Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Which Kind of "Works" Do Not Justify?

Both Catholics and Protestants agree with the bare assertion that justification is by faith. It's not the "fide" in Sola Fide that causes so many problems, it's the "sola." The disagreement, in other words, is over whether it is faith alone that justifies. Exchanges like this, therefore, are not uncommon:

Protestant: "We are justified by faith."
Catholic: "I agree, but not by faith alone."
Protestant: "Why, then, does Paul always insist that we are justified by faith and not by works?"
Catholic: "Well, in those passages Paul is not really contrasting faith and works, but faith and works of the law."
Protestant: "What are 'works of the law'?"
Catholic: "'Works of the law' are those specifically Jewish ceremonial laws like circumcision and dietary restrictions. Those are the kinds of works that do not justify."
Protestant: "Have you been reading the Bishop of Durham?"

I would agree that issues like circumcision and table fellowship provide the immediate context for a book like Galatians, and I will even concede that Protestant exegesis has not always been careful to give due attention to the issues that occasioned this epistle's writing.

What we must also point out, however, is that table fellowship was only the springboard to Paul's ultimate concern, and not his ultimate concern itself. So in Galatians 3 Paul contrasts "the works of the law" with "hearing with faith," equating the former with "flesh" and the latter with "Spirit" (vv. 3-4). He then quotes the familiar Genesis passage that "Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness" (v. 6). Now if ta erga tou nomou (the works of the law) is a technical phrase denoting Jewish ceremonial practices like circumcision, then does the patriarch's "justification apart from works" necessarily preclude those Spirit-wrought acts of faith, hope, and love?

To answer this question we have to inquire as to why, according to Paul, circumcision and other works of the law were of no avail. The answer to this question comes a few verses later, in v. 10:

For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, "Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them."
We see from this passage that, for Paul, the "works of the law" include but are not limited to ceremonial rites like circumcision, but extend to "all things written in the book of the law." Furthermore, the effect that the demands of the law have on us is to say, "Cursed be everyone." The conclusion, therefore, is that the "works of the law" that play no role in our justification are any human works whatsoever, whether ceremonial or moral, and the reason they play no role is because of our sin which brings about the law's "curse."

So yes, we are justified by works, but those works are Christ's, and not our own.