As the early church grew, the need for obedient, steadfast leaders was vital. During this time, God raised up a group of faithful men known as the Apostolic Fathers, who provided first-generation leadership after the apostles.
These important men were living even while the last of the apostles served; some were discipled by and were appointed by apostles themselves.
One such church father was Clement––one of the early bishops of the church in Rome. Some suggest that Clement was a disciple of Paul and Peter. Clement was so highly regarded that his most famous writing, an epistle known as First Clement, was respected with almost scriptural status in Egyptian and Syrian churches.
Great Spiritual Fidelity
In the first century, Clement not only provided spiritual leadership for one of the most strategic congregations in Christianity, but he was responsible for providing spiritual counsel for other churches.
According to legends, he was banished to the Crimea during the reign of Emperor Trajan and forced to work in the mines. After much hard labor, he was allegedly bound to an anchor and thrown into the Black Sea.
While this account is debated, what is certain is that Clement maintained great spiritual fidelity in the service of Christ until the end of his life. Moreover, his commitment to the doctrines of grace is permanently recorded in his letter, First Clement.
A Pastoral Letter
Apart from possibly the Didache (ca. 100), First Clement is the earliest Christian writing after the New Testament. It was intended to give pastoral counsel to the wayward and divided church in Corinth.
About one-fourth of the letter comprises quotations from the Old Testament, and First Clement reads very much like Paul’s own letters to the Corinthians. The epistle’s theology is plainly Pauline and resembles the book of Hebrews, but also appears to be influenced by the writing style and teaching of Peter.
Commenting on Clement’s influences, Irenaeus noted, “[Clement] had seen the apostles and associated with them, and still had their preaching sounding in his ears and their tradition before his eyes.” First Clement reveals an author who held firmly to biblical truths.
The Doctrine Clement Pronounced
Throughout his letter to the Corinthians, Clement asserts the sovereignty of God over all the affairs of this world:
“The heavens move at His direction and peacefully obey Him. Day and night observe the course He has appointed them, without getting in each other’s way. . . . By His will and without dissension or altering anything He has decreed, the earth becomes fruitful at the proper seasons.”
Clement affirms that God’s sovereign will is immutable and irresistible:
“By His majestic word He established the universe, and by His word He can bring it to an end. ‘Who shall say to Him, What have You done? Or who shall resist His mighty strength?’ He will do everything when He wants to and as He wants to. And not one of the things He has decreed will fail. Everything is open to His sight and nothing escapes His will.”
Clement maintained the absolute providence of God over all the works of His hands.
Clement recognized that the Holy Spirit sovereignly brings all those chosen by God to repentance and saving faith. In the first sentence of First Clement, he identifies the believers in Corinth as those “who are called . . . by God’s will.” Clement further writes, “We . . . by His will have been called in Jesus Christ.” He recognized that it is by divine initiative and calling that believers exercise faith in Christ.
Finally, Clement asserted that the salvation God gives to His elect is an enduring work of grace, never to be reversed or undone. He says: “But if any of those whom God wills should partake of the grace of repentance, should afterwards perish, where is His almighty will? And how is this matter settled and established by such a will of His?”
In other words, God holds His elect eternally secure by His omnipotent will. Elsewhere in a salutation to the Corinthian believers, Clement notes that their faith is lasting: “Has anyone, indeed, stayed with you without attesting the excellence and firmness of your faith?” Faith is a sovereign gift of God, Clement believed, and when He gives it, He establishes it forever.
Resolute In Christ
Clement’s strong stand for Christ was clearly rooted and grounded in the Word of God. He stood on the immoveable rock of divine sovereignty, a matchless truth held to in the various storms through which he passed. In the end, his sturdy beliefs determined how he lived and died—with resolution and dignity.
May we be those who, in this present moment, stand strongest on the doctrines of grace. With such a firm foundation, may we be used by God as strong and steady pillars in His church. May we faithfully undergird His work in our own uncertain hour of human history.
Adapted from Pillars of Grace by Dr. Steven Lawson (Reformation Trust, 2016). Read more by purchasing Pillars of Grace here.