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Works Mattered to St. Paul

In defending the importance of works for salvation, Catholics don’t have to fear Romans 2:6-7

Last week my fellow Catholic Answers Online Magazine contributor Luke Lancaster ably countered the use of Galatians 2 by our Protestant brothers and sisters who want to read St. Paul as arguing that works do not contribute to the justification and salvation of Christians. As veterans of the apologetics debates know, there are other passages used to similar effect, and still more passages which make clear St. Paul’s true intent.

Romans 2:6-7 is one of those passages used often by Catholics when talking to Protestants about the role works play in our salvation. Here’s what Paul says:

For he will render to every man according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life.

Clearly, there is a sense in which Paul envisions eternal life as a reward for good works. The Greek for “in well-doing” is ergou agathou, which literally translates, “in work good.” The works that Paul has in mind are those of a moral character, since he contrasts it with factious activity and disobedience to the truth, which Paul says is rewarded with “wrath and fury” (v.8).

Notice the contrast: eternal life is the reward for good works, wrath and fury are the reward for bad works. Consequently, one may reasonably conclude with the Catholic Church that works play a role in receiving our final salvation at the end of life.

Protestant apologist Ron Rhodes thinks this is a misuse of the passage. In his book, Reasoning from the Scriptures with Catholics, he argues that the Catholic interpretation of Romans 2:6-7 can’t be correct because it contradicts other passages where Paul “emphatically states that salvation is entirely apart from works” (emphasis added). He quotes Romans 3:28: “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.” He also quotes Romans 4:5, which reads, “And to one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness.”

The problem with Rhodes’ counter is that he assumes Paul is talking about the same kind of works in both passages. As mentioned above, Romans 2:6-7 refers to good works that belong to the moral sphere. The “works” that Paul speaks of in Romans 3:28 and Romans 4:5 refer to works that belonged to the Law of Moses, the keeping of which was necessary for Jews (circumcision, kosher laws, ritual washings, precepts governing the offering of sacrifices, etc.).

Romans 2:28-29 provides a clue that supports this interpretation. In this passage, Paul disabuses members of his audience of the idea that someone has to be a Jew outwardly via circumcision in order to be saved. He writes,

For he is not a real Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical. He is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart, spiritual and not literal. His praise is not from men but from God.

Paul’s instruction here was meant to counter the claim of some first-century Christians that being a Jew, and holding fast to all of the Mosaic precepts (e.g. circumcision), is a necessary condition for salvation (see Acts 15:1-2). Paul’s point is that salvation is not restricted to the visible boundaries of the Jewish people. It is a gift offered to all, the non-circumcised (the Gentiles) included.

This is the general context in which Paul says, “a man is justified by faith apart from the works of law” (emphasis added). Justification (right relationship with God) is not determined by some standard that belongs only to Jews, like the precepts codified in the Mosaic Law or the Torah. Since membership in God’s family is being offered to all men, the standard by which one is measured to be a member (justified) must be something that can apply to all peoples. That universal standard is faith.

The two verses immediately following Romans 3:28 bear this out. Right after juxtaposing the standards of faith and “works of law,” Paul writes in verse twenty-nine, “Is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one.”

This is the premise that leads Paul to the conclusion in the next verse that God will “justify the circumcised on the ground of their faith and the uncircumcised through their faith.” If Paul is juxtaposing faith and circumcision here in verse thirty, then we can conclude that circumcision is the kind of thing he has in mind when he juxtaposes faith with “works of law” in verse twenty-eight.

The coherence of this interpretation is also manifest in the next chapter (Romans 4), where Paul talks about Abraham’s justification, the passage that Rhodes thinks contradicts how the Catholic Church understands Romans 2:6-7. Paul begins by saying how Abraham has no reason to boast because he was justified apart from works (v.2), and God reckoned him as righteous because of his faith (v.3).

He then quotes David’s blessing from Psalm 32:1-2 as evidence for the type of blessing that God pronounces on those whom God reckons as righteous apart from works (v.6-8). But then Paul asks, “Is this blessing pronounced upon the circumcised, or also upon the uncircumcised?” (v.9). This continues the theme of Romans 2:28-29 and Romans 3:28.

Paul then goes on to establish the fact that Abraham’s faith was reckoned to him as righteousness before he was circumcised (v.10). The point that Paul is making is that circumcision and adherence to the Mosaic Law is not necessary for being reckoned as righteous, and justification of Abraham is his primary argument for this. It’s faith that justifies, not the law.

It’s within this context that Paul says in Romans 4:5, “And to one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness.” The work that we are justified apart from is the work of the Mosaic Law, not the work of charity.

Now that we know Paul is referring to legal works of the Mosaic Law in Romans 3:28 and Romans 4:5, it becomes clear why Rhodes can’t use these passages to counter a the Catholic understanding of Romans 2:6-7. It’s not a contradiction to say that salvation is given as a reward for works according to Romans 2:6-7 and at the same time say we are saved apart from works according to Romans 3:28 and Romans 4:5 if the works are different in kind, which the evidence above amply demonstrates.

There are a few more counters that Rhodes gives, but we’ll have to save those for another time. It should suffice to say here that Rhodes’s first counter fails. A Catholic doesn’t have to stop using Romans 2:6-7 out of fear that his interpretation contradicts other statements that Paul makes on the role that good works play in our salvation.

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