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Paul’s concerns about the “works of the Law” and being “justified” might seem remote to people of the twenty-first century. However, Paul’s underlying principles may speak to our lives more than we expect.

The “Law” is the Mosaic Law, the heart of which is the Ten Commandments. However, through the centuries, additional practices were added. As Christianity began to move out of Palestine into Gentile areas, the early Christians sought to distinguish between the essentials and the accidentals of the Jewish traditions.

Paul insisted that, while the Law had value in guiding the People of God, the Law was replaced by faith in Jesus. For this reason, Paul describes the Law as “dead.” Thomas Aquinas explains that the Law was written down because “we were weak and unable to approach God.” But we don’t need the written Law when we are in the presence of the lawgiver: “After we have access to the Father through Christ… we are not instructed about the commands of God through the Law, but by God Himself.”

Does this mean that the moral prescriptions of the Law, most especially the Ten Commandments, have ceased to be important?

Thomas explains that Paul is not disregarding the moral teachings. According to Thomas, the moral teachings are so basic that their foundation is not just in the Law but in human nature. Each person is, according to Thomas, “induced to them by natural instinct and by the natural law,” that is, by an inborn moral sense.

Thomas maintains that the ceremonial actions, such as circumcision and the various rites of purification, are no longer are necessary. These are human actions. Thomas explains that these actions “neither confer grace nor contain grace in themselves,” because they are human actions.

Can the sacraments also be set aside because they also include human actions? Thomas reflects that the sacraments are material things, e.g. water, bread and wine, but their power is not from themselves or from us. They are instruments. Thomas explains that an instrument, such as a stick, can be separate from a person or it can be united with a person as a hand:

Now the principle efficient cause of grace is God Himself, in comparison with Whom Christ’s humanity is as a united instrument, whereas the sacrament is as a separate instrument. Consequently, the saving power must needs be derived by the sacraments from Christ’s Godhead through His humanity (3a. 62, 5).

While the Sacraments derive their power from Christ, they still are not effective unless there is a response from the receiver, by faith in Christ. Thomas says in the Summa Theologiae, “… by faith Christ’s power is united to us… Therefore the power of the sacraments which is ordained to the remission of sins is derived principally from faith in Christ’s Passion” (3a. 62, 5 ad 2).

Do Paul’s concerns and language have any relevance for our times? Contemporary people don’t seem to talk about “being just” or “being justified.”

Is it possible that, without using the same vocabulary, we might still be seeking to justify ourselves by the “works of the Law.”? Some people continue to follow the Mosaic observances strictly, however, many of us find subtle ways to “justify” ourselves. Frequently, we justify ourselves by very good actions but we expect that these actions justify us, without reference to Jesus and the saving effects of His Passion.

If we watch ourselves carefully, we might notice that, in fact, we often “justify” whatever we do or say. We are “good” because we …

For Paul, the observances of the Law were ways of justifying ourselves. Paul is trying to break out of that bind of looking to ourselves and our good intentions as the source of our own justice. We can argue endlessly that what we did and what we said were the absolutely right things to do and say or the best we could have done, given the circumstances. But, where does Christ fit into this?

Thomas points to the two senses of “being justified,” “doing what is just and being made just.” Thomas notices that those who recognize their weaknesses have a greater appreciation of being “just” than those who can “justify” themselves: “For it is plain that anyone who seeks to be made just does not profess himself to be just but a sinner.”

Thomas reminds us of Jerome’s opinion “legal justifications were deadly immediately after the Passion of Christ.” In other words, we don’t need to prove our own integrity. Insisting on our own integrity blocks us from opening our hearts to Christ’s acceptance of us.

Thomas affirms: “The oldness of sin is removed by the Cross of Christ, and the newness of spiritual life is conferred. Therefore the Apostle says, ‘With Christ I am nailed to the Cross,’ i.e. … the inclination to sin, and all such have been put to death in me through the Cross of Christ.”

Thomas comments that a person is said “to live” in his or her greatest pleasure, which, for many of us is our “own private interest” by which we seek what is ours and thus live for ourselves. When we live for the good of others, we live in them. Thomas remarks that Paul has put aside “his own love of self through the Cross of Christ.” His own love of self has been removed: “I have Christ alone in my affection and Christ Himself is my life.”

Thomas attests: “Because the love of Christ, which He showed to me in dying on the Cross for me, brings it about that I am always nailed with Him. And this is what he says, ‘who loved me’: ‘He first loved us’ (1 Jn 4:10). He loved me to the extent of giving Himself.”

Thomas notes that the Father gave up His Son “for us” (Rom 8:32). The Son ‘delivered Himself’ (Eph 5:25). Judas also delivered Him up (Mt 26:48). Thomas reflects: “It is all one event, but the intention is not the same.” The Father acted out of love, the Son out of obedience and Judas out of avarice.

The Father offers Paul and us the grace of receiving justification through the Son. Thomas explains Paul’s fear of being ungrateful: “Because I have received from God so great a grace that He delivered Himself and I live in the faith of the Son of God…”

The Son offered Himself to the Father and gives Himself to us to justify us. Thomas says “… if the works of the Law suffice to justify a man, Christ died to no purpose, and in vain, because He died in order to make us just.”

Denis Vincent Wiseman, O.P.


The quotations from Thomas Aquinas are from Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians, translated by F. R. Larcher, O.P., (Albany, NY: Magi Books Inc., 1965),