The Epistle to the Romans – A Tridentine Catholic Interpretation (Part 1)



Council of Trent (1545-1563)

I remember when I was a Protestant examining the Catholic doctrine of justification as outlined by the Council and Trent and seeking my best to get past the very clear statements in the Book of Romans, which I had grown so attached to over years and years of reading the Great Protestant commentaries, which stated in such clear terms that a “man is justified by faith apart from works” and that “to the one who works [for justification], the wages are not counted as grace, but as debt” and “to the one who does not work [for justification], but rather has faith in God who justifies the ungodly, [as opposed to working for it], his faith is credited as righteousness“. All of this still seems to indicate that Paul really did have in mind the exclusivity of faith without any works in the attainment of the grace of justification. I also remember growing increasingly doubtful when listening to or reading scholarly works done by Catholics who were interpreting the text of Romans. There was either a reduction of Paul’s “justification” to some purely initiatory grace, where thereafter one is saved by works, or there was a reduction of “Law” or “Works” to that of the external Jewish boundary-markers. Even if emphasis might have been on circumcision or table fellowship with the unclean were to be given, it seems clear to me that even “Works” of the moral kind (properly qualified) Peter_Paul_Rubens_-_The_Crucified_Christ_-_WGA20190are excluded from justification , after all, it is stated by St. Paul that “by the deeds of the Law shall no man be justified, for by the Law comes the knowledge of sin“, and likewise, “if it were not for the Law, I would not have known sin“, and again, “for if the Law had not said ‘You shall not covet’, I would not have known coveting“, and lastly, “But sin, taking opportunity by the commandment, produced in me all manner of evil desire. For apart from the Law sin was dead. I was alive once without the Law, but when the commandment came, sin came to life and I died“. I take “by the Law comes the knowledge of sin“, therefore, not as intellectual cognition of a moral prohibition, but “knowledge” as in experiential knowledge. St. Paul came to experience sin through the Law since it was through the Law that sin, personified here as a power which overtakes, seized opportunity to tempt the body to give way to breaking the commandment. Thus, it is for this reason, namely, the weakness of the flesh, that man cannot be justified by Law. And if that is the case, then it is all encompassing. It is on account of the weakness of fallen humanity that the Law could never fulfill its telos (goal), and therefore the content of “Law” must exceed purely external Jewish boundary markers. On the other hand, Paul seems to believe that, upon becoming “justified”, one has the “hope of eternal life”, and rejoices is hope “of the glory of God”. How can a purely initiatory grace secure such a thing if it were not of some permanent application ? For these reasons, and many more, the Catholic who upholds Trent will have to provide better reasoning from the text of Romans on how its decrees and canons are truly Pauline, and thus an accurate reflection of the God-inspired teaching. How then can a Catholic, who is bound by the decrees and definitions of the Council of Trent, avoid the accusation that he or she is contradicting the word of God?

Rather than do a very detailed exposition of the text of Romans, for which I recommend Dr. Levering or Aquinas, I thought I would just summarize the major parts of the epistle which span from the beginning to the marker ending chapter 4, which seems to be the most controversial in the debate between Protestants and Catholics. I’ve added “Part 1” to the title of this post since I want to eventually move into Romans 5-8, and then 9-10 on a future point of time.

Romans 1:18-3:20 – Having opened up his epistle by introducing himself as the divinely appointed Apostle for the mission of God in bringing all nations into the “obedience of faith” in the crucified and risen Lord Jesus, who transitioned in Himself the old creation to the new, St. Paul states the crux of the gospel and the reason for which he is dedicated to the mission. The gospel of Christ carries with it the power of God for the salvation of mankind, since in it the “righteousness of God” is revealed for all and everyone who are believing in Jesus Christ. Following this, he goes into the reason why this salvation is so desperately needed. Humanity has plumbed the depths of sin by evil deeds, and are

