Give me the bad news first
Works matter. No doubt about it. And any evangelical worth his or her salt (Matthew 5:13) will tell you that. Are we saved by faith alone? Absolutely. And any Catholic who honestly wrestles with all the verses that say so might find that they have to agree.
I’ve been evaluating, dissecting, assessing and refuting an argument by apologist Karl Keating for the Catholic doctrine of salvation which he presented in answer to a caller to Catholic Answers Live. Today I want to look at the next passage he cites, to demonstrate that though works matter, they don’t count.
So, maybe we’ll look at Romans 2:6. “He will award to every man what his acts have deserved. Eternal life to those who have striven for glory and honor and immortality by persevering in doing good, the retribution of his anger to those who are contumacious, rebelling against truth and paying homage to wickedness.”
Contumacious?! Whoa…had to look that one up. As I mentioned previously, Keating is using a Catholic Bible translated by one Msgr. Ronald Knox. Here’s how my ESV has Romans 2:6-8.
He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury.
Mr. Keating doesn’t follow up with a comment on this particular passage, but what he is hoping to establish with these verses and others is, as he says further on in his apology, that “faith in Christ by itself is not enough to guarantee salvation,” so we cannot have assurance of it because only if we “live the way he commands us to live” will we be saved.
So what follows is my comment on this passage, with which I hope to establish that faith in Christ alone IS “enough to guarantee salvation,” so we CAN have assurance because it is only “by grace [we] have been saved through faith” and “if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.”
Paul’s letter to the Romans is often contrasted with the book of James because of their prima facie contradictory views on the role of works in salvation. James says, “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” And thence the apparent contradictory position in Romans is that we are justified not by our works but by faith alone. Martin Luther is famously reported to have “detested” the book of James “because it had been written against Paul’s doctrine of faith as the sole necessity in salvation.”(1)
If Paul’s presented doctrine is that of sola fide, what’s this about being judged by God “according to [our] works” when in the very next chapter he says, “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law”? Is his magnum opus that is the Epistle to the Romans actually self-contradictory? Of course not, but that’s what Catholics like Karl Keating inadvertently imply when they cherrypick verses like Romans 2:6 to the exclusion of chapters 3 and following, and insist that they argue against salvation by faith alone.
So the apparent contradictions need to and can be reconciled into one coherent doctrine. My understanding may or may not be correct, but it is coherent. Judge for yourself if it is also the most plausible.
I begin by juxtaposing a few verses.
to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; – Romans 2:7
For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. – Romans 2:12
for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, – Romans 3:23
Is it reasonable to believe that there are any who have lead sinless lives and to whom then God will give eternal life because of their “well-doing”?
as it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” – Romans 3:10-12
None is righteous; all have sinned; all are under judgment. Who are those “patient in well-doing” who get to skip the judgment and go immediately into eternal life on that basis? It sounds like there can’t be any. I believe they are merely hypothetical individuals. Maybe Paul is saying, if you can do it…if you can perfectly keep the commandments of God, then you will have earned, on your own merits, the right to eternal life. Jesus with the rich, young ruler in Luke 18 was similarly referencing the standard which if met would allow one to “inherit eternal life.”
But of course Jesus and Paul both knew no one can. We all “come short.” Paul reminded the Galatians as well of God’s perfect standard and the consequences of not measuring up.
For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” – Galatians 3:10
But the law was necessary to expose our sin and need for a Savior, and lead us to him.
So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. – Galatians 3:24
To summarize, in the first two and a half chapters of Romans Paul is giving the bad news that we all, Jew and Gentile, stand condemned before God because none of us can perfectly keep the law. And to the Jews more bad news because they thought being his chosen people gave them a pass. Uh-uh.
Then in 3:21 he introduces the good news, the Gospel, that we can be saved by simply putting our faith and trust in the Savior. And not just good but great, in light of the bad.
But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, – Romans 3:21-24
So in Romans and elsewhere Paul makes it clear that works matter because God has given us a standard, which is his own moral perfection, and commands us to live up to it. But they don’t count because we can’t do it. We all sin and no amount of good deeds can cancel out the bad.
The Good News, however, does.
(1) Richard Marius, Martin Luther, the Christian Between God and Death (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999), p.353