The Works of the Law

Author: James Akin


James Akin

Romans 3:20 is the first occurrence of the expression "works of the Torah" (Gk., ergon nomou) in Paul. This term is familiar in modern preaching as "works of the law," however it would be more properly translated in context as "works of Torah," since the law (nomos) Paul is everywhere speaking of in Romans and Galatians is the Mosaic Law (Torah; nomos being the common Septuagint translation of the Hebrew term "Torah"; see the parallel essay, "The Law in Paul" for further discussion).

The translation of ergon nomou as "works of Torah" is confirmed by archaeological-lexical evidence because it also appears in the Dead Sea Scrolls, the writings of the first-century Qumran community in Israel. It appears in a famous document known as MMT, which served as the Constitution or Declaration of Independence for the Qumran community. This document, whose name translates as "Some Pertinent Works of Torah," is focused on certain disputed interpretations of specific Mosaic regulations, and it reveals an enormous preoccupation on the part of first century Jews with works of Torah. The phrase works of Torah/works of Law is used repeatedly and sheds great light on the meaning of the term in Paul (cf. the three articles in the Nov/Dec 1994 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review and R. Eisenman and M. Wises book The Dead Sea Scrolls Uncovered, chapter 6, Works Reckoned as Righteousness Legal Texts).

The term "works of Torah" thus predates Paul and is a term he picked up from the Jewish vocabulary of his day (which is why he is having to dispute with people over it in Romans and Galatians, because they were already using the term). And as we said, its first occurrence in Paul is Romans 3:20. Before this point in Romans the term ergon ("work" or "deed") and its cognates were only found in 2:6, 7, and 15. In none of these places does the term indicate what Paul here has in mind.

In 2:6 Paul stated that God would judge every man according to his work. Obviously he did not mean works of Torah because the judgement of Gentiles was in view as well as the judgement of Jews (cf. 2:9-10).

In 2:7 Paul stated that God would reward those who persevered "in well-doing" (lit., "in good work") by giving them eternal life or immortality (as well as glory and honor). But this is precisely what Paul says works of Torah will not get one because Torah does not give the power to deal with sin. (Thus there is a distinction in Paul's mind between "good work" and "works of Torah.")

And in 2:15 Paul stated that when Gentiles do by nature what Torah requires they show that "what the Torah requires" (lit., "the work of Torah") is written on their hearts. This is the core of Torah which is really important—the same thing Paul has in mind in 8:3-4 when he says that God has done what Torah could not do by sending his Son to condemn sin in the flesh, "in order that the just [righteous] requirement of the Torah might be fulfilled in us" (8:4). The "work of Torah" of 2:15 is thus the same as "the righteous requirement of the Torah" of 8:4. It, not all the Torah's commands about diet and festival and ceremony, is what is written on the hearts of Gentiles and which Christ died in order to empower us to accomplish.

Thus the introduction of the term "works of Torah" in 3:20 is a new theme in the epistle, separate from the general "works" (actions, whether good or bad) according to which men will be judged, separate from the "good work" which God will reward with eternal life, and separate from the "work of the Law" which is written on the hearts of Gentiles and which Christ died so that we might fulfill. Because of its distinction from these things, we must inquire more closely into what Paul means by the term.

Unfortunately, the context here does not give us much of a clue, and it becomes clear in the next chapter, Romans 4. Once the term "works of Torah" has been introduced, evidence accumulates rapidly concerning precisely what Paul has in mind.

In 3:28, Paul reiterates his thesis that "a man is justified by faith apart from works of Torah." To support this, he asks rhetorically, "Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also" (3:29). "Works of Torah" must therefore be something that are characteristic of Jews rather than Gentiles. If Paul has in mind anything particular here, it would presumably be the ceremonial components of Torah (circumcision, food laws, festival laws), which are distinctively characteristic of Jews. It would not be the moral components of Torah, since even Gentiles have these written on their hearts (2:15) and they consequently do them "by nature" (2:14).1

It is in chapter 4 that we have the first concrete example of what Paul means by "works of Torah," and the example confirms the thesis just advanced (that if Paul has anything in mind it is the ceremonial rather than the moral components of Torah). The example is circumcision (4:9-12). Paul emphasizes with great force the non-necessity of circumcision for justification. In fact, the whole purpose of his discussion of Abraham as the father of the faithful (chapter 4) is to show the non-necessity of circumcision.

This indicates that circumcision is the work of Torah par excellence which Paul has in mind—something confirmed by the fact that Paul had earlier conducted an extended discussion of the irrelevance of circumcision to salvation (2:25-3:1) and by the fact that right after his affirmation in 3:27 that works of Torah are not necessary he drew the implication that God "will justify the circumcised on the ground of their faith and the uncircumcised through their faith" (3:30).

Our hypothesis that Paul has in mind primarily the ceremonial elements of Torah by "works of Torah" is thus confirmed by the discussion of circumcision in Romans. It is further confirmed by the discussion of circumcision in Galatians.

