Repayment for Works?
Rev. William Most
If there is a superfluous line anywhere in Scripture, it
must be II Peter 3:16, for thinking we needed to be told
Paul is hard to understand! Mighty indeed have been, and
still are, the labours of exegetes to reconcile Paul with
One of the most difficult passages is Paul's claim in Rom
2:6 that God will "repay each one according to his works."
How can this fit with freedom from the law and justification
by faith alone?
Ernst Kasemann is quite frank: "Protestantism has always
found serious difficulty with this theologoumenon . . . and
Roman Catholics have seized on it, not without malicious
joy, as a support for their dogmatics."1
Kasemann then outlines several attempts at a solution, all
of which he considers unsatisfactory. Joseph Burgess, in a
background paper for 2 reviews no less than ten attempts at an answer. John
Reumann, in 3 adds still
more proposals. E.P. Sanders gives up: "Romans 2 still
stands out . . . because it deals directly with salvation
and makes salvation depend on obedience to the law. What is
said about the law in Romans 2 cannot be fitted into a
category otherwise known from Paul's letters."4
Kasemann is no clearer that Paul when he writes: "The
decisive thing is that the doctrine of judgment according to
works not be ranked above justification, but conversely be
understood in the light of it . . . the difficulties . . .
are largely connected with a failure to pay due regard to
the power-character even of the righteousness of God
received as a gift."5 He then seems to destroy Paul's
insistent dichotomy in a remarkable conclusion: "Here,
'works alone' in fact coincides with 'by faith alone'
(Althaus)."6 Burgess concludes: "Rewards do not depend on
what one has done"7 _ hardly a clarification of Paul's
statement that they do. So Reumann is right in saying:
"Total consistency in Pauline thought eludes most
Burgess, in his description of a 9th proposal does help
clarity somewhat: "The justifying God carries out his own
judgment by doing himself what he demands of the individual
(Bultmann, G. Bornkamm, H. Braun, Calvin H. Cremer, Jungel,
Kasemann, Luther, Oltmanns, A. Schlatter, Synofzik)."9 This
reminds one of the famous dictum of Augustine: "When God
crowns our merits, he crowns nothing other than his own
gifts."10 (Cf. Phil 2:13; 1 Cor 4:7; 2 Cor 3:5).
But if that be true _ and we have no doubt that at least
Augustine is quite right _ then, since all will recognize,
even without the help of the Pauline Eph 2:8, that faith is
a gift, we must ask: If God produces everything good in us,
on condition of faith _ but it is he himself who gives that
faith _ are we not faced with a really blind
Paul himself further compounds our problem by two whole
series of seemingly irreconcilable statements. On the one
hand, we are free from the law: Rom 3:20, 21, 28; 6:14; Gal
2:16; 3:21; 5:18. In fact, we really cannot keep it: Gal
3:10-12 _ though Paul himself claims that even before he
knew Christ, he kept it perfectly: Phil 3:6. On the other
hand, Paul insists that if we violate the law, we will not
inherit the kingdom: 1 Cor 6:9-10; Gal 5:19-21, to which we
could add Eph 5:5, at least Pauline in thought.
So we are faced with a most difficult problem, which even
brings in its wake the impasse-problem of predestination, to
which Burgess refers, using the Augsburg Confession: "As
with the doctrine of predestination, we are not to 'delight
in concerning ourselves with matters which we cannot
Yet, unless we wish to say Paul contradicts himself, there
must be an answer. We hope it is not presumption to try to
propose such an answer.
As a preliminary thought, we would do well to recall a point
of method. Since, not strangely, we may at times encounter
things in divine revelation that we cannot understand at
present, when we meet two statements or series of statements
that seem irreconcilable, we must vigorously resist the
temptation to force one to fit. We must most fully accept
both, until the day when the means of reconciliation may
May we suggest that Paul has really given us a hint with his
citation of Ps 62:13 in Rom 2:6, if we turn to the complete
Hebrew text, including words Paul did not choose to cite.
Yes, Paul does use the very words of the LXX at this point,
but it is here a close translation of the Hebrew, except
that the Greeks here did not have a word for it, when they
used for (And we recall, Paul so often has
a Hebrew word behind his Greek). We wish to suggest that a
careful study of covenant can provide us with what we need.
