Appeared in Fall 1990, Vol. XVI, No. 3

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No stranger to the pages of this Journal, Fr. William Most once again reveals his theological lucidity in this essay which examines the role of works in salvation. This question, which has divided Christians since the time of the Protestant revolt, receives a fresh new look by this fine theologian.

If there is a superfluous line anywhere in scripture, it must be II Peter 3:16, for thinking we needed to be told Paul is hard to understand! Mighty indeed have been, and still are, the labours of exegetes to reconcile Paul with Paul.

One of the most difficult passages is Paul’s claim in Romans 2:6 that God will “repay each one according to his works.” How can this fit with freedom from the law and justification by faith alone? Ernst Kasemann is quite frank: “Protestantism has always found serious difficulty with this theologoumenon … and Roman Catholics have seized on it, not without malicious joy, as a support for their dogmatics.”1

Kasemann then outlines several attempts at a solution, all of which he considers unsatisfactory. Joseph Burgess, in a background paper for Lutherans and Catholics in Dialogue VII,2reviews no less than ten attempts at an answer. John Reumann, in Righteousness in the New Testament3adds still more proposals. E.P. Sanders gives up: “Romans 2 still stands out … because it deals directly with salvation and makes salvation depend on obedience to the law. What is said about the law in Romans 2 cannot be fitted into a category otherwise known from Paul’s letters.”4

Kasemann is no clearer that Paul when he writes: “The decisive thing is that the doctrine of judgment according to works not be ranked above justification, but conversely be understood in the light of it … the difficulties … are largely connected with a failure to pay due regard to the power-character even of the righteousness of God received as a gift.”5He then seems to destroy Paul’s insistent dichotomy in a remarkable conclusion: “Here, `works alone’ in fact coincides with `by faith alone’ (Althaus).”6Burgess concludes: “Rewards do not depend on what one has done”7 – hardly a clarification of Paul’s statement that they do. So Reumann is right in saying: “Total consistency in Pauline thought eludes most commentators.”8

Burgess, in his description of a 9th proposal does help clarity somewhat: “The justifying God carries out his own judgment by doing himself what he demands of the individual (Bultmann, G. Bornkamm, H. Braun, Calvin H. Cremer, Jungel, Kasemann, Luther, Oltmanns, A. Schlatter, Synofzik).”9This reminds one of the famous dictum of Augustine: “When God crowns our merits, he crowns nothing other than his own gifts.”10(Cf. Phil 2:13; 1 Cor 4:7; 2 Cor 3:5).

But if that be true – and we have no doubt that at least Augustine is quite right – then, since all will recognize, even without the help of the Pauline Eph 2:8, that faith is a gift, we must ask: If God produces everything good in us, on condition of faith – but it is he himself who gives that faith – are we not faced with a really blind predestination?11

Paul himself further compounds our problem by two whole series of seemingly irreconcilable statements. On the one hand, we are free from the law: Rom 3:20, 21, 28; 6:14; Gal 2:16; 3:21; 5:18. In fact, we really cannot keep it: Gal 3:10-12 – though Paul himself claims that even before he knew Christ, he kept it perfectly: Phil 3:6. On the other hand, Paul insists that if we violate the law, we will not inherit the kingdom: 1 Cor 6:9-10; Gal 5:19-21, to which we could add Eph 5:5, at least Pauline in thought.

So we are faced with a most difficult problem, which even brings in its wake the impasse-problem of predestination, to which Burgess refers, using the Augsburg Confession: “As with the doctrine of predestination, we are not to `delight in concerning ourselves with matters which we cannot harmonize.”12

Yet, unless we wish to say Paul contradicts himself, there must be an answer. We hope it is not presumption to try to propose such an answer.

As a preliminary thought, we would do well to recall a point of method. Since, not strangely, we may at times encounter things in divine revelation that we cannot understand at present, when we meet two statements or series of statements that seem irreconcilable, we must vigorously resist the temptation to force one to fit. We must most fully accept both, until the day when the means of reconciliation may appear.

