When arguments about salvation arise between Catholics and Protestants, the Bibles are usually opened to Galatians and Romans. Are we saved by faith alone or are works involved? Protestants quickly accuse Catholics of teaching a salvation based on works and Catholics quickly point out that Protestants have swung the pendulum too far in the other direction by refusing to accept human cooperation and obedience as necessary to the process.
Raphael - st paul
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As final proof of their point, Protestants will quote Romans 3:28: “For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law.” That should end the argument right? Salvation is not by good works or obedience, but by faith alone?
So, the combatants rush to the books of Galatians and Romans to solve this Catholic-Protestant disagreement. But there is a huge problem here. Paul did not write these letters to us and he knew nothing of the Catholic-Protestant debate. The huge problem we have is the problem of anachronism.
Do you know what the word “anachronism” means? According to the Collins English Dictionary it comes from a Greek word for “mistake in chronology” or “error in time reference”. Anachronistic is defined as “1. the representation of an event, person, or thing in a historical context in which it could not have occurred or existed; 2. a person or thing that belongs or seems to belong to another time.”
The problem is that when Paul wrote these two letters he was not writing them to us today. He was writing to the Gentiles and Jews of the first century. He didn’t know about the Catholic–Protestant debate. He was not writing to Germans like Martin Luther or Americans like us.
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Paul was writing to people two thousand years ago living in places like Iconium, Pamphylia, Lystra, Galatia and Rome. They were not having a raging Protestant–Catholic debate. These good folks were having a Jewish–Gentile debate which was a whole world away. To read our current situation back into Asia Minor, Palestine, and Europe of the first century is a classic case of anachronism.
Paul preached that uncircumcised gentiles could be saved without circumcision and a slavish obedience to the 613 laws of Moses–along with all the ceremonial rituals. Some Jewish believers, on the other hand said, “Jesus is the Jewish Messiah and if you want to become a Christian you must become a Jew first.”
They couldn’t have said it any clearer than in Acts 15:1: “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” They want to impose the “works of the Law” referred to above in Romans 3:28 upon the gentiles. It had nothing whatever to do with Catholics and good works. It has to with Gentiles coming into the Body of Christ by faith and obedience, not by becoming circumcised Jews.
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Abraham, the father of the Jews, was the prime example or case in point. Was he saved by circumcision and by obeying all the laws of Moses? Heavens no! He was saved while an uncircumcised pagan gentile living in Ur of the Chaldees, a thousand miles to east of Israel.
Circumcision was only given as a sign of the covenant, not the means of salvation. And he did not obey the 613 laws of Moses since they would not even exist for another six hundred years or so. Abraham was saved by the grace of God and his belief and obedience and not by “the works of the Law” (See Romans 4 and James 2).
This is exactly what Catholics teach! We are not anachronistic. We understand Galatians and Romans within their proper chronology. Paul wrote to that particular age and culture with its particular problems. We live in a different age and culture with different particular problems.
But, even though Paul didn’t specifically write his letters to us, if we study the cultural climate in which they were written, and stay faithful to the tradition in which they were passed on to us, the Holy Spirit (the primary author of the letters) will help us apply the principles and truth of those letters to our current situation.
By the way, can you imagine how difficult evangelism would have been in the first century if every male who believed in Christ had to be circumcised? They would have asked Paul “You want us to cut off what?”

This Post Has 11 Comments

  1. judy kley

    dear steve and group: despite the rain, the countryside and your trip is going beautifully…i am so enjoying watching you day to day… I am sure Teresa will have lots to say about the trip and all its small little miracles…..enjoy …we are praying for you….
    judy kley

  2. John R. Payne

    Thank you. This is very helpful. I am a Lutheran, and there has always appeared to me to be a contradiction between Paul’s doctrine of justification and the book of James, which I assume is why Luther was suspicious of James. Which is curious, because a foundational Lutheran premise for determining doctrine is that scripture interprets itself. So it makes sense in light of James, as well as the instructions of Christ to do good works, and the many other scriptures in both old and new testaments that point to a judgment based on works, that Paul must not be referring to obedience to God when he refers to
    “works of the law.”
    Lutherans speak much of Law and Gospel; all scripture can be divided into law or gospel. The main purpose of the law is to accuse us and convict us of sin, that we might repent and turn to Christ for salvation. If you look at the hymn “Salvation Unto Us Has Come” (Lutheran Service Book 555) you see the Lutheran theology of works and salvation by grace in a nutshell.
    I could write more but it makes my head hurt!

