So what do I tell a new Christian to do? (Cyprian’s 120 Instructions)

“The grace of God ought to be gratuitous.”
– Cyprian
 (third-century Christian bishop)

I am a Discipleship Pastor, which means I am a Pastor Pastor, because the entire pastoral vocation consists in guiding people in the way of faithful Christian discipleship. I have often wondered what other churches do. I have talked to other church leaders in other churches and other denominations about how they do discipleship (which they may call “adult education,” “spiritual formation,” or “catechesis.”) I enjoy learning from other Christians.

But I wonder how they did discipleship in the early church, that is, in the first couple hundred years of the church? Surely pastors living in the 200s and 300s had similar questions to mine. We know we are called to make disciples, but how do we go about doing it? What am I, as as a disciple-making pastor, supposed to tell a new Christian to do?

Cyprian, third-century bishop of Carthage

A few weeks ago I had the privilege of meeting, and listening to a few lectures from, Alan Kreider, a retired Professor of Church History and Mission from Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary. He introduced me to an interesting, and often overlooked, bit of church history from Cyprian, a third-century North African bishop (think local church pastor) in Carthage. During his life as a bishop Cyprian wrote a number of essays and letters instructing people in the way of Jesus. One of these essay/letters was written to a man named Quirinus, a man Cyprian was mentoring in the faith. The letter (formally called  Ad Quirinum Book Three) was written to Quirinus in request for a summary of the main instructions and teachings of the Christian faith. Kreider said this letter was an example of how the church in one area of the world carried out discipleship (what Kreider calls “habitus formation,” forming people in Christian habits).

Cyprian organized his remarks into 120 instructions, or precepts, concerning what to embrace and what to forsake in following Jesus. He counseled his young disciple to memorize and follow this in order to live as a Christian. Each instruction was followed by a few verses of Scripture, which were to be memorized as well. The 120 instructions are not necessarily organized by exact topics, but I agree with Andy Alexis-Baker, there is “some discernible order” in what Cyprian has to say. I have created general subheadings to make it easier to read through the list. (See the complete list below.)

The value in listening to voices from the past, like Cyprian, is first and foremost to learn. What were the points of emphasis in this church, at this time in history, in this geographical location? What am I missing in how I teach and train new disciples in my day? What issues were Christians then facing 1700 years ago? How is it similar or different to what we are facing now? Learning from the ancients is an acknowledgment that we living in the present day do not have it all figured out. I was surprised to note how many of these instructions (precepts) seemed so applicable today. Here, for example, are some that stood out to me:

# 26 That it is of small account to be baptized and to receive the Eucharist, unless one profits by it both in deeds and works.
(It seems like their church struggled with people “going through the motions” of worship and not necessarily living it out just like ours.)

# 32 Of the benefit of virginity and of sexual restraint.
(I continue to say sexual ethics may be the most difficult part of Christian discipleship in our generation. Maybe we are not alone in the struggle of leading people to rethink/reform their sexuality in the light of Christ.)

#35 That God is patient for this end, that we may repent of our sin and be reformed.
(The patience of God, the necessity of repentance, and the centrality of Christian formation…all dominate themes in how I do discipleship.)

#39 That the example of living is given to us in Christ.
(The essence of Christian discipleship is we follow Jesus by doing what he does. We find our life in his life. The Spirit is at work reforming us so our life looks like his life.)

#49 That even our enemies are to be loved.
(“Enemy-love” which is the cornerstone of Christian nonviolence was carried on in the church two centuries after Christ. Jesus loved his enemies from the cross, choosing not to retaliate. We are to do the same.)

# 58 That no one should be made sad by death, since in living is labor and peril, in dying peace and the certainty of resurrection.
(No reference to “going to heaven” and “avoiding hell” anywhere in Cyprian’s instructions. The great hope after death is the expectation of bodily resurrection.)

#84 That the beard must not be plucked.
(Ok, so some of the instructions seem rather cultural than deeply theological…although I am pro-beard!)

#94 That the Eucharist is to be received with fear and honor.
(The only worship-related or sacramental elements mentioned by Cyprian are baptism and communion. Here holy communion was held in high esteem.)

