Reconciling Paul and Justin Martyr

In many of the epistles of the Apostle Paul, we see ideas presented which seem to contradict the writings of other Church Fathers, such as Justin Martyr. Justin’s First Apology seems to go directly against Paul’s epistles on important issues such as sovereignty and sanctions. These writings, however, are not as completely at odds as they might seem.

In the ninth chapter of Paul’s epistle to the Romans, he held that since the sovereignty of God is absolute, the ultimate fate of a man (heaven or hell) has already been decided. Paul believed that God made men either good or evil from the start, which he illustrated in Romans 9:21, “Or hath not the potter [God] power over the clay [men], of the same lump, to make one vessel unto honor and another unto dishonor?” This seems to suggest that in Paul’s thought, one’s free will does not factor into which sanctions (negative or positive) are to be provided by God.

Paul’s exclusion of free will seems to counter what is found in Justin Martyr’s First Apology, particularly chapter XLIII, which very firmly states the importance of free will in God’s sanctions. Justin argues that if it was fated for a man to be good then it would be impossible for him to be anything but good, and because of this he would have no merit in being good, because it was fated for him to be so. Likewise, if a man was fated to be evil, then he could not be held accountable for his actions because it would not be any fault of his that he did evil. This teaches that men must have authority over their own fates, and must be able to choose either the path of good or evil for themselves.

These two arguments seem to run completely counter to each other. Paul teaches that God made men either good or evil, Justin teaches that God made men able to choose between good or evil. Paul writes that sanctions are dictated by God’s will, Justin writes that sanctions are dictated by men’s actions. However, unlike in Romans 9, chapter XLIII of Justin’s First Apology never even mentions God’s sovereignty, because it doesn’t need to. Sovereignty is not the issue, free will is. It is a given that God is completely sovereign and that God has authority over who goes to heaven and who goes to hell. Justin is not arguing against the supreme authority of God, he is explaining the system of free will. He does not deny that God knew from the start who would be saved and who would be damned. He is merely discounting the notion that men have no control over their fates.

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