This week, we launch into four weeks of readings from the Letter to the Romans. It’s a good time to reflect on one of St. Paul’s central themes: salvation by faith.
From the opening lines of Romans, St. Paul speaks of bringing people to the obedience of faith. He says that the one who is righteous by faith will live. He explains that the righteousness of God has been manifested “through faith in Jesus Christ,” that a person is justified by faith, not law, and that God will justify both Jews and Gentiles through faith. He appeals to the promises given to Abraham, saying: “It was not through the law that the promise was made … but through the righteousness that comes from faith.” St. Paul adds that salvation comes through faith so that it may be a gift, not something that we earn.
It’s clear, from the beginning of the letter to the end, that faith is the key to salvation.
But we shouldn’t misunderstand how St. Paul saw the relationship between faith and works. People sometimes get the impression that mental assent to a proposition (“Jesus is Lord”) and the mere speaking of a formula (“I take Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior”) are sufficient marks of a saving faith. This is a mistake, though it’s cloaked in some elements of truth.
Among the elements of truth is that we can never earn our salvation. If God were to give us strict justice — no more and no less than what we deserve — our condemnation would be certain. None of us can make up for all our sins, and none of us deserves eternal happiness.
Another of those elements of truth is that St. Paul repeatedly rejects the idea that salvation is based on “works of the law.” Some people take this rejection as clear evidence that mental assent and recitation of a formula are sufficient marks of faith.
But St. Paul is not at all opposed to faithful action. In fact he says, from the beginning of Romans, that “God will repay everyone according to his works.” His letters are full of exhortations to fidelity in action, and warnings to those whose actions break faith with Christ. He says plainly: “Affliction and distress will come upon everyone who does evil … But there will be glory, honor, and peace for everyone who does good.”
How can he have it both ways?
The key is this: By “works of the law” St. Paul meant the ritual aspects of the Mosaic law, not the moral law. Following the ritual law doesn’t produce salvation. But, with respect to the moral law, God requires actions that are consistent with faith in Jesus. Actions that are inconsistent with that faith lead to condemnation.
We know this from our own experience of love. True love expresses itself in service. Where there is no service, only words, the words are cheap, shallow and empty — and we know it. The same is true of faith, and God knows it.
Make time to read the letter to the Romans. Listen deeply to St. Paul’s wisdom on faith. Remember that when he declares faith to be the hinge of salvation, he’s also exhorting us to examine our actions, to see whether they’re consistent with faith in Jesus or not.