Justification and the “Deeds of the Law”
Paul begins by saying, “By the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in his sight.” Now the first question is, to what is he referring when he refers to “the deeds of the law”? There have been those who are saying that this is a restrictive passage that it only refers to the ceremonial requirements of the Old Testament law, and that what the apostle is saying here is that nobody is justified by going through all of the actions that God commands as he did the Jews, going through the sacrificial system and all of the cultic practices that were associated with the tabernacle and later with the temple. In other words, he is saying that nobody is going to be justified by following the rituals that the law commands. And again, that is a very restrictive application of the text.
The vast majority of commentators however say, “No, Paul is not simply limiting this to the performance of ritual, but rather to all that the law commands including all of the moral obligations that God’s law imposes upon His creatures,” and so he is saying that by the obedience to the law of God, both cultically, ritually, as well as morally, by the keeping of these no one will ever be justified. So in that sense, any kind of good work as we would perceive it to be is excluded from the grounds of justification.
Others again limited this passage to say that no works of obedience done prior to regeneration will add to our justification, but then they say but what we do after we are reborn will be the grounds of our justification. So again, works are brought back into the house here as the grounds for justification. And again, this is part of the dispute between Rome and Protestantism because the Protestant view takes this to mean that no works ever done at any time are the grounds for our justification. Even the works that are done after we are converted or the works that were done after we receive grace, those works that they may contribute to our reward in heaven are never part of the grounds of our justification.
Let me just say this, again when he is talking about justification, he is not talking simply about a work of divine pardon. There is a difference between being pardoned and being justified. A person is pardoned who has already been declared to be and convicted of being guilty. And after they are convicted of being guilty, the governor or the president may execute their executive privilege of giving clemency and pardoning these people, that is, excusing them from the punishment that is due to their guilt. But justification is not simple pardon. Now part of justification involves the forgiveness of sins, but the essence of justification is declaring a person just. So in one sense, you do not have to pardon somebody who has been declared righteous. People who are righteous have no need of pardon and so that the point of justification goes beyond the forgiveness of sins that is ours in the cross and all of rest to the declaration by God that we who are in Christ and who possess faith are counted righteous before Him.
That is why we have said all along that the imputation of somebody else’s righteousness, the righteousness of Jesus is so fundamental and essential to our understanding this work of justification.