The Works of the Law

By Stephen Green

First Published in Christian Voice October 2013

Romans 9:30 What shall we say then? That the Gentiles, which followed not after righteousness, have attained to righteousness, even the righteousness which is of faith. 31 But Israel, which followed after the law of righteousness, hath not attained to the law of righteousness. 32 Wherefore? Because they sought it not by faith, but as it were by the works of the law. For they stumbled at that stumblingstone; 33 As it is written, Behold, I lay in Sion a stumblingstone and rock of offence: and whosoever believeth on him shall not be ashamed.

There is a teaching circulating amongst some Christians today that when the Apostle Paul uses expressions such as ‘the works of the law’ or ‘the deeds of the law’ he means keeping moral laws such as the Ten Commandments.  It follows that as he states that these ‘works’ and ‘deeds’ are part of an expired economy, Christians are released from any obligation to keep God’s moral laws and we cannot please God by doing so.

In this brief article I want to suggest that this is not at all what the Apostle means by these expressions and that differences and nuances of language and custom (together with a sprinkling of antipathy to some of the more unfashionable moral and judicial statutes of God and a spoonful of sloppy and illogical thinking) are at the root of the problem we have in understanding them.

The translators of the KJV rendered the Greek word ergon (which means works, deeds, doings or labours), as ‘works’ in Galatians and Romans 9 and as ‘deeds’ in Romans 3.  Why they chopped and changed I do not know, but at least we get the right idea of what the word means.

With the Greek word nomos which means ‘law’ we are on less secure ground.  Nomos is itself a translation of the Hebrew word Torah and within Torah we find many ideas and senses bound together.  Torah means a precept or a statute but it also means direction, teaching, instruction and doctrine.

A page on Wikipedia correctly says: ‘Torah consists of the foundational narrative of the Jewish people: their call into being by God, their trials and tribulations, and their covenant with their God, which involves following a way of life embodied in a set of religious obligations and civil laws (halakha).’


The Messianic website says this of the Greek word nomos: It ‘has a variety of uses, among which, to be sure, is law, but it is certainly not limited to law.’  They go on: ‘Sometimes, in the Newer Covenant Scriptures, it is appropriate to translate nomos as law. However, (at) other times it is more appropriate to render it as God’s teaching/instruction, or simply to transliterate the term as Torah. The context of the word is always the final determiner of its meaning.’

Part of the context is found in the way people of the time thought and acted.  Another part is in the whole passage in which the expression itself is found.

Turning to the first aspect, Torah did not mean the Ten Commandments or a string of ‘thou shalt nots’ to someone like the Apostle Paul coming to the Christian faith as an observant Pharisee.   A look at Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy shows how it encompassed much more  than moral and judicial precepts, important as these are.

Torah also included all the ceremonial customs and the rules for the sacrifices that were intended to be the schoolmaster that would lead us, by the ear if necessary, to Christ.  These were almost of greater importance than ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery’ and the like.

To take just the book of Exodus, after chapter 20 there are merely three chapters setting out moral and judicial laws, whereas fourteen chapters direct the building of the tabernacle, the dedication of the priests and the observance of the festivals and their sacrifices.  Only three of the twenty-seven chapters of Leviticus (chapters 18, 19 and 20) deal with moral and judicial precepts.  All the rest is ceremonial and sacrificial.

For Jews living under Roman occupation and Roman law, the Temple and all the ‘deeds of the law’ associated with it were of bigger significance than even those chapter numbers would suggest.  Deprived of much of their legal and judicial autonomy, things like circumcision and ritual cleanliness became of great importance, greater even in some Rabbinic Jewish eyes than moral behaviour towards our fellow man.

That explains why our Lord found it necessary to explain:

Matt 5:23 Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee; 24 Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift.

The Rabbinic house (Bet) of Shammai taught the opposite, and also taught minute details of tithing and devised ways of getting around the Fourth Commandment by making a gift to the Temple.  Even with the rival house of Hillel, amongst the teachings about humility and social responsibility, the need to offer sacrifices and to be ritually clean when doing so was still a priority of observance.

When we look at Romans 3, we see it starts with a reference to a central Jewish ceremonial custom which became a matter of contention in the early church:

Rom 3:1 What advantage then hath the Jew? or what profit is there of circumcision?

The Apostle has just explained that circumcision of the heart is better than that of the flesh:


Rom 2:28 For he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh: 29 But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God.

Now he has to show that God still has a place for the Jew, so he goes on:

Rom 3:2 Much every way: chiefly, because that unto them were committed the oracles of God.

