There is a tough text in Romans 2 that comes up often in the debate with Roman Catholics on whether a person is justified by faith, or by faith and works. Verse 13 reads,
“For it is not the hearers of the Law who are justified, but the doers of the Law who will be justified.”
Roman Catholics often use this verse to teach against what Paul so clearly establishes in Romans 3-10, that we are justified by faith apart from works. However, this interpretation is a major problem for their system.
The Roman Catholic Inconsistency
The classic understanding of Paul from the Roman Catholic position is that whenever Paul speaks of being justified by faith, he is only referencing our “initial” justification being through faith (which they equate to baptism without exegetical warrant). Thus Paul is saying faith is necessary, but not enough; however, this holds no water in the text. I would like to draw specific attention though, to a secondary response. Paul will sometimes use faith, and faith alone, as being the instrument of justification in Romans (3: 25, 5:1). However, Paul will often go out of his way to not only list faith as the instrument of justification, but will juxtapose it to works, explicitly stating that we are justified not by works (3: 20; 27-28, 4: 4).
What is the common Roman Catholic response? The argument is to claim Paul was merely condemning the idea that a person can be justified by works of the Mosaic law because Paul qualifies his belief that works cannot justify with the phrase “the Law.” For example, Romans 3: 28,
“For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.”
According to Roman Catholic doctrine, Paul then is not condemning works justification in general, but he is only condemning being justified by the Mosaic Law. Take a few examples from Roman Catholic apologists:
“When Saint Paul speaks of the ‘works of the law,’ he refers to what we know as the six hundred and thirteen precepts of the Torah, such as Jewish prohibitions against eating pork, the mandate of circumcision, and the observance of Passover.”
“The ‘works of the law’ he refers to here are not all works, but things like circumcision. In other words, we are saved apart from Jewish rituals required under Mosaic Law.”
“My position was that the thesis would be better served by just simply quoting Romans 3:28 as it is. Paul says, ‘For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the law.’ And, I show in the debate in the context in Romans that the ‘works of the law’ there refer to the ceremonial law. That is, these ceremonial boundary markers — Old Testament boundary markers that distinguish Jews from Gentiles — mainly circumcision but also other things like dietary regulations, certain feasts and so on. And, when we come to Romans 3:28, therefore, Paul is not drawing a division between faith and good works. Rather, he’s drawing a division between faith and the ‘works of the law.’ Which, there were certain Jewish converts to Christianity — you can see this in Acts 15:1 — that believed that circumcision and these ceremonial laws actually were salvific — that they could save a person, that they could justify. And, Paul is saying no. We are not justified by these Old Testament sacraments. We are a justified by faith. Afterwards, I had a chance to consider the debate, and really, for my money, I think it comes down to a one verse takedown. Because, Jeff, in order to maintain that Paul’s teaching faith apart from good works or any human element, he needs to show that the ‘works of the law’ can be expanded to encompass good works and human elements, right? Now here’s the problem. It’s the very next verse. Romans 3:29 teaches, ‘Or is God the God of the Jews only, is he not also the God of the Gentiles?’ Now, this 29 in a sense defines what he says in 28. Whatever these ‘works of the law’ are — whatever they are: good works, ceremonial law, whatever — we know that from verse 29 they must be distinctively Jewish. Now, the ‘works of the law,’ obviously, are distinctively Jewish. In fact, those are the things that distinguished Jews from Gentiles in the Old Covenant. But, good works and human elements aren’t distinctively Jewish. Gentiles do good works. Paul teaches that in Romans 2.”
“So what about the fact that Paul also said we are ‘justified by faith apart from works of law?’ He was writing to a church in Rome struggling with a very prominent first-century heretical sect known today as the ‘Judaizers.’ These heretics taught that belief in Christ and obedience to the New Covenant was not enough to be saved. A man also had to keep the Mosaic Law (which, according to Hebrews 7:11-12, has been superseded in Christ) and be circumcised in order to be saved (cf. Acts 15:1-2). Paul gave us one clue—among many—that he had this sect in mind when he wrote in Romans 2:28-29, ‘For he is not a real Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical. He is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart, spiritual and not literal . . .’ Paul told us in Colossians 2:11-12 that this true ‘circumcision of Christ’ is baptism. It is in this context that Paul says we are ‘justified by faith apart from works of law.’ He did not in any sense say that works are unnecessary. He specified works of law because these were the works without which the Judaizers were claiming one ‘cannot be saved.’ Paul does not specifically say works of law in Romans 4:5, but if we read from Romans 3:28 to Romans 4:5 and beyond, the context makes it unmistakable: Paul was referring to circumcision in particular and the same ‘works of law’ he was referring to in Romans 3:28.”
Clearly I have not mischaracterized the Roman Catholic position. Here is the issue that arises: Catholics will maintain this understanding of Paul’s words in Romans 3-5, yet, will quote Romans 2 to justify their position.
If the Roman Catholic position is true, then Paul has certainly contradicted himself because Romans 2 uses the same phrase, “the Law.” Paul says it is not the hearers of the Law who are justified, but the doers of the Law will be justified.
In other words, the Roman Catholic maintains that the only kind of works righteousness that Paul condemns in Romans 3-5 is thinking you can be justified by works “the Law.” Other works can justify us, just not works of the Law. But that is the very Law spoken of in Romans 2. Thus, they cannot maintain this verse as well as their understanding of the rest of the following chapters consistently. Apparently, Paul told us that Moses’ Law cannot justify right after telling us that those who do Moses’ Law will be justified.
I do not believe this one argument settles the entire justification debate, but it does present a serious conundrum, and at least takes Romans 2 away from the Catholic apologists. They can no longer claim this verse as their own.
