Letter of the law

A question, or a riddle:

If by fulfilling the letter of the law, say the Ten Commandments, we still fail to make ourselves just (to be justified) in God’s eyes, do we likewise fail to be justified by fulfilling the Greatest Commandments by the letter? Or is that the one place where fulfilling the letter of the law would be right and pleasing to God?

The commandments, Love God and love your neighbor, do not fall under the idiom “letter of the law”, they are better described as ‘the spirit of the law’.

This also holds true with most traffic laws in the US. The point of speed limits is to give drivers an idea of what the optimal speed to safety ratio is under general conditions with an average vehicle. The point of having police officers enforcing speed limits is to ensure public safety. So, a police officer will not stick to the letter of the law and pull over someone on a clear day who is going 7 MPH over the speed limit on the Interstate…because they have not violated the spirit of the law which is public safety.

If someone follows the two greatest commandments, the argument that they are not justified is sort of nonsensical. You could make the argument, how does one know that they are following the two greatest commandments? - that’s where the Catholic Church comes in.

And yet the Greatest Commandments, which we’re obligated to obey, are just that, commandments. So the basic point, which makes the question interesting to me, is that if one were to fulfill the Greatest Commandments to the letter that would mean they really would be loving God with their whole heart, soul, mind, and strength and their neighbor as themselves. So it’s not either/or in this case, but both/and. The obedience is accomplished by the spirit, while also fulfilling the law to the letter. And if someone were to obey the Greatest Commandments, their justice would be complete, whereas following the Ten Commandments does* not *make us just, in and of itself.

If I remember Aquinas’ Summa correctly, the instant we cooperate with God’s grace and manifest love of God in our hearts we will receive, through so-called implicit baptism by desire, the justifying graces of baptism merited for us by Jesus Christ’s death on the cross. Leaving out any of those elements could give the wrong impression that our justification is entirely our own doing.

Yes, love, the love God desires for us, to love as He does IOW, is a “theological virtue” and as such is strictly a gift of grace. And yet a gift that we’re asked to “own” as we cooperate with grace and grow more yet in this virtue.

Hi, F!

…here’s the problem with that fulfillment… in order to fulfill the letter of the Law one must not break a single Commandment… this of course is quite impossible without God’s intervention…

Jesus warned that even if we simply think of an unrighteous act we are guilty of it… the second we, in our mind, transgress any of the Commandments we are not fulfilling the Law…

…say you have a dream… when you wake up you have the choice to put the dream aside or to engage it… say you dreamt about someone or something close to you… you deduce that there’s a massage hidden in the dream… you get to the store and purchase a whole mess of lottery tickets (or just one) on the premise that you’ve had some divination as to the wining numbers… well you’ve engaged the dream, sought out meaning from a sort of spiritual realm, committed yourself to that “influence” and sought reward/s from it… well, my friend, you’ve just engaged in divination, spiritualism, and placed God next or bellow such rendering… a practice could arise where you begin to seek out such connections rendering God and God’s Law void.

Maran atha!


Thanks, jcrichton! Maybe just a matter of how we look at it but I still think this is the one law (or two laws) that God has endeavored to have man ultimately fulfill to the letter, because it fulfills any other laws by its nature; it’s the image of God we’re to be transformed into, it does no harm to its neighbor, it’s long-suffering, patient, kind, non-condemning, humble etc, etc. It’s the *way *to fulfill the Law by the spirit, the right way to fulfill it IOW. And yes, God is patient and kind in helping us arrive at this true justice, this love-a matter of Love producing love, so to speak. So it may not happen in us overnight-but it will happen, as long as we don’t oppose and refuse it. Anyway, these teachings seem appropriate here:

**2013 "All Christians in any state or walk of life are called to the fullness of Christian life and to the perfection of charity."65 All are called to holiness: "Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect."66In order to reach this perfection the faithful should use the strength dealt out to them by Christ’s gift, so that . . . doing the will of the Father in everything, they may wholeheartedly devote themselves to the glory of God and to the service of their neighbor. Thus the holiness of the People of God will grow in fruitful abundance, as is clearly shown in the history of the Church through the lives of so many saints.67

2028 “All Christians . . . are called to the fullness of Christian life and to the perfection of charity” (LG 40 § 2). “Christian perfection has but one limit, that of having none” (St. Gregory of Nyssa, De vita Mos.:PG 44, 300D).

1965 The New Law or the Law of the Gospel is the perfection here on earth of the divine law, natural and revealed. It is the work of Christ and is expressed particularly in the Sermon on the Mount. It is also the work of the Holy Spirit and through him it becomes the interior law of charity: "I will establish a New Covenant with the house of Israel. . . . I will put my laws into their hands, and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people."19

Hi, F!