  3. Jill

    I have a brother who is into this Hebrew Roots theology, that God’s laws are forever, that Jesus did not come to abolish the law, that not one jot or tittle will pass away until all heaven and earth pass away. He focuses much on food laws and Sabbath and feast keeping.
    But it occurred to me that, just as circumcision would make sharing the Gospel difficult if it were necessary, the food laws would, too. Imagine the closed hearts if one were to take the Gospel to a country where weird sea creatures were regular fare, and you, the evangelist, sat down to eat with a family, say, and you turned up your nose at the food on your plate. As a mom who gets a bit bent out of shape by picky eaters, I can guarantee you that I would be as interested in your “gospel” as you are in my fried octopus: NOT.
    Jesus told his apostles to eat what was set before them, and one could be pretty certain that those foods in the countries to which they traveled would often be not kosher. At that dinner table, with the fried octopus on the plate, it would not be what went in the stomach that would make one unclean, but rather what came out of the mouth.

  4. Caleb

    Great post! How I wish you can come to Houston and give a talk!!!

  5. Chris Fleming

    Dear J. R. Payne,
    How can you come to the conclusion that scripture is self-interpreting? Today there are
    thousands of Christian churches. Each with some doctrines that conflict with each other. Going
    on the idea of self-interpreting scripture, the only conclusion would be that scripture is
    flawed given that it produces so many differing doctrines.
    Also if scripture is self-interpreting, why did the Holy Spirit tell Philip to go to the eunuch and Philip explained the scriptures to him. The eunuch having said, “How can I understand it without someone to explain it to me?” Acts 8:31
    And why did Stephen bother to explain to the Jewish leaders who were well versed in scripture, how the scripture foretold who Jesus was? Acts 7
    And why did the boy Jesus bother discussing scripture with the Jewish teachers? Luke 2:46

  6. De Maria

    I believe that St. James and St. Paul agreed. But I don’t think they did so intentionally. I think they wound up agreeing because their Teaching was protected by the Holy Spirit. Just like the infallible Catholic Church is protected from error by the Holy Spirit today. (You can read more about that drama, here)
    In the meantime, did St. Paul and St. James, agree on justification?
    Yes. These two verses show that both St. Paul and St. James agreed in the idea of justification by works.
    Romans 2:13 For not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified.
    James 1:22 But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves.
    But those aren’t the verses which we normally compare. We normally compare these two:
    Romans 3:28 Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.
    James 2:24 Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.
    Sooo, what’s the problem here? Is St. Paul contradicting himself. Let’s compare these two statements.
    Romans 2:13 For not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified.
    Romans 3:28 Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.
    St. Paul contradicting St. James is the least of our worries. Does St. Paul contradict himself?!
    Thanks be to God that a long time ago, I learned that the key to understanding Scripture is to FIRST understand the Doctrines of the Catholic Church. You see, the Doctrines of the Catholic Church are based upon the Traditions of Jesus Christ. And it is upon these Traditions that the Apostles based their writings.
    In Romans 2:13, St. Paul is speaking about the final justification when we stand before the Just Judge. Scripture says:
    Rev 22:12 And, behold, I come quickly; and my reward is with me, to give every man according as his work shall be.
    In Romans 3:28, St. Paul is speaking about the justification which occurs in the Sacraments. Scripture says:
    Mark 16:16 He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.
    St. Paul wasn’t contradicting himself. And St. Paul didn’t contradict St. James. Although that is precisely what I think St. James was thinking. That’s why he made him shave his head. You’ll have to read the bible to find out more about that.
    Anyway, this is a really interesting topic. But I think it also explains why Martin Luther got confused.
    Let me know if you agree.
    De Maria

  7. Luke Lancaster

    I’m confused, I thought we were justified in Baptism, but Paul said here, “justified by faith”. Can someone explain?
    STEVE RAY HERE: It is both-&. Baptism is the sacrament of faith.

