New Articles | What To Do With Works In Romans Two?

By: Rob Zins

Christianity is separated from all other religions in its conviction that other systems are wrong to think that God is principally interested in self-righteousness and good works as a portion of the qualifying ground of justification. In short, Christians gasp at the notion that God would justify the un-godly on any other basis than the imputed righteousness of Jesus. The universal testimony of Christians is that we are saved by grace through faith alone. This means that God does not take into account our own personal works when He grants us eternal life. This means that our confidence is in the righteousness of Jesus which is given to us as the sole ground of our justification. God's grace gives Christ to us and enables us to exercise faith that in Jesus Christ the promises of God are yes and amen! The big promise given by God is eternal life for all who trust the atonement of Christ and forsake their own righteousness. Christians know that to fully trust in the atonement of Christ is to NOT trust in their own virtues.

This unique Christian conviction is found in no other religion or faith scheme. But is it biblical? There are many Christians who have an implicit trust that this is indeed the biblical teaching. Many may not be able to articulate their confidence in precise theological language yet they rejoice with the direct teachings of the New Testament. They find the writings of the apostle Paul to be more than sufficient to substantiate their conviction that FAITH ALONE in the FINISHED WORK OF CHRIST ALONE is the essence of the Gospel.

But the Roman Catholic religion has long resisted the notion of "faith alone" as the sole ground of justification. Rome believes that good works fit into the justification formula and play a prominent part in man's salvation. Rome accuses Evangelicals of turning a blind eye to the obvious. Rome accuses Bible Christians of deliberately ignoring the New Testament emphasis on works as part of the ground of justification.

Levels of Conflict

In trying to convince Rome otherwise, Christians point out that the apostle Paul excludes "works of the law" as a part of the criteria for the justification of the un-godly. Standing on solid biblical ground, Christians cite a number of passages which seem to settle the issue:

"For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law" (Romans 3:28).

"nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we may be justified by faith in Christ, and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law shall no flesh be justified" (Galatians 2:16).
Rome counters with an approval of these passages but adds that these passages only show that Paul eliminates any formula which includes "works of the Law." Rome is quick to point out that Paul never says that we are justified apart from hope or love or charity. Paul, in Rome's view, only wishes to exclude falling back upon keeping the Jewish Law for their justification. Rome goes so far as to agree that such efforts are excluded by Paul because no one can keep the Law enough to qualify for justification. Hence, Rome says "by no means is anyone justified by works of the Law. But this does not exclude good works done in faith."

The Christian counters this thinking by insisting that "works of the Law" is a catch phrase which includes all law keeping from any religious system and cannot be relegated only to Jewish law. Christians point out that other Bible passages eliminate personal righteousness, unattached to the Jewish Law, yet nevertheless black-balled by Paul as the ground of justification.

"He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit," (Titus 3:5).
Undaunted, Rome counters that Titus 3:5 and all such other similar passages reference only un-aided personal righteousness. Rome says these passages do not nullify the vast number of passages which clearly state that God will grant justification only to those doing good and exercising virtue according to the gospel of Rome.

In hopes of showing Rome the folly of her position, Christians appeal to Paul's illustration of Abraham in Romans 4. Here Paul discloses the essence of the Christian gospel. Here it is stated plainly that prior to the Jewish Law, on the basis of faith without works of any kind, Abraham was justified by faith.

"What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, has found? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about; but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? 'And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness'" (Roman 4:1-3).
Rome senses the tension here and advances a theological system which states boldly that Abraham was not justified by some works but this does not exclude all works. Rome sets forth a theological system which eliminates some kinds of works and yet retains a prominent role for other kinds of works in their theology of justification.

How do they do it?

Before we can answer the question posed in the subtitle, "How do they do it?" We must first ask the question, "Why do they do it?" It is important to understand that in Rome some things are first invented and then "proved" by Scripture. Other things come about as a result of trying to understand Scripture. But everything in Roman Catholic practice is a result of deductions from the Bible. Here is an example. Rome reads, "And coming in, he said to her, 'Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you.'" (Luke 1:28). From this Rome deducts that Mary is full of grace and therefore has no sin. From this it is deducted that Mary therefore must have lived without sinning. From this it is deducted that Mary therefore must have been assumed into heaven. From this it is deducted that Mary therefore plays an important role in the salvation of mankind, etc., etc., etc.