I think that we are missing each other… slightly…

Even the Greatest of the Commandments (and the love of neighbor) is an impossibility for man to adhere to by the letter of the Law; it is God Who enables us (for we did not love God first, but it was God that Loved us first)… and it is so difficult to do because they encompass the whole Ten Commandments… hard as we try, we fail because though many of us are quick to claim to love God, we sometimes fail to love ourselves and our neighbors… and as Scriptures attest: we cannot claim Love of God when we fail to love man, Created in His Image and Likeness. (paraphrased)

It is Christ Who makes it possible for us to engage God and man, in Love… the more we submit to Christ’s Will the more we are able to abide by the Greatest Commandments, thusly obeying the whole Law.

…mind you, I’m not saying that it is an impossibility… I’m saying that, as St. Paul, our strength Comes from Christ (I can do all things…); I’m not good with names… there was a Bishop that was imprisoned (China, Korea…) for over twenty years he suffered all sorts of degradation in the hands of the state’s prison–he was able to conquer it all through love… he even converted a few of the guards whose hearts were broken by his steadfast Faith and his humble sharing of the Gospel… I suspect that he has not been the only such person… and I suspect that such entities have learned to circulate both the guards and the prisoners in order to limit their exposure to such living martyrs.

…it is not of our own doing (accomplishment)… and yes, it is the reason why Christ Came… to enable us to overcome the divide/breach between man and God!

Maran atha!


Ok, I see what you’re are saying and I don’t disagree. I understand that the basis of the New Covenant is “apart from Me you can do nothing”. And that’s what paragraph 1965 of the CCC is saying in a different manner as well, citing Jer 33:31-34 where *God *does the justifying.

But first of all I’m not considering how we become justified,* how* we come to love God with our whole heart, soul, mind, and strength and our neighbor as ourselves, whether by being under the law (which cannot accomplish it) or under grace (which can); rather I’m saying that if and when the greatest commandments are actually fulfilled in us we are ipso facto just. IOW, regardless of the fact that they cannot be fulfilled except for by the Spirit, they’re nonetheless also fulfilled to or by the letter. This is unlike any other commandments or law. Because fulfilling the Ten Commandments perfectly, for example, does not make us just, whereas literally fulfilling the Greatest Commandments does in every case. It’s a given that love cannot be faked without it being something other and less than love, while any other commandment can be fulfilled mechanically, according to the law but not by the spirit.

Hi, F!

…ok… you’ve touched on it!

…it is through the Spirit that we are able to engage that Love.

So the fulfillment is done through God’s intercession–this is the point I have been meaning to put forth… we cannot fulfill/accomplish the Greatest Commandments on our own… but, as you’ve stated, when we surrender our will to God’s and engage Him in that Grace, Love God and neighbor, we in deed Live the Greatest Commandments.

…I think that the problem I have is that I have come across too many who are looking for some sort of formula/clause to Salvation so that they need not engage Christ’s Mystical Body and thus gain some shortcut way to a secret/special fellowship that grants them “Saved” status.

…guess I must relax my guard some! :coffeeread::coffeeread::coffeeread:

Maran atha!


Hi, again, jcrichton. I’m not sure I know about the “clause”, other than to observe that in the Catholic faith we’ve seemed to have managed ending up with some people believing that our faith/salvation is all about somehow refraining from committing that last mortal sin prior to death, or about fulfilling a set of rules strictly legalistically, reducing the whole thing to a more or less mechanical process which we can very easily fail at. Or, OTOH, there’s the Reformed notion that reduces salvation to a sort of legal formula or transaction whereupon we’re forgiven and saved simply upon *believing, *with God from then on declaring us righteous in spite of our remaining sinners.

But your observation is the reason I started the thread to begin with-because the need for humans to ultimately fulfill the Greatest Commandments, and the grace to accomplish this, highlights and defines the difference between the Old and New Covenants IMO, *and it’s a difference that we often seem to miss somehow. *The law is fulfilled, via communion with God, as He helps us to love as He does, as He molds and transforms us, as we work out our salvation with He who works in us. This fulfills the prophecy of Jer 31:33-34, where God accomplishes what we cannot on our own by mere observance of the Law:

“I will put my law in their minds
and write it on their hearts.
I will be their God,
and they will be my people."

(v 33)

And this is the result of our entering into communion with God. It follows from something that must happen first, stated in 31:34:

"No longer will they teach their neighbor,
or say to one another, ‘Know the LORD,’
because they will all know me,
from the least of them to the greatest,”

This speaks of a direct knowledge of God, rather than simply teachings about Him. This knowledge is a relationship which is established by or entered into by faith, initiated by grace. This knowledge/relationship is faith. We formally enter by Baptism. The Church’s role is to get us there first of all, then nurture that relationship throughout our lives, helping to sustain and grow it.

