I am trying to find out what the early church fathers had to say about “eternal security” or “assurance of salvation”. By that, I refer to the following Bible verses:

To Him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy... (Jude 24)

...whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16)

My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no-one can snatch them out of my hand (John 10:27-28).

And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption (Ephesians 4:30)

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:38-39).

From verses such as these, Protestants understand that our eternal security is purchased by Christ, promised by the Father, and sealed by the Holy Spirit. This assurance is experienced by Christians who have the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, whose lives have been transformed as evidence of the new birth and who live for Christ Jesus and who are prepared to die for Him – born-again Christians.

I say this not to promote a particular belief but to clarify what I mean by expressions like “eternal security” and “assurance of salvation”. Neither do I wish to enter into a discussion on the theology. I simply want to know what the early church fathers had to say on this subject.

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    (+1) The terms 'eternal security' and 'assurance of salvation' are, I would suggest, modern terms. Are you simply looking for the comments of the early fathers on the texts you have provided (and on similar texts) ? – Nigel J Aug 16 at 10:56
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    I agree these are modern terms. Perhaps "perseverance of the saints" would be more appropriate? Comments on the Bible verses quoted would be appreciated, although I do not wish to restrict my search to those verses alone. The object of this exercise is to establish what the early church fathers believed and taught - the earlier the better! – Lesley Aug 16 at 11:04
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    I refer to the following Bible verses - None of which explicitly teach “eternal security” or “assurance of salvation”, though Protestantism, following Augustine, certainly seems to interpret them this way. So the real question would be which patristic texts are amenable to being interpreted in a similar manner by those inclined to do so. – Lucian Aug 16 at 11:30
  • Thank you, Lucian. I am certainly interested in what the apostolic and ante-Nicene fathers had to say. – Lesley Aug 16 at 11:50
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    This is a good and relevant question because there is a lot of sloppy theology and catchy phrases out there on this matter. +1 – Mike Borden Aug 16 at 18:37

There is a distinction to be recognized between 'Eternal Security', which rests it's hope in what God has promised to do for us in Christ, and 'Assurance of Salvation', which is personally realized as the life mirrors the confession. The writings of the Early Church Fathers were not theological dissections of terms and doctrines but, rather, they were largely exhortations to live out that which comes from and demonstrates salvation.

Those who are particular about words, and devote their time to them, miss the point of the whole picture (Clement of Alexandria, The Stromata, Bk. II, Ch. 1, AD 150-215)

For this reason it is difficult to find any direct exposition of something that sounds like Once Saved Always Saved as we hear it presented nowadays. If this teaching is something that was understood, it will be revealed best in topics of practical application. Much like John's first epistle, which is filled with exhortation to BE what is claimed and filled with warning that fruitless life proves the claim to faith is a lie, assurance is gained when the fruits of genuine salvation are manifested:

I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life. - 1 John 5:13

And to what things is John here referring? The entire epistle contrasts behavior that demonstrates the truth of claiming to be in Christ with behavior that proves the claim of faith to be a lie. The entire epistle establishes actual saving union with Christ as the ground and wellspring of righteous behavior rather than the means to it. That is to say: A right understanding of genuine Assurance assumes Eternal Security.

There is a tension that is sometimes assumed in Scripture between Paul (Abraham justified by faith) and James (Abraham justified by works) but that tension disappears when we recognize that a distinction exists between justification of our sinful selves before God by Christ and justification/demonstration of our faith before men through actions (see James below). Paul clearly makes the distinction at the outset of his discussion:

For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. - Romans 4:2

And James does as well, assuming the primacy of faith as per Paul and making practical application:

Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. - James 2:18b

The early Church Fathers almost unanimously came at this from James' position of assuming justification before God solely based upon what God has done in Christ, insisting that faith in Christ produces a new life, and encouraging believers to be diligent in manifesting the faith. Clement's first letter (~AD 97) is the earliest Christian document outside the NT and in it we find this same 'tension':

And we, therefore…are not justified of ourselves or by our wisdom or insight or religious devotion or the holy deeds we have done from the heart, but by that faith by which almighty God has justified all men from the very beginning (ch. 32:4).

We should clothe ourselves with concord, being humble, self-controlled, far removed from all gossiping and slandering, and justified by our deeds, not by words (ch. 30:3).

Ignatius of Antioch also displays the same theological 'tension' regarding works as is found in Scripture:

Let your baptism be ever your shield, your faith a helmet, your charity a spear, your patience a panoply. Let your works be deposits, so that you may receive the sum that is due you” (Letter to St. Polycarp, 6).

Therefore, let us not be ungrateful for His kindness. For if He were to reward us according to our works, we would cease to be (Epistle to the Magnesians, Ch. 5).

Justin Martyr approaches the issue of personal assurance from the same assumption that Christian behavior is sourced in the eternal reality of the new birth:

Those who are found not living as he taught should know that they are not really Christians, even if his teachings are on their lips, for he said that not those who merely profess but those who also do the works will be saved (cf. Matt. 13:42, 43; 7:15,16,19)” (The First Apology of Justin, ch.16).

The clear implication in this statement is that those who really are Christians will be found living as He taught. Thus Justin Martyr places the source of 'Assurance of our Salvation' squarely in the realm of 'Eternal Security' just as Jesus taught.

Jesus answered them, “I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father's name bear witness about me, but you do not believe because you are not among my sheep. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father's hand. I and the Father are one.” - John 10:25-30

Thus, Augustine was not inventing something new when he said, regarding perseverance

We do the works, but God works in us the doing of the works (De Dono Perseverentiae, 13, 33)

he was merely reiterating what was taught by Jesus and expounded upon by Paul; When we are born again, by grace through faith, we receive the Holy Spirit as a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance and the life going forward is God working in us both to will and to do His good pleasure (Philippians 2:13). God was in them and would never leave nor forsake them (eternal security) but would, rather, complete the good work that was begun in them.

