(Last Updated 10-16-12)
For not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified. (Romans 2:13)
In the Sola Fide (“faith alone”) debate, Catholic apologists will often insist that the verse above strongly indicates that a person is saved by good works, along with faith in Jesus Christ. In their zeal to promote a “faith plus works” system of salvation, Catholics will often use this verse, but overlook or ignore its context.
But what is the context of this passage? Starting from verse 12 to the end of the chapter, the phrase “the law” is clearly speaking of the Mosaic Law… that is, the law that God handed down to Moses to give to the Jews. But do Catholics really want to claim that it is the Mosaic Law that justifies a person? Is it really doing the works of the Mosaic Law that causes a person to be saved? That is certainly not what the Catholic Church teaches (CCC #1963). But that is the conclusion that the Catholic must come to, if using this verse to deny “faith alone,” and he will end up contradicting his own church’s teachings.
Ok, so what does Romans 2:13 really mean if the works of the law don’t save us? The context is about the Jews proudly possessing the law, but they didn’t keep the law. The Apostle Paul is telling certain Jews, “You are just a ‘hearer’, so how does the law help you there? You will not escape punishment.” The emphasis is NOT that certain types of works will save; the emphasis is that God is impartial when it comes to punishing sin, whether committed by Jew or Gentile. And Paul goes on to say that we’ve all sinned, and all stand guilty before God. So, what’s a sinner to do? Should he find a new category of good works to try to live up to? No, indeed. Because of man’s sin nature, the law (actually, any law of works) is not sufficient as a means of justification.
Paul goes on for another two chapters, telling us that NO ONE (except for Jesus), neither Jew nor Gentile, has ever kept the law according to God’s standard (which is perfection – Galatians 3:10-12; 5:3; James 2:10). So no one has a perfect record. That’s the whole point that Paul is building up to, and that is why God lumps us all together in sin (Romans 3:19; 11:32; Galatians 3:22). But God mercifully gives man a way out… and this way is by faith in Christ, apart from works of the law (Romans 3:28).
The "doers" in Romans 2:13 are not justified because they are following the law... they are following the law because they are justified; and they are justified by faith (and not works), as Paul will soon demonstrate. In justification, God gives a man a new heart and gives him the desire to obey Him.
You see, the Apostle Paul is building his case here a step at a time. His argument is progressive (i.e., proceeding point by point in a certain order). In Romans chapter 1, Paul speaks of the guilt and sinfulness of the Gentiles. In chapter 2, he demonstrates that the Jews are just as guilty of sin, as well. But the specific context of “how a man is saved / justified” comes later on, starting at about chapter 3, verse 20.
But his argument in Romans 2 doesn’t stop at verse 13. Paul concludes his argument at 3:28 (“Therefore, we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law”) and he then fully discusses this concept in chapter 4. But you cannot go backwards by starting with 3:28 and conclude with 2:13… 2:13 is NOT a conclusion, and 2:13 is not Paul’s main point in chapter 2 and following. Again, he is advancing his argument from one point to the next and (for it to make sense) one must follow the sequence.
Is this the only place that Paul uses this type of progressive argument? Not at all. In the same way, Paul argues in Romans chapters 9 through 11 that God has not rejected His people, Israel. One may read in this passage that the Jews have “not attained to the law of righteousness” (9:31), that they “stumbled” over Jesus Christ (9:32-33), and have been a “disobedient and gainsaying [contradicting] people” who have rejected God’s outstretched hand (10:21). But these passages cannot be considered a “conclusion,” because Paul’s argument does not stop with these. He goes on to say that this is not their end. This is only a “partial hardening” and is only temporary, because Israel will ultimately be saved (11:25-27). If the sequence of Romans 9-11 is ignored, then one could mistakenly think that God is through with Israel.
The point is simply that it is important to recognize when a Bible writer is using such a “progressive” argument, as Paul does in Romans 2 (and following), lest we miss the whole point. And of course, determining the proper context is always essential. Otherwise, one can fall victim to distorted interpretations, as many Catholics do here.
As we have said before on this blog, good works are certainly God’s will for us and we should be doing them. We will get rewards for our good works (which are done in the right spirit) when we get to Heaven. But we do them out of love and gratitude toward God… we don’t do them to be saved. We are only saved by faith / trusting in the work of Jesus Christ on the cross, and ONLY that work.
See these articles on this blog on “Faith Alone”: