Wednesday, September 5, 2012


(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 perfectionGalatians 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 2:132:13 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”:


  1. Hello Russell,

    There are a few serious issues that I feel I should comment on in what you have said:

    (1) In Romans 2:13, Paul is not talking about the Mosaic Law as a covenant, but the Mosaic Law *fulfilled* in light of Christ. Notice how the context says (v29) "A person is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code." So the central premise of your post - that Catholics are saying the Mosaic Covenant ("written code") justifies - is false. This theme is throughout Romans. Note: "by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code" (7:6); and "whoever loves others has fulfilled the law" (13:8).

    It would be folly to suggest Paul was teaching the Mosaic Covenant could Justify when, clearly, Paul saw the Mosaic Law fulfilled only by those with the Indwelling of the Holy Spirit and Love and thus 'rising above' the "written code".

    (2) You said: "Paul is saying that if we follow the law according to God’s standard we will be justified." If what you mean by this is that whomever keeps the Mosaic Covenant perfectly will be justified, then this is blatant heresy. The Mosaic Covenant never offered eternal life, even if kept perfectly, so to suggest it gives eternal life is a tradition of men and akin to saying getting to Level 100 in Tetris will give you eternal life.

    (3) You said: "the law (actually, any law of works) is not sufficient as a means of justification". This is an unsubstantiated assertion, and actually false. While it might be convenient to slip in "actually, any law" in this, that's not exegetically warranted. For Paul to say "Law X does not justify" does not mean there is also no "Law Y" that does. I strongly agree with you that Paul makes a key stand at Romans 3:28, that man is justified by faith "apart from works of the [Mosaic] Law," but that is speaking only of the Mosaic Covenant, not any works at any time under any condition. Hence Paul's follow up statement: "29 Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles too? Yes, of Gentiles too, 30 since there is only one God, who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith." The problem Paul was addressing in Romans was a Jew-vs-Gentile problem, not something generic.

    1. The law Paul is referencing in Rom. 2:13 is not OT law. He is referencing the word that has been added into law by changing the law. Heb. 7:12

  2. Hello again Nick,

    Thank you for your comments.

    Concerning your first point, I agree with much of what you said. But my main premise was NOT that Catholics claim that the Mosaic Law justifies. In fact, I specifically said in the article that the Catholic Church does not teach that. But my point was that when Catholics use Romans 2:13 as they usually do, as a proof text for a “faith plus works” system of salvation, then they contradict their own church’s teachings. The “doers” of the law will be justified simply because their HEARTS have been changed, as demonstrated in 2:14, 15, and in the verses you, yourself, provided (2:29; 7:6; 13:8). It is NOT because of their works, as Paul goes on to prove in chapter 3, 4, and 5.

    On your second point, I had made the statement that if one follows the law according to God’s perfect standard, that he would be justified. Technically speaking, this is not true, but it was not meant to be a precise doctrinal statement. It was to be understood hypothetically, since (as I went on to say in the article) no one is perfect, though the law demanded perfect obedience. Paul was condemning those who were seeking to be justified by law. He was pointing out the futility of a works-based system. And that’s why we need a NEW law (a law of faith). We don’t need a “new category” of good works to try to live up to… hence, we have justification by faith.

    Which brings me to your third point. You said that “Law X does not justify” does not mean that there is no “Law Y that does.” That’s true, but WHERE is your “Law Y” in this context (Romans 3, 4, 5)? Remember, this is the main context in all of Scripture that specifically deals with, “How is a man saved / justified?” Where is water baptism in this context, and where are the sacraments, if these things justify? All I see in this context is evidence AGAINST the existence of any law of works that saves.

  3. Russell,

    Why did you skip Romans 2:1-12?

    De Maria

  4. I've responded to your entire argument here.


    De Maria

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  6. Thank you, Patricia. God bless you.

  7. Hi Russell,

    Are you infallible? If not, them how do you know that you are right? How do you know that your interpretation of Scripture is correct? What if you are wrong?

    The Naughty Evangelical

  8. Hi Naughty,

    You may not be familiar with many of my articles on this blog, but I have stated many times that no one is infallible today (i.e., after the time of the apostles). So, we are all “in the same boat,” as they say, we all have to make decisions and assessments from our fallible state.

    How does a person know if he is right, if he is interpreting a particular verse correctly? I think that simple common sense is often overlooked. Of course, we have to use basic hermeneutical principles, and those who have the right attitude (humility and an honest desire for truth, for example) will be more inclined to see God’s truth. His Word is called “revelation” for a reason, it is meant to be REVEALED to us, if our hearts are right and if we are hungry for His truth. It is certainly possible that I could be wrong on any particular interpretation. And if I am, then please point out what it is that you feel I am wrong on. But I think that the basic principles described just above go a long way toward understanding Scripture.

    Your thoughts?