# 100 That the grace of God ought to be gratuitous.
(We cannot say enough about grace. This line would make a great T-shirt by the way.)

Some of the instructions touch on controversial issue today like the necessity of baptism and the born again experience (#25), losing the grace of salvation (#27), women’s fashion (#36), free will (#27), baptismal regeneration (#65), church discipline (#77), church splits (#86), the Holy Spirit’s fire (#101), and the antichrist (#118).

Below is the complete list. I have added the subheadings to help you navigate through the text. This list is based on the English translation by Ernest Wallis, Ph.D. I have changed some of the English text for fluency. I also added a few parenthetical statements to make some of the statements more clear. Read over this list and ask yourself:

What can I learn about the Jesus way by reading this list of 120 instructions?  

What confirms what I already believe about Christian discipleship?

What challenges me?

What have I been missing as I attempt to faithfully follow Jesus?

Cyprian’s 120 Instructions
from Ad Quirinum Book Three

Giving to Those in Need
1. Of the benefit of good works and mercy.

2. In works and alms, even if by smallness of powerless be done, that the will itself is enough.

3. That charity and brotherly love must be religiously and steadfastly practiced.

4. That we must boast in nothing, since nothing is our own.

5. That humility and quietness is to be maintained in all things.

6. That all good and righteous men suffer more, but ought to endure because they are proved.

7. That we must not grieve the Holy Spirit whom we have received.

8. That anger must be overcome, lest it constrain us to sin.

Community Life
9. That brethren ought to sustain one another.

10. That we must trust in God only, and in Him we must glory.

11. That he who has attained to faith, having put off the former man, ought to regard only celestial and spiritual things, and to give no heed to the world which he has already renounced.

12. That we must not swear.

13. That we are not to curse.

14. That we must never murmur, but bless God concerning all things that happen.

15. That men are tried by God for this purpose, that they may be proved.

Martyrdom, Suffering, & Nonviolence (Revisisted)
16. Of the benefit of martyrdom.

17. That what we suffer in this world is of less account than is the reward which is promised.

18. That nothing must be preferred to the love of God and of Christ.

19. That we must not obey our own will, but that of God.

20. That the foundation and strength of hope and faith is fear.

21. That we must not rashly judge of another.

22. That when we have received a wrong, we must remit and forgive it.

23. That evil is not to be returned for evil.

Salvation through Jesus
24. That it is impossible to attain to the Father but by Christ.

25. That unless a man have been baptized and born again, he cannot attain to the kingdom of God.

26. That it is of small account to be baptized and to receive the Eucharist, unless one profits by it both in deeds and works.

27. That even a baptized person loses the grace which he has attained, unless he keep innocence.

28. That remission cannot in the Church be granted unto him who has sinned against God (i.e. God the Holy Spirit).

29. That it was before predicted concerning the hatred of the Name.

Judgment & Christian Morality
30. That what any one has vowed to God, he must quickly pay.

31. That he who does not believe is judged already.

32. Of the benefit of virginity and of sexual restraint.

33. That the Father judges nothing, but the Son; and the Father is not honored by him by whom the Son is not honored.

34. That the believer ought not to live like the Gentiles.

35. That God is patient for this end, that we may repent of our sin and be reformed.

36. That a woman ought not to be adorned in a worldly manner.

37. That the believer ought not to be punished for other offences but for the name he bears only.

38. That the servant of God ought to be innocent, lest he fall into secular punishment.

39. That the example of living is given to us in Christ.

40. That we must not labor boastfully or noisily.

41. That we must not speak foolishly and offensively.

42. That faith is of advantage altogether, and that we can do as much as we believe.

43. That he who truly believes can immediately obtain (e.g. obtain pardon and peace).

44. That the believers who differ among themselves ought not to refer to a Gentile judge.

45. That hope is of future things, and therefore that faith concerning those things which are promised ought to be patient.

46. That a woman ought to be silent in the church.

Sin & Christian Morality (Revisited)
47. That (sin) arises from our fault and our desert that we suffer, and do not perceive God’s help in everything.

48. That we must not take usury (i.e. exorbitant interest on money loaned to another).

49. That even our enemies are to be loved.

50. That the sacrament of the faith must not be profaned.

51. That no one should be uplifted in his doing.

Human Responsibility & Hope
52. That the liberty of believing or of not believing is placed in free choice.

53. That the secrets of God cannot be seen through, and therefore that our faith ought to be simple.

54. That none is without filth and without sin.

55. That we must not please men, but God.

56. That nothing that is done is hidden from God.

57. That the believer is amended (i.e. punished for sin) and reserved (i.e. preserved in mercy).

58. That no one should be made sad by death, since in living is labor and peril, in dying peace and the certainty of resurrection.

Idolatry & Sin (Revisited)
59. Of the idols which the Gentiles think are gods (turn from them).

60. That too great lust of food is not to be desired.

61. That the lust of possessing, and money, are not to be desired.

62. That marriage is not to be contracted with Gentiles.

63. That the sin of fornication is grievous.

64. What are those carnal things which beget death, and what are the spiritual things which lead to life.

65. That all sins are put away in baptism.

66. That the discipline of God is to be observed in Church precepts.

67. That it was foretold that men would despise sound discipline.

68. That we must depart from him who lives irregularly and contrary to discipline.

69. That the kingdom of God is not in the wisdom of the world, nor in eloquence, but in the faith of the cross and in virtue of conversation.

Family & Work Life
70. That we must obey parents.

71. And that fathers ought not to be bitter against their children.

72. That servants, when they believe, ought the more to be obedient to their fleshly masters.

73. Likewise that masters ought to be more gentle.

74. That every widow that is approved ought to be honored.

75. That every person ought to have care rather of his own people, and especially of believers.

76. That one who is older must not rashly be accused.

Social Relationships
77. That the sinner is to be publicly reproved.

78. That we must not speak with heretics.

79. That innocence asks with confidence, and obtains (from God).

80. That the devil has no power against man unless God have allowed it.

81. That wages be quickly paid to the hireling.

82. That divination must not be used.

Moral Codes Regarding Men’s Hair
83. That a tuft of hair is not to be worn on the head.

84. That the beard must not be plucked.

Church Life
85. That we must rise when a bishop or a presbyter comes.

86. That a schism must not be made, even although he who withdraws should remain in one faith and in the same tradition.

87. That believers ought to be simple with prudence.

88. That a brother must not be deceived.

89. That the end of the world comes suddenly.

More Moral Codes
90. That a wife must not depart from her husband; or if she departs, she must remain unmarried.

91. That every one is tempted so much as he is able to bear.

92. That not everything is to be done which is lawful.

93. That it was foretold that heresies would arise.

94. That the Eucharist is to be received with fear and honor.

95. That we are to live with the good, but to avoid the evil.

96. That we must labor with deeds, not with words.

97. That we must hasten to faith and to attainment.

98. That the catechumen (i.e. the one preparing for baptism) ought to sin no more.

99. That judgment will be in accordance with the terms, before the law, of equity; after Moses, of the law.

100. That the grace of God ought to be gratuitous.

Strange Fire?
101. That the Holy Spirit has often appeared in fire.

Serving, Correcting, Building Up One Another
102. That all good men ought willingly to hear rebuke.

103. That we must abstain from much speaking.

104. That we must not lie.

105. That they (i.e. children) are frequently to be corrected who do wrong in domestic service.

106. That when a wrong is received, patience is to be maintained, and that vengeance is to be left to God.

107. That we must not use detraction (i.e. in our love for one another).

108. That we must not lay snares against our neighbor.

109. That the sick are to be visited.

110. That tale-bearers are accursed.

111. That the sacrifices of evil men are not acceptable.

112. That those are more severely judged who in this world have more power.

113. That widows and orphans ought to be protected.

114. That while one is in the flesh, he ought to make confession.

115. That flattery is pernicious.

Love for God
116. That God is more loved by him who has had many sins forgiven in baptism.

Conquering the devil
117. That there is a strong conflict to be waged against the devil, and that therefore we ought to stand bravely, that we may be able to conquer.

Eschatology (Revisited)
118. Of Antichrist, that he will come as a man.

Following Jesus & Prayer
119. That the yoke of the law was heavy, which is cast off by us; and that the Lord’s yoke is light, which is taken up by us.

120. That we are to be urgent in prayers.