Öèôðîâàÿ ðåïðîäóêöèÿ íàõîäèòñÿ â èíòåðíåò-ìóçåå

Fr. Martin Luther

consequently standing under the righteous judgment of their God and Creator. A fixed day there is wherein God will reveal the secrets and deeds of men, and each individually will receive his merited destination, whether that is the tortures of eternal damnation via the guilt of sinning, or the happiness of eternal life via the quality of good works. However, both Jews and Gentiles are both alike under the dominion of sin, and therefore the Law and Commandments of God have no utility in providing a way to clean up the situation of man. In fact, it only serves a revelatory purpose, i.e. to expose man as those who have violated the will of God, whether encoded in the Law of Moses or on the conscience by nature. St. Paul concludes that, given the nature of things, mankind is indicted and falls guilty before God, completely disabled from obtaining liberation from the shackles of condemnation. This is precisely what the Synod fathers of Trent saw on January 13th, 1547 when, in the 1st chapter on the “Decree of Justification”. They wrote that humanity is “so far the servants of sin, and under the power of the devil and of death, that not the Gentiles only by the force of nature, but not even the Jews by the very letter itself of the law of Moses, were able to be liberated, or to arise, therefrom; although free will, attenuated as it was in its powers, and bent down, was by no means extinguished in them.

Romans 3:21-26 – After consigning all to sin and, consequently, the condemnation which goes with it, Paul returns to this thematic phrase of the “righteousness of God” and its being “made known” by the revelation of Jesus Christ. Whereas the sin of man would be the cause of self-ruin, it is the righteousness of God that would undo and overturn that ruin. This righteousness is a saving righteousness, meant to deliver man from sin and replant him as a righteous child of God. Luther got it right, borrowing from St. Augustine, when he understood this righteousness is not that by which God is Himself righteous, but that righteousness with which, by bestowing it as a gift to man, God makes human beings righteous. It is then stated by Paul that this righteousness is communicated to man “through faith in Jesus Christ”. Thus far, it is clear that by believing in Jesus Christ, man receives this righteousness from God as a gift. The reception of this righteousness is tantamount to the justification of the recipient. And thus, Paul says we are


St. Augustine of Hippo

“justified freely by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood“. Now, the idea of “redemption” comes into play here, and it fits the context perfectly. For redemption language in the 1st century was that of freeing something from bondage, servitude, or slavery (i.e. from the slave market). Human beings have been described as such slaves, and their destiny in that state was condemnation and death. It stands to reason, therefore, that the path of reversal unto justification and life would be by an act of setting man free, breaking his chains, and purchasing his liberation from that bondage. The redemption which is in Christ is effected by a “propitiation by His blood”. There it is. The cause of redemption is the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ. It is the payment, as it were, which buys the human race out of its enslavement to sin, its influential power, and the reign of death which inevitably exists as consequence. By “propitiation“, Paul means that the justice of God which demands retributive punishment against sinners has been averted by Christ’s death. Another way to put it is that the death of Jesus removes from us the guilt we deserve to carry for committing sins, and thus reconciles us to God. In sum, the fallen human race, devoid of the righteousness needed in order to live in a salvific state with God forever, is shown the way of achieving life-giving righteousness by believing in Jesus Christ, whose death secures man’s liberation from the slavery of sin. The Law of God, therefore, is no way for man to become justified before God. Only by this intervention of the Creator in Jesus Christ where a divine Savior takes upon Himself the means to end our dreadful condition. Human works played no role in this. It was, from beginning to end, a work of divine operation. It was He who humbled Himself to become Man, to throw Himself down under the weight of crucifixion while bearing our sins in His own body, and who raised Himself out of the grave and returned to heaven. Kryie Eileson.

