Friday, January 17, 2020

Not by works, otherwise grace is no longer grace. Does Romans 11:6 refute Catholicism?

As I continue to address the top Protestant proof-texts for Justification By Faith Alone, I now come to the famous passage in Romans 11:6 where Paul says: "But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace." Protestants have traditionally pointed to this text as decisive proof that if our human efforts played any part of our salvation, it would nullify grace. That's a pretty serious charge, and it does seem to be what Paul is saying, so it's definitely worth looking into more. 

The first thing to keep in mind is that Catholicism teaches we are saved by Faith Alone, while it is Protestants who teach we are saved by Works Alone (apart from faith and grace). See HERE for one of many times I've addressed this. Given this, the goal of this analysis of Romans 11:6 is not to argue that works save us. Rather, the goal is to discern what Paul is actually trying to teach, so we can better appreciate his lessons. 

The second thing to keep in mind is that, from the many articles I've written on the subject of "works," it should be clear by now that it is referring to "works of the Mosaic Law," which separated the Israelite lineage from the pagan nations. (See HERE and HERE for recent articles.) God wanted the Israelite race to remain segregated from the Gentiles, so as to one day vindicate His promise that the Messiah would come from Abraham's biological lineage. The various commands from the Old Testament were meant to make Israel a "light to the nations" (Gentiles), which would be impossible if the Israelites were living just as pagan of lifestyles as the Gentiles. This fact means that "works" were never about "working your way into heaven," as has unfortunately become the common understanding from a surface-level understanding of Paul's writings. 

Given the above, we should expect the proper understanding of Romans 11:6 to be about God saving people apart from their ethnic lineage, namely saving a person regardless if they are biologically Jewish. But for apologetic's purposes, we obviously have to confront the popular Protestant reading, so that's what we'll do now. 

I think the most effective means to prove the Protestant reading incorrect is to simply stop and think about what is being said. Too often we don't stop to think about whether our interpretation actually makes logical sense. First, let's look to see if "works" here could even mean what the Protestant alleges.

The "works" in 11:6 cannot mean "sinful works," since nobody would be arguing that sinful works save. So the only Protestant alternative is that the "works" in 11:6 must mean "good works". But can you do good works apart from grace in the realm of getting saved? No. Nobody teaches that. Protestants and Catholics hold that good works are always inspired by grace. The alternative is Pelagianism, which everyone rejects. So, the Protestant must affirm the "good works" in this case must be understood as "good works inspired by grace". But that raises a problem. How can Paul be speaking against "good works inspired by grace"? That would undermine the whole basis of a Christian receiving the Holy Spirit in order that they might live a life of holy deeds and sanctification. So how can Paul put "grace" and "works" as opposites if good works require grace? That's like saying "gasoline versus car," which is silly because a car requires gas. So grace and good works cannot be opposites, as Protestants have mistakenly thought all this time. Using this approach, we see the Protestant logic has run into a problem, and the only solution is that "works" here cannot mean "good works". We must abandon the phony "grace versus good works" dichotomy that has been running rampant for too long. We must stop reading Paul as primarily concerned with Pelagianism.

A Protestant would probably object by saying that the "grace" here simply means "God's favor," and not God's power working within us (e.g. Eph 2:5). But that doesn't get around the issue that there is nothing bad or contrary to salvation about good works inspired by the Holy Spirit, so Paul still wouldn't be putting a wedge between "God's favor" and "good works inspired by God". 

One Protestant whom I talked to tried to argue that what is in view in this context is not Justification, but rather being Elected/Chosen by God. And he even appealed to the context, so that's where we'll now turn. 
Romans 11: 1 I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! For I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. 2 God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. Do you not know what the Scripture says of Elijah, how he appeals to God against Israel? 3 “Lord, they have killed your prophets, they have demolished your altars, and I alone am left, and they seek my life.” 4 But what is God's reply to him? “I have kept for myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal.” 5 So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace. 6 But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace. 7 What then? Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened...
The theme and language is most certainly the same as with other "grace" or "faith" versus "works" passages, so there's no reason to think this passage is substantially different. Rather, it's more reasonable to assume "Chosen" ties in closely with Justification, Adoption, etc. Perhaps the ideas are synonymous in Paul's mind. So I don't think claiming that this is about being Chosen alters anything I'm saying in any substantial way.

