2 Clement: A call to repentance and holy living

While it’s traditionally called the “Second Letter of Clement,” Michael Holmes notes that it’s neither by Clement nor a letter.  2 Clement is actually a sermon or some other kind of address, the first complete Christian sermon outside of the New Testament.  The author and date are difficult to establish, although Holmes discusses some interesting theories.

2 Clement seems to be addressing baptized Christians (Holmes also notes another historian’s theory that it is addressed to catechumens), urging them to live in a manner that will please Christ and will ultimately result in a favorable judgment by him.  Here was one of the more striking exhortations:

For if we do the will of Christ, we will find rest; but if we do not – if we disobey his commandments – then nothing will save us from eternal punishment.  And the scripture also says in Ezekiel, “Even if Noah and Job and Daniel should rise up, they will not save their children” in their captivity.  Now if even such righteous men as these are not able, by means of their own righteous deeds, to save their children, what assurance do we have of entering the kingdom of God if we fail to keep our baptism pure and undefiled?  Or who will be our advocate, if we are not found to have holy and righteous works? (2 Clement 6:7-9)

As an evangelical Protestant, I found this kind of language jarring at first.  Ligon Duncan also noted the importance of works in 2 Clement as opposed to the emphasis on the cross in this interview about patristics with Sovereign Grace Radio.  Duncan also noted that it shows that every generation of Christians has its strong and weak points.  It struck me as ultimately consistent with the New Testament’s insistence that believers in Christ will produce good fruit and will show their faith by their works.  There was a tone of looking for the glories that God had prepared for the righteous paired with a holy fear of “that day of judgment, when people will see those among us who have lived ungodly lives and perverted the commandments of Jesus Christ” (2 Clement 17:6).

2 Clement also calls for repentance from sins in three different sections on repentance.  For me, this helped to add some grace to the exhortations to live holy lives.  Those who had sinned could repent for their evil and avoid the terrors of judgment.  He asks his listeners to help each other to repent of sin that all who claim Christ may be saved.  The author even added a personal reflection:

Therefore let us too be among those who give thanks, that is, those who have served God, and not among the ungodly who are judged.  For I myself am utterly sinful and have not yet escaped from temptation; but even though I am surrounded by the tools of the devil, I make every effort to pursue righteousness, so that I may succeed in at least getting close to it, because I fear the coming judgment. (2 Clement 18:1-2)

An interesting part of a call to repentance in Chapter 16 was this passage, which seemed to parallel Peter Brown’s brief descriptions of charitable giving as practice that was encouraged as proof of repentance, which he wrote about in The Rise of Western Christendom.  In 2 Clement, the author notes that the judgment will show everyone’s deeds, and then writes:

Charitable giving, therefore, is good, as is repentance from sin.  Fasting is better than prayer, while charitable giving is better than both, and love covers a multitude of sins, while prayer arising from a good conscience delivers one from death.  Blessed is everyone who is found full of these, for charitable giving relieves the burden of sin. (2 Clement 16:4)

It seems like these kind of practices were the roots of the penance system that developed so fully by the early Middle Ages.  I’m not sure, though, and the development of the penance system is something that I want to learn more about.

2 Clement was a fascinating trip back to an early sermon, and I think that it really reminds contemporary Christian readers that our faith must lead to a holy life.  When we don’t, the author also reminds us that we must repent.  I think that this document can be balanced by reflecting on the assurance that the New Testament gives that true believers will be saved, something that 2 Clement doesn’t bring out.


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