Romans 4:1-25 Having described the salvific process of justification from this divine action in the dying and rising Lord, man is left as a recipient of an insurmountable gift which excludes all appeals to human merits for its achievement. It would be by a latter allusion to an Old Testament passage that St. Paul would say something like “Do not say in your heart ‘who will ascend into heaven’, (that is to bring Christ down), or ‘who will descend into the abyss’, *that is to bring Christ up from the dead)”, but rather these divine actions have already been accomplished by the power of almighty God. It was Christ who was sent by God the Father, and was made man, and it was God who raised Him from the dead. No man can ascend into heaven to bring Christ down, nor can any man go into the depths of the tomb and resurrect Christ from the dead. These actions are Christ_on_the_cross_(1631),_by_Rembrandtinfinitely outside the purview of human ability. They are performed and done by God, and we are left as recipients of its bounty, and thus our mouths are sealed shut from boasting any contributory effort on our part in this glorious redemption. This was, after all, God’s intention – “that no flesh would glory in His presence”. It is for this reason that St. Paul compared the justifying activity of God to the birth of Isaac. It was another death-to-life transition outside the purview of human ability. Sarah’s womb being dead, and Abraham’s body being around 100 years old, the birth of a baby is unthinkable. But it was for the purpose of showing by whose hand that child is born that God waited that long. In the same way, St. Paul is showing us that sinful and fallen humanity is so far outside the sphere of righteousness and life that it was God alone, acting supernaturally in Christ-made-man, that could restore him to the purposes of eternal life originally revealed to our first parents, albeit prototypically. The Law comes and demands from the human being that which he cannot give, namely, righteousness. The cross and resurrection of Christ, indeed, set aside the works of man, and opens the treasure chest of God’s grace to be opened and released upon the believing community.

Now, to the text. Paul says “What then shall we say that Abraham our father has found according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited unto him as righteousness’. Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace, but as a debt [owed]. But to him who does not work but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness” (4:1-5)

When he writes “according to the flesh”, I take it as “according to human nature”, or that which is within the boundary of human capacity and ability. Has Abraham, then, performed anything in said capacity which earns his right-standing with God? Paul answers in the negative by stating an “if-then” which would be impossible in light of God’s purposes. If Abraham was justified by works [in the flesh], he would have something to boast about. A perfect unpacking of this concept is in Philippians 3, where Paul describes his fleshly pedigree as fully authentic Benjamin Israelite, a Pharisee of the elite, sworn in compliance with the Law, and circumcised on the proper 8th day. What has Paul found according to the flesh before God? Paul answers –  ζημίαν and σκύβαλα. Tridentinum2That is, loss and dung (i.e. excrement or animal waste).  That last word only comes up once in the New Testament, and squarely to describe what man might be able to surmount as worthy for his salvation before God. That should be informative, to say the least. Needless to say, therefore, that Paul found nothing according to the flesh by which he could be justified, and neither Abraham. And yet, we know that Abraham and Paul were justified before God. On what account?

“Abraham believed God”, and consequently, he was justified. Rather, it says “faith was credited for righteousness”. His believing in the word of promise, “Look now toward heaven, and count the stars if you are able to number them…so shall your descendants be” (Gen 15:5), was calculated, imputed, reckoned, or credited as righteousness. Again, this reflects the intention of God to Himself come and bring life from the dead. To establish a nation from one man who will be God’s priestly people, and through whom the world would find blessing (Gen 12:1-3) would be, in God’s plan, a supernatural and divine work outside the scope of human ability. Now, Abraham himself may have entertained some natural solutions to that end, i.e. Hagar, but it was soon squashed by the divine will, “In Isaac shall your descendant[s] be called”. God won’t have helpers, in other words. Truly, “not him who runs, but God who calls“. So Abraham’s believing in the divine word is credited as righteousness. Now, is this another way of showcasing the flesh? After all, could not Abraham say “I boast in my faith! I have faith and you don’t. I am righteous”. Not by any means. Faith is a gift from above. Abraham had to renounce his resolve to depend on what is natural, and rather to trust in divine operation. What God promises will come true, and that is that. But this faith which God worked into Abraham’s life is the result of a sanctifying work. It was ordered unto God, and God deemed it as righteousness. Now, this has to be an act of grace, otherwise the whole argument collapses. So what do Catholics do at this point? We first understand that Abraham’s believing in God is itself a gift, and not a work. We would not say that this faith is a mere intellectual recognition, but it is formed by devotion and a heart which seeks the will of God. Now, one might object – “But if faith is anything but a mere open hand of the ungodly to receive an alien righteousness, then we are destroying the argument since faith must be mutually exclusive to works, and by you saying ‘faith formed by devotion and a heat which seeks the will of God’ you are merging faith and works together, and thereby causing collapse of the context“. I am afraid that this objection, though wonderfully welcomed, will not stand up to a consideration of what Paul says elsewhere in Romans. My rebuttal follows.

