There has been much controversy over the years concerning St. Paul’s doctrine of how justification applies to faith and works. In this post, we will take a look at what St. Paul himself actually said about it, and will briefly try to reconcile a seeming contradiction.
St. Paul couldn’t have stated his position much more clearly than he did to the Galatians:
“We, who are Jews by nature and not sinners from among the Gentiles, [yet] who know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified” (Gal 2:15-16, NABRE).
In the Letter to the Romans, Paul writes that “all have sinned and are deprived of the glory of God. They are justified freely by his grace through the redemption in Christ Jesus” (Rom 3:23-24). “[T]he righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law” (Rom 3:21); “no human being will be justified in [God’s] sight by observing the law” (Rom 3:20). Paul pretty much makes it clear that there’s something greater at work than even the law … yet, he makes an interesting statement at the end of Romans 3:
“God is one and will justify the circumcised on the basis of faith and the uncircumcised through faith. Are we then annulling the law by this faith? Of course not! On the contrary, we are supporting the law” (Rom 3:30-31).
Didn’t Paul just deny the significance of the law? Apparently not. Yet he says that faith is so much greater than the law!
Yet, in Romans 2:13, he goes so far as to say that “For it is not those who hear the law who are just in the sight of God; rather, those who observe the law will be justified.” What is it, then, that ultimately justifies a person?
In its note on the heading to this part of Romans 2 (“Judgment by the Interior Law”), the New American Bible basically points out that St. Paul was referring to a given person’s understanding of the natural law. It discusses how God’s allowing the Gentiles an instinctive understanding of the natural law holds them accountable to the law, just not as much so as the Jews who had it revealed to them; in other words, the importance doesn’t lie in being privileged enough to have actually heard the law, but to have obeyed it to the best of one’s ability (see http://www.usccb.org/bible/romans/2#53002012-1).
The seeming quandary remains: no matter what law St. Paul was referring to, he still said that “those who observe the law will be justified.” How do we make sense of this?
I will quote at length something my Sacred Scripture class professor (Daniel Van Slyke) taught during my first semester of college:
“Catholic theology distinguishes between ‘condign merit’ and ‘congruous merit.’ Condign merit is merit ‘strictly speaking,’ and no man can strictly claim to merit anything from God. Congruous merit is the merit that God enables us to merit through an act of generosity and through taking the initiative by giving us the grace to merit at all. Nobody can claim condign merit, but Abraham is a preeminent example of who attained congruous merit. Congruous merit is almost more like the expectation of reward on the basis of promises made by God firmly held and believed and acted upon.”
When Dr. Van Slyke wrote this, he may have been referring to St. Paul’s argument regarding Abraham—that Abraham was an example of one who was made righteous by his faith in God outside the law (see Rom 4:13-25).
My understanding of this, of how we can reconcile the seeming contradiction in Paul’s doctrine on justification versus faith and works, is as follows: faith and works are necessary for justification, in that order. “[N]o human being will be justified in [God’s] sight by observing the law” (Rom 3:20), so the law is not what originally justifies a person; yet, “those who observe the law will be justified” (Rom 2:13), in that they do still have to obey it after initial justification through faith and baptism (cf. Gal 3:26-27) in order to remain justified.
In the next post, I’m hoping to examine some authoritative outside opinion on St. Paul’s doctrine of justification through faith and then works.