Not Those Works, But These Works!

Qualifying the good works approved by God in Roman Catholic justification

by Robert M. Zins, Th.M.

If it were possible, we would cause a sleep to fall over every Seminary and Bible College student and professor for just a little while. We would do so that we might go into our institutes of higher learning to place in front of all students and professors one question which they must answer correctly, upon awakening, or lose their standing as pupil or instructor. This question is the most important question that one can possibly ask. How we answer this question will display our understanding of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It truly does separate the sheep from the goats, so to speak. It is the question which should be the chief inquiry of all evangelism. It is that important. What then is this question? It is as follows:

"What is the righteousness contemplated by God in the verdict of justification?"

This question appears easy enough to answer. We are simply asking what righteousness does God have in mind when He justifies the ungodly? We are asking, “What does God take into account when He justifies the unrighteous?” What is the basis of justification? What averts the wrath of God so that He can justify the ungodly? Is it professing faith? Is it good works? Is it good works done in faith? Is it a contractual arrangement of obligation by God to accept good works? Is it faith plus works? Is it condign merit [merit deserved in virtue of grace]? Is it congruent merit [merit given as fitting]? Is it faithfulness? Is it fruitful faith? Is there anything at all in the sinner to which God looks in the satisfaction of His justice?

In answering this question, we are at the heart of the Gospel. Your answer will shed light on all of your theology. Your answer might surprise you. It might be absolutely incorrect. In which case, you may have to visit the Gospel all over again. But, whatever your answer may be, rest assured Rome has its answer. As a matter of fact, more time and energy has been spent by theologians of Rome in answering this question than any other. This question was at the heart of the Protestant Reformation. It needs to be asked by each and every new generation. All of our attempts to answer it drive us into the essence of all theological thought.

Stirring the Pot!

Most Christians have been taught rightly that justification is through faith apart from works of law. Some have distilled the formula rightly down to Sola Fide i.e., justification by faith alone. But not much attention is given to what this means. Does it mean that justification is according to the richness of my own faith? Or does it mean that justification is according to the faith I may have that God will reward my good works? Or does it mean that justification is according to my faith that God will accept me just the way that I am? Or does it mean that justification is according to faith that God is merciful to me as I have faith that He will reward me for what I can do for Him? The simple formula, Sola Fide, must be fleshed out. It is in this "fleshing out" process that we run headlong into Roman Catholic theology and an array of theological energy emanating from the inspired pen of the apostle Paul.

Setting the Stage

Roman Catholic theologians, as well as Christian theologians, have sought to penetrate the depths of the relationship between grace/faith and law/works in the Bible, particularly the writings of the apostle Paul. In so doing, Rome has disqualified itself as a Christian Church because it has given the wrong answers to a complex of theological questions culminating in the response given by Rome to our query above. Rome continues to believe the wrong answer and defend its miss as well! But, this is not to suggest that Rome has not seen the problems, which come from asking the right questions. Indeed, Rome has seen the tensions and tried to remedy them. In fact, it is somewhat troublesome that Rome has been better at asking the right questions than many professing Christians. Perhaps it is long overdue for Christians in our generation to ask these questions publicly and without fear offer a defense for the hope that is within. We thank God that these questions have been asked by many in times past. We are not alone in our inquiry.

The Hang-Up

In a very simplified nutshell, Roman Catholicism is an attempt to satisfy the relationship between law/works and grace/faith. That there exists some tension can be seen by setting side by side the writings of Paul.

“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 of God, who will render to every man according to his deeds.” Rom. 2:5,6.

“for not the hearers of the Law are just before God, but the doers of the Law will be just” Rom. 2:13.

It appears that God will have a righteous judgment wherein one's entry into heaven is suspended upon the amount of "doing the law" or "good deeds" he has done! Such an evaluation appears to be the teaching of the apostle in Romans 2. Read carefully Romans 2:7.

“to those who by perseverance in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life,” Rom. 2:7 [emphasis ours]

These verses are not lost on Roman Catholic writers:

Romans 2:5-10 shows that in Paul's view, God saves or condemns based on works performed by the individual. We see this clearly in his remark, verse 7, that God will give “eternal life” to those who “persist in good work.” (Not by Faith Alone, Bob R. Sungenis, Queenship Publishing, 1997 pg. 36)

But on the other hand, the same apostle writes words which seem to contradict. Let us read carefully the great apostle in another portion of Scripture.