In Romans 2, Paul says “For circumcision is indeed profitable if you keep the Law; but if you are a breaker of the Law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision. Therefore, if an uncircumcised man keeps the righteous requirements of the Law, will not his circumcision be counted as circumcision? And will not the physically uncircumcised, if he fulfills the Law, judge you who, even with your written code and physical circumcision, are a transgressor of the Law? For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh; but he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the Spirit, not in the letter; whose praise is not from men, but from God” (Rom 2:25-29). In some Protestant circles, this hypothetical man who fulfills the Law is just that, hypothetically. As such, Paul is only entertaining a fiction for the sake of argument. And this commitment to interpret as hypothetical is rooted in the fact that, from a Protestant vantage, a man, even uncircumcised, who fulfills the Law is a man who is justified by his works, and can therefore boast before God. In fact, what Paul describes here about the man who fulfills the Law would be, in some schools of Protestant interpretation of Romans, only realized historically in Jesus Christ. But that certainly would be news to Paul who elsewhere says that we, by the power of the Spirit, can and do fulfill the “righteous requirement of the Law” (8:3-4), when we walk in the power of that Spirit. But even then, some Protestant interpreters have managed to squeeze even into the 8th chapter of Romans the idea that this is merely putative, that Christ’s fulfillment of the Law is imputed to us and thus becomes our fulfilling of the Law Sarpi_Historia(i.e. by an act of transfer from a substitute). But that this is truly manipulative should be seen how in both Romans 8:3-4 and Romans 2:25-29, there is this referring to the Spirit of God who transforms the inner man so that he might serve God in obedience. Another text where this transition from serving by the Letter versus the Spirit is Romans 7:1-5. There we are told that prior to union with Christ, we were enslaved to the passions of the body, and that the Letter of the Law would serve the purpose of increasing our debt to death. But by being united to Christ, we’ve become dead to the Law, alive to God, and now serve in the newness of the Spirit, and not in the oldness of the Letter. And finally, another passage in Paul would be 2 Cor 3:1-18, and there he compares the Letter vs. Spirit dichotomy with the Old Covenant vs. New Covenant reality, and further describes the latter dichotomy with the Old/Letter being the external inscription of the Law on tablets of stone and the New/Spirit being the internal inscription of the Law on the heart [i.e. the inward, a la Rom 2:28-29]. For these reasons, Paul in 2:25-29 envisions Gentiles who have been inwardly sanctified by the Spirit, and not the Letter, and who “fulfill the righteous requirements of the Law”, but nevertheless have no place for boasting (i.e. whose praise is not from men, but from God-v29). This is extremely crucial for understanding those passages of Romans where Paul speaks of the justifying of fallen humanity by faith apart from the Law, and thus by grace apart from works. It does not simply refer to the initiatory moment of justification-at-conversion, but is a more general process beginning with baptism (6:1) and continuing in our struggle against the flesh (8:11-13). The idea that we are “justified by faith and sanctified by struggle” is therefore miles away from Paul.

In addition to all of this, there are widely respected Protestant New Testament scholars who interpret the “uncircumcised Gentile” (v. 25-27) who “fulfills the righteous requirements of the Law” as members of the New Covenant who have had the Spirit of God write the Law on their hearts, and thus, as Jeremiah and Ezekial put it, walk in the commandments and statutes of the Lord. Senior lecturer in New Testament at the Melbourne School of Theology, Dr. Colin Kruse, in his commentary on the epistle to the Romans (The Pillar New Testament Commentary Series edited by D.A. Carson) argues for this view (p. 155); Dr. Thomas Schreiner, Professor of New Testament Interpretation at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS), argues for the same position, contra Moo (p. 171) and Fitzmyer (p. 322), in his commentary on Romans (pgs. 139-41). He also refers readers to Garlington’s “Faith, Obedience, and Perseverance: Aspects of Paul’s Letter to the Romans” (pgs. 58, 62-63, 68). Interestingly enough, Schreiner recently revised his interpretation of an earlier passage (Romans 2:14-15) on Paul’s saying that “when Gentiles, who do not have the Law, by nature do the things in the Law“, now interpreting this as Gentiles who are members of the New Covenant and thus “do the law“. Dr. Michael F. Bird blogs on this, and refers to an interview-podcast (Episode 41) where Schreiner gives account for it. And last but not least, the popular Romans Commentary by Cranfield (p. 174) also argues the same interpretation I am giving here.

