Have We Misunderstood Paul’s “Works of the Law”? – Pt. 1

In reading the synoptic gospels over and again, then reading James, and then the Pauline letters, I was struck at how different they were. Something was wrong. Either Paul is wrong on what faith is or, we’re reading him wrongly.

My first assumption was that Paul was wrong. Yes, I know. Sounds extreme, if not heretical. But, have we not built works of criticism against other pieces of the Bible? However, when it comes to Paul, it’s almost hands-off. [Here’s a couple posts related to “Pauline Criticism”(here and here) ]

For this post I want to focus on the second assumption: “we’re reading him wrongly”. For many, it is quite common to see “works of the law” referenced by the Apostle Paul through a Lutheran lens. When Paul talks about the “works of the law”, we make this distinction between the rituals found in the Old Testament and the liberty from rituals in the New Covenant. The former being filled with religious demands, rituals, and traditions. The latter being about one’s relationship to Jesus. The former being about duty, and the latter being about love and grace. In the former, one has to perform duties to be saved while in the latter all one has to do is believe.

Rather than Paul being wrong about this, what if we’re reading this all wrong? Is this what Paul meant? What if “works of the law” meant something other than the performance of religious duties found in the Old Testament? And what if “faith” meant more than believing as mental assent? This last question, upon reading James, is what at first got me thinking Paul was wrong. Here’s why. Faith in the Jewish mind did not mean belief as mental assent. It was action-oriented. Rather than “I agree”, it was more like “let me show you”. In other words, faith could not be determined by anyone unless a duty was performed.

In the context of relationships, faith also has the component of trust. When someone says they have faith in a person, it means they trust that person. In a top-down relationship, such as a parent and child, a child will agree to do as the parent says because the child believes in the parent. Similarly, with a king and subject, the subject will, out of trust, do as the king says.

So then, if faith is the will to perform a deed out of trust, then what is “works of the law”? If “works of the law” has been stripped of performing duties, which is now what faith is, then what was Paul referring to? Was it the whole Old Testament? The first five books? The ceremonial laws?

Before and during Jesus’ time, there were many Gentiles who admired the Jews and their faith and desired to be part of their culture. In order to become a Jew, a Gentile was required to go through religious rites (as one would expect upon being admitted as a member in a faith community). For the male, the major and well-known Jewish rite was circumcision. When a male underwent circumcision, their identity, in a sense, was transformed from Gentile to Jew. They were officially converted.

After Jesus and the birth of the Church, many discussions and debates were had about identity and salvation and the requirement of the traditional religious rites. It was a huge controversy. Keep in mind that Christianity wasn’t a religion yet but a movement within Judaism. So the expectation of how one was converted into the Jewish religion, regardless of which sect or movement one wanted to be part of, was still there. Circumcision was the expected religious rite a man had to undergo to officially be converted into the Christian movement in the Jewish faith.

Circumcision was an outward sign identifying one’s relationship as God’s people. It was part of God’s covenant. If a man was circumcised, it meant he was Jewish, therefore part of God’s covenantal relationship. When a male Jewish baby was born, on the eighth day he would be circumcised. Contrarily, a man who was not circumcised was cut-off from God’s covenant. He was not part of God’s people. And that is biblical. It says it right here, in Genesis 17:10-13.

So, you can see how important circumcision was to the Jews, including some Christian Jews. In order for a person to officially identify himself as part of God’s covenantal relationship (salvation), he must show it by getting circumcised. To not undergo circumcision is to be cut-off.

Now, every Jew was circumcised. So this wasn’t a problem for them necessarily. But this religious rite came up whenever a Gentile wanted to become a Jew. For the Jews, there were two requirements for Gentiles: baptism and circumcision. When both were completed, then the Gentile was officially converted.

This was the question to their debate: is it essential for a Gentile to undergo the religious rites to be grafted into God’s covenantal relationship? And this question was a provocative one because this question was asking whether they should continue to follow God’s rule or not. Imagine having that discussion as a good Jew who loved his bible and believed every word was the eternal word of God.


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