How Works Work
How can Catholics claim “works” are necessary for salvation for Christians who have reached the age of accountability when Romans 3:28 says:
For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law.
Romans 4:5 says:
And to one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness.
And Ephesians 2:8-9 says:
For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God — not because of works, lest any man should boast.
On the surface, these texts may sound problematic, but once we examine their respective contexts, the problems go away rather quickly. First, let’s take a look at the context surrounding Romans 3:28. St. Paul had already made very clear in Romans 2:6-7 that good works are necessary for eternal life, at least in one sense:
For [God] will render to every man according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life…
One of the problems in Rome St. Paul was dealing with was a very prominent heresy known to us today as the “Judaizer” heresy. Those attached to this sect taught belief in Christ and obedience to the New Covenant was not enough to be saved. One had to keep the Law of Moses, especially circumcision, in order to merit heaven.
The problem with this teaching, of course, is, among other things, according to Hebrews 7:11-12, the old law has passed away in Christ:
Now if perfection had been attainable through the Levitical priesthood (for under it the people received the law), what further needtwould there have been for another priest to arise after the order of Melchiz’edek, rather than one named after the order of Aaron? For when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well.
According to this text, the law of Moses had passed away with the advent of Christ. Moreover, according to St. Paul, Christians are under the new law, or “the law of Christ,” not the old.
To those outside the law I became as one outside the law — not being without law toward God but under the law of Christ — that I might win those outside the law (I Cor. 9:21).
For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set me free from the law of sin and death (Romans 8:2).
This is not to say that we have now exchanged one list of rules for another and if we follow a list of rules, apart from grace, we can be saved. Absolutely not! Following the letter of the law, even the new law, cannot save because as St. Paul says in II Cor. 3:6:
[God] has qualified us to be ministers of a new covenant, not in a written code but in the Spirit; for the written code kills, but the Spirit gives life.
We are bound to follow “the law of Christ” as St. Paul said in I Cor. 9:21, but we must understand that we are saved by grace through the instruments of faith and obedience. That obedience includes keeping the Ten Commandments, but the keeping of the commandments is an instrument—a necessary instrument—through which the grace of God flows and keeps us in Christ, the principle of reward for us. Thus, we have to keep the commandments to be saved, but we understand it is only through grace that we can do so.
At any rate, there is a great description of what was happening in the early church with these “Judaizers” in Acts 15:1-2:
But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brethren, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” And when Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question.
Notice the emphasis on “circumcision” and the law of Moses? St. Paul’s epistle to the Romans is steeped in responses to the positions of these same “Judaizers.” It becomes obvious St. Paul has them in mind when he says in Romans 2:28-29:
For he is not a real Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical. He is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart, spiritual and not literal…
It is very interesting to note that this same St. Paul would tell us that the true “circumcision of Christ” is New Covenant baptism in Colossians 2:11-12.
At any rate, it is in the context of dealing with the “Judaizers” that St. Paul says we are “justified by faith apart from the works of law.” He did not eliminate works as necessary for salvation in any sense. He specified the works of law because these were the very works without which the Judaizers were claiming a person “cannot be saved.”
At this point our Protestant friends may point out that Romans 4:5 does not specify “works of law.” It simply says, “to him who does not work, but believes…” And even more, what do you do with Romans 7:6-7 where St. Paul uses the ninth and tenth commandments as his example of “the law” that has passed away and cannot save? This is talking about “the Ten Commandments!” Would the Catholic Church say the Ten Commandments have passed away with the advent of Christ?
But now we are discharged from the law, dead to that which held us captive, so that we serve not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit. What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet, if it had not been for the law, I should not have known sin. I should not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.”
How do we respond? First, it is true that St. Paul does not say works of law in Romans 4:5. But the context makes it very clear that St. Paul was referring to circumcision in particular and the same “works of law” he was referring to in Romans 3:28. Romans 3:28 down to Romans 4:5 represents one continuous thought in answering the Judaizers and their insistence upon circumcision and keeping the Old Covenant in order to be saved.
When it comes to Romans 7:6-7, we need to go a bit deeper in our response. St. Paul does use the ninth and tenth commandments as examples of “law” that cannot save us. St. Paul is using the example of the “Judaizers” to teach all of us a deeper truth about the nature of justification and works. The works that justify us (as we saw in Romans 2:6-7) are works done in Christ. When the “Judaizers” were insisting a return to the Old Covenant was necessary for salvation, they were, in essence, saying Christ and the New Covenant are not enough. And in so doing, they were ipso facto rejecting Jesus Christ and the New Covenant.
Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me.” The “Judaizers” were attempting to be justified apart from Christ. St. Paul’s main emphasis is that we can only perform salvific acts in Christ! If we are not “in Christ”, even our outwardly “righteous deeds” will never and can never merit eternal life.