May we suggest that Paul has really given us a hint with his citation of Ps 62:13 in Rom 2:6, if we turn to the complete Hebrew text, including words Paul did not choose to cite. Yes, Paul does use the very words of the LXX at this point, but it is here a close translation of the Hebrew, except that the Greeks here did not have a word for it, when they used eleos for chesed. (And we recall, Paul so often has a Hebrew word behind his Greek). We wish to suggest that a careful study of covenant can provide us with what we need.

However, before studying the covenant directly, it will be quite useful to explore a little noticed dimension of covenant: its relation to God’s holiness.

We begin with the Hebrew concept of involuntary sin, sheggagah. It seems strange to many modern ears, yet it is foundwidely in Scripture and later literature as well.

All of Leviticus 4 is concerned with rules for compensation due if any of various categories of persons should violate one of the commandments of the Lord unwittingly. This calls for ‘asham, which seems to have originally meant compensatory payment,13and then (Lev 4:14-16) developed into the meaning of a compensatory sacrifice.14The related verb ‘asham can mean to act wrongly, to become guilty, or to atone for guilt. So there was a notion of real guilt present. Lev 5:17-19, which seems to be a general statement including involuntary sin, says: ‘ashom ‘asham la Yahweh: the man is really guilty in the eyes of God.15

When Abram and his wife went down into Egypt, the Pharaoh’s men took her, as Abram had anticipated. The king was in good faith, but yet Gen 12:17 reports that God struck Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because he had Abram’s wife. The same phenomenon recurs in Gen 20:1-7 and 26:1-11. Even if we wish to call these doublets, yet they reflect the strength of the concept we are considering.

Gen 17:14 prescribes that a male, not circumcised after 8 days, shall be cut off from his people: “He has broken my covenant,” even though he at that age is quite incapable of any voluntary fault.

In 1 Sam 14:24, Jonathan has unwittingly violated a rash oath sworn by Saul; yet he narrowly escapes death for his act.

In Tobit 2:13, the wife of Tobit brings home a goat, a gift. Without even investigating its legitimacy, Tobit orders her to give it back for fear of the mere possibility of unwitting sin.

The Psalmist in 19:12-13 pleads for cleansing from his shegioth- a prayer we still say today, though probably few understand it.

Turning to intertestamental literature, we read in the Testament of Levi 3:5: “There are with him the archangels who serve and offer propitiatory sacrifices to the Lord for all the sins of ignorance of the just ones.” In the same vein, the Psalms of Solomon 3:7-8 tell us: “The righteous man in all searches his house to cleanse injustice in his sin. He makes atonement for ignorance by fasting and lowliness of his spirit.”16

Philo17speaks of the need to cleanse self of even involuntary faults to achieve full spiritual growth. This is no mere fear of a taboo, but reflects the fact that one must come to know his involuntary faults before he can correct a defect whose correction is clearly needed for complete spiritual growth. Similarly Pausanias18reports that the Seven Sages of Greece inscribed a motto on the oracle of Delphi: gnothi sauton, know yourself. Again, Seneca the Stoic19tells us that Epicurus himself said: “The beginning of health is the knowledge of [one’s] fault.”20

The concept reappears in the Gospels. In Lk 12:47-48 Jesus says that the slave who did not know his master’s wishes and so did not fulfill them will get off with fewer stripes. But he will still be punished. The scene of the last judgment in Mt 24:44 shows us those on the left pleading ignorance, but the plea is rejected.

