We are not intrinsically sinners. We were originally created without sin; baptism removes the penalties of original sin, and we will be sinless again if we make it to heaven. Righteousness comes only from God, and He transforms us, and we cooperate with him to become more holy all the time.
Grace is always primary and initial. As soon as we accept that grace we can then cooperate with it to do good works bathed in grace, and these works (and none other) are meritorious. At every Mass, Catholics examine themselves, confess their sins (venial) and acknowledge their unworthiness to receive Christ in the Eucharist, but for His grace.
The Law and the Gospel are not opposed to each other. Jesus and Paul taught that the Law by itself never saved anyone — it was always faith and grace. But that is not the same thing as saying that Law is antithetical to the Gospel. That was Luther’s error (one of many) and it is simply unbiblical. Matthew 5:17-20 is sufficient in itself to nail this point down. Salvation is a lifelong process, free will does cooperate after the initial pure act of grace by God. It can’t be otherwise.
Works alone (i.e., Pelagianism) is equally as unbiblical as faith alone. We believe in faith + works as two blades of a pair of scissors, or two sides of one coin. They can’t possibly be separated, or you can’t have either one. There is no such thing as a “scissor” with one blade. It can’t function that way.
Works, alone, in the sense of self-produced works considered as separate from God’s enabling grace, cannot save us The Law cannot save anyone without faith and grace, nor can internally generated works without faith and grace. I will now cite the Fathers, in their commentary on Romans 4.
Ancient Christian Commentary (general editor Thomas C. Oden, Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1998 – ):
Let no one think that someone who has faith enough to be justified and to have glory before God can at the same time have unrighteousness dwelling in him as well. For faith cannot coexist with unbelief, nor can righteousness with wickedness, just as light and darkness cannot live together. [Origen, Commentary on Romans]
Paul was speaking here of the way wages are given. But God gave by grace, because he gave to sinners so that by faith they might live justly, that is, do good works. Thus the good works which we do after we have received grace are not to be attributed to us but rather to him who has justified us by his grace. [St. Augustine, On Romans 21]
The root of righteousness does not spring from works; rather, the fruit of works grows from the root of righteousness, viz., by that root of righteousness by which God brings righteousness to the one whom he has accepted apart from works. [Origen, Commentary on Romans]
God makes the ungodly man godly, in order that he might persevere in this godliness and righteousness. For a man is justified in order that he might be just, not so that he might think it is all right to go on sinning. [St. Augustine, On Romans 22]
Paul, in Romans 3:28, separates faith from “works of the law,” which is different from works per se. Paul was saying that the Jews were not saved by the OT Law, but by faith all along. But that does not mean the Law is of no effect, or therefore null and void, as he points out in 3:31 (cf. Jesus’ statement in Matt 5:17-20). Likewise, when he goes on to contrast Abraham’s faith and “works” in chapter 4, he continues to refer to the Old Testament Law, not works in general (see, e.g., 4: 10, 13-16).
Now I’ll cite the Fathers in their comments on Romans 2-3 as well:
Ancient Christian Commentary:
The deeds of both a good and an evil man pass away, but they shape and construct the mind of the doer according to their respective quality and leave it either good or bad and accordingly destined to receive either punishment or rewards. [Origen, Commentary on Romans]
Now let us consider what is meant by the just judgment of God, in which he will reward each one according to his works. First of all we must reject the heretics who say that souls are good or evil by nature and maintain instead that God will reward each one according to his deeds and not according to his nature. Second, believers are to be instructed not to think that it is enough merely to believe [lacking fruit]; they ought to realize that the just judgment of God will reward each one according to his works. [Origen, Commentary on Romans]
