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Q. Can you explain the “works of the Law” phrase Paul uses in Galatians? Does this relate to modern applications of tithing, baptism, church-going, good works, etc. or should it just be more specifically applied to the Old Testament sacrifices, the priest


Dear *****,

Thanks for your question.

As you know, Paul speaks of the law in two ways. On the one hand, he (along with Old Testament writers) speaks of the Law of Moses as something wonderful and glorious:

5 “See, I have taught you statutes and judgments just as the LORD my God commanded me, that you should do thus in the land where you are entering to possess it. 6 “So keep and do them, for that is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples who will hear all these statutes and say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ 7 “For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as is the LORD our God whenever we call on Him? 8 “Or what great nation is there that has statutes and judgments as righteous as this whole law which I am setting before you today? (Deuteronomy 4:5-8, NAU)

O how I love Your law! It is my meditation all the day (Psalm 119:97, see also verses 113, 163).

So then, the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good (Romans 7:12).

He also speaks of the law as a system of keeping the Old Testament Law of Moses, in order to earn God’s blessings. (The expression, “the works of the Law” is often associated with this negative outlook on law-keeping.) The problem is that law-keeping cannot save, but will only condemn one as a guilty sinner:

19 Now we know that whatever the Law says, it speaks to those who are under the Law, so that every mouth may be closed and all the world may become accountable to God; 20 because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin (Romans 3:19-20 NAU).

1 Brethren, my heart’s desire and my prayer to God for them is for their salvation. 2 For I testify about them that they have a zeal for God, but not in accordance with knowledge. 3 For not knowing about God’s righteousness and seeking to establish their own, they did not subject themselves to the righteousness of God. 4 For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes. 5 For Moses writes that the man who practices the righteousness which is based on law shall live by that righteousness (Romans 10:1-5).

This “works of the law” salvation was certainly something which unbelieving Jews sought to accomplish, but seeking to do so only led to their rejection of God’s provision of salvation by faith in Jesus Christ:

30 What shall we say then? That Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, attained righteousness, even the righteousness which is by faith; 31 but Israel, pursuing a law of righteousness, did not arrive at that law. 32 Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as though it were by works. They stumbled over the stumbling stone, 33 just as it is written, “BEHOLD, I LAY IN ZION A STONE OF STUMBLING AND A ROCK OF OFFENSE, AND HE WHO BELIEVES IN HIM WILL NOT BE DISAPPOINTED” (Romans 9:30-33).

A major problem, frequently addressed in the New Testament, was that “law-works” Jews sought to compel Gentile believers to keep the Old Testament law, just as they sought to keep it themselves. We see this very clearly in Acts chapter 15:

Some men came down from Judea and began teaching the brethren, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” 2 And when Paul and Barnabas had great dissension and debate with them, the brethren determined that Paul and Barnabas and some others of them should go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders concerning this issue . . . . 4 When they arrived at Jerusalem, they were received by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they reported all that God had done with them. 5 But some of the sect of the Pharisees who had believed stood up, saying, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to direct them to observe the Law of Moses” (Acts 15:4-5).

At the Jerusalem Council the apostles made it very clear that it was folly for these Jews to require law-keeping of the Gentiles when they could not keep the law themselves:

“Now therefore why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? 11 “But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are” (Acts 15:10-11).

As I understand the Scriptures, the Jewish legalists first insisted that Gentiles must become Jewish proselytes (be circumcised and submit to the Old Testament law) in order to be saved (Acts 15:1-4ff.), but then, having been disapproved by the apostles at the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15), they proceeded to insist that law-keeping was essential for sanctification. I believe this is apparent in the Book of Galatians.

The Judaizers infiltrated the churches with their distorted emphasis on keeping the Old Testament Law as a means of earning God’s favor. We see this error frequently addressed in the epistles (see Philippians 3:2ff.; Colossians 2; 1 Timothy 1:3-11; Titus 1:14; 3:9).

Thus, when Paul condemns and forbids law-keeping as a means of salvation and sanctification, he is condemning this for both Jews and Gentiles. That this applies equally to Gentiles is clear in Galatians chapter 5:

It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery. 2 Behold I, Paul, say to you that if you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no benefit to you. 3 And I testify again to every man who receives circumcision, that he is under obligation to keep the whole Law. 4 You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace. 5 For we through the Spirit, by faith, are waiting for the hope of righteousness. 6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, but faith working through love (Galatians 5:1-6).