However, before studying the covenant directly, it will be
quite useful to explore a little noticed dimension of
covenant: its relation to God's holiness.
We begin with the Hebrew concept of involuntary sin,
It seems strange to many modern ears, yet it is
found widely in Scripture and later literature as well.
All of Leviticus 4 is concerned with rules for compensation
due if any of various categories of persons should violate
one of the commandments of the Lord unwittingly. This calls
for ', which seems to have originally meant
compensatory payment,13 and then (Lev 4:14-16) developed
into the meaning of a compensatory sacrifice.14 The related
verb ' can mean to act wrongly, to become guilty, or
to atone for guilt. So there was a notion of real guilt
present. Lev 5:17-19, which seems to be a general statement
including involuntary sin, says: ':
the man is really guilty in the eyes of God.15
When Abram and his wife went down into Egypt, the Pharaoh's
men took her, as Abram had anticipated. The king was in good
faith, but yet Gen 12:17 reports that God struck Pharaoh and
his house with great plagues because he had Abram's wife.
The same phenomenon recurs in Gen 20:1-7 and 26:1-11. Even
if we wish to call these doublets, yet they reflect the
strength of the concept we are considering.
Gen 17:14 prescribes that a male, not circumcised after 8
days, shall be cut off from his people: "He has broken my
covenant," even though he at that age is quite incapable of
any voluntary fault.
In 1 Sam 14:24, Jonathan has unwittingly violated a rash
oath sworn by Saul; yet he narrowly escapes death for his
In Tobit 2:13, the wife of Tobit brings home a goat, a gift.
Without even investigating its legitimacy, Tobit orders her
to give it back for fear of the mere possibility of
The Psalmist in 19:12-13 pleads for cleansing from his
_ a prayer we still say today, though probably
few understand it.
Turning to intertestamental literature, we read in the
Testament of Levi 3:5: "There are with him the archangels
who serve and offer propitiatory sacrifices to the Lord for
all the sins of ignorance of the just ones." In the same
vein, the Psalms of Solomon 3:7-8 tell us: "The righteous
man in all searches his house to cleanse injustice in his
sin. He makes atonement for ignorance by fasting and
lowliness of his spirit."16
Philo17 speaks of the need to cleanse self of even
involuntary faults to achieve full spiritual growth. This is
no mere fear of a taboo, but reflects the fact that one must
come to know his involuntary faults before he can correct a
defect whose correction is clearly needed for complete
spiritual growth. Similarly Pausanias18 reports that the
Seven Sages of Greece inscribed a motto on the oracle of
Delphi: , know yourself. Again, Seneca the
Stoic19 tells us that Epicurus himself said: "The beginning
of health is the knowledge of [one's] fault."20
The concept reappears in the Gospels. In Lk 12:47-48 Jesus
says that the slave who did not know his master's wishes and
so did not fulfill them will get off with fewer stripes. But
he will still be punished. The scene of the last judgment in
Mt 24:44 shows us those on the left pleading ignorance, but
the plea is rejected.
Paul in 1 Cor 15:9 says that he "does not deserve to be
called an Apostle" because of his previous persecutions,
which he carried out thinking they were the will of God.
Again, in 1 Cor 4:4, a much discussed verse, the sense seems
to be that having nothing on his conscience does not mean he
is in the clear, for he might have done something in
ignorance. This becomes evident when we put Paul's words in
the background of the information given by A. Buchler: "The
ancient pious men brought every day a doubtful guilt
offering to clear themselves from any error . . . possibly
committed on the previous day."21
In Patristic literature, we find Pope Clement I telling the
people of Corinth: "You stretched out your hands to the all-
powerful God, begging him to be propitious, if you had
sinned at all unwillingly."22
In the , the Angel of Penance tells
Hermas that he receives more slowly what he prays for "on
account of some temptation or transgression which you do not
Tertullian24 tells of a Christian who was punished in a
vision because his slaves, without his approval, had put a
crown on his door. St. John Chrysostom25 says that those who
choose men to be priests and bishops may incur punishment if
they make the wrong choice even without carelessness.
