"Works of the Law"
Today, many Catholics are confused as to the meaning of the phrase "works of the law." This phrase appears in such passages as Romans 3:28: "For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law." I receive calls and letters quite frequently from people asking what the phrase really means. They read in my books what they understand as the historic teaching of the Catholic church, but then they hear some other Catholic apologist say something a little different.
Unfortunately, the meaning of "works of the law" is such a crucial area to understanding both St. Paul and the Catholic teaching on Justification, that I feel compelled to reiterate more forcefully what I have already written in my 1997 book, Not By Faith Alone.
Various Catholic apologists today, when teaching on the meaning of the "works of the law," will often explain it as referring to the ceremonial law of Israel, to the exclusion, or the virtual exclusion, of the remaining law in Israel. (The ceremonial law refers to all the ritual religious practices, such as circumcision, eating kosher foods, priestly sacrifices, seventh-day sabbath observance, etc).
Sad to say, that answer is at best a half-truth, and at worst, it is a distortion of the Catholic teaching on Justification.
One of the reasons these apologists categorize "works of the law" as referring to the ceremonial law is that they have found it to be an easy polemical tool against Protestants. Protestants say that St. Paul condemns ALL work as having any part in Justification. The Catholic apologist counters by saying that when Paul uses the phrase "works of the law" he does not mean ALL works; he only means the works of the ceremonial law of Israel.
The Catholic will then add that in Paul's confining "works of the law" to the ceremonial law, he specifically meant to exclude the moral law, such as those we find in the Commandments. Therefore, in Romans 3:28, Paul really means: "For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Ceremonial Law," (but all other "good" works can, and do, justify a man).
In giving this kind of answer, the Catholic thinks he has satisfactorily defended the Catholic faith and silenced the Protestant. To bolster his case, he may enlist the help of Romans 3:29 as proof that his answer is correct: "Or is God the God of Jews only? Is He not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also." He then explains that since Paul speaks of "Jews only," then the "works of the law" mentioned in the previous verse (3:28) must be something that identifies only with the Jews but not with the Gentiles. In that he is correct, but as we will see later, the answer he gives as to the distinguishing characteristic (the ceremonial law) is only partially correct, and in being such, it is the wrong answer to this most crucial question.
The "New Perspective on Paul"
In a similar vein, there are also a few Catholic apologists who have sided with the views of a new breed of Protestant exegetes. These Protestants have advanced what they call "The New Perspective on Paul." Current proponents of this new perspective are such Protestant names as James D. G. Dunn, E. P. Sanders, Alan Suggate, N. T. Wright and R. B. Hays, among others. Dunn's first attempt at advancing this theory came in the article "The New Perspective on Paul" (1983) and the book: The Justice of God: A Fresh Look at the Old Doctrine of Justification by Faith (1993), while E. P. Sanders wrote Paul and Palestinian Judaism (1977). N. T. Wright expressed his view in the article "Romans and the Theology of Paul" (1995); while Hays wrote "Three Dramatic Roles: The Law in Romans 3-4."
Although it is often touted as a "new" theory, in reality it stems from the views of Protestant William Werde in his 1897 German publication, which has since been translated into English under the title: The Task and Methods of New Testament Theology. The theory was also advocated by Protestant Kristar Stendahl in his 1970 work The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West, and now reprinted under the title: Paul Among the Jews and Gentiles.
The theory claims that the traditional interpretation which views St. Paul's writings as portraying a contest between "grace versus works" is not the main issue, and perhaps not even correct. Dunn hypothesizes that the emphasis on "grace versus works" is merely a product of the polemics circulating during the Reformation period between Luther and the Catholic Church. Rather, Dunn, et al, say that the Jew of the first century AD believed he was within the grace of God, and thus a struggle between grace and works was not the Jew's concern.
Consequently, Dunn claims that the central issue concerning the Justification controversy portrayed by the New Testament is sociological rather than soteriological; a matter of "Jew versus Gentile," not "grace versus works." The main challenge for the Jew is said not to be one of relinquishing his dependence on works and resigning himself to God's grace, but of accepting Gentiles as part of the covenant community, and letting them share in the graces of God that the Jew already has. In short, Dunn's thesis is that the Jew was not so much proud of his works as he was proud of his grace; whereas the traditional view says that, except for a remnant, the Jew was eliminated from the grace of God due to his obstinate reliance on works.
Following Kristar Stendahl, other Protestants such as Lloyd Gaston (Paul and the Torah, 1987) and Stanley Stowers (A Rereading of Romans: Justice, Jews and Gentiles, 1994) have taken the theory so far as to say that Jews and Gentiles have "separate but related ways" to salvation, with Israel continuing to live by the law as its accompaniment to salvation.
Dunn also seeks to apply his interpretation to our current day, teaching that mankind's real challenge is that he must learn to accept everyone regardless of race or ethnic background, since we are all God's children. Dunn and Suggate also postulate, for example, that Adolph Hitler's main problem was not one of intrinsic evil or hatred against God but merely a superiority attitude against people of other ethnic backgrounds.
On the surface, some parts of Dunn's view may sound logical, at least to some extent. The big question is, however: does the New Testament portray the Jews in the way Dunn suggests? Quite simply, the answer is NO; the New Testament does not focus on the ethnic paradigm Dunn is suggesting. If the New Testament hints at it in any way, it is only as a tangent to the bigger story of man's individual responsibility to reject his own self-righteousness and self-reliance so that he can receive the grace of God, which is his only means of salvation.
For a qualified Catholic critique of Dunn's view, see Brendan Byrne, S.J., The Problem of NovmoV and the Relationship with Judaism in Romans. Among other things, Byrne points out that "works of the law" refers to "the Jewish law in toto"; and that the famous Qumran document 4QMMT, which has been touted by followers of Dunn, turns out to be a Hebrew phrase meaning simply "some precepts of the Law" without the connotation of performance (See M. Bachmann's "4QMMT und Galaterbrief, und hrwth yv[m ERGA NOMOU" in ZNW 89  91-113).
Paul is clear, for example, in Romans 9:31-32 that, regardless of how the Jews may have thought of themselves as being in God's graces, the fact is that Scripture portrays them as pursuing righteousness by works, not of being overly proud of grace. Paul writes: 31 "...but Israel, pursuing a law of righteousness, did not arrive at that law. 32 Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as though it were by works." It is only the "remnant" of Jews that remained in the grace of God, and the rest in Israel were hardened in their sin; and according to Paul, this occurred in the eighth century BC before the Gentiles ever became a concern (Romans 11:1-10). We will say more about this in the analysis below.
"Works of the Law"
As for the argument that the "works of the law" applies to the ceremonial law, such that Paul is teaching that the ceremonial law cannot justify but that the moral law does justify, the first thing I would like to mention is that the Council of Trent, which is our central authoritative source on matters of Justification, NEVER used such argumentation. (Nor did they use anything close to Dunn's view, noted above). This fact becomes significant for our investigation, since during the Counter-Reformation there were certain Catholic clerics who, in opposition to the Lutherans, were trying to advance the argument that "works of the law" referred only to the ceremonial law. As it stands, the Council of Trent rejected that apologetic.
In the sixth session of the Council (where Justification is addressed), neither the words "ceremonial law," "ritual practices," nor anything of the sort are mentioned, not even one time. The only time the Council mentions the word "circumcision" is in Chapter 7 when it is quoting from Galatians 5:6 ("in Christ Jesus neither circumcision avails anything, nor uncircumcision, but faith, which worketh by charity"), but it gives no elaboration on the usage of the term. Again, this is significant because it shows us that the Council did not think the "works of the law = ceremonial law" argument was a good, or even biblical, argument to explain the nature of Justification.
