The Righteousness of God Through Faith in Jesus Christ: The Justification of Sinners According to St. Paul

This paper will be dedicated to share my understanding of justification by faith as taught in the writings of St. Paul. The course of this writing will follow the structure of the Epistle to the Romans, but I will interweave other parts of the Pauline corpus which corroborate the argument. 


For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ because it is the power of God unto salvation for everyone that believes, to the Jew first and also of the Greek, for in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith, as it is written: ‘the just shall live by faith‘” (16-17)

What sticks out immediately is this word “power” (δύναμις). In the collected writings of St. Paul, this is no general word that he throws around. Often, when St. Paul uses this term in relation to salvation, He is referring to a mighty intervention of God into the human realm to accomplish what is naturally impossible. In particular, he makes a close connection between the “power of God” which acted upon corpse of Jesus Christ, already foreshadowed on the Mount of Transfiguration, to raise Him from the dead. For Paul, this “resurrection-power” which worked upon the corpse of Christ is the same power which He brings into the life of the person who undergoes the transition from being lost to saved. Already in the opening of this very letter to the Romans, Paul speaks of the the Messianic credentials of Jesus as “born of the seed of David according to the flesh, and declared to be the Son of God with power by the Spirit of Holiness, by the resurrection from the dead” (Rom 1:4). One cannot but help to see the grand Pauline motifs of “flesh” versus “Spirit”, as well as “dead” versus life-giving “power”. In another text from his epistle to the Philippians, where the subject of repudiating anything in the flesh which Paul might be able to boast in, Paul says that he would prefer, above all else, to “gain Christ” and to be “found in Him“, not having his own righteousness but rather the “righteousness which comes from God through faith” in order that “I may know Him, and the power of His resurrection” (Phil 3:9-10). In yet another text from his epistle to the Ephesians, Paul prays on behalf of the Ephesian community that God may enlighten their understanding of the mystery of the Gospel, in order that they may know “what is the exceeding greatness of His power toward us who believe, according to the working of His mighty power, which he wrought in Christ, when He raised Him from the dead” (Eph 1:19).

We see, then, that Paul has in mind a specific power which has saved believers, namely, the same power which actively worked upon the corpse of our Savior in His grave and elevated Him to glorious resurrection life. In other words, what Paul has in mind here is not so much what Christ has done “for us” or “on our behalf”, that being gloriously true in itself, but rather what God has done conjointly between “Christ and us” insofar as we participate in the transition from dying to rising together with Christ. In a text, once again, from the letter to the Ephesians, Paul describes our transition: “Even when we were dead in sins, has made us alive together with Christ (by grace you are saved), and has raised us up together” (Eph 2:5). Here, again, we see Paul speaking of the power to “make alive” in us which is not some vague isolated miracle, but is inextricably tied to the “making alive” which God performed in the corpse of Christ, since it His own transition from death to life which we experience in this process. In his epistle to the Colossians, Paul speaks even more explicitly to this mystery: “Buried with him in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with him through the faith of the operation of God, who hath raised him from the dead; And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath he made alive together with him” (Col 2:12-13). One cannot but help to see that events which happened in the career of Christ Himself (death, burial, resurrection) are what get repeated in our own very lives when we enter into the state of salvation. Here, Paul made a reference to the phrase “operation of God”, which in the Greek is ἐνεργείας τοῦ θεοῦ, or more literally the “energy of God”. The dead corpse of Christ itself was the passive object upon which acted this energy, in order to powerfully give it new life. That, and not some vague notion of God’s ability to raise from the dead, is the very “power” that Paul has in mind all the way back in Romans 1 where he speaks of the “power of God” unto salvation for everyone who believes. If I had the time I would love to explore how Jesus’ own baptism relates to all of this, but for now I would just say that Jesus’ baptism configures Him to the human plight in order that by facing sin and death with His sinless divine Person, he transfigures all of life from death to glory. His own descent into the waters of baptism and rising again were not so much something to give to Him as it was to empower the act of baptism and the matter of water to transfigure ourselves into the paradigm of His own life-transition from the fallen condition of Adamic humanity to the victorious condition of Christic humanity.

