What did St Paul mean by Faith and Works of the Law?

Faith and works, right? But have you ever met a Protestant or Evangelical who insists that we are saved by “faith alone”?

If so, this post is for you:

Faith and Works of the Law

Saint Paul continually insists that we are justified apart from “works of the law.” Is this not also implicitly confirming that we are justified by faith alone? To answer this question, we must first discover what Saint Paul meant by “works of the law.”

Paul faith and works

Saint Paul, the Apostle of Faith

Paul used the phrase “works of the law” six times and only within Romans and Galatians. Here’s the full list within context:

For no human being will be justified in his sight by works of the law, since through the law comes knowledge of sin (Rom 3:20).

For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law (Rom 3:28).

Yet we know that a man is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ, and not by works of the law, because by works of the law shall no one be justified (Gal 2:16).

Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law, or by hearing with faith? (Gal 3:2)

Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith? (Gal 3:5)

For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse. For it is written, ‘Cursed be every one who does not abide by all things written in the book of the law, and do them’ (Gal 3:10).

When Saint Paul speaks of the “works of the law,” he refers to what we know as the six hundred and thirteen precepts of the Torah, such as Jewish prohibitions against eating pork, the mandate of circumcision, and the observance of Passover.

The Three Kinds of Precepts in the Old Testament

According to Moses, these precepts of the Old Law fall into three divisions: “the precepts, the ceremonies, and the judgments” (Deut 6:1). Saint Thomas Aquinas and the Christian tradition recognize Moses’ threefold division as (1) the moral precepts, (2) the ceremonial precepts, and (3) the judicial precepts of the Old Law of Moses.

  1. First, the moral precepts are those precepts known to us as the Ten Commandments—the basic moral law of God for men.
  2. Second, the ceremonial precepts relate to such things as the Jewish teaching regarding circumcision on the eighth day and the kosher prohibition against eating pork.
  3. Third, the judicial precepts are the civil laws governing the nation of Israel as a political state.

Saint Paul’s epistles to the Romans and to the Galatians are particularly concerned with baptized Christians who wrongly believed that the observance of the circumcision and the other ceremonial precepts were necessary for salvation. Some Roman and Galatian Christians had wrongly concluded that a Christian must believe in Jesus and obey the ceremonial precepts of Moses in order to be saved. Against this error, Saint Paul presents faith in Christ as opposed to the “works of the law.” In his historical context, Saint Paul rejected any attempt to bind Christians to the ceremonial law. In other words, Paul did not believe that Christians should receive circumcision or abstain from pork.

What are Works of the Law?

So then, when Saint Paul wrote: “Man is justified by faith apart from works of the law,” did he simply mean that Christians are not justified by the ceremonial law? Or did Paul mean that Christians are not justified by works of any sort? To put the question another way, when Saint Paul refers to “works of the law” did he mean “works of the ceremonial law,” or did he mean “all works without distinction”? The way we answer this important question determines how we understand “works” with regard to grace and faith.

It would seem that contemporary Protestant scholars associated with the so-called “New Perspective on Paul,” such as E.P. Sanders and James Dunn, tend to interpret the “works of the law” as simply referring to circumcision and the ceremonial law.

Amateur Catholic apologists also appeal to this interpretation in order to shake off their Protestant interlocutors. Their argument goes something like this: “When Paul writes that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the law, he means that a man is justified apart from keeping the ceremonial law required by Jewish circumcision. Paul is not arguing against works in general but against Jewish ceremonial works.”

This explanation conveniently protects the role of the moral law and faith within justification—something universally affirmed by the Catholic Church. Notably, Saint Jerome defended this interpretation of “works of the law” as merely the ceremonial precepts of the Old Law. Certainly, within Saint Paul’s immediate historical context, he is concerned chiefly with the ceremonial precepts of Moses. We know this because Saint Paul taught that the Gentile Christians should not keep the ceremonial precepts of Judaism—they were not to be circumcised and they were not restricted by the Jewish calendar or Jewish dietary regulations.

Nevertheless, Saint Paul includes the moral precepts (for example, “thou shalt not covet”) as belonging to the “works of the law” (Rom 7:6-8). Consequently, the Catholic Church has officially followed the interpretation of Saint Augustine, who taught that the phrase “works of the law” refers to the entire Law of Moses—to the moral precepts, to the ceremonial precepts, as well as to the judicial precepts. Augustine recognized the “works of the law” referred specifically to the ceremonial precepts in their Jewish context, but he also understood that the message extended to a general interpretation of “works.”

The Council of Trent and the Augustinian Tradition

Corresponding to this Augustinian tradition, the Catholic Church, at the Council of Trent, declared with Paul that none of the works of the law could justify a man:

Canon I. If any one says that man may be justified before God by his own works, whether done through the teaching of human nature, or that of the law, without the grace of God through Jesus Christ—let him be anathema.

This canon from the Council of Trent demonstrates that the Catholic Church does not distinguish between “works” and “works of the law” when stating that a man is not justified by “works of the law.” Instead, the Catholic Church condemns anyone who attempts to justify himself “by his own works,” regardless of whether the works belong to the moral precepts or to the ceremonial precepts of the law. Hence, one cannot be justified even if he perfectly fulfilled the moral precepts of the Ten Commandments, since these do not equip a man for the beatific vision of God’s essence. The ceremonial precepts (“do not eat swine’s flesh”) cannot transform us into the righteousness of Christ. Moreover, not even obedience to the moral precepts (“thou shalt not kill”) can fill us with the Holy Spirit. The Council of Trent elaborates:

We are therefore said to be justified freely, because that none of those things which precede justification—whether faith or works—merit the grace itself of justification. For, if it be a grace, it is not now by works, otherwise, as the same Apostle says, grace is no more grace.

Grace remains primary in Catholic teaching. Neither faith nor works merit our justification. Justification is received by faith and perfected by works of charity, but it is not earned by works alone. Yes, prevenient grace is needed even for our initial faith in Christ. No man can be justified simply by observing the moral law found in the Ten Commandments. This is the authentic Catholic teaching of the Catholic Church. “And without faith it is impossible to please God” (Heb 11:6). There is a synergy between faith and works, as James teaches (Jas 2:24). It is not faith alone. It is not works alone. It is faith first and works following—each flowing from the wellspring of grace springing from the wounded side of the crucified Christ.

Do the Ten Commandments Apply to Christians?

We would be wrong to assume that Saint Paul taught that the moral precepts of the Ten Commandments no longer applied to Christians. “Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law” (Rom 3:31). We have already established how Saint Paul teaches that good works in themselves cannot justify the sinner. However, this does not entail that works have no role in our salvation. Many Protestants wrongly believe that Catholics hold to justification by works alone since we do not believe in justification by faith alone. For the Catholic, works without faithful love are worthless. The Catholic does not believe that one must choose between either faith or works. Instead, the Catholic Church exhorts her children to both faith and works. Saint Paul confirms that faith alone is not enough:

If I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing (1 Cor 13:2-3).

Faith Without Love?

Faith cannot be alone because it must be accompanied by love. Moreover, love is not passive but active. Love works. Love operates. Saint Paul summed up the Catholic doctrine of justification perfectly in Galatians when he wrote, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is of any avail, but faith working through love” (Gal 5:6). Faith working through love. This is the Catholic doctrine of justification. Faith in Christ must be informed by love for Christ. This is a working faith. As our Lord Jesus Christ explained, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (Jn 14:15). A faith that is opposed to obedience is a faith without love. It is not saving faith.

Catholic Perspective on Paul Open Inside

This post was adapted from my book The Catholic Perspective on Paul. You can get it in paperback and Kindle by clicking here.


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