Works of the Law
Sin is the Great Leveler that places every man and woman in the same predicament - bondage now, and death and “Wrath” later. No one is exempted from the penalty of sin whether Jew or Gentile, and no one has a legitimate excuse for his or her sin. Without exception, God will “render to every man according to his works,” and with Him, “there is no respect of persons.”
But what, precisely, does the Apostle mean when he brings “works” into the equation? Good deeds and human efforts in general, or something more specific?
In his Letter to the Romans, the repeated phrase, “to the Jew first, and also to the Greek,” points to the underlying issue in the church of Rome, tensions between Jewish and Gentile believers. And fortunately, Paul explains what category of “works” he has in view.
- “For as many as have sinned without law shall also perish without the law: and as many as have sinned under the law shall be judged by the law; for not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified” – (Romans 2:12-13).
UNDER THE LAW
And in the preceding passage, the Law of Moses is under discussion, and two specific groups, Jews, and Gentiles. Since the Torah was given to Israel and no other nation, Jews are “under the Law.”
In contrast, Gentiles do not have the Torah and, therefore, are “without the law,” though God did not leave them without any witness. Moreover, many Gentiles do keep the precepts of the law “by nature” regardless of their ignorance of the written commandments.
Nevertheless, both groups are in the same predicament, “Both Jews and Greeks are all under sin… There is none righteous, no, not even one.” The Jews know the Law but sin all the same, and the Law continues to bear witness against their disobedience:
- “As many things as the law speaks, to those in the law it speaks, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may come under judgment to God; wherefore from the works of law will no flesh be declared righteous before Him, for through law is a knowledge of sin” - (Romans 3:19-20).
The Mosaic Law was given to expose sin for what it is, the trespass of God’s commandment, and to bear witness against sinful humanity. Therefore, no one is put right before God “from the works of the Law.” That is not its function. However, there is another “law” by which men may be justified, namely, a “Law of Faith”:
- (Romans 3:27-28) – “Where then is the glorying? It is excluded. From what manner of law? From works? No, but from a LAW OF FAITH. We reckon, therefore, that a man is justified from faith apart from the works of the law.”
In principle, Paul is not opposed to the ideas of “law,” obedience, and good “works.” His point is quite specific: Men and women are not set right before God from the “works of the Law,” that is, from the deeds and rituals required by the Torah given to Israel via Moses at Mount Sinai.
Next, Paul presents Abraham as the model of faith. If he “was justified from works, he has whereof to glory.” But Abraham believed the promise of God, and THAT was “reckoned to him as righteousness.”
This occurred BEFORE he was circumcised, and BEFORE the Law that required circumcision was given to Israel. Therefore, Abraham was not justified from the deeds required by the Mosaic Law.
Not only so, but the Great Patriarch became the “heir of the world,” not “through the Law,” but instead, “through the righteousness of faith” - (Romans 4:1-13).
Paul certainly believes that salvation is an act of pure grace from a merciful God. But the issue in this Letter is not “good works” and human effort in general versus sheer grace, but whether Jews and Gentiles are set right before God from the “works of the Law,” namely, the Mosaic Law.
Paul’s answer is unequivocal: NO. Instead, we are justified before God from the “faith of Jesus Christ,” both Jews and Gentiles alike, and not “from the works of the law.”