Rather than focus on the ceremonial law, the Council of Trent went right to the main, overarching issue, that is, the issue concerning "grace versus works" that I mentioned above. In the very first Canon the Council says:
"If anyone shall say that man can be justified before God by his own works which are done either by his own natural powers, or through the teaching of the Law, and without divine grace through Christ Jesus: let him be anathema."
Notice that the Council's view of "works" includes ANY kind of work, whether the work stems from one's "own natural powers" or "through the teaching of the Law." In the Council's mind there is no distinction between "ceremonial" works and "moral" works, at least in regard to how a man is justified before God.
Thus, the Council's tactic is to make an immediate antithesis between "works" and "grace." In the remaining 32 Canons, the Council continues the same argument, never once trying to settle the issue by an appeal to the ceremonial law of Israel, or an antithesis between Jew and Gentile.
The Council twice mentions the "Jews," but in neither case does it make a dictinction between the ceremonial law and the moral law of the Jews. The two references are in Chapter 1 and 2 of the Sixth Session: (1. "not even the Jews by the very letter of the law of Moses were able to be liberated (from the power of the devil and of death"; 2. "that He might both redeem the Jews, who were under the Law").
Again, in Chapter 8, Trent states: "...and are, therefore, said to be justified gratuitously, because none of those things which precede justification, whether faith, or works, merit the grace itself of justification; for, if it is a grace, it is not now by reason of works; otherwise (as the same Apostle says) grace is no more grace' [Romans 11:6]." Obviously, if Trent includes "faith" as "none of those things" which can justify, then surely moral works are included in the "none."
Now one might argue that by these injunctions Trent was merely denying Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism. First, Trent never makes such a claim. In fact, the very foe they were fighting, Martin Luther, was the one accusing the Catholic Church of Pelagianism. Second, if Trent used some other kind of argumentation other than the one presented in Canon 1 and Chapter 8, namely, an argument that focused on the ceremonial law as the exclusive meaning of the "works of law," then the objection could be sustained. But such is not the case.
The point remains that Trent NEVER sought to answer the question of Justification by dissecting the Law into its constituent parts, i.e., ceremonial, moral or civil precepts. Although they had every opportunity to do so, the Council simply did not cite any verses from the New Testament that single out the ceremonial law. They only quoted from the NT passages which view the Law in its totality, since their main objective was to distinguish grace from law, not grace from ceremonies.
Logic dictates that if the ceremonial law apologetic was so crucial to the understanding of the issue of Justification (as some modern Catholic theologians claim) then Trent would have been REQUIRED to use it. They would have no right to ignore it in favor of a view which taught that the Law referred to the WHOLE law of Moses and Works referred to ANY work.
Now some might argue that the Council's focus was dictated by the particular arguments that the Reformers were advancing; and since this is not our concern today, nor was it the concern of Paul in the first century AD, then we are not obligated to use it. Let me say quite candidly, this is wrong.
First, as I noted above, the Council of Trent already ignored the "ceremonial law" argumentation which was being advanced by various Catholic clerics who were trying to answer the Lutherans.
Second, and this should come as no surprise to Catholics who know their history, the Fathers of the Church show quite clearly in their writings that there was a consensus of understanding that, in reference to how a man is justified, the words "works of the law," "works," or "law" referred to ANY work, ceremonial or moral.
The only ones who implied that "works of the law" might refer only to the ceremonial law were Justin Martyr and Origen. Justin's writings, however, are so sparse on the issue that one cannot conclude that this was all he had to say; and Origen is simply not the most reliable witness due to his many heterodox theological ideas that were banned by the Church. Other than those two, there are no other Fathers who attempt to answer the "works of the law" question by an appeal to the ceremonial law (to the exclusion of the rest of the law).
Undaunted, some apologists have cited the Didaskalia Apostolorum, which is purported to have been written by the Apostles, as being supportive of the "works of the law = ceremonial law" concept. But not only does this document not identify who the writer actually is, or its date of writing, it is not cited by any of the Fathers or Councils as holding any authority whatsoever. Moreover, it contains many questionable statements, and some that are totally opposite from what we find in the Council of Trent and the Catholic Catechism. For all intents and purposes, it is a spurious document without the slightest credibility. Even at that, its argument for the ceremonial law is not that strong.
Next we come to the great Fathers, Augustine and Jerome. It is said that Jerome also sided with the "works of the law = ceremonial law" apologetic. I have in the past accepted this on the word of those who purport such, but I must say that no one has yet produced the citation from Jerome where he indeed says so, nor have they shown where Jerome rejects the moral law as being included in the "works of the law" formula. Even if Jerome did take such a view, this would be somewhat out of place, since no contemporary of his would have agreed. Chief among them is St. Augustine.
Commenting on Romans 7 Augustine writes:
Although, therefore, the apostle seems to reprove and correct those who were being persuaded to be circumcised, in such terms as to designate by the word "law" circumcision itself and other similar legal observances, which are now rejected as shadows of a future substance by Christians who yet hold what those shadows figuratively promised; he at the same time, nevertheless, would have it to be clearly understood that the law, by which he says no man is justified, lies not merely in those sacramental [ceremonial] institutions which contained promissory figures, but also in those works by which whosoever has done them lives holily, and amongst which occurs this prohibition: "Thou shalt not covet."
Is it possible to contend that it is not the law which was written on those two tablets that the apostle describes as "the letter that killeth," but the law of circumcision and the other sacred rites which are now abolished? But then how can we think so, when in the law occurs this precept, "Thou shalt not covet," by which very commandment, notwithstanding it being holy, just, and good, "sin," says the apostle, "deceived me, and by it slew me"? What else can this be than "the letter" that "killeth"? (On the Spirit and the Letter, NPNF, vol. 5, p. 93).
Notice that Augustine is well aware of the temptation some have in saying that the "Law" refers only to the ceremonial law. To avoid this temptation, Augustine tells us that Paul "would have it clearly understood" that he does not wish to confine "Law" to the ceremonies. One of Augustine's proof texts is Romans 7:7, where Paul says that the Ninth and Tenth commandments, which are concerned with the sin of coveting, are representative of the entire Law that condemns men in sin and cannot be relied upon to justify him.
The significance of this is that the law against coveting is a MORAL law, not a ceremonial law. We must conclude, then, that if Paul is saying that the moral law condemns him in sin, and therefore does not justify him, then it is the moral law that cannot justify; and it is the moral law that must be set aside. Obviously, it is not just the ceremonial law which needs to be set aside.
Romans 7 is such an important passage in helping us understand the issue of Justification. Unfortunately, I find many Catholic apologists simply ignoring Romans 7; or if they do address it, they twist it out of its context to make it coincide with their preconceived concept that "law = ceremony," totally dismissing the fact that Paul says that the "law" which must be set aside in order for man to be saved includes the moral precepts of Old Covenant Israel.
Not only does Augustine tell us this about Paul, but St. Thomas Aquinas has the same interpretation. Unfortunately, those who are trying to support the idea that "works of the law = ceremonial law" fail to quote the places where Aquinas denies that teaching, and instead they concentrate on the places where Aquinas appears to say that the law refers to the ceremonial law.
It is true that in one place, Aquinas' interpretation of Galatians 2:16, he says that the "works of the law" refers mainly to the ceremonies, but this is only because the verses immediately prior are clearly focusing on that one aspect of the law (cf., Galatians 2:11-15). But when Aquinas comes to Galatians 3:10-12 he is very careful to say that the "Law" which Christ came to set aside so that man can be justified refers to the WHOLE Law of Israel, the ceremonial law and the moral law. Here's what he says:
"I answer that he is speaking here about keeping the commandments of the Law insofar as the Law consists of ceremonial precepts and moral precepts. This is the Law that is not of faith...Therefore, strictly speaking, he fulfills the command of faith who does not hope to obtain from it anything present and visible, but things invisible and eternal." (Commentary on Galatians 3:12; Aquinas Scripture Series, trans., F. R. Larcher, p. 83).
