Monday, April 20, 2009

Is Romans 2 Good or Bad News?

As I pointed out in my post last Wednesday, the standard Catholic position with respect to Paul and James on the relationship of works to justification states that, while man can never bring God into his debt or earn any reward from him, he nonetheless may (and must) perform Spirit-wrought good works in order to be saved. Romans 2:6-13 is often quoted in favor of this view:

He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality.

For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified.
Now the traditional Protestant response is that Paul is explaining to his Jewish readers that if they insist on relating to God on the basis of works, then they'll have to go the distance. "Don’t just listen to the law," Paul sarcastically urges, "but go ahead and do it. All of it." Paul then proceeds to demonstrate both the Jews' and Gentiles' failure to perfectly obey the law, showing that God's solution is a "righteousness apart from the law" that has been revealed in Christ.

The Catholic will not relent at this point, however, but will argue that Paul is not pitting perfect law-keeping against faith, but rather, is contrasting the perfect kind of obedience that cannot justify with a less-than-perfect kind that can.

Their argument follows these points: (1) If Paul is speaking in Romans 2 of a covenant-of-works type of righteousness that is unattainable, then he would not have immediately referred his Jewish readers to "Gentiles who by nature do what the law requires" (v. 14). Unless such Gentiles exist, his argument has no force; (2) The whole context of Paul's chiding of his kinsmen is "repentance" and "continuance in well-doing" (vv. 4, 7), which makes no sense under the original Edenic covenant; (3) Every other New Testament reference to final judgment states that it will take place "according to works," and none of them are said to be hypothetical by Protestant exegetes, so why single out this one? (4) Paul describes the entire doing-the-law-to-be-justified and judgment-according-to-works processes as things that happen "according to my gospel" (v. 16), meaning that his message in Romans 2 is not meant to be taken as bad news, but as good news.

Two questions arise. First, how weak or strong are these points? And second, how consistent or inconsistent are they with the confessional Reformed position?