The context here is fascinating, and I think very decisive for understanding 11:6. The lesson is that most of Israel has been unfaithful and fell into apostasy. The same theme of Romans 9 and 10 are continued here. The claim here is that those who are biological "descendants of Abraham," the Israelites who were the original "chosen/elect people" (Deut 14:2; Ps135:4; Amos 3:2; Rom 11:1A) have ended up not saved, and in fact seemingly rejected by God. The lesson is not about God choosing unconditionally. The lesson is about sinners falling away, just as we saw in Ch9-10, with a minority of faithful who keep things on track. In fact, Paul explicitly references Elijah and 7,000 faithful Jews here whom God considers a "chosen remnant". That's an important point, because God is not electing/choosing sinners here, which is what we would expect under the Reformed Protestant reading. Instead, God is selecting people who have been on good behavior! How can Paul say "not of works" if the explicit lesson here is that God has elected these men based on their good works (e.g. not bowing in worship of Baal)? Again, the Protestant mindset cannot explain this. The only feasible reading is that "works" here refer to biological lineage, in which case Paul is saying that simply being a biological descendant of Abraham was not enough, since you also had to be faithful. In this way, the "grace" of choosing a remnant means that while God could have wiped out all of Israel for the unfaithfulness of the majority, in His mercy, God allowed a remnant to survive. Indeed, this is precisely what the OT passage is speaking about, in 1 Kings 19:18, God is saying He's going to wipe out everyone, but "leave" 7,000 who didn't go apostate. God is going to let them live, not punish them along with everyone else. This sounds a lot like when elsewhere Paul speaks of the wrath of God coming upon all humanity to wipe out the evil, a type of Passover, with only the faithful being spared.

Paul is saying there was a time in Salvation History when "works," that is biological lineage, was the central focus. But this ended when Jesus arrived, the promised Seed of Abraham. Thus, Paul says, it is "no longer" by works, because now things are fully revealed. Paul brilliantly shows from the OT that apostasy is not an unknown thing, and in fact was a kind of foreshadow or expectation for the future. Thus, when Paul says "so too at the present time there is a remnant," this can only mean the 3,000 Jews who accepted the Gospel at Pentecost (Acts 2:41), while the majority rejected or didn't care about the coming of Jesus. And now, Paul is a kind of Elijah, persecuted by the Jews and tempted to despair if not for the comforting example of Elijah's hardship.

(See my Romans 9 post HERE, and my Romans 10 post HERE, and my post about Election/Calling HERE if you're interested in more details.)

*     *     *

As an added reflection I made to someone recently on this passage: Paul is saying that in the Old Testament church there was a massive apostasy. Only 7,000 families remained faithful out of a total number of at least 500,000 Israelites. So we shouldn't be surprised to see such an apostasy at the time of Jesus, when most Jews rejected Him, and only a few thousand Jews at Pentecost continued the church. So, in modern times, we shouldn't be surprised to see an apostasy as well, including tearing down the altars, turning to idolatry, and persecuting the good guys.

Furthermore, Elijah was one of the faithful but he was depressed in this quote because he feels his work amounted to nothing. He was unaware that his work contributed to the saving of these 7,000 families. So too, our work in the Lord's Vineyard might seem to bear no fruit. But it does. And God hides most of the fruit from us so that we don't become arrogant and think it was because we were so awesome.


Unknown said...

I searched your site to see if you ever posted on Isaiah 64 and did not find anything:

“All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away” (Isaiah 64:6).

Isaiah even includes himself, a prophet of God, in the description, saying “we” and “our.” Grace inspired good works do not justify. They only come about as a result of our justification. Faith is the instrument of our justification, and good works accompany such a saving faith.
Martin Luther said, “The most damnable and pernicious heresy that has ever plagued the mind of man is that somehow he can make himself good enough to deserve to live forever with an all-holy God.”