Tertullian echoes the same:

We make petition, then, that He supply us with the substance of His will and the capacity to do it–so that we may be saved both in the heaven and on earth (On Prayer, part III, ch. IV).

The Security of Salvation once received by faith was so fundamentally assumed in the early church that they barely needed to address it directly. Instead they focused on that which constituted the demonstration of that truth. A claim is easy to make and it is the demonstration that proves the claim is already true.

But Jesus, knowing their thoughts, said, “Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he then said to the paralytic—“Rise, pick up your bed and go home.” - Matthew 9:4-6 

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    When you quote Rm 4:2 to claim that Paul said Abraham was justified by faith while James said Abraham was justified by works, you misconstrue the text by stopping it short. Paul said "IF" not "that" or because! The whole chapter makes the point that Abraham was NOT justified by works, even though he did good things "We have been saying that Abraham's faith was credited to him as righteousness. Under what circumstances...? ...after he was circumcised." So, circumcision was not a work that credited him as being righteous - it was his faith that did that. Hope you don't mind me pointing that out. – Anne Aug 24 at 16:16
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    I know you are careful to say that this is what some suppose, though it is not biblical, but you add the idea that we seek to show the "justification of our faith before men through actions." That's not what scripture allows us to think, or encourage us to try to show - that our actions show us to be justified. That would defeat the whole point of the biblical exhortation that we are save by faith alone, in Christ alone. Neither Abraham nor Christians are interested in trying to show we're righteous by our works, because we are not! – Anne Aug 24 at 16:34
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    @Anne That's the whole point. Abraham was justified before God by faith and his actions proved it...he acted in faith when he offered Isaac. The offering didn't justify him before God but it was a demonstration of his faith. All of Paul's letters follow the same pattern: Since such and such is true this is how you should live. – Mike Borden Aug 24 at 22:42
  • Agreed, Mike. Pardon me if I reacted strongly with my first paragraph. However, I can hardly remove it without the second paragraph being disjointed, and it deals with a related point – that Christians are not out to give the impression that they’re righteous via their good works. Their good works just happen to show they have genuine faith, for those open to seeing it. – Anne Aug 25 at 20:34
  • @Anne I agree with your second point. Does the way I worded the answer give the impression that we should try to 'act' saved? If so, and if you can point it out to me, I will surely adjust it. – Mike Borden Aug 26 at 12:13

Below is a summary from an article I found on the subject of 'Once saved, always saved' which is as close as I could find to the terms above in regard to the early fathers.

The whole article quotes from :

  • Justin Martyr 100-165
  • Shepherd of Hermas 155-180
  • Irenaeus 120-200
  • Tertullian 150-220
  • Origen 185-254
  • Cyprian 200-258
  • Augustine 354-430

Based on the quotes listed in the article, the writer comes to this conclusion (and it is my own conclusion also, from what is quoted) :

These men wrote from about A.D. 100 – 250. We do not find any statements to the effect that once a Christian is saved, he or she is always saved. But we do find a consistent belief, except for a few instances, that faith and works go together. This is consistent with the teachings of the Bible.

The earliest statement regarding “once saved always saved” comes from Augustine (A.D. 354-430).

It was left to Augustine to speak a clear word for perseverance in pre-Reformation times. Starting with predestination, he saw that election to eternal life inevitably involves final perseverance. Since salvation is always God’s gift, he entitled his work on perseverance On the Gift of Perseverance. He denied, however, that the believer can have any assurance of his final salvation. Carl F. Henry. Basic Christian Doctrines. Baker Book House, 1962.

It is important to note that the doctrine of “Once Saved Always Saved” did not appear in the literature of the church until the Reformation period. A review of the existing literature from the early church fathers suggests that most of them believed faith and works must both exist for a person to be a true Christian. While no person is perfect, the pattern of life must be present. Only a few seem to believe that a person can lose his or her salvation by disobedience. But it is also possible that they are only observing the biblical truth stated in James 2:17 and 1 John 2:19.

What is most important is, “Does the Bible teach, ‘Once Saved Always Saved.?'” The opinion of the early church fathers does not constitute truth. The early church fathers were not inspired authors. But Jesus and the apostles were. Jesus did not teach and the Bible does not teach that once a person believes in Jesus Christ he or she is going to heaven regardless of what he or she does in the future. James 2:26 captures the truth that faith and works go together. A true Christian will believe and obey. A true Christian will not leave the faith. Someone who claims to believe and lives like the world or leaves the faith is a liar, and 1 John 2:4 says the truth is not in him or her. However, we must remember that only God knows if one has actually left the faith. We do not see as God sees. The statement “Once Saved Always Saved” is misleading. It should be worded as follows, “Saved Only Once” or “Once Truly Saved Always Saved.” Once God selects people for salvation they have been selected and they will not depart from the faith. Those who have been truly saved will never depart from the faith.

The Nicean Creed does not address this subject.

The Primitive Church - from NeverThirsty.org

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    Indeed, the distinction between salvation, which is of the Lord, and personal assurance (basically all of 1 John) is a critical one. The Lord know who are His. +1 – Mike Borden Aug 16 at 18:35
  • "The early church fathers were not inspired authors." We don't need to believe early Christians are inspired to survey what they believed. I've always found this a strange idea. – Sola Gratia Aug 23 at 19:15
  • 'The Primitive Church' - excellent article. Thank you. – Lesley Aug 27 at 13:33

OP:I am trying to find out what the early church fathers had to say about “eternal security” or “assurance of salvation”.

Here is Polycarp on our assurance.

Chapter I.—Praise of the Philippians. 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. -Epistle to the Philippians-

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