Happy St. Irenaeus’ Day!

Today is the feast day of St. Irenaeus of Lyons. His careful and passionate explanation of the gospel is enormously helpful in understanding what the Bible means when it says that Christ has made all people right with God (Rom. 5:18.)

As you may know, the life of a saint is celebrated on the day of his or her death, not the day of their birth, because the day he died is the day he was born into eternal life. So, today is the traditional date given for Irenaeus’ death by the Catholic and Anglican churches. The Eastern Orthodox churches celebrate him on August 23.

Irenaeus was bishop of Lyons, France, around 180-200 A.D. He wrote several books, only two of which have survived to this day intact: Against Heresies and The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching.

Against Heresies is the longer, more famous and more entertaining of the two. In it he defends and explains the gospel by contrasting the teaching that the Church had received from the apostles with the heretical ideas running rampant in some Christian circles at the time. In one of my favorite parts of the book Irenaeus addresses the question of whether Adam is saved. He says:

. . . inasmuch as humanity is saved, it is fitting that he who was created the original human should be saved. For it is too absurd to maintain that he who was so deeply injured by the enemy, and was the first to suffer captivity, was not rescued by Him who conquered the enemy, but that his children were — those whom he had begotten in the same captivity. Neither would the enemy appear to be as yet conquered, if the old spoils remained with him. ~ Against All Heresies, Book 3, Chap. 23, Para. 2 .

There are two aspects of this statement that hit me like a ton of bricks when I first read it:

The Resurrected Christ lifts Adam and Eve, and thus humanity, from the grave.

1. He believes that the teaching of the apostles is the salvation of humanity in Christ. The gospel is not a message about how some lucky few have been elected for salvation or how some lucky few can save themselves by their faith. It is a declaration of the deliverance of humanity from captivity in Jesus the Redeemer (cf. Rom. 5:18, Col. 1:19-20.)

2. His primary image of Christ’s work does not involve God beating Jesus to death instead of beating us to death. His primary image is of Jesus defeating Satan our enemy and rescuing us from captivity (cf. Col. 2:15, Heb. 2:14-15.)

These two realities hit me like a ton of bricks because I realized that no one in modern, American Evangelicalism talks this way about Christ and the gospel. How many sermons have you ever heard that explain Christ’s saving work as a victorious triumph over Satan, sin and death? Or how many sermons have you heard about how Adam and all his descendants have been saved in Jesus? I had never heard or preached such a sermon until about six years ago. Now, if you come to one of the churches I pastor, that is all you will hear!

And, by the way, Irenaeus was not a universalist. He understands that all humanity has been adopted into the life of the Trinity and saved from the devil, but that doesn’t mean that all humanity believes this truth about themselves. In our distinction we can still choose to believe the enemy’s lie that we are his captives, even when the truth is that Jesus has rescued us all.

Here is my prayer of thanksgiving for Irenaeus:

Loving Father, thank you for rescuing Adam and all his children from death and captivity through your Son Jesus Christ, the last and greatest Adam. Jesus, we thank you for the lives of all those faithful ministers of the gospel who have gone before us and handed on to us the teaching of the apostles and the words of the Bible. We especially thank you for pouring out the Holy Spirit on Irenaeus so that he could work with you to preserve the light of the truth in the midst of dark times. May we also walk in step with you, Holy Spirit, and be able to stand firmly for the good news of humanity’s redemption as Irenaeus did. In the name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

~ Jonathan Stepp

10 comments so far

  1. Jane Hinrichs on

    Lovely, lovely, lovely! Thank you Pastor Jonathan. I love this take on salvation — how it is about Jesus triumphing over the devil and sin and death rather than Him being beaten up and killed for our sin. It is the same truth but so much better hearing it with Jesus being the victor. That is truly the way we are to see it though. Jesus was and is never the victim. He is King Supreme. Oh, what a work He did for us. He took all power from the enemy and sin. Oh, that all would understand that! One day, one day.

  2. Ted Johnston on

    Amen brother!

  3. Len Joson on

    Thank you Pastor Jonathan for sharing what you’ve learned from Irenaeus. Wonderful truth that everybody needs to hear — truly good news for all!

  4. Pastor Jonathan on

    Thanks, guys, I appreciate your encouraging words!

  5. John Geerlings on

    Thanks Jonathan
    Well written.
    Anything else does not make any sense anymore! How can God be subservient to our own deceived thought, purpose and action, when without Him we can do nothing!

  6. Pastor Jonathan on

    I agree, John – if we think from a purely Christo-logical standpoint then Irenaeus’ approach is the only logical one!

  7. Lisa Bendele on

    I cannot contain myself any longer. This is really good information. What you are seeking the Catholic church has always known and has a bead on it. And who is the Mother Church of mainstream religion? The Catholic Church. If you want to know more go to the local Catholic book store and you will find it. If not, ask a priest or a nun or most anybody who attends a Catholic church.

  8. Pastor Jonathan on

    Thanks, Lisa, I appreciate your comments. I think we as Christians all have a lot to learn from each other.

  9. Jeannine on

    Awesome post, Jonathan. How could it be ANY other way and be Love? I know God’s ways are not our ways and so we don’t have the minds to understand even close to everything – but that which we don’t understand is only mind-blowingly GOOD (what an understatement that is). It’s not like we’ll be someday given the minds to understand why God could be cruel, uncaring towards most or exclusivist.

    Like you, I have not heard this message in an evangelical church – quite the contrary.

  10. Pastor Jonathan on

    Great point, Jeannine, what we don’t know about the Father can only be about how good he is and how much better he is than we ever could have imagined!

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