Returning, therefore, to the epistle to the Romans, Paul walks in confidence of the gospel because it is this power from God to save sinners. But we are given a deeper reasoning for why this power actually saves dying humanity. Let’s see it again, and this time, pay attention to the word “for”: “…for it is the power of God unto salvation….for in it the righteousness of God is revealed“. In other words, Paul is making an argument. He himself is not ashamed of the gospel. Why? Because it is the power of God unto salvation. Why is it the power of God unto salvation? Because the gospel reveals the righteousness of God unto those who believe. Therefore, we must understand this “righteousness of God” to be what makes the Gospel powerful to save human beings. What, therefore, is this “righteousness of God”? Scholars continue to debate over this phrase and its meaning, and have done so for centuries. Without getting into this debate, I will just give my readers what I believe it is. My opinion on this matter can be put into a few sentences. The “righteousness of God” is gift which God gives to human beings (Rom 5:17). This “gift” alters the state of “guilt” and “condemnation” which exists in all of humanity, and reverses that state into the state of acquittal, forgiveness, and reconciliation with God. Therefore, the gift must involve the cleansing away of our sins and the restoration of holiness (i.e. that which pleases God) in the soul and heart of the receiver. This definition can be seen succinctly when Paul says the following:

And you, who once were alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now He has reconciled  in the body of His flesh through death, to present you holy, and blameless, and above reproach in His sight—  if indeed you continue in the faith, grounded and steadfast, and are not moved away from the hope of the gospel which you heard, which was preached to every creature under heaven, of which I, Paul, became a minister” ( Col 1:21-23)

Here, Paul says that the “mind” of sinners was the subject of enmity and alienation since it is from the mind which gives into the passions of the flesh, and then comes “wicked works”. If the process of reconciliation, or the process of coming-to-be-friends with God, only externally alters guilt to forgiveness, without also changing the “mind” from sin to holiness, and thus the resultant behavior towards the same holiness, then the very wicked mind which was the cause of alienation to begin with would be retained, and thus the alienation would also be retained. Therefore, since alienation from God is caused by the fallen mind and its wicked works, the reconciliation with God must also alter this interior aspect of man, together with the transition from guilt to forgiveness. And since reconciliation and justification are theoretically synonymous (albeit they are distinct metaphors), justification must include an ontological change in the interior of man from sin to justice & holiness. And this is the result of the above  reconciliation: “…in order to present you holy, blameless, and above reproach in His sight”. Moreover, it is not the human creatures’ who muster up enough good works in order to attain to this state of purity, but rather it is meritoriously caused by the “body of His flesh through death“. This is what we will see in Romans 3-8.


The “righteousness of God”, then, gives the Gospel its power to save souls. What is the soul saved from? In the first place, Paul understands this salvation to be a deliverance from the “wrath of God” (Rom 1:18). Those who practice iniquity are both deserving of death (Rom 1:30-32), and those who judge others while being sinners themselves store up wrath for themselves on the day of wrath (Rom 2:4). Those who attempt to try and cover over their guilt and sin by making it seem like they are holy when they are not will have their mouths shut, and stand condemned under His righteous judgment (Rom 3:10-20). Those who receive the benefits of the blood-bought redemption of Jesus Christ are “delivered from the wrath” to come (Rom 5:9-10).  Secondly, they are saved from all the consequences of sin, both their legal standing before the bar of God’s justice and the ontological disease of bondage to unrighteousness(Rom 6:1-23).

Because of the severity of this dreadful state of impending judgment, Paul is intent on proving that there is no human help to be offered in order to change the plight of man. Man is completely disabled from being justified through both efforts to keep the Law of God (Rom 7:10-11) and the religious incorporation into a certain ethnic people-group (via circumcision, vows to observe the Siniatic legislation, etc,etc). The only help which human beings give on their own is the ever growing debt to death that comes from our sins. No man helps Jesus save us. We do not help Jesus in His sacrifice, we only give reason for Him to sacrifice Himself in the first place. It is our sin which were laid upon Him, and for which He was delivered up, and spared by no one, and left to die a violent death.

This is the background which Paul wants to illustrate so that the grace of salvation, i.e. the intervention devoid of human help, is seen in its glorious mercy. This is right around the turning point of the letter to the Romans (Rom 3:21-26).

