Pauline Soteriology and the Workless Justification of Romans 4

File:Apostle Paul (Jan Lievens) - Nationalmuseum - 132629.tif

The argument that St. Paul makes in Romans 4:1-9 is at the center of the debate between Catholics and Protestants. I’m gonna give a light commentary on how a Catholic might read these verses, and show how the Protestant exegesis is not the only deducible meaning. At the outset, it should be recalled that the specific context of St. Paul is the early dispute between Christian Judaism and the Gentile mission. The former held that for the Gentiles to be justified, or “saved,” (i.e. partaking of the saving benefits of the seed of Abraham), they had to follow the Torah of Moses, of which physical circumcision is the outward sign of initiation for males. When Gentile believers were simply baptized, had hands laid upon them for the Holy Ghost, and were brought into the community of the redeemed, these Judaizers would cry out on how this was not sufficient to accomplish their inclusion into the plan of salvation in Jesus Christ. In addition to circumcision, these Gentiles were, according to the Judaizers, to maintain the holy feasts of the Torah, abstain from “unlawful” foods, and abide by all the 613 Mosaic commands. It simply was not enough to repent towards God, be baptized, receive the Holy Spirit, and live a holy life following the greatest commandments to love God love your neighbor as yourself. St. Paul’s argument against this, en nuce, is that a new epoch has entered into history through the appearing of God’s Son in the Lord Jesus Christ which has rendered the Law of Moses both fulfilled and complete. The long-awaited Covenant with Israel prophesied about in Prophets had arrived where the Holy Spirit of God has been poured out into man to both cause him to walk in the law of the Lord as well as to give the full remission of sins. With this epochal shift, the Mosaic Law, as well as the physical sign of male circumcision, was no longer necessary in light of the new reality, unto which the former things were shadows. The initial error of the Judaizers was that they did not understand the full implications of the New Covenant, but their primary error was in thinking that what human beings do within the realm of works is what makes a man “just” in God’s eyes. The reason that outward circumcision and the commands of the Torah do not create justice in man is because of the fall of man into sin beginning with the first man. Adamic fallen nature is deprived of the powers and abilities of both soul and body to walk righteously before the eyes of God. The pure and holy commands of God will not liberate man from this prior problem. This is why Paul refers to the Mosaic Law as a “letter” written “on stones,” which “kills” and is, summarily, a “ministry of condemnation.” The new epoch in Christ has brought the Spirit who writes God’s will in the heart , or “tablets of flesh.” The letter written on stone is “outward” whereas the Spirit bringing our hearts alive to God is “inward.” This outward vs. inward dichotomy between the Law and the Spirit represents the dichotomy between the Old Covenant versus the New Covenant, between faith and works, and the condemnation of humanity versus the justification of humanity.

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