Now, going back to the justification of Abraham. His faith in the promise was reckoned as the righteousness by which he is justified before God. I want to focus our attention on the question of why faith was reckoned for righteousness. If you read Protestant commentaries on Romans 4 and Abraham’s justification, the focus is put on how faith has to be wholly dichotomous from works in order for Paul’s gift versus debt dichotomy; and rightly so. But the conclusion they often come to is that faith, in itself, cannot consist of anything in the person possessing it other than an empty-hand by which to receive the merits of Christ. “Not the labors of my hands, Can fulfill thy law’s demands….Nothing in my hand I bring, Simply to thy cross I cling” is how the Rock of Ages goes. This is very true so far as it goes. But if we keep our finger on the text of Romans, we have some additional information on how Paul himself understands this transaction of Abraham’s faith and the righteousness which was imputed to him.

In verses 16-22, Paul further describes the rationale for his appeal to Abraham. He is the father of all who believe, an thus, his justification is likewise the pre-eminent example of the justification of all. As the father is justified, so also the sons [of Abraham]. Paul writes: “..Abraham, who is the father of us all (as it is written, ‘I have made you a father of many nations’) in the presence of Him whom he believed — God, who gives life to the dead and calls those things which do not exist as though they did; who, contrary to hope, in hope believed, so that he became the fathers of many nations, according to what was spoken, ‘So shall your descendants be’. And not being weak in faith, he did not consider his own body, already dead (since he was about a hundred years old), and the deadness of Sarah’s womb. He did not waver at the promise of God through unbelief, but was strengthened in faith, giving glory to God, and being fully convinced that what He had promised He was also able to perform. And therefore, ‘it was accounted to him for righteousness’“. Notice there, at the end, the “therefore”. Righteousness was imputed to Abraham’s faith because of a reason, and the reason he gives here is not a conversion-moment in the life of Abraham where he got on his knees and prayed a prayer for the reception of Christ’s alien righteousness (or even in a way that this might look in the Patriarchal context, to avoid anachronism) , but rather a progressive life-style which, though having a beginning (Gen 12:1-3), continues on and overcomes challenges. This is why Paul goes into detail of mentioning the obstacles that would normally have constituted a blockade in the progressive life of Abraham. Where some might grow weak in unbelief, he was strengthened in faith. Where one might succumb to the lack of evidence, Abraham persevered contrary to hope (i.e. the unlikely exception from a human stand-point). Where one might waver and desist from continuing with God’s plan in obedience to God by suffering unanswered questions, lack of earthly prosperity, wandering in deserts and mountains, dens, and caves of the earth, as the author to Hebrews says (11:38), Abraham continued to follow and trust the divine word of promise. All of this constitutes the reason for why Abraham’s faith was credited for righteousness. So where Protestants might want to work at chopping down the merits of faith, albeit by the power of God, in order to sustain the grace versus works dichotomy, Paul doesn’t see the need to do so. He can, in fact, add great value and merit to Abraham’s faith, and even base this as a reason for its accreditation as righteousness, and still see in there no debt-to-wages consequent. This is because, for Paul, the life of faith in the divine promise hinges off a totally different dynamic than the Letter of the Law. Where the Letter, confronting fallen and unredeemed humanity, commands and threatens death upon all non-compliance (i.e. cursed is everyone who does not continue in all things which are written in the book of the Law to do them – Gal 3:10) , the New Covenant, standing in front of a redeemed saint who is joined ontologically with the glorified Christ, establishes the gift of eternal life from the get-go, and states that one must co-operate with this possession of life by living out its implications (i.e. give up the old man who was crucified, put on the new man who is renewed in the image of God). This can be well reflected by the indicative-imperative relationship. The grace of Christ in the New Covenant indicates an already present and accomplished reality, namely, that via one’s initial baptism into Christ, one is is en-grafted into the post-death resurrection life (which implies the forgiveness promised by the New Covenant in Jeremiah/Ezekiel), and is imperatively called to live out this practically.  Whereas the former indicative-imperative lacked the indication of being redeemed, and nevertheless imposed Laws which would never be able to be kept.