Paul takes pains to point out Titus was not compelled to be circumcised at Jerusalem (Gal 2:3). Paul characterizes the agitators who scared Peter into hypocrisy were "the circumcision party" (Gal 2:12). He emphasizes that "if you receive circumcision, Christ will profit you nothing" (Gal 5:2). His statement that that "every man who receives circumcision . . . is bound to keep the whole Torah" (Gal 5:3), indicates that circumcision was at the forefront of the debate over Torah and was the sign of embracing Torah. He states that "in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is of any avail" (Gal 5:6).

Paul emphasizes the difference between his preaching and the preaching of circumcision by asking, "But if I . . . still preach circumcision, why am I still persecuted?" (Gal 5:11), and goes on to state that he wishes the circumcisers "would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!" (Gal 5:12, NIV) He warns his readers that those "that would compel you to be circumcised . . . [do so] only in order that they may not be persecuted" (Gal 6:12) and that "even those who receive circumcision do not themselves keep the Torah, but they desire to have you circumcised that they may glory in your flesh" (Gal 6:13), finally reminding his readers again that "neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation" (Gal 6:15).

But while circumcision is the work of Torah par excellence which Paul has in mind, there are other works, as indicated by the text of Galatians. When Paul reminds Peter in Galatians 2:16 that they both "know that a man is not justified by works of Torah," it is in a context where Peter and the other Jews had separated themselves from eating with the Gentiles of Antioch (Gal. 2:12-13). This was because Gentiles were unclean and because they ate unclean food (Acts 10:9-16 with 11:3-12). Eating with Gentiles thus indicated a breach of the separation between clean and unclean people (clearly stressed in the Torah) and a partaking of unclean food (also stressed in the Torah). Thus the laws of separation between clean and unclean are also in view when Paul discusses "works of Torah."

Paul also laments that the Galatians "observe [Jewish] days, and months, and seasons, and years!" (Gal 4:10). This indicates that in addition to circumcision, separation laws, and food laws, Jewish festival laws are also subsumed under what Paul has in mind when he speaks of "works of Torah." In short, Paul has principally in mind the ceremonial works of Torah when he speaks of "works of Torah."2

But a question arises concerning whether Paul has in mind only the ceremonial works of Torah when he uses the phrase. Does he also have in mind the moral work of Torah? Many contemporary Protestant preachers assume that he does, but this is a judgement that must be established by exegesis and evidence rather than by a simple assertion that it is so.

A person who recognizes the united nature of Torah in Paul's thought might argue that, by virtue of its united nature, when Paul speaks of works of Torah he must mean all works of Torah, whether ceremonial or moral. But this is a faulty inference. Arguing that a united whole is unnecessary does not mean that none of its elements are necessary. To assert that it does mean this is to commit what is known in logic as the fallacy of division (i.e., the whole has a certain property—non-necessity—therefore all the parts have this property as well).3

To give an everyday example, a dietician might tell us that drinking diet Coke is not necessary to good health, but we would not at all be permitted to draw the inference from this that drinking water (the principal ingredient of diet Coke) is not necessary to good health. In the same way, we cannot simply assume from the fact that Torah is not necessary to salvation that none of the things in Torah are necessary to salvation. This is abundantly shown by the fact that one of the things in Torah is belief in God, which on anyone's account, is necessary for salvation.4

Furthermore, Paul's apparent view of a united Torah is mitigated by the fact he regularly moves back and forth between elements of Torah which are and are not important but uses strikingly similar language to express these elements. For example, his use of the phrase "works of Torah" to denote primarily (or exclusively) the ceremonial works which are characteristic of Jews (and which are not written on the hearts of Gentiles) and the similar phrase "work of Torah" which is written on the hearts of Gentiles and which does sometimes characterize their behavior. Much of the impression one gets that Paul has a united Torah in mind is derived from his language (which always speaks of a single Torah, not a set of moral, civil, and ceremonial Torahs), yet his language differentiates between different kinds of "works of Torah."

Because of both these considerations (the logical and the linguistic), one cannot argue from Paul's view of a united Torah to the conclusion that he is saying that every element of Torah is unnecessary. Indeed, as we have seen, at least one element of Torah—belief in God—is necessary. That "work of Torah" is required.

So we must turn to exegesis and evidence to establish whether the "(moral) work of the Torah" is included in Paul's phrase "works of Torah." There are a number of very powerful arguments for the idea that they are not:

1. One piece of evidence that we already noted comes from outside the Bible. Recent archaeological and linguistic studies have shown that in first century Judaism the phrase "works of Torah" was a technical term for actions which served as Jewish identity markers (i.e., ceremonial works), indicating their membership in the Jewish covenant, in contrast to those who were outside of it.5

2. Paul clearly has the ceremonial works in mind but he does not clearly have the moral work in mind. This is indicated by the fact that he repeatedly and explicitly stresses the non-necessity of ceremonial works, and especially circumcision, but he never repeatedly or explicitly stresses the non-necessity of the moral work, such as love.

3. Furthermore, Paul not only does not stress the non-necessity of love but that he lays a great deal of stress on the importance of love and obedience. For example, when Paul states that "we wait for the hope of [justification]" (Gal 5:5) he says that "neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is of any avail [toward that hope], but faith working through love" (or "faith made effective through love," RSV margin; Gal 5:6).

