I would like some feedback here from some of my Protestant readers on a previous article wherein I offer a reading of Romans 4 which might be a reasonable alternative to the Lutheran reading. Often times, Catholics or Orthodoxy try to say that since “works” in the context refers to Jewish boundary markers, we can safely say that when St. Paul says that we are justified by faith “apart from the works o the Law,” he simply means that while man is justified by faith apart from “ceremonial rituals” he is justified by a combination of faith and moral works, such that flow from loving God above all things and our neighbor as ourselves. However, it seems to me that when St. Paul excludes “works” from human justification, he means to exclude all human working of any kind, even if the Jewish boundary markers are his emphasis. Now, lest I trigger the physicists, chemists, and biologists reading this, I don’t mean to say that St. Paul envisions the exclusion of quite literally every single human work imaginable, such that even the process of hearing, thinking, contemplating, and the choice of commitment (which are all technically a work in ontology). Even so, their movement is still grounded in the immanent God who grounds all being and its function. To a natural and supernatural level, God always grounds the movement of even the soul’s movements.
In any case, exegetically speaking, it can’t be denied that in his letter to Rome, St. Paul clearly understands all of human sin to have disqualified everyone from being recognized as “just” or “right” in the eyes of God. Therefore, attempts at making onself “just” or “right” in God’s eyes through outward ceremony certainly won’t be successful (indeed, this is Paul’s emphasis), but neither would the soul’s attempt to strive for moral perfection since it is impossible (Rom 3:9-20; 7:1-25). A successful human justification, therefore, must be through a means which is neither a prescription for outward ceremony (for an outward effect) nor an assignment to commit one’s life to moral perfection. The Mosaic Law, seeing as it requires both (Gal 3:10-12), cannot give life because its demand can’t be met by humanity marred by the sin of Adam (Rom 5:12-21).
The Pauline method of successful human justification begins with the God who loves and abounds in mercy (Titus 3:1-7). Recognizing the need of humanity, God condescends to prepare His creatures to meet His standards by a whole new methodology, “apart from the Law” (Rom 3:21). This methodology involves the sending of His co-equal Son to take on “the likeness of sinful flesh” (Rom 8:3) and suffer the penalty (qua voluntary sacrifice) for human sin through violent death. In the Son of God, by way of a corporate representation, the whole of Adamic humanity is slain (i.e. the old man) in His death and with His resurrection, and a new Christic humanity is born anew. Human nature, therefore, is regenerated, and now a full cleansing and ontological renewal is made available to all persons who obtain the benefits.
That moves us to the next stage of God’s method. This great benefit of “redemption” (Rom 3:24) whereby the death and resurrection of the Son of God, by putting away sin and death, and which can release humanity from its prison of guilt and mortality, is on open offer for all persons in the world who “believe in Jesus Christ” (Rom 3:22). What then is it to believe? St. Paul can elsewhere speak of this as the “obedience of faith” (Rom 1:5), or that the Gospel requires one to obey (2 Thes 1:8). As St. Augustine argued, the call to believe is a command, and therefore it is obedience to do so. In fact, St. Paul understands the action of believing to be so inclusive with the human commiting itself to God in obedience that he thinks that his readers should understand believing to necessarily imply the reception of the sacrament of Baptism (Gal 3:25-28), which is performing the will of Jesus Christ, c.f. “Go and preach the Gospel to every creature… whoever believes and is baptized will be saved”, Mark 16. Already then, the act of faith involves a turning of the soul towards God in repentance. This is why repentance is just as much a condition for the forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:36-38) as is believing, because the two acts are simply the sides of one single coin. Outward circumcision avails nothing with God, says St. Paul, nor does the natural man seeking to be justified by his best effort at sinlessness, but rather a new creation (Gal 6:14) avails with God, and this new creation is characterized by faith working through love (Gal 5:5-6)
By receiving the gifts that come to the human creature in Baptism, the recipient is “justified” (1 Cor 6:10-11). Thereafter, St. Paul warns the baptized that they are to ensure that they live a holy and righteous life, continually sowing one’s seed unto good works lest they find a destiny wholly opposite of one who is “just” in the eyes of God (Gal 6:7-8). The imputation of righteousness to the human being, therefore, is not by “works” in the sense of outward Jewish ceremonies that made a purely fleshly effect (circumcision), nor it is by the natural human being who strives for moral perfection (or sinlessnes). Rather, the man who breaks down in repentance and who from there seeks God in obedient good works, all the while placing the source of His spiritual strength in God the Holy Spirit, is the man who is imputed as righteous (Rom 4:24-25). It involves not just the initial response of obedience on the the part of the human subject, but also the ongoing fidelity to God’s commands under the auspices of grace which isn’t anywhere near as exacting as the Law of Moses. The Law of Christ begins with the implantation of the seed of eternal life in Baptism and the human subject is thenceforth required to obey Christ as Master and Lord, as well as to perpetually abide under the grace of His forgiveness.