He then quotes a number of verses from the Psalms to establish that Jews and Gentiles are ‘all under sin’ as he puts it in verse 9.  He will now go on to prove that the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the Cross has fulfilled (or established, as he will say in verse 31) the sacrifices of animals in the Temple.  Or to put it another way, that ‘faith in Jesus’ supersedes ‘the deeds of the law’.

Rom 3:19 Now we know that what things soever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. 20 Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin.21 But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; 22 Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference: 23 For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God;

So even though the Jews were custodians of the Oracles of God, and charged with the unique spiritual heritage of Torah, they were given that responsibility to pave the way for a greater path to redemption than that found in the sacrifices and ceremonies. Both Jew and Gentile can now claim that they are:

Rom 3:24 Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: 25 Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; 26  To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus.

The ‘law’ of faith in Christ Jesus then takes precedence over the ‘law’ of works so that no-one can boast about how well they tithe, fast, pray and sacrifice in the Temple.  ‘By faith’ means ‘By faith in Jesus Christ’:

Rom 3:28 Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law. 29 Is he the God of the Jews only? is he not also of the Gentiles? Yes, of the Gentiles also: 30 Seeing it is one God, which shall justify the circumcision by faith, and uncircumcision through faith. 31 Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid: yea, we establish the law.

That is a very similar argument to that made by the Lord Jesus:

Matt 5:17 Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.


We know that the Lord Jesus kept the commandments and the moral law, but he did not ‘fulfil’ them unless we twist both his words and language itself to mean something they never intended.  One definition of ‘fulfill’ says: ‘Bring to completion or reality; achieve or realise (something desired, promised, or predicted).’  The way in which the Lord Jesus brought the Torah to completion was not by keeping the Sabbath but by becoming the once-for-all perfect sacrifice predicted by the Temple sacrifices.  Any other view runs up against the next-but-one verse:

Matt 5:19 Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

Nowhere in Romans 3 or Romans 9 did Paul say that it doesn’t matter how a man lives.  The idea that we are now freed by faith to indulge the flesh while Almighty God winks indulgently is not part of the doctrine he is setting out.  Later in the letter to the Romans he stresses the importance of keeping the moral laws, just as the Lord Jesus did:

Rom 13:7 Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour. 8 Owe no man any thing, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law. 9 For this, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Thou shalt not covet; and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.

In passing, the idea popular in liberal theological circles that the Apostle Paul invented a new religion quite different from what the Lord Jesus intended is shot down by comparisons like the above.  There is not the thickness of an insect’s wing between the Lord and his Apostle.

The other Epistle where the expression ‘the works of the law’ is seen is that to the Galatians.  Paul’s sole purpose in Galatians is to shoot down the Judaising idea that the new male followers of Jesus have to be circumcised.  That is the context of Galatians 2:16, 3:2, 3:5 and 3:10:

Gal 2:16 Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.

The finished work of Jesus has put an end to the sacrifices carried out under the law so that no-one can be justified or made righteous in the sight of God by them any more.  They were a type, a shadow, concealing what was to come.

When the Apostle writes: ‘by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified’ can he possibly mean that paying people what you owe them (to pick just one example of an ‘Old Testament’ law) does not justify you in the sight of God?

Such a thought would not have entered his mind.  Keeping the moral law never did justify anyone.  It was the sacrifices, carried out by the priest on a man’s  behalf, which did that under the Old Covenant.  But keeping the moral law was and is a spiritual imperative for an individual as much as instituting and keeping the judicial law was and is a spiritual imperative for a nation.

Just as in Romans, having set out the Gospel of faith in Christ Jesus, and showing how that faith supersedes sacrificial ‘works of the law’, the Apostle lays out some Biblical principles drawn from the Old Testament (from the Torah) for the believers to follow:

Gal 5:13 For, brethren, ye have been called unto liberty; only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve one another. 14 For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this; Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.

(It’s that quote from Leviticus 19:18 again.)

Gal 5:19 Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, 20 Idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, 21 Envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.

Gal 6:7 Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap. 8 For he that soweth to his flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption; but he that soweth to the Spirit shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting. 9 And let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not. 10 As we have therefore opportunity, let us do good unto all men, especially unto them who are of the household of faith.

So it just isn’t true that all the commandments have been swept away by Jesus, that it doesn’t matter how we live, that we cannot please God by keeping his commandments or displease him by not keeping them.  We may have liberty, but it is not a license to do as we please, it is the freedom to study the word, find the will of God and live a life pleasing in his sight.



Leave a Reply