In other words, the law, whether old or new, cannot save us apart from the grace of Christ. In fact, St. Paul goes beyond declaring the keeping of the law alone cannot save us. He even says, in I Cor. 13:3:
If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.
The truth is, it is the grace of Christ alone that saves us by our cooperating with that grace in fulfilling the “law of Christ.” This is precisely what St. Paul teaches in Galatians 3:2-3, 5:2-6. And take note how he writes concerning these same “Judaizers:”
Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law, or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh… (5:2) Now I Paul say to you that if you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who receives circumcision that he is bound to keep the whole law. You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit, by faith, we wait for the hope of righteousness (Gr. dikaiosune—justification). For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is of any avail, but faith working through love.
Notice St. Paul’s emphasis on our being in grace and our working through the Spirit and in Christ in order to remain in Christ. Back in Romans, St. Paul said it very similarly:
Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand and we rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God. (Romans 5:1-2)
In Romans 6:16, St. Paul goes on to tell us that after baptism (cf. Romans 6:3-4) obedience to Christ (that means good works!) leads us to justification while sin (that means bad works!) will lead us to death:
Do you not know that if you yield yourselves to any one as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death (Gr.—eis thanaton, “unto death”), or of obedience, which leads to righteousness (Gr.—eis dikaiosunen—unto justification).
Notice: St. Paul makes it very clear. Obedience leads to justification and eternal life while sin leads to eternal death (see also Romans 6:23). Thus, St. Paul’s emphasis is not just on works, but works done in and through the power of Christ. In Romans 8:1-14, St. Paul tells us in no uncertain terms that we must be in Christ and continuing to live our lives in Christ in order to do works that please God.
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus… who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit… and those who are in the flesh cannot please God… So, then, brethren, 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. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are the sons of God.
The key, again, is to remember St. Paul is emphasizing our continuing in Christ, or, in his grace or “kindness.” In Romans 11:22, he says it this way:
Note then the kindness and severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness; otherwise you too will be cut off.
Just so no one would get the wrong idea of what St. Paul was saying, it seems, he put it plain and simple in Galatians 5:19-21 and 6:7-9. There is no way we can get “justification by faith alone” that excludes works as necessary for justification in any and every sense if we read these texts carefully. St. Paul makes clear that if Christians allow themselves to be dominated by their “flesh,” or lower nature, they will not make it to heaven.
Now the works of the flesh are plain: immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing and the like. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God… (6:7) Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap. For he who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption (eternal death); but he who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. And let us not grow weary in well-doing, for in due season we shall reap, if we do not lose heart.
Here St. Paul teaches that through good works, or continuing to “sow to the Spirit,” we will be rewarded with eternal life, but only if we persevere.
Works in Ephesians 2:8-9:
For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God – not because of works, lest any man should boast.
Once again, context is going to be key. In verses 4-6 St. Paul had just said:
But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ… and raised us up with him…
Here St. Paul is talking about the initial grace of salvation or justification by which we Christians were raised from death unto life. The Catholic Church teaches in agreement with Scripture that this initial grace of salvation is entirely and absolutely unmerited.
My heavens, the Catholic Church baptizes babies! What more could she do to demonstrate this truth! What kind of works could a newborn baby have done to merit anything?
However, once that baby grows up and reaches the age of accountability, he must begin to “work out [his] own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in [him], both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12-13). Or, as St. Paul says in Ephesians 2:10—the very next verse after Eph. 2:8-9:
For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
St. Paul is in no way eliminating works in any sense, to be necessary for salvation; he is simply pointing out what the Catholic Church has taught for 2,000 years: there is nothing anyone can do before they enter into Christ that can justify them. But once a person enters into Christ… it’s a whole new ballgame (see Phil. 4:13; Rom. 2:6-7; Gal. 6:7-9, etc.).
In the final analysis, I believe the text that is about as plain as any text could be concerning works and justification is James 2:24—that is, it is about as plain as can be in telling us both that “faith alone” is insufficient for our justification, and that “works” are indeed necessary. Are we justified by faith? Certainly! By faith alone? No way! It’s both faith and works, according to Scripture.
You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.
Jesus says it similarly. Are we saved by faith in Jesus? Certainly! John 11:25:
I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.
Are we saved by faith alone? No way! In Matthew 19:16-19, Jesus himself said to a rich young man who had asked him what he needed to do to have eternal life:
… If you would enter life, keep the commandments… You shall not kill, You shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
Or, how about Matthew 12:36-37? Here, Jesus says:
I tell you, on the day of judgment men will render account for every careless word they utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.
That sounds like there is more to this justification thing than faith alone.
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