Prof. Hanko is professor of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
When the Son of God gathers His church by His Word and Spirit He brings individual elect saints to the fellowship of the church in different ways. Some are born and raised within the covenant, drink the truths of the Scriptures with their mother’s milk, so to speak. Some are brought into the fellowship of the church from darkest heathendom through a sudden turning from the darkness of idolatry to the light of the gospel. Some live for years on the periphery of the church, attending only infrequently a church where only the faintest glimmerings of the gospel are heard, but who come to conversion and faith gradually through a long period of time, even though they had some acquaintance with the gospel from childhood. Some walk a long and difficult spiritual pilgrimage as they travel through the strange teachings of some sect; then through the all but sectarian teachings of Pentecostalism; then through rampant Arminianism; only finally to emerge into the light of the truth of sovereign grace. God leads His own to the fellowship of the church in sometimes strange and wonderful ways.
In the early history of the church of Jesus Christ, even during the apostolic period, the same principle was true. The church of that ancient day was composed of Jews who had been brought up in the Old Testament Scriptures, but who were brought to faith in Christ by the same wonder of salvation which saved the Gentiles. Some were proselytes, Gentile converts to the Jewish religion, but who also were finally brought into the fellowship of the church through the sovereign work of the Spirit of Christ. But especially in the day when first the gospel was preached throughout the Mediterranean world, the majority in the church were converts from paganism and heathendom. But even then, the conversion wrought by God was not always one of a moment of sudden bursting of the light of salvation into the darkness of unbelief; it was sometimes, even in heathendom, a sojourn, a journey long and arduous, that finally brought peace and salvation.
This is the story of one such convert from paganism: the church father, Justin Martyr.
Justin’s surname was not really ‘Martyr.” He received that name because he died a martyr’s death. But this is not quite the point of this story, as important as it is that he sealed his confession with his blood.
Justin was actually born in Samaria, although for many years he had almost no acquaintance with the Jewish religion or with the Christian faith. He was born of a Greek father by the name of Priscus, who with his wife was sent by the Roman emperor Vespasian, along with a rather large number of Roman citizens, to settle in Flavia Neopolis, a town formerly known in Bible times as Shechem. His birth date is somewhere around the turn of the century—A.D. 100. It seems as if this colony of Roman citizens was a rather close-knit community, and contact with the surrounding people was unusual. A.D. 100 is, however, about 30 years after the destruction of Jerusalem by the armies of Titus, and very few Jews were left in the area.
Justin was an unusually brilliant student. At a fairly young age he began journeys throughout the empire in search of teachings which would satisfy him. He tells us of these years in his own words.
Already as a teenager he experienced deep longings in his soul which were impossible to satisfy, but which centered in the question of man’s relation to God. What is man’s relation to God? How is it established? What must one expect from it? The questions would not down. They troubled him deeply, and the answers seemed to him more important than anything else. He would spend his life if necessary searching out the answers to these questions.
Justin understood, after his conversion, that these questions and this deep unsatisfied longing I for something he knew not what, was the work of Christ in his soul. It is doubtful that God ever brings anyone to salvation and the knowledge of Christ without creating in him a deep longing, an unsatisfied thirst, a hunger for something which one does not have. Augustine, perhaps three centuries later, put it this way in hisConfessions: “My soul can find no rest until it rest in Thee.” This longing, finally, is born out of the knowledge of sin and the hopelessness and emptiness of one’s life because of the hopelessness of sin. Salvation is faith in Christ; but only the empty sinner needs Christ; only the thirsty sinner drinks at The Fountain of Living Waters; only the hungry sinner eats The Bread of Life; only the laboring and heavy laden come to Christ to find rest for their souls. It is the general rule of the Holy Spirit to bring to faith in Christ by sovereignly showing the sinner the need of Christ.
That Justin had this deep longing is not strange. That it was a part of his life for ever so many years before peace came is a remarkable providence of God.
Justin traveled widely throughout the empire in order to find those teachings which would satisfy his soul. The polytheism (the worship of many gods) of paganism seemed to, him foolish and absurd in the extreme and not something to satisfy the soul. He tells us of these years of wandering—wandering from land to land, but wandering spiritually as well.
He went to the Stoics—a school of philosophy concerned mainly with ethics. They told him that questions about a man’s relation to God were relatively unimportant and he ought not to be bothered by them, at least not at first. But for Justin they were the only important thing.
He went to the Peripatetics—a school of teachers who traveled about to spread their teachings. After about three days with Justin, one such teacher would not continue his teaching until he had assurance from Justin that he would pay his tuition. It was Justin’s position that if the teacher were more interested in money than in teaching, he could have nothing to say which would ease the ache in his soul.
He went to the Pythagoreans—an ancient school of philosophy which told him that they could not help him until he mastered music, astronomy, and geometry, for the truth could be learned only through a mastery of these subjects.
Then he discovered that ancient school of Greek philosophy called Platonism. He tells us about it:
(Here I shall) soon have the intuition of God, for is not this the aim of Platonic philosophy?
Under the influence of this notion it occurred to me that I would withdraw to some solitary place, far from the turmoil of the world, and there, in perfect self-collection, give myself to my own contemplations. I chose a spot by the sea-side.
He was probably at Ephesus at this time, a city of Asia Minor near the sea, but near also a church of Christ established by Paul. While giving himself over to his meditations by the seaside, an old man met him and began a conversation with him. The old man was a Christian. Justin argued vehemently with the old man in the defense of his pet philosophy and received very little argument in return. But finally the old man curtly cut him off: “You are a mere dealer in words, but no lover of action and truth; your aim is not to be a practiser of good, but a clever disputant, a cunning sophist.” And when finally Justin put the question to the old man: “Where then is truth?” the old man replied, “Search the Scriptures and pray that the gates of light may be opened to thee, for none can perceive and comprehend these things except God and His Christ grant them understanding.”