But now, apart from the Law, the righteousness of God is revealed..the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ…for all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory, and are justified by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as a propitiation in His blood, to be received through faith….in order to demonstrate His righteousness, that He might be both just and justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus...”

Through the sending of His Son, God has prepared a way for the condemned human race to meet His holy standards through faith in Jesus Christ, and consequently be released from the bonds of guilt, condemnation, and death.  The word “righteousness” (dikaoisonue) should be understood as the quality of life , or even the forensic status of being just in God’s eyes, which meets God’s standard of justice. God promised a day when He would write His standards on the heart of men, to supersede the Law of Sinai which was merely written on stone tablets. This righteousness of God is not the righteousness by which God Himself is righteous, but that righteousness which He bestows as a gift upon sinners to reverse the course of their lives from the way of death to the way of life. It is a righteousness through which he makes sinner righteous, as St. Augustine well said. It is important to see that this is not merely an external gift which remains outside of the believer, but is a supernatural gift which is infused into the very being and life of the believer such that the one who was once “dead in sin” (Eph 2:1-2) is now made “alive to God” (Rom 6:10-11), and installed in the course towards eternal life (Rom 6:22-23).  It is important to see that this gift of righteousness, while essential involving forensic acquittal and the non-imputation of sin (Rom 4:6–8), also changes the believer to actually meet God’s standards (Rom 2:28-29; 8:1-4). It is the righteousness of God which changes our state before God, and equips us to meet God’s standard of justice, and this all comes as a free gift of grace through faith. But while it is free and undeserved, this does not mean it did not come without a cost. In fact, it costed something infinite. This divine and supernatural grace of converting sinners to the righteousness of God is no mere decision to clean up the human race. Ultimately, it comes from the love of God for mankind, and in the infinite worth of Christ’s sacrificial death.


“…and are justified…through the redemption which is in Christ….as a propitiation in His blood, to be received through faith”

This is a perfect way of communication how the sinner comes into a right-relationship with God. The metaphors convey very clearly what is intended, and they are mixed perfectly. We are justified (forensic/law-court acquittal) through an act of redemption (freedom by purchase) by the payment of a propitiatory death (mercy-seat/atonement). Somehow, the “blood” of Jesus’s propitiatory offering of His life is the ransom-money paid to purchase our freedom, and this freedom, in turn, sets us in the right-standing before God such that we now meet His standard of justice, and He consequently pronounces “justified!” over us. Effectively, the result here is “peace with God” (Rom 5:1), hope of eternal glory (Rom 5:17, 8:28-30; Titus 3:7). We will enter more into the definition of “justified” further below, but I wanted to spend time here focusing on the ransom-money which purchased our freedom in the first place. It is a certain dogma of the Roman Catholic Church that the blood of Christ is the meritorious cause of our justification. When we say “blood”, Paul does not mean the liquid substance coming in and out of the heart (however much that is symbolically or even physiologically true), but rather what is meant is the dying of a human being. In biblical language, “blood” refers to the physiological requirement of life, and thus to give one’s blood is to give one’s life. Christ gave up His life in the form of violent death, in exchange for the prized possession of saved humanity. This is the essence of His sacrifice. He gives, and is rewarded, where the former is His life and latter is the salvation of sinners. The crucifixion was an Altar upon which Christ, moved with love for us, offered Himself up in sacrificial death for our sins. This offering won back for the human race the gits which rectify our sin-marred lives back into conformity with the standard of being friends with God, which, ultimately, is the virtue of charity (as St. Augustine made so clear in his writings). It is important to emphasize that this holy offering of God-made-man is what accomplished all the winnings of the gifts of grace for mankind. If we are trophies, it is because Christ was the great Olympian who set His mind like flint on the mission God gave Him, trained like a war horse to prepare His will for His Father alone, and finally defeated the foes which “prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls” at his final demise. Rightly did Augustus Toplady (1763) say in that great hymn “Rock of Ages” when he said “nothing in my hands I bring, simply to Thy cross I cling”. As I’ve repeated, the only contribution we bring to the table is the guilt of our sins which nailed Christ to the wood of the cross. How true it is what Luther said in his lectures on the epistle to the Galatians: “We all carry about in our pockets His very nails”.

