Appeared in Fall 1990, Vol. XVI, No. 3 Download PDF
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.”5
He 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.
Finally, the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, still in use today, prays before the Epistle: “Forgive us every offence, both voluntary and involuntary.”
What is behind this insistence on involuntary sins? It seems to be God’s concern for holiness and what is morally right. He views sin as a debt26, which should be paid even if incurred unwittingly. Many authors think ‘asham carries the notion of reparation, which would imply payment of a debt.27
There is no doubt that sin in general was considered a debt in Judaism. It is implied in the LXX use of aphienai to mean forgive, a verb with a connotation of remitting a debt.28
Intertestamental Hebrew and Aramaic literature at times use Hebrew chobah, Aramaic choba’, debt, to mean sin.29
While opheilema, debt, does not often appear in the Gospels in the sense of sin, it is found in a most important place, in the Our Father. The concept is found often in Paul in different words. He speaks of the “price” of redemption (1 Cor 6:20; 7:23) and of the “bill” that was a claim against us, paid by the death of Christ (Col 2:14). Again, Paul speaks of Christ as buying us back, we who were under the law: Gal 3:13; 4:5.
Early Rabbinic literature carries the same debt concept. R. Akiba in Pirke Aboth says: “The shopman gives credit, and the account book is open … and the collectors go round continually every day and exact payment.”30 R. Eleazar ben R. Sadok, of the lst century in Jerusalem, said: “God brings chastisements upon the righteous men in this world, in order that they may inherit the world-to-come.”31 R. Yehudah ben Ilai asserts that the ancient pious men, “used to be afflicted with intestinal illness for about ten to twenty days before their death, so they might … arrive pure in the hereafter.”32
Even clearer and more suggestive are the words of R. Simeon ben Eleazar, who claims to speak in the name of Rabbi Meir:
“He [anyone] has committed one transgression, woe is he, for he has inclined the balance both for himself and for the world to the side of guilt”33 [chobah = debt].
Of course, we need to exercise great care in supposing a tradition found in the Rabbis reflects earlier beliefs. But when we see the strong roots of the concept in the Old Testament, in intertestamental literature, and in the New Testament itself, we may be sure that at least this concept of sin as debt was widespread in the minds of the writers of Scripture.
So our interpretation of sheggagah as reflecting the concern on the part of God’s holiness for the moral order is well based. We find many additional indications of this, e.g., Psalm 11:8 insists that God is tsadig and therefore loves tsedagoth. In Gen 15:16 God promises to give the land to Abraham and his seed, but not at once, since, “the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet full.” He, the absolute master, could give any land to whomsoever he wished. Yet he wanted the current holders to most fully deserve to lose it before he would take it away. Hence Dt 9:4-5 insists that the People of God have the land not for any merit of theirs, but because of the sins of the Amorites. Rev 6:10 pictures the souls of martyrs under the altar calling on God to “avenge” their blood. Really, avenge is not a good translation, for they, with their wills in unison with the divine will, do not desire evil to another so it may be evil to him – that would be hatred. Rather, they will that the scales of the objective moral order – to pick up the suggestion of R. Simeon ben Eleazar – be rebalanced, a thing God himself intends to carry out.
Our purpose in reviewing these data is to suggest that they have a large bearing on God’s reason for making a covenant. Of course, He would want a covenant to display love, to make clear to his people what his will was, so that they might not fear they could not know what to expect from him, since his ways are so different, so far above ours (Is 55:8-9). But we are suggesting that his love of what is right and in good order was also part of his concern. Let us explore that aspect in the light of the above.
Of course, there are two sides to divine “repayment” – positive and negative; favor and punishment. We take up the latter first, since it is obviously easier to deal with.
The Old Testament is full of the notion that God will repay evil by punishment. We think especially, for example, of Dt 28:58 ff, and 1 Kgs 9: 6-9, not to mention the many times he actually struck his people when they were unfaithful, to put them back into their senses, as Paul would phrase it: nouthetein.
Is 59:16-18 is specially remarkable, in that it uses even salvation vocabulary to express this idea of punishment: “So his arm caused salvation for him (tosha` lo) and his tsedagah, it sustained him, and he put on tsedagah as a breastplate and yeshua’has a helmet on his head. He clothed himself with garments of nagam, wrapped himself with a mantle of gin’ah. According to deeds (gemuloth), accordingly he will repay.” This text is notable, as we said, in that it uses the root ysh’, normally associated with saving activity, for the opposite, and similarly, tsedagah, even though Is 59 is, of course, postexilic, at the very time when tsedagah had developed the meaning of saving activity. May we venture to suggest that there is a common root: the covenant calls upon God to save when people respond (Ex 19:5), but to punish when they do the opposite. The common root then for both ideas will be the older meaning of tsedagah. We think of the parallelism of tsedagah with chesed in Ps 36:11; 143:11-12. Cf. Ps 40:11. Cf. also the conjunction of tsedagah and emunah in Ps 143:1, and also parallelisms of chesed with mishpat (at times with tsedagah in the same passage): Ps 33:4-5; 36:6-7; 89:15; 119:149.