Hi, F!

We are in agreement!

…and I fully concur with you that it is not only the non-Catholics who have engaged in finding/living formulas/clauses… there’s this insanity (as extreme perversion of things: ie: exercise, love, friendship, intimacy, success, happiness…) that drives people to seek shortcuts… we want all the good results without owning up to our responsibilities and obligations.

True, Jesus Saves… that is the meaning of His Name… but St. John 3:14-21 makes it quite clear that Salvation is a two-way Path… though Jesus is the Way… we have to abide in Him and He has to abide in us (St. John 15:1-10) in order for us to obtain our Salvation.

Your concluding paragraph reminded me of the Samaritan woman… she entered into that relationship with Christ; little did she suspect what the Holy Spirit was Guiding her towards on that fateful day… and not only did she entered into a life of Faith… but through her efforts many of those from her town did also… and there was a palpable transition… ‘we no longer believe because of what you’ve told us… we believe Him directly!’ (paraphrased)

Maran atha!


I suppose I may be mistaken but isn’t it true that ‘you’ as in all of us have already fallen short of the greatest commandment. Essentially the question of whether it would be possible to be justified by keeping ANY law by letter or intent is entirely academic: It has never been done by a mere man. If righteousness could come from law, it seems an awful thing that God sacrificed his son.

Romans 3:19 NKJV
19 Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. 20 Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin. 21 But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, 22 even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all[h] who believe. For there is no difference; 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed, 26 to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

So without grace changing us, we have no hope. Fortunately the grace of God is available in Christ through his sacrifice.

Titus 2:11 KJV
11 For the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men,

12 Teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world;

13 Looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ;

14 Who gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works.

And so isn’t “grace changing us” exactly what we’ve been discussing? Isn’t our following Jesus in His righteousness what we’re called to do? Was man *created *to sin? Do sinners enter heaven? What’s impossible for man isn’t at all impossible for God, to paraphrase Matt 19:26.

Again, if there’s any law that alright, even required, to follow to the letter it’s the law to love, which fulfills any other law and which excludes sin by it’s nature. *God *will get us where we cannot go alone. That’s how it was always meant to be in fact-because man was made for communion with God from the beginning, ‘apart from Whom we can do nothing’. Without Him we’re lost, in an unjust or disordered state of being. But with Him we can do all things, even if it means a stay in purgatory to put on the finishing touches. :slight_smile:

Perhaps this is along the lines of what you are saying? When grace makes us new creatures, righteousness is expressed, in effect keeping the law of love and the fruits of the Spirit on the basis of what IS. The works of the flesh are the fruits of unregenerate character: the children of the first Adam. However, with a renewed mind we now express the nature of our new Heavenly Father. As children we are still in training. We are justified by who and what we are in Christ. But we still need the chastening of the Lord as we grow. But we aren’t condemned by the law anymore. If we were still sinners we would continue in sin, but since we are actually righteous, we grow up in the fruits of the Spirit. I am making a cart and horse distinction here. The law accuses based on what we do. Grace justifies by changing what we are. What we become changes what we do. Hanging good fruit on a bad tree with string won’t change the tree, but a good tree will produce good fruit by nature when it is pruned correctly, fertilized and watered. The analogy breaks down of course because we must cooperate with grace.

Yes, the new Covenant is all about God changing us, rather than* ourselves* being the sole controlling agent, but still with our consent and cooperation. It comes about as we begin to recognize our need for Him, and of His supreme goodness and love and trustworthiness, His willingness to go to any degree, even, to demonstrate that love. He becomes our helper, our Father, rather than primarily the stern authoritarian taskmaster, even as His superiority and authority remain indisputable.

We begin to love, rather than strictly fear Him, and our obedience begins to flow from that love, as it was always meant to. And this is a process, a work, that we must continue to cooperate with and grow in even as it formally begins at Baptism where we’re washed, cleansed, made new creations.


…yeah… we’ve settle that issue of the Law… the query delves into upholding the Greatest Commandments to the letter of the Law (the Law of Grace); since God Initiates and enables Love, if we uphold (live/abide in God’s Grace) His Love we are given the Power to Love God and man; thusly, fulfilling God’s Call… Christ’s Wisdom brought a non-commandment into play as He offered that the Greatest Commandment is the Love of God and that the second is the Love of neighbor as self and that in these two all of the Law (Ten Commandments) have their fulfillment… so while man has no power to fulfill the letter of the Law (10 Commandments) but by God’s Grace (abiding in Christ and Christ in man) he can fulfill/live in God’s Law of Grace (Love).

Maran atha!


DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in these forums do not necessarily reflect those of Catholic Answers. For official apologetics resources please visit www.catholic.com.