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Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. V:
A Treatise on the Spirit and the Letter.: Chapter 21

Early Church Fathers  Index     

Chapter 21 [XIII.]—The Law of Works and the Law of Faith.

The law, then, of deeds, that is, the law of works, whereby this boasting is not excluded, and the law of faith, by which it is excluded, differ from each other; and this difference it is worth our while to consider, if so be we are able to observe and discern it. Hastily, indeed, one might say that the law of works lay in Judaism, and the law of faith in Christianity; forasmuch as circumcision and the other works prescribed by the law are just those which the Christian system no longer retains. But there is a fallacy p. 92 in this distinction, the greatness of which I have for some time been endeavoring to expose; and to such as are acute in appreciating distinctions, especially to yourself and those like you, I have possibly succeeded in my effort. Since, however, the subject is an important one, it will not be unsuitable, if with a view to its illustration, we linger over the many testimonies which again and again meet our view. Now, the apostle says that that law by which no man is justified, 795 entered in that the offence might abound, 796 and yet in order to save it from the aspersions of the ignorant and the accusations of the impious, he defends this very law in such words as these: “What shall we say then? Is the law sin? God forbid. Nay, I had not known sin but by the law: for I had not known concupiscence, except the law had said, Thou shall not covet. But sin, taking occasion, wrought, by the commandment, in me all manner of concupiscence.” 797 He says also: “The law indeed is holy, and the commandment is holy, and just, and good; but sin, that it might appear sin, worked death in me by that which is good.” 798 It is therefore the very letter that kills which says, “Thou shalt not covet,” and it is of this that he speaks in a passage which I have before referred to: “By the law is the knowledge of sin. But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; even the righteousness of God, which is by faith of Jesus Christ upon all them that believe; for there is no difference: seeing that all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God: being justified freely by His grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus; whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in His blood, to declare His righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; to declare His righteousness at this time; that He might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus.” 799 And then he adds the passage which is now under consideration: “Where, then, is your boasting? It is excluded. By what law? of works? Nay; but by the law of faith.” 800 And so it is the very law of works itself which says, “Thou shalt not covet;” because thereby comes the knowledge of sin. Now I wish to know, if anybody will dare to tell me, whether the law of faith does not say to us, “Thou shalt not covet”? For if it does not say so to us, what reason is there why we, who are placed under it, should not sin in safety and with impunity? Indeed, this is just what those people thought the apostle meant, of whom he writes: “Even as some affirm that we say, Let us do evil, that good may come; whose damnation is just.” 801 If, on the contrary, it too says to us, “Thou shall not covet” (even as numerous passages in the gospels and epistles so often testify and urge), then why is not this law also called the law of works? For it by no means follows that, because it retains not the “works” of the ancient sacraments,—even circumcision and the other ceremonies,—it therefore has no “works” in its own sacraments, which are adapted to the present age; unless, indeed, the question was about sacramental works, when mention was made of the law, just because by it is the knowledge of sin, and therefore nobody is justified by it, so that it is not by it that boasting is excluded, but by the law of faith, whereby the just man lives. But is there not by it too the knowledge of sin, when even it says, “Thou shall not covet?”



Rom. iii. 20.


Rom. v. 20.


Rom. 7:7, 8.


Rom. 7:12, 13.


Rom. iii. 20-26.


Rom. iii. 27.


Rom. iii. 8.

Next: Chapter 22