The Apostle Paul and the ‘Works of the Law’

The Apostle Paul and the 'Works of the Law'

One of the issues with the Reformers’ insistence on ‘justification by faith alone’ was that contemporary disagreements with the Latin church were being read into the first century writings of the apostle Paul.

From an Orthodox perspective, there is no conflict between faith and faithfulness, and a harsh dichotomy between faith and works is rarely found. Even legal or forensic terminology, along with late-medieval concepts of ‘merit,’ are not central to the eastern approach.

Perhaps the best summary of our viewpoint on such matters is found in an aphorism of St. Mark the Ascetic (fifth century):

Some without fulfilling the commandments think that they possess true faith. Others fulfill the commandments and then expect the Kingdom as a reward due to them. Both are mistaken.

Following the scriptures, there is no question that we are ‘justified by faith’ (Rom. 5:1), but saving faith cannot be divorced from faithfulness and good works. The only scripture that speaks to ‘faith alone’ reads:

You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.
—James 2:24

Our faith is proven by both good works and endurance to the Last Day—by hope, love, charity, fasting, prayer, and worship.

A key issue for the Reformers is a conflation between “faith working through love” (Gal. 5:6) and Paul’s separate discussions on the “works of the law” (εργων νομου) or “works of the Torah.” This phrase is found in but three locations in all of both Second Temple Jewish and early Christian literature. Two are in Paul’s letters to the Romans and Galatians:

[B]y works of the law, no flesh will be justified in his sight. —Rom. 3:20

Therefore, we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law. Or is God the God of the Jews only? Is he not the God of the Gentiles as well? —Rom. 3:28–29

[N]o one is justified by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ . . . that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law. —Gal. 2:16

I just want to hear this from you: did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law or by believing what you heard? Are you that senseless that having begun in the Spirit, you now end in the flesh? —Gal. 3:2–3

[T]hose who depend on the works of the law are under a curse. —Gal. 3:10

In Rom. 3:20, Paul says that “no flesh” will be justified in God’s sight. He then claims “there is no distinction” (Rom 3:22) of persons before God, speaking to the difference—or lack thereof—between Jews and Gentiles. The conclusion is that the Lord is “God of the Gentiles as well” and therefore “a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law” (Rom. 3:28–29). In other words, we are not purified because of either ethnicity or cultic purity—as it seems both the Essenes and Pharisees believed, but to different degrees—but rather because of the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. In our union with Christ, we are made pure before the Father, whether Jew or Gentile.

The heart of Romans and Galatians is not legalism, faith vs. works, or meriting God’s favor, but is rather centered around a simple, foundational concern: Does one need to ‘become a Jew’ first in order to be a true and justified Christian? Paul’s answer is a resolute ‘no,’ for ‘the Way’ in Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of both the law and the prophets. Jesus is the true and final Israel—just as he is the true and final Adam—and our union with him by the Holy Spirit and in the life of the Church is our salvation; our ritual or cultic purity before the Father, without the shedding of animal blood. There is not even a hint of either medieval legalism or the related concerns of the Reformers in this narrative.

In Galatians, the apostle emphasizes that he and other Jewish Christians are “Jews by nature and not Gentile sinners” (Gal. 2:15). This tells us that the context of his writing is ‘Jews and Gentiles,’ and not ‘faith vs. works’ (as read by the Reformers). The apostle reinforces that one is justified through “faith in Jesus Christ” and “not by the works of the law” (Gal. 2:16). For Christians, our ritual or cultic purity—as people of the true temple, Jesus Christ—is found through our union with God.

Paul then asks if the Galatian Christians had received the Holy Spirit by ritual works for purity or by faithfulness in Christ. For him, the answer is obviously the latter. If we have “begun in the Spirit,” why would we nullify the Grace of God with the “works of the law” and an attempted purification of “the flesh?” This is not a reference to the meritorious works of post-medieval, Latin Christianity, but rather to cultic purity and the excesses certain sects propagated in Second Temple Judaism.

In the Old Testament, a concern over ‘flesh’ (σάρξ) is central, but this had nothing to do with ‘merit.’

For example, Leviticus 13–14 gives instructions on how to deal with leprous individuals. These people are anointed with oil much in the same way we anoint the sick in the Orthodox Church today (holy unction). Interestingly enough, even buildings can get leprosy, when defiled by Gentiles:

When you enter into the land of the Canaan, which I myself am giving to you as a possession, and I bring a plague-like contamination resembling a plague-like eruption into the houses of the land of your acquisition . . . And [the priest] will examine the plague-like contamination on the walls of the house, greenish indentations, and their appearance extends deep into the walls . . . then the priest will give instructions, and they will remove the stones—the plague-like infection exists in them—and throw them outside of the city into an unclean location. Then they will scrape down inside the house all around, and they will dispose of the scrapings outside of the city in an unclean location.
—Leviticus 14:34,37,40–41 (Septuagint)

This is the underlying concern for ritual purity found in Second Temple Judaism, as well as among some of the early Jewish converts to Christianity. This sentiment—and not legalism or meritorious works—is what Paul and the other apostles are up against.

By the end of the Second Temple period, a general ‘feeling’ of ritual impurity was at an all-time high. This is perhaps what led to the estrangement of the Essenes from Palestinian Judaism and even the temple, corrupt and overran, as it was, by Gentiles. For the Essenes especially, Palestine was defiled ‘in the flesh.’ The only hope for Judaism, then, was the purification of their land and of their temple. For the Essenes, the temple was abandoned altogether, and the ritual and cultic laws of that space was expanded to include everywhere they gathered. In apocalyptic literature of this period, they foresaw a time when a Messianic figure would cleanse the temple and restore purity to Israel. They expected a future return to Paradise.

The third and final place where ‘works of the law’ is found in the literature of this period is the Dead Sea Scrolls. In cave four was found a scroll titled Miqsat Ma‘ase ha-Torah, or Selections of the Works of the Torah (4QMMT/4Q394-399). This text begins:

These are some of our pronouncements concerning the Law of God; specifically, some of the pronouncements concerning works of the law, which we have determined . . . and all of them concern defiling mixtures and the purity of the sanctuary.

In this document, the purpose of ‘works of the law’ are to keep the sanctuary pure. Once again, there is nothing related to meritorious good works here, but only a concern for ritual purity among the Gentiles. Some of the works named are:

  • A ban on offerings using Gentile grain
  • A ban on sin offerings boiled in Gentile or copper  vessels
  • A ban on sacrifices by Gentiles
  • Rulings on the purity of those who prepare the red heifer
  • A ban on bringing the skins of cattle or sheep into the temple
  • A ban on temple entrance after contact with skins of a carcass
  • A ruling on who is fit to eat of the holy gifts
  • A ban on the inclusion of the “unfit” into the people of Israel
  • A ban on the entrance of the blind or deaf into the temple
  • A ruling on the cleansing of lepers
  • A ruling on unlawful sexual unions and marriage

Clearly, the predominant concern of ‘works of the law’ are ritual purity, and especially in the context of temple worship. But the ultimate concern was also the salvation of Israel.

The Qumran community is warned that to ignore these works is to invite divine judgment:

[B]ecause of [. . .] the fornication, some places have been destroyed. Indeed, it is written in the book of Moses that “You shall not bring an abomination into your house,” for an abomination is hated [by God].

You can almost feel the paranoia. The Jews were surrounded by Gentiles, both inside the temple and without. It is no wonder that anti-temple movements arose in the first century. It’s possible that John the Forerunner was a member of one such movement, and we can’t ignore the story of how Jesus