The witness of Justin Martyr

A few days ago, the church celebrated St. Justin Martyr, an early second-century convert to the Christian faith. Before his conversion, Justin jumped from philosophy to philosophy, ultimately sticking to Platonism—until he met a mysterious old man who moved him in the direction of Jesus Christ. Born in Palestine, Justin eventually found himself in Rome, where he established a school of Christian philosophy. Here he also dialogued with the Roman government, in order to persuade the rulers to lighten up on their persecution of Christians. In his First Apology, Justin clarifies Christian doctrine and defends the faith from unfair caricatures. Because of his defense of the faith, Justin is known as one of the first major Christian apologists.

From his First Apology, we get a glimpse at second-century understanding of the sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist as well as a general description of the Sunday liturgy. And here is where Justin becomes exceptionally important. Today, Christians disagree over the basics of Christian practice: Is Baptism necessary for salvation? Is it just a symbol of conversion? What about the Eucharist? How central is that to Christian worship — and is that also merely a symbol? Well, Justin offers a clear answer to these questions.

Baptism

Representing the practice of Christians in Rome, Justin describes how individuals in the process of converting to Christianity, or catachumens, would prepare for their Baptism with prayer and fasting. After all, Baptism was seen as the moment of conversion to Christ and incorporation into his Body, the Church. In fact, the whole community prayed and fasted along with these catechumens. As evident from other second-century writings, this time of prayer and fasting often occurred before Easter, thereby forming the foundations of Lent.

In order that we may not remain the children of necessity and of ignorance but may become the children of choice and knowledge, and may obtain in the water the remission of sins formerly committed, there is pronounced over him who chooses to be born again, and has repented of his sins, the name of God the Father and Lord of the universe […] and in the name of Jesus Christ, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and in the name of the Holy Spirit, who through the Prophets foretold all things about Jesus, he who is illuminated is washed.” First Apology 61

Justin goes on to say that Baptism is the means of being “regenerated.” In fact, Justin references John’s Gospel, where Jesus speaks of the necessity of being “born again” of “water and spirit” (Jn. 3:5). Whereas some modern Christians (e.g., evangelicals) have coined being “born again” as an inner conversion  (“accepting Christ as Lord and Savior”), early Christians identified being “born again” with water Baptism. For in Baptism, the individual is given a new life of grace through the forgiveness of sins. According to Justin, those seeking Baptism “obtain in the water the remission of sins formerly committed.”

The Eucharist

Justin ends his First Apology by discussing the Sunday worship of Christians and the Eucharist in particular. He provides an account of the structure of the liturgy, which focuses on two main parts: (1) the proclamation of scripture and (2) the Eucharist. It’s worth quoting at length:

And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things.

Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons.” First Apology 67

Notice how Justin’s description matches the structure of a typical Catholic Mass or Eastern Divine Liturgy. Anyone familiar with a traditional liturgical service will thus see that this pattern of Christian worship has been there from the very beginning—spanning 1850+ years. Clearly, the Eucharist had a central place in second-century Christian worship.

For Justin and the faith he represents, the Eucharist was no mere symbol. No, it is the “flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh.” Here Justin parallels the Eucharist with Christ’s incarnation, since the Word of God took on “flesh and blood for our salvation.” According to Justin, those who may receive the Eucharist are those who believe the Christian faith, have been baptized, and live “as Christ has enjoined.” Clearly, then, an orthodox Christian faith and a truly Christian lifestyle are prerequisites for worthy reception of the Eucharist.

At a time when Christians are still divided over the true meaning of Baptism and the Eucharist, we ought to look to a guy like Justin Martyr—someone who represents the Christian faith as he found it within 100 years of its beginning in Christ and the Apostles.

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