from the Letter of St. Paul to the Romans (DRC)
16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel. For it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth, to the Jew first, and to the Greek. 17 For the justice of God is revealed therein, from faith unto faith, as it is written: The just man liveth by faith. 18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and injustice of those men that detain the truth of God in injustice: 19 Because that which is known of God is manifest in them. For God hath manifested it unto them. 20 For the invisible things of him, from the creation of the world, are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made; his eternal power also, and divinity: so that they are inexcusable.
from the Letter of St. Paul to the Romans (KJV)
16For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.
17For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith.
18For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness;
19Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them.
20For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse:
Having handily dispatched verse 16, we're now ready to tackle the remainder of the passage. One is impressed by how much can be garnered from pondering this letter even with a limited knowledge of all of the scholarship that has poured into understanding the letter in its entirety. It is both encouraging and logical that a person today who wishes to read Romans and think about it for a while can understand much of what is said. One need only recall that the letter was originally written to a group of people who had nothing like a profound theology.
Before we launch fully into what follows--thorny and difficult going at best and filled with the potential traps of misinterpretation, it might be good to record one famous theologians thoughts on the Letter to the Romans.
from Preface to Romans
This letter is truly the most important piece in the New Testament. It is purest Gospel. It is well worth a Christian's while not only to memorize it word for word but also to occupy himself with it daily, as though it were the daily bread of the soul. It is impossible to read or to meditate on this letter too much or too well. The more one deals with it, the more precious it becomes and the better it tastes. Therefore I want to carry out my service and, with this preface, provide an introduction to the letter, insofar as God gives me the ability, so that every one can gain the fullest possible understanding of it. Up to now it has been darkened by glosses and by many a useless comment, but it is in itself a bright light, almost bright enough to illumine the entire Scripture.
[See the translation of the whole here.]
And so, here I am to again darken it with glosses, or perhaps offer a sputtering torch in comparison to the floodlights true theologians cast upon it.
It is good to remember that The Letter to the Romans is one source of the great divide between Catholics and Protestants. It is in this letter that Martin Luther and others find so much evidence so support their sola fides that it becomes for them an article of the faith.
Verse 17 begins the rather difficult discussion of "justification" and in this discussion, some would have us believe that the justification is a matter of faith alone. "For the justice of God is revealed therein, from faith unto faith, as it is written: The just man liveth by faith. " And indeed, there seems to be a strong element of this--but only when the Letter to the Romans it taken out of the fullness of the context of revelation. For this reason, Martin Luther would have preferred a Bible lacking the Letter of James and the Letter to the Hebrews. These two put the fly in the ointment of sola fides. While it might be possible to come to the "faith alone" conclusion based on Romans, it is not possible to remain with that hypothesis if the rest of God's revelation to us is to be taken seriously. So, let us read what Paul actually says here: the justice of God is revealed in the Gospel of Christ--certainly unobjectionable. It is revealed from "faith unto faith" Another way of saying the same thing: "For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, 'He who through faith is righteous shall live. ((RSV)'" The justice of God is revealed through faith for the continuation of faith. Then Paul goes on to quote Habakkuk 2:4. It might be instructive to take a detour to that passage to see what Paul the Rabbi was referring to:
Habukkuk 2: 4-5
4 "See, he is puffed up;
his desires are not upright--
but the righteous will live by his faith-
5 indeed, wine betrays him;
he is arrogant and never at rest.
Because he is as greedy as the grave
and like death is never satisfied,
he gathers to himself all the nations
and takes captive all the peoples. (NIV)
 Behold, he whose soul is not upright in him shall fail,
but the righteous shall live by his faith.
 Moreover, wine is treacherous;
the arrogant man shall not abide.
His greed is as wide as Sheol;
like death he has never enough.
