“Works of the Law” in Paul
by J.V. Fesko
“What, then, are the ‘works of the law,’ by which one cannot be ‘justified’ in this sense? …They are the ‘living like a Jew’ of Galatians 2:14, the separation from ‘Gentile sinners’ of Galatians 2:15. They are not, in other words, the moral ‘good works’ which the Reformation tradition loves to hate. They are the things that divide Jew from Gentile….”
—N.T. Wright, Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision, pp. 116–117
The definition of Paul’s phrase “works of the law” is one of the more significant disagreements between N.T. Wright and the Reformation understanding of justification by faith alone. On what basis can Wright claim that Paul does not have worksrighteousness in view?
Wright maintains that the chief issue of Paul’s epistle to the Galatians is not works-righteousness (legalism) but table fellowship. Wright contends that the Jewish Christians at Galatia were perplexed as to how Gentiles could now sit with them and break bread. True enough, Christ had come to save both Jews and Gentiles, but how could these Gentiles be considered part of Abraham’s family unless they bore the marks of being Jewish — circumcision, the food laws, and Sabbath observance? These Jewish Christians were prepared to allow Gentiles in their midst but only if they bore the “works of the law” and submitted to circumcision, ate the proper food, and observed the Sabbath. Hence, according to Wright, Paul wrote to the Galatians so they would understand that Christ had done away with the “works of the law” and that Gentiles could be Christians without these Jewish identity markers. Jesus had lowered the flag of the works of the law and raised a new one in its place — faith in Him — to identify the people of God.
The problem with Wright’s view is that he takes matters that are in the background of Paul’s letter and moves them to the foreground (as Doug Moo put it). In other words, Wright takes Paul’s message about salvation and how one is declared righteous in God’s sight and places it on the back burner. He then takes a secondary matter, that of table fellowship, and moves it to the front burner almost to the point that he eclipses the message about sin and salvation.
Observe some of the following points. First, why would Paul be exercised over table fellowship to the point that he would warn the Galatians of damnation for embracing a false gospel (Gal. 1:8-9)?
Second, when Paul uses the phrase “works of the law” he certainly has in mind circumcision, food laws, and the Sabbath. But he also has many other things in view. The triad of Jewish identity markers is but one small sliver of the pie of the L aw. When Paul condemns reliance upon the “works of the law” he quotes from Deuteronomy in Galatians 3:10: “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them” (emphasis mine; see Deut. 27:26). Paul not only condemned relying upon circumcision, food laws, and Sabbath, but he also included everything written in the L aw. That is, anyone who tries to offer his own obedience to the L aw in the effort to be approved and declared as righteous (as obedient) in God’s sight would instead bring a curse upon himself.
Third, when Paul illustrates what it means to rely upon works versus faith, he appeals to a time before God instituted circumcision, food laws, and the Sabbath. Paul appeals to Abraham and Sarah’s sinful efforts to bring about the divine promise by their sinful efforts rather than by faith alone in the seed who was to come — Jesus Christ (Gal. 3:16; 4:21–31).
And fourth, Wright opposes circumcision, food laws, and Sabbath against faith as the identity markers of Old and New Testament respectively. Wright’s definition, however, sets the Bible in opposition to itself. Was faith not an identity marker of the Old Testament saints? As the great hall of faith tells us in Hebrews 11, faith in Christ has always been the way to identify the people of God.
The choice of the proper definition of the phrase “works of the law” is not one between Wright and the Reformation but one ultimately between Wright and the apostle Paul — indeed, between Wright and Scripture itself. Paul goes to great lengths to refute the Judaizer’s sinful reliance upon their own obedience (their works of the law) because it was a matter of their salvation, not simply table fellowship. Paul’s extended argumentation in Galatians can be distilled into a statement from his letter to the Ephesians: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph. 2:8–9). In a word, it is Christ’s works that are the legal ground of our declaration of justification, not our own good works. The proper definition of the works of the law means the difference between justification and condemnation, heaven and hell.