Now, the Protestant might read this and joyfully point out that this is a historical event where our salvation is objectively accomplished, and it has no helping human hand involved. Sometimes they will say this is where the active and passive obedience of Christ are fulfilled in order to procure the imputed righteousness (extra nos) of Jesus to our account. However, Catholics can agree that this event is historical and without helping human hands (except, of course, that sins helped him there), and we can agree that our salvation is objectively accomplished in this sacrifice (finished ultimately at His resurrection). However, we disagree on what it means when this objective sacrifice gets subjectively appropriated to us individually, or what it means to receive the benefits of this objectively accomplished redemption.

In the first place, Paul says we are justified “by faith”. Since faith is a virtue inhering in the human being, it would be valuable to understand what faith is and why it is God has chosen faith, as opposed to works, as the way in which He will justify human beings. If we could begin by going back to the mixed metaphors Paul used in Rom 3:24, where the propitiatory blood of Jesus is the ransom-money paid to purchase our freedom from the slavery of sin, which in turn justifies us by re-ordering our lives back into conformity to friendship with God, we can add to the end of this that the justifying act is instrumentally caused by faith. So if we can now spend time looking at this instrument of choice, we can better understand the gift of justification.

Before I go there, however, I wanted to say for clarity’s sake that the Council of Trent teaches us that the sacrament of Baptism is the instrumental cause of justification. In other words, men are justified when they are finally baptized in water with the proper form (I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit). The Council also describes this sacrament as the “sacrament of faith”, and so when we speak of faith, you should not envision (at least when you read this paper) mere acceptance of the gospel in isolation to the reception of baptism and the laying on of hands. When Paul speaks of justification of salvation through/by “faith”, he takes it for granted that his audience knows that by “faith” it includes the baptismal act (Gal 3:26-28). So just to be clear, all references here to faith as instrument of infused righteousness should be granted the assumption that the sacrament of baptism (or even penance for those who have fallen away by mortal sin) is necessarily presumed and involved. Lastly, if this particular detail concerns the reader, I would only say that Martin Luther wholeheartedly agreed with it.


Therefore [justification] is of faith that it might be according to grace” (Rom 4:16)

To be “according to grace” simply means that justification must be of the nature of a gift, i.e. an undeserved good. Faith preserves the principle of grace, whereas if justification were by works, the principle of grace is null and void. Why? Because when Paul speaks of works, he means to picture the human being earning his reward as a due right, and thus the human being keeping God’s commandments so perfectly as to win for himself a due recognition from God that he is a just man. This is the principle of works. But, for Paul, there is no room for this in the justification of sinners. Since “all have sinned” we have nothing to make ourselves just in God’s sight. We are completely disqualified.  So if we are to be justified, it would have to be on different grounds, and Paul’s point is that it is God’s gracious and merciful intervention grounds the justification of sinners, and this calls for the instrumental cause of faith, as opposed to works.

