Here are some notes I prepared for last night's Bible Study on Paul's Letter to the Romans. We meet at 7 pm every Wednesday at St. Boniface, in the Caserta Center (across Miami Street from St. Boniface).
Romans Chapter 3
Paul poses a series of questions that should be understood in two ways. First, they seem to be questions a reader or listener—or someone debating with him—might ask. Second, they also are chosen, by Paul, to advance his argument.
The first question is, “What advantage is there then in being a Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision?” If we asked this, in our own way of speaking, we might say, “Paul, it sounds like there is no advantage to being Jewish (or circumcised).”
First, we have to recall that Paul always went first to his fellow Jews to proclaim the Gospel, as the Lord Jesus commanded. The question might be asked because Paul here might seem to be denying that there is anything special about the Jewish people, as God’s chosen and specially favored with the Covenant. Paul has no intention of denying that—he’s making a point about sin and the need for Jesus Christ.
Thus Paul responds, certainly the Jewish people were favored by God in many ways, particularly to be the recipients and bearers of God’s self-revelation and his Covenant.
The next question is posed: weren’t they unfaithful—what about that? We might understand that several ways: (1) “If they are so special, why were they unfaithful?” Or (2), What does it say about the covenant and the revelation of God, that those chosen to receive it behaved so badly? Or (3) it might be an even more subtle question: “Did God’s fidelity to the covenant depend on his people’s fidelity?” (See New Jerome Biblical Commentary, 51:34.)
Paul’s response is that the sinfulness of the Jews does not call into question either God’s salvation nor the truth of what he has revealed to humanity, principally through the Jews. God will still be faithful to his covenant: “God must be true, though every human being is a liar.”
The next question might seem even more obscure: we might paraphrase it as, “are you saying, Paul, that God’s plan is advanced by human sinfulness? If our sinfulness is all part of the plan, why then does God punish it?” Paul spends less time on this question, other than to deny it. The question confuses two things. Yes, it’s true that God is able to bring good about despite wickedness—but that doesn’t mean that sin doesn’t cause real damage and suffering, both to others, and to the one who chooses sin. So the fact that God overcomes evil doesn’t mean it doesn’t cause harm.
Scholars debate the best way to translate verse 9, but whichever way they go, it comes to the same place where Paul wants to go: whether Jew or Gentile, we are all sinners, and we to be saved from sin. Paul cites a string of Scripture passages, all linked together to support his point about the problem of sin which affects us all. We might wonder—did Paul do this from memory? Or did he look them all up? Notice that many body parts are mentioned—perhaps suggesting that the whole of the human person is caught up in sin (NJBC, ibid.). This “catena” or chain of scripture passages may be one already familiar to Paul or his letter’s recipients.
Now we come to a climax in Paul’s argument: “no human being will be justified in his sight by observing the law… the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law.”
We begin to get into the heart of Paul’s teaching about justification by faith—and now we come upon that section of Paul’s Letter to the Romans that has been the subject of much debate and division in the Church since the time of Martin Luther.
Be very sure that every word in these lines of Paul has been analyzed, debated and picked over extensively by lots of very smart, and very determined people! These notes are much humbler in purpose!
It was in reading these passages that Martin Luther hit upon his claim that the whole Gospel, the whole Church, “stands or falls” on the doctrine of “justification by faith alone.” To that, Catholics respond in two ways:
First, that we agree about justification by faith—but we question what Luther means by adding the word “alone.” And he literally did add it at one point, saying it brought out the meaning of what Paul is saying.
Second, we agree this is important—but we do not agree to a narrowness about how to understand this doctrine on its own merits, or in relation to the rest of what has been given to us in the Deposit of Faith—that is, the whole body of what we believe about God and his action to save us through Jesus Christ.
We might, for example, respond (along with Eastern Christians) that theosis—being transformed by God and unified with God, as expressed in the startling, yet perfectly orthodox statement of Aquinas (reiterating what many other Fathers of the Church, theologians and saints have said): “God became man that men might become God.”
And we might say further that this doctrine of theosis is another way of talking about justification—except that it won’t fit into Luther’s narrowing of the doctrine—because Luther would go on to emphasize that in justification, God imputes or attributes righteousness to us; he does not—at least initially—make us righteous.
Luther saw sinful humanity, “justified” by Christ, as a dunghill covered in pure snow—but note that the dunghill remained what it was. But Catholic teaching is emphatic that when God declares someone righteous, his creative, all-powerful word effects what it declares: “God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” (Genesis 1:3).