In this way, Abraham’s justification is the example of all, both Jews and Gentiles. But that hardly means we can reduce the justifying act to a mere moment of conversion whereby a single transaction comes into permanence, such as the imputation of alien righteousness which alone is received by the empty-hand of faith. This sort of concept clashes with Paul’s robust grounding of Abraham’s imputed righteousness in the progressive and persevering journey of faith. And even if one wished to say that all Paul was doing was describing the “type of faith” which proves to be the type which, at origin, received the imputed righteousness, that one is still in conflict with the fact that this momentary justification is nowhere described or stated by Paul. The passage where Moses writes Abraham’s faith was imputed for righteousness is in fact some time of his life after he initially believed in Genesis 12. And neither in Genesis or Romans, nor in any other verse of the New Testament, are we directed to pay any attention to Abraham’s momentary justification in Genesis 12.

One couldn’t escape criticism if they did not comment something on the issue of sola fide. At times, Catholics have responded to Protestant exegesis by saying that Paul does not say “faith alone” , therefore leaving room for “faith plus works”. Well, Paul does sort of exclude works from faith altogether. But here is the key to understanding. When Paul says works, he does not mean all activity and obedience performed from whatever frame of reference. For instance, Paul does not think that our works done “in Christ” and “in the Spirit” are a fruit of human nature and thus something which puts God in strict debt. They are the work of God in and through us. A passage from an ancient Pope of the 6th century, St. Gregory the Great (+604), speak beautifully to this concept:

“If whatever good there is in us is a gift of Almighty God, so that in our virtues there is nothing of our own, why do we seek an eternal reward, as if for our merits? But if such goodness as we have is not the gift of Almighty God, why do we give thanks for it to Almighty God? It must be understood that our wickedness are entirely our own, but our goodnesses pertain both to Almighty God and to ourselves; for He anticipates us with His inspiration so that we may will, and He follows us with His support, so that we do not will in vain, but may be able to carry out what we will. By prevenient grace, therefore, and by subsequent good will, that which is a gift of Almigthy God becomes our merit.” (Homilies on Ezekiel, 1.9.2)

And two from St. Prosper of Aquitaine (390-+455), a disciple of St. Augustine :

Indeed, a man who has been justified, that is, who from impious has been made pious, since he had no antecedent good merit, receives a gift, by which gift he may also acquire merit. Thus, what was begun in him by Christ’s grace can also be augmented by the industry of his free choice; but never in the absence of God’s help, without which no one is able either to progress or to continue in doing good” (Responses to Objections raised in Gaul, Resp. Ad. Obj. 6)

Since there can be no doubt that perseverance in good even to the end is a gift of God, — which , it is clear, some , from the very fact that they have no persevered, never had, — it is in no way a calumniation of God to say that these were not given what was given to others; rather, it is to be confessed both that He gave mercifully what He did give, and He withheld justly what He did not give, so that, although the cause of man’s falling away originates in free choice, the cause of his standing firm does not likewise have its origins in himself. If falling away is done by human effort, standing firm is accomplished b means of a divine gift” (Resp. Ad. Obj. 7)

Therefore, when Paul excludes works, he means works done by the capacity of human nature, wherefrom anything done to merit salvation *would* allow boasting. However,  the working unto eschatological salvation, after having been saved by the Holy Spirit through the cross and resurrection of Christ, is not done by human capacity, it leaves no room for boasting; and that was proven from the Gentile law-fulfiller the Paul described in Romans 2:25-29 which even Protestants scholars have admitted is the case.  This is the logic which undergirds the grace versus works paradigm in Paul.

