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What Paul Meant by “Works of the Law”?

bible openWhat Paul Meant by “Works of the Law”?

The first mention of the phrase “works of the law” (Gk.,’ergon nomou’) is found in Paul’s letter to the Romans. Here’s how Paul wrote it,

“Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin.” Romans 3:20 (NKJV)

Or, as the New International Version (NIV) put it,

“Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin.” (Romans 3:20)

In addition, Paul’s letter to the Galatians provided us the scope of his thought,

“Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified.” Galatians 2:16)

The term can be referenced with other uses by Paul in the following verses: (Romans 2:15; Romans 3:27-28; Galatians 3:2-5 Galatians 3:10)

There’s no denying that whenever Paul used the word ‘nomos’ what he had in mind was the law and commandments (Heb. "torah”).  But when do we say that the law has its “ergon nomuo” (works of the law)?

Without going into Paul’s immediate context, others have mistakenly jumped into the conclusion that this ‘works’ refers to the Sabbath-keeping, law on clean and unclean foods, feasts or holy days, and ultimately the keeping of God’s law in general. To them, continued observances on these laws are burdens rather than a blessing.

Without going into the scholarly mechanics of the text, the quick answer to this confusion can only be solved by understanding Paul’s context when he addressed some of the ‘abuses’ people have with the use of the law (similar today, when people use ‘technicalities’ of the law to become free of crime).  Context is everything, and when Paul used the term “works of the law”, he used it in the mistaken context of “justification through the law”—that a person can be justified by his unilateral acts through the law keeping alone (also called “Judaizer”-Galatians 2:14).

Put it simply, no amount of works of law will “justify” (or make ‘righteous’) anyone in the sight of God, but only through faith in Jesus Christ (“for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified.” Galatians 2:16). In other words, once convicted of sin, our “law-keeping” will never erase or absolve the sins committed. Salvation entails far more than making compensation for our guiltiness (conviction), our deliverance requires that a blood-ransom has to be met.

But this does not mean that the law has become of no effect, as Paul continues, “for by the law is the knowledge of sin.” (Romans 3:20). As Paul later reiterated, “Therefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy and just and good.” (Romans 7:12)

From Paul’s context in Romans, we can identify at least three (3) functions of law (for lawbreaker/sinner):

  1. It defines what is sin. “But sin, that it might appear sin, was producing death in me through what is good, so that sin through the commandment might become exceedingly sinful.” (Romans 7:13) (cf. 1 John 3:4Whosoever committeth sin transgresseth also the law: for sin is the transgression of the law.” (KJV)
  2. It convicts us of our sin. “for by the law is the knowledge of sin.”;For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:20;23)
  3. It penalizes us. “For the wages of sin is death.” (Romans 6:23)

Our remedy therefore, if we want to be forgiven (‘justified’) from transgression and freed from its penalty which is death, is thru the redemptive works of Jesus Christ. Thus, even Jesus Christ has his own ‘works’ for us.


“But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed, to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. (Romans 3:21-26)

 “For if by the one man’s offense death reigned through the one, much more those who receive abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ.” (Romans 5:17)

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