Just What Do You Mean “Works of the Law”?

One of the most hotly and lengthily debated topics among theologians and preachers for centuries now (and in recent decades surprisingly influencing even some Bible translators, as reflected in their modern versions) — centers on the apostle Paul’s statement, “works of the law.” It is therefore very important that we take the time to systematically and objectively study this very important topic.

Most in the Christian world are confused by this otherwise simple statement of the apostle Paul when he said, “a man is not justified by the works of the law.” But humanly interpreting this brief statement, many believe and teach that New Testament Christians (especially Gentiles) are no longer expected to obey God’s laws and commandments because these efforts constitute “works.” As a corollary to this idea, it is also popularly taught that the death of Christ rendered all such laws and commandments abolished and obsolete. Some have gone so far as to also teach that the Old Testament (as a package) is now abolished. Therefore, all that is really needed now for salvation is only “faith” in Christ — nothing more.

Have you really examined and reviewed how biblically accurate and valid these popular pronouncements are? It is high time that we really do. Our salvation may depend on it.

As a hotly debated issue, there is obviously no clear and exact definition of the term “works of the law” upon which all can agree. But the most prevalent and common interpretation among most churches with their leaders (as stated on their respective websites) on which most find an agreement is that Paul (the apostle to the Gentiles) taught a departure from obeying God’s laws contained in the Torah (the five books of Moses). More specifically, Paul is claimed to have opposed the hallmarks of Jewish practices which features circumcision, Sabbath-keeping with the Annual Holy Days, and the observance of dietary laws.

Because of such popular and widespread teachings, most Christians today distance themselves from such “Jewish practices” — and just stick to only the New Testament teachings.

On the other hand, there are many Christians who sincerely believe that it is illogical and unrighteous to simply reject God’s wisdom contained in His commandments and laws. They believe the Bible is abundantly clear in its teachings and statements about following an obedient, law-abiding, and godly lifestyle — rather than a lawless one.

So, what is the truth concerning this controversial statement of Paul? How can we properly understand his statements so that it reconciles with, and does not in any way contradict other verses in the Bible — since all Scripture is inspired by God?

RATHER THAN THE LONG, WINDING, AND CONVOLUTED ARGUMENTS, THE SIMPLE AND WISE PROCEDURE IS TO JUST SYSTEMATICALLY LET THE BIBLE INTERPRET ITSELF. HOW?

HEED PETER’S WARNING CONCERNING PAUL’S WRITINGS:

First of all, let us be reminded about the apostle Peter’s wise warning to all of us. He wrote: “… and consider that … as also our beloved brother Paul … has written to you, as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures. You therefore, beloved, since you know this beforehand, beware lest you also fall from your own steadfastness, being led away with the error of the wicked” (2 Peter 3:15-17).

TO AVOID COMMITTING THE VERY MISTAKE PETER WARNED US ABOUT, LET US START BY READING THOSE VERY CLEAR STATEMENTS FROM PAUL HIMSELF AS BASIS IN INTERPRETING HIS MORE CONTROVERSIAL STATEMENTS.

PAUL’S PERSONAL CONVICTIONS CONCERNING GOD’S LAWS:

“(for not the hearers of the law are just in the sight of God, but the DOERS of the law [those who OBEY (NIV, NLT)] will be justified (Romans 2:13).

Do we then make void the law through faith? Certainly not! On the contrary, we ESTABLISH the law.” (Romans 3:31).

“Therefore the law is HOLY, and the commandment HOLY and JUST and GOOD” (Romans 7:12). 

“For we know that the law is SPIRITUAL, but [in contrast] I am carnal, sold under sin” (Romans 7:14).

“Circumcision [being an Israelite] is nothing and uncircumcision [being a Gentile] is nothing, BUT KEEPING THE COMMANDMENTS OF GOD IS WHAT MATTERS [IS WHAT COUNTS (NIV)]” (1 Corinthians 7:19).

To prove that he was not rejecting the writings of Moses (contrary to rampant reports against him then and even now), Paul even participated in performing a Jewish vow while in Jerusalem (Acts 21:23-26).

Notice also Paul’s defense before Governor Felix in Caesarea, where Ananias (the high priest) and the religious leaders in Jerusalem were also called to testify against him:

“But this I confess to you, that according to the Way which they call a sect, so I worship the God of my fathers, believing ALL things which are written in the Law and in the Prophets” (Acts 24:14).

