Does Romans Teach Justification by Faith apart from Works? An Introduction to the Debate

by Gary Michuta July 07, 2015 0 Comments

- Introductory video for Does Romans Teach Justification by Faith apart from Works?

Hi everybody and welcome to my video blog. I just came back from New Jersey after debating Jeff Kliewer. Jeff Kliewer is a Calvary Chapel Missionary, and he lives in New Jersey. And a while back he got a hold of me and invited me to come and debate him on justification, which, of course, I was glad to be able to do.

With things around the house and other commitments it’s very hard for me to be free enough to do this, but it just worked out that I was free and I could do it. And, I actually spent some time with Jeff and his family before the debate, and Jeff’s a great guy and his family is wonderful. And, we had a great time.

And, you know, I think that paid off in the debate, because often when Catholics and Protestants get together it can sometimes be very acrimonious and there’s more heat generated than light. And, I think this debate was very cordial and hopefully very clear. Jeff did a very good job explaining his position. He recently wrote a book on Romans, and I think he did an admirable job.

The thesis of the debate is “Does Romans Teach Justification by Faith apart from Works?” Now, according to Jeff’s perspective, he held that Romans teaches justification by faith alone apart from any good work that we do or any human element whatsoever. At least, that was my understanding of his position.

My position was that the thesis would be better served by just simply quoting Romans 3:28 as it is. Paul says, “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” And, I show in the debate in the context in Romans that the “works of the law” there refer to the ceremonial law. That is, these ceremonial boundary markers — Old Testament boundary markers that distinguish Jews from Gentiles — mainly circumcision but also other things like dietary regulations, certain feasts and so on.

And, when we come to Romans 3:28, therefore, Paul is not drawing a division between faith and good works. Rather, he’s drawing a division between faith and the “works of the law.” Which, there were certain Jewish converts to Christianity — you can see this in Acts 15:1 — that believed that circumcision and these ceremonial laws actually were salvific — that they could save a person, that they could justify. And, Paul is saying no. We are not justified by these Old Testament sacraments. We are a justified by faith.

Afterwards, I had a chance to consider the debate, and really, for my money, I think it comes down to a one verse takedown. Because, Jeff, in order to maintain that Paul’s teaching faith apart from good works or any human element, he needs to show that the “works of the law” can be expanded to encompass good works and human elements, right?

Now here’s the problem. It’s the very next verse. Romans 3:29 teaches, “Or is God the God of the Jews only, is he not also the God of the Gentiles?” Now, this 29 in a sense defines what he says in 28. Whatever these “works of the law” are — whatever they are: good works, ceremonial law, whatever — we know that from verse 29 they must be distinctively Jewish.

Now, the “works of the law,” obviously, are distinctively Jewish. In fact, those are the things that distinguished Jews from Gentiles in the Old Covenant. But, good works and human elements aren’t distinctively Jewish. Gentiles do good works. Paul teaches that in Romans 2.

So, for me, unless Jeff was able to argue and answer how verse 29 can be overcome so that you can expand the works of the law to include good works and human elements, I think he doesn’t prove his case. And, so I’d leave it up to whomever was at the debate, or maybe if you listen to the debate on audio or see it on video, you can judge for yourself who won. But, for me that was the deciding factor.

Afterwards, I also realized something very interesting that Jeff does something that Martin Luther did back in the 1500’s. When Jeff proposed the thesis for this debate, he had to alter Romans 3:28. He had to change the wording. The thesis is “Does Romans teach justification by works” where 28 says “we are justified by faith apart from works of the law.” The thesis knocks off the part about the law.

So, the word “works” is more ambiguous that could include good works. Martin Luther did something similar when he translated the book of Romans into German. He added the word “alone” at verse 28: “See that a man is justified by faith alone apart from the works of the law.” So, I thought that was kind’ve interesting that both Jeff and Martin Luther had to alter the sacred text to make it say something a lot closer to their own theology.

But, anyway, it was a very enjoyable debate. I think there was probably between 60-80 people there. Probably about 90% of which were Protestants, and I have a feeling that most of those were former Catholics. Talking to people afterwards and talking to my friends and family, I think the debate went well, and hopefully if anything… and this is what I love about debates— I really don’t like “debates” per se. But, what I love about it is afterwards it gets us thinking and dialoguing. And, it was fun to listen to all the dialogue going on between Catholics and Protestants afterwards to really start digging into the sacred text and really try to find out what the Holy Spirit really is teaching us about justification in the letter to the Romans.

So, thank you very much and I’ll see you in the next video blog.

Gary Michuta
Gary Michuta