Kim Papaioannou, PhD, pastors in Cyprus.

The “works of the law” is a Pauline expression in Galatians and Romans that describes a system through which some believers were trying to attain justification.1 What are the works of the law? Paul does not explain. Today the expression is almost universally understood to refer to obedience to God’s law and/or a commitment to other good works with a view to earning salvation. This is seen in the 1984 New International Version rendering of it as “observing the law” (Gal. 2:16).

How did this understanding come about?

The Reformation

The Protestant Reformation began with Martin Luther in 1517. For 12 years prior, he had been an Augustinian monk, devoting himself to fasting, long hours in prayer, pilgrimages, and frequent confession.2 His order had prescriptions on how to stand, walk, or travel; it had injunctions about not looking at persons of the opposite sex; it imposed regulations about what to wear and how to take care of clothes; it prescribed caring for the sick; and it demanded obedience to superiors.3

Through such acts, Luther endeavored to earn the favor of God and salvation but, instead, found himself spiritually miserable and feeling alienated from Christ.4

When he understood that salvation was an undeserved gift from God through Jesus, he juxtaposed his newfound understanding with his previous life of regimented, stringent obedience. Therefore, because he understood the doctrine of justification by faith as one of faith versus obedience, he projected this model on Paul, whereby the “works of the law” paralleled stringent obedience to the law, while justification by faith reflected salvation as a gift. In doing so, he bequeathed a legacy to future generations of Protestants.

There is some legitimacy in Luther’s understanding. A person cannot earn salvation through obedience, no matter how stringent that obedience might be. But is this what Paul had in mind when he contrasted the works of the law with the grace of Jesus? I believe not.

In this short study, we will look at two kinds of works: the “work of the Lord” and the “works of the Law.” The two expressions sound similar, and there is a conceptual, semantic, and indeed theological parallel. Yet the two are very different, and that difference must be understood.

The work of the Lord

The year is around 1445 BC. The children of Israel had left Egypt and camped before Mount Sinai. God invited them to enter a covenant relationship with Him (Exod. 19:1–6).

The covenant contained two elements. First, Israel was called to obey God’s words, the Ten Commandments (Exod. 20:1–17), and then apply the principles of the commandments to everyday life (Exod. 21–23). Three times they promised to do so (Exod. 19:8; 24:3, 7).

Second, because Israel was composed of sinful human beings and God was holy and sinless, animal sacrifices were offered, and Moses sprinkled Israel with the blood (Exod. 24:4–7). This blood was called “the blood of the covenant” (v. 8). Sacrifices were a constituent part of most ancient Near Eastern covenants and indicated the penalty that would befall breaches of the covenant.

The promise of obedience and the blood of the covenant put Israel into a covenant relationship with God. However, hardly 40 days passed, and—by making and worshiping a golden calf and engaging in sexual immorality (Exod. 32)—they broke the covenant in a most heinous way.

God, then, declared the covenant broken and that Israel was no longer His people (Exod. 32:7, 10; 33:1). They deserved the death penalty, in line with the punishment envisaged in the sacrifice of oxen (Exod. 32:10, 27, 33, 34, 35; 33:5). He instead offered to build a nation out of Moses, who, likewise, broke the tablets, indicating that the covenant was no longer in force (Exod. 32:19). Would this be the end of Israel as God’s people?

But Moses intervened on Israel’s behalf and entreated God to forgive them. God acquiesced. It seems as if He were waiting for Moses to do this. He declared Himself to be “ ‘merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin’ ” (Exod. 34:6, 7, NKJV).

Then He made this amazing promise: “ ‘Behold, I make a covenant. Before all your people I will do marvels such as have not been done in all the earth, nor in any nation; and all the people among whom you are shall see the work of the LORD. For it is an awesome thing that I will do with you’ ” (v. 10, NKJV; emphasis added). Here, God promised to do an awesome “work,” one that all people will see.

What work is God referring to? The sacrifice of Jesus on the cross—the greatest manifestation of God’s merciful character and the answer to the repeated failures of Israel and humanity.

This is how the apostle Paul understood the “work of the Lord.” When preaching in a Galatian synagogue, having told them that in Christ is forgiveness of sin offered (Acts 13:38, 39), he warns his audience not to neglect this work:

“ ‘Behold, you despisers,
Marvel and perish!
For I work a work in your days,
A work which you will by no means believe,
Though one were to declare it to you’ ” (v. 41).

Yes, the great work of the Lord is the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, the greatest work this world has ever witnessed.

The works of the Law

What about the “works of the law” that Paul mentions? What are they?

They are works. Let us begin with the word works. This word implies something that you do. The stringent requirements of the Augustinian order may have appeared to Luther to fit the description of “works of the law,” but the Ten Commandments do not. Why? Eight of the ten are prohibitive; they do not tell you what to do but what not to do. This means that the works of the law cannot refer to obedience to the Ten Commandments. To do so would be a misnomer.

They are something in the Pentateuch. When a modern reader hears the word law, the mind goes to a legal code; from a Christian perspective, the obvious choice is the Ten Commandments, the foremost biblical legal code. But such an understanding is wrong because we are using a modern understanding of a word to interpret an ancient text. For first-century Jews and Christians, law was the Torah, the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, Genesis to Deuteronomy. This is common knowledge in theological circles.

Let us read Galatians 2:16 again with this simple understanding in mind: “[We know] that a man is not justified by the works of the Pentateuch but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Pentateuch; for by the works of the Pentateuch no flesh shall be justified” (Gal. 2:16, NKJV; italics indicate adjusted translation).