  8. Luke Lancaster

    Thank You Steve!

  9. KeithHarvy

    hi steve..how can I response to a baptist about works is the product of faith and not faith and works for salvation..

  10. John Rowse

    Hi Steve,
    May I offer a very late response to your post of October 6, 2016, on Romans 3:28?
    The context of 3:28 requires that the writer has the same works, or works of the law, in mind as he has …
    (a) in 3:19-21, where already-circumcised Jews cannot be justified by works of the law, and why not? Because they were not circumcised, etc.? No, it was because they were not doers of God’s moral law: the issue was their failure to seek God (11), and to do good (12); it was their deceiving (13), cursing, bitter (14), and murderous (15) character. They have no fear of God (v18). What is missing among them is the circumcised heart commanded by the law (2:25-29). They are circumcised BUT break the law (2:27), the very “written code” they are privileged to have – e.g. they steal (2:21). In this context, when he speaks of works of the law, he is speaking of the works commanded by that written code, the good as against the evil, such as stealing. THAT is why the circumcised, too, cannot be justified by works of the law. Even among the circumcised, no-one obeys the moral law; no-one has the righteousness – or innocence – required by the law for eternal life (2:7 – cf Lk 10:25-28). This is the law that, far from being our pathway to innocence and life, just lifts the lid on our defiant, uncircumcised hearts (3:20; cf 7:13, where it is especially the last of the ten commandments that “killed” the old Paul, Saul). This is why righteousness has to be sourced “apart from the law”(21), and why the circumcised, too, need to be “justified freely by his grace as a gift”(24), “by faith apart from works of the law” (v28).
    … and (b) in his summary of the judgment (2:6-13). The subject under discussion in 3:28 is how to be justified, since in 2:6-13 it is not the circumcised as against the uncircumcised who are justified. No. For circumcised and uncircumcised alike, the judgment is made “according to works” (2:6). What sort of works? Is it merely “works” in the sense of ethnic markers, without which the Judaizers of Galatians were insisting you can’t be saved? We are given the answer clearly: it is the “patience in well-doing” (as against the self-seeking, defying the truth and obeying unrighteousness) of 2:7-8; it is the good-working (as against evil working) of 2:9-10. It is the good-working of “the Jew first and also the Greek” (3:9), as against the evil-working of “the Jew first and also the Greek” (3:10). These are the “works” according to which judgment will be passed. In 2:13, it is the “doers of the law” (i.e. these good-working ones – as against mere hearers of the law) “who will be justified”.
    But 3:9-20 shows us that there is no such man on earth. Hence there is a desperate need for another way of being judged to be righteous. Our only hope is a righteousness that comes “apart from the law” in 3:20 – i.e. apart from the requirements of the law for justification and life given in 2:6-13. Romans 3:28, in that case, is saying that a person is justified by faith apart from THAT “good-working” required by the law for eternal life according to 2:7 – that good-working required by the law that Paul upholds! (3:31).
    As well as looking at what has led up to Ro.3:28, we should look forward to how he spells out this statement in the following verses, with reference to Abraham and David. In 4:6-8, David explains what it means to him to have God count righteousness to him “apart from works”. Is he so excited about his “blessed” state because the uncircumcision of his body was covered (by his clothes?), or because his moral uncircumcision was covered? He was already circumcised when he spoke. Was it, perhaps, because of breaches of the food laws that, as he goes on to say in Psalm 32, while he was deceitful and tried to hide it, his “bones wasted away through [his] groaning all day long”? What lawless deeds were forgiven, covered or not counted? Was it exclusively ceremonial uncleanness that was not counted, while his moral lawlessness, such his adultery and murder, was still counted against him?
    Read in context, Romans 3:28 is saying that a person is justified by faith apart from obedience of God’s good commands. That cannot exclude the ten commandments or their foundation, the first and second great commandments of love for God and neighbour.
    I look forward to your response.
    John Rowse.

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