So then, does St. Paul exclude all human works in the attainment of the status of being “just” in the eyes of God? Yes, he exlcudes both ceremonial and moral works insofar as the natural man is concerned. The natural man, strictly speaking, is the man “under the Law” (Rom 6:14). The natural man is the “old man” enslaved to sin (Rom 6:1-5; 7:1-5). From that man, no method can allow a right relationship with God. However, from the gift of Baptism, the “new man” is walking in the post-mortem victory of Christ’s resurrection. From him, the Law of God is “fulfilled” (Rom 8:4) by the power of the Holy Spirit (Rom 8:10-13). He is justified initially by no works other than showing up in repentance and faith for Baptism, and he is ongoingly maintained in a “just” status by His obedience to Christ as Master and Lord, and his continual repentance which reaches out and takes of the Lord’s merciful remission of sins. However, even the obedience and good works of the regenerated human being is not “works” in the sense that St. Paul excludes in Romans 4 from Abraham. This is sometimes overlooked by Catholic exegetes. The Book of Romans is all about the saving of sinful humanity through the righteousness of God (Rom 1:16-17), and said righteousness is supposed to deliver man by justifying him before a holy God. But, rather unexpectedly, St. Paul points to a moment of justification in Abraham’s life after he had already been following the Lord in faith and obedience as an example of the justification of sinners. This is because Abraham’s justification by faith is under the auspices of grace, whereby obedience rendered unto God itself presupposed the implantation of divine regeneration and the power of the Holy Spirit. In that context, there can’t be any boasting (Rom 4:1-5). Thus, St. Paul’s absolute exclusion of works here must be understood as works-from-natural-and-fallen-mankind.
It is no wonder, therefore, why St. Paul chooses Abraham (aside from his being uncircumcised at the point of his reference, c.f. Gen 15:6) and David as the two practical examples of what it means to be imputed righteous apart from works. Abraham’s believing in God (Gen 15:6) was his inward trust of God’s promise, something which pleased God sufficiently for Him to see Abraham as “justified”. David repented of his sin, and was imputed as righteous apart from works. In both instances, repentance and faith were had by the human subject and in both instances were they judged righteous without works, for faith and repentance rendering one acceptable to God is neither the strict debt on God that human works would accomplish if they achieve sinlessness. In both cases, Abraham’s faith is presupposed to be attached or informed by love (Gal 5:5) and hope (Rom 4:23-25), and the non-imputation of David’s sin (that which St. Paul deems tantamount to the imputation of righteousness) presupposes confession of sin (Ps 32:5), prayer (ibid.,6), and uprightness of heart (ibid., 11). These characteristics describe the tax collector in the temple, contra the Pharisees, who thought he wasn’t worthy to even look up and pleaded with God, “God be merciful to me a sinner” (Luke 18:9-14). Jesus said concerning him, “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified (δεδικαιωμένος)”. But notice what neither Abraham nor David did to be just in God’s eyes: Abraham was not even circumcised let alone abiding by all 613 commandments under the Sinai legislation of God’s Law, and David was crying out to God to deliver him from sin, and thus could not be deemed sinless so as to perfectly avoid the curse (Gal 3:10). God’s methodology of justifying sinners, then, is wholly apart from the Mosaic Law and moral works considered as done sufficiently to merit sinlessness by the natural status of human potential, particularly such as marred by the sin of Adam (Rom 5:12-21).