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The Law of God – Part 3 – The Works of the Law

this series we not only explain what the Law of God is and how it works in a person’s life, but also point out specific verses and phrases that have been misunderstood by many. This presentation discusses the biblical meaning of a phrase used by the Apostle Paul—“works of the law.”

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We mentioned earlier in this series, the Law of God, that many Christians today rely on a number of scriptures to support the idea that the grace we are given, because of Christ’s sacrifice to remit our sins, obviates the need to observe God’s law, or parts of it – primarily the parts they don’t want to keep, like the Sabbath and the holy days, all of which were observed by the church Christ founded.

So, let’s look at a few scriptures so we can know what we’re dealing with. Let’s go to Galatians 2:15, where Paul said:

Galatians 2:15 – We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners. Yet we know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but through faith in Jesus Christ. So we also have believed in Christ Jesus in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law. Because by the works of the law no one will be justified. 

So he juxtaposes two concepts – faith in Christ (or justification) or works of the law for it. When we look at this scripture out of context, translated by people who believe that they were justified only in faith by Christ, it seems clear. Let’s look at some others. In Galatians 3:2, Paul says:

Galatians 3:2-3 – Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law, or by hearing of faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? 

Another yet: Galatians 3:5.

Galatians 3:5-6 – Does He who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith? Just as Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him for righteousness. 

Or Romans 9:30:

Romans 9:30 – What shall we say then? The Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness have attained it, that is, a righteousness that is by faith. But Israel, who pursued that law that would lead to righteousness did not succeed in reaching that law. Why? Because they did not pursue by faith, but as if it were based on works. They have stumbled over the stumbling-stone. 

Romans 3:20-22 – For by works of the law, no human being will be justified in His sight, since through the law comes the knowledge of sin. But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the law and the prophets bear witness to it: the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no dissention….  

It’s because of these verses and others like them, some Christians have believed that they are no longer required to keep God’s law, promulgating the very idea that Jude warned us about. And that is a grace without law. So what do we say in response to this argument? What’s the answer to these seemingly clear scriptures?

Well, two things need to be done. First of all, we need to read everything Paul said about the law of God and grace. And two, we need to understand what he meant by the term works of the law. 

Romans 3:28 – For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.

That’s another quote from Paul, but what did Paul mean when he used that term the works of the law? Once we understand the term the way he understood it, we can agree to it, too, as I’m sure you’ll see. Let’s start with some other scriptures about the law and grace. I said we need to read everything Paul said about the law and grace. Well, if we did that today, we’d be here till tomorrow. So, I’m not going to be able to read all of them, but let’s look at Romans 2:13 – Paul said:

Romans 2:12 – For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law. And all who have sinned under the law, will be judged by the law. Now listen to this – verse 13: For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. So, that’s a future statement – doers of the law will be justified. For when Gentiles, who do not have the law – they don’t know about it – by nature do what the law requires – for example, one aspect of the law says, “Do not kill.” So, when they don’t do that, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. But they show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or excuse them, on a day when according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus. 

So, here he seems to say the opposite of what he said in the other scriptures that we read just moments ago. Notice also that last part – “God judges the secrets of men by Jesus Christ.” We don’t have to obey the law. If we don’t have to obey the law, why will we be judged on our secret violations of it? Why was Paul concerned with obeying God? According to Paul here, we have to be doers of the law. And that does seem like a hopeless contradiction, doesn’t it? As Fred Coulter commented in the Appendix of his translation, “How is it that the doers of the law shall be justified when the works of the law shall not be justified? Which way is it going to be? Was Paul conflicted on the issue? Or, is there a better answer? 

There are two terms in the Bible that are very close and they’ve all been translated the same way. But, when you look at the original Greek, there are two terms. On is works of the law. There are two distinct phrases here. The works of the law and then works of law. Paul used both terms. But understand this now: all of them were translated one way. They were translated the works of the law. Well, if you just read an English translation, you won’t know which term he’s using. And it’s not that they’re interchangeable. They mean different things. And Paul knew the difference. 

