By J. Parnell McCarter



The Biblical Christian faith does not consist of contradictory Biblical propositions.  This is why we read, “But [as] God [is] true, our word toward you was not yea and nay.“ (II Corinthians 1:18).   This distinguishes the Christian faith from other worldviews, which are internally inconsistent, containing contradictory propositions.  Biblical propositions that are paradoxical on the surface can be resolved.  This must be the case, for two contradictory propositions are ultimately meaningless together.  For instance, it is meaningless to say that “a ball is spherical **and** it is not spherical”.  One purpose of Biblical systematic theology is to show how the chief doctrinal propositions of scripture relate and teach a comprehensive coherent revelation to mankind that is internally consistent and without contradiction.


Two Biblical propositions that have been the subject of much historical debate as to how they should be resolved are these:


  1. Romans 3:24-28  - “…all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God. Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus:…we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.”
  2. Romans 2:5-8 – “But after thy hardness and impenitent heart treasurest up unto thyself wrath against the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God; Who will render to every man according to his deeds: To them who by patient continuance in well doing seek for glory and honour and immortality, eternal life: But unto them that are contentious, and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, indignation and wrath…”



The Westminster Confession of Faith, summarizing the two doctrinal propositions above, records:

1.     “Those whom God effectually calleth, he also freely justifieth: not by infusing righteousness into them, but by pardoning their sins, and by accounting and accepting their persons as righteous; not for any thing wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ's sake alone; not by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience to them, as their righteousness; but by imputing the obedience and satisfaction of Christ unto them, they receiving and resting on him and his righteousness by faith; which faith they have not of themselves, it is the gift of God.  Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and his righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification…”  [Note: The last statement goes on to say “… yet is it not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but worketh by love.”]

  1. … all persons, that have lived upon earth, shall appear before the tribunal of Christ, to give an account of their thoughts, words, and deeds; and to receive according to what they have done in the body, whether good or evil.”


The correct manner to resolve these two propositions is that found in Mr. Robert Shaw’s commentary on the Westminster Confession of Faith, where he writes:


The sentence to be pronounced will be answerable to the several states in which mankind shall be found. They shall receive their doom according to their works. - Rev. xx. 13. It is to be remarked, that the good works of the righteous will be produced in that day, not as the grounds of their acquittal, and of their being adjudged to eternal life, but as the evidences of their gracious state, as being interested in the righteousness of Christ. But the evil deeds of the wicked will be brought forward, not only as evidences of their being strangers to Christ, but also as the grounds of their condemnation.”


Dr. John Calvin similarly resolved it, as evidenced, for example, in his exposition of Romans 2:6:

6. Who will render to every one, etc. As he had to do with blind saintlings, who thought that the wickedness of their hearts was well covered, provided it was spread over with some disguises, I know not what, of empty works, he pointed out the true character of the righteousness of works, even that which is of account before God; and he did this, lest they should feel confident that it was enough to pacify him, if they brought words and trifles, or leaves only. But there is not so much difficulty in this verse, as it is commonly thought. For the Lord, by visiting the wickedness of the reprobate with just vengeance, will recompense them with what they have deserved: and as he sanctifies those whom he has previously resolved to glorify, he will also crown their good works, but not on account of any merit: nor can this be proved from this verse; for though it declares what reward good works are to have, it does yet by no means show what they are worth, or what price is due to them. And it is an absurd inference, to deduce merit from reward.”


Calvin’s point, like that of Shaw, is that the manifest good works of the elect on the Day of Judgment are not the grounds of their salvation (in other words, their salvation is not merited on the basis of their good works), but the good works distinguishing the elect can be used by God to cull out His elect from the reprobate, because **only** those can manifest **true** good works who have first been justified by God, so that God may then sanctify and enable them to do true good works.



But other solutions to resolve these propositions have been proposed.  One proposed solution, common to the Romish Church and her ideological allies, is found on the Roman Catholic website http://www.catholicintl.com/ .  For instance, at http://www.catholicintl.com/epologetics/dialogs/justification/horton-rebutal.htm we read these arguments by Dr. Robert A. Sungenis:


“There are two solutions to the seeming contradiction between what Paul says in Romans 2:6-13 and what he says in Romans 3:23-4:4. Either you conclude that Paul is dealing with two different kinds of works (works of debt and works of grace), or you say he is dealing with only one kind of work (any work). The Catholic Church has chosen the former; Dr. Horton has chosen the latter…”


“Condemning works does not automatically mean faith is alone. There are other things that could be added to faith that are not considered works, and thus faith would not be alone. In fact, Paul condemned only one kind of work. He called them works of DEBT (Romans 3:28-4:4). How do we know there is a distinction? Because in the previous chapter Paul says that those who do good works will receive eternal life (Romans 2:6-7) and that those who obey the Law will be justified (Romans 2:13).  As for works of DEBT, Catholics also condemn the idea that man can put God in debt to save him by his own works. The very first canon of the Council of Trent states this quite plainly: ‘If anyone shall say that man can be justified before God by his own works which are done either by his own natural powers, or through the teaching of the Law, and without divine grace through Christ Jesus: let him be anathema.’”

“Does Paul claim anywhere in Romans 2 that his teaching (that those who do good works will be justified and receive eternal life) is hypothetical? Dr. Horton knows that the answer to this question is no. Paul never even hints that his teaching in Romans 2 is hypothetical.”


So a typical Roman Catholic resolution of the seeming paradox is that the term “works” in Romans chapter 2 means something different from what it means in Romans chapter 3.  It asserts that man can be saved on the basis of (or on the grounds of) “works of grace” but not on the grounds of “works of debt”.


Another proposed solution, generally by professing Protestants of a more antinomian sort, asserts that really the judgment according to works on the Great Day of Judgment is merely hypothetical, or else it has reference to Christ’s works imputed to the believer.  Such would deny that human works can be used to separate the elect from the non-elect, either because such proponents mistakenly believe it would imply such good works are the grounds of the elect’s salvation, or they mistakenly believe true Christians cannot be distinguished by their works from the reprobate.  It should be noted that it is this proposed solution that Dr. Robert A. Sungenis is chiefly taking aim in his arguments at http://www.catholicintl.com/epologetics/dialogs/justification/horton-rebutal.htm .  He never satisfactorily addresses the historic and correct Protestant position as we find it in the Westminster Confession, as well as the writings of such theologians as Dr. John Calvin or Mr. Robert Shaw.