“Works of the Law” occurs 8 times in Paul, all of which are in those letters universally accepted as authentically Pauline(e.g., Rom. 3:20, 28, Gal. 2:16, 3:2, 5, 10). The emphasis in Paul, by all accounts, is that it is impossible to be reconciled to by means of works of the Law. But to what does the phrase “works of the law” refer, and why does Paul argue that the works of this law are incapable of justifying a person, or making them legally righteous with God(this also raises the question of what it means to be declared legally right, or justified)? I by no means tend to survey every interpretation of Paul’s understanding of the relation of the Law to the impossibility of justification by its works, since there are certain fringe interpretations which are so improbable and rarely taken seriously that they are hardly worth mentioning.
This survey of Paul’s view of the Law will form an important component of my apologetic for reasons that will become clear later on. Suffice it for now to say that any one of the interpretations would serve my purposes(again, for reasons which will become obvious as we go on), but a critical survey of competing interpretations are important since essential doctrines of the Christian faith are at stake in this controversy.
The two accounts of Paul’s understanding of the Mosaic Law are:
1) The “Lutheran”/Reformation view – The “Law” refers to the principle of meritorious achievement, and the impossibility of being justified by it stems from the relation of the universal depravity of humankind to that aspect of God’s holiness according to which he requires perfect obedience. This is the view I defend here. Some commentators believe that Paul condemns the attempt to merit righteousness with God as inherently wrong regardless of whether or not one perfectly obeys the Law; or rather, that the very attempt to become justified by works itself is sin; but we reject this interpretation and will not consider it here because it has few contemporary defenders.
Some interpreters believe that the Law refers to the principle of meritorious achievement in general, and others argue that, while Paul does have meritorious achievement in mind, “Law” refers not always to the principle in general, but to the Mosaic Law as a specific, concrete, historical embodiment of this principle intended to demonstrate the impossibility of justification by obedience to it. I do not dogmatically adhere to either one of these two variations, though my tendency is to lean toward the view that sees the “Law” as referring to the Mosaic Law as a specific, historical instantiation of the principle rather than a broad reference to the principle in general.
2) The New Perspectives on Paul – associated with scholars such as E.P. Sanders, James Dunn and N.T. Wright(though there are important differences between the views of each of these writers, we will focus primarily on the similarities. Those who advocate the New Perspective interpretation typically argue that Paul’s rejection of salvation by obedience to the Mosaic Law has to do, not with a condemnation of the principle of attempting to merit righteousness with God, but with a condemnation of the Judaizers’ misunderstanding of the fact that it is in Christ, and by means of the abolition of Jewish, ethnic identity markers(like circumcision, dietary laws, keeping the holy days, etc.), that God is keeping the promise he made to Abraham that through him all the nations would be blessed.
In other words, Paul condemns those who would have the Gentiles keep ethnic identity markers in order to be saved because, it is argued, he sees them as trying to make Gentiles become Jews, rather than accepting that God’s plan was to create a multi-national people of God without ethnic distinction. The basis of Paul’s condemnation, then, is ethnocentrism, not legalism or works-righteousness.
Why are there those who believe that Paul’s concern was division over ethnic identity markers rather than monergism or free grace vs. synergism or legalism? Paul applies our phrase “works of the Law in Gal. 2:16 with vv. 11-14, where Paul condemns Peter’s compromise with the Judaizers over matters of ritual purity, when he withdraws from table fellowship with the Gentiles he had been enjoying. He condemned the adoption of circumcision as an inaugurating rite and sign and seal of the covenant among the Judaizers (Gal 5:2-6, 11-12; 6:12-16; cf. 2:3-5)and Old Testament holy days (4:10). Rom. 2:25-29, according to an isolated reading, may also suggest to some readers that Paul is concerned, not with synergism vs. monergism, but belief among Jews that ethnic distinctiveness was either necessary or sufficient to ensure their salvation.
In understanding the legitimacy of the “Lutheran” view, we do well to consider
1) The contrast between judicial condemnation in Adam(which has nothing to do with Israel) vs. justification in Christ in Romans 5(particularly vv. 12-21).
2) The relation of the redemptive-historical function of the Mosaic Law to Paul’s theology anthropology.
An understanding of Paul’s understanding of the effects of sin on humanity is essential in understanding either of these things. The one concerns its judicial condemnation, and the latter, the pollution it works in humanity. When we understand these issues aright, it becomes clear that the sum total of the biblical data best favors the view that:
1) CONCERNING JUSTIFICATION: Christ lived a perfect life, earning the perfect legal record we were unable to accomplish, while being punished as though he himself deserved condemnation, in order that our sins might be atoned for by his substitutionary death, on the one hand, and his perfect obedience imputed to us as though we had obeyed God perfectly in our own person, on the other.
2) CONCERNING SANCTIFICATION: The indwelling of the Holy Spirit contemporaneous with this is intended to work sanctification not by the letter, or the Law, but by the Spirit. Since humans are totally depraved and hate God by nature, the only effect the Law as injunction has upon us is to cause us to lash out against it and obey it. Its redemptive-historical function, accordingly, is to destroy our attempts to appear righteous to either others or ourselves by causing us to sin through the very commandments which prohibit such behavior. A reason to favor the perspective that “Law” in Paul refers, not solely to the principle, but to the Mosaic Covenant between Moses and Christ as a historical embodiment of this principle wrought large in Israel as a typological object lesson is convincing in light of the abolition of the Mosaic Law.
I will argue in this series that, rather than ethnocentrism vs. a multi-national people of God without ethnic or racial distinctives, or identity markers distinguishing individuals as part of this or that ethnic identity, Paul’s polemic against those who argue that the Mosaic Law was be kept for salvation has to do with Jewish synergism(salvation by cooperation with God’s grace) vs. Christian monergism(salvation is according to God’s unconditional election, effectual calling, and justification by faith alone and Christ’s imputed righteousness; salvation, therefore, is wholly credited to God rather than to any human work or cooperation).