It sounds different, does it not? My translation is a much more accurate reflection of what Paul’s readers would have understood than are the contemporary English ones.

They were an attempt at justification. Let us look at Galatians 2:16 again. Three times, Paul uses the word justified. What does this word mean?

It is best we let Paul answer this question: “Therefore let it be known to you, brethren, that through this Man [Jesus] is preached to you the forgiveness of sins; and by Him everyone who believes is justified from all things from which you could not be justified by the law of Moses” (Acts 13:38, 39, NKJV).

Notice how in this text, forgiveness and justification appear hand in hand. Forgiveness is a theological term that implies that a person’s sins have been forgiven. Justification is a legal term and implies that a person accused in court is acquitted. Why? The offense has somehow been canceled. Forgiveness and justification, therefore, describe the same thing—one from a theological perspective, the other from a judicial one.

So how was forgiveness offered in the Pentateuch? Not through obedience to the Ten Commandments or any other legislative document. It was offered through sacrifices.

Michael Rodkinson, an expert on rabbinic writings, stated, “Wherever throughout the Mishna the expression guilty, culpable (Hayabh), or free (Patur) is used, the meaning of the former (guilty) is that the transgressor acting unintentionally must bring the sin-offering prescribed in the law [Pentateuch].”

And: “The penalty for the first class of infractions was simply the sacrificing of a sin-offering, which, however, involved a great many hardships, as the culprit had to bring the sin-offering to the temple in Jerusalem in person, and was frequently compelled to travel quite a distance in order to do so, besides sustaining the loss of the value of the offering.”5

First-century Jews knew that if you wanted forgiveness/justification, you did not try a bit harder or more stringently to keep the law, as Luther did; instead, you offered a sacrifice for sin. Could it be, then, that the “works of the Pentateuch,” the aim of which was to offer forgiveness/justification, are the sacrifices prescribed in the Pentateuch? It certainly seems to. They are prescribed in the Pentateuch; they involved work, and their aim was forgiveness.

Let us look at one last line of evidence.

The word works in the Pentateuch. When one tries to find the meaning of something, common sense suggests beginning with what is obvious. When we hear the expression “works of the Pentateuch,” the most obvious place to look for meaning would be in the Pentateuch. Unfortunately, most theologians do not bother to look there. Had they done so, the misunderstanding that envelops this phrase would probably never have arisen!

The word work/works, Greek ergon/erga, appears 149 times in the Torah. Slightly over half refer to either secular human works or mighty acts of God that are, nonetheless, unrelated to forgiveness/justification.

More importantly, the word never appears in relation to the keeping of the Ten Commandments or any other legal code.

But most importantly, it appears a whopping 70 times in relation to the tabernacle and its services, sacrifices included. Indeed, the whole tabernacle service is called “the work of the tabernacle” (Num. 3:7). It was in the tabernacle that atonement for human sin was performed. The works of the Pentateuch, therefore, which aimed at forgiveness/justification and against which Paul warns, were the sacrifices and the other works performed in the temple/tabernacle, not obedience to the Ten Commandments or any other biblical legal code.

Conclusion

Based on the above information, we can retranslate/paraphrase Galatians 2:16 as follows: “[We know] that a person cannot be forgiven/justified by the works prescribed in the Pentateuch, namely the sanctuary service, but by faith in [the sacrifice of] Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be forgiven/justified by faith in Christ and not by the works prescribed in the Pentateuch; for by the works of the Pentateuch no flesh shall be forgiven/justified” (Gal. 2:16; adjusted translation).6

Luther had a point. Human obedience cannot wipe out past sins and cannot save. In this, he was right. But he was wrong in using his own personal circumstances as a prism through which to understand Paul. In doing so, he bequeathed a hermeneutical legacy that eventually blossomed into different variations of Christian antinomianism, grace versus obedience.

No, Paul was not telling Galatian Christians to stop keeping the commandments, or to stop trying too hard to do so, or to stop doing good things. Paul’s message does not concern the commandments or doing good. He was telling them that the temple and its services, the sacrificial system, were no longer of any use in the plan of salvation.

The ineffective “works of the Law” that cannot cleanse human sin had been replaced by the amazing and all-effective “work of the Lord.” Hallelujah!

  1. Rom. 3:20, 27, 28; Gal. 2:16; 3:2, 5, 10.
  2. Roland Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (New York, NY: Penguin, 1995), 40–42.
  3. “Rule of St. Augustine,” Midwest Augustinians, accessed June 19, 2022, https://www.midwestaugustinians.org/roots-of-augustinian-spirituality#ch1.
  4. James Kittelson, Luther the Reformer (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 1986), 79.
  5. Michael L. Rodkinson, ed. and trans., The Babylonian Talmud, bk. 1 (Boston, MA: Talmud Pub., 1903), xxii and xxvi.
  6. A note on Galatians 3:10, which seems to connect “works of the law” to obedience: “For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them’ ” (ESV). In this text, Paul highlights the impossibility of salvation without Christ. A person without Christ can have either of two statuses. First, he can “abide by all things written in the Book of the Law and do them,” i.e., be sinless. Or, if he fails to “abide by all things,” he has broken the law. Therefore, he is a sinner, thus under a curse. Since the “works of the law” sacrifices cannot forgive sins, the curse remains. Sinless or cursed—these are the only two possible statuses without Christ. And since no person is sinless except Jesus (Rom. 3:23), the curse of sin remains upon all who refuse Christ. The only reality that can lift the curse of sin is the sacrifice of Jesus, the amazing “work of the Lord.”

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Kim Papaioannou, PhD, pastors in Cyprus.

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