It is interesting also to observe that the word used for deeds in Is 59:18, gemuloth, carries the connotation of retribution, favorable or punishing, as Zorell observes s.v.: “Actio praemio aut poena digna Is 59:18 – 2) retributio condigna, sive est beneficium 2 S 19 37, sive ultio Jr 51, 56.”34 (Cf. Is 35:4 where nagam is coupled with gemul.)
Paul for his part insists that even though we are free from the law, yet (Rom 8:8): “If anyone does not have the spirit of Christ [and follow it] he does not belong to him.” But if one does not belong to Christ, then he will not inherit the kingdom, for we inherit not as individuals making our own justification, but as members of Christ, and so “coheirs with Christ” (Rom 8:17). He who inherits does not earn. Hence Gal 5:20-21 lists the “works of the flesh” and insists, “As to which I warn you, as I warned before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” For he will not be a member of Christ, if he does not follow Christ’s Spirit, and so will not be coheir with Christ. Those who follow the Spirit, need not even look at the law (Gal 5:18): “If you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law,” for such a one will not produce the works of the flesh, but the fruits of the Spirit. Hence the author of 1 Tim 1:8-9 is at least very Pauline in saying: “The law is not there for the just man, but for the lawless and insubordinate, sexually loose. . . .”35
All this, of course, accords well with Rom 2:6-13, and with Rom 6:23, which speaks of death as the wages (opsonia) of sin.
The Solid Declaration of the Book of Concord, 1580, says that the righteousness of God includes what “God manifests towards the impenitent and despisers of his word” such as Pharaoh.36
Henning Graf Reventlow makes a fascinating suggestion: “God’s punishing tsdgh catches up with the evildoer, who puts himself outside of this order,”37 which God has established. We are reminded of Augustine: “So the miserable lack the tranquillity of order, because they surely are not in peace inasmuch as they are miserable … however, since they are miserable deservedly and unjustly, even in their very misery they cannot be outside of order – not indeed joined to the blessed, but yet, separated from them by the law of order.”38As we shall suggest presently, this concept of order willed by divine holiness seems to be the root of a secondary aspect of covenant.
When we turn to the positive side of covenant, we need to notice that if we ask why God grants his favour under the covenant, there are two kinds or levels of reasons. Most basically, what any creature does cannot move God (cf. Job 22:23) or benefit him: so the reason he made a covenant, the reason he gives favors under it cannot be anything but simply his own unmerited, unmeritable goodness and generosity – hence justification is gratuitous, utterly unearned by us. It is on this level that Paul speaks when he insists we are free from the law and that we do not earn justification, not even by the obedience that is faith (Rom 1:5; 16:26; Ga13:2).39
Yet he did make a covenant, he did promise favor on a condition, if people really hearken to his voice and obey (Ex 19:5). Why did he do this? Here, may we suggest is the application of our study of sheggagah debt. Here is an application which accords at least in a general way with the proposal of order by Reventlow: God’s holiness loves all that is good. It loves to have – though only on a secondary level – reasons for giving favor. Hence R. Simeon ben Eleazar could use the comparison of the two pan scales.40 Hence Rom 2:6 could say: God repays; and Paul or the Pauline author of Col 3:23 could combine both aspects in saying that the faithful servant will get antapodosin klerenomias.
To sum up: As to punishment, we need not fear to say God repays in every sense. But as to favour, we keep distinct the basic reason from a secondary reason. Basically, God’s gifts are totally unearned – even faith, the condition for receiving, is an unmerited gift. But yet, given the fact that he has seen fit to enter into a covenant, then within it, on a secondary level his holiness and love of good order is pleased to find a secondary reason for awarding favour, such that Paul could speak of repayment within chesed, spoken of in the full Hebrew of Ps 62:13, from which Rom 2:6 cites.
This explanation could also solve the puzzling dilemma of the fact that Paul gives us two kinds of statements: we are free from the law – yet by great sins we can lose our inheritance. The word inheritance is the key: one does not earn his inheritance. So if we gain reward, it is not really by titles we ourselves generate, it is because we are members of Christ, who did pay the price of redemption. Just as 2 Cor 5:14 can say we died inasmuch as we are members of Christ who died, so we can say we have a claim, inasmuch as we are members of Christ who did generate a claim, as our propitiatory, as our price of redemption – in him we are the justice, tsdq, of God, not in ourselves.41
As we said, when one gets something by inheritance, he does not, of course, earn it; it is freely given. Yet one could earn to be disinherited. So we too, do not in the basic sense earn salvation – though we could earn to lose it. This accords well with the most basic Gospel analogy: God is our Father. In a normal human family, the son does not say he must work about the house to earn his father’s love; no, he gets that not because he is good, but because the father is good. Yet, he could earn the opposite, to be disinherited. All of this of course does not prevent the father from being pleased to teach his son to earn extras, in a secondary way.
Finally, it was gratifying to find that Bruce Chilton, in his penetrating study of Jesus’ use of Targums, seems to imply our basic distinction just mentioned: “Obedience to the law given on Sinai is the condition apart from which divine favour cannot be offered, just as rejection of the law occasions God’s anger.”42 The favour is offered gratuitously – the anger is earned.
A student in a discussion class of mine once proposed an interesting formula: As to salvation – you can’t earn it, but you can blow [forfeit] it.
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.
24Tertullian, De idololatria 15.
25St. John Chrysostom,On Priesthood 4:2.