There is a fierce debate in New Testament studies as to the meaning of the disputed phrase “works of the law” in the letters of Paul. The phrase is only used six times in the New Testament (Rom 3:20, 28; Gal 2:16; 3:2, 5, 10). Protestants argue that Romans 3:28 which says, “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” proves that we are justified by faith alone before God since all works of the law are excluded from justification. Roman Catholics counter-argued during the Reformation that “works of the law” only refer to those works which separated Jews from Gentiles (circumcision, Sabbath days, food laws) and do not include moral laws that are binding on both Jews and Gentiles (do not murder, do not steal, do not commit adultery). Roman Catholicism teaches that justification is by both faith and works and that justification is a process instead of a one-time event as in Protestantism. Many of the “new perspectives” on Paul that have arisen in recent years have agreed with Catholicism that “works of the law” only include those boundary markers that separated Jews from Gentiles while disagreeing with the Catholic doctrine of justification as Protestants have. Some modern Catholics argue that “works of the law” are broader than just those laws that separate Jews from Gentiles, but rather, are works done outside of a state of grace and are therefore not meritorious like works done in a state of grace after baptism. I will seek to address these different perspectives from Scripture in this article.
Works of the law include both those laws that separate Jews from Gentiles and those laws that are binding on all people based on how the phrase is used in the New Testament. In Galatians 3:10, Paul identifies the works of law as “all things written in the Book of the Law.” This verse is a quotation from Deuteronomy 27:26 where Moses commands the people of Israel to obey God in all that he had commanded them. The previous verses make reference to the moral obligations of the law: prohibitions against sexual immorality and incest, murder, taking bribes, dishonoring father and mother, and perverting justice. These laws are not just binding on Israel, but on all nations. It is always sinful to commit murder regardless if you are a Jew or a Gentile. The Book of the Law is the entirety of the revelation given by God to Israel and is expressed most clearly in the Ten Commandments which is a summary of the entire law. The Book of the Law also contains within in commandments concerning food laws which are not binding on Christians today (Mark 7:19). Therefore, works of the law include both the moral aspects of the law which are binding on all men and the ceremonial aspects of it that have passed away.
Another reason works of the law cannot be restricted to the ceremonial laws which have passed away is because the works of the law bring about conviction of sin. As Paul says, “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Rom 3:20). How do laws concerning circumcision and what foods we are allowed to eat bring about knowledge of sin? Additionally, since these laws were never binding on Gentiles, how would Gentiles ever have knowledge of sin if the law was never binding on them? How can “the whole world” have its mouth shut and be accountable to God if the Gentiles were never under the obligations of the law?
If works of the law do not include moral laws that are still binding today, how would boasting be excluded if justification is by both faith and good works? Justification by faith excludes boasting (Rom 3:27). If salvation is dependent on our good works, then it is not of grace (Rom 11:6). If grace means unmerited favor, then how could salvation be by grace if it is merited by us? How would a proponent of the new perspective on Paul argue for the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith alone on the basis of the imputed righteousness of Christ, when by defining works of the law as not including moral laws binding on Christians today, he is undercutting the biblical foundation for the Protestant doctrine of justification? Justification by works of the law is directly contrasted with justification by faith (Galatians 2:16; 3:2, 5). But if Paul only intended to exclude the ceremonial law from justification, how would justification still be by faith and provide no ground for boasting?
As for the argument that works of the law only include works done outside of a state of grace, I see no biblical basis for jumping to this conclusion apart from a precommitment to Roman Catholic tradition. It ignores the historical context of Paul’s letters since he was writing against those who required full obedience to the Mosaic Law for justification. The Judaizers were not arguing that works of the law are meritorious outside of a state of grace, but that Gentiles must become Jews in order to be saved which would have involved submitting to the Law of Moses at all points for justification. Defining works of the law as works done outside of a state of grace is irrelevant to the false teaching that Paul was confronting. It would not exclude boasting and nullify salvation by grace alone.