Revisiting St. Paul’s Message on the Gift of Justification to Mankind

I would like some feedback here from some of my Protestant readers on a previous article wherein I offer a reading of Romans 4 which might be a reasonable alternative to the Lutheran reading. Often times, Catholics or Orthodoxy try to say that since “works” in the context refers to Jewish boundary markers, we can safely say that when St. Paul says that we are justified by faith “apart from the works o the Law,” he simply means that while man is justified by faith apart from “ceremonial rituals” he is justified by a combination of faith and moral works, such that flow from loving God above all things and our neighbor as ourselves. However, it seems to me that when St. Paul excludes “works” from human justification, he means to exclude all human working of any kind, even if the Jewish boundary markers are his emphasis. Now, lest I trigger the physicists, chemists, and biologists reading this, I don’t mean to say that St. Paul envisions the exclusion of quite literally every single human work imaginable, such that even the process of hearing, thinking, contemplating, and the choice of commitment (which are all technically a work in ontology). Even so, their movement is still grounded in the immanent God who grounds all being and its function. To a natural and supernatural level, God always grounds the movement of even the soul’s movements.
In any case, exegetically speaking, it can’t be denied that in his letter to Rome, St. Paul clearly understands all of human sin to have disqualified everyone from being recognized as “just” or “right” in the eyes of God. Therefore, attempts at making onself “just” or “right” in God’s eyes through outward ceremony certainly won’t be successful (indeed, this is Paul’s emphasis), but neither would the soul’s attempt to strive for moral perfection since it is impossible (Rom 3:9-20; 7:1-25). A successful human justification, therefore, must be through a means which is neither a prescription for outward ceremony (for an outward effect) nor an assignment to commit one’s life to moral perfection. The Mosaic Law, seeing as it requires both (Gal 3:10-12), cannot give life because its demand can’t be met by humanity marred by the sin of Adam (Rom 5:12-21).

The Pauline method of successful human justification begins with the God who loves and abounds in mercy (Titus 3:1-7). Recognizing the need of humanity, God condescends to prepare His creatures to meet His standards by a whole new methodology, “apart from the Law” (Rom 3:21). This methodology involves the sending of His co-equal Son to take on “the likeness of sinful flesh” (Rom 8:3) and suffer the penalty (qua voluntary sacrifice) for human sin through violent death. In the Son of God, by way of a corporate representation, the whole of Adamic humanity is slain (i.e. the old man) in His death and with His resurrection, and a new Christic humanity is born anew. Human nature, therefore, is regenerated, and now a full cleansing and ontological renewal is made available to all persons who obtain the benefits.

That moves us to the next stage of God’s method. This great benefit of “redemption” (Rom 3:24) whereby the death and resurrection of the Son of God, by putting away sin and death, and which can release humanity from its prison of guilt and mortality, is on open offer for all persons in the world who “believe in Jesus Christ” (Rom 3:22). What then is it to believe? St. Paul can elsewhere speak of this as the “obedience of faith” (Rom 1:5), or that the Gospel requires one to obey (2 Thes 1:8). As St. Augustine argued, the call to believe is a command, and therefore it is obedience to do so. In fact, St. Paul understands the action of believing to be so inclusive with the human commiting itself to God in obedience that he thinks that his readers should understand believing to necessarily imply the reception of the sacrament of Baptism (Gal 3:25-28), which is performing the will of Jesus Christ, c.f. “Go and preach the Gospel to every creature… whoever believes and is baptized will be saved”, Mark 16. Already then, the act of faith involves a turning of the soul towards God in repentance. This is why repentance is just as much a condition for the forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:36-38) as is believing, because the two acts are simply the sides of one single coin. Outward circumcision avails nothing with God, says St. Paul, nor does the natural man seeking to be justified by his best effort at sinlessness, but rather a new creation (Gal 6:14) avails with God, and this new creation is characterized by faith working through love (Gal 5:5-6)

By receiving the gifts that come to the human creature in Baptism, the recipient is “justified” (1 Cor 6:10-11). Thereafter, St. Paul warns the baptized that they are to ensure that they live a holy and righteous life, continually sowing one’s seed unto good works lest they find a destiny wholly opposite of one who is “just” in the eyes of God (Gal 6:7-8). The imputation of righteousness to the human being, therefore, is not by “works” in the sense of outward Jewish ceremonies that made a purely fleshly effect (circumcision), nor it is by the natural human being who strives for moral perfection (or sinlessnes). Rather, the man who breaks down in repentance and who from there seeks God in obedient good works, all the while placing the source of His spiritual strength in God the Holy Spirit, is the man who is imputed as righteous (Rom 4:24-25). It involves not just the initial response of obedience on the the part of the human subject, but also the ongoing fidelity to God’s commands under the auspices of grace which isn’t anywhere near as exacting as the Law of Moses. The Law of Christ begins with the implantation of the seed of eternal life in Baptism and the human subject is thenceforth required to obey Christ as Master and Lord, as well as to perpetually abide under the grace of His forgiveness.

