What did Apostle Paul mean by – “Works of the Law?”

“Works of the Law” is one of the most misunderstood and misinterpreted topics among the ones discussed in the Epistles of Apostle Paul. In Romans 3 Apostle Paul says:

“A person is justified by faith apart from the works of the Law” and the whole doctrine of “Salvation by faith alone” is built on this very specific statement that Apostle Paul made in Romans 3.

28For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law(Romans 3, 28)

But what did Apostle mean by – the “Works of the Law” in the above verse? To find an answer we need to go back into the Old Covenant period. Those days if a gentile wanted to become part of God’s people, he had to go through a set of rituals that were prescribed by the Teachers of the law which were in turn based on the Law of Moses.

And among these laws the most prominent one was the “Circumcision” A gentile could not become an Israelite unless he was circumcised. Another unique characteristic of these rituals was: – they were external and had nothing to do with the inner being or the heart of the person converted.

So, a gentile who wanted to become an Israelite would normally go through these rituals and they become part of God’s people. This was the custom until the time of Christ and even after His death and resurrection.

As you know, all the disciples and the early Christians were Israelites and continued practising many of their Jewish customs even after their conversion; the following verses prove this.

20When they heard this, they praised God. Then they said to Paul: “You see, brother, how many thousands of Jews have believed, and all of them are zealous for the law. ( Acts 21, 20)

12“A man named Ananias came to see me. He was a devout observer of the law and highly respected by all the Jews living there. ( Acts 22, 12)

But this did not cause any problems in the early church as they were Israelites anyway. But problems arose when gentiles en-masse started accepting Christ as their Lord and Saviour.  Many of the Jewish church leaders began to insist that these gentiles should go through those Old Covenant rituals in order to be saved and become part of God’s people.

This in turn led to very serious disputes among the Church leaders, the evidence can be found in the following verses from the book of Acts.

1Certain people came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the believers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” 2This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them.( Acts 15, 1-2)

As you see above, Apostle Paul and Barnabas started debating with those who insisted on circumcising the new gentile believers and finally Apostle Peter intervened in order to settle the matter once and for all.

He stood up and spoke that both Jews and Gentiles are purified by God through faith and are saved by Grace and hence there is no need for the gentiles to go through the rituals, including circumcision, performed externally in order to become believers in Christ.  

6The apostles and elders met to consider this question. 7After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. 8God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. 

9He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. 10Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? 11No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”( Acts 15, 6 – 11)

Again, in the book of Galatians we find more information about this dispute.  In Chapter 2 Apostle Paul talks about some of the people who visited the Galatian church in order to compel them to be circumcised. As a matter of fact, the Galatians were almost ready to undergo circumcision in order to complete the process of becoming part of God’s people.

 But Apostle Paul comes to know about it and writes this letter  rebuking the Galatian believers for surrendering to the will of those who belonged to the circumcision camp.

15“We who are Jews by birth and not sinful Gentiles 16know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in d Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified. (Galatians 2, 15-16)

In the above verses we find Apostle Paul explaining to Galatians that a person is not justified by the works of the law or by undergoing the external rituals prescribed in the Law of Moses. But instead, justification comes by faith in Jesus Christ.

Again, when we read the Epistle to the Galatians further, we could find Apostle Paul becoming even more stern in his warning to the Galatian believers about  the issue of Circumcision.  Please read the verses below.

2Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. 3Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. 4You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. 5For through the Spirit we eagerly await by faith the righteousness for which we hope. 6For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love. (Galatians 5, 2-6)

As you see, in the above verses Apostle Paul warns the Galatians very sternly and says “Any man who lets himself to be circumcised needs to keep the whole law because; he is relying exclusively on the Law to be justified and not on the Grace that Christ has offered for their justification.

So, when we examine the context of Apostle Paul writing about the “Works of the Law” we could find that his focus was mainly on circumcision; that is what the above verses tell us.

However, this has nothing to do with someone, who have been saved by grace through faith, living in obedience to God’s Commandments.

See, here, the main reason why Apostle Paul objected circumcision was that: those who advocated it were of the opinion that a person should be circumcised in order to be saved which was in complete opposition to what the Gospel of Christ teaches.

Saints, keeping the law in order to be saved and obeying the commandments after being saved are entirely two different things. We should not link them together. Apostle Paul was against keeping the Law in order to be saved but he was not against a saved person keeping the Ten Commandments.

Anyway, the stern warnings that Apostle Paul gave finally dissuaded the Galatians from receiving circumcision. Also, this settled one of the most important questions in Christian faith; that is – How a person; Jew or Gentile is saved and become part of God’s People? It is by faith in Jesus Christ, or by believing in Jesus Christ. The following verses explain this very clearly.

37When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?”

38Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.”

40With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” 41Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day. (Acts 2, 38-41)

I think by now it might be clear to you that – what Apostle Paul meant by “the Works of the Law” was the external rituals prescribed under the Old Covenant and not the Ten Commandments.  

But, unfortunately, this fact has been misunderstood by many teachers and preachers in the Evangelical Christianity. They teach their sheep that they are saved by faith in Christ and hence there is no need for them to keep the Commandments of God.

What is even worse is: They teach their sheep that their eternal life is not linked in any way to their obedience to God’s Commandments and those who are attempting to keep the commandments are trying to enter into eternal life by their works.

But what is the truth? Can a person who have been saved by grace through faith enter into eternal life if he lived in complete disobedience to God’s Commandments?

Again, another question that I want to ask these preachers and teachers is:

Did Apostle Paul include Ten Commandments in the Works of the Law? Did he ever advocate in any of his letters that:  since we are saved by grace through faith, there is no need for us to keep the Ten Commandments?

Well, if we study all of the New Testament including the letters written by Apostle Paul, we could find that nowhere it says:

New Covenant believers, since they are saved by faith through grace, are exempted from obeying the Ten Commandments of God. But rather it strictly instructs believers to live by the Ten Commandments. Let us examine some of those verses.

19Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5, 19.)

16Just then a man came up to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?” 17“Why do you ask me about what is good?” Jesus replied. “There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, keep the commandments.” 18“Which ones?” he inquired.

Jesus replied, “ ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, 19honor your father and mother,’ c and ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’ (Matthew 19, 16-19)

In the above two examples we find Lord Jesus unequivocally making it clear to His listeners that – they need to keep the Ten Commandments in order to enter into His Kingdom. Justification by faith does not exempt a believer from keeping the Commandments.

When it comes to Ten Commandments – there is no choice but to live by them. Breaking the Ten Commandments means committing sin. According to the New Testament – Sin is the transgression of the Law or the Ten Commandments.

4Whosoever committeth sin transgresseth also the law: for sin is the transgression of the law.(1 John 3, 4)

Next, let us look at what Apostle Paul says about the Ten Commandments.

19Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but the keeping of the commandments of God.(1 Corinthians 7, 19)

13For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous. (Romans 2, 13)

Yes, as the above verses say; what matters is obedience to God’s Commandments and only those who obey The Law will be declared righteous.

Saints; the above verses give us very concrete evidence that – Apostle Paul did not include obedience to Ten Commandments in the “Works of the Law.” But rather, he strictly instructed the gentile believers to keep the Commandments and He himself lived by them.

So, when Apostle Paul says: “by the works of the law no one will be justified” what he means is – No one will be saved or justified before God by performing certain external rituals prescribed in the Law. Forgiveness of sins is received only when a person believes in Christ and repent of his sins.

38Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. ( Acts 2, 38)

15He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. 16Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. (mark 16, 15)

Stay Blessed



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