When God Works in Us

POLITICIANS ARE OFTEN ACCUSED of committing doublespeak: contradicting themselves as occasion demands. St Paul seems to do the same thing in his teaching on justification. He seems to contradict himself in teaching how we are justified. On one occasion he teaches that we are justified by faith; on another occasion he encourages people to work out their salvation. Is this doublespeak or do these teachings complement each other?

Faith over Works

In Galatians 2:16 St Paul writes, “… knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; for by the works of the Law no flesh shall be justified.” The term “works of the Law” refers to regulations prescribed in the Torah which were the subject of debate by first-century Jews of different schools. Opinions of the Qumran school came to light in the twentieth century with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. One of these documents, Some Pertinent Works of Torah, illustrates the enormous preoccupation on the part of many first- century Jews with these regulations.

When St Paul says that no one is justified by works of the Law, he seems to be referring to the ceremonial regulations which were so important to contemporary Jews: the dietary laws, the Sabbath and holyday observances, and especially circumcision, which was deemed essential for numbering a man into the People of God.

In St Paul’s day most Christians were, in fact, Jews who had come to accept the Lord Jesus as the Messiah. Some of them were insisting on the necessity of circumcision if a Gentile were to be admitted into the Church. St Paul opposed them and pointed out earlier in Galatians that his practice was not rejected even in Jerusalem.

In Galatians 2 he tells of visiting the Holy City with Barnabas and Titus: “After fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, and also took Titus with me… Yet not even Titus who was with me, being a Greek, was compelled to be circumcised” (Galatians 2:1, 3). St Paul says that the chief apostles, Peter, James and John supported his outreach to the Gentiles and “desired only that we should remember the poor, the very thing which I also was eager to do” (v. 10).

The issue was far from settled, however. Peter reversed his view at a later time. “Now when Peter had come to Antioch, I withstood him to his face, because he was to be blamed; for before certain men came from James, he would eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing those who were of the circumcision. And the rest of the Jews also played the hypocrite with him, so that even Barnabas was carried away with their hypocrisy” (vv. 11-13).

Paul’s position would eventually be upheld when the issue was discussed in Jerusalem (see Acts 15). The apostles then sent this letter with their decision: “The apostles, the elders, and the brethren to the brethren who are of the Gentiles in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia: Greetings.  Since we have heard that some who went out from us have troubled you with words, unsettling your souls, saying, ‘You must be circumcised and keep the law’—to whom we gave no such commandment— … it seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things:  that you abstain from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell” (Acts 15:23-29).

The apostles thus freed Gentiles from observing circumcision and most of the Jewish dietary regulations. The other prohibitions continued to be observed in the East for centuries, enshrined in the Apostolic Canons. This collection, chiefly of Syrian origin, was accepted as binding throughout the East by the seventh-century Trullan Council. Its sixty-third canon reads in part, “If any Bishop, or Presbyter, or Deacon, or anyone else on the sacerdotal list at all, eat meat in the blood of its soul, or that has been killed by a wild beast, or that has died a natural death, let him be deposed. For the Law has forbidden this.”

This prohibition is based on the idea, common in the ancient world, that blood carries the essence of the soul.  By consuming the blood of an animal we make a part of ourselves the passionate nature of the animal just as we partake of Christ’s nature by receiving the Eucharist. Properly slaughtered meat would not have substantial quantities of blood, unlike the other cases mentioned in the canon.

Paul himself continued to observe many ceremonial works of the Law but did not see any of them as a cause of our justification. Christ, he insisted, is the only way to God and it is only through faith in Him that we can attain union with the Father.

The Call to Work

It seems contradictory that the same Paul who was so adamant against being justified by the works of the Law would later tell the Philippians, “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12-13).

For St Paul justification is not a one-time event in life. We do not simply say a prayer or make our baptismal vows once and that does it! Salvation, or justification (to use St Paul’s term) comes through faith, but faith is a lifelong process!

Life-long Christians know that there are periods of life in which spiritual zeal is strong, when we are as fervent in our faith as anyone could wish. They also know that there are periods of dryness – times when we may wonder whether we believe anything at all.

There are also degrees of awareness which are meant to deepen as our Christian life progresses. St Paul uses the image of milk vs. solid food to illustrate the progress of Christian understanding in our lives: “For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the first principles of the oracles of God; and you have come to need milk and not solid food. For everyone who partakes only of milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, for he is a babe. But solid food belongs to those who are of full age, that is, those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil” (Heb 5:12-14).

The process of growing discernment enables us to appropriate the righteousness of Christ in an ever-deepening way as our Christ life develops. As we make the teachings in Scripture more our own through reflection and assimilation we become more able to put them into practice in our lives. We thus “work out our salvation” by cooperating with the grace of God working within us – a synergy between God who calls and we who respond to His saving love.