Finally, I want to point out that Paul has another example of the imputation of righteousness apart from works, and thus the justification (3:24) that comes through Christ, in the cited Pslam of King David. Following Abraham’s justification, Paul continues with the following:

“But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness,  just as David also describes the blessedness of the man to whom God imputes righteousness apart from works: ‘Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; Blessed is the man to whom the Lord shall not impute sin'”

Much ink has been put to parchment and paper over the significance of this passage. I want to save many the difficulty by saying that all the King here is describing is a person who has the guilt of their sins forgiven. Some commentators, usually from the Protestant camp, have stressed over the fact that while Paul is seeking to defend the positive imputation of righteousness, he appeals to a negative [non] imputation of sin. The solution is very simple. Where Paul reads that a man has his sins *not* counted against him, that man is being counted as sinless, i.e. righteous.  Now, this passage comes from the Old Testament Pslams, all of which know that the Lord God only forgives those who repent and turn back from their wicked ways. Repentance, therefore, is assumed behind the text. One thinks of the famous 18th chapter of Ezekiel where God says that only “when a wicked man turns away from the wickedness which he committed, and does what is lawful and right, he preserves himself alive. Because he considers and turns away from all the transgressions which he committed, he shall surely live; he shall not die” (v. 27-28) . Not to put the focus on repentance as if that is the justifying righteousness of God, but I mention that here only to show that the inward cleansing is not divorced from the act of forgiveness. In any case, what interests me the most about this passage is that it is strikingly different than the example of Abraham. In Genesis 15:6, Abraham is not confessing his sins to God in order to be pardoned and forgiven, but is rather hearing and believing the promise of God. And yet, from either passage, Paul sees the “imputation of righteousness apart from works”. This may be because the first audience that Paul has in mind is the questioning Israelite who, in the Jew & Gentile relations which constitute the historical background, would have bickered about the fact that male Gentile-converts to Christianity, under Paul and others, were not receiving circumcision, nor were they all, both males and females, being instructed to obey the laws of festivals, sabbaths, and food restrictions. Here is a case where two pre-eminent Saints of the Isralite patrimony who are not only justified by faith and repentance, but one of them is so justified *prior to circumcision*.  But even aside from this, one may continue to wonder, given all the systematic detail on imputation that Reformed scholars have adduced from the Scripture, and particularly this very chapter in Romans, just why it is that an example of forgiveness and faith in a promise would be used as examples of the imputation of righteousness apart from works. I think the answer to this question is best put by drawing on to a more Catholic, and thus historic, understanding of salvation; where emphasis in the Reformed is put on the moment of conversion and the immediate transference of Christ’s once-for-all and fully-completed righteousness (active/passive obedience) to the believers account, in the Catholic tradition the justification of fallen humanity only begins with the initial washing away of sin and the internal renovation of the inward man by the Holy Spirit, but continues on in life, and even is not complete until we are one-day made fully perfect in glory. Perhaps this would make the most sense of another passage where Paul distinctively, and curiously, sets the imputed righteousness in eschatological framework – “ For we through the Spirit eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness by faith. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but faith working through love.” (Gal 5:5-6).  And, perhaps a following passage in the same epistle [to the Galatians] would be a corresponding analogy which more fully describes justification in its progressive and eschatological reality: “ Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap.  For he who sows to his flesh will of the flesh reap corruption, but he who sows to the Spirit will of the Spirit reap everlasting life. And let us not grow weary while doing good, for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart.  Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all, especially to those who are of the household of faith.” (Galatians 6:7-10). Once again, this “sowing to the Spirit” and “doing good”, i.e. living in obedience and fulfilling the righteous requirements of the Law (Rom 8:3-4), is still a condition for the ultimate and future enjoyment of eternal life, and yet in the previous passage, the whole of life is characterized by “For we through the Spirit eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness by faith”. 

