St Paul, Hard to be understood?


Is St. Paul confusing?

Scripture says:

2 Peter 3:15-16
King James Version (KJV)
15And account that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation; even as our beloved brother Paul also according to the wisdom given unto him hath written unto you;
16As also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things; in which are some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction.

In this article, I would like to explain:

  1. What, in my opinion, is confusing about St. Paul’s theology.
  2. How it is different from the theology of the other NT authors and
  3. What I believe is Martin Luther’s misunderstanding.

McVey wide skyscraper.jpg


In my understanding of Catholic doctrine, there are two types of justification.

  1. Justification extra nos, is the acquisition of faith and the virtues by the grace of God.

1989 The first work of the grace of the Holy Spirit is conversion, effecting justification in accordance with Jesus’ proclamation at the beginning of the Gospel: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Moved by grace, man turns toward God and away from sin, thus accepting forgiveness and righteousness from on high. "Justification is not only the remission of sins, but also the sanctification and renewal of the interior man.

This justification occurs at the beginning of conversion and after and between the justification of the Sacraments.

  1. This leads to justification sacramentalis, wherein God washes away our sins according to our faith:

1992 Justification has been merited for us by the Passion of Christ who offered himself on the cross as a living victim, holy and pleasing to God, and whose blood has become the instrument of atonement for the sins of all men. Justification is conferred in Baptism, the sacrament of faith. It conforms us to the righteousness of God, who makes us inwardly just by the power of his mercy. Its purpose is the glory of God and of Christ, and the gift of eternal life:
But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from law, although the law and the prophets bear witness to it, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as an expiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies him who has faith in Jesus.

Justification in the Sacraments is a work of God. We rest from our works and let God wash away our sins with the washing of the Holy Spirit:
1116 Sacraments are “powers that comes forth” from the Body of Christ, which is ever-living and life-giving. They are actions of the Holy Spirit at work in his Body, the Church. They are “the masterworks of God” in the new and everlasting covenant.
1131 The sacraments are efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us. The visible rites by which the sacraments are celebrated signify and make present the graces proper to each sacrament. They bear fruit in those who receive them with the required dispositions.
That disposition is one of faith:
1127 Celebrated worthily in faith, the sacraments confer the grace that they signify. They are efficacious because in them Christ himself is at work: it is he who baptizes, he who acts in his sacraments in order to communicate the grace that each sacrament signifies. The Father always hears the prayer of his Son’s Church which, in the epiclesis of each sacrament, expresses her faith in the power of the Spirit. As fire transforms into itself everything it touches, so the Holy Spirit transforms into the divine life whatever is subjected to his power.

This is the beginning of the confusion. This is why St. Peter said that St. Paul’s teachings were sometimes confusing. And why St. James thought St. Paul was teaching against Moses:

Acts 21:20-22
King James Version (KJV)
20And when they heard it, they glorified the Lord, and said unto him, Thou seest, brother, how many thousands of Jews there are which believe; and they are all zealous of the law: 21And they are informed of thee, that thou teachest all the Jews which are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, saying that they ought not to circumcise their children, neither to walk after the customs. 22What is it therefore? the multitude must needs come together: for they will hear that thou art come. Why? Because St. Paul understood the Sacraments. He preached justification by faith APART from works:
Galatians 2:16
King James Version (KJV)
16Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified. Notice how he repeatedly says here, “faith OF Christ”. He is not speaking about believing in Christ. He is speaking about the observance of the rituals instituted by Christ in His new way. He is speaking of the Sacraments.




This, I believe, is the difference between St. Paul and the other Apostles preaching. Although all parties understood the washing away of sin in the Sacraments and the perfection of faith in works. The other Apostles did not seem to understand why St. Paul seemed to be denouncing good works in one breath (see above) and commending them to the highest degree in another:
Galatians 5:6
King James Version (KJV)
6For in Jesus Christ neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision; but faith which worketh by love. I’m of the opinion that all the New Testament authors understood Gal 5:6, but only St. Paul understood Gal 2:16.

And this, I also believe, is Luther’s error. Except that Luther, lacking the guidance of the Holy Spirit which protected the Apostles from error, did fall because he did not connect the Sacramental teaching of St. Paul. Luther recognized the Sacraments and he recognized the perfection of the sinner. But he applied St. Paul’s teaching wrongly across the board. He failed to recognize the difference between the justification (i.e. perfection) that occurs as a result of the effort of the man of God:
2 Peter 1:4-10
King James Version (KJV)
4Whereby are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises: that by these ye might be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust.
5And beside this, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue; and to virtue knowledge;
6And to knowledge temperance; and to temperance patience; and to patience godliness;
7And to godliness brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness charity. 8For if these things be in you, and abound, they make you that ye shall neither be barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9But he that lacketh these things is blind, and cannot see afar off, and hath forgotten that he was purged from his old sins. 10Wherefore the rather, brethren, give diligence to make your calling and election sure: for if ye do these things, ye shall never fall:

I believe it is very important that we should all understand the difference between these two types of justification. I’ve spoken to too many Catholics who speak as though the only way to be justified is by faith AND works. Whereas it is clear, it God who justifies us in the Sacraments, without any effort on our part.

If we don’t understand this difference, we will never understand why brother Luther fell away.

Let me know what you think.

De Maria


“spiritual pride” might be the term to apply to Luther


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