Finally, the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, still in use
today, prays before the Epistle: "Forgive us every offence,
both voluntary and involuntary."
What is behind this insistence on involuntary sins? It seems
to be God's concern for holiness and what is morally right.
He views sin as a debt26, which should be paid even if
incurred unwittingly. Many authors think ' carries
the notion of reparation, which would imply payment of a
There is no doubt that sin in general was considered a debt
in Judaism. It is implied in the LXX use of to
mean forgive, a verb with a connotation of remitting a
Intertestamental Hebrew and Aramaic literature at times use
Hebrew , Aramaic ', debt, to mean sin.29
While , debt, does not often appear in the
Gospels in the sense of sin, it is found in a most important
place, in the . The concept is found often in
Paul in different words. He speaks of the "price" of
redemption (1 Cor 6:20; 7:23) and of the "bill" that was a
claim against us, paid by the death of Christ (Col 2:14).
Again, Paul speaks of Christ as buying us back, we who were
under the law: Gal 3:13; 4:5.
Early Rabbinic literature carries the same debt concept. R.
Akiba in says: "The shopman gives credit, and
the account book is open . . . and the collectors go round
continually every day and exact payment."30 R. Eleazar ben
R. Sadok, of the 1st century in Jerusalem, said: "God brings
chastisements upon the righteous men in this world, in order
that they may inherit the world-to-come."31 R. Yehudah ben
Ilai asserts that the ancient pious men, "used to be
afflicted with intestinal illness for about ten to twenty
days before their death, so they might . . . arrive pure in
Even clearer and more suggestive are the words of R. Simeon
ben Eleazar, who claims to speak in the name of Rabbi Meir:
"He [anyone] has committed one transgression, woe is he, for
he has inclined the balance both for himself and for the
world to the side of guilt"33 [chobah = debt].
Of course, we need to exercise great care in supposing a
tradition found in the Rabbis reflects earlier beliefs. But
when we see the strong roots of the concept in the Old
Testament, in intertestamental literature, and in the New
Testament itself, we may be sure that at least this concept
of sin as debt was widespread in the minds of the writers of
So our interpretation of as reflecting the
concern on the part of God's holiness for the moral order is
well based. We find many additional indications of this,
e.g., Psalm 11:8 insists that God is and therefore
loves . In Gen 15:16 God promises to give the
land to Abraham and his seed, but not at once, since, "the
iniquity of the Amorites is not yet full." He, the absolute
master, could give any land to whomsoever he wished. Yet he
wanted the current holders to most fully deserve to lose it
before he would take it away. Hence Dt 9:4-5 insists that
the People of God have the land not for any merit of theirs,
but because of the sins of the Amorites. Rev 6:10 pictures
the souls of martyrs under the altar calling on God to
"avenge" their blood. Really, is not a good
translation, for they, with their wills in unison with the
divine will, do not desire evil to another so it may be evil
to him _ that would be hatred. Rather, they will that the
scales of the objective moral order _ to pick up the
suggestion of R. Simeon ben Eleazar _ be rebalanced, a thing
God himself intends to carry out.
Our purpose in reviewing these data is to suggest that they
have a large bearing on God's reason for making a covenant.
Of course, He would want a covenant to display love, to make
clear to his people what his will was, so that they might
not fear they could not know what to expect from him, since
his ways are so different, so far above ours (Is 55:8-9).
But we are suggesting that his love of what is right and in
good order was also part of his concern. Let us explore that
aspect in the light of the above.
Of course, there are two sides to divine "repayment" _
positive and negative; favor and punishment. We take up the
latter first, since it is obviously easier to deal with.
The Old Testament is full of the notion that God will repay
evil by punishment. We think especially, for example, of Dt
28:58 ff, and 1 Kgs 9: 6-9, not to mention the many times he
actually struck his people when they were unfaithful, to put
them back into their senses, as Paul would phrase it:
Is 59:16-18 is specially remarkable, in that it uses even
salvation vocabulary to express this idea of punishment: "So
his arm caused salvation for him () and his
, it sustained him, and he put on as a
breastplate and as a helmet on his head. He
clothed himself with garments of , wrapped himself
with a mantle of . According to deeds (),
accordingly he will repay." This text is notable, as we
said, in that it uses the root ', normally associated
with saving activity, for the opposite, and similarly,
, even though Is 59 is, of course, postexilic, at
the very time when had developed the meaning of
saving activity. May we venture to suggest that there is a
common root: the covenant calls upon God to save when people
respond (Ex 19:5), but to punish when they do the opposite.