Concluding Remarks –  The Catholic who wants to be able to joyfully ,and with intellectual rigor, interpret the text of Romans in a way which reflects the canons and decrees of the Holy Council of Trent should, by the above commentary, be given a gloss to start off from. But the Protestant might still be left scratching his head, reviewing texts which further disprove the Catholic interpretive breadth on faith,works, grace, and the Spirit. Only by a one-on-one dialogue can all questions and concerns be answered, but I thought I would add something to wrap up what I’ve said here and tie together the event of the cross and resurrection with the imputation of righteousness. In Romans 3:21-26, we are told that it is the sacrifice of Jesus which effects propitiation (and this was defined as the abrogation of contention between humans and God because of the punishment, in justice, due to sin) which in turn constitutes the redemptive ransom or payment through which we are set free from the bondage of sin. Both Abraham and David are examples used of persons who have been, through their faith and commitment to God, were set free from sin and brought into a Spiritual relationship with God. Of course, this could only be so by a timeless application of the Spirit’s grace before Christ, but which nevertheless is merited by the His death which was to come in the future. Since the example of King David’s Psalm on the forgiveness of sins and that of Abraham’s faith and persevering faithfulness to God were the examples used to describe “imputed righteousness apart from works” (Abraham’s faithfulness not being a product of works done in the flesh, but in the grace of the Spirit, thereby based entirely off a different dynamic which would make Abraham putting God in debt), we can say with confidence that justification, for Paul, is both the washing away of the guilt of sins, the internal renewal of the human person to live in obedience to God, and one’s perseverance in the difficult which comes with the journey of faith. But here’s the kicker. That is precisely the definition of justification given by the Council of Trent. I close with the relevant citation.

“Of this justification the causes are these: the final [cause] indeed is the glory of God and of Christ, and eternal life; while the efficient cause is the merciful God, who gratuitously washes and sanctifies, sealing, and anointing with the holy Spirit of promise, who is the earnest of our inheritance; but the meritorious cause is His most beloved only-begotten, our Lord Jesus Christ, who, when we were enemies, for the great charity wherewith he loved us, merited justification for us by His most holy Passion on the wood of the cross, and for us made satisfaction unto God the Father; the instrumental cause, moreover, is the sacrament of baptism, which is the sacrament of faith, without which justification never befall any man; lastly, the sole formal cause is the justice of God; not that by which He himself is just, but that by which He maketh us just, that, to wit, with which we, being endowed by Him, are renewed in the spirit of our mind, and we are not only reputed, but are truly called, and are, just, receiving justice within us, each one according to his own measure, which the Holy Ghost divides to every man severally as He will, and according to each one’s proper disposition and co-operation. For, although no one can be just, but he to whom the merits of the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ are communicated, yet is this brought to pass in this justification of the impious, when, by the merit of that same most holy Passion, the charity of God is shed abroad, by the Holy Ghost, in the hearts of those who are justified, and is inherent in them; whence man, in the said justification through Jesus Christ, into whom he is ingrafted, receives, together with the remission of sins, all these things infused at once, faith, hope, and charity. For faith, unless to it be added hope and charity, neither unites [man] perfectly with Christ, nor makes him a living member of His body. For which reason it is most truly said, that Faith without works is dead, and idle; and In Christ Jesus neither circumcision availeth anything, nor uncircumcision, but faith which worketh by charity. This faith catechumens beg of the Church, agreeably to a tradition of the apostles, previously to the sacrament of baptism; when they beg for the faith which bestoweth life everlasting, which, without hope and charity, faith cannot bestow. Whence also do they straightway hear that word of Christ: If thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments. Wherefore, when receiving true and Christian justice, they, immediately on being born again, are commanded to preserve it pure and spotless, as the first rabe, given unto them through Jesus Christ, instead of that which Adam, by his disobedience, lost for himself and for us, that so they may bear it before the tribunal of our Lord Jesus Christ, and may have life everlasting.” (Chapter 7, Decree on Justification)

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