Paul’s succeeding (second) testimony before Festus in Caesarea, and before the Jewish leaders called in again from Jerusalem to testify against him:

“Then Paul made his defense: “I have done nothing wrong against the law of the Jews or against the temple or against Caesar [Roman government (NLT)]” (Acts 25:8, NIV).

All these verses, very clearly state Paul’s unmistakable conviction concerning obedience to God’s laws and commandments. Likewise, he said he did nothing against the laws of the Jews or the Roman government. Therefore, any assumptions or interpretations from anyone to the contrary are NOT true or correct. It is interesting to note that the false accusations against Paul in the past are the same accusations leveled against him even today  (Acts 21:21)!

LET US NOW PUT HIS CLEAR STATEMENTS TO THE TEST — BY LOOKING AT THE RECORDED CONDUCT OF HIS MINISTRY AS EVIDENCE.

SIX FALSE ASSUMPTIONS CONCERNING PAUL’S BELIEFS:

CIRCUMCISION — Some claim that Paul was against circumcision? But notice that it is recorded that he himself circumcised Timothy (Acts 16:1-3). What he was against was to equate the act of being circumcised to already being saved (Acts 15:1b, 5; Romans 2:25; Galatians 5:3).

SABBATH — Some also claim that Paul “did away” with Sabbath observance and did not teach the Gentiles to keep the Sabbath — because they were Jewish customs? Yet consistently, as one obedient to God’s laws and commandments, he observed the Sabbath everywhere he and his companions went, and even among Gentile people and in their cities. Please carefully read each of these verses as proof of his true convictions (Acts 13:13, 14, 42, 44; 16:13; 17:2; 18:4).

HOLY DAYS OF GOD — Paul’s traveling companion, Luke, recorded Paul’s strong desire to diligently attend God’s Annual Festivals. One was when he had to prematurely leave Ephesus (but promised to return again) because he was trying “by all means” to keep the Feast in Jerusalem (Acts 18:20-21). [This “Feast in Jerusalem” most likely referred to the seventh month series of God’s Annual Festivals.] On another occasion, his traveling companions waited at Troas, while he stayed in Philippi until after the Days of Unleavened Bread (Acts 20:5-6). On still another occasion, Paul again hurriedto be at Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost” (Acts 20:16). Luke likewise faithfully recorded Paul’s advice against sailing to Rome in late autumn that year because it was already past the “Fast.” Many Bible commentaries (like the NIV Study Bible, The E.W. Bullinger Companion Bible, etc.) identify this “Fast” as the Day of Atonement (Acts 27:9). And to complete the record of his keeping all of the Annual Festivals of God, Paul himself wrote detailed Passover instructions to the church in Corinth (1 Corinthians 11:23-34).

BIBLICAL DIETARY LAWS — Like Peter, whose strong biblical foundation enabled him to oppose a voice telling him thrice to supposedly eat unclean creatures (Acts 10:13-16) — which Peter later understood was not referring to creatures but to three Gentiles looking for him then (Acts 10:17-20, 28) — Paul was likewise well established in the laws of God on this matter.

Note that even after that vision, Peter NEVER wrote a single verse contradicting Scriptures prohibiting God’s holy people to defile themselves with eating “unclean creatures” which the Bible labels as “abomination” “detestable” (ESV, NAU) (Leviticus 11:1-47; Deuteronomy 14:3-21).

In fact, for their conscience’ sake, Paul allowed those who believed that their otherwise “clean” meat — but by reason of being sacrificed to idols became “unclean” — were not encouraged to eat them (1 Corinthians 8:1-13; 10:28, 29). Also because of conscience issues among some of the believers in Rome, some resorted to vegetarianism, which the apostle Paul approved (Romans 14:1-4). [I hope to write a more detailed article on this subject in a future blog post.]

THAT PAUL ALLOWED A SEPARATEGENTILE WAY OF SALVATION” — Most Christians today have been falsely taught that while the Jews practiced their Torah-based religion, the Gentiles then were simply allowed their own separate nonTorah based religion based on their old Gentile pagan customs and traditions. However, Paul stated that “the Gentiles … should repent (change from their old pagan ways) and turn to [the] God [of Israel], and do works befitting repentance” [real transformation in their lives] (Acts 26:20b; Romans 1:5). This statement exactly matches what Paul also told the Gentiles in Rome, that they as wild olive branches were being grafted onto the natural olive tree [Israel] which bear the roots [thus, not allowing the Gentiles to establish their own original roots] (Romans 11:13, 17-24). This means that the Gentiles were to adopt the beliefs and practices of God’s Israelite people. Clearly, there is NO separate “Gentile way to salvation” with their own old customary pagan practices.

