I want to share a series of quotations from the so-named Apostolic Constitutions, compiled and written in the 4th century. The quotations below are based upon an earlier work, the Didascalia Apostolorum from sometime around 230 AD. (Read more at the Wikipedia page and at the Catholic Encyclopedia.)
All of these excepts deal with the importance of continued obedience after conversion.
Much of my early church reading has recently been limited to the Apostolic Fathers, which reflect the earliest Christian sources we have outside scripture. There is clear and compelling evidence in these writings that the earliest Christians believed and taught that believers have to persevere in faith and holy living in order to inherit eternal life. In other words, the early church (in agreement with scripture) didn’t hold to the modern teaching of “eternal security.” Although a slightly later document, the Apostolic Constitutions confirms that the early church continued to confirm the necessity of perseverance for salvation.
This first quotation comes from the opening paragraphs of the first book. The writer makes it clear that those Christians, “ye children of God,” who live disobediently will be considered as “heathen” by God—clearly a stark warning.
Take care, ye children of God, to do all things in obedience to God; and in all things please Christ our Lord. For if any man follows unrighteousness, and does those things that are contrary to the will of God, such a one will be esteemed by God as the disobedient heathen. (1.1.0)
It goes on to list specific moral instructions, paired with warnings for the unrepentant Christian. Specifically those living in immorality are “condemned by our Lord Jesus Christ” and that “eternal death will overtake thee from God.” This is not the typical language from a Sunday sermon, but good guidance nonetheless.
For he that covets his neighbour’s wife, or his man-servant, or his maid-servant, is already in his mind an adulterer and a thief; and if he does not repent, is condemned by our Lord Jesus Christ (1.1.1)
For if thou art overcome by her, and sinnest with her, eternal death will overtake thee from God; and thou wilt be punished with sensible and bitter torments. (1.2.0)
Baptism was held in very high regard in the early church—much more seriously than in most churches today. After receiving baptism, any Christian obstinately sinning and refusing to repent was considered eternally lost.
Beloved, be it known to you that those who are baptized into the death of our Lord Jesus are obliged to go on no longer in sin; for as those who are dead cannot work wickedness any longer, so those who are dead with Christ cannot practice wickedness. We do not therefore believe, brethren, that anyone who has received the washing of life continues in the practice of the licentious acts of transgressors. Now he who sins after his baptism, unless he repent and forsake his sins, shall be condemned to hell-fire. (2.3.7)
This last quotation considers the spiritual dangers for a previously pure Christian now experimenting with sin. The danger, according to the excerpt below, is that we don’t know when we will die. If we decide to slide a bit and live in sin, who knows if today is our last day? Once we die, there is no more room for repentance. We will be like the five foolish virgins who were not ready for the bridegroom’s return and were “shut-out of the bride-chamber.” If we are living in sin when Jesus returns or when we die, there is no room for confession and consequently forgiveness of sins.
Yet it is very necessary that those who are yet innocent should continue so, and not make an experiment what sin is, that they may not have occasion for trouble, sorrow, and those lamentations which are in order to forgiveness. For how dost thou know, O man, when thou sinnest, whether thou shalt live any number of days in this present state, that thou mayest have time to repent? For the time of thy departure out of this world is uncertain; and if thou diest in sin, there will remain no repentance for thee; as God says by David, “In the grave who will confess to Thee?”
It behoves us, therefore, to be ready in the doing of our duty, that so we may await our passage into another world without sorrow. Wherefore also the Divine Word exhorts, speaking to thee by the wise Solomon, “Prepare thy works against thy exit, and provide all beforehand in the field,” lest some of the things necessary to thy journey be wanting; as the oil of piety was deficient in the five foolish virgins mentioned in the Gospel, when they, on account of their having extinguished their lamps of divine knowledge, were shut out of the bride-chamber.
Wherefore he who values the security of his soul will take care to be out of danger, by keeping free from sin, that so he may preserve the advantage of his former good works to himself. (2.3.13)
The last sentence of the above excerpt (at least in this English translation) does mention the security of the believer. However, in this instance, the soul’s security is contingent on “keeping free from sin.” Otherwise the past life of obedience through faith is of no benefit.
There are several more quotes from the Apostolic Constitution that I may post later, dealing with martyrdom and the importance of confessing Christ, rather than denying Him.
The sheer amount of quotes that speak to this subject of obedience and perseverance is too much to convey in a single post, or several for that matter. Having an historically informed understanding of Christian teaching can only deepen our analysis of scripture and understanding of how modern doctrines have developed over time.