It should first be mentioned that salvation is not a function of the circumstances faced by the church, local or universal. At all times the church should maintain a healthy interpretation and proclamation of Scriptures, especially in regard to salvation. However, it is undeniable that circumstances can make such task difficult or find the church off guard. The third century witnessed such circumstances, when persecution occurred at a time the church as a whole was unprepared for the challenge. Indeed, they were not prepared to see their leaders arrested, degraded, exiled or executed. Their own properties seized, their assemblies forbidden and each of them forced to sacrifice to pagan deities. It is difficult for the 21st century non-persecuted Christian that I am to comprehend the brutality that befell our fellow saints in those days. Naturally there were many who, by the grace of God, became confessors or martyrs but many more who compromised their faith. Out of this scene emerged the cult of the martyrs and controversies concerning the reconciliation of the lapsed, two questions that had profound impact and implications on the biblical doctrines of salvation and the Church.
As to the cults, they gave the martyrs the exceptional place in the Church of intercessors between God and the living. Yet Scripture points to none but one intercessor in the heavenly places, the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:26). The idea of a cult celebrated to venerate the martyrs is nothing short of idolatry. Rather our celebration must be of that victory that released the captive souls from the grips of death; only by the blood of Christ do we now have confidence to enter the holy presence of God (Hebrews 10:19-22). Resorting to other men to this end would be a denial of this awesome privilege and a trampling on divine grace and promises. If Christians are looking for prayer partners or prayer-intercessors, God calls them to look among the living (James 5:16).
As to the controversies, there was a divide in the church concerning both the state and place of baptized believers who compromised their faith as a result of the persecution. Though there seemed to be consensus that this was a sinful disposition, the expected response of the church spurred much disagreement. Opinions spanned between “the extremes of both rigorism, which said apostates could not be restored to full fellowship, but must be kept in the condition of penitents for the rest of their lives, and laxism, which said that penitent apostates could be restored to full communion immediately.”1 By the testimony of Scripture, denying the faith results in being denied by Christ before the Father (Mat 10:33, 2Tim 2:12). However, when the church deals which this issue, it would be wise to consider, not only the circumstances and sincerely of the lapsed, but also their repentance. After all, our beloved apostle Peter himself denied the Lord three times and was vindicated still, so that salvation is indeed by grace through faith!
1. Everett Ferguson. Church History, Volume One: From Christ to the Pre-Reformation (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013), 164.