THAT GENTILES THEN WERE IGNORANT ABOUT JEWISH TEACHINGS — Most Christians today have also been falsely taught that the Gentiles then were ignorant about the Jewish Scriptures (The Law and the Prophets). However, the Bible states that “The Law and the Prophetswere read to them every Sabbath in every city (Acts 15:21). This shows that the Gentiles who were intent on following the God of Israel were being taught with the same teachings as the Jews then. The Gentiles who were being called by God to salvation were led by God’s Holy Spirit to contact and be taught by Jewish apostles and leaders (Acts 10:1-6; 21-48; 11:19-26). In fact, the Gentiles were more zealous than the Jews (Acts 13:42-49)!

THE BASIC AND ONLY GUIDE DURING THE APOSTOLIC DAYS

When Paul wrote to Timothy that: “ALL SCRIPTURE is given by inspiration of God” (2 Timothy 3:16), he was referring to no other but what we know today as the Old Testament, which Timothy also knew since his childhood (2 Timothy 3:15) — because the New Testament writings (in codified form) as we know them today was still non-existent then.

Regarding living by the Word of God, Paul said, “Imitate me [Be ye followers of me (KJV)], just as I also imitate Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). In other words, what he is saying here is that we are not to follow those Jewish or Gentiles teachers who were not true servants of God.

ANALYSIS OF “WORKS OF THE LAW” AS PRESENTLY TRANSLATED

Only the apostle Paul used this term — once in his letter to the Romans, and six times more in his letter to the Galatians (Romans 9:32; Galatians 2:16; 3:2, 5, 10).

The Greek root word for “work” is ‘ergon’ while the Greek root word for “law” is ‘nomos’ thus: “ergon nomos” (some render it “erga nomou”). This is different from the Hebrew “Torah.”

If we check with any Greek-English Interlinear, surprisingly there is NO Greek word in the original for the English-supplied word “the.” Thus, it is simply “ergon nomos” or literally “work law” or “works of lawNOT “works of the law.” Now, what does that mean? Obviously, not the way some theologians or translators would interpret it and would like us all to believe.

The Young’s Literal Translation is accurate by correctly omitting the word “the” in the text:

“having known also that a man is not declared righteous by works of law, if not through the faith of Jesus Christ, also we in Christ Jesus did believe, that we might be declared righteous by the faith of Christ, and not by works of law, wherefore declared righteous by works of law shall be no flesh’ (Galatians 2:16, YLT).

On the other hand, the New International Version renders the verse by changing the word for “works” into “observing” plus adding the definite article “the.” With these drastic changes, the meaning also changes (unintentionally?) to somewhat connote the spirit of “antinomianism” or lawlessness, which is unbiblical, and is prone to be misunderstood and misinterpreted.

“know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified (Galatians 2:16, NIV).

But what seems to be the most unbiblical translation is the rendering in the New Living Translation. It directly contradicts Christ’s statement to the rich young ruler seeking salvation, quoted in Matthew 19:17b. [Christ Himself said] “But if you want to enter into life, keep the commandments.” But below is the opposite of what Christ said when compared to this NLT:

“And yet we Jewish Christians know that we become right with God, not by doing what the law commands, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be accepted by God because of our faith in Christ — and not because we have obeyed the law. For no one will ever be saved by obeying the law.” (Galatians 2:16, NLT).

Now that we have clearly established Paul’s teachings and his understanding about God’s laws and commandments, we are now ready to examine what his controversial phrase means.

THE CONTEXT OF PAUL’S LETTER TO THE GALATIANS

Paul described himself as the apostle to the Gentiles [to the uncircumcision], while Peter was to the Jews [to the circumcision] (Galatians 2:7-9). While there were some inherent cultural practices which differed between these two kinds of peoples, these were not the real problem because those interested Gentiles (being called by God to salvation) were intent on following the ways of God’s holy people and were being taught from “The Law and the Prophets” every Sabbath in all their various cities (Acts 15:21). The real problem that Paul was contending with were the false teachings of the “Judaizers.”

These people were enforcing their religious beliefs characterized by some precepts from the “Torah” without the proper SPIRITUAL component and application. In particular, they taught that unless a person is circumcised, he cannot be saved (Acts 15:1). Actually, the rampant and zealous teachings of these Judaizers led to the convening of the historic Jerusalem conference to decide on this issue of circumcision, described in Acts 15:1-21.