God has given that which is good, and those who do it will receive glory and honor because they have done good when they had it in their power not to do so. But those who do not do it will receive the just judgment of God, because they did not do good when they had it in their power to do so. [St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 4.37.1]
Here Paul stirs up those who had fallen away during the persecutions and shows that it is not right to trust in faith only. For God’s tribunal will demand deeds as well. [St. John Chrysostom, Homilies on Romans 5]
Therefore, those who seek eternal life are not merely those who believe correctly but those who live correctly as well. [Ambrosiaster, Commentary on Paul’s Epistles]
Well-doing is for a time, but the reward is eternal . . . Paul wanted to show that there are many rewards for those who are good. [Theodoret, Interpretation of Romans]
Therefore I do not think it can be doubted that someone who deserves to be condemned because of his evil deeds will also be considered worthy of the reward of good works if he does something good [he then cites 2 Cor 5:10]. [Origen, Commentary on Romans]
It is on works that punishment and reward depend, not on circumcision and uncircumcision . . . For in this passage it is the Jews that he is mainly opposing. [St. John Chrysostom, Homilies on Romans 5]
Paul says that Jews differed from Gentiles, not in their actions but in their persons only. But it is not for this reason that one is honored and the other disgraced. It is from their works that honor or disgrace will come. [St. John Chrysostom, Homilies on Romans 5]
By ‘law’ he means the law of Moses, to which the Jews are bound although they do not believe. The Gentiles are also under the judgment of the natural law, but only insofar as they have chosen not to attach themselves to it. [Ambrosiaster, Commentary on Paul’s Epistles]
What benefit is it if, while listening each day, we neglect to practice what we hear? Hence I beseech you, let us be zealous in practicing those very deeds (by no other way, in fact, is it possible to be saved) so that we may also wash away our sins and be granted the Lord’s lovingkindness at his own hands, thanks to the grace and mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ. [St. John Chrysostom, Homilies on Genesis 47.18]
When Paul is challenging the pride of Judaism, he is careful not to appear to be condemning the law as such. On the contrary, by extolling the law and showing its greatness he makes good his whole position. [St. John Chrysostom, Homilies on Romans 5]
If the containment of evil which circumcision signifies is not matched by works of faith, it is regarded as a form of wickedness. Even in the church, if someone is ‘circumcised’ by the grace of baptism and then becomes a transgressor of the law of Christ, the circumcision of baptism is reckoned to him as uncircumcision, because ‘faith without works is dead’. [Origen, Commentary on Romans]
Paul sets aside everything which is merely of the body. For the circumcision is external, and so are the sabbaths, the sacrifices and the purifications . . . The Gentile who does right is more praiseworthy than the Jew who breaks the law. When this is agreed upon, the circumcision of the flesh must be set aside, and the need for a good life is everywhere demonstrated. [St. John Chrysostom, Homilies on Romans 6]
This means that the law should be understood according to the Spirit, and not according to what the letter says. [St. Augustine, On Romans 11]
I think that here the apostle is saying that no one has done good in the sense that no one has brought goodness to perfection and completion.
[Origen, Commentary on Romans]
Once more Paul jumps on the law but this time with restraint, for what he says is an accusation not against the law but against the negligence of the covenant people. [St. John Chrysostom, Homilies on Romans 7]
Some think that statements like this are an attack on the law. But they must be read very carefully, so that neither is the law condemned by the apostle nor is free will taken away from man . . . The law is good because it forbids what ought to be forbidden and requires what ought to be required. But when anyone thinks he can fulfill the law in his own strength and not through the grace of his Deliverer, this presumption does him no good but rather harms him so much that he is seized by an even stronger desire to sin and by his sins ends up as a transgressor. [St. Augustine, On Romans 13-18]
The apostle mentions many different kinds of law in this epistle, and only the most attentive reader will be able to detect when he is shifting from one to another . . . Do not be surprised that the word ‘law’ is used here in two different senses! . . .
