippians Chapter 1, emphasis mine)

From Polycarp, we may trace the same idea to his pupil Irenaeus:

  1. And therefore throughout all time, man, having been moulded at the beginning by the hands of God, that is, of the Son and of the Spirit, is made after the image and likeness of God: the chaff, indeed, which is the apostasy, being cast away; but the wheat, that is, those who bring forth fruit to God in faith, being gathered into the barn. (Irenaeus, Against Heresies Book 5 Chapter XXVIII)

so likewise men, if they do truly progress by faith towards better things, and receive the Spirit of God, and bring forth the fruit thereof, shall be spiritual, as being planted in the paradise of God. Against Heresies Book 5 Chapter X

The Bible is clear enough that from faith comes good works (For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them. Eph. 2:10). This same idea is traced from the Bible to John's pupil Polycarp to his pupil Irenaeus.

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  • The quotation from Polycarp is relevant and fascinating. However, the quotation from Irenaeus falls short. Bringing forth fruit in faith is not the same as bringing forth fruit from faith. As for the Bible being clear enough on this, the previous question referred to in this one demonstrated sufficiently that such a statement is not made in the Bible, but is based on interpretation from a particular doctrinal perspective. Commented Oct 27, 2022 at 10:20
  • @LeeWoofenden I've added another Irenaeus comment about receiving the Spirit and bringing forth fruit thereof; that is, by faith receive Spirit and bring forth fruit from faith (Gal 3:2). I'll address your other comment about the previous question there.
    – SLM
    Commented Oct 27, 2022 at 16:18
  • Thanks for the added quotation. However, once again, bringing forth the fruits of the spirit is not the same as bringing forth fruits of faith. "Spirit" is not a synonym for "faith." Commented Oct 28, 2022 at 15:42
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To narrow in an answer to the question, at least as I read the question, there are actually two questions:

  1. Where (or in what context) is that concept used?
  2. Where in earlier Christian writings is it used?

Within the Lutheran context, the authoritative collection of writings held to by many Lutherans for a long extent of time has been the Formula of Concord. In the article concerning good works, in the epitome, it states:

7. We believe, teach, and confess that for the retention of pure teaching concerning the righteousness of faith before God, it is particularly important to hold steadfastly to the particulae exclusivae, that is, the following expressions of the holy apostle Paul that completely separate the merit of Christ from our works and give honor to Christ alone. The holy apostle Paul writes, “by grace,” “without merit,” “apart from the law,” “apart from works,” “not through works,” etc. These expressions all mean nothing other than that we become righteous and receive salvation “alone through faith” in Christ. 8. We believe, teach, and confess that although the contrition that precedes justification and the good works that follow it do not belong in the article on justification before God, nevertheless, a person should not concoct a kind of faith that can exist and remain with and alongside an evil intention to sin and to act against the conscience. Instead, after a person has been justified by faith, there then exists a true, living “faith working through love” (Gal. 5[:6]). That means that good works always follow justifying faith and are certainly found with it, when it is a true and living faith. For faith is never alone but is always accompanied by love and hope.

Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert, eds. The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. Accordance electronic ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), 496.

Notice the careful distinctions the authors set up:

  • Salvation is received through faith alone
  • But this faith never remains alone because good works always follow faith (et bona opera semper fidem justificantem sequi)

I hope that gives you a head start in answering the first question. I do suggest reading all of that article to get a better, fuller context though. The second question, as to where in Christian writings did this idea originate, in my judgment it's best to go back to the source and look at the biblical writings themselves. A good example of where the Reformers got the idea of good works being a fruit of faith is Ephesians 2:

“ But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Eph. 2:4–10 NIV11-GKE)

So, notice how Paul goes out of his way to let us know that salvation is completely done by God and from him:

  • God's love, not our worthiness was the motivator (“διὰ τὴν πολλὴν ἀγάπην” (Ἐφεσίους 2·4 THGNT-T))
  • This salvation is not from us (“καὶ τοῦτο οὐκ ἐξ ὑμῶν” (Ἐφεσίους 2·8 THGNT-T))
  • it's a free gift from God (“θεοῦ τὸ δῶρον” (Ἐφεσίους 2·8 THGNT-T))
  • Not by our works (“οὐκ ἐξ ἔργων” (Ἐφεσίους 2·9 THGNT-T))
  • This salvation is received through faith (not because of faith) (“διὰ πίστεως” (Ἐφεσίους 2·8 THGNT-T))

the Bible is clear that, when it comes to salvation, our own good works have no part/place—not in whole, not even in part. But then look at where Paul goes. He let's us know then the proper context in which good works dwell and thrive in verse 10:

  • We are God's created things (“αὐτοῦ γάρ ἐσμεν ποίημα” (Ἐφεσίους 2·10 THGNT-T))
  • Why are we created? We are created for good works (“ἐπὶ ἔργοις ἀγαθοῖς” (Ἐφεσίους 2·10 THGNT-T))
  • We are created to do (walk in) good works (“ἵνα ἐν αὐτοῖς περιπατήσωμεν.” (Ἐφεσίους 2·10 THGNT-T))

Passages in the Bible like this is where theologians have wrestled with the relationship between faith and good works. And, from these verses one can clearly see the concept that, as the receiving organ (ⲗⲏⲡⲧⲓⲕⲟⲛ ⲟⲣⲅⲁⲛⲟⲛ) faith alone justifies. But, it never remains alone. There is fruit that grows from faith.

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  • A well considered answer, so 1+ for that and the excellent scriptural points. The OP, however, was not looking for the scriptural basis, but how a formula arose in the early Church, hoping to pin down the first written use of it in Church writings (not the Bible). That is why Mr. Bultitude's answer ticks all the OPs boxes, in my opinion. But a good contribution, and just in time!
    – Anne
    Commented Oct 28, 2022 at 12:11
  • Hmm, odd that "Christian History" then would start decades after the writing of the NT instead including it. But thanks for the clarification of the context, Anne.
    – user24895
    Commented Oct 28, 2022 at 12:21
  • I think most people are agreed that Christian History started with the beginning of the new Christian church in the 1st century A.D. so that it flowed on after the last book of the NT was written (by the apostle John circa 95). But many Qs on here are about those considered to be “The Early Church Fathers” who came after the apostles. When they wrote things that agreed with the NT then NT quotes are good for showing that, and quotes from their writings to show what those men meant.
    – Anne
    Commented Oct 28, 2022 at 12:27
  • Thank you for the effort put into this answer. However, as @Anne said, I was not looking for the scriptural basis, but for how the formula first arose in the church. No such statement is made in Scripture. It arose some time after the last books of the Bible were written. I'm looking to learn when, and with whom, that specific phrase originated. Commented Oct 28, 2022 at 15:35
  • Even more specifically, I am not asking for where the concept originated, although an answer could include that if it leads to the origins of the specific phrase. As interesting as it is, your answer doesn't provide any information about the actual question asked. Commented Oct 28, 2022 at 15:39

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