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The fourth century was one of the most significant periods in the first fifteen hundred years of the church’s existence. In it, a number of events took place that set the trajectory of the church into the future.

The century opened with two important developments.

Persecution

Christians are called to live at peace with others in society (see Rom. 12:18). But despite the church’s desire to contribute to society and live at peace, persecution continues. Rarely do emperors or dictators grasp the fact that Christians will be their very best citizens. Tragically, rulers often see totalitarianism as preferable to grace and its effects.

When the century opened, Diocletian (245–313) had already been Roman emperor for a decade and a half. Born in obscurity, he rose through the ranks of the military and was declared emperor in 284. He was an extraordinarily gifted organizer and administrator and in his own way a reformer of the now-unstable empire. For the major part of his reign, Christians enjoyed relative peace. But Diocletian became convinced that the only way the Roman Empire could be strengthened was by virtually totalitarian rule. This in turn required a commitment on the part of every citizen to his “divine” authority as sacratissimus Dominus noster (our most sacred Lord). Anything that stood in the way of this grand plan was repressed.

In 303, persecution broke out, and churches were destroyed. Realizing that Christianity was a book-anchored faith, Diocletian also sought to destroy Christians’ books, especially the Scriptures. Then he sought to destroy the leaders of the church, and eventually Christians in general, if they refused to bow to his decree that all citizens of the empire must make sacrifices to the gods of Rome. By God’s grace, many Christians had the courage to stand firm.

Diocletian abdicated in 305 and lived out the closing years of his life in retirement at what is now Split, Croatia. But the persecution continued.

It is sometimes difficult to distinguish truth from exaggeration when we read accounts of martyrdoms. At times, they appear exaggerated. But perhaps the exaggeration grew out of a desire to draw a contrast with other Christians who were intimidated, some of whom handed over copies of the Scriptures that were burned. This led to a new problem for the church, namely, failed Christians, the traditores. What if in later times of relative ease they wanted to return to the fold?

Diocletian took his own life in 313. Two years earlier, the Edict of Nicomedia (311) had brought the persecution to an end.

We trust and follow a crucified Savior raised from the dead. Consequently, our lives will be marked by the cross. The way to life is the way of death.
The Cult of Softness

The sufferings endured by so many Christians highlighted a second trend: an increasing sense of ease and comfort in those who professed to be the followers of the crucified One.

There are mysteries in the Christian faith and doctrines that stretch the mind. But sometimes it is not the revelation that stretches reason to the full but the teaching that is simplest and clearest that presents the greatest challenges. We trust and follow a crucified Savior raised from the dead. Consequently, our lives will be marked by the cross. The way to life is the way of death.

Since we naturally draw back from suffering, it should not surprise us if the same reaction was present at the beginning of the fourth century.

One response to the “subtle love of softening things” made by not a few was to reject the world, to abandon society and to live as hermits, distanced from the world and separated from worldly Christians. This movement gained strength especially in Egypt as men moved out into the desert to live totally solitary lives, contemplating (as they hoped) the glories of God and seeking His presence and power to overcome temptation. Many of them discovered, however, that the desert is also territory that the devil occupies.

Antony

The most influential of these hermits was Antony (251–356), who was born in Coma, Egypt. While at a church service shortly after the death of his parents, he was gripped by Jesus’ words to the rich young ruler telling him to sell everything and follow Him. Taking the words literally, he committed himself to an ascetic desert lifestyle from around 285 until 305, when he organized a group of monks. Later, he returned to the desert. He was widely admired, especially when the Life of Antony (written by Athanasius) became popular.

Paradoxically, both of these influences—persecution and monasticism—had the potential to destroy the witness of Christians. If either the darkness overcomes the light or the light is removed from the world, the world goes dark. If we take the salt out of the world, moral and spiritual decay is inevitable. These desert monks, then, despite their remarkable asceticism, stand as a warning to us that Christ has called us not to leave the world but to live sacrificially in it.

Besides these movements, we should take note of three significant events that took place during the fourth century.

Constantine

The first was that Constantine became the emperor. According to the fourth-century Christian author Lactantius, as Constantine fought for control of the Roman Empire, he had a remarkable dream just before the Battle of Milvian Bridge. As a result, he fought under the sign of the cross, which became the famous chi-rho monogram (from the first two letters in the title Christ). Whatever the truth may be, Constantine won the battle, and he attributed his victory to the power of Christ. Immediately, he began to relax the penal laws against Christians and eventually made Christianity the official religion of the great Roman Empire.

That was good news—the end of persecution. But it was also bad news. It was good news in the sense that Christians were now free to worship Christ without physical hindrance. But it was bad news in the sense that for the first time, Christianity became the state religion. Citizens of the Roman Empire would now view themselves as de facto Christians. The basic biblical distinction between natural birth and spiritual birth was lost. Constantine did much to help the church. But this fatal mistake hindered the church in the long term by minimizing the difference between a citizen of this world and a citizen of the world to come. The church in the West has never been quite the same since then.