Moreover, there is a way to tell which meaning of the word ‘law’ is intended. The Greek language uses articles in front of proper names. Thus when the law of Moses is intended, the article is used, but when the natural law is meant, the article is omitted. [Origen, Commentary on Romans]
For when the law held them guilty, the righteousness of God forgave them and did so apart from the law so that until the law was brought to bear God forgave them their sin. And lest someone think that this was done against the law, Paul added that the righteousness of God had a witness in the Law and the Prophets, which means that the law itself had said that in the future someone would come who would save mankind. But it was not allowed for the law to forgive sin. [Ambrosiaster, Commentary on Paul’s Epistles]
Paul does not say that the righteousness of God has been ‘given’ but that it has been ‘manifested,’ thus destroying the accusation that it is something new. For what is manifested is old but previously concealed. He reinforces this point by going on to mention that the Law and the Prophets had foretold it. [St. John Chrysostom, Homilies on Romans 7]
The righteousness of God is not manifested outside the law, since in that case it could not have been witnessed to in the law. It is a righteousness of God apart from the law because God confers it on the believer through the Spirit of grace without the help of the law. [St. Augustine, The Spirit and the Letter 15]
How could Paul have promised glory, honor and peace to the good works of the Gentiles apart from the grace of the gospel? Because there otherwise is no acceptance of persons with God. And because it is not the hearers but the doers of the law who are justified, he argues that all, whether Jew or Gentile, shall alike have salvation in the gospel. [St. Augustine, The Spirit and the Letter 44]
Paul says that a Gentile can be sure that he is justified by faith without doing the works of the law, e.g., circumcision or new moons or the veneration of the sabbath. [Ambrosiaster, Commentary on Paul’s Epistles]
Paul did not say ‘we hold’ because he was himself uncertain. He said it in order to counter those who concluded from this that anyone who wished to could be justified simply by willing faith. Note carefully that Paul does not say simply ‘without the law,’ as if we could just perform virtue by wanting to, nor do we do the works of the law by force. We do them because we have been led to do them by Christ. [Theodore of Mopsuestia, Pauline Commentary From the Greek Church]
Paul says this because we cannot be justified by the works of the law but only by faith. [Pseudo-Constantius, The Holy Letter of St. Paul to the Romans]
This must not be understood in such a way as to say that a man who has received faith and continues to live is righteous, even though he leads a wicked life. [St. Augustine, Questions 76.1]
The Lord himself said ‘I have not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it.’ None of the saints nor even the Lord himself has destroyed the law. Rather its glory, which is temporal and transient, has been destroyed and replaced by a glory which is eternal and permanent. [Origen, Commentary on Romans]
Paul says that the law is not nullified by faith but fulfilled . . . . . [Ambrosiaster, Commentary on Paul’s Epistles]
[B]y freedom of choice comes the love of righteousness; by the love of righteousness comes the working of the law. Thus, as the law is not made void but established by faith, since faith obtains the grace whereby the law may be fulfilled, so freedom of choice is not made void but established by grace, since grace heals the will whereby righteousness may freely be loved. [St. Augustine, The Spirit and the Letter 52]
As for Paul’s usage of “works of the law” in a technical sense, referring primarily to the Jews (i.e., ones who misunderstood the essence of the Law, not all), I cite The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (ed. James Orr, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1939/1956, rep. 1974, vol. 5, “Works,” p. 3105):
‘Works’ is used by Paul and James, in a special sense, as denoting (with Paul) those legal performances by means of which men sought to be accepted by God, in contradistinction to that faith in Christ through which the sinner is justified apart from all legal works (Rom 3:27; 4:2,6, etc.; Gal 2:16; 3:2,5,10) . . . Judgment is according to ‘works’ (Mt 16:27 . . . Rom 2:6, 1 Pet 1:17, etc.), the new life being therein evidenced. A contrast between ‘faith’ and ‘good works’ is never drawn in the NT. [W.L. Walker – Congregational Minister]
The determination of when this meaning of the “works of the law” occurs is fairly easily obtained by consulting context. If we examine the passages mentioned above in this vein, we can readily see the suggested technical sense by looking at surrounding indications of the Mosaic Law (i.e., relied upon over against grace and faith, which was always wrong and improper at any time; see, e.g., Romans 2:28, 10:1-4; Gal 6:13). For instance:
Romans 3:27-29: “circumcised” mentioned in v.30; mention of Jews and Gentiles in v.29; “the law” referred to twice in v.31. Paul states there that – far from “overthrowing” the law by faith -, we, rather, “uphold” it (cf. 9:30-33)
Romans 4:2: “the flesh” mentioned in v.1, in reference to Abraham; circumcision referred to in vss. 9-12. In 4:13 he states that the Abrahamic covenant came not through the law but through “the righteousness of faith” (cf. 4:14-16; 6:14-15).
Galatians 2:16: Paul rebukes Peter for his “Judaizing” actions in 2:11-12
Photo credit: Fresco of St. John Chrysostom, lower register of sanctuary in Church of the Theotokos Peribleptos in Ohrid, Macedonia (13th century) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]