So then, does St. Paul exclude all human works in the attainment of the status of being “just” in the eyes of God? Yes, he exlcudes both ceremonial and moral works insofar as the natural man is concerned. The natural man, strictly speaking, is the man “under the Law” (Rom 6:14). The natural man is the “old man” enslaved to sin (Rom 6:1-5; 7:1-5). From that man, no method can allow a right relationship with God. However, from the gift of Baptism, the “new man” is walking in the post-mortem victory of Christ’s resurrection. From him, the Law of God is “fulfilled” (Rom 8:4) by the power of the Holy Spirit (Rom 8:10-13). He is justified initially by no works other than showing up in repentance and faith for Baptism, and he is ongoingly maintained in a “just” status by His obedience to Christ as Master and Lord, and his continual repentance which reaches out and takes of the Lord’s merciful remission of sins. However, even the obedience and good works of the regenerated human being is not “works” in the sense that St. Paul excludes in Romans 4 from Abraham. This is sometimes overlooked by Catholic exegetes. The Book of Romans is all about the saving of sinful humanity through the righteousness of God (Rom 1:16-17), and said righteousness is supposed to deliver man by justifying him before a holy God. But, rather unexpectedly, St. Paul points to a moment of justification in Abraham’s life after he had already been following the Lord in faith and obedience as an example of the justification of sinners. This is because Abraham’s justification by faith is under the auspices of grace, whereby obedience rendered unto God itself presupposed the implantation of divine regeneration and the power of the Holy Spirit. In that context, there can’t be any boasting (Rom 4:1-5). Thus, St. Paul’s absolute exclusion of works here must be understood as works-from-natural-and-fallen-mankind.

It is no wonder, therefore, why St. Paul chooses Abraham (aside from his being uncircumcised at the point of his reference, c.f. Gen 15:6) and David as the two practical examples of what it means to be imputed righteous apart from works. Abraham’s believing in God (Gen 15:6) was his inward trust of God’s promise, something which pleased God sufficiently for Him to see Abraham as “justified”. David repented of his sin, and was imputed as righteous apart from works. In both instances, repentance and faith were had by the human subject and in both instances were they judged righteous without works, for faith and repentance rendering one acceptable to God is neither the strict debt on God that human works would accomplish if they achieve sinlessness. In both cases, Abraham’s faith is presupposed to be attached or informed by love (Gal 5:5) and hope (Rom 4:23-25), and the non-imputation of David’s sin (that which St. Paul deems tantamount to the imputation of righteousness) presupposes confession of sin (Ps 32:5), prayer (ibid.,6), and uprightness of heart (ibid., 11). These characteristics describe the tax collector in the temple, contra the Pharisees, who thought he wasn’t worthy to even look up and pleaded with God, “God be merciful to me a sinner” (Luke 18:9-14). Jesus said concerning him, “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified (δεδικαιωμένος)”. But notice what neither Abraham nor David did to be just in God’s eyes: Abraham was not even circumcised let alone abiding by all 613 commandments under the Sinai legislation of God’s Law, and David was crying out to God to deliver him from sin, and thus could not be deemed sinless so as to perfectly avoid the curse (Gal 3:10). God’s methodology of justifying sinners, then, is wholly apart from the Mosaic Law and moral works considered as done sufficiently to merit sinlessness by the natural status of human potential, particularly such as marred by the sin of Adam (Rom 5:12-21).

8 thoughts on “Revisiting St. Paul’s Message on the Gift of Justification to Mankind

  1. “However, it seems to me that when St. Paul excludes ‘works’ from human justification, he means to exclude all human working of any kind, even if the Jewish boundary markers are his emphasis.”

    HERESY! The only way this can be true is if justification here only means “justification as a candidate for baptism” which is what I think it actually does mean. Faith in Xhrist and its profession alone are needed to justify one as a proper candidate for baptism and not circumcision nor some period of probation. But then, where does thia leave infant baptism?

    • It could also mean that when St. Paul refers to “works” in this context he means “works done by natural human power”. In that case, all righteous works of the Christian life from the moment one desires baptism until the very last moment of breath is “apart from works” of all kind. So I take it that your charge of heresy was a result of poor thinking.

      He can’t mean simply candidacy for baptism because he refers to the justification of Abraham and David many years after both are converted unto God.

      As for infant baptism – the West squared this with teaching that faith is infused into the infant as part of the habitus of sanctifying grace.

      • “He can’t mean simply candidacy for baptism because he refers to the justification of Abraham”

        Who seems merely to have been juatified as a candidate for circumcumcision. As Paul says, “curcumcision was a seal of the faith he had before circumcision.”

        “and David many years after both are converted unto God.”

        Does he really say anything about David or merely quote a Psalm which in context was actually about God forgiving David without an animal sacrifice and had nothing to do with juatification by faith alone.

