Pharisees, Pelagians, and Catholics on Justification

I’m sure most people reading this blog have heard more than they’d care to about justification this week, but there was one last point I wanted to bring up, both because it’s interesting, and because I said I’d address it earlier this week.  The idea is this: many Christians, particularly Protestants, read “Pharisees,” and think that these were the folks who thought that they could work their way to Heaven.  In Institutes of the Christian Religion, for example, John Calvin describes Catholics as “Papists” and “those Pharisees,” because he claims Catholics teach that justification is through good works.  Besides being a false interpretation of Catholic doctrine, this view is a false interpretation of even what the Pharisees taught.  The trouble here is that Calvin and many other Reformers, as prolific students of the work of St. Augustine, obscured the distinction between Paul’s battle against the Pharisees, Augustine’s battle against the Pelagians three centuries later, and their own battle against the Church.

The truth is Pharisees thought they were justified by the working of the Mosaic Law; Pelagians believed they were justified by being good and doing good works; and Catholics believe we’re justified by grace through faith, but that we must then participate in the works God has stored for us, or we can lose our salvation. These aren’t interchangable positions.  I addressed the Catholic position two days ago, so here are the other two:

(1) Pharisees Taught Justification by Works of the Law, Not Good Works

A good chunk of the confusion over what the Pharisees believed is based on sloppy exegesis, and a too-quick assumption to take “works of the Law” to mean “good works.”  Now, it’s possible that’s what’s meant by works of the Law, and certainly, much of what the Mosaic Law commanded were what we would call “good works,” but this isn’t even a point that most Protestants consider.  After all, look at the concrete things Paul is addressing as “works of the Law,” and you’ll see that most of them don’t even fall in the category of “good works.” N.T. Wright, the Anglican Bishop of Durham, lists the major ones as “Sabbath [keeping], food-laws, circumcision,” none of which are “good works” of themselves.  Further, Wright notes that when Paul writes to the Galatians, he’s answering the question, should “ex-pagan converts be circumcised or not?”  Wright notes:

Now this question is by no means obviously to do with the questions faced by Augustine and Pelagius, or by Luther and Erasmus. On anyone’s reading, but especially within its first-century context, it has to do quite obviously with the question of how you define the people of God: are they to be defined by the badges of Jewish race, or in some other way? Circumcision is not a ‘moral’ issue; it does not have to do with moral effort, or earning salvation by good deeds. Nor can we simply treat it as a religious ritual, then designate all religious ritual as crypto-Pelagian good works, and so smuggle Pelagius into Galatia as the arch-opponent after all.

(N.T. Wright, Paul, p. 120-121). On this point, Wright is certainly right.  The Pharisees weren’t claiming to be justified because they were “good people,” but because they were observant Jews.  Keeping the Sabbath, keeping kosher, and circumcising your children aren’t intrinsically good actions, morally.  This is transparent if you go back to what’s perhaps the most famous Bible passage on justification-by-faith, from Romans 3.  Now, here’s the section of the NIV that Protestant apologists like to quote (Romans 3:27-28):

Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. Because of what law? The law that requires works? No, because of the law that requires faith. For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.

That sounds sort of like Paul is attacking “justification by good works,” particularly if your attention is drawn towards “works” and away from “of the law.”  But now, let’s put it pack into context (Romans 3:21-31):

But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by His Grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of His blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance He had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— He did it to demonstrate His righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.

Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. Because of what law? The law that requires works? No, because of the law that requires faith. For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles too? Yes, of Gentiles too, since there is only one God, who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith. Do we, then, nullify the law by this faith? Not at all! Rather, we uphold the law.

If you take Paul to mean “good works” in Romans 3:27-28, his follow-up questions make no sense.  After all, there are benevolent Gentiles, and the Jews would certainly know this.  Yet the “works of the Law” Paul is referring to were something available only to the Jews.  And the example Paul points to, again, is circumcision.

The example of Rahab shows this.  Rahab, you may recall, was a Gentile prostitute who saved the Israelite spies in the city of Jericho in Joshua 2.  Joshua declares in Joshua 6:17, “Only Rahab the prostitute and all who are with her in her house shall be spared, because she hid the spies we sent.”  So Rahab did a good work (saving the Israelite spies) but didn’t do the works of the Law (she was a Gentile, and the Law never says anything about saving spies).

Rahab’s a good example because according to the Pharisees, she couldn’t be justified: she didn’t perform the works of the Law, as she was a Gentile.  Yet the New Testament says (1) she’s saved by faith, and (2) that she’s saved by a faith animated by good works.  Hebrews 11:31 says, “By faith the prostitute Rahab, because she welcomed the spies, was not killed with those who were disobedient.”  And the KJV of James 2:24-26 says, “Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only. Likewise also was not Rahab the harlot justified by works, when she had received the messengers, and had sent them out another way? For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.

The other good example, of course, is Abraham.  Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness, yet Abraham precedes Moses, and obviously couldn’t be saved by the Law.  This example was devastating to the Pharisees’ position, because Abraham is the Father of the Jewish people.  Were they going to say even he wasn’t Jewish enough? It would be like calling George Washington un-American.  Watch how the New Testament writers use these two examples (Rahab and Abraham) to make their point about the necessity of faith (in Romans, Galatians, and Hebrews) and the necessity of good works (James).

(2) The Pelagians Believed in Salvation by Good Works, while Catholics Don’t

Now, the Pelagians did believe in the position that many Protestants wrongly ascribe to the Pharisees and to Catholics.  Augustine was the de facto leader of the Catholic camp, which strongly opposed the Pelagians.  Here’s chapters 3 and 4 of Epistle 214, in which he talks about how he petitioned the Pope about the Pelagians, and then outlines their views and our own:

3. From this you may understand why I wrote the letter which has been referred to, to Sixtus, presbyter of the Church at Rome, against the new Pelagian heretics, who say that the grace of God is bestowed according to our own merits, so that he who glories has to glory not in the Lord, but in himself,—that is to say, in man, not in the Lord. This, however, the apostle forbids in these words: “Let no man glory in man;” while in another passage he says, “He that glorieth let him glory in the Lord.” But these heretics, under the idea that they are justified by their own selves, just as if God did not bestow on them this gift, but they themselves obtained it by themselves, glory of course in themselves, and not in the Lord. Now, the apostle says to such, “Who maketh thee to differ from another?” and this he does on the ground that out of the mass of perdition which arose from Adam, none but God distinguishes a man to make him a vessel to honour, and not to dishonour. Lest, however, the carnal man in his foolish pride should, on hearing the question, “Who maketh thee to differ from another?” either in thought or in word answer and say: My faith, or my prayer, or my righteousness makes me to differ from other men, the apostle at once adds these words to the question, and so meets all such notions, saying, “What hast thou that thou didst not receive? now, if thou didst receive it, why dost thou glory, as if thou didst not receive it?” Now, they boast as if they did not receive their gifts by grace, who think that they are justified of their own selves, and who, on this account, glory in themselves, and not in the Lord.

4. Therefore I have in this letter, which has reached you, shown by passages of Holy Scripture, which you can examine for yourselves, that our good works and pious prayers and right faith could not possibly have been in us unless we had received them all from Him, concerning whom the Apostle James says, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights.” And so no man can say that it Is by the merit of his own works, or by the merit of his own prayers, or by the merit of his own faith, that God’s grace has been conferred upon him; nor suppose that the doctrine is true which those heretics hold, that the grace of God is given us in proportion to our own merit. This is altogether a most erroneous opinion; not, indeed, because there is no desert, good in pious persons, or evil in impious ones (for how else shall God judge the world?), but because a man is converted by that mercy and grace of God, of which the Psalmist says, “As for my God, His mercy shall prevent me;” so that the unrighteous man is justified, that is, becomes just instead of impious, and begins to possess that good desert which God will crown when the world shall be judged.

That last part is very important, because it shows where merit plays a role in Catholicism, and Augustine is contrasting it to the Pelagian camp.  Many Reformers accused the Catholics of being Pelagians or Semi-Pelagians for holding Augustine’s precise views over a millennium later.  The Catholic view is that God gives us unmerited gifts, and we that we can use those gifts or not use them – and it is this use for which we will be rewarded or condemned, not our own merits.  In his masterful treatise On Grace and Free Will, Augustine, that same archenemy of the Pelagians, explains:

Now wherever it is said, “Do not do this,” and “Do not do that,” and wherever there is any requirement in the divine admonitions for the work of the will to do anything, or to refrain from doing anything, there is at once a sufficient proof of free will. No man, therefore, when he sins, can in his heart blame God for it, but every man must impute the fault to himself. Nor does it detract at all from a man’s own will when he performs any act in accordance with God. Indeed, a work is then to be pronounced a good one when a person does it willingly; then, too, may the reward of a good work be hoped for from Him concerning whom it is written, “He shall reward every man according to his works.” [Matthew 16:27]

There’s a parable of Jesus’ which is particularly on point here: the parable of the talents from Matthew 25:14-30. “Talents” were originally gold coins, but because of this parable, became synonymous for “gifts from God.”  In the parable, God gives one man five talents, another two, and another one, “each according to his ability.”  The men with five and two doubled their money through prudence, while the man with only one “went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money” (Matt 25:18).  At the return of the Master, he rewards the first two men and punishes the third.  To the first two men, He says, “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!” (Matt. 28:21,23).  The third, He calls a “wicked, lazy servant,” and He orders: “And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt. 28:26,30).  This passage is transparently about God’s relationship with us, and our use of the gifts He’s given us.  There are three steps here:

  1. God gives us talents, unmerited gifts.  This refers primarily to Grace, but also to the natural talents we’ve been given.   Elsewhere in Scripture, these are called charisms, or “gifts,” and are the gifts of the Holy Spirit.
  2. We then either use the gifts for God, or we don’t.  If we do, we’re being faithful.  If we don’t, we’re being worthless.
  3. God then rewards or punishes us.  Note that the reward far exceeds what the faithful servants actually did.

Augustine’s point is that the Pelagians act as if they can merit step #3, while ignoring that (a) it’s only because of the Grace of God that they had gifts to begin with, and (b) that it’s only through the Grace of God that they’re able to act on those gifts in a way pleasing to Him, and that even faith can be falsely reduced to a “good work.” The truth is, Step #1 is totally unmerited.  In Step #2, there’s a degree of merit: we’re either obedient or disobedient, but without God first acting, we wouldn’t be able to do anything.  Step #3 is also unmerited, although this is something people often don’t notice.  God puts the faithful servant in charge of many things: that’s not the reward for a solid investment.  If you have a good accountant, he might merit a percentage share of your profit, but he doesn’t merit being put in charge of many things, or acquiring a “share” in the business.  So Christ, the Master, is far exceeding whatever merit there was to the servant’s obedience.  On the other hand, the disobedience is absolutely fitting: if you have a terrible accountant, he deserves to be fired.  More to the point, our obedience doesn’t merit us yet greater gifts, nor does it merit us a share in the joy of Heaven, the rewards given by Christ.  We are, after all, servants.  Even if there was no reward, our obligation would still be to obey.

Now, the Christian audience immediately understood this: God has given us graces and gifts which we haven’t earned.  But we must use those graces and gifts in order to be faithful servants.  We never merited the original talents, and all the profit is a result of God’s original “investment” in us, so to speak.  Christ’s reward for faithfully cooperating is another unmerited reward, although one we can bank on.  It’s in this last sense of being able to “bank” on the promises of Christ, that we Catholics sometimes speak of “merit” – Christ promises that He’ll reward the faithful, we’ve been faithful, so we’re due that reward.  As I’ve noted before, this is the bold language of Paul, but it’s not Pelagianism — faithfulness is due the rewards of Heaven only because Christ promises it, and we’ve put our trust in Him. Faithfulness would be our obligation either way, and has no merit other than that assigned it by Christ.


It’s worth making crystal clear that both the Pharisees and the Pelagians had heretical views of justification.  But when we act like they had the same heretical view, we’re completely misunderstanding Scripture. And when some go further and act as if Catholics have the same views as either the Pelagians or the Pharisees, they’ve gone yet further off-course, into sheer falsehood.

To say that the Catholic position is Pelagian is to say that the position of Augustine’s was Pelagianism, which is as absurd as declaring Abraham not sufficiently Jewish.  It was due in no small part to Augustine’s influence that Pelagianism (the real thing, not the myth) was destroyed, and it was Augustine’s views on justification Calvin thought he was restoring.


  1. Joe,

    I totally agree with you and the inability of the protestants to distinguish between two kinds of works.

    Galatians 6:2

    “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the LAW OF CHRIST.”

    This “law of Christ” is not the Mosaic Law Paul opposed; this law must be obeyed for salvation.

    I think this is a confusion of the situation. Paul was speaking specifically against the Mosaic Law, not works in general, much less Church precepts (which Paul did demand be obeyed, Acts 16:4). And the Mosaic Law is inferior to the New Law of Christ as Mk 10:2-12 makes clear. The Mosaic Law didn’t justify not because it was too hard, but that the promise of salvation wasn’t attached to it as Gal 3:15-18 shows clearly.

  2. Dear Joe Heschmeyer,

    12 If anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, or straw,
    13 the work of each will come to light, for the Day will disclose it. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire (itself) will test the quality of each one’s work.
    14 If the work stands that someone built upon the foundation, that person will receive a wage.
    15 But if someone’s work is burned up, that one will suffer loss; the person will be saved, but only as through fire.
    16 Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?
    17 If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for the temple of God, which you are, is holy.
    (1Corinthians 3: 12-17)

    In these passages – 1 Corinthians 3:12-17 – Paul is talking about how God judges our works after death by using a string of metaphors (we are God’s building; works are good and bad materials, etc.).

    Paul says that if a person builds with good materials, he will receive a reward (verse 14). If he builds with a mixture of good and bad materials, his work is burned up, but he is still saved (verse 15).

    If he only builds with bad materials, he has destroyed the temple, and God will destroy him (verse 17).

    These passage demonstrates several things. First, it demonstrates that our works serve as a basis for determining our salvation.

    This is contrary to the erroneous Protestant belief that, once we accept Jesus by faith alone, we are saved.

    Protestants have no good explanation for why Paul is teaching the Corinthians that our works bear upon our salvation.

    Second, the verse demonstrates that, if a person does both good and bad works, his bad works are punished, but he is still saved.

    The Greek phrase for “suffer loss” (zemiothesetai) means “to be punished” (Purgatory).

    This means the man undergoes an expiation of temporal punishment for his bad works (sins) but is still saved.

    The phrase “but only” or “yet so” (in Greek, houtos) means “in the same manner.” This means that the man must pass through the fire in the same way that his bad works passed through the fire, in order to expiate himself of the things that led him to produce the bad works in the first place.

  3. Ryan, the headers seem to be radically different sizes, depending on the computer used. Enjoy.

    Jae, well said.

    Michael, well said as well, although I think it’s easy for people reading what you’re saying to think you mean we need to work our way to Heaven. The sense in which Catholics can affirm that we’re “saved by faith alone” is if both sides understand that we mean “faith working in love,” of the sort Paul calls salvific in Galatians 5:6. And, of course, faith is the foundation we’re building on in 1 Corinthians 3. I read a post you did on James and Paul on justification a while back, and remember really enjoying reading your take on it. I think you have a real sense for this stuff.


  4. As for Pelagius, he didn’t teach being saved by good works — all you opponents of Pelagianism are so stupid. You haven’t even read what Augustine says about him. Nor have you read any of Pelagius’ own writings — yeah, his commentary on Romans survived by being misattributed to Jerome and you can read it, but that would spoil the fun of lying on him.

    It wasn’t a question of being saved by works or by faith alone — it was a question of whether we are able to repent or believe or do anything right without some magic called “grace” — not real grace but Augustine’s fake grace, for to Augustine “grace” is magic enabling power “Give me grace; then command whatever you want.” Pelagius followed the definition of grace found in the OT : grace = mercy.

    So Pelagius believed we need grace (i.e. God’s mercy) to be saved. But to repent we do not need “grace” (i.e. Augustine’s magic enabling power) because God already gave us the power to choose right or wrong when he created us!

    So really its a debate on free will. Augustine, like Calvin and Luther his later minions, beleived basically that free will was lost when Adam ate the apple. Pelagius did not beleive free will was lost. But this doesn’t instantly mean “justification by good works.”

    Even so, I’d consider myself an uber-pelagian. I believe in justification by morality — not good works, not the works of the law, just morality.

  5. As to Pelagius himself, he uses the phrase “justified by faith alone” in his commentary on Romans, so HA!!! But like I said, its more fun to just rail against him as the boogeyman than to know what he really said.

    If you’re going to go around claiming to know what Pelagius said and bashing him, you might as well spill the 50 buck to buy the commentary on Romans.

    Pelagius on Romans

  6. “1. God gives us talents, unmerited gifts. This refers primarily to Grace, but also to the natural talents we’ve been given.”

    If you include natural talents and abilities, then you’re a Pelagian because that’s what he said.

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