Updated: Sep 10
By Luke Lancaster
As a teenager, my Baptist youth-pastor said that, in order for mankind to be saved, all one needs to do is have faith. It is faith alone which reconciles us to God and will allow someone into Heaven. Anything else we do, so he said, was just “works of the law,” which Paul condemns in Romans 3:28. That verse says, “For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law” (Rom. 3:28). The pastor was arguing that Paul held to the doctrine of faith alone. There is not a necessity of doing good works to stay "saved" or "in a state of grace" as Catholics say. According to the Baptist, Catholics hold to the doctrine of works of Law - which St. Paul condemns.
Now, as a Catholic, I felt threatened. He basically was saying that I and my family possessed an unbiblical understanding of salvation. When I tried to read the passage he quoted, though, I had a hard time understanding it. If you are like me, you would have liked someone to break down the context of Romans 3:28, so that you could respond to such an objector. After my years of study, I have concluded (along with numerous Biblical scholars) that those "works of Law" which Paul condemns is actually the legislation of Moses. Paul is not thinking of good works done by the Spirit as Catholics say are necessary for salvation. Rather, Paul is arguing that Gentiles (non-Jews) do not have to enter into the Mosaic Covenant and live like Jews to be saved.
Jews and Gentiles are the main focus of Paul's letter to the people in Rome. As the first Catholic Scripture scholar, Origen of Alexandria (184-253AD) said, “In this letter Paul, like an arbiter sitting between the Jews and the Greeks, i.e., believing Gentiles, summons and invites both groups to faith in Christ in such a way as to not offend the Jews completely by destroying the Jewish ceremonies nor to cause despair in the Gentiles by affirming the observance of the law and of the letter.” (Commentary on Romans, 2.14.1). The Church in Rome is having an ethnic issue, where Jews feel that salvation comes about by following the typical ceremonial Jewish life. St. Paul says no. Both Jews and Gentiles can attain eternal life apart from the works of the Mosaic Law of Judaism.
Paul starts off by building his case that the whole world is under sin, both Gentiles (Romans 1:18-32) and Jews (Romans 3:9-20), so neither of them can boast. Gentiles sin against the natural law, and the Jews sin against the Mosaic Law, so both groups desperately need to be reconciled to God. It is at this point that Paul begins talking about the good news. This good news is that Jesus has come to save mankind, and in order to receive this salvation, one has to have faith.
Romans 3:21 says that God shows His righteousness (I.e. His good character, faithfulness, integrity, and saving justice) by restoring good relations with sinful mankind through Jesus. God and man are bridged together not through the Jewish legal code of the Law, but through God's beloved Son. It is through faith in Jesus Christ. So, if someone wants to get to Heaven, he does not have to become a Jew and get circumcised, avoid certain foods, dress a certain way, etc. God does not favor one group (i.e. Jews) over the other (i.e. Gentiles), but instead, everybody needs this Gospel, for “all have sinned” (Rom. 3:23). All have fallen short, nobody can say that they are in a right relationship (friendship) with God. Every person who walks this earth is on bad terms with God. He doesn't leave us alienated from Him, but sends His Son to create a bridge between Himself and us.
God shows His righteousness by sending His Son to earth to make expiation for our sins. Although we are in the wrong, God makes things right. God forgives our sins because Jesus made atonement for us. All we have to do is believe in Jesus as our Savior and be faithful to His teachings (Rom. 1:5). God has patiently been passing over the sins of humanity since the flood with Noah, acting as if His people have not been hurting Him with sin on the daily. God has had "forbearance" or patience with us, waiting for us to repent. Now, Paul exclaims, God has demonstrated to the world that He is just, for He sends His Son to justify mankind, restoring them to Himself (Rom. 3:26).
The Jewish people think differently, however, They think that they are the favored ones, so they boast over their non-Jewish (Gentile) counterparts. They really should not, though, for “there is no distinction” (Rom. 3:22) between the two groups. Both are under sin. If there is no distinction, then there can be no boasting over the Gentiles. This is what Paul has been saying all along (Rom. 2:21-29). The Jews think that they go to Heaven simply because they are circumcised and live in the Mosaic Covenant. This ritual presumption is prideful.