He gathers for himself all nations,
and collects as his own all peoples." (RSV)
The one who is puffed up with pride and sure of the sanctity of himself and his actions shall not endure. Paul is not talking here about faith alone, but faith as contrasted with the actions of the arrogant man, whose works are all his own works and who seeks to devour and overcome all. Indeed, the verses in Habukkuk appear to refer to a person in particular, but they could be generalized to be understood as referring to any person who lives without faith. The Gospel of Jesus Christ makes no sense without faith--it reveals from faith to faith and informs faith. Hence, the Gospel itself is not necessarily an argument to those opposed to God in Atheism or other misguided understandings of how the universe functions. The Gospel speaks from faith to faith. However, faith is a gift each person has and which is embodied in the indwelling Holy Spirit who constantly calls upon us to move closer to God. The Gospel of God is recognized within by the Holy Spirit and it calls to all, faith to faith. But faith alone , as James would tell us, is insufficient, because a true faith inspires works. It is important to note that the works don't "earn" our way into heaven, but they can be seen as the heavy-lifting that builds up faith's endurance and strength. That is, when we act on faith in God, we build up our own trust in God's providence and love for us. Works are continuations of faith and strengthen an intellectual faith that could snap or be crushed under the weight of the world. Paul here says nothing of works, and even when he does refer to works, one must keep in mind that the quotation he has used gives the context of his thought. The works of an arrogant man will avail him nothing because they do not stem from faith. While the works of a "good" arrogant man may, for the moment appear to be helpful, they will sour and bring forth a fruit of destruction. Such works are the works of men, but there are works of faith, which are works of God, instituted by God and approved by God as strengthening us and making us fit for the kingdom. Indeed, we can enter the kingdom, flabby, overweight, and spiritually distressed--the spiritual equivalent of a couch potato. For those in such condition, there is a work-out room called Purgatory, which purifies and strengthens because it is not given for the weak to look upon the face of God and live--and sense all in Heaven glory in the gaze of God himself, we must be strengthened to endure it. That happens either here below, or when we have passed into the new life. And miraculously, it is the "works" of others through their prayers for the dead that can help make us ready to enter the kingdom.
I apologize, I have strayed from the point. But I have done so because it is in this letter that some of the more strident and overwhelming of the doctrines of protestantism find their strongest statement. It is only through correcting these by looking at the fullness of scriptural revelation (and I will not pretend to have done so) that we can regain perspective.
I will acknowledge that some of my representations of these arguments for works may be theologically off-balance. I am not a professional theologian, nor a particularly nuanced interpreter of scripture; however, I am not certain that the theologians and the nuancers have helped particularly in our appreciation of what St. Paul writes here.
So let me finish out the verse: "The just will live by faith." Justification--the process of becoming just, is initiated by faith. Through faith we come to know and honor justness and justice. Through faith we continue to walk in justness and justice. But justness and justice require balance--faith supplies the strength, works supply the balance. What is within us is lived out by what we do in the world to transform it into God's world. This must be true or the admonition for us all to preach the Gospel is meaningless. What is preaching the Gospel other than a work of faith? And does this work contribute to justness? Just as the teacher learns more each time he or she teaches a subject, so the preacher faith increases each time he or she relies upon the Holy Spirit to explain the faith to others.
The just will live by faith, but not by faith alone--faith demands an expression, it demands an outpouring, it overflows the person in the form of the greatest of theological virtues--love. And love is not love if it is not expressed--hence, back to works. The expression of love, whatever form it may take, is a work of the Holy Spirit that in turn strengthens faith within us. And so we come back full circle.
One can only derive sola fides through a decontextualization of the Letter to the Romans from the rest of revelation. It certainly was not Paul's intent to do so. He demonstrates this clearly even within this single verse, referring back to the rather obscure prophet Habukkuk, whose book most of us probably haven't even read. But Paul knew it and understood it, and grounded part of his understanding of the Glory of God upon it, delivering it to us for all ages through the aegis and protection of the Holy Spirit. The words of Paul continue to inspire us today as we read them and begin to understand them in the way the Paul meant them to be understood, and in the way that the Holy Catholic Church has understood them for two millennia now.