In one sense, faith is the only acceptable way to approach God the Creator. Even as sinless creatures, since it is “in him that we move and have our being” and “all things are from Him”. Therefore, Adam and Eve, had they perfectly obeyed the Edenic law “thou shalt not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil”, and thereby merit eternal life for themselves and the whole of their posterity, it would still be by faith in their Creator. But then one might respond – “But wait, you just said that if someone earned their way into heaven by their own good works, would it not be by the principle of due obligation on God’s part to be in debt to reward said person with eternal life, and thereby wholly exclude the principle of grace, and therefore faith”? This is true, but Adam and Eve were, at their creation, endowed with the preternatural gifts which elevated their nature to live by the power of God’s grace from their conception (both conceived as adults). Thus, their passing the trial of Eden would have been an act wholly consistent with grace, and therefore faith, and thus wholly excluding the idea of the human being, by his own capacity, earning the right of keeping God’s commands and entering eternal life. In fact, it was Martin Luther himself, in his lectures on the Epistle to the Romans, who attempted to illustrate this very idea by a perfect analogy. Luther pointed out that the human being seeking to be justified by the principle of works is like a layman who dresses himself like a priest and attempts to perform all kinds of priestly functions like changing bread and wine into Christ’s body and blood, absolving sins, consigning men with the oil of confirmation, performs the last rites, etc,etc. There is all this outward activity but no effectiveness because the layman is a layman. However, if the same layman were to be consecrated by the supernatural power of the sacrament of Holy Orders, then his actions would carry the supernatural grace of the Christ the Lord. In the same way, the human creature, even sinless, who attempts to earn His friendship with God would be just like this, seeking to do what he cannot by nature. How much more, therefore, would the sinful human creature be disabled from doing the same? Thus, the sinful creature is put into an even greater need of grace in order to walk holy and blameless before God. As we all know, with the fall of man in Adam, the human race was stripped of the supernatural grace, otherwise referred to as sanctifying grace or theosis, and were left to born with merely natural human capacity, and that marred by the weakness of the flesh, which Paul says is the control panel of sin’s power overcoming the mind, causing the human person to be a “slave to sin” (Rom 7:13-25). By the time God gave the Law of Moses to the Israelites on Mount Sinai, such a legislation of God’s law provided no sacrament to cleanse the human heart and elevate it back into the special supernatural state of Adam and Eve before the fall. Therefore, Paul could say that the Law of Moses “is not of faith” . Why? Because it demands holiness from the natural human being, and that marred by the calamity of sin and the flesh. In this schema, the Law ended up linking up with Sin in the mass business of Death. Paul explains this quite vividly in Romans 7.


But since this concept has proven to confuse more than resolve, I will expand a bit. Paul writes:

The Law is not of faith, for ‘the one who does them shall live by them‘” (Gal 3:12)

Is it really the case that any old command to “do” is a working contradiction to the call to have faith or believe the Gospel? Such an unqualified assertion is surely absurd. The gospel itself is a command. The first words out of our Lord’s mouth was “Repent” (Mark 1:15-16), which only echoed the voice of St. John the Baptist, who also merely echoed the voice of all the Prophets of the Old Testament to fallen away Israel. A more clearer imperative to turn from disobedience is scarcely to be found. For Pete’s sake, the very epistle to the Romans opens up with Paul describing his very own mission as one which seeks to bring all into the “obedience of faith” (Rom 1:5). Later in the same epistle, Paul describes the Christians in Rome as those who were “slaves of sin, yet you obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine to which you were delivered” (Rom 6:17). In his speech in the Areopagus to the Athenians, he closes with saying: “Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent,  because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained” (Acts 17:30). In his description of the conversion of the citizens of Thessaloniki, Paul they “turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God” (1 Thess 1:9).

Why then is it that Paul seems to say in his epistle to the Galatians that the command of the Law of Moses to “do them and live” is contrary to faith? When one studies the whole of the Pauline corpus, one cannot divorce Paul’s major motif of the Letter versus the Spirit. For Paul, the Old Law of Moses was God addressing His holy Law on stone tablets while the fallen human being remains captive to the victorious power of sin and death. This is why Paul could characterize the Old Covenant as an “administration of death” (2 Cor 3:7). It is not because God’s holy law is essentially a human killer. Rather, it is because the goodness of the Law is opposed to the power of sin which holds the fallen human being in bondage to the passions of the flesh (Rom 7:1-5). The Spirit, on the other hand, represents the new Epoch which has come in Christ, i.e. the New Covenant. Any reader of the Old Testament prophets knows that God had already foretold the abrogation of the Old Law in Jeremiah and Ezekiel, where the New Covenant would be characterized by an interior, as opposed to exterior, union between God’s Law and the human heart. Instead of being merely written on stone tablets, God the Holy Spirit writes this Law on the hearts of flesh. Therefore, the Mosaic Law is contrary to faith in that it simply expresses the demand of God’s will while leaving the fallen human being captive to sin, where the New Covenant demands faith since said fallen human being is forced to look outside of himself for the supernatural healing of the disease of sin, and that healing is found in the very terms and conditions of the New Covenant itself. Faith puts the human creature on the receiving end of supernatural help, where the Mosaic Law merely puts the human being on demand for holiness without the necessary remedy for the inward sickness of the “old man”, or as Paul calls it also, “the man of sin” (Rom 6:2-3) or the “body of death” (ibid 7:25).  Therefore, Paul is not merely saying that imperatives, generally speaking, are contrary to faith, since the gospel itself is a demand for faith and repentance. Rather, it is the specific complex of the Covenant of Moses which comes with the promise of salvation (prosperity in the land) by addressing the strict conditions of the Law to a fallen and diseased people. The New Covenant retains the structure of imperative, i.e. “Repent and believe!”, but while it addresses the human being with the demand of God’s Law, it simultaneously provides all the necessary healing for obedience to that Law. The healing that we are speaking about here, for Paul, as we’ve seen, is no less than a new creation, and one which surpasses the ethnic distinctions that always existed between the fleshly children of Abraham and Gentiles.

