It is a commonplace to argue that the Pauline doctrine of justification by faith alone was immediately lost to the church at the end of the Apostolic era. Such is not the case, though. Listen, for instance, to the following passage from Clement of Rome’s letter to the Corinthians, which was written near the end of the first century A.D. Upon the patriarchs and the kings that ruled Israel, he says, “great honour and renown were bestowed; yet not for their own sakes, or because of their own achievements, or for the good works they did, but by the will of God. Similarly we also, who by his will have been called in Christ Jesus, are not justified by ourselves or our own wisdom or understanding or godliness, nor by such deeds as we have done in holiness of heart, but by that faith through which alone Almighty God has justified all men since the beginning of time. Glory be to him for ever and ever, Amen” (1 Corinthians 22).
Or ponder the rich Pauline themes in this passage from the late second-century writing known as the Letter to Diognetus: “God…gave his own Son a ransom for us, the holy for the lawless, the pure for the evil, the righteous one for the unrighteous, the incorruptible for the corruptible, the immortal for the mortal. For what else but his righteousness could have covered our sins? In whom was it possible for us who are ungodly and lawless to have been justified except in the Son of God alone? Oh the sweet exchange!…Oh, the unexpected benefits! That the iniquity of many should be hidden in the One Righteous Man and that the righteousness of one should justify many who are godless!” (Letter to Diognetus 9).
There is nothing in either of these texts in which the Apostle Paul would not have rejoiced. They are accurate renditions of the doctrine of justification by faith alone as he taught it.
There is evidence, however, that there were some early Christian authors who did not adequately grasp or express the biblical position found in these two statements. A key reason for this is the fact that Christian writers and authors of the first three centuries after the end of the Apostolic era were basically wrestling with the doctrines of the Trinity and the person of Christ. And they focused upon these areas of theology because of controversies that had arisen with regard to them. When they did discuss issues relating to salvation, it was more in terms of the forgiveness of sins and the nature of eternal life, not justification. “Justification was simply not a theological issue in the pre-Augustinian tradition.” The lack of controversy about this issue also seems to have contributed to the ill-defined nature of patristic teaching on justification. See Alister E. McGrath, Iustitia Dei. A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), I, 19, 23; Bruce Demarest, The Cross and Salvation (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 1997), 358.
In the fifth century, however, such a controversy did occur and the main protagonists were Augustine and Pelagius. For Augustine, redemption is possible only as a divine gift. It is not something that we can achieve ourselves. Rather, it is something that has to be done for us. Augustine thus emphasizes that the resources of salvation are located outside of humanity, in God himself. It is God who initiates the process of salvation, not men or women. Thus, when Augustine discusses the meaning of justification by faith, he emphasizes that “justification is without antecedent merits and that works before faith are useless” with regard to salvation [C.P. Bammel, “Justification by Faith in Augustine and Origen”, Journal of Ecclesiastical History, 47 (1996), 231. See also McGrath, Iustitia Dei, I, 23-36].
In one area, though, Augustine’s doctrine of justification and salvation may be faulted. This has to do with his understanding of the precise meaning of justification. Augustine understood this term to mean “to make righteous,” not “to declare/count as righteous.” Thus, for Augustine, justification is a process and not something that takes place at the moment of conversion (Bammel, “Justification by Faith”, 232-234). Despite his correct emphasis on the sovereign grace of God, Augustine’s interpretation of the phrase “to justify” is incorrect.
And it is Augustine’s incorrect rendering of the concept of justification that dominates the mediæval view of this term. His view of the sovereignty of God’s grace in the salvation of the sinner, though, was largely ignored in the mediæval period. In the words of Philip Edgcumbe Hughes: “Mediæval theology as a whole tended to be semi-Pelagian in character—that is, in expression, it avoided the extremes of Pelagianism proper; it regarded man as partially capable, as sick rather than dead because of sin, and thus as able in some measure to help towards his own salvation. But in practice the mediæval Church walked along the edge of the Pelagian precipice. Its members were taught to go about to establish their own righteousness” [“Justification by Faith: Distortions of the Doctrine”, The Evangelical Quarterly, 24 (1952), 88].
PS The above reflection assumes, of course, the traditional Reformed view of justification.