[Peter and Paul’s Conflict — Caused also by the critical attitudes of some Judaizers (who just arrived from Jerusalem to Antioch). Peter was somewhat caught off-guard on how to best handle the delicate situation. Being also human, Paul was sadly too quick to condemn Peter’s action, who was then just trying to prevent offenses by simply withdrawing himself from that difficult situation. (Galatians 2:11-14). Please understand that in that very early stage of the New Testament Church, Peter was still respecting deep-seated cultural sensitivities between Jews and Gentiles, while Paul did not seem to care much. Peter was well aware of laws in the writings of Moses condemning fellowship (especially eating) with Gentiles. For your information, please read the following verses describing those restrictions which spilled over into the early New Testament era (Exodus 34:15; Matthew 10:5; John 4:9; Acts 10:28; 11:2-3). While being too quick to judge Peter then, Paul himself later addressed similar sensitivities regarding eating, especially with those having “weak conscience” (1 Corinthians 8:7, 9-13; 10:29-33)]

WHAT THEN DID PAUL MEAN BY “WORKS OF [THE] LAW”?

Circumcision was just one major emphasis of the Judaizers. Another one is not recognizing the divinity of Yahshua (Jesus) the Messiah whom they betrayed with hate and envy to Pilate and thus into the hands of the Roman soldiers to be killed. They did not recognize His sacrifice and ultimate death for their sins and for all of mankind. So in a zealous effort to continue atoning for their own sins, they would insist on continuing with the rituals of “animal sacrifices” which truly involves heavy “WORKS” — among many other man-made requirements. That is what Paul meant when he talked about “works of [the] lawwhich cannot justify us from our sins. As we have already well established, Paul never intended the abolition of the Ten Commandments and other biblical practices, which Christ Himself kept. So did the original apostles and the first-century Church.

WHAT IS “JUSTIFICATION”?

In theological terms, it is the supernatural and divine act of God to declare a human “just,” due to the forgiveness of sins. Therefore, he or she is freed from the guilt thereof, and thus has escaped the penalty of sin (which is death) — all because of Christ’s sacrifice (with His own death) on our behalf.

[Paul said] “Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him. For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life” (Romans 5:9,10).

God’s benevolent offer of such forgiveness is God’s grace to us. Our act of accepting such invisible, merciful, and loving offer is the expression of our faith in God and in Christ.

CONCLUSION

Prior to the sacrificial death of our Savior, the LAW on animal sacrifices (which involves “WORKS”) was our temporary “schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ” (Galatians 3:24-25, KJV).

With the clear explanation in this article, we now know that “works of [the] law” is not referring to the practice of obeying God’s laws such as the Ten Commandments, etc. (as many have erroneously believed). Rather, it refers to the expensive, very time-consuming, and heavyWORKSinvolved in sacrificing many animals continually for each and all of our sins, which cannot justify us by removing any of our sins anyway. Only the shed blood of our Savior can really cleanse us completely from all of our sins (Hebrews 10:1-4).

Therefore, in the light of the explanation given, very obviously, “a man is not justified by the works of [the] law [of animal sacrifices] but by faith in Jesus Christ.”

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2 Comments

  1. 2rs 2Ls

    What intellectual dishonesty would omit James 2:18 from this entire discourse around the meaning of the term “works” (Gr 2041: Ergo/Ergon)?

    • Edmond Macaraeg

      Thanks for your perceptive comment. The intent of the said article was to simply FOCUS on what Paul meant by his statement, “works of the law.” It was NOT meant to make a full discussion on the whole topic of “works” which would be best covered in a separate article focused exclusively on that particular subject. In which case, we can then focus and include all the statements of James, plus all other relevant verses in the Bible on that topic. But combining the two topics (explaining what Paul meant by “works of the law,” plus going thru a whole exposition of “works” will be a very long article, which goes beyond the editorial guidelines of “BiblicalTruths.com” — among which includes brevity as much as possible, and being as direct to the point as much as possible.
      It was not my intention (as the article writer) to intentionally omit James 2:18. It just so happens that James’ statement on this subject had no direct bearing on the commonly misunderstood issue in Paul’s statement concerning “works of the law” in his letter to the Galatians (and also to the Romans).
      Thanks again anyway for your interest in giving your comment.

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