The common root then for both ideas will be the older
meaning of . We think of the parallelism of
with in Ps 36:11; 143:11-12. Cf. Ps
40:11. Cf. also the conjunction of and
in Ps 143:1, and also parallelisms of with
(at times with in the same passage): Ps
33:4-5; 36:6-7; 89:15; 119:149.
It is interesting also to observe that the word used for
deeds in Is 59:18, , carries the connotation of
retribution, favorable or punishing, as Zorell observes
s.v.: " praemio aut poena digna Is 59:18 _ 2)
, sive est beneficium 2 S 19 37, Jr 51, 56."34 (Cf. Is 35:4 where is coupled
Paul for his part insists that even though we are free from
the law, yet (Rom 8:8): "If anyone does not have the spirit
of Christ [and follow it] he does not belong to him." But if
one does not belong to Christ, then he will not inherit the
kingdom, for we inherit not as individuals making our own
justification, but as members of Christ, and so "coheirs
with Christ" (Rom 8:17). He who inherits does not earn.
Hence Gal 5:20-21 lists the "works of the flesh" and
insists, "As to which I warn you, as I warned before, that
those who do such things will not the kingdom of
God." For he will not be a member of Christ, if he does not
follow Christ's Spirit, and so will not be coheir with
Christ. Those who follow the Spirit, need not even look at
the law (Gal 5:18): "If you are led by the Spirit, you are
not under the law," for such a one will not produce the
works of the flesh, but the fruits of the Spirit. Hence the
author of 1 Tim 1:8-9 is at least very Pauline in saying:
"The law is not there for the just man, but for the lawless
and insubordinate, sexually loose. . . ."35
All this, of course, accords well with Rom 2:6-13, and with
Rom 6:23, which speaks of death as the ()
The Solid Declaration of the Book of Concord, 1580, says
that the righteousness of God includes what "God manifests
towards the impenitent and despisers of his word" such as
Henning Graf Reventlow makes a fascinating suggestion:
"God's punishing catches up with the evildoer, who
puts himself outside of this "37 which God has
established. We are reminded of Augustine: "So the miserable
lack the tranquillity of , because they surely are
not in peace inasmuch as they are miserable . . . however,
since they are miserable deservedly and unjustly, even in
their very misery they cannot be outside of _ not
indeed joined to the blessed, but yet, separated from them
by the law of "38 As we shall suggest presently,
this concept of order willed by divine holiness seems to be
the root of a secondary aspect of covenant.
When we turn to the positive side of covenant, we need to
notice that if we ask why God grants his favour under the
covenant, there are two kinds or levels of reasons. Most
basically, what any creature does cannot move God (cf. Job
22:2-3) or benefit him: so the reason he made a covenant,
the reason he gives favors under it cannot be anything but
simply his own unmerited, unmeritable goodness and
generosity _ hence justification is gratuitous, utterly
unearned by us. It is on this level that Paul speaks when he
insists we are free from the law and that we do not earn
justification, not even by the obedience that is faith (Rom
1:5; 16:26; Gal 3:2).39
Yet he did make a covenant, he did promise favor on a
condition, people really hearken to his voice and obey
(Ex 19:5). Why did he do this? Here, may we suggest is the
application of our study of debt. Here is an
application which accords at least in a general way with the
proposal of order by Reventlow: God's holiness loves all
that is good. It loves to have _ though only on a secondary
level _ reasons for giving favor. Hence R. Simeon ben
Eleazar could use the comparison of the two pan scales.40
Hence Rom 2:6 could say: God repays; and Paul or the Pauline
author of Col 3:23 could combine both aspects in saying that
the faithful servant will get
To sum up: As to punishment, we need not fear to say God
repays in every sense. But as to favour, we keep distinct
the basic reason from a secondary reason. Basically, God's
gifts are totally unearned _ even faith, the condition for