So, let’s look at the works of the law. The works of the law refers to the law of God as defined under the New Covenant. Here is an example in a scripture we already looked at: For when Gentiles who do not have the law – that would be the law, right? – by nature do what the law requires, they are a law unto themselves. Even though they do not have the law, they show that the work of the law is written in their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or excuse them. He’s clearly talking about the law of God. He’s showing that God has written His law into everybody. And everybody knows it’s not good to kill somebody, for example. Okay? And there are many other examples that we could look at, but suffice it to say, if I quoted a good one, that should be good enough for now. The works of the law means God’s law as it is applied in whatever circumstance. In other words, if it was under the Old Covenant, then it would be Old Covenant, and if it was under the New Covenant, it would be New. So, he’s clearly talking about the law of God here. 

Now we come to that other phrase: works of law. I’m going to read you some scriptures that are translated as the works of the law, but actually, the literal translation leaves out the two thes. 

Galatians 2:16 – Yet we know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but through faith in Jesus Christ. So, we also have believed in Christ Jesus in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of law, because by works of law, no one will be justified. 

Okay, so here’s another one: 

Galatians 3:2 – Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of law, or by hearing of faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now perfected by the flesh? So the works of law have to do with physical things in many cases – not spiritual things. 

So these two things point up the question: What does works of law mean? Well, let’s take a look at that now – let’s bore into it a little bit. Let’s go back to Galatians 2. It says in Galatians 2 – Paul is telling this story:

Galatians 2:11-16 – When Cephas – that’s Peter – came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came before from James, he was eating with the Gentiles, but when they came, he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. So there were divisions in the church. Some thought you had to be circumcised and some thought not. And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led away by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before all of them, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?” – talking about circumcision. We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners – and now we continue on with the scripture that we read before – yet we know that a person is not justified works of law, but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ in order to be justified in Christ, not by works of law, because by works of law no one will be justified. 

Okay, so here’s what’s going on. Jews were not allowed by their law to associate with Gentiles. Now, I said, “by law,” but what are we talking about here? Well, there’s no where in the Old Testament you will find such a law. This was an add-on. It was a part of the oral law – the oral tradition – the traditions of the elders, they were called. And Peter knew that he could fellowship with Gentiles – that there was no law in the Bible – in the Old Testament – that said he couldn’t. And he was fellowshipping with Gentiles until certain Jews who didn’t understand that – who didn’t know the difference between the law of God and the add-ons. And so when they arrived, he withdrew from the Gentiles. So he was being hypocritical. How is it we know that? Well, if we go to Acts 10, and verse 28, it says:

Acts 10:28 – He said to them, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or visit anyone of another nation. But God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean. So he knew the difference. Peter knew that he didn’t have to keep works of law, but he did need to keep the law of God.  

So, Paul, here, uses the phrase works of law, rather than the works of the law, to focus on the man-made elements that were added by the Jews. So there’s a clearly defined example of what the phrase works of law can mean. It can include man-made law of Judaism. It can include the sacrifices and the temple worship. Paul showed in Hebrews that those sacrifices were eclipsed by Christ’s sacrifice, and they were part of works of law now and not of the law of God. Paul mentioned in Hebrews…he said that Christ’s sacrifice was done once for all. So, no need to do those sacrifices over and over again now that Christ has died for us. To do so would be an attempt to work out our own salvation. 

It can also refer to pagan religious rites of worship – an effort to earn salvation through ritual. And it can even apply to a legalistic approach to God’s law. By legalistic, I mean an approach whereby we attempt to obey the law with the hope of earning our salvation, or being sin-free by our own efforts. Some people think the way they make up for their past sins is by being good from now on. That’s not what it’s about. That’s an attempt to earn salvation. What we need to do is allow and accept Christ in faith to forgive us our sins, and then go forward from there. 

