Updated: Jan 2
By Luke Lancaster
I was talking with my Baptist youth-pastor once, and he said that all that mankind has to do to be saved 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 his doctrine of faith alone, and that Catholics held to the doctrine of works of Law.
Now, when I tried to read Romans 3 for myself as a 13 y/o, I had a hard time understanding it. That pastor, on the other hand, could quote from any part of Romans and do circles around me. 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. 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). Paul addresses both groups at different times in his epistle. He does not want the Jews to think that Judaism is totally gone, and he does not want the Gentiles to think that they have to become Jews.
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.
Romans 3:21 says that God shows His righteousness (I.e. His good character or 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, keep kosher, 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. Yet, God is not like our human relationships, for He is infinitely merciful.
He 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. 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. What "forbearance" or patience which God has had. Now, Paul exclaims, God has demonstrated to the world that He is just, for He sends His Son, men are justified, and the relationship is restored (Rom. 3:26).
The Jews had been boasting over the Gentiles as being the favored ones, but they really should not, for “there is no distinction” (Rom. 3:22) between them. If no distinction, then there can be no boasting over the Gentiles. Both groups are under sin. This is what Paul has been saying all along (Rom. 2:21-29). The Jews thought that they would go to Heaven simply because they were circumcised (which God had required in Genesis 17) and in the Jewish faith. This ritual presumption is prideful, for God only counts their circumcision as valuable if they observe the Law (Rom. 2:25). The Jews have not! Paul says one is a Jew “inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart, spiritual and not literal. His praise is not from men but from God” (Rom. 2:29). So, no Jew, including Paul himself (Philippians 3:4-9), can boast in being under the Mosaic Law.
For it is the law of faith that really matters, a man “after God’s own heart” (1 Sam. 13:14). Even Gentiles can be saved by this “law of faith,” for God is not just the God of the Jews only (Rom. 3:29). If man was justified by 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. God looks at the heart instead, and whether he has a living and trusting relationship with Him (Rom. 3:30).
Is this understanding of salvation throwing away the Pentateuch which seemed to say that Jews are saved through the law? On the contrary, Paul says, “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!
As we have seen, Paul is not condemning good works, but living like a Jew. As Origen of Alexandria says, "One should know that the works that Paul repudiates and frequently criticizes are not the works of righteousness that are commanded in the law, but those in which those who keep the law according to the flesh boast; i.e., the circumcision of the flesh, the sacrificial rituals, the observance of Sabbaths or new moon festivals" (Commentary on Romans, 8.7.6). We are born sinners, in a broken relationship with God, but thanks be to Jesus He came to reconcile us. What righteousness you have, O God!