Likewise, Rome insists on an entire system of justification which includes things like infused grace, sacraments, condign merit, and purgatory based upon Rome's deduction that works are part of the formula for justification.

Romans 4 forces Rome to admit that works of Jewish Law are not the only works banned by God in the justification of the ungodly. But, Rome does not believe that every kind of work is excluded. Rome's theologians ask the question, "What kinds of works did God wish to exclude in the justification of Abraham?" So, Rome seeks to qualify further the kinds of works which must be excluded for Abraham's justification. In Rome's view, the apostle Paul must have in mind certain kinds of works which do not count toward justification. If not, then Paul has hopelessly contradicted himself. Or so they say. The Christian, on the other hand, does not seek to qualify the kinds of works excluded in justification because Christians are committed that each and every kind of work in prohibited, no matter what! Obviously, Rome does not believe this to be the case. There is a whole string of "therefores" which leads Rome to an opposite conclusion which therefore leads Rome to preach a different gospel!

Comparing Scripture with Scripture

Christians are aware that the Bible contains passages which, when placed side by side, seem to contradict or cancel each other. Rome is convinced that their system of soteriology (the doctrine of salvation) harmonizes passages which appear inconsistent. Rome claims to make the best sense of the Bible by making the parts fit together. When it comes to justification, Rome's system of condign merit and works playing a prominent role are the end products of harmonizing texts which appear incompatible. Let us examine four such texts.

"For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law" (Romans 3:28).

"who has saved us, and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was granted us in Christ Jesus from all eternity," (2 Timothy 1:9).

"You see that a man is justified by works, and not by faith alone" (James 2:24).

"for not the hearers of the Law are just before God, but the doers of the Law will be justified" (Romans 2:13).
In light of these passages, Rome wishes to set forth a systematic theology which allows for some works to be excluded in the verdict of justification and other works to be the ground or reason for the ruling. It all depends on how these works are worked and in what kind of relationship with God they are performed. In the case of works of Jewish Law they are all excluded. In the case of individual virtue, unaided by God, and presumptuously presented before God, all works of man are excluded. In the case of Abraham, Rome is ingenious. Rome insists that God only wishes to exclude any work which obligates God to justify the ungodly. No man, it is insisted, can make God his debtor. Thus Abraham could not be justified by any work in which he claimed the right to be justified.

The only way to harmonize the Bible, according to Rome, is to set forth a scheme of theology which enables God to take "some good works done in faith," which God has obligated Himself to honor, and make these works a part of the ground of justification. This, they say, does justice to t hose texts which make good works essential for justification.

Hence, Rome believes that good works performed in a grace relationship, which do not obligate God, and do not hold God accountable to man, are part of the ground of justification. Works done which could be, in any way, construed as putting God in our debt are absolutely excluded. Also, any efforts to please God outside of a grace relationship are legal works destined to fail. Also, to be as presumptuous as to think that personal righteousness outside of a grace relationship can exact God's justification is simply another form of legalism.

Thus, it is maintained, that Abraham was justified apart from legal, obligatory or contractual works in a legal relationship with God. But Abraham was not justified without consideration of his faith, hope, love, obedience, and other virtues expected of him by God. These virtues, among others, are those which God has committed to Himself to honor and to justify those who live by them. Let us listen to Bob Sungenis in his book entitled, "Not by Faith Alone."

"Establishing the principle of obligation, Paul introduces the foundational rule regarding anyone who attempts to work his way to God. If the appeal to God is based on obligation, then the relationship between God and man becomes one in which the party who works (man) is legally obligating the party for whom the work is done (God) to pay for the services rendered. Hence, in regard to justification, a man who approaches God expecting legal payment for his efforts thus puts God in a position of being obligated to deem him righteous and acceptable, worthy of living with God and being blessed by him for eternity. Since in this situation God would be forced to owe a legal debt to the man who works, then the relationship is one based on law, i.e., a legal contract. If it is based on law, then it cannot be based on the personal benevolence of God to man, otherwise known as grace" (Not By Faith Alone, pg. 8.9).
From this we can clearly see how Rome handles the tensions which come to the fore when we place the apostle Paul side by side in Romans 2 and 3. We could, of course, line up many more passages wherein works are seemingly the hinge upon which the door of our entrance into heaven swings. These would provide a sharp contrast with the many faith passages which could be brought front and center to prove that faith is the hinge upon which the door to heaven swings.