Paul in 1 Cor 15:9 says that he “does not deserve to be called an Apostle” because of his previous persecutions, which he carried out thinking they were the will of God. Again, in 1 Cor 4:4, a much discussed verse, the sense seems to be that having nothing on his conscience does not mean he is in the clear, for he might have done something in ignorance. This becomes evident when we put Paul’s words in the background of the information given by A. Biichler: “The ancient pious men brought every day a doubtful guilt offering to clear themselves from any error … possibly committed on the previous day.”21

In Patristic literature, we find Pope Clement I telling the people of Corinth: “You stretched out your hands to the all-powerful God, begging him to be propitious, if you had sinned at all unwillingly.”22

In the Shepherd of Hermas, the Angel of Penance tells Hermas that he receives more slowly what he prays for “on account of some temptation or transgression which you do not know about.”23

Tertullian24tells of a Christian who was punished in a vision because his slaves, without his approval, had put a crown on his door. St. John Chrysostom25says that those who choose men to be priests and bishops may incur punishment if they make the wrong choice even without carelessness.

1Ernst Kasemann, Commentary on Romans, tr. G.W. Bromiley, from 4th German edition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980), p. 57.

2Justification by Faith. Lutherans and Catholics in Dialogue VII, ed. H. George Anderson, T. Austin Murphy, Joseph A. Burgess (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1985), pp. 98-100.

3John Reumann, Righteousness in the New Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1982), 125-129, esp. 129: “Obviously, Protestant exegesis has gone far in recognizing that (and how) Paul speaks of a judgment based on works. Catholic exegetes now insist that the principle of Rom 2:6, repayment according to deeds, does not contradict Paul’s ideas of justification by faith. Total consistency in Pauline thought eludes most commentators.”

4E.P. Sanders, Paul the Law, and the Jewish People (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1983), p. 132.

5Op. cit., p. 58.


7Op. cit., p. 110. 8Cf. note 3 above.

90p. cit., p. 99.

10St. Augustine, Epist. 194.5.19.

11Cf. Brief Statement of The Doctrinal Position of the Missouri Synod, adopted 1932, Concordia, St. Louis, Section 14: “As to the question why not all men are converted and saved, seeing that God’s grace is universal and all men are equally and utterly corrupt, we confess that we cannot answer it.” For an attempt at solution cf. W. Most, New Answers to Old Questions (London: St. Paul Publications, 1971)

120p.Cit., p. 109.

13Cf. D. Kellerman, “‘asham” in G.J. Botterweck and H. Ringren, tr. John T. Willis, Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament (GrandRapids: Eerdmans, 1974), revised edition, I, p. 433.

14We met in Lev also chatta’th. If there ever was a distinction between it and ‘asham it seems it was lost in ancient times, as can be seen with the difficulties in ancient versions, and in early writers. Cf. again Kellerman, art. cit., p. 431.

15We seem here far from any notion of taboo, proposed by some authors. Cf. S.J. De Vries, “Sin” in IDB IV, p. 363. The many examples we shall quote from Scripture and other writers seem to rule out taboo, as also the debt concept, to be treated below. Cf. also note 20 below.

16Cf. also Testament of Zebulon 1:4-5 andSlavonic Enoch 30:16; 31:7.

17Philo, De Specialibus legibus 1:259.

18Pausanias, Description of Greece 10:24.

19Seneca, Epist. 28.

20Similar concepts of involuntary sin are widespread in other peoples. Cf. Proceedings of the Xlth International Congress of the International Association for the History of Religions. II. Guilt or Pollution and Rites of Purification (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1968); Robert Parker, Miasma. Pollution and Purification in Early Greek Religion (Oxford: Clarendon, 1985). Of course it is one thing to note the phenomena, another to interpret them. Not all peoples would have the same basis as the Hebrews. Interestingly, Parker thinks a concept of necessary order may be a factor in many Greek instances: cf. pp. 31, 325-27. We think of the proposals of Reventlow (at note 37 below) and Augustine (at note 38 below).

21A. Biichler, Studies in Sin and Atonement in the Rabbinic Literature

of the First Century (New York: Ktav, 1967), p.425. Cf. also G.F.

Moore, Judaism (Cambridge: Harvard U. Press, 1927), I. pp. 498-99.
22Clement, To the Corinthians I. 2:3.
23Shepherd of Hermas, Mandate 9:7.
Tertullian, De idololatria 15.

25St. John Chrysostom,On Priesthood 4:2.