The Early Church Fathers on
Free Will and Salvation

Unlike the Catholic Church, Martin Luther and John Calvin denied the existence of free will. They taught that all of man’s actions are predetermined by God. The fact that this controversy even exists proves otherwise. Jesus said: “and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:32). St. Paul tells us that God: “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4). We are further told in 1 Corinthians 14:33 that: “God is not a God of confusion but of peace.” So if God predetermines all of man’s actions that would no doubt include all men. But if God is a God of order and He wishes that all men come to the knowledge of the truth why would He program some people with false views knowing that it would cause divisions among His followers? And wouldn’t that contradict His prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane; that we would be one as He and the Father are one? Jesus does not contradict Jesus. People do that. Anyone can choose to sin and thus, anyone can choose to go to Hell.

Clement of Alexandria

Nor shall he who is saved be saved against his will, for he is not inanimate; but he will above all voluntarily and of free choice speed to salvation (Stromata 7:7 [A.D. 202]).


Judas likewise was for a long time reckoned among the elect (apostles), and was even appointed to the office of their treasurer; he was not yet the traitor, although he was become fraudulent; but afterwards the devil entered into him (Treatise on the Soul 11 [A.D. 209]).

Dionysius the Great

Wherefore he also became an enemy to His Catholic Church; and besides that, he alienated and estranged himself from the mercy of God, and fled to the utmost possible distance from His salvation (Extant Fragments Letter 11:3 [A.D. 251-253]).


Moreover if we believe man to be, as the divine Scriptures say, a work of God's hands, how could any defiled work proceed from a pure Power? and if, according to the divine Acts of the Apostles, 'we are God's offspring,' we have nothing unclean in ourselves. For then only do we incur defilement, when we commit sin, that foulest of things (Letter 48 [A.D. 373]).

Cyril of Jerusalem

For we shall not tolerate those who give a wrong meaning to that saying, Hereby know we the children of God, and the children of the devil, as if there were by nature some men to be saved, and some to be lost. Whereas we come into such holy sonship not of necessity but by choice: nor was the traitor Judas by nature a son of the devil and of perdition for certainly he would never have cast out devils at all in the name of Christ: for Satan casteth not out Satan. Nor on the other hand would Paul have turned from persecuting to preaching. But the adoption is in our own power, as John saith, But as many as received Him, to them gave He power to become the children of God (Catechetical Lecture 7:13 [A.D. 348-350]).  


"Remember how thou hast received, and didst hear, and keep it, and repent," and so on, were of course believers, and baptized, who once stood, but fell through sin (Against Jovinianus 2:3 [A.D. 393]).

From this it is clear that men are called righteous, and said to be without fault; but that, if negligence comes over them, they may fall; and that a man always occupies a middle place, so that he may slip from the height of virtue into vice, or may rise from vice to virtue; and that he is never safe, but must dread shipwreck even in fair weather (Against Pelagians 1 [A.D. 417]).


Thou didst make all things good, nor is there any substance at all that was not made by Thee; and because all that Thou hast made are not equal, therefore all things are; because individually they are good, and altogether very good, because our God made all things very good [not totally depraved] (Confessions 7:7:18 [A.D. 397-400]).

Whether it be possible for a man in this life to be without sin? I should allow the possibility, through the grace of God and the man's own free will; not doubting that the free will itself is ascribable to God's grace, in other words, to the gifts of God (On Merits and Remission of Sin and Infant Baptism 2:7 [A.D. 426-428]).

What is so established in free will as what the law says, that we must not worship an idol, must not commit adultery, must do no murder? Nay, these crimes, and such like, are of such a kind that, if any one should commit them, he is removed from the communion of the body of Christ (Two Letters of the Pelagians 4:26 [A.D. 426-428]).

John Chrysostom

Hence he says, that it is not the calling alone, but the purpose of those called too, that works the salvation. For the calling was not forced upon them, nor compulsory. All then were called, but all did not obey the call (Homily 15 on Romans 28 [A.D. 391]).

As for example, the first will is that sinners should not perish; the second will is, that, if men become wicked, they shall perish (Homily 1 on Ephesians 5 [A.D. 393]).

Imitate God! If He wills that all men should be saved, there is reason why one should pray for all, if He has willed that all should be saved, be thou willing also; and if you wish it, pray for it, for wishes lead to prayers. Observe how from every quarter He urges this upon the soul, to pray for the Heathen, showing how great advantage springs from it; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life; and what is much more than this, that it is pleasing to God (Homily 7 on 1 Timothy 4 [A.D. 393]).

John Cassian

It cannot then be doubted that there are by nature some seeds of goodness in every soul implanted by the kindness of the Creator: but unless these are quickened by the assistance of God, they will not be able to attain to an increase of perfection, for, as the blessed Apostle says: "Neither is he that planteth anything nor he that watereth, but God that giveth the increase" (Conference 13:7 [circa A.D. 430]).

Gregory the Great

For in that which He says in the Gospel, When I shall be lifted up from the earth, I will draw all to myself John 12:32, He means all that are elect. For one could not be drawn to God after death who had separated himself from God by evil living. May Almighty God keep you under His protection, that, wherever you are, you may feel in soul and body the aid of His grace (Letters 7:15 [inter A.D. 590-604]).

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