So, Is Rome Right?

Rome is right in pointing out the tension found in the Bible between Romans 2 and 3! But Rome's solution solves nothing and if taken to its logical conclusion would not produce Roman Catholicism. The irony here is that Rome's wrong view of Romans 2 would never produce the thing they intend to defend with their view. If Rome were exactly right that some good works, done in a grace relationship count toward justification, then it certainly would not produce Roman Catholicism. Surely, such a faith plus works relationship with God would be contrary to the Gospel once delivered to the saints. Having faith that Jesus paved the way so that doing some kinds of good works in grace may get one to heaven would be bad enough. But our point is that it would not produce Roman Catholicism. This works in grace relationship concept could hardly justify the sacramental system of Rome, not to mention Rome's notorious doctrines of indulgences and purgatory. The intricate maze of Roman Catholic salvation finds its starting point with this faulty supposition and yet somehow illogically manages to produce the exhausting labyrinth of Romanist soteriology. Herein lays the danger. Once an error of soteriology is accepted there is no predicting the extent of its outrageous manifestations and consequences no matter how irrational.

In essence, Rome washes works in Sacramental Grace and asserts God has obligated Himself to honor such works with a verdict of justification. Rome is quick to add that God is not obligated to the sinner but only to Himself. In short, we cannot demand anything of God (read: legal contract, works of the Law, obligating God, etc.) but God is bound by His word, as a gentleman, to honor works in grace. Sungenis clarifies:

"Hence the works of Romans 2:5-10, accompanied by faith and repentance, are not works done under the principle of debt or obligation that Paul repudiates in Romans 4:4, but works done under the auspices of God's grace which seek their recognition and reward from within grace" (Not By Faith Alone, pg. 39,40).
A Christian Response

Christians, as stated, do not see any difference between good works, works of Law, good works done in faith, good works done in grace, or good works washed in bleach, for that matter, when it comes to justification! Christians understand that all good works, bad works, happy works, sad works, medium works, and super works cannot add up to one drop of Christ's blood by which we have been justified.

But if this is so, then how do we handle the passages which seem to introduce good works into the formula for salvation and justification? What about Romans 2, James 2, and John 5, among others?

First, all Christians everywhere should have been taught that good works are the necessary evidence of the miracle of having been born from above by God through the agency of the Holy Spirit. The root always produces the fruit in the Christian life. Good works are the effect of having been justified and not the cause.

Second, faith is established in the heart of the ungodly by virtue of being born from above. Faith is given to all those transferred from the domain of darkness into the light of the knowledge of Christ. This faith grasps Christ's righteousness and depends totally upon Christ's atonement for justification. But faith does more than believe. Faith works! Faith brings forth fruit. This is why Christians assert that we are saved through faith alone but not faith that is alone. Faith lives and ever increases and brings all thoughts captive to the obedience of Christ.

Third, so strong is the relationship between the thing produced by faith and faith itself that often the thing produced (good works, perseverance, and godliness) is put for the thing itself (faith) in Scripture. We see this clearly in John 5.

"Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life" (John 5:24).

"Do not marvel at this; for an hour is coming, in which all who are in the tombs shall hear His voice, (John 5:29) and shall come forth; those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment" (John 5:28).
There are not two different gospels here in John 5. Nor is there a blended gospel. The fact of the matter is that the believing ones are those who did the good deeds." These good deeds are the result of belief and the fruit of justification. They are not the meritorious cause of justification.

Likewise, in Romans 2, the focus of Paul's attention is on hypocrisy (especially Jewish hypocrisy) which displayed a dearth of spiritual life. If left unchecked this rash of dishonesty would culminate in bitter eternal consequences. It is not Paul's burden to champion a works based or works laden justification. Rather, it is his burden to uncover and eradicate insincerity.

