All Law is Not Created Equal
There is no small amount of confusion in Catholic/Protestant discussions over the issue of God’s law. Protestants constantly accuse Catholics of teaching some sort of salvation by law or works, and regardless of how often or how strongly Catholics insist that they believe no such thing, the charges continue.
Part of the problem, it seems to me, is that many Protestants — especially Lutherans or those Reformed who lean that way — tend to think of law with a capital L. Law, we often hear, is any command, any verb in the imperative mood. There is no real difference, according to this way of thinking, between the Decalogue’s command not to lie on the one hand, and Paul’s command to love our neighbor on the other. Both are Law, neither is sufficiently keepable, and therefore neither can contribute in any way to one’s final salvation.
Even as a Reformed seminarian I found this position to be biblically untenable and theologically damaging. It both ignores the difference between the Old and New covenants as well as flattens out Scripture’s redemptive-historical message of salvation (post-lapsum, it’s all just “different administrations of the covenant of grace” and all that business).
A far more biblical approach (which, I eventually came to discover, is exactly what the Augustinian/Catholic tradition has always taught) is to follow Paul by recognizing (at least) two types of law. We read of them in Rom. 8:2:
For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set me free from the law of sin and death.
According to the apostle here, there was one law that enslaved and another that set him free. The first appearance of “law” here, then, is not referring to some oppressive or accusatory source of condemnation, but rather it is the exact opposite. Paul says something similar earlier in Romans:
Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith (3:27).
While some translations render the Greek word nomos (which is almost always translated “law” in Paul) as “principle,” understanding the word in its normal sense works perfectly: The “law of works” (understood in context to be the Mosaic law) cannot eliminate boasting, since it is not even ultimately keepable in the first place, and to whatever degree it is keepable it is not accompanied by the power of the Spirit. The “law of faith,” on the other hand, is the very “law of the Spirit” referred to in chapter 8, and is not merely engraven on stone but internally inscribed on our hearts. This is the promise of the New Covenant that the prophets foretold. In fact, the first few verses of Romans 8 are simply Paul’s way of saying what Jeremiah had prophesied centuries prior, namely, that the day would come when God, by the Spirit, would enable us by his divine power to fulfill the righteousness of the law, resulting in there being now no condemnation for those who walk according to the Spirit.
And all this is reiterated quite plainly in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
1965 The New Law or the Law of the Gospel is the perfection here on earth of the divine law, natural and revealed. It is the work of Christ and is expressed particularly in the Sermon on the Mount. It is also the work of the Holy Spirit and through him it becomes the interior law of charity: “I will establish a New Covenant with the house of Israel.… I will put my laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”
1966 The New Law is the grace of the Holy Spirit given to the faithful through faith in Christ. It works through charity; it uses the Sermon on the Mount to teach us what must be done and makes use of the sacraments to give us the grace to do it:
If anyone should meditate with devotion and perspicacity on the sermon our Lord gave on the mount, as we read in the Gospel of Saint Matthew, he will doubtless find there … the perfect way of the Christian life.… This sermon contains … all the precepts needed to shape one’s life.
1967 The Law of the Gospel “fulfills,” refines, surpasses, and leads the Old Law to its perfection. In the Beatitudes, the New Law fulfills the divine promises by elevating and orienting them toward the “kingdom of heaven.” It is addressed to those open to accepting this new hope with faith—the poor, the humble, the afflicted, the pure of heart, those persecuted on account of Christ—and so marks out the surprising ways of the Kingdom.
1968 The Law of the Gospel fulfills the commandments of the Law. The Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, far from abolishing or devaluing the moral prescriptions of the Old Law, releases their hidden potential and has new demands arise from them: it reveals their entire divine and human truth. It does not add new external precepts, but proceeds to reform the heart, the root of human acts, where man chooses between the pure and the impure, where faith, hope, and charity are formed and with them the other virtues. The Gospel thus brings the Law to its fullness through imitation of the perfection of the heavenly Father, through forgiveness of enemies and prayer for persecutors, in emulation of the divine generosity.
1969 The New Law practices the acts of religion: almsgiving, prayer and fasting, directing them to the “Father who sees in secret,” in contrast with the desire to “be seen by men.” Its prayer is the Our Father.
1970 The Law of the Gospel requires us to make the decisive choice between “the two ways” and to put into practice the words of the Lord. It is summed up in the Golden Rule, “Whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them; this is the law and the prophets.”
The entire Law of the Gospel is contained in the “new commandment” of Jesus, to love one another as he has loved us.
In a word, if the Catholic insistence that our Spirit-wrought works graciously qualify us for final justification is tantamount to believing in salvation by law or salvation by works, we’re in pretty good company, since this is nothing less than the Gospel proclaimed by Jesus, Paul, Peter, James, and John.