        Paul seems to me to be the kind of writer who throws everything againat the wall hoping something will stick. His various attempts to explain the relationship of Christians to the Law all end up contradicting each other, (such as the law being invalid because it was given by mere angels and not God, the law bekng abolished as a whole because its of works not of faith, the law being the strength of sin, the law having been given merely to condemn all along, the law being too spiritual for carnal man and thus must be dumbed down to meet ua half-way, the law being a schoolmaster for children only, etc.) (see Paul and the Law by Heikki Raisanen) and must in the end be replaced by the church acceptin one actually coherent theory put forward by Justin Martyr (that Jesus’ death abolished the ceremonial but not the moral law) rather than Paul’s many competing and contradictory theories none of whixh ultimately sticks to the wall and all of which taken as true will lead to some Protestant heresy with regard to soteriology when taken to their in3vitable conclusion.

        The early church (pre-Augustine) treated Paul as three things (1) a witness to the resurrection, and (2) a theologian, and (3) a pretty decent administrator or creator of administrative theory on how to run the church. But not as an infallible revelator. This is why novody took his predestination doctrine seriously (outside Gnostic heretical groups) prior to Augustine. The early church was right in how they dealt with Paul; Augustine was wrong. To take Paul as infallible or even as totally consistent will end in Protestant heresy, or in other words, a modern dumbed down and deapiritualized Gnosticism, since modern man is not capable of the Neo-Platonic Gnosticism what with his belief in Darwinian evolution.

      • Sorry, somehow I got confused and thought I was on the blog orthodoxreflections! Lol. I’m so embarrased. Over here my pointing out that Augustine changed how Paul is used in theology and that this change leads directly to Protestantism’s despiritualized Gbosticism will not be accepted as it might possibly be over there by some, because Romanism begins precisely with this error of Augustine’s. Oh well, I pointed out the truth, and if you get triggered by it that is your personal problem I supposed. But I am still so embarassed that I casted my pearls before those who prefer plastic beads over pearls. I need to pay more attention to what blog I’m on. I hope the redfacedness goes away soon.

      • Paul is pointing out the exclusion of ceremonial works in the justification-acts of Abraham and David, in which both events are not exactly the same. However, there is still relevance to whether moral works done by raw human nature (what can be done “in the flesh”, Rom 4:1-3).

        As for Paul’s doctrine of predestination – it could have very well been a doctrine that Paul offered but which would have been held as a mere opinion if all the Apostles got together to consider Romans 9, for example. But to say that it is heretical seems to suggest that St. Paul was a heretic. The consequences of this seem more fatalistic to any Chrisian confession unless you have, like Marcion, some plan of re-configuring a different canon of Scripture. Or worse, limit infallibility to only the Old Testament (!), the near converse of Marcion.

        Now, if you are speaking from a restorationist-perspective, wherein some Fathers got it right, but then the Spirit devolved His work to separatist sects, then we should lay our cards out clearly lest we continue to speak past one another.

  2. Paul offers his predestination theory as an explanation as to why the Jews did not accept Christ as a whole, but even he later realizes its the wrong explanation and replaces it with 1 Thess 2:15 “who both killed the Lord Jesus, and their own prophets, and have persecuted us; and they please not God, and are contrary to all men.” But before he realized how inveterately evil the Jews were by their own evil wills, he thought it was by predestination that God caused the Jews to temporarily reject Christ to somehow make for a bigger acceptance of Christ by Jews once they got jealous of Gentiles; but they never got jealous so as to pour into the church because his psychologizing off the cuff was wrong headed. This is why his arguments can be said to not be heretical per se; i.e. he changes them so constantly that he never achieves anything like the consistency of a heresiarch. Rather he speaks merely as a preacher whose views change over time. And frequently speaks as off the cuff as Pope Francis, leaving everyone else o run interference or his bad explanations and misworded blundering statements.

    Its interesting how when it comes go pushing Augustinian doctrines like predestinationand certain interpretations of original sin, Romans resort to the notion of the scripture being first and the church building itself by reading the text and interpretting it; but if a Protestant were to quote a passage like “call no man father” or “let the bishops be husbands of one wife” then the Roman would retort “the church came first not the Bible” and simply dismiss the verse. The Orthodox are more consistent in always following the latter policy and never making the mistake of the first.

    • If you trust the Church so much, then provide a single testimony, statement, canon, decree, or clear argument from either a Council, a Saint, or a greatly respected theologian in the Orthodox Church who believes that St. Paul contrdicted himself constantly, and that the post-Apostolic Fathers had to clean it up. Otherwise, if you can’t do this, then you follow neither “Scripture First” nor “Fathers first” but “george cristopheri first”.

      • All fathers prior to the heresiarch Augustine testify to this by their attacks on predestination and their teaching of free will. Paul was kept in his proper place, as a witness to the resurrection and as offfering a system of church administration that was only a guidline (i.e. his command for bishops to be from the married is ignored as his predestination is and as his faith alone is). But how can one expect a Roman whose church was started by the heresiarch Augustine to see this? Even though you see no father prior to your founder taught predestination, you simply ignore all that came before Augustine. And it is from the Romans that the Protestant abominations have come, who also view Augustine as the first church father and ignore what came before.

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