In Paul’s Letter to the Roman’s Paul tries to convince the diverse Christian population that both Jewish converts to the Christian way – ὁδός – and Gentiles have an equal share in the Christian life. In chapters 2 through 4, he patiently tries to explain to his brothers of Jewish origin that it is not necessary to be circumcized to be a Christian in good standing. Paul argues that true circumcision is of the heart. (Romans 2:29)
No argument there. Unfortunately, Paul’s expansive rhetoric entails not only run-on sentences, but also the occasional apparent contradiction. Consider two seemingly irreconcileable statements on works – ἔργον – his Letter to the Romans:
Passage One: By your stubbornness and impertinent heart, you are storing up wrath for yourself for the day of wrath and revelation of the just judgment of God, who will repay everyone according to his works: eternal life to those who seek glory, honor and immortality through perseverance and good works, but wrath and fury for those who selfishly disobey the truth and obey wickedness. Romans 2: 5-8
Passage Two: What occasion is there for boasting? It is ruled out. On what principle, that of works? No, rather on the principle of faith. For we consider that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law. Romans 4: 27-28
In a previous post, I broke down Romans chapter 2 through 6 into ten sections. We should remember that Paul equates circumcision with “works of the law.” How do we know this? First, because the covenant between God and Abraham required circumcision as proof of the covenant (Genesis 17: 10). Secondly, Paul explicitly says that Jews are not justified either by circumcision nor Abraham’s works. Paul is basically saying, “not only are we as contemporary Jews not justified through circumcision, but neither was such the case with Abraham.”
Now, Paul goes further, stating that both Abraham and his followers in Christ are justified by their faith. However, Paul also states in the first passage above that works is part of the economy of salvation. In the next post we will look at some passages on works and faith in the Gospels, the letters and Revelation. Then perhaps we can clarify the apparent contradiction in Paul’s rhetoric.