Reksio said...

Unknown: Isaiah 64:6 isn't about good works. Those "acts" are, the works by which we pretended to make ourselves just. This is spoken particularly of the sacrifices, sacraments, and ceremonies of the Jews, after the death of Christ, and the promulgation of the new law.
The justice which is under the law is stated uncleanness, when compared with evangelical purity, Philippians iii. 8.
"If any one after the gospel....would observe the ceremonies of the law, let him hear the people confessing that all that justice is compared to a most filthy rag." (St. Jerome)
The good works which are done by grace, and not by man alone, cannot be said to be of this description. They constitute the internal glory of man, and God will one day crown these his gifts. Of ourselves indeed we can do nothing, and the works of the Mosaic law will not avail, as St. Paul inculcates; but those works, point out the saint, which are preformed by charity with faith in Christ. This justice is not imputed only, but real; and shews where true faith exists, according to St. James. Thus the apostles explain each other.
To practise the Jewish rites would now be sinful.

Nick said...

Mr Unknown, I will make a post this week on that Isaiah 64:6 passage.

Unknown said...

Thanks Nick. I look forward to it.

Anthony Puccetti said...

Nick, the Church doesn't teach that we are saved by grace alone. There is no magisterial teaching which says that. It is a protestant concept that some Catholic ecumenics and apologists (some of them former protestants such as James Akin) have been promoting since the Joint Declaration on Justification of 1999. This declaration has no authority.

The word alone is exclusive. To say grace alone is to exclude everything else that the Church and scripture say are necessary or helpful for salvation: baptism, faith, prayer, repentance, the sacrament of reconciliation, penance, obedience to the commandments of God and the Church (good works), the eucharist, the intercession of the Blessed Virgin and the saints. Even though Catholic apologists who say we are saved by grace alone do not mean to exclude these things, that is what the words grace alone suggest. That grace is involved with everything pertaining to salvation does not justify saying grace alone. The concept of grace alone suggests the protestant error of mongerism.

See these articles.

Anthony Puccetti said...

"Given the above, we should expect the proper understanding of Romans 11:6 to be about God saving people apart from their ethnic lineage, namely saving a person regardless if they are biologically Jewish."

Being Jewish is not biological. Jew is a religious category. The ancient Jews were Hebrews who observed the law of Moses. Before the law was given, there were no Jews.

"Paul is saying there was a time in Salvation History when "works," that is biological lineage, was the central focus."

He wasn't referring to lineage in Romans 11:6, he was referring to the works of the law of Moses, as you said earlier in the article. He meant circumcision, animal sacrifices, observance of the sabbath and new moons, tithes and other things commanded in the decrees of the law.

Ephesians 2:[14] For he is our peace, who hath made both one, and breaking down the middle wall of partition, the enmities in his flesh: [15] Making void the law of commandments contained in decrees; that he might make the two in himself into one new man, making peace; [16] And might reconcile both to God in one body by the cross, killing the enmities in himself.

Colossians 2:16 Let no man therefore judge you in meat or in drink, or in respect of a festival day, or of the new moon, or of the sabbaths.

Nick said...

Hello Anthony,

I agree that we should be careful with the term "alone". I don't recall saying we are saved by "grace alone," but there is a sense in which this is true, for example the Council of Trent says Sanctifying Grace is the "sole" formal cause of our Justification.

I think the main issue with the mainstream Catholic explanation of Justification is that it not only borrows heavily from Protestant thinking, it doesn't really explain the Catholic view in any depth, and it doesn't recognize the core problems with the Protestant view.

As for Joint Declarations and such, I don't hold those statements in much regard, since they are very surface level. If you have read my other posts, you will see that I am very adamant about not granting anything to either side that is not genuinely accurate. So I do not grant that Protestant hold to being saved by grace in the proper sense.

As for your second post, I think you're misunderstanding my claims. If you follow the links in my original post, you will see that I have covered those topics. Like I said, I don't follow the mainstream Catholic apologetics claims nor do I rehash the same old arguments.