“For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.” Rom. 3:28

“. . .nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the 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.” Gal. 2:16

“Just as David also speaks of the blessing upon the man to whom God reckons righteousness, apart from works.” Rom. 4:6

There is an apparent contradiction of thought between these passages which begs for some sort of reconciliation. This too is not lost on Roman Catholic writers:

How to regard Romans 2:5-10, with its explicit teaching that the individual receives eternal life as a reward for his work, has been one of the most difficult questions faced by Protestant theology. (Sungenis pg. 37)

We Need To Give An Answer

There have been several attempts by Christian commentators to reconcile Paul in Romans 2 with Paul in Romans 3. We need to be open and honest. There is a great deal of tension which emerges when we place these two chapters side by side. However, in this article we shall confine our analysis to the Roman Catholic solution to these tensions. In our next article we will interact with Christian responses. There is too much at stake to be hasty. We need to think carefully weighing Scripture circumspectly.

Rome Resolves The Tension

Rome views “good works” done in faith as part of the righteousness contemplated by God in the verdict of justification. To them, this satisfies their reading of Paul in Romans 2. However, Rome must satisfy equally those passages which appear to forbid the introduction of good works as the ground of justification. So, in one way or another, Rome mixes works and grace together in order to reconcile what appears to be contradictory assertions by the apostle. However, Rome is acutely aware that the apostle Paul forbids the mixing of the two as If they were the same. Rome seeks for a way in which good works can be meritorious without disrupting the principle of salvation by grace. Rome is aware of Romans 11.

“But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace is no longer grace.” Rom. 11:6

Some Roman Catholic apologists content themselves with believing that the apostle Paul only excludes the law of Israel in his triumphant articulation of justification by grace through faith and not of works. These writers are convinced that Paul is taking away Jewish Law for justification but not good works done in faith. Hence, the idea for them is to "think to Jewish Law" every time they read Paul excluding "Works of the law" for justification.

This position has been consistently undermined and overthrown by Christian theologians who appeal to Romans 4 and the life of Abraham. Clearly Abraham lived long before "Jewish Law" and his justification cannot be said to exclude only Jewish Law! For, there was no such thing at the time of his acquittal. Surely Abraham was justified apart from his own good works.

Romans 4: The Battlefield

Rome is backed up to the wall by Romans 4. Here Paul is unequivocal. He gives two classic illustrations of the ungodly. The first is Abraham and the second is David. In each case, the verdict of justification is determined without consideration of good works done in faith or personal righteousness of either party.

“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." Now to the one who works, his wage is not reckoned as a favor, but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness, just as David also speaks of the blessing upon the man to whom God reckons righteousness apart from works: "Blessed are those whose lawless deeds have been forgiven, And whose sins have been covered."” Romans 4:2-7

So, in one way or another, Rome mixes works and grace together in order to reconcile what appears to be contradictory assertions by the apostle. Unable to use the argument that Paul wishes to exclude only "Jewish Law" as the ground of justification, Rome redirects our thinking to a different solution. This solution enables Rome to hold to a justification not by faith alone while preserving grace alone. Or so it is alleged. It is the thesis of Rome that the "works" of Romans 4, excluded by Paul in the verdict of justification, do not represent all works. Rather, says Rome, the "works" denied by the apostle Paul, 'is part of the decree of justification, in the case of Abraham and David. are only "works" of a strict obligatory contract. Rome understands Paul to forbid only "works" that place a debt on God. In other words, Rome is convinced that Paul is only forbidding "works" which, by their working, infer that God owes them something.

It is Rome's contention that Paul is only excluding something we may call "raw law keeping" from the formula of justification. Raw law keeping is doomed for failure because it attempts to put God in an obligatory relationship which demands that God serve up justification based upon "works done." This is doomed to failure because of man's sinfulness. Man's best efforts are sin tainted and imperfect. This is doomed as well because no man can do all that the law requires. He will fall. So, Rome understands Romans 4 as teaching an exclusion only of contractual law keeping that would demand of God merit for justification. It is absolutely critical for Christians to understand that Romish writers see in Romans 4 only a denial of man's attempts to obligate God with his good works. Rome does not see a denial of "good works" accepted by God, in a grace relationship, as part of the ground of their justification. Hence, Abraham and David could not ever have been justified by works that obligate God to repay them. This would be likened to an employee-employer kind of relationship. The employee works to put the employer at his debt and can demand a wage. Rome says that this is only what the apostle Paul forbids in Romans4. Rome insists that there is no room for grace in this kind of relationship if the debt is due. Thus, Rome sees Paul eliminating only a wages due contractual relationship with God for justification. Rome maintains in the analogy that if God is the employer, He would not be in a grace relationship and only would give what is due the worker. Rome sees this as impossible since man cannot work perfectly. Man would be doomed to be in such a relationship. Rome is convinced that Paul is excluding only this kind of non-grace relationship in Romans 4. This paves the way for Rome to assert a good works done in faith, within a grace relationship, formula for justification. Rome is making room for grace while preserving good works.