Secondly, faith, since it is consistent with grace, requires the believing man to be open to the gracious initiative and sustenance of God. The man who is justified by faith excludes boasting, since the method of attaining justice is one which inherently disposes the human being to open to receive from without, namely, the influx of grace from God. The way of works, if taken to its logical end, closes the human being and shuts him up from receiving anything from without. Now, the Protestant reader might balk at this since the Catholic understanding of justification involves the interior transformation of the justified person, and thus he may think that this necessarily makes it a works-righteousness position which Paul repudiates. However, as we’ve already touched upon, Paul does not repudiate all kinds of working. Indeed, there is a works-righteouness which is repudiated, namely, those works attempted to be performed by and in the flesh to please God, which is impossible (Rom 8:5-6). If one reads Ephesians 2, Paul recounts how by nature man is “dead in sin” and a slave to the passions, and thus requires the mercy and grace of God for salvation. But thereafter he says, “For we are Christ’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus in order to walk in good works” (Eph 2:10). In no place is it more clear than in the Epistle to the Romans in the 2nd Chapter. There, Paul speaks hypothetically about the man who is physically circumcised but fails to fulfill the Law of God. This person’s circumcision is really no profit to him at all. However, the man who is physically uncircumcised, but who fulfills the Law, will be credited or imputed as circumcised. And then Paul continues on with the founding description of such an uncircumcised man who keeps the Law. He says:

And will not the physically uncircumcised, if he fulfills the law, judge you who, even with your  written code and circumcision, are a transgressor of the law?  For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh;  but he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the Spirit, not in the letter; whose praise is not from men but from God.” (Rom 2:27-29)

It could not get more clear. Paul envisions an obedient gentile who keeps the Law, but who nevertheless cannot credit himself for the meritorious cause of that achievement. It is “not of himself“. All credit goes to the inward circumcision performed by God by writing the Law on the heart by the power of the Holy Spirit. For this latter case, the “praise is not from men but from God“. How, then, can Catholics be accused of teaching a gospel which is man-centered and includes boasting when Paul himself excludes all of these things for the good behavior of the uncircumcised regenerated gentile? In fact, we read of the same sort of thing in the undeserved justification of Abraham. In the following verses, Paul tells us not only that Abraham’s faith was reckoned as righteousness, but also supplies the reason.

“… who, contrary to hope, in hope believed, so that he became the father of many nations, according to what was spoken, ‘So shall your descendants be.’  And not being weak in faith, he did not consider his own body, already dead…and the deadness of Sarah’s womb.  He did not waver at the promise of God through unbelief, but was strengthened in faith, giving glory to God,  and being fully convinced that what He had promised He was also able to perform. And therefore ‘it was accounted to him for righteousness‘. ” (Rom 4:17-22)