We might wonder why it was so important to insist on this idea of imputed righteousness—it seems an exceedingly subtle point on which to take a stand. While I have not extensively studied Luther, and the other leading figures in the Protestant movement, the argument seems to be as follows: if God makes me righteous, then I can say that is my righteousness and thus, my salvation is no longer wholly gratuitous, but in some sense, deserved.
To this the Catholic Church responds, no, because this righteousness, which becomes who I am, is nonetheless a gift of God. I do not earn it!
Some excerpts from the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification ()
14. The Lutheran churches and the Roman Catholic Church have together listened to the good news proclaimed in Holy Scripture. This common listening, together with the theological conversations of recent years, has led to a shared understanding of justification. This encompasses a consensus in the basic truths; the differing explications in particular statements are compatible with it.
15. In faith we together hold the conviction that justification is the work of the triune God. The Father sent his Son into the world to save sinners. The foundation and presupposition of justification is the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ. Justification thus means that Christ himself is our righteousness, in which we share through the Holy Spirit in accord with the will of the Father. Together we confess: By grace alone, in faith in Christ's saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works.
16. All people are called by God to salvation in Christ. Through Christ alone are we justified, when we receive this salvation in faith. Faith is itself God's gift through the Holy Spirit who works through word and sacrament in the community of believers and who, at the same time, leads believers into that renewal of life which God will bring to completion in eternal life.
17.We also share the conviction that the message of justification directs us in a special way towards the heart of the New Testament witness to God's saving action in Christ: it tells us that as sinners our new life is solely due to the forgiving and renewing mercy that God imparts as a gift and we receive in faith, and never can merit in any way.
18.Therefore the doctrine of justification, which takes up this message and explicates it, is more than just one part of Christian doctrine. It stands in an essential relation to all truths of faith, which are to be seen as internally related to each other. It is an indispensable criterion which constantly serves to orient all the teaching and practice of our churches to Christ. When Lutherans emphasize the unique significance of this criterion, they do not deny the interrelation and significance of all truths of faith. When Catholics see themselves as bound by several criteria, they do not deny the special function of the message of justification. Lutherans and Catholics share the goal of confessing Christ in all things, who alone is to be trusted above all things as the one Mediator (1 Tim 2:5f) through whom God in the Holy Spirit gives himself and pours out his renewing gifts.
23.When Lutherans emphasize that the righteousness of Christ is our righteousness, their intention is above all to insist that the sinner is granted righteousness before God in Christ through the declaration of forgiveness and that only in union with Christ is one's life renewed. When they stress that God's grace is forgiving love ("the favor of God"), they do not thereby deny the renewal of the Christian's life. They intend rather to express that justification remains free from human cooperation and is not dependent on the life-renewing effects of grace in human beings.
24.When Catholics emphasize the renewal of the interior person through the reception of grace imparted as a gift to the believer, they wish to insist that God's forgiving grace always brings with it a gift of new life, which in the Holy Spirit becomes effective in active love. They do not thereby deny that God's gift of grace in justification remains independent of human cooperation.
26. According to Lutheran understanding, God justifies sinners in faith alone (sola fide). In faith they place their trust wholly in their Creator and Redeemer and thus live in communion with him. God himself effects faith as he brings forth such trust by his creative word. Because God's act is a new creation, it affects all dimensions of the person and leads to a life in hope and love. In the doctrine of "justification by faith alone," a distinction but not a separation is made between justification itself and the renewal of one's way of life that necessarily follows from justification and without which faith does not exist. Thereby the basis is indicated from which the renewal of life proceeds, for it comes forth from the love of God imparted to the person in justification. Justification and renewal are joined in Christ, who is present in faith.
27.The Catholic understanding also sees faith as fundamental in justification. For without faith, no justification can take place. Persons are justified through baptism as hearers of the word and believers in it. The justification of sinners is forgiveness of sins and being made righteous by justifying grace, which makes us children of God. In justification the righteous receive from Christ faith, hope, and love and are thereby taken into communion with him. This new personal relation to God is grounded totally on God's graciousness and remains constantly dependent on the salvific and creative working of this gracious God, who remains true to himself, so that one can rely upon him. Thus justifying grace never becomes a human possession to which one could appeal over against God. While Catholic teaching emphasizes the renewal of life by justifying grace, this renewal in faith, hope, and love is always dependent on God's unfathomable grace and contributes nothing to justification about which one could boast before God (Rom 3:27).