I believe it is clear that in the New Testament “the works of the Law” referrs to man’s efforts at keeping the Old Testament law in order to attain righteousness and salvation, whether this be by Jews or Gentiles.

Having said this, we should also note that Paul applied the Scriptures beyond their immediate, direct, application. An example of this is found in 1 Corinthians 9:

I am not speaking these things according to human judgment, am I? Or does not the Law also say these things? 9 For it is written in the Law of Moses, “YOU SHALL NOT MUZZLE THE OX WHILE HE IS THRESHING.” God is not concerned about oxen, is He? 10 Or is He speaking altogether for our sake? Yes, for our sake it was written, because the plowman ought to plow in hope, and the thresher to thresh in hope of sharing the crops. 11 If we sowed spiritual things in you, is it too much if we reap material things from you? 12 If others share the right over you, do we not more? Nevertheless, we did not use this right, but we endure all things so that we will cause no hindrance to the gospel of Christ (1 Corinthians 9:8-12).

The law which instructed ox owners to allow their animals to partake of the fruits of their labors taught the principle that the laborer was worthy of his wages. Thus Paul had no difficulty applying the law beyond the specific applications spelled out by the law.

In doing so, Paul applied the Old Testament Law in the same way that Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount:

27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT ADULTERY’; 28 but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 “If your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 “If your right hand makes you stumble, cut it off and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to go into hell” (Matthew 5:27-30).

Jewish legalism (well, really any brand of legalism) seeks to narrow the focus and application of a particular principle, law, or rule, so that it wouldn’t really apply generally, and thus it could be avoided (disobeyed) or disregarded. For example,

16 “Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘Whoever swears by the temple, that is nothing; but whoever swears by the gold of the temple is obligated.’ 17 “You fools and blind men! Which is more important, the gold or the temple that sanctified the gold? 18 “And, ‘Whoever swears by the altar, that is nothing, but whoever swears by the offering on it, he is obligated.’ 19 “You blind men, which is more important, the offering, or the altar that sanctifies the offering? 20 “Therefore, whoever swears by the altar, swears both by the altar and by everything on it. 21 “And whoever swears by the temple, swears both by the temple and by Him who dwells within it. 22 “And whoever swears by heaven, swears both by the throne of God and by Him who sits upon it. 23 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others. 24 “You blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel! (Matthew 23:16-24)

Legalism strives to appear to be zealous about keeping the law, but in reality, it works hard at narrowing the application of the law (“straining the gnat”?) to the point where it no longer applies. So, when one swears by the temple, he or she is not obligated to keep their vow. They are only bound to keep their oath when they swear by the gold of the temple.

Legalistic Jews also found ways to use their traditions to overrule the clear commands of the Law:

8 “Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men.” 9 He was also saying to them, “You are experts at setting aside the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition. 10 “For Moses said, ‘HONOR YOUR FATHER AND YOUR MOTHER’; and, ‘HE WHO SPEAKS EVIL OF FATHER OR MOTHER, IS TO BE PUT TO DEATH’; 11 but you say, ‘If a man says to his father or his mother, whatever I have that would help you is Corban (that is to say, given to God),’ 12 you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or his mother; 13 thus invalidating the word of God by your tradition which you have handed down; and you do many things such as that” (Mark 7:8-13).

So, when interpreted and applied legalistically, the command, “You shall not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:14; Matthew 5:27), was understood to forbid a literal act of adultery. So, one kept this law so long as they did not literally commit adultery. While legalistic Jews narrowed the law to the point where they could pride themselves for keeping (or, in some cases, avoiding) it, Jesus extended the application of this law: Since it is wrong to commit adultery, lusting after a woman (which leads to adultery) is also wrong. If murder is wrong, then so is hatred, and thus one should pursue forgiveness and reconciliation.

So, let’s apply this way of interpreting and applying Scripture to “the works of the law.” If it is wrong to pursue law-keeping as the means by which a person can earn righteousness and God’s favor, then it is also wrong to seek to earn God’s favor by keeping any set of rules and regulations. This is not to cast aside rules and regulations (including speed limits, etc.), but rather to avoid seeking to keep the rules (whichever they might be) in order to earn God’s favor and blessing.

Thus, I believe that preachers who use Paul’s teaching on “the works of the law” to condemn any legalistic system of rule-making and rule-keeping are right in doing so. They are extending the application of the literal teaching of Paul to other, yet related, evils.



Related Topics: Christian Life, Law, Sanctification, Soteriology (Salvation)

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