Romans 2:13 and the Covenant of Works

paulatdesk“For not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law will be justified” (Romans 2:13). This verse is among the most misinterpreted verses in the Bible. Some find in this verse the doctrine of justification by works plus faith, while others – rightly insisting that justification is by faith alone (Rom 3:28, et al.) – understand the Apostle to be speaking of works as the fruit of faith (i.e. justification is by faith alone, but that faith is never alone in the person justified.). Both approaches miss the Apostle Paul’s point entirely.

Properly interpreting this verse does not depend so much on the grammar as it does on the context and it illustrates how far afield we can go by viewing verses as mere proof-texts without proper consideration for their context. Paul is not here discussing the relationship of works and saving faith. He approaches this subject in chapters 6 and 7. His topic is the condemnation of the law and verse 13 does not represent a parenthetical comment on another subject, but it is rather the crux of the matter.

To understand Paul’s argument we must follow it from the beginning. In Romans 1:16-17 Paul states his purpose in giving a full presentation of the Gospel and presents his thesis statement, “the just shall live by faith.” The section that follows, however, does not speak of the grace of Jesus Christ, but of “the wrath of God” (v. 18). God’s mercy has no meaning if it were not for God’s holiness and his righteous judgment and wrath against sin. Grace is nonsense without law.

As the first chapter unfolds Paul parades the sins characteristic of the gentiles. When he wraps up his case against the heathen he then rather surprisingly states that this sinful condition belongs to all people universally. “You who judge practice the same things. And we know that the judgment of God rightly falls upon those who practice such things” (2:1-2). Such a bold statement needs explanation, so he continues by quoting the Old Testament: God “will render to every man according to his deeds.” That is, one’s works, or obedience to the law determines where one will be for eternity. He will “render” as a waged earned. This is what he explains later, “now to the one who works, his wages is not reckoned as a favor, but what is due” (Rom 4:5).

Paul continues to tighten the screws – “to those who by perseverance in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life; but to those who are selfishly ambitions and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, wrath and indignation” (7-8). These verses present parallel ellipses. This suggests that we must supply the same word/concept for both. We know that God graciously grants eternal life to those who believe, but we cannot say that he graciously grants wrath and indignation. It should be clear that the word to be supplied is “earn” or “merit.” By our deeds we will either merit eternal life or eternal death. Paul is not here speaking of “evangelical obedience” as verse 12 makes clear with its emphasis on the law which will judge both Jew and gentile.

At last we arrive at verse 13 where Paul argues that it is the “doers of the law who will be justified.” Paul’s point here is not to safeguard the doctrine of justification by faith from the error of antinomianism. Paul has not even mentioned justification by faith! He does not even begin to address the gospel in general, the atonement of Christ, or justification by faith until the pivotal point in chapter three.

Paul makes a play on the verbs of hearing and doing. Many of you are probably aware that “to hear” in Hebrew idiom is a synonym for “to do.” If you hear the word of God, then you do the word of God. Paul is saying “it is not those who make a solid effort to do the law, but those who REALLY DO the law – as in every jot and tittle, in thought word and deed, perfectly and perpetually – who will be justified.”

James makes the same point when he writes “for whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at one point, he has become guilty of all” (James 2:10). The point Paul and James are making is that the law is rigid, and in its very nature excludes grace.

Paul continues by addressing how it is that gentiles are condemned under this law. They did not receive it engraved on tablets of stone as the Jews did, but God wrote the law on their hearts. God will judge those who know right and wrong from nature by what they know and did not do (2:14-15).

Here we understand clearly the nature of the relationship that God established with Adam in the beginning. “God gave to Adam a law, as a covenant of works, by which he bound him and all his posterity to personal, entire, exact, and perpetual obedience, promised life upon the fulfilling, and threatened death upon the breach of it, and endued him with the power and ability to keep it” (Westminster Confession of Faith 19.1). Although we no longer have the power and ability to keep God’s law, yet, by virtue of our creation, we – with Adam – have the law written on our heart, and this law will accuse or defend us on the Day of Judgment.

Everything in Paul’s argument is driving to the conclusion that “we have already charged that both Jews and Greeks are all are under sin” (3:9), that “there is none righteous, not even one” (3:10), so that “every mouth may be closed and all the world may become accountable to God” (3:19). The law brings only wrath and condemnation. Although “the law promised life” (Rom 7:10), as sinners we can never cash in on that promise. Commenting on Romans 2:13, John Calvin writes,

That if righteousness be sought from the law, the law must be fulfilled; for the righteousness of the law consists in the perfection of works. They who pervert this passage for the purpose of building up justification by works, deserve most fully to be laughed at even by children. For the Apostle only urges here on the Jews what he had mentioned, the decision of the law, – That by the law they could not be justified, except they fulfilled the law, that if they transgressed it, a curse was instantly pronounced on them. Now we do not deny but that perfect righteousness is prescribed in the law: but as all are convicted of transgression, we say that another righteousness must be sought. Still more, we can prove from this passage that no one is justified by works; for if they alone are justified by the law who fulfill the law, it follows that no one is justified; for no one can be found who can boast of having fulfilled the law (Commentary on Romans).

Paul still holds in his mind what he wrote earlier, that “the doers of the law will be justified” when he states the conclusion of the matter, “by works of the law no flesh will be justified in his sight; for through the law comes the knowledge of sin” (3:20).

The next verse represents the pivot point. When Paul writes “but now apart from the law” (3:21) he begins his exposition of another way of salvation, which is by grace. Even as the law excluded grace, so grace now excludes the law. “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (3:28). As the corollary to law is merit, the corollary to faith is grace. The law is not of faith, and grace is opposed to merit. “If it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works” (Rom 11:6).