We are sometimes not only ashamed to witness to others of the truth, but we readily excuse our failure to witness by an appeal to the superior knowledge of those with whom we dispute. It remains, however, a striking fact of the church in the immediate post-apostolic years that the rapid spread of the gospel throughout the whole Mediterranean world was through the faithful witness of the people of God. There were few if any missionaries in those days after the great missionary labors of Paul. Only faithful and often uneducated people of God, testifying of the truth and manifesting in their lives the joy of salvation, were the means God used to spread the church throughout the known world. Here we have an instance of that—the learned Justin, brought to his knees in sorrow for sin, by a humble and childlike old man on the seaside near Ephesus.
The importance of the influence of Christian witnessing is evident in another aspect of Justin’s conversion. He tells in one of his later writings that some of the unrest that stirred in his soul before his conversation with this old man was the unflinching faith of Christians who were tortured for their faith and put to death because they confessed Christ. He had witnessed such public spectacles from time to time, and had been deeply impressed by the stalwart courage of young girls and old men. He secretly wondered what kind of strength was theirs to be faithful under such circumstances. This witness too was important.
The power of salvation is not the power of eloquent defense of the faith; it is the power of God—even when He is pleased to use human means. Justin became a faithful servant of Christ and valiant defender of the faith.
After Justin became a Christian and was joined to the church of Christ, he spent his time traveling around the empire writing and teaching.
Schools in those days were not like schools today. A gifted and learned man (and sometimes ungifted and stupid men) would stop in a certain town or city and begin teaching. If his instruction was considered worthwhile enough, he would soon gather some students around him who would then study under him. If he was an exceptionally able man, he might even establish a fairly permanent school that would be continued by his pupils beyond his own life.
It was something like this that Justin made his life’s work. He would not, however, attempt to establish any kind of a permanent school; he was rather interested in using his knowledge and ability to speak of the Christian faith and teach others the truths of God’s Word. Many times when the opportunity presented itself he would engage in public debates with defenders of pagan religions and philosophies; and this practice of his finally led to his martyrdom.
In the meantime he also did a great deal of writing. Some of his writings have survived the ravages of time and are available today. He was one of the very first of the defenders of Christianity who used his writing ability to answer the critics. In fact, so effective were his writings that he became known in later times as an apologist—i.e., one who defended the faith.
Some brief survey of his writings will give you a bit of an idea of what he did.
He attacked paganism head on by showing the utter absurdity and stupidity of worshiping twelve or fifteen gods. He made an emphatic point of it that paganism could not possibly be a religion that was true when it brought forth horrible immoralities—the Roman Empire in these days was dying from a moral rot that was eating at its vitals and that condoned every horrible sin under heaven.
Pagans, growing ever more wary and fearful of Christianity as it spread through the world and gained converts in every walk of life, began to attack it viciously, Christians were accused of atheism for refusing to worship Caesar. They were accused of treason because they spoke of a King greater than Caesar. Strangely enough, they were accused of cannibalism because they claimed, in their celebration of the Lords Supper, to be eating the body of the Lord and drinking His blood. They were accused of immorality because they held “love feasts” which were intended to express the communion of the saints and give material help to the poor, but which were interpreted as immoral orgies. All these foolish and wild charges Justin took the time to answer carefully and patiently.
But he also set about proving the truth of the Christian religion. He did this in especially two ways: 1) he pointed to the Old Testament prophets and how their prophecies were exactly fulfilled in the work and death of Christ. This was a striking argument, and one which our own Belgic Confession uses in Article V in defense of the authority of Scripture. 2) Probably chiefly because the New Testament Scriptures, so recently written, were not widely known, he appealed to miracles as being proofs of the authentic character of the Christian faith—a purpose for which the Lord gave the power of miracles in the early church.
I suppose, however, that in one respect at least Justin would be considered a heretic by today’s standards. It is not, I think, right to call him a heretic; for the church knew so little of the truth in the infancy of her New Testament existence. And sometimes mistakes were made through ignorance which the church in later years would never make—at least one would think so. He believed, having come out of paganism himself, that the pagan philosophers possessed the germ of the truth in their hearts, which germ of the truth was Christ Himself, the logos of John 1. And because these men possessed this germ of the truth, it was possible, Justin believed, that the best of them were saved without faith in Christ. This germ of truth came to expression in their philosophies.
This was wrong. Yet there are those in our day who call themselves Reformed who teach the same thing.
Justin has become known as Justin Martyr. It was not his given surname. He received it by a church who held the memory of his martyrdom in reverence.
In the course of his travels Justin came twice to Rome. The second time he so enraged a pagan philosopher that this opponent set about making plans to have Justin killed. He could not get the best of Justin in debate; he determined to have him killed. And so he reported Justin to the authorities as being a Christian guilty of all sorts of awful crimes. Justin was summoned before the magistrates and tried. One can still read the record of his trial in “The Martyrdom of the Holy Martyrs.” It is the kind of record that stirs the blood of the child of God. The faithfulness and courage which Justin showed is sometimes overwhelming to us who know not what suffering for Christ’s sake is.
But the story, written so long ago, ends like this: “Rusticus the perfect (magistrate) pronounced sentence, saying, ‘Let those who have refused to sacrifice to the gods and to yield to the command of the emperor be scourged, and led away to suffer the punishment of decapitation, according to the laws.’ The holy martyrs having glorified God, and having gone forth to the accustomed place, were beheaded, and perfected their testimony in the confession of the Savior. And some of the faithful having secretly removed their bodies, laid them in a suitable place, the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ having wrought along with them, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.”