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
Did you actually take my advice about retitling the series? Wow, thanks. 🙂
I won’t give you a long screed this morning. But I would point out that you are presuming a priori that Paul’s doctrine is “sola fide” — when this is something he never says at all. You are just as guilty of “cherry-picking” verses, pitting the context of one against another, as you suppose Keating is. Where does Paul actually say that anything is done “by faith alone”?
I think you are leaving out the conclusion of Paul’s argument. Yes, this is the Bad News in Chapter 2. But what he says is nonetheless what he says: just because “our works” are not up to snuff does not abrogate that, in fact, “God will render to each according to his works.” He never says this isn’t the case: only that it’s hard, on account of our inability to keep the Law. So what solution does he propose? Romans 3 is just the beginning of his argument.
I won’t take the time to go through the whole thing according to the Catholic understanding today. But the climax is Chapter 8. As a Protestant, I usually read “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (8:1) and stopped there. “Wow,” I said. “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus!” I won’t be condemned for my sins! If I kept reading at all, I read verse 2: “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set me free from the law of sin and death.” “Wow! I’ve been set free from the Law of sin and death!” But when I opened my eyes and actually read the whole thing, I found it to be a pretty stunning statement against my Protestant suppositions. “We can’t keep the law,” I always heard, “so Jesus’s righteousness is substituted for ours.” But that’s not actually what this says.
In fact, why is there now no condemnation? Why have we been set free from the law of sin and death by the law of the Spirit of life in Jesus Christ?
For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.
He condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us. In other words, I read as a Protestant, he’s talking about substitution. But no, he says, the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, by walking according to the Spirit. He is saying that living by the Spirit sets us free from being bound by the law of sin! Yes, “all have sinned” — but living by the Spirit of Christ gives us power over sin — power to fulfill the just requirement of the law.
This passage, read in parallel with say, Galatians 5, where Paul says, “Walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh,” makes clear that what Paul is offering is not merely Jesus’s righteousness as a substitute, so we don’t have to be judged for our sins, but Jesus’s righteousness as a victory, so that we don’t have to be bound by sin. Protestants read a bleak picture of sin, death, and condemnation and call it “good news” — but they stop short of the actual “good news”!
I won’t drone on and on. I haven’t even had my coffee yet! Peace be with you!
No, as I said in my response on a previous post, I changed the title because the repetition was getting boring. And in case you were wondering, Joseph, I will be responding to this and your other comments. Your comments are obviously well-thought-out and I want my responses to be the same, but you apparently need less time than I to ponder before putting your thoughts down. And I’ve got other things on my plate as well. Frankly, I’m beginning to wish you had heeded your previous inclination: “I think I’m going to have to avoid your blog.” 🙂
Hahaha. I should probably follow my own advice. I have a big exam next week I need to bring studying for anyway. I will back off for a few days and let you have a life. 🙂
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As I said to you previously, the charge that because Paul never used the term “by faith alone” in his teaching is evidence that he didn’t believe in sola fide is without merit. He repeatedly contrasted faith with works, as I addressed here, so to conclude that he always had in mind that works are also required because he didn’t say “alone” is a fantastic assumption. This charge is especially hollow coming from Catholics who find in Scripture all kinds of implied support for their unique doctrines.
“He never says this isn’t the case: only that it’s hard,”
No, it’s not hard, it’s impossible. That’s what Paul was talking about in Romans 7:14-25, right before he gives the Great News that those who are “in Christ Jesus” are not condemned.
Your conclusion from Romans 8 that, “He is saying that living by the Spirit sets us free from being bound by the law of sin!” is a misunderstanding and mis-crediting of our freedom from sin.
For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. – Romans 8:2-4
It is not “living by the Spirit” that sets us free, but God, through the sacrifice and death of Jesus, who sets us free so that we can resist sin and live righteously. If you had read past verse 4 😉 you would have read the following:
For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. – Romans 8:7-9
If we are born again we have the Holy Spirit and are “not in the flesh.” And Romans 8:11 – “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.”
If p, then q. If we are born again, then we will have life. And in the context of this chapter as well as the whole book, I think it’s safe to say he’s referring to eternal life with Christ in Heaven.
So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. – Romans 8:12-13
We are debtors. God has redeemed us and now we belong to him, as a debtor in the Old Testament would sell himself to someone as a slave.
Romans 6:22 – But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life.
Exodus 21:6 – then his master shall bring him to God, and he shall bring him to the door or the doorpost. And his master shall bore his ear through with an awl, and he shall be his slave forever.
Jesus paid the debt we owed and now we belong to God as slaves forever, as one of the family, as children.
For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. – Romans 8:14-17
(Other translations have “if so be that” we suffer with him, which I take to mean, though we may suffer here, we will ultimately share his glory. “Provided” makes it sound like suffering is a requirement for salvation, which doesn’t fit with the rest of Paul’s teaching.)
So, yes, sin no longer has a hold on us when we believe, are born again, are in Christ. But we still can choose to submit ourselves to sin and that is what Paul is exhorting the believers not to do.
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Thank you, Tom.
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