As an example of this, Robert Sungenis believes this verse supported his position so much so that he actually criticized his debate opponent, as well as other protestant literature on justification for never even addressing Romans 2: 13. That is inconsistent, as Romans 2 is teaching in direct contradiction to his own position! Namely, that the Mosaic Law can in fact justify us.
How does the Roman Catholic harmonize Romans 2: 13 with Romans 3: 28? Both of them are addressing the Mosaic Law, so the arguments listed above will not do.
The Protestant Position
The protestant needs to be able to settle this issue, too. There are two potential responses Protestants typically maintain.
The first (and in my opinion least plausible) is that the text is descriptive, not prescriptive. What that means is that Paul is not saying that those who do the Law will be justified by doing the Law, but instead, those who are justified will do the Law. The idea being that Paul is describing those who are justified, namely, that they do the Law.
The problem with this interpretation is that it does not fit with anything that came before it. First, Paul brought up that those “who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law” (12). How does the descriptive interpretation fit with those who are judged by not following the law? It seems to flip from prescriptive to descriptive arbitrarily. Second, the doers of the Law are juxtaposed with those who hear the Law. This is clearly not “descriptive.” There is a clear prescriptive tone to this verse. In other words, Paul’s point can be summed up as, “Don’t just hear the Law, but obey it.” This makes far more sense than, “Don’t just hear the Law, but Christians are those who obey the Law.” The former makes more sense, and does not arbitrarily shift from a prescriptive to a descriptive text.
The far more likely interpretation is that Paul is simply reminding self-righteous Jews that the purpose of the handing on of the Law was not just to inherit it, and then ride the coattails of family lineage into heaven. God did not deliver a Law to them to serve as a badge, but He expected them to do it. That’s what you do with Laws, you follow them.
Thus, Paul is setting up, according to the purpose of Law, a hypothetical. Technically, one could be justified by doing the Law. Christ made it clear He came for sinners, not for righteous people (Matthew 9:12). Thus, if you’re not a sinner, if you do the Law, God will justify you. Doers of the Law will be justified.
Paul is setting up his argument theatrically and brilliantly. He establishes a clear truth: all those who do the Law will be justified. There is only one problem…. no one does the Law.
Romans 3: 10, “as it is written: ‘None is righteous, no, not one.’”
Romans 3: 20, “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.”
Romans 3:23, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…”
Romans 8: 7-8, “For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.”
Those who do the Law are justified. It does not follow that there is anyone who does the Law. That actually becomes Paul’s point. Because no one does, nor eve can do the Law, Christ must now save apart from the Law.
Additional Arguments Against
There are additional arguments I would levy against the Roman Catholic notion that Paul only condemns the use of the Mosaic Law to justify.
First and foremost, the Mosaic Law was perfect and altogether righteous. It was the holy Law of God. How is it then any other Law could justify us? The Mosaic Law is as God-breathed and holy as it gets. Why is superior to these other works Rome requires of men to be justified that make those works able to justify us over God’s holy Law revealed through Moses?
Secondly, while Paul is in fact primarily dealing with the Mosaic Law, there is no exegetical reason not to apply his arguments to any law. In fact, Paul explicitly does this for us.
In Romans 3: 27, Paul asks, “What then becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by a law of faith.” Paul expands his argument to any kind of law of works. No law of works is able to justify us.
Related to this, the kind of law we are relying on is simply not the only issue Paul is dealing with. The very nature of working is also something under Paul’s theological microscope. Regardless of which law is being worked out, the very concept of working is at odds with justification.
In verse 27, Paul asks what happens to human boasting in justification. Boasting, he then says, is excluded. Paul’s vindication for the exclusion of boasting is that justification is on the basis of faith rather than any works, because if one works, boasting cannot be excluded. If works of any law play a role in justification, there is necessarily room for boasting. No matter how much grace is involved, if I work, and others do not, I get to boast. Thanks be to God He justifies us in a way which leaves no room for boasting at all.
By definition, when we are talking about works, we cannot be talking about grace. Paul makes this clear in Romans 4: 4,
“Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift, but as a gift but as his due.”
When you get something following works, it is no longer a gift, but a wage. If works are involved at all with justification, then we are not in fact justified by God’s grace as a gift (Romans 3: 24), but instead, we put God in our debt. If I work, God now owes me justification. A paycheck from your employer is not a gracious gift. You earned that; they owe it to you. You sue them when they withhold it.
We will never sue God. We will never win that court case. Justification is not by works, thus, God is never in our debt. This is why the common talking point among legalistic religions that “we have to work but we only do so because God’s grace enables us, so it’s still all of grace” is so at odds with the very nature of grace. As soon as works enter the equation, we are no longer talking about grace, but wages. Paul makes this clearer in Romans 11:6, “But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.” To bring works into justification literally cancels grace out. Grace by definition is unmerited favor. If heaven is unmerited, we cannot claim we merited it anyway. Grace and works do not fit together on this issue. Grace alone, or works alone, but they cannot be married.
In the end, it does not matter which Law is in view. If works any role in justification, then grace plays no role in justification. If works play any part in justification, then God justifies, not as a gift, but as a wage.
Lastly, another issue Roman Catholics must keep in mind when discussing Romans 2: 13 is that when Paul says “doers” of the Law, he is not allowing us to read in “those who try their hardest.” Doers of the Law must do the Law perfectly to be justified. Paul makes this clearer elsewhere when rejecting the Judiazers for the Galatian heresy.
Galatians 5:3, “I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law.”
We are obligated to keep the entire Law. We either do it, or we don’t. God does not grade on a curve.
By way of reminder, what was the Galatian heresy exactly? That’s right, believing works can justify.
Galatians 5: 4-5, “You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness.”