The Works of the Law

Sin is the Great Leveler that places everyone in the same predicament: Bondage now, death and “wrath” later. No one is exempt from the penalty of sin, and no one has a legitimate excuse for trespassing the commandment of God who will “render to each according to his works.” But what, precisely, did the Apostle Paul mean when he brought “works” into the discussion? 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 basic controversy in the church of Rome, tensions between Jewish and Gentile believers. Paul raised the subject of the “works of the Law” as part of this larger discussion. Fortunately, he explained what category of “works” he had in mind.

Law Books - Photo by Chris Lawton on Unsplash
[Law Books - Photo by Chris Lawton on Unsplash]

  • 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).

The Law of Moses is under discussion in the preceding passage. Since the Torah was given to Israel, the Jewish people were “under the Law.” However, the Gentiles did not have the Torah, therefore, they were “without the Law.”

Nevertheless, God did not leave them without any witness since many Gentiles kept the precepts of the law “by nature” regardless of their ignorance of the written legal code. They would be held accountable for their sin on the “day of wrath.”

Both groups were in the same fix. “Jews and Greeks are all under sin… There is none righteous, no, not even one.” The Jews knew the Law but sinned all the same, and the Law continued to bear witness against their disobedience. The Gentiles violated their conscience and even reveled in their sin.

  • 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 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.” Men are judged by the Law, but their justification before God was never its function. However, there is another “law” by which men are justified before God, 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.”

Paul is not opposed to the idea of law or good works. His point is quite specific: Men are not justified from the “works of the Law,” that is, from the deeds and rituals required by the Torah. Instead, they are justified from a “law of faith” (Paul consistently uses the preposition from” or ek’ rather than by” when discussing the basis of justification).

The Letter presents Abraham as the model of faith. If he “was justified from works, he has whereof to glory.” But the Patriarch believed the promise of God, and his faith was “reckoned to him as righteousness.” This occurred before he was circumcised, and before the Law was given to Israel, therefore, he was not justified from the works of the Mosaic Law, but instead, “through the righteousness of faith” - (Romans 4:1-13).

Lighthouse dusk - Photo by Red Zeppelin on Unsplash
[Photo by Red Zeppelin on Unsplash]

Paul certainly believed that salvation is an act of divine grace, but the issue in Rome was not “good works” and human effort versus unmerited grace, but whether Jews and Gentiles are justified by God from the works of the Law of Moses.

Paul’s answer is unequivocal: NO. Instead, they are justified from faith, but not just any faith, but from something very specific, the “faith of Jesus Christ.” That is the only basis on which men and women are reconciled with, and put into right standing by, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

  • Justified from Faith - (What identifies God’s people and determines membership in His covenant community is Jesus)
  • From Faith For Faith - (Men are not put in right standing before God from the works of the Mosaic Law, but instead, from the faith of Jesus Christ)
  • The Faith of Abraham - (The Apostle Paul presents Abraham as the great exemplar of faith for both Jewish and Gentile believers)



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