Galatians 3;10-12 is not the only place where Aquinas teaches that "works of the law' or "Law" in the New Testament refers to the whole law. In his commentary on Romans 3:20; 5:20; 7:6 and 2 Cor. 3:7 he says the same thing. Suffice it to say that in no place in his writings does Aquinas allow the idea of "works of the law = ceremonial law" to serve as the overriding concern in the analysis of how a man is justified. This is also true of the other prominent medieval theologians. I know of know one who used the "ceremonial law" apologetic.
Now we can see why the Council of Trent said what it did. The consensus of Church Fathers, including Augustine; the consensus of Medieval theologians, including Aquinas, made it quite clear that the "works of the law = ceremonial law" argumentation was at best a half-truth, and as such, it ended up distorting the Scripture's teaching on the important matter of Justification.
Lest anyone think that these views are from "traditional" Catholicism but that Catholics today have a deeper and better understanding on the issue of Justification, let me make it known that the 1992 Catholic Catechism takes the same approach as the Council of Trent. All the statements the Catechism gives on Justification (paragraphs 1987 through 2029) match, precept for precept, what the Catholic Church has traditionally taught on this subject. Not one time in those paragraphs does the 1992 Catechism use the argument that "works of the law" refer to the ceremonial law, to the exclusion of the moral law. Nor does the Catechism, when it is discussing the Law, make a distinction between the ceremonial and moral laws (paragraphs 1949 through 1986). Rather, everything I am teaching in this paper is taught in both the Council of Trent and the 1992 Catechism.
Now let's address some of the passages that have been used by those advocating that "works of the law = ceremonial law."
We saw earlier that Romans 3:29 is often cited to support the idea that "works of the law" in Romans 3:28 refers to the ceremonial law. Here are those passages again:
28 For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law. 29 Or is God the God of Jews only? Is He not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, 30 since indeed God who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith is one."
As noted earlier, it is argued that since the distinguishing characteristic between Jews and Gentiles is that the former practice the ceremonial law and the latter do not, then the "works of the Law" in 3:28 must refer to the ceremonial law. It is further argued that since the Jews and Gentiles have the moral law in common, then this leaves the ceremonial law as the only distinction between the Jew and Gentile.
Although this kind of argumentation sounds logical, it is based on a faulty understanding of both the Law and the context of the passage. Let's first deal with the concept of "Law."
On the one hand, let's understand what a "ceremonial law" is and from whence it derives. Ceremonial laws are laws having to do with worship and relations with God. The Fathers and the Medievals often referred to them as "sacraments" for that very reason. They stem from the first three commandments of the Decalogue, wherein men are told to honor and obey God alone.
In Israel, there was a specific way God desired the Israelites to worship him. First and foremost was circumcision, which was established at the time of Abraham. Then there came the institution of feast days; eating certain kinds of foods; sacrificing certain kinds of animals; etc. All these were forms of worship and the means of honoring God.
On the other hand, moral laws concern relations with men. They stem from the last seven commandments of the Decalogue, wherein men are told to treat their neighbors with love and respect. Man does this by honoring his parents, not killing, stealing, adulterating, lying, or coveting against his neighbor.
Now, it is often assumed by the proponents of "works of the law = ceremonial law" apologetic that it is only the moral law which Jews and Gentiles have in common. This is usually based on the fact that in Romans 2:14-15 Paul says that the Gentiles have the "law of God written on their hearts," and therefore they know through their conscience what is right and wrong, and will be judged thereby. These "laws of the heart" are assumed to be representing the moral laws of the Decalogue.
But what these apologists fail to recognize is that the laws of worship, stemming from the first Three Commandments, are also written on the hearts of the Gentiles, not just the laws of morality from the last Seven Commandments. If this were not the case, the Gentiles would not know they were required to honor and thank God.
We see this principle more clearly in Romans 1:19-21 where Paul says:
19 because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. 20 For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. 21 For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened.
Notice Paul says that God made Himself evident to man, even his "divine nature." Hence it is not merely moral laws that God wrote on the heart of man, but the very knowledge of God himself, verified by the things which God made.
Paul further says that, because of the divine knowledge placed within them, men were required to "honor" and "give thanks" to God, but they refused to do so. What is "honor" and "thanks" to God but worship of God? In fact, as the rest of the context tells us, it is only after they refused to worship God that they fell into all kinds of moral debauchery against their neighbor (cf., Romans 1:22-32). So we see that the worship laws written on man's heart have a unique relationship with the moral laws written on his heart.
Thus, we are left with the truth that the laws written on the heart of the Gentiles are not only moral laws, but also worship laws, laws which are supposed to lead men to honor and thank God, as well as love their fellow man. These laws are the same laws Adam and Eve had written on their hearts. It is the very reason they knew they were to worship God alone and to shun the Devil.
Men today still have those laws written on their heart, although they are marred due to the presence of sin. It is Christ who re-writes those laws of worship and morality on our hearts in the New Covenant, which we receive at Baptism (cf., Hebrews 8:8-13; 10:16-18), for he is the second Adam (1 Cor 15:45).
So when Paul says in Romans 3:29: "Is he the God of the Jews only?" he cannot be referring just to the ceremonial law, since it is clear that the Gentiles have more in common with the Jews than the moral law.
The only thing the Gentiles did not have in common with the Jews was a set of laws written on tablets; a divine codification of specific and detailed commandments; a covenant directly from God in which everything He required was spelled out and ordered, along with its blessing and cursings. The Gentiles possessed the laws of the Decalogue only in their hearts and consciences, but they had no direct communication with God as the Jews did.
We see this portrayed rather precisely as Moses describes the contrast between Israel and the other nations in Deuteronomy 4:1-8:
1 "Now, O Israel, listen to the statutes and the judgments which I am teaching you to perform, so that you may live and go in and take possession of the land which the LORD, the God of your fathers, is giving you....5 See, I have taught you statutes and judgments just as the LORD my God commanded me, that you should do thus in the land where you are entering to possess it. 6 "So keep and do them, for that is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples who will hear all these statutes and say, 'Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.' 7 "For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as is the LORD our God whenever we call on Him? 8 "Or what great nation is there that has statutes and judgments as righteous as this whole law which I am setting before you today?"
We know that Moses is referring to the whole law of Israel, for in the next chapter, Deuteronomy 5, the Ten Commandments are given to the people. It is these commandments, and their details which are explained in other parts of the Pentateuch, which are the envy of the nations and which make them revere Israel as a blessed people of God. Unfortunately, they became too proud of the Law, which leads Paul to say to them in Romans 2:23: "You boast in the Law, but through your breaking the Law you dishonor God." The Jews were boasting in the whole law of Moses, not just the ceremonial law, which is noted by the fact that Paul specifies that they were breaking the laws against stealing, adultery and idolatry (Romans 2:21-22).
Someone might argue that though the worship laws of the first three Commandments were written on the hearts of the Gentiles, still, circumcision was not written on their hearts, and thus it was circumcision that set them apart from Gentiles. But this objection fails. The Gentiles did not possess the specifics of the moral law. The specifics of the moral law were codified in the Pentateuch of Israel. As such, the Gentiles did not know the details of the moral law.
For example, the Gentiles did not know that they should requite a person fourfold from whom they stole (Ex 22:1). They did not know that a man who had sex with a virgin should marry her and not divorce her all his days (Dt 22:19). They did not know that one could grab some grains of barley to eat on the Sabbath but that one could not do it with a sickle (Dt 23:25). They did not know that astrology or sorcery was strictly prohibited (Ex 22:18).
