One of the claims heard most often among anti-Catholic Christians is that Catholicism is “legalistic” or promotes “works-based salvation.” St. Paul, they say, clearly taught that salvation is not by works, so adding anything to the finished work of Christ is tantamount to its denial.
But what does St. Paul really say about works?
Affirmations and Denials
St. Paul rarely speaks of “works” simpliciter. That is, when he writes about “works” he typically either qualifies the term in the text, or the context does it for him. Although I had known this for some time, I wanted to see it laid out in one place, so I ran a simple word search (using the ESV) which yielded the following results:
St. Paul mentions “works” 37 times in 34 verses. Now, a few of these were verbal (e.g., “God works in us”) so I ignored those as well as when “works” referred to miracles (e.g., 2 Cor. 12:12). That left 33 uses in 30 verses.
Next, I made a little plus or minus sign next to each passage indicating whether Paul was affirming or denying “works” in some way:
Right off the bat I noticed an interesting trend. Overall, St. Paul seemed to start off (canonically) in the negative and then move to the positive. That is, his negative remarks concerning “works” were nearly all found in Romans and Galatians, while the rest (nearly half) were in his other writings.
It is also important to note that the numbers here can be misleading if they are taken to indicate general emphasis. In Romans, for example, nearly all references to “works” are found in two chapters and in Galatians they are almost all in one. So it is repetition within close contexts that yield these numbers rather than a recurring theme in St. Paul’s writings.
These results would have already surprised me as a Protestant who had always been taught that Scripture was against “works.” At the very least, the apostle Paul was! yet here was mathematical proof that in about half the instances that St. Paul mentions “works,” he was actually saying something positive about them (and his usage skews farther to the positive if near context is taken into consideration and only whole, distinct passages are counted).
Works, Good Works, and Damned Works
My next step was to look at each passage and discern whether Paul was discussing certain kinds of “works”. In these 30 verses I distinguished four categories of “works”.
- “Works” simpliciter (with no textual qualifications)
- “Works of the Law” (works identified with Israel’s old covenant)
- “Good works” (works expected of believers)
- “Works of Darkness / Flesh” (sin)
I color coded my chart indicating which of these kinds of “works” were being discussed in each of St. Paul’s statements. “Works” are blue, “Works of the Law” are red, “Good works” are green, and “Works of Darkness / Flesh” are gray. here’s how it came out:
The only surprise in the two most obvious trends were that they were so consistent! Nearly every denouncement of “works” are actually directed to “Works of the Law” and most affirmations were concerning “Good Works.” Looked at another way: 100% of St. Paul’s statements on “Good Works” were positive, and they were 100% negative when it came to “Works of the Law.” Concerning just “works,” though, it was 25% positive and 75% negative.
Before I looked more closely at the few departures from these overall trends, I noticed something that seemed off. The Romans verses that (textually) only referred to “works” seemed pretty obviously to refer to the old covenant (= “Works of the Law”). For one thing, the “law” context of chapter 3 didn’t simply grind to a halt in chapter 4. Chapter divisions were not made until centuries after the letter had been written, and St. Paul makes a clear textual connection between the two chapters in verse 4:2. Further, the “works” St. Paul discusses in chapter 4 are exemplified by Abraham (Israel’s founding father) and David (Israel’s most faithful king) – indeed, the “works of the law” in 3:28 is connected to Abraham (cf. Gen. 15:6). Finally, in chapters 9-11, St. Paul is addressing legalistic issues in old covenant Israel.
Thus, even though these “works” are not textually tagged as “Works of the Law” every single time St. Paul refers to them in Romans, they seem to be speaking of the same thing. To indicate this likely equation, I changed the remaining Romans “works” verses to purple:
Taking the Romans verses in context, this report emerges:
- “Works” – 50% affirmed, 50% denied
- “Works of the Law” – 100% denied
- “Good works” – 100% affirmed
- “Works of Darkness / Flesh” – 100% denied
Works and Salvation
At this point my Protestant background kicked in and I wondered if the few anomalies had to do with salvation. After all, everyone knows good works are, well, good – so it’s no surprise to anyone that St. Paul would affirm them. The real issue is “works” connection to salvation. If Luther and his followers were correct, we should expect that St. Paul’s denunciations would track 100% with “works” when connected to salvation.
Nope. (Close, but no Reformed-approved cigar.) Although most of the verses connecting “works” with salvation were negative, there were a few positive affirmations as well:
One might be tempted to blow off the few verses that fall into the latter category (or relegate them to “unclear” verses that must be interpreted according to the “clear” ones), but this would be a mistake. God only has to say something once for it to be true, so even if St. Paul had only affirmed works in relation to salvation one time, a theological balance must be struck. Further, the interpretive “clarity” of most verses seems to track with one’s theological bias, so let’s just take that option off the table for both sides.
Looking more closely, I noticed an even more intriguing picture emerging from the verses that are not simply contrasting the new and cold covenants (i.e., “Works of the Law”). In the remaining verses we actually see more positive affirmation of “works” in connection with salvation than negative denunciation.
While this result might be unexpected given Protestant expectations, it fits Catholic theology precisely.
Catholic theology teaches that the old covenant were only for Israel and are not binding to believers under the new covenant (i.e., Christians). This teaching on “Works of the Law” is reflected by St. Paul in his letters to the Romans and to the Galatians.
Catholic theology also teaches that nothing we do can initiate salvation – for it is by God’s grace that we are saved. This teaching on “Works” is reflected by St. Paul in, for example, his letters to the Galatians (2:9), Ephesians (2:9), Titus (3:5), and 2 Timothy (1:9).
Catholic theology further teaches that performance of righteous acts and avoidance of sin are to characterize new covenant believers and affect ongoing salvation. This teaching on “Good Works” and “Works of Darkness / Flesh” is reflected by St. Paul primarily in his pastoral letters, but it is also mentioned elsewhere (e.g., Philippians 2:13) – notably in Romans (e.g., 2:6 and 13:12) and Galatians (e.g., 2:10 and 5:19).
Far from being “unbiblical,” “legalistic,” or “works-based,” Catholic soteriology follows from the distinctions St. Paul makes in the Bible with the precision they deserve.
Unfortunately, Protestant theology often flattens out scripturally distinct categories of works as well as stages of salvation. Doing so seriously skews one’s perception of St. Paul’s statements concerning the relation of works to salvation, and consequently one’s judgment of Catholic theology. Only by respecting the totality of St. Paul’s (and other’s) biblical writings on “works” (and similar passages that do not use this exact term) can this impasse be breached.
For in Christ Jesus neither [works of the law] count for anything,
but only faith working through love.