receiving, is an unmerited gift. But yet, given the fact
that he has seen fit to enter into a covenant, then within
it, on a secondary level his holiness and love of good order
is pleased to find a secondary reason for awarding favour,
such that Paul could speak of repayment within
spoken of in the full Hebrew of Ps 62:13, from which Rom 2:6
This explanation could also solve the puzzling dilemma of
the fact that Paul gives us two kinds of statements: we are
free from the law _ yet by great sins we can lose our
inheritance. The word inheritance is the key: one does not
earn his inheritance. So if we gain reward, it is not really
by titles we ourselves generate, it is because we are
members of Christ, who did pay the price of redemption. Just
as 2 Cor 5:14 can say we died inasmuch as we are members of
Christ who died, so we can say we have a claim, inasmuch as
we are members of Christ who did generate a claim, as our
propitiatory, as our price of redemption _ in him we are the
justice, of God, not in ourselves.41
As we said, when one gets something by inheritance, he does
not, of course, earn it; it is freely given. Yet one could
earn to be disinherited. So we too, do not in the basic
sense earn salvation _ though we could earn to lose it. This
accords well with the most basic Gospel analogy: God is our
Father. In a normal human family, the son does not say he
must work about the house to earn his father's love; no, he
gets that not because he is good, but because the father is
good. Yet, he could earn the opposite, to be disinherited.
All of this of course does not prevent the father from being
pleased to teach his son to earn extras, in a secondary way.
Finally, it was gratifying to find that Bruce Chilton, in
his penetrating study of Jesus' use of Targums, seems to
imply our basic distinction just mentioned: "Obedience to
the law given on Sinai is the condition apart from which
divine favour cannot be offered, just as rejection of the
law occasions God's anger."42 The favour is offered
gratuitously _ the anger is earned.
A student in a discussion class of mine once proposed an
interesting formula: As to salvation _ you can't earn it,
but you can blow [forfeit] it.
1 Ernst Kasemann, , tr. G.W. Bromiley,
from 4th German edition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980), p.
2 , ed. H. George Anderson, T. Austin Murphy,
Joseph A. Burgess (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1985), pp. 98-100.
3 John Reumann,
(Philadelphia: Fortress, 1982), 125-129, esp. 129:
"Obviously, Protestant exegesis has gone far in recognizing
that (and how) Paul speaks of a judgment based on works.
Catholic exegetes now insist that the principle of Rom 2:6,
repayment according to deeds, does not contradict Paul's
ideas of justification by faith. Total consistency in
Pauline thought eludes most commentators."
4 E.P. Sanders,
(Philadelphia: Fortress, 1983), p. 132.
5 , p. 58.
7 ., p. 110.
8 Cf. note 3 above.
9 , p. 99.
10 St. Augustine, 194.5.19.
11 Cf. , adopted 1932, Concordia, St. Louis, Section
14: "As to the question why not all men are converted and
saved, seeing that God's grace is universal and all men are
equally and utterly corrupt, we confess that we cannot
answer it." For an attempt at solution cf. W. Most, (London: St. Paul Publications,
12 , p. 109.
13 Cf. D. Kellerman, "'" in G.J. Botterweck and H.
Ringren, tr. John T. Willis, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), revised
edition, I, p. 433.
14 We met in Lev also If there ever was a
distinction between it and ' it seems it was lost in
ancient times, as can be seen with the difficulties in
ancient versions, and in early writers. Cf. again Kellerman,
, p. 431.
15 We seem here far from any notion of taboo, proposed by
some authors. Cf. S.J. De Vries, "Sin" in IDB IV, p. 363.
The many examples we shall quote from Scripture and other
writers seem to rule out taboo, as also the debt concept, to
be treated below. Cf. also note 20 below.
16 Cf. also 1:4-5 and 30:16; 31:7.
17 Philo, 1:259.
18 Pausanias, 10:24.
19 Seneca, 28.
20 Similar concepts of involuntary sin are widespread in
other peoples. Cf.
(Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1968); Robert Parker, (Oxford:
Clarendon, 1985). Of course it is one thing to note the
phenomena, another to interpret them. Not all peoples would
have the same basis as the Hebrews. Interestingly, Parker
thinks a concept of necessary may be a factor in
many Greek instances: cf. pp. 31, 325-27. We think of the
proposals of Reventlow (at note 37 below) and Augustine (at
note 38 below).
21 A. Buchler, (New York: Ktav, 1967),
p.425. Cf. also G.F. Moore, (Cambridge: Harvard U.
Press, 1927), I. pp. 498-99.
22 Clement, I. 2:3.
24 Tertullian, 15.
25 St. John Chrysostom, 4:2.
26 Still another word may help show the debt concept:
L. Koehler-W. Baumgartner, (Leiden: Brill, 1958), p. 453 define it:
"cover, reparation, hush-money, ransom . . . to avoid
punishment . . . [or] to deliver from slavery." It is the
same root as , defined thus (pp. 451-52): "cover . .
. appease, . . . make amends with . . . make amends for a
sin . . . cover [somebody's sins] make atonement for
somebody." If God is subject: "covers for, does not set down
to account of . . . make atonement for (by revenging) . . .
covers [sin as to avert punishment] . . . make exempt from
punishment (a guilt)."
27 Cf. A. Medebielle, (Institut Biblique Pontifical, 1923), pp.
56-65; N.H. Snaith, "The Sin-Offering and the Guilt-
Offering" in 15 (1965) pp. 74-80; L.
Pontificio Istituto Biblico, 1956), pp. 180-81; T.H. Gaster,
"Sacrifices" in IDB IV, p. 152; F.J. Faley, "Leviticus" in
JBC II, p. 70.
28 Cf. S. Lyonnet-L. Sabourin, (Rome: Biblical Institute Press, 1970), pp. 25-
29 , p. 32. Cf. Moore, , II, p. 95; M.
Jastrow, (New York: Pardes,
1950), I. pp. 428-29; and J. Levy, (Köln: J. Melzer, 1959), p. 241.
30 Cited from R. Travers Herford, III, 20 (New York:
Schocken, 1971), p. 89.
31 Cited from Buchler, op. cit., pp. 318-19. (Baraitha,
Kidd. 40 b).
32 Cited from tr. Dov Zlotnick
(New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1966), p. 39 ( III,
33 Cited from J. Neusner, 1:14
(New York: Ktav, 1979), pp. 245-46.
F. Zorell (Roma: Pontificium Institutum Biblicum, 1961), p.
35 Cf. also Rom 6:19 and Reumann, , 149: "One must
be struck [in Rom 6:19] by the option presented for human
life: either 'slaves to . . . lawlessness for (a life of)
lawlessness or slaves to Righteousness for (a life of)
consecration' ' (italics
36 SD XI: 86 _ cited from Reumann 17.
37 Henning Graf Reventlow, (Munchen: Kaiser, 1971), p. 36: "TSDQ ist
von Jahwe gewirkte Ordnung, TSDQH das heilvolle Handeln
Jahwes, das sie in Kraft setzt. Aber den Frevler, der sich
ausserhalb dieser Ordnung stellt, ereilt Jahwes strafende
38 St. Augustine, 19:13.
39 Cf. again the citation from Reumann at note 35.
40 The full text of 1:14 applies the scale
comparison to good as well as to debt.
41 As E.R. Goodenough remarks (IDB IV, p. 798, s.v. Philo),
Philo often says that Judaism is the true mystery religion.
We suggest that Paul, while not making Christianity a
mystery religion, yet would not shrink from using its
language and thought framework to clarify Christian thought,
and to attract pagans, in line with his declared policy of
being all things to all men. Hence he can say we die
inasmuch as we are members of Christ who died, and we put on
Christ, like a cloak standing for the god in a mystery
42 Bruce Chilton,
(Wilmington: Glazier, 1984), p. 50.
received his Ph.D. in Latin and Greek at
the Catholic University of America. Currently, Fr. Most
resides in the Diocese of Arlington where he teaches at the
Notre Dame Catechetical Institute. Fr. Most has written
several books including
(published by Christendom Press) and
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