The Gentiles had only the general imprint of the moral law written on their heart, so in that sense they did not have the moral law in common with the Jews, just as it can be said that they did not have the ceremonial law in common with Jews. The only time the Gentiles DID have the specifics of the law in common with Israel was when they actually became a part of Israel. It was only then that they were required to obey the ceremonial and moral laws of the Pentateuch.
The Context of Romans 3
That Paul has the whole law in view is precisely why he keeps the phraseology of Romans 3:28 very general. ("For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law"). He says "works of the law" not "works of ceremony" or "works of the ceremonial law," since his objective is to show that the WHOLE system of law in Israel must be set aside in order to make room for faith to justify a man.
In other words, "works of the law" are precisely what the phrase says - they are works performed in a system of law; works performed under a legal contract; works wherein legal payment is expected. The moral and ceremonial laws, as well as the civil laws of Israel, were all part of the legal system of the Old Covenant -- a legal system that had to be set aside in order to make room for the New Covenant, a system of grace.
We can see even more clearly the meaning of "works of the law" by examining its first occurrence in Romans 3:19-20. Here Paul says:
19 "Now we know that whatever the Law says, it speaks to those who are under the Law, so that every mouth may be closed and all the world may become accountable to God; 20 because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin."
Notice the phrase "works of the Law" in verse 20. It is the same Greek phrase used in Romans 3:28 (ejvrgwn novmou). And since both phrases are in the same context, it would be natural to assume they mean the same thing.
What "Law" is Paul referring to in Romans 3:20? According to the immediate context, which begins in verse 9 and extends through verse 18, it is the Law found in the Psalms which convicts both Jew and Gentile in sin. This global conviction in sin is evident as Paul says in verse 9 that "both Jews and Gentiles are all under sin," and then proceeds to quote from seven different Psalms which show that the whole world is condemned in sin because of the Law found in the Psalms (5:9; 14:1-3; 10:7; 36:1; 53:1-4; 59:7; 140:3).
It is obvious, then, that the "Law" or "works of the law" cannot refer only to Jewish ceremonies, for the Psalms Paul cites do not refer to ceremonies but to the general laws of God which convict all men in sin. This conviction of sin is precisely why Paul closes in Romans 3:20 with the statement "...for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin." Conversely, there is no passage in the Bible which says that the ceremonial law convicts men in sin, let alone say that the ceremonial law could convict a Gentile in sin. No, the Law of Romans 3 refers to the WHOLE system of law and it is that Law which convicts men in sin.
Paul gives the same truth in Romans 5:20:
"The Law came in so that the transgression would increase; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more."
As in Romans 3:20, here the Law serves the purpose of exposing sin. What Law is Paul referring to? According to the context it refers to the Law that came with Moses, as Paul says in verses 13-14: "for until the Law sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed when there is no law. 14 Nevertheless death reigned from Adam until Moses...," but Paul says nothing about this Law referring only to the ceremonial law. The context is clear that the Law refers to the whole law of Moses.
We see the same truth in Romans 2:17-23.
17 But if you bear the name "Jew " and rely upon the Law and boast in God, 18 and know His will and approve the things that are essential, being instructed out of the Law, 19 and are confident that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, 20 a corrector of the foolish, a teacher of the immature, having in the Law the embodiment of knowledge and of the truth, 21 you, therefore, who teach another, do you not teach yourself? You who preach that one shall not steal, do you steal? 22 You who say that one should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? 23 You who boast in the Law, through your breaking the Law, do you dishonor God?
Here Paul says that the Jews "rely on the Law and boast in God" (verse 17) and then in verses 21-22 Paul specifies that Law as the commands against "stealing" (verse 21); "adultery" (verse 22); and "idol worship" (verse 22). These three commands come from the Ten Commandments. "Stealing" and "adultery" represent the sixth and seventh commandment, while "idol worship" represents the first commandment.
We can see the same truth in Romans 4:3-4:
3 For what does the Scripture say? "Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness." 4 Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a gift, but as what is due.
This is the controlling verse for much of what Paul says in Romans. These verses tell us that the principle issue at stake is one of "gift versus debt," or, as we have seen, "grace versus works." This is the fundamental principle in Paul's teaching, and those who miss it go off into many other irrelevant tangents.
Why can't "works of the law" justify a man? Is it because Jewish ceremonies are now obsolete and faith came to replace them? No, Jewish ceremonies NEVER saved any Jew. The real reason "works of the law" can't justify is that they are in a legal system devoid of grace. They come from the Old Covenant, a covenant which was based on law.
The grace of the Old Covenant had been squeezed out when Adam sinned against God. From then on, according to Paul in Romans 4:3-4, if one tries to base his justification on law, it would be just as if he were trying to put God into debt to pay him a wage. Paying wages to those who work is representative of a system devoid of grace. But Justification cannot be bought, since God owes no man anything. Therefore, justification cannot be given on a wage basis; rather, it must come by grace, initiated by faith in God. It was the New Covenant that brought grace back into the picture, and when it came it set aside the Old Covenant with its legal system of moral, ceremonial and civil laws.
(Note: Some of you are probably asking: "Well aren't we still supposed to obey the moral commands of the Old Testament?" That's a good question, and we'll answer that shortly. For now we still need to build the case concerning the nature of the Law).
Now, some may object to the above line of reasoning by pointing to Paul's continuing discussion about circumcision in Romans 4:9-12; claiming that since Paul specifies circumcision, then it is obvious that he is using the ceremonial law as the meaning of "works of the law."
But merely citing the ceremonial law does not mean that Paul is excluding every other kind of law. In order for someone to draw the conclusion that Paul is seeking to confine the meaning of "works of the law" to the ceremonial law, there would have to be some statement in Paul's writing, either here or elsewhere, which states that the moral law is excluded from "works of the law." As we have seen, that is simply not the case, especially since we see Paul eliminating the ceremonial law in other passages (Romans 3:9-20; 5:12-20; 7:7-8; 11:1-6).
The only conclusion that can be drawn from Paul's reference to circumcision in Romans 4:9-12 is that it serves as the most prominent example of the legal system of Judaism in which the people were attempting to put God in debt to pay them for their works. Only in this way can the controlling verse, Romans 4:4, coincide with the remaining context. The matter of "debt" and the matter of "circumcision" are not independent issues; rather, one relates directly to the other and must be explained in relation to the other. Unfortunately, in some apologist's dealing with the passage, the issue of "debt" is not even broached, let alone harmonized with circumcision.
Instead, they teach that Paul's argument in Romans 4 is based on the principle that the institution of New Testament sacraments is replacing the obsolete institution of Old Testament sacraments. But unless one understands the context of Romans 4, this is at best a half-truth, and ultimately it is a distortion of Paul's overall teaching. As noted above, circumcision is specified in Romans 4 only because it is the most prominent example of how the Jews were attempting to put God in debt to pay them with salvation.
Paul reinforces this meaning as he explains in Romans 4:10-16 that Abraham was given Justification by grace through faith long before he was circumcised, and thus he did not receive his Justification by placing God in debt. In effect, the example of circumcision comes in quite handy for Paul in his effort to teach the Jews about the concept of "grace versus debt."
10 How then was it credited? While he was circumcised, or uncircumcised? Not while circumcised, but while uncircumcised; 11 and he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while uncircumcised, so that he might be the father of all who believe without being circumcised, that righteousness might be credited to them, 12 and the father of circumcision to those who not only are of the circumcision, but who also follow in the steps of the faith of our father Abraham which he had while uncircumcised. 13 For the promise to Abraham or to his descendants that he would be heir of the world was not through the Law, but through the righteousness of faith. 14 For if those who are of the Law are heirs, faith is made void and the promise is nullified; 15 for the Law brings about wrath, but where there is no law, there also is no violation. 16 For this reason it is by faith, in order that it may be in accordance with grace, so that the promise will be guaranteed to all the descendants, not only to those who are of the Law, but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all,
Notice the very general references to "Law" in these verses, showing us that Paul is referring to the whole legal system of Israel, the whole Mosaic law of moral, ceremonial and civil commands. For example, in verse 15 Paul says "for the Law brings about wrath, but where there is no law, there also is no violation." This is the same truth we saw in Romans 3:20 ("for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin") and Romans 5:20 ("The Law came in so that the transgression would increase; but where sin increased"), both of which were referring to the whole Law.
It is the same truth Paul teaches in Galatians 3:19: ("Why the Law then? It was added because of transgressions, having been ordained through angels by the agency of a mediator, until the seed would come to whom the promise had been made"). This is the context following Paul's teaching in Galatians 3:10-12 which shows us that Paul has in view the WHOLE law of Moses, moral as well as ceremonial. We'll see more of this later.
More on Romans 4:
It is important to note that in Romans 4 Paul is teaching that Abraham was Justified by means of the New Covenant of grace, which, because of Christ's anticipated sacrifice, could stretch all the way back to the time of Abraham and beyond, in order to save men. That is why, for example, Hebrews 11:4-7 mentions the prominent saints of old, beginning with Abel and Enoch and Noah, who were saved by faith -- the faith required by the New Covenant in Christ. It is the same reason that Hebrews 11:26 says that Moses "considered the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures of Egypt," or why 1 Corinthians 10:4 says that of those who left Egypt "a spiritual rock followed them; and that rock was Christ." The only way anyone was justified in the Old Covenant was on the basis of what Christ would do in the New Covenant.
On the other hand, the circumcision Paul mentions in Romans 4:9-12, and the circumcision in which Abraham and his progeny received, represent the Old Covenant, a covenant of law which had no power to save anyone.
We see the same truth in Romans 9:31-32:
31 but Israel, pursuing a law of righteousness, did not arrive at that law. 32 Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as though it were by works. They stumbled over the stumbling stone..."
Again, the antithesis Paul sets up is one of "faith versus works," or as we have seen before, "grace versus works." The antithesis is not "Jew versus Gentile." The Jew versus Gentile antithesis is only a subset of the main issue, grace versus works.
We know this to be the case also from the context. In Romans 10:5-8 Paul cites Deut 30:12. In the context, Deut 30:8 says, "And you shall again obey the Lord, and observe ALL HIS COMMANDMENTS, which I command you this day." Verse 10 says, "if you obey the LORD your God to keep His commandments and His statutes which are written in this book of the law." There is no singling out of the ceremonial law in this context, yet this is the passage Paul cites to explain the "Law" he had in view in Romans 9:32. Moreover, Deuteronomy 28-29 is the same reference to the Law that Paul cites in Galatians 3:10-12, a passage which refers to the whole Law of Moses. We will see more on this below.
That "grace versus works" is the main issue can be proven beyond much doubt as we see Paul explain the matter in Romans 11:1-6:
1 I say then, God has not rejected His people, has He? May it never be! For I too am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin. 2 God has not rejected His people whom He foreknew. Or do you not know what the Scripture says in the passage about Elijah, how he pleads with God against Israel? 3 "Lord, they have killed your prophets, they have torn down your altars, and I along am left, and they are seeking my life." 4 But what is the divine response to him? "I have kept for Myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Ball." 5 In the same way then, there has also come to be at the present time a remnant according to God's gracious choice. 6 But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace is no longer grace.
Notice several things in these verses:
1) Paul continues the theme of "grace versus works" that he began in the early part of Romans. 2) We see by the context to which Paul appeals in Romans 11:1-5, which concerns the sin of the Jews in the eighth century BC during the time of Elijah, that the problem of Israel seeking God through their own works rather than through grace is not something that first became a problem in the first century AD when the Jews were mingling Gentiles. Moreover, as Paul looks back on Israel's notorious history, his concern is not "Jew versus Gentile" or "circumcision versus no circumcision." Rather, we see that the problem of Jews seeking God by their works was already occurring in the 8th century BC when almost all of Israel was bowing the knee to Baal. At that time there was only a "remnant" of believers chosen by grace, while the rest perished in their false works. And there were certainly no Gentiles to whom the Jews could boast of the graces they received from God.
We can also prove the point by what Paul says in Galatians 5:4:
"And I testify again to every man who receives circumcision, that he is under obligation to keep the whole Law. 4 You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace."
Notice, Paul is not viewing circumcision as an end in itself, or merely as a representation of the obsolete ritual ordinances of Israel. Paul is using circumcision as an example of how one puts himself under the WHOLE law. This is the same principle he used in Gal 3:10-12 in reference to the moral law; and James 2:10-13 in reference to the moral law; and Romans 5:20 in reference to the moral law. Obviously, it is not circumcision in itself that is the problem; rather, it is what circumcision does when one practices it illicitly its puts him under the WHOLE LAW and thus condemns him.
Who will deny that it was the Judaizers who fit Paul's description of "you who are seeking to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace"? This again proves the point that the Judizers were out of the grace of God and were seeking to be justified by works of the law, not within the grace of God and needing to be taught to share it with Gentiles.
Finally, let's go back to Galatians 2:16
"...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, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified."
The words "nevertheless knowing" should really be "nevertheless having known," since the verb is a Greek perfect participle (eijdovteV de; oJvti). This means that the knowledge was something known in the past and continues to be known in the future. Moreover, the verb is a plural, which means that the knowledge is privy to both Paul and the Jews. Hence, they know already that a man is not justified by works of the law.
Now let's back up a bit. In verses 14-15 Paul says:
14 But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in the presence of all, "If you, being a Jew, live like the Gentiles and not like the Jews, how is it that you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews? 15 "We are Jews by nature and not sinners from among the Gentiles;
Now, because Paul speaks of "compelling Gentiles to live like Jews," some apologists automatically assume that the "works of the law" in verse 16 can only refer to circumcision and the ceremonial law, but here is where they make their biggest mistake.
If in Galatians 3:10-12 we have Paul stating what is "known" among the Jews about the Law, and that passage is clearly referring to more than the ceremonial law (as per Augustine, Aquinas, et al), then isn't what is "known" in Galatians 2:16 also of the same species? Certainly.
Thus, in Galatians 2:16, Paul is drawing on the Jews' previous knowledge that the Law, in toto, cannot justify a man. Since by using the plural verb form Paul is placing himself in the group of those who have "known," and we know from various other passages that what Paul has "known" is that the WHOLE law is that which convicts man and cannot justify him, then surely the Jews in that "plural" group do not have a different concept of the Law than Paul.
They will recognize that the Law, in toto, cannot justify, and thus, if they can see reason, they should also recognize that their attempts at forcing circumcision brings one back into the condemnation of that WHOLE law, which is precisely what Paul says in Galatians 5:3-4:
"And I testify again to every man who receives circumcision, that he is under obligation to keep the whole Law. 4 You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace."
So its not Judaizing, per se, that is the real issue. Its what Judaizing results in, that is, putting someone under the condemnation of the WHOLE law. Circumcision doesn't convict anyone of sin. It is the whole Law which convicts, and circumcision puts one under the whole Law.
Help from James
We can prove the above point concerning Galatians 2:16 by looking at the way James speaks of the Law in James 2:8-13 to the New Testament Christians. He tells them that if they don't show love to the poor man, then they will take themselves out of the mercy of God and put themselves under the Law. If they are put under the Law, they will have to obey the WHOLE Law, without fault, or they will be condemned.
