Have We Misunderstood Paul’s “Works of the Law”? – Pt. 2


It was around 50 AD that a group of leaders within the Christian movement came together to further discuss the requirements for salvation. The Jewish leaders were already talking about this, but they believed that as Christians, especially, they needed to settle the matter. The meeting is known as the Council of Jerusalem. 

The Council decided that circumcision was no longer necessary for salvation, not because they were now in a covenant of grace but, to make it easier for Gentiles to join the Christian movement. Essentially, compared to the rest of the Jews, the leaders at this Council were progressive. They had moved beyond religious rites founded in the Scripture so they could make it easier for people to be grafted into God’s covenantal relationship.

Now, even though the Council of Jerusalem settled the matter, many Jews didn’t agree. It was a controversial issue. Think about it. A group of men said circumcision – a requirement founded on Scripture that identifies oneself as part of God’s covenantal relationship – declared it a non-essential. Blasphemy! Eventually, a man named Paul became the spokesman and champion of liberation against the religious rites of conversion.

In particular, there was a region that had a hard time dealing with this. It was a hot-button issue. Many Gentiles were coming to the faith, desiring to become followers of Christ, and were still being told by many Jews that salvation comes only through the traditional rites of conversion. It’s biblical! So Paul sought to settle it by writing to the Christ-following community there.

In the letter he condemns the practice. For him and for many others, the matter had already been settled. No need to argue any further. He warned them not to listen to these Jewish extremists. They’re “false brothers”. They’re not understanding that conversion isn’t made official by external initiations, but by the heart. That is, it is by the deep desire to follow the commands and ways of Jesus one has that converts a person. The change of identity occurs from within, not outside.

It is in this letter of liberty from rites of conversion where we first come across the phrase “works of the law”. This is where, I believe, we can safely say that these requirements to identify oneself within God’s covenantal relationship – the religious rites of conversion – is the “works of the law”.

For Paul, he had spiritualized the meaning of conversion in the hopes that it would remove a roadblock from the Gentiles who were coming to the faith. He was a man under the law, and observed it as Pharisee in many respects. However, he had a heart for people. Believing the door of salvation was open to all, he lifted the barriers from entering it. And in doing so, brought liberty.

So here’s what Paul was saying in that it is faith, not works of the law, which saves: The religious rites of initiation is not what grafts a person into God’s covenantal relationship (salvation), but it is the will to follow in the ways of God that justifies. And that will to follow entails the will to do, to perform, to work. Sacraments don’t save, obeying God does.

Now, let’s take a look at what was really saying. Below is a re-interpretation of the “works of the law” passages. “Works of the law” is replaced with the religious rites of conversion; and “faith” is replaced with the will to obey out of trust.

  • We who are Jews by birth and not “Gentile sinners”know that no one is justified through the religious rites of conversion but by the will to obey out of trust in Jesus Christ. And we have believed in Christ Jesus so that we might be justified by the will to obey out of trust in Christ and not by the religious rites of conversion, because by the religious rites of conversion no human being will be justified.  But if we ourselves are also found to be “sinners” while seeking to be justified by Christ, is Christ then a promoter of sin? Absolutely not! If I rebuild the system I tore down, I show myself to be a lawbreaker. For through the law I have died to the law, so that I might live for God. I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by the will to obey out of trust in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me. I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing. (Galatians 2:15-21)
  • You foolish Galatians! Who has hypnotized you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was vividly portrayed as crucified? I only want to learn this from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the religious rites of conversion or by hearing with the will to obey out of trust? Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now going to be made complete by the flesh? Did you suffer so much for nothing—if in fact it was for nothing? So then, does God supply you with the Spirit and work miracles among you by the religious rites of conversion or by hearing with the will to obey out of trust? (Galatians 3:1-5)
  • For all who rely on the religious rites of conversion are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who does not observe and obey all the things written in the book of the law.”Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law; for “The one who is righteous will live by the will to obey out of trust.” But the law does not rest on the will to obey out of trust; on the contrary, “Whoever does them will live by them.” Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree”— in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through the will to obey out of trust. (Galatians 3:10-14)
  • Now we know that whatever the law says speaks to those who are subject to the law, so that every mouth may be shut and the whole world may become subject to God’s judgment. For no one will be justified in His sight by the religious rites of conversion, because the knowledge of sin comes through the law. (Rom 3:19-20)
  • Where then is boasting?It is excluded. By what kind of law? By one of works? No, on the contrary, by a law of faith. For we conclude that a man is justified by the will to obey out of trust apart from the religious rites of conversion. Or is God for Jews only? Is He not also for Gentiles? Yes, for Gentiles too, since there is one God who will justify the circumcised by the will to obey out of trust and the uncircumcised through the will to obey out of trust. Do we then cancel the law through the will to obey out of trust? Absolutely not! On the contrary, we uphold the law. (Rom 3:27-31)

In this reinterpretation, after reading it a few times, it becomes clearer to what Paul was saying. I will admit, though, it doesn’t solve everything. Paul’s references to the law (not the works) is still not as clear. What does he mean by “the law”? I hope to get more clarification on his disdain for God’s law.

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