This is illuminating. The typical Reformed Protestant interpretation (as I understand it) of Romans 4 does everything it possibly can to try and exclude all notions of virtues or behavior in the human being and to only include the idea that it is the “works of Christ” which are imputed as having been done by the believer. However, Paul has no such mind on the matter. For Paul, Abraham’s obedient perseverance makes for a reason for why his faith is qualified to be reckoned as “righteousness”. The immediate reaction to this from the Protestant should be that my reasoning devolves right back into the works-debt paradigm that Paul so desperately wants to repudiate. Well, in the first place, could we not agree that in the verses cited above, that Paul is intent on showing the God-pleasing nature of Abraham’s faith? And if so, the line which says “therefore it was accounted to him for righteousness” must follow with that line of thought. This, at the very least, should sway us away from faith being merely the instrumental-pipe through which the alien righteousness of Christ is imputed to the believer. Rather, faith itself, for some quality it has, constitutes the rationale for it being calculated as Abraham’s righteousness; and that, all done in a transaction of demerit (ungodly) and a free gift. As St. Thomas Aquinas said in his commentary on Romans 4: “…not that he [the believer] merits righteousness through faith, but because the believing [act] itself is the first act of the justice God works in Him“. Does not Paul teach us in 1 Cor 1 that the faith in God and Christ is a gift of grace? There are those who seek signs or wisdom, but to those who see the power of God in Christ crucified, it is these who were chosen to believe. And yet the Corinthians were boasting about the wisdom that this person or that group had against another. The resolution was as follows: “For who makes you differ from another? And what do you have that you did not receive? Now if you did indeed receive it,why do you boast as if you had not received it?” (1 Cor 4:6). So there you have it, the faith which brought the Corinthians into a saving relationship with God was “not of themselves”. It was given to them. In the same way, the virtue of faith, as lived out in the life of Abraham, was a gift of God to Abraham’s soul. It is faith formed by charity, or, as St. Paul says, faith which works through love. If faith was an actor in a play, love would be its character role. Paul is not speaking about faith isolated from love, hope, and virtuous formation. These latter realities are assumed.

Third, faith is a virtue which could be possessed by all human beings, and is not qualified by ethnicity, culture, language, gender, etc,etc. This is why Paul is adamant to emphasize that God is God of both the circumcised and the uncircumcised, where both these latter traits are meaningless differences in the Kingdom of God (Gal 6:15). This is also why Paul is so intent on proving that the origin of man’s plight is with Adam, the fount of all humanity’s inherited corruption. It is not merely with the Law of Moses, but all the way back to the anthropological source in the first man.

Fourth, Paul understands that the doctrine of justifying human beings by faith is already taught to the Jewish people from the Old Testament. The very Patriarch of all members of the everlasting covenant, Abraham, is said to have been reckoned just by believing in God’s word of promise, excluding any works in the transaction. Now here we must point out that Paul is not intent on merely excluding the outward Jewish boundary markers, even if that is what is especially what he wishes to communicate. If the slave to sin can’t justify himself through moral works, then trying to make up for this lack by outward Jewish boundary markers will only deceive and take one away from Christ. No, Paul has in mind any and all works which are preformed in the flesh. Abraham’s justification is dichotomous to the process of being justified by works. Why? Again, because Abraham is not performing a deeds of his own in order to receive reward from God. God makes a promise, and Abraham chooses to follow through with the “obedience of faith” (Rom 1:5), which must be contrasted in a dichotomous way with the “obedience of the Law” (Gal 3:13). The former is not some weaker form of obedience (Paul calls the Romans to enslavement to God and holiness), but it is one where the human being is open to the influx of the supernatural changing grace of God to work upon the soul. This is all together distinct from the act of cutting of the foreskin on a male. In fact, the obedience of faith could be far more challenging than the mere act of circumcision. We gather from the Epistle to the Galatians that the Judaizers spared themselves from persecution by promoting the necessary obligation of keeping the whole Law for Gentiles. In other words, Paul won for himself more persecution, hatred, rejection, and push back precisely by heralding the sort of grace which had come in Christ Jesus.  Nevertheless, the Law of Moses is characterized as a “burden” or a “yoke of bondage” difficult to carry (Acts 15:28), to which Christians are called to be freed from (Gal 5:1).


Some might object by saying that those Jewish Christians who were initially on the side of mandating Gentiles to become circumcised and to keep the Law of Moses in order to be saved were not, themselves, unbelievers in Christ. To the contrary, they had strong faith in the Lord Jesus. Just observe how the Bible describes them:

And those of the circumcision who believed were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also.” (Acts 10:45)


But some of the sect of the Pharisees who believed rose up, saying, ‘It is necessary to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses.‘” (Acts 15:5)


And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while still uncircumcised, that he might be the father of all those who believe, though they are uncircumcised, that righteousness might be imputed to them also,  and the father of circumcision to those who not only are of the circumcision, but who also walk in the steps of the faith which our father Abraham had while still uncircumcised.” (Rom 4:11-12)