Isn't this exactly what Paul said to the Galatians in Galatians 5:3-4 that I cited above? The only difference is that in Galatians 5:3-4 circumcision is the catalyst which puts someone back under the Law, whereas in James 2:1-13 it is a lack of love.
We can also prove the point by looking out how the Gospels deal with the issue of Jewish unbelief. Never do the Gospels make a distinction between the ceremonial laws and the rest of the Mosaic laws. For example, in Matthew 12:8-14, the Pharisees are questioning whether it is lawful to heal on the Sabbath. Sabbath observance was the Third Commandment of the Decalogue. Jesus answers them by pointing out that David ate the Showbread, which was only lawful for the priests; and by pointing out that any of them would save his sheep if it fell into a ditch on the Sabbath. Having answered their challenge, Jesus then heals the man who was presented to him. The Pharisees then conspire to murder Jesus.
The point of the story is to show us that the Pharisees think it is unlawful to heal on the Sabbath, but perfectly lawful to plot the murder of Jesus! This shows that their problem was inner corruption. They were lovers of law, but haters of God and man. THAT is their problem, not merely "being Jewish." There is no Jew/Gentile controversy in Matthew 12.
And this is precisely why Paul, in Romans 11:1-10, says that the Jewish problem of "works versus grace" stemmed all the way back to the time of Elijah in the eighth century BC, not merely when the Gentiles come on the scene in the first century AD.
Now, some might object that any self-respecting Rabbi would be forced to agree. Faith is the ground on which circumcision and all of the "works of the law" were based. A man who was physically circumsized and went through the motions of keeping the Law was no real Jew. The Rabbis themselves acknowledged that one should keep the commandments out of LOVE for God. Any other motive was unacceptable.
But, as noted previously, the problem was that "self-respecting" Rabbis were few and far between in the century leading up to Jesus' coming. If the "Pharisees, Sadducees, scribes and lawyers" described by Jesus in the NT are any indication of the theological sentiment residing in the Rabbis, then there really wasn't a large contingent of Jewish leaders who would have prescribed to the above altruism.
This is an important point, since the Dunn, et al, hermeneutic attempt to make religious groups such as the Pharisees into a more or less respectful theological concern at the time of Jesus, rather than the scoundrels Jesus identifies them to be.
The only ones who aspire to the altruism described above (at least according to the NT) are people like Mary and Joseph, John the Baptist, Elizabeth and Zacharias (Luke 1:6), Nicodemus, and a few others. All the rest, by and large, were in unbelief, that is, they didn't have "faith" and did not understand the true purpose of the Law.
According to Paul, there was only a "remnant" who believed, and a "remnant" is a small portion of the whole. His example in Romans 11 is that out of a nation of a million+ people, there were only 7000 who weren't in unbelief. So, if they were in unbelief, what is the natural mentality they are going to adopt? Its not going to be faith, its going to be what unbelief produces a reliance on works.
The Gentiles and Works
We can also prove the point by showing that the "works of the law" was not a problem only among the Jews, but the Gentiles themselves were tempted to think that God was in debt to pay them with salvation. To combat this, Paul continues the "grace versus works" theme throughout his writings.
For example, in 1 Corinthians 4:7 (the very verse St. Augustine used to show the true nature of Justification), Paul says:
"For who regards you as superior? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it?"
Notice the same accusation against the Corinthians concerning their "boasting" that Paul used against the Jews in Romans 2-4 when he was speaking about their self-aggrandizing behavior. In four passages, Romans 2:17; 2:23; 3:27 and 4:2 Paul uses the word "boasting." He does so because the Jews were boasting that because they merely possessed the Law of Moses that God owed them salvation. Now, in the Corinthian letter, we see that the Gentiles began to think the same way about the Christian religion, thinking that somehow, because of their own efforts, they earned what they had received. The problems for the Corinthians in this regard are enormous. Almost every chapter of the epistle is an indictment against their boastful pride.
We next see Paul giving the same teaching to the Gentiles at Ephesus. In Ephesians 2:8-9 he writes:
"For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; 9 not as a result of works, so that no one may boast."
Notice again the same emphasis on "boasting" in the context of "grace versus works." Paul is not writing to Jews, but to Gentiles, since in the surrounding verses he addresses them directly. In Ephesians 2:1-5 he writes:
1 "And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, 2 in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. 3 Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest.... 11 Therefore remember that formerly you, the Gentiles in the flesh, who are called "Uncircumcision " by the so-called "Circumcision," which is performed in the flesh by human hands-- 12 remember that you were at that time separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world."
Paul continues this same theme in another epistle written mainly to Gentiles. In Titus 3:5-7 he writes:
"He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, 6 whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7 so that being justified by His grace we would be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life."
This passage is even more significant than the others since Paul doesn't use the common wording "works of the law" or "works" or "law," but a new clause is added to the Justification dictionary: "deeds which we have done in righteousness." The Greek wording is "oujk ejx ejvrgwn tw:n ejn dikaiosuvnh aJ; ejpoihvsamen hJmei:V" which literally translates as "not by works of righteousness which we did." It couldn't be any clearer that St. Paul is including moral works in his regimen of things which do not justify, since "works of righteousness" can hardly be understood as referring to the ceremonial law. It must refer, as the Council of Trent taught, to "his own works which are done either by his own natural powers, or through the teaching of the Law."
So again, we see why the Council of Trent addressed the "works of the law" issue by teaching that it referred to the whole law. The reason: because the Gentiles have just as much of a problem in thinking that God owes them salvation as the Jews. In fact, THAT is the perennial problem of all mankind -- in his pride he thinks that that God both owes him a living and salvation. But Paul clearly teaches that such is not the case. Paul sums this up very well in Romans 11:35: "For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who became his counselor? 35 Or who has first given to Him that it might be paid back to him again?
Now, some may object that the whole Judaizing matter became obsolete after St. Paul's time when the Temple was destroyed and it was no longer possible to practice biblical Judaism. Christians and Jews became polarized against each other and lost sight of their common heritage.
But in answer we say that the principles learned from that experience remained. That is why, for example, Paul keeps going back to the experiences of Jewish unbelief in the Old Testament as the examples from which the Gentile churches must learn to have faith.
Just as Paul goes back to the Jews of Elijah's time in Romans 11 as an example of people who sought works rather than grace, so Paul does, for example, in 1 Cor 10:1-11 in order to warn the Corinthians not to fall into the same mind-set as the Jews.
What was that mind-set? From the surrounding context of the Corinthian epistle we find that the Corinthians were falling into the same sins of pride and boasting as the Jews, thinking that somehow they were owed what they were receiving from God because of their great knowledge and piety (cf., 1 Cor 3:18-22; 1 Cor 4:7-8).
Hence, twice in 1 Cor 10, in verses 6 and 11, Paul says that the stories about Jewish unbelief were written in the Old Testament precisely to serve as examples to the Church of our day so that we wouldn't fall into the same trap. The "trap" was that the Jews had all the accouterments of God's presense (v. 1-4: baptism, spiritual food and drink, the rock of Christ following them, etc) but verse 5 says "MOST of them God was not well-pleased with, and they were laid low in the wilderness."
So it seems that the "Jewish problem" was not, in essence, a reliance on rituals, but a warped mentality which believed that just because God blesses you means that he owes you, and that because of His obligation toward you then you are secure forever no matter what you do.
And isn't that the problem with the Gentiles too? How can we deny it when Paul says that it is the case? And if it is, then that is the reason the "Jewish problem" will never die, and that is the reason the New Testament is as relevant today as it was 2000 years ago.
But aren't we supposed to obey the moral law?
So now let's answer the question we posed earlier: If the moral law is included with the ceremonial law as that which condemns mankind, how does that square with the fact that we are supposed to obey the moral commands of the Old Testament, but not obey the ceremonial commands?
