When arguments about salvation arise between Catholics and Protestants, the Bibles are usually opened to Galatians and Romans. Are we saved by faith alone or are works involved? Protestants quickly accuse Catholics of teaching a salvation based on works and Catholics quickly point out that Protestants have swung the pendulum too far in the other direction by refusing to accept human cooperation and obedience as necessary to the process.
As final proof of their point, Protestants will quote Romans 3:28: “For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law.” That should end the argument right? Salvation is not by good works or obedience, but by faith alone? So, the combatants rush to the books of Galatians and Romans to solve this Catholic-Protestant disagreement. But there is a huge problem here. Paul did not write these letters to us and he knew nothing of the Catholic-Protestant debate. The huge problem we have is the problem of anachronism.
Do you know what the word “anachronism” means? According to the Collins English Dictionary it comes from a Greek word for “mistake in chronology” or “error in time reference”. Anachronistic is defined as “1. the representation of an event, person, or thing in a historical context in which it could not have occurred or existed; 2. a person or thing that belongs or seems to belong to another time.”
The problem is that when Paul wrote these two letters he was not writing them to us today. He was writing to the Gentiles and Jews of the first century. He didn’t know about the Catholic–Protestant debate. He was not writing to Germans like Martin Luther or Americans like us.
Paul was writing to people two thousand years ago living in places like Iconium, Pamphylia, Lystra, Galatia and Rome. They were not having a raging Protestant–Catholic debate. These good folks were having a Jewish–Gentile debate which was a whole world away. To read our current situation back into Asia Minor, Palestine, and Europe of the first century is a classic case of anachronism.
Paul preached that uncircumcised gentiles could be saved without circumcision and a slavish obedience to the 613 laws of Moses–along with all the ceremonial rituals. Some Jewish believers, on the other hand said, “Jesus is the Jewish Messiah and if you want to become a Christian you must become a Jew first.”
They couldn’t have said it any clearer than in Acts 15:1: “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” They want to impose the “works of the Law” referred to above in Romans 3:28 upon the gentiles. It had nothing whatever to do with Catholics and good works. It has to with Gentiles coming into the Body of Christ by faith and obedience, not by becoming circumcised Jews.
Abraham, the father of the Jews, was the prime example or case in point. Was he saved by circumcision and by obeying all the laws of Moses? Heavens no! He was saved while an uncircumcised pagan gentile living in Ur of the Chaldees, a thousand miles to east of Israel. Circumcision was only given as a sign of the covenant, not the means of salvation. And he did not obey the 613 laws of Moses since they would not even exist for another six hundred years or so. Abraham was saved by the grace of God and his belief and obedience and not by “the works of the Law” (See Romans 4 and James 2).
This is exactly what Catholics teach! We are not anachronistic. We understand Galatians and Romans within their proper chronology. Paul wrote to that particular age and culture with its particular problems. We live in a different age and culture with different particular problems.
But, even though Paul didn’t specifically write his letters to us, if we study the cultural climate in which they were written, and stay faithful to the tradition in which they were passed on to us, the Holy Spirit (the primary author of the letters) will help us apply the principles and truth of those letters to our current situation.
By the way, can you imagine how difficult evangelism would have been in the first century if every male who believed in Christ had to be circumcised? They would have asked Paul “You want us to cut off what?”