Faithfulness is far more significant than fame when Jesus is building His church.
Nicaea

The second major event of the fourth century was the Council of Nicaea in 325. It officially (but not finally) settled a bitter debate in the church on the identity of Christ.

The seeds of this debate can be found in the way early Christian writers answered the question, In what sense is Christ fully divine? The issue came to a head through the teaching of a presbyter (minister) by the name of Arius, who had argued that if the Son was, as the church confessed, “begotten of the Father,” then “there was a time when the Son was not.”

Over against Arius stood the heroic figure of Athanasius. He argued powerfully that if the Son is not Himself fully God, then He cannot reconcile us to God since His death would not have infinite power to save us from sin against an infinite and holy God. Only if Christ is fully divine can He reconcile us to God. Furthermore, Athanasius argued, if Christ is not truly God (and by implication, the same would be true of the Holy Spirit), then Christians are baptized in the name of one God and two of His creatures. In other words, the inaugural Christian rite of baptism into the one name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit requires the full deity of the Son in order to make sense.

For his dogged faithfulness, Athanasius (nicknamed “The Black Dwarf” because of his coloring and height) was exiled on no fewer than five occasions. But even if the whole world was against him, he was determined to uphold the full deity of his Savior (hence the expression Athanasius contra mundum, “Athanasius against the world”). The council that Constantine summoned at Nicaea in 325 confirmed Athanasius’ New Testament conviction about the absolute deity of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Augustine

A third major event of the fourth century took place in the life of an individual whose writings have made him the single most influential thinker in the church since the days of the Apostles. The event was, of course, the conversion of Augustine.

Aurelius Augustinus was born in 354 in Thagaste, North Africa (Annaba in modern-day Algeria), the son of a pagan father and a Christian mother, Monica (to whose prayers Augustine later partly attributed his conversion). New thinking and envelope-pushing experiences fascinated him. At the age of eighteen, he took a concubine with whom he lived for the next fifteen years. He seems to have tried everything, including new religion and even extraordinary diets (at one time he belonged to a sect that believed that you should eat as many melons as you could).

He found no satisfaction. Writing about his experience in his most famous work, The Confessions, he notes that however much he sought what he thought was the truth, he was really running away from it and from the grace of God in Jesus Christ.

Eventually, Augustine took a prestigious job as a professor of rhetoric in Milan, Italy. He began to listen to the preaching of the great Ambrose, bishop of Milan. One day, as he sat in a garden, he heard a child in a neighboring garden shouting out some words he thought were part of a game—tolle lege (pick up and read). It triggered something in his mind. He picked up a copy of the New Testament that was lying on a table and opened it at Romans 13:14: “But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” He felt that God had spoken to him as directly as he had heard the child’s voice. He did exactly what the text said. He trusted in Christ. The old way of life was now gone. He found the rest in God for which he then knew he had been created. From then on, he would be the devoted servant of Jesus Christ. His thinking and writing in many ways determined the course of the history of Christian theology, right through to the Reformation.

One of the most fascinating statements in The Confessions is a comment Augustine made about Ambrose. He was describing the time in his life when he came to Milan. What was it that impressed him about the bishop? He tells us in his prayer-soliloquy to God: “I began to like him, at first indeed not as a teacher of the truth, for I had absolutely no confidence in your Church, but as a human being who was kind to me. . . . Nevertheless, gradually, though I did not realize it, I was drawing closer.”

Justin Martyr was brought to Christ by an otherwise unknown elderly Christian taking a quiet walk along the shore; Augustine came to faith through an eloquent bishop’s kindness and a mother’s prayers. Justin’s name lives on in the history of the church—but the old man who pointed him to Christ is forgotten. Many Christians are familiar with the name of Augustine. Fewer know the name of his mother or the name of his minister, Ambrose.

There is a pattern and a lesson here. As we read the lives of men and women who have been strategically used by Christ in building His kingdom, we note that the names of those through whom they were brought to faith in Jesus Christ are often forgotten or lost. But their significance is incalculable. God delights to use the hidden and the forgotten.

This is, surely, a tremendous encouragement to people like us who live our Christian lives in relative obscurity. We do not expect to find our names in any church history book. And yet, it may be that someone to whom we are kind because we love Jesus will be taken up and extraordinarily used by God to build the church of Jesus Christ.

Faithfulness is far more significant than fame when Jesus is building His church.


Excerpt adapted from In the Year of Our Lord by Sinclair B. Ferguson, © 2018, pp. 41–46.

Kindness and Patience as a Witness

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