The crisis of Romans 2 is not unlike that of James 2. Both apostles are asking the same question: "Can that kind of faith save you?" The answer from each apostle is "NO!" Faith that does not work is a spurious faith fit only for demons.

Paul countenances two groups in Romans 2. It is safe to say that this theme is consistent throughout the Bible. The first group can be identified as those who, for whatever reason, live without faith in the Gospel. They are hypocrites and without faith.

"Therefore you are without excuse, every man of you who passes judgment, for in that you judge another, you condemn yourself; for you who judge practice the same things. And we know that the judgment of God rightly falls upon those who practice such things. And do you suppose this, O man, when you pass judgment upon those who practice such things and do the same yourself, that you will escape the judgment of God" (Romans 2:1-3)?

"But because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment" (Romans 2:5),

"but to those who are selfishly ambitious and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, wrath and indignation" (Romans 2:8).
This group of people will face the wrath of God. They will be condemned in their hypocrisy. They are reminded by the apostle Paul that doing reveals believing and one cannot say he is a believer while doing the things which bring about the wrath of God. Hence, they will fall into the hands of the Living God. This is a terrifying expectation.

The other group of people is not merely hearers who delude themselves. The echo of James is in the background. They are effectual doers of the Word of God.

"to those who by perseverance in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life;" (Romans 2:7).

"but glory and honor and peace to every man who does good, to the Jew first and also to the Greek" (Romans 2:10).

The expectation of the apostle is that at the end of the day, each man will stand before God and God will render to each man according to what the man has done. The faithless man will be cast off to eternal hell. His selfishness and self-centeredness will be before him and he will have no excuses. His way of life is abundantly clear. He will be afforded no mercy. It is clear that he is faithless. His judgment of others only serves to turn up the heat on himself. For in judging others he has judged himself.

However, the man of faith, who elsewhere is called an effectual doer, will be rewarded for his good deeds. He is the man who has persevered by faith. He is the man circumcised in his heart by the Holy Spirit whose praise comes from God. He has done good. He has born fruit and good works. The thing produced (good work/perseverance} is put for the thing producing it, i.e., faith. The apostle Paul cannot conceive of faith without works nor can he conceive of works standing on an equal footing with faith. Faith precedes works. Faith harnesses the value of works. Faith informs us that our works are but proof of God's gift of faith to us. They are not coordinate equal grounds of justification. The right order means everything. Abraham was justified through faith without consideration of any kind of work (contractual or so-called grace works) in order that no man may boast. When we begin to classify the kinds of works which are said to ultimately seek their recognition and reward, we pollute the Gospel and destroy true grace.

We harmonize Paul with Paul and Paul with James as they are repeating the same theme over and over. No man will be justified by works of the Law. No man will be justified by personal righteousness. No man will be justified by good works done in faith. No man will be justified by good works sanctified in a sacramental system. Consistent with this is the warning of God against those who turn the grace of God into license. They have yet to be changed. They shall be bitterly disappointed. They are merely hearers of the Word. They are not of faith to the preservation of the soul.

In light of the balance presented in the Bible, it is not difficult to see why an un-careful harmonization of the critical passages concerning justification can yield an unprofitable system of theology. This is precisely the outcome of Rome's attempt to satisfy the text. Rome says faith plus certain conditions wherein works seek their recognition/reward equals justification of the ungodly. Christians say, faith alone, faith only, equals justification of the un-godly. However, this faith is not alone. It begins to yield fruit in the justified. These two views of justification are mutually exclusive and produce absolutely incompatible gospel messages, not to mention systems of worship and objects of hope.

"for not the hearers of the Law are just before God, but the doers of the Law will be justified" (Romans 2:13).

"But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves" (James 1:22).
Who are the doers of the Law and doers of the Word? Are they not those called of God and circumcised in the heart?

"For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit" (Romans 8:3, 4).

"For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes" (Romans 10:4).
Robert M. Zins
Director: CWRC (A Christian Witness to Roman Catholicism)

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