 Aristarchus my fellow prisoner greets you, with Mark the cousin of Barnabas (about whom you received instructions: if he comes to you, welcome him),  and Jesus who is called Justus. These are my only fellow workers for the kingdom of God who are of the circumcision; they have proved to be a comfort to me.” (Colossians 4:10-11)

In these verses, we see that both Luke and Paul understand that “those of the circumcision” to have, least in part, been believers in the Lord Jesus Christ. This would mean that they accepted Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah of Israel and the world, were baptized, and received the gift of the Holy Spirit. Would Paul, then, think of these men and woman as seeking to be justified by works? That is a tough question to ask. Certainly, when it came to their insistence that the Gentiles “must” be circumcised and obey the Law of Moses in order to be saved, they were objectively presenting the position that Paul sought to refute in his epistles which deal with the doctrine of justification by faith apart from works. But I don’t think Paul would have said these “Judaizers” were, at least initially, denying the grace of God, the need for the power of the Holy Spirit, and the need for the free remission of sins. I believe Paul is taking their position to its logical conclusion. If it is the case that Gentiles must become Jews in order to be saved, then we are eclipsing the truth that the “fullness of God” has come with faith in Jesus Christ, apart from observance of the Law of Moses. To do this would be to sin against God for not appropriating the fullness of his revelation. To try and rebuild the Sinaitic legislation when the New Covenant has come is to attempt to turn the clock back to Moses, and this was at the heart of Paul’s problem. But not only was returning to the Law a transgression against God’s plan in the New Covenant, but the character of man’s relationship with God had so enhanced in the New Covenant with the intimacy of divine adoption by which we cry out “Abba, Father!”. All things prior to this are earthly, shadows, and elementary principles of the world. Many of the Judaizers may have been blameworthy of this, and not, per se, explicitly trying to subdue God in debt to their good works. Once properly instructed, and settled by the Council of Jerusalem (49) in Acts 15, any more dissidence on the part of these “Judaizers” would then constitute a heresy worth excommunication.



Here I will synthesize all the foregoing into one cohesive thought. The righteousness of God which is made manifest through faith in the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ is God’s own intervention to graciously reverse the course of the lives of sinners from the way of sin which leads to death into the way of righteousness which leads to life. The grounds upon which this gift of righteousness is merited is the blood of Jesus Christ. When receiving this righteousness, we are “justified/acquitted” by means of being “set free” from sin by the payment of propitiatory sacrifice. The latter is Christ’s offering of love to the Father in order to give to God what man failed to give, i.e. perfect love and devotion. In our place, He loved God above all things, and His righteousness is worthy to abrogate the guilt of man’s sins and earn back those graces which provide for man true spiritual friendship with God, which is a abrogation to the enmity which exists in our mind through wicked works and a fulfilling of God’s standards power the power of the Holy Spirit. The ontological framework wherein this fundamental transition takes place in the lives of human beings is the joint participation between the baptized and Christ in being raised from the dead to enjoy resurrection life. The way in which this justification works mechanically or practically in the lives of believers is that faith shapes the human being to be receptive to the influx of God’s trans-formative power which has as its supreme effect the infusion of charity to God and man. As it is written: “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but faith working through love” (Gal 5:5). It requires our effort to co-operate with the power of God, but it is “not of ourselves” since “we are His workmaship, created in Christ Jesus for good works“.

5 thoughts on “The Righteousness of God Through Faith in Jesus Christ: The Justification of Sinners According to St. Paul

  1. Great article! Thank you! I think you’ve articulated St. Paul’s lines of thought very well.

    I could say lots of things, but one thing I’ll mention is that I appreciate that you don’t try to limit Paul’s idea of the “works of the law” that don’t justify to the works of the ceremonial law as opposed to the moral law. It’s always been apparent to me that this is wrong. As you say, Paul is excluding all works which come from us without grace, not just “ceremonial” works. To draw the line between ceremonial and moral works in this context is to miss Paul’s main point–which is that we are sinners who can’t save ourselves, and that only God in Christ can save us. It irritates me that it has become so popular in Catholic circles to misinterpret Paul on this point.

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