4. Also, Paul indicates that eternal life is a reward for "perseverance in good work" (Rom 2:7) and that we "seek . . . immortality by perseverance in good work" (ibid.). He also states that "he who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life" (Gal 6:8) and sowing to the Spirit is defined in context as "sharing all good things with him who teaches" (Gal 6:6, see also 2 Cor 9:1-6), "doing the good" (Gal 6:9), and "doing good to all men" (Gal 6:10). These clearly indicate the necessity of doing good in order to receive the gift of eternal life on the last day.

The only way a person could try to avoid the force of this argument would be to say that that (1) is ultimately inconclusive (even though quite strong) because it relies on extra-canonical evidence, that (2), while quite strong, is presumptive rather than conclusive, that (3) has in mind primarily good that is necessary after one is justified, not before, and that (4) is speaking of the final reception of eternal life rather than initial justification.

This rejoineder is possible (but very doubtful, in view of the strength of the preceding arguments), but even if successful it would not damage the exposition of Romans we are here developing. It would merely show that love is not necessary for initial justification, leaving intact the fact that they are necessary for the reward of eternal life on the last day (Rom 2:7, Gal 6:6-10) and final, eschatological justification (Gal 5:5-6).

The thesis that love is not necessary for initial justification is something to which everyone in Christendom is agreed. The fact Protestants agree to it is so well-known it does not need documentation. But the agreement of Catholics to this thesis is so commonly denied (in Protestant preaching) that it does need documentation.

A Catholic can be perfectly happy saying that "works of Torah" (including works of love) are not necessary to become justified because the Council of Trent, the official Catholic response to the Protestant Reformers, states, "[N]othing that precedes justification, whether faith or works, merits the grace of justification. For if it is by grace, it is no more by works. Otherwise, as the apostle says, grace is no more grace."6 Trent thus teaches that nothing prior to justification, including works (of whatever kind) merits justification.

In fact, Catholic theology would teach that works of love proper are impossible prior to justification because prior to that time the theological virtue of love has not been infused (poured) into the believer's heart (cf. Rom 5:5—"God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us"). The only kind of love which a person has before justification is the self-oriented love which he shows to those who he hopes will do him good. But this kind of love doesn't count for anything with God (Matt. 5:46). But if works of love proper are not possible before justification, obviously they are not necessary for justification.

Finally, the Eastern Orthodox would also agree with the thesis that works of love are not necessary in order to become justified, indicating the agreement of all in Christendom on this point.

Therefore, even if "works of Torah" includes "the (moral) work of the Torah," it is of no consequence to our exposition of Romans. It is extremely improbable, given an unbiased evaluation of the four arguments above, that Paul includes the moral work under "works of Torah," but it would not damage our interpretation if he does.

One word of application of the preceding considerations to the interpretation of 3:20. As we saw earlier, Paul reasoned that through Torah comes the knowledge of sin and, since Torah does not impart the power to escape sin, it is incapable of justifying one. Paul thus states that "no human will be justified in his sight by works of Torah." Either interpretation of "works of Torah" will make sense of this assertion.

If "works of Torah" means all works of the Torah, including works of love, then it is obvious they will not justify one because Torah does not give the ability to do works of love. Similarly, if "works of Torah" means ceremonial works, then it is again obvious that one is not justified by works of Torah because doing ceremonial works does not even begin to deliver from sin, which is the reason the Torah is unable to justify.

Thus, whichever way the phrase "works of Torah" is construed, Paul's argument remains firm: Torah only gives knowledge of sin, not escape from it, and so performing works of Torah will not lead to justification. By works of Torah no man will be justified.


1. For further development, see commentary on 3:29.

2. The phrase "ceremonial works of Torah" is to be preferred to the more common phrase "works of the ceremonial law" since Paul does not speak of a ceremonial Torah in contrast to a moral Torah or a civil Torah. The tripartite division of Torah into moral, civil, and ceremonial commands, while an accurate division, is an anachronism that is not found in Paul's thought. The Torah can certainly be divided in that manner, but Paul does not himself make that division. If any division is at the fore of Paul's mind, it is between the binding and the non-binding parts of Torah.

But when he discusses these he does not speak of two separate Torahs, but of one Torah which has two aspects—moral and ceremonial—which respectively are and are not binding on Christians. We must thus differentiate between the "(ceremonial) works of Torah" which do not count for anything "in Christ" and the "(moral) work of Torah" which is written on the hearts of Gentiles and which Christians are empowered to fulfill.

3. To give an example of this fallacy I learned in my first class in logic, a great building may have a certain property, such as weighing hundreds of tons, but it does not follow from this that each brick the building has this property as well.

4. Even if it is implicit faith.

5. See Dunn, Jesus, Paul and the Law, p. 220, Romans, vol. 1, p. 154. This thesis is endorsed by numerous modern authors, including E.P. Sanders, Paul, the Law, and the Jewish People, p. 147, Alan Segal, Paul the Convert, p. 131, F. J. Matera, Galatians, p. 93,

6. Trent, session six, "Decree on Justification," ch. 8, citing Rom 11:6.

Copyright (c) 1996 by James Akin. All Rights Reserved.