If anyone should keep the law then they are rightly said to merit God’s approbation. “The one who works, his wages is not reckoned as favor, but as what is due” (4:5). God would justify such a person according to their righteousness. But as sinners we have no claim to such a reward. But by faith we receive the grace of God through Jesus Christ. “To the one who does not work, but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness” (4:5).

The corollary to the covenant of works/grace is this sharp distinction between law and gospel. The law through its doing promised life on the basis of merit. The gospel through faith promises life on the basis of grace. Such a distinction between law and gospel is essential for our understanding of the gospel, and why the Protestant Reformers taught it as such.

For further study on Romans 2:13 see the commentaries on Romans by John Calvin, Charles Hodge and Robert Haldane, and Geerhardus Vos, “Alleged Legalism in Paul’s Doctrine of Justification.”

Taking Johnathan Edwards to Task: or, The Limits of Theology and Philosophy

jedwardsRev. Elijah Lovejoy was more famous in death than in life and is not known as a great theologian of the church. But as I was reading through his memoirs I ran across a great entry on “Vain Philosophy” where he takes Johnathan Edwards to task for his rationalism. Today it is generally recognized that while Edwards the theologian was strongly Calvinistic, the trajectory of his philosophical method (influenced by Lock and Berkeley) was in another direction. His immediate disciples, Joseph Bellamy, Samuel Hopkins and Johnathan Edwards Jr. developed his “improvements” into the New England Theology, which paved the way for 19th century protestant liberalism. Below is an extended quote from Lovejoy.

If there ever was a sincere inquirer after truth it was Jonathan Edwards… And yet his great work on the Freedom of the Will is, in one respect, a signal failure. He has indeed abundantly proved that man is a free agent, as also that all his actions are foreknown and fore-determined by his Maker. But their needed no long train of philosophical reasoning to prove these doctrines — the Bible had already done it before him. Yet in his attempt to reconcile these great truths to each other he has entirely failed. And if he failed, who shall succeed?

…Now here lies the great error of too many men. Instead of being satisfied with ascertaining the existence of a truth, they must needs determine the mode of its existence. But this is an abuse of their powers of reasoning, and it is of such very persons that Paul speaks, when he says, ‘ Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools…

The Being and attributes of God may be learned from the Book of Nature, but of his purposes we can know nothing, except by revelation! And it is equally an abuse of this revelation and our own faculties, if we seek to know farther than the simple facts revealed. Here it is that “Men rush in where Angels fear to tread”…

But secondly, it is presumption in the highest degree, because we cannot understand the reasons of a revealed truth, therefore to reject it altogether. In very few instances, indeed, has God condescended to explain the reasons of his moral enactments, and in none have we a right to require them. “Thus saith the Lord,” should at once put to rest the impertinent curiosity of man…

Again, if we cannot reconcile two revealed truths so as to make them consistent with each other, we have not, in consequence, any right to conclude that their agreement is impossible. Yet how often has this been done to the shipwreck of faith as of souls. The doctrines of the Trinity, of Election, &c. are beyond our reason, but what right have we to say, that they are contrary to it? Who, of mortal man, or of created beings, is authorized to pronounce upon the possible limitations of the Uncreated One? …We are finite, and how can we expect to fathom and comprehend the questions of Freedom, Necessity, and die Origin of Evil, which reach through Infinitude, and take hold of the very Throne of God?

…We were sent into this world not to dispute about the next, but to prepare for it. Of the next world we can know nothing but by revelation from Him who made it. That revelation has been given us, and now let us not seek to be wise above what is written…as we journey towards our heavenly home…”

Remembering Rev. Lovejoy

lovejoy3In antebellum South there were many ministers and Christian scholars who defended at length the unity of the human race. They spoke passionately about how we are all children of Adam with immortal souls, sinners estranged from God and in need of salvation through Jesus Christ. Unfortunately the only application most were willing to draw from their theological formulations was that white men ought to treat their human property with respect and instruct them in the Christian faith.

There was broad agreement that all were created in God’s image, but few challenged the institution of racial slavery because, in part, few challenged the assumption that the black man was less capable of self-governance than the white man.

lovejoy21One man who championed the cause of emancipation was Princeton Theological Seminary alum Rev. Elijah Lovejoy (1802-1837). Theologically he stood in the tradition of Luther, Calvin and President Edwards. His was the editor of the St. Louis Observer, and the Alton (Il) Observer, which he used as a platform to speak out against slavery. Although he received many threats and endured mobs destroying his printing press three times, he continued to denounce slavery as piracy. On Nov 7, 1837 a pro-slavery mob set on fire the shed that contained his fourth printing press and shot Rev. Lovejoy five times with a shotgun.

Lovejoy frequently lamented that Christians were too often accustomed to twisting Sacred Scripture to fit the prevailing philosophies and social mores of the culture. Those who expect Christianity to be comfortable and endorse the status quo do not see themselves as pilgrims who are in the world but not of it.

lovejoy31In a sermon on missions, Lovejoy noted that “Thus, most or all of the benevolent efforts of the human mind have been confined to one’s own kindred.” But the Christian “moves in a far higher sphere of action. All men are his brethren, in each he sees a soul for which Christ died; and looking to the immortal destinies of that soul, all earthly distinctions vanish. Here is neither rich nor poor, nor bond nor free, nor black nor white, but all are one in his view…. In all plans that are laid, and all the deliberations that are held, this is the end kept in view, the regeneration of every son and daughter of Adam” (Memoirs, p 79).