Our effort, then, becomes an attempt to earn salvation by good works – or works of law. Even it’s God’s law we seek to use, it’s still our effort that we’re focusing on. Even if we could be sin-free, once converted, what about all the sins we committed before? You see, it’s impossible to enter into eternal life by our own effort. That’s one of the points Paul is making. Paul said, “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God.”  And so, the only way to there is to trust God to forgive us, because once we break any part of the law of God, we’re guilty of the death penalty. Works of any law are not going to get us where we need to go. 

So, why obey then, if not to earn salvation? I can think of lots of reasons why, but I’m only going to focus on four of them today. 

One is a demonstration of faith in God. Romans 4:3 – Paul said:

Romans 4:3-5 – What does the scripture say? Abraham believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness. Now the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift, but as his due. And to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness. One of the points Paul is making here is, if it were possible to work out salvation on our own, it wouldn’t be a gift from God. It would be something that came from our own effort, and that’s just not how it works. We can’t go and undo the past sins that were forgiven. There’s the old saying, “You can’t unring a bell.” We can’t undo the wrongs that we’ve done in times past. So, we have to trust in faith that we’re going to be forgiven of those things, and that they won’t be held against us as God judges us. 

Here’s something else. This isn’t Paul, but this is James. James said, in chapter 2, verse 18: 

James 2:18 – Someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” That’s what they think the argument is – grace and faith on one side, and obedience and works on the other. James says, “It’s not that way.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” You believe that God is one. You do well. Even the demons believe and shudder. Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? Was not Abraham, our father, justified by works when he offered up his son, Isaac, on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works. 

You know that old saying, “Put your money where your mouth is?” Well, that’s what Abraham did when he took Isaac to be sacrificed. Faith leads to works. Right? That’s what he’s saying. It’s not one against the other. It’s both. 

What else can we say? What other reasons are there to obey God, even though it doesn’t cover our past sins. Well, when we live by the law of God, in its spiritual intent – that’s the way we’re supposed to do it today – it’s a way to show love to God. Jesus said that the entire law hangs on two rules: Love God with all of our hearts, and love our neighbor as ourselves. So, the part about loving God, when we obey God’s law, we’re showing that we love Him. If we don’t obey it, what does it show? Well, just the opposite. 

Another thing that’s important here, I think, is that obeying God’s law draws us closer to Him. What is it that separates us from God? Well, in Isaiah 59:1, He tells us;

Isaiah 59:1-2 – Behold, the LORD’s hand is not short that it cannot save, or His ear dull that He cannot hear, but your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden His face from you so that He does not hear you. 

So, what’s a sin? We’ve covered this already. Sin is the transgression of the law. So, it’s our sins that separate us from God. So, if that’s true, then, what would draw us closer to Him? Well, our obedience to it. James would have called us foolish for thinking any other way. When we seek to draw close to God, one of things we need to do is to follow Him, obey Him, surrender to Him. But that does not solve the problem of our past sins, does it? It just helps us to be closer to Him and become like Him, which is the fourth point I want to mention. 

John said, “God is love,” and Jesus said, “Love is the foundation of God’s law.” Let’s look at Romans 13:10.

Romans 13:10 – Love does no wrong to a neighbor, therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. 

And as we strive to obey the perfect law of love, God is molding us into our being like Him. So, we don’t obey God’s law to attain perfection, or to be good enough so that God will forget about what we’ve done in the past, and save us. No, that’s not how it works. He doesn’t forget anything, except for our past sins, once we’ve repented and their covered by Christ’s sacrifice. But, before that, He knows all of them. 

We strive to obey the perfect law of love. And when we do that, it helps us become like God. It’s the plan He has to perfect us. It says He is love and so is His law – all the same thing in the end. God is love. God, law and love cannot be separated. 

So, to sum it up, the term works of the law, as Paul used it, refers to human effort to attain salvation – working out your own salvation, rather than trusting God to save you through forgiveness. But that, in no way, means that we don’t need to obey God’s law. It  just means that we need to do it to exercise faith in God, to show love to God, and to become like Him.