Rome escapes into its grace/works system of Justification having dealt with any objections found in Romans 4. The escape is complete when Rome views man as having an altogether different relationship with God under its sacramental system. When once baptized in Rome, God is not an impersonal employer giving out wages due His workers. God is rather a benevolent Father accepting the best we can offer and counting our "good works" toward our justification. God can do this because He is now in a grace relationship. Or so it is alleged. But is this the teaching of Romans 4? We answer, it is not!

We submit that the teaching of Romans 4 is the opposite of what is proclaimed by Roman Catholic apologists. The burden of the apostle Paul is to set forth a justification from God that excludes boasting. It is not to set forth a justification from God that excludes obligatory debt. While it is true that obligatory debt is inconceivable for our justification, this is not the primary teaching of the passage. Furthermore, the apostle only uses the concept of obligatory debt as illustrated of what God has not done in justifying the ungodly. Paul does not bring up obligatory debt in order to exclude it from the justification of the ungodly per se. Obligatory debt serves a broader purpose in the passage. It is not the focus of the apostle. In fact, there is no denigration of obligatory debt in the context of Romans 4. It serves as a background of the opposite of what God has done in justifying the ungodly. God does not deal with the ungodly as an employer would deal with his employee. This is not to say that the employer is wrong in paying a wage due. This is to say that God does not do this in His justification of the ungodly. Let us observe what Paul says:

Now to the one who works, his wage is not reckoned as a favor, but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness, just as David also speaks of the blessing upon the man to whom God reckons righteousness apart from works" Rom.4:4-6.

“For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about; but not before God.” Rom. 4:2

In Romans 3:27 Paul asks the rhetorical question, "where then is boasting?" His response is that it is excluded by the law of faith. The burden of the apostle is to show forth a justification by God that absolutely eliminates all boasting of any kind. If Abraham were justified by works he would have something to boast about. But that is not the way God justifies. Furthermore, so deep is Paul's commitment to the grace of God that even normal hard work - good wage relationships fall far short of what God has done in justifying the ungodly. There is nothing wrong with work for pay. There is nothing wrong with good works. But neither relationship is analogous to what God has done in justifying the ungodly. Some one might boast of his good works which could be construed as the reason for his justification. Some one else may reason that he earned his justification. Neither of these patterns measures up however to what God has done. God has justified the one not working at all in order that it might be shown to be a favor for all eternity.

“Now to the one who works, his wage is not reckoned as a favor, but as what is due. Rom. 4:4 [emphasis ours]

Rome's error is in defining the nature of God's favor. Rome teaches that God has committed Himself to accept good works done in faith as part of the ground in the justification of the ungodly. Rome is anxious to insert grace and favor but only with the inclusion of good works, done appropriately, outside of an obligatory contractual relationship with God. Christians see this and end run to avoid the clear teaching of the text. The text stands forcefully against Rome. There is not a hint of "acceptable works" performed in a "grace relationship" for justification here. Also, Rome constrains the apostle to eliminate what Rome itself constructs. There is no hint that Paul has in mind the extinction of only Rome's artificial contractual/obligatory works model of justification. The apostle knows of no such refinement in this passage. He simply says that all boasting is eliminated. This means each and every kind of work is excluded in the verdict of justification as well. Any kind of work, under any circumstances is conceived by the apostle as a destruction of the essence of grace. Favor loses its meaning if work of any ilk [no matter how attractive to man the formula may seem] leaks into the equation of how God justifies the ungodly. To miss this point is to miss the Gospel!

Rome's answer to the question, "What is the righteousness contemplated by God in the verdict of justification?" remains faith plus good works done in faith outside of an obligatory contractual relationship. In place of an obligatory contractual relationship, Rome offers a grace dispensing relationship whereby God is said to accept good works along with faith as the ground of justification. This, they say, satisfies Paul's insistence that God will render to every man according to his deeds. We believe Rome is wrong and has missed the Gospel. Next time we shall offer a Christian alternative.

This article was originally published in Robert Zins' magazine, Theo-Logical. Robert Zins is the director of A Christian Witness to Roman Catholicism. He holds a Master of Theology degree from Dallas Theological Seminary, a Master of Education degree from Springfield College, and a Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science from Alma College. Robert has written extensively and has produced a number of pamphlets, booklets, video and audio tapes on the Roman Catholic religious system.