According to Paul, the ceremonial commandments of the Mosaic Law, like circumcision, do not save Christians. They are outdated. One is a Jew “inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart, spiritual and not literal” (Rom. 2:29). In order to attain eternal life, the Jews do not need to follow the external ceremonies like circumcision (or dietary laws, feast days, etc.). They need to have an inward heart spiritually filled with faith in God, but they do not. They need salvation just as much as the Gentile does.
God only counts the circumcision of the Jews as valuable if they observe the moral commandments of the Law (Rom. 2:25). The Jews have not perfectly observed the Law, though! Yet how can they, when the Law does not give the grace to follow the Law? Hearing the moral commandments of the Mosaic Law (ex. "Thou shalt not covet" - Rom. 7:7) does not change the heart. One does not suddenly have a heart of faithful and loving service to God simply by hearing the Law. Rather, one will just start to desire breaking the Law (Rom. 7:8). Breaking the Law incurs death, for the "wages of sin is death" (Rom. 6:23), so attempting salvation through the Law is pointless. The heart of stone needs to be transformed and filled with God's Spirit.
Salvation is not by living like a Jew, but by faith. Inward faith is what really matters, so a man is "not justified by [the Jewish] works of the Law" (Rom. 3:28). Living like a Jew and getting circumcised are external things that are non-salvific. Rather, it is a faithful man “after God’s own heart” (1 Sam. 13:14) that can be saved. If it is an inward need, rather than an outward need, then Gentiles can also be saved by this “law of faith" (Rom. 3:29) without needing to become Jews first. God is not just the God of the Jews only. If man were justified by the works of the Mosaic Law, meaning by entering the Mosaic Covenant, then God would only justify the Jews. For only the Jews follow the whole Mosaic law-system, defining their relationship with God by it. However, God looks at the heart instead, and whether one has a living and trusting relationship with Him (Rom. 3:30).
When one gets out of the dead ceremonies of the Law and comes to faith in Jesus, he is given the power to obey the moral component of the Law. Whereas the Law-code did not give the Spirit to obey it, resulting in death, the "law of faith" (Rom. 3:29) does give the Spirit to obey it. St. Paul says, "For the law of the Spirit of life [i.e. the New Covenant of Jesus] has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death [the Mosaic Covenant]" (Rom. 8:2). God's Spirit comes into the picture through Jesus. The Spirit fills the Jews who believe in Jesus so that they can fulfill "the righteous requirement of the law" (Rom. 8:4). By following the "law of faith" in the Messiah and being filled with God's Spirit, men can actually fulfill the requirement to, for example, not covet. Cardiac transformation takes place!
At the end of Romans 3, St. Paul deals with an objection to his teachings. The question is, does this understanding of salvation by faith throw away the Pentateuch? For the Hebrew Scriptures seem to say that the Jews are saved through the Law. Paul says on the contrary, for “we uphold the law” (Rom. 3:31), meaning the Pentateuch. For the Pentateuch (what the Jews call the first five books of the Bible) does not say that Jews are saved through the Mosaic Law. That is a misunderstanding. In fact, the only way to understand the first five books of the Bible is this understanding by Paul, that God is looking for faith! Paul goes on to cite the Pentateuchal example of Abraham in Rom. 4, where Abraham was justified by faith.
We are born sinners, in a broken relationship with God, but thanks to Jesus we can be reconciled with God. This occurs by possessing inward faith in Christ and being filled with God's love (Rom. 5:5). The issue about being saved by faith over "works of the Law" in Romans is not a Protestant vs. Catholic issue. Rather, it is principally an ethnic issue over whether Gentiles can be saved as well! Paul demonstrates that God does not show partiality to the Jews by only granting salvation to those who follow the Mosaic Law-code. Rather, both Jews and Gentiles alike can be saved through the heartfelt law of faith. This heartfelt faith comes with the power of the Holy Spirit, which enables believers to keep the moral aspect of the Mosaic Law. As seen, my Baptist-youth-pastor was wrong to quote Romans 3:28 to me. He made it seem like Catholics follow the "works of the Law." However, the works of the Law are (1) primarily the outdated ceremonies of Judaism, and (2) secondarily the moral Law of Judaism (which is impossible to keep without the Spirit). We are saved by faith apart from living like Jews, but not apart from doing good works.