The answer is very simple. We are not obeying the moral laws of the Old Covenant. We are obeying the principles of the moral laws found in the Old Covenant. More than that, we are obeying the much improved moral laws, which God placed in the New Covenant. The New Covenant of Jesus Christ borrows from the good laws of the Old Covenant and makes them better.
That is why, for example, we find Jesus saying in Matthew 5:21 "You have heard it was said 'You shall not commit murder,' but I say unto you that everyone who is even angry with his brother shall be liable for judgment." Jesus is taking the principle of the Old Covenant law and expanding on it for those who will be His followers in the New Covenant. In the New Covenant, Jesus is our Lawgiver and Judge (James 4:12). He is the one who gives us our ceremonial, moral and civil laws. In order to do so, He must set aside the Old Covenant ceremonial, moral and civil laws, for the Church cannot have two competing systems.
But notice this important point: It is the WHOLE system of the Old Covenant that must go, not just a part here or there. Those who teach that "works of the law" refers only to the ceremonial law are essentially teaching that only PART of the Old Covenant was set aside.
What about the ceremonial law? Isn't it true that we are not to obey the ceremonial law any longer, and didn't Paul make that clear in, for example, Colossians 2:16; while also teaching in Romans 13:9 that we are to obey the moral laws?
Well, we already answered the "moral law" question above. We are obeying the principles of the Old Covenant decalogue, but we are no longer under the Old Covenant itself.
As for our not obeying the ceremonial laws any longer, that is true, but it is true in the same way that we are no longer obeying the moral laws of the Old Covenant. Rather, we are obeying the principles of the Old Covenant ceremonial laws.
The ceremonial laws we have now are represented by our seven sacraments, Baptism, Confession, Holy Eucharist, Confirmation, Matrimony, Holy Orders, and Sacrament of the Sick. Hence, just as the New Covenant improved on the moral laws of the Old Covenant (i.e., the Sermon on the Mount), so the New Covenant improved on the ceremonial laws of the Old Covenant and gave us the sacraments.
Paul summarizes this principle in Romans 7:6:
"But now we have been released from the Law, having died to that by which we were bound, so that we serve in newness of the Spirit and not in oldness of the letter."
And he had already introduced it in Romans 6:14:
"For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law but under grace."
Here we see that we have been "released from the Law" and that we are "not under Law but under grace." This means that we have been taken out of the whole system of Law (the ceremonial, civil and moral laws of the Old Covenant) and are now placed in the system of Grace. In that system Paul tell us that we are not to function based on the "oldness of the letter" (which is another way of saying the "letter of the law") but "we serve in the newness of the Spirit," that is, the Spirit of God guides our actions. The Spirit takes the principles of the Law, and infuses them, with Himself, into our being. That is the power of the New Covenant.
Paul says this best in Romans 8:2,4:
"For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death....so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit."
Notice again that we are "free from the Law" yet we must still fulfill the "requirement of the Law." Why must we fulfill its requirements? Because, as Paul says in Romans 7:12:
"So then, the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good."
Every command in the Law is from God and therefore good. So our behavior must be modeled after the commandments. But we don't follow the commandments by putting ourselves back into the system of Law; rather, we take from the Law what is good, and practice it by the power of the Spirit of God. If we sin, the Spirit can forgive us, but the Law cannot, and therefore we must never come under the system of Law, or we will be condemned.
The Whole Old Covenant Law Must be Set Aside:
Now, before we go any further, let's reiterate WHY it is necessary for the WHOLE Old Covenant to be set aside. Paul teaches it best in Galatians 3:10-12 (the verses which I pointed out earlier that St. Thomas Aquinas used):
10 For as many as are of the works of the Law are under a curse; for it is written, 'Cursed is everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the law, to perform them.' 11 Now that no one is justified by the Law before God is evident; for, 'The righteous man shall live by faith.' 12 However, the Law is not of faith; on the contrary, 'He who practices them shall live by them.'
Notice that Paul uses the same phrase "works of the Law" that he used in Romans and earlier in Galatians 2. But here he emphasizes the overarching principle connected to that phrase. That principle says that those who are in the system of "works of the law" are under a CURSE if they don't perform "ALL THINGS written in the book of the Law." That means if you break only one command of the Law, no matter how trivial, you are under the curse of damnation.
Why? Because the Law can show no mercy. It is an inanimate entity with no personality. It says "OBEY" and if you do not obey it has no choice but to condemn you. It is a legal system only. Legal systems have no room for mercy and forgiveness. The only one who has room for mercy and forgiveness is God, a being who can be moved with compassion and pity. The only thing God asks from us in return is faith in Him that He can do what He says. When we show him faith, He has mercy on us. If we showed faith to the Law, the Law wouldn't care, for it has no concern for how much you believe in the Law. The Law is only interested in one thing, and that is to condemn for disobedience and to reward for obedience.
That Paul is referring to the whole law of Moses in Galatians 3:10-12 is proven by the verses from which he quotes. The saying "Cursed is everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the law, to perform them" comes from Deuteronomy 27:26. The context of Deuteronomy 27:15-25 lists all the commandments of the Decalogue, in one form or another:
15 'Cursed is the man who makes an idol or a molten image, an abomination to the LORD, the work of the hands of the craftsman, and sets it up in secret.' And all the people shall answer and say, 'Amen.' 16 'Cursed is he who dishonors his father or mother.' And all the people shall say, 'Amen.' 17 'Cursed is he who moves his neighbor's boundary mark.' And all the people shall say, 'Amen.' 18 'Cursed is he who misleads a blind person on the road.' And all the people shall say, 'Amen.' 19 'Cursed is he who distorts the justice due an alien, orphan, and widow.' And all the people shall say, 'Amen.' 20 'Cursed is he who lies with his father's wife, because he has uncovered his father's skirt.' And all the people shall say, 'Amen.' 21 'Cursed is he who lies with any animal.' And all the people shall say, 'Amen.' 22 'Cursed is he who lies with his sister, the daughter of his father or of his mother.' And all the people shall say, 'Amen.' 23 'Cursed is he who lies with his mother-in-law.' And all the people shall say, 'Amen.' 24 'Cursed is he who strikes his neighbor in secret.' And all the people shall say, 'Amen.' 25 'Cursed is he who accepts a bribe to strike down an innocent person.' And all the people shall say, 'Amen.' 26 'Cursed is he who does not confirm the words of this law by doing them.' And all the people shall say, 'Amen.'
We see the same principle reiterated in the book of James. In James 2:10-13 he writes:
10 "For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all. 11 For He who said, "Do not commit adultery," also said, "Do not commit murder." Now if you do not commit adultery, but do commit murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. 12 So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. 13 For judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment."
Here we see that the abiding principle throughout the New Testament is that if you base your salvation on law, then you subject yourself to the demands of the law. The law demands that if you stumble in one point, then you are guilty of disobeying all, and thus you will be condemned with everyone else. Notice that James tells them to seek to be judged by the "law of liberty" where there is mercy, for it is only the God of mercy that can forgive transgressions. The Law can never forgive, for it was never designed to do so.
Incidentally, why do you think James speaks of the sin of "murder" in this context? The answer will reveal to us the nature of the New Covenant. The context begins from James 2:1 through 2:9. In it, James admonishes the Christians for showing favoritism to the rich man and despising the poor man. In doing so he says in verse 8 that they are ignoring the command to "love your neighbor as yourself," and thereby, he says in verse 9, that they are "committing sin." If we remember what Jesus taught in Matthew 5:21-23 that I mentioned earlier, we can see why James associates the sin of "murder" with despising the poor man. For in despising him, we have made a fool of him, and thereby we have spiritually murdered him. Thus we see how sensitive the New Covenant is. It is not merely interested in outward behavior, but the behavior of the heart.
Now back to the Law. Let's look at another passage which teaches the same principle (that the WHOLE law had to be set aside for grace to come). Colossians 2:13-14 says:
13 "When you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions, 14 having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross."
Notice again that Paul is speaking to Gentiles, since he uses the phrase "the uncircumcision of your flesh." He tells them that there sins were forgiven by God "having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us." What does this "certificate of debt consisting of decrees" refer to? Well, it cannot refer to the Jewish ceremonial law, for that was never "against" the Gentiles. Rather, it refers to the whole Law found in the Old Covenant, the Law that was originally given to Adam and perpetuated through Israel until the time of Christ, where it was finally "nailed to the cross."
Paul teaches something similar in Ephesians 2:15, but with a little twist. He writes:
15 by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, so that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace, 16 and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity.
Notice the precise phrasing "the Law of commandments contained in ordinances." The Greek is "to:n novmon tw:n ejntolw:n ejn dovgmasin," which literally means "the law of the commandments in decrees." This can be none other than the WHOLE law of the Old Covenant. In fact, the word "ordinances" (dovgmasin) is the same word used in Colossians 2:14 in the phrase "certificate of debt."
Now, the "twist"
Paul adds to this is to say that the setting aside of the Old Covenant law
resulted in making Jew and Gentile into one body. Here is one of those places
where the "Jew/Gentile" theme appears right along side the "grace versus law"
theme. We find that, just as Romans 3:9-20 said that the Gentiles were "under
the law" and that "works of the law" could not justify either Jew of Gentile, so
we find here in Ephesians 2:15 that the Gentiles were under the law and
condemned. Again, this shows us that the Law must refer to the WHOLE
Paul teaches the same truth in 2 Corinthians 3:7-9:
7 But if the ministry of death, in letters engraved on stones, came with glory, so that the sons of Israel could not look intently at the face of Moses because of the glory of his face, fading as it was, 8 how will the ministry of the Spirit fail to be even more with glory? 9 For if the ministry of condemnation has glory, much more does the ministry of righteousness abound in glory.
The "letters engraved on stones" refers to none other than the Ten Commandments that God wrote with his own finger on the stone tablets that Moses presented to the people of Israel (Exodus 19-20). But notice that Paul calls that entire engraving a "ministry of death" and a "ministry of condemnation." Why? Because as we have already seen, the Law's main purpose was to convict men in sin so that they would turn to God's grace. Does Paul make any distinction between the moral and ceremonial laws? No, because it is the whole Law he has in view, since the whole Old Covenant was a "ministry of death and condemnation."
The New Covenant
Now, let's go back to what Jesus has done for us in the New Covenant. As I said above, not only has He improved upon the moral laws of the Old Covenant, but he has also improved upon the ceremonial laws. In the Old Covenant the ceremonial laws were merely signs and seals of God's promises. But in the New Covenant the ceremonies, that is, the seven sacraments, are not only signs but they do the very thing that the sign signifies!
For example, the sign of Baptism replaced the sign of Circumcision. Circumcision was a sign of the Old Covenant but it had no power to save. But Baptism is a sign of the New Covenant that actually saves us in the act of being baptized! Not only that, but baptism can be given to Jew and Gentile, male and female, child and adult. It is universal and salvific. A much improved situation than what was possible in the Old Covenant.
But lest anyone think that the New Covenant is a mechanical religion (akin to what the Jews often made of the ceremonial law of the Old Covenant), the sacraments of the New Covenant require faith, first and foremost, in order to make them efficacious. If faith is absent, then Baptism only gets you wet; it doesn't save. And in this way, we see the essence of the New Covenant, which is faith. It is not a religion in which we go to the baptismal font to pay our dues to God and then expect Him to repay us for our efforts with salvation. That is the very legal system Paul condemned, both for Jew and Gentile. Salvation is not of works by which we can buy our way into heaven.
But you may ask, if that is the case with works, then how is it that Catholics say we are justified by our works, as St. James says in James 2:24: "You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone."
Paul says more or less the same thing in Romans 2:6-13:
"God, 6 who will render to each person according to his deeds: 7 to those who by perseverance in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life; 8 but to those who are selfishly ambitious and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, wrath and indignation....13 for it is not the hearers of the Law who are just before God, but the doers of the Law will be justified."
The reason these works can be rewarded with justification and eternal life is simply that they are NOT rewarded on the basis of debt or law, but on the basis of grace. The only kind of works Paul disallows for justification are works performed in the system of Law, which is a legal system totally devoid of grace. Works performed in the system of grace are always meritorious, because God, by His very nature, seeks to reward those who do good. So notice that its not the KIND of works that is at issue, but the SYSTEM in which one performs those works -- a system of Law (the Old Covenant) or a system of Grace (the New Covenant).
One gets into the system of grace by accepting God in faith. Once one believes, then he can work for God, and as he works God will reward him graciously for his efforts. The more one believes and works, the closer he comes to God until, one day, his life is over and God takes him home. There, in heaven, he will receive the ultimate reward of grace.
While on earth, however, he must live up to the standards of the New Covenant. As stated previously, Jesus is the sole Lawgiver and Judge of the New Covenant. It is to Him we answer for both our good deeds and bad deeds (cf., 2 Corinthians 5:10; Romans 14:10-12; Matthew 16:27; Revelation 22:11-12; John 5:28-29). As such, the book of Hebrews gives us a remarkable comparison regarding the judgment for sin in the New Covenant as compared with judgment for sin in the Old Covenant. Hebrews 10:26-31 states:
26 "For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, 27 but a terrifying expectation of judgment and the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries. 28 Anyone who has set aside the Law of Moses dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. 29 How much severer punishment do you think he will deserve who has trampled under foot the Son of God, and has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has insulted the Spirit of grace? 30 For we know Him who said, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay." And again, "The Lord will judge his people." 31 It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God."
Here Paul is speaking of a Christian who knowingly and deliberately sins and does not repent. For him, there is no more sacrifice (for mortal sin keeps us out of the benefits of Christ's sacrifice); rather, he will meet the judgment of God.
Now notice what Paul does. In verse 28 he alludes to the Mosaic law of the Old Covenant that would execute such a person. The same thing is true in the New Covenant, only it is God himself who is the Judge and Executioner. As the Mosaic law administered death for willful disobedience, God will administer the "second death" and send them to Hell (cf., Rev. 20:14; 21:8). That is the "severer punishment" in contrast to the death given in the Mosaic law, for in the second death there is no escape, and one is subject to the wrath of God for eternity. And in the same way that the Mosaic law required "two or three witnesses" in order to administer death, so the New Covenant has its "two or three witnesses" who administer the second death. They are named in the above verses as "the Son of God," "the Spirit of Grace," and "the living God."
So, we see that the New Covenant, even though in some respects it is a much improved covenant, in another sense it is even more demanding, for with much freedom comes much responsibility. Now, as opposed to the Old Covenant Law being our judge, such that it could convict us for murder but not be able to peer into our heart to see if we actually hated our brother (cf., Matthew 5:21-24), God, in the New Covenant, is able to peer into our heart and know our most secret motives. And it is upon this basis that the New Covenant judges us (1 Corinthians 4:5; 9:27). Fortunately, God infuses grace into our soul upon confession of sin so that when He looks at us He sees a purified being, justified in His sight. But if we spurn his New Covenant graces, then we will receive the "severer" punishment, a punishment even harsher that what was given in the Old Covenant.
Robert Sungenis, M.A. (Ph.D., cd)
Catholic Apologetics International
P.S. If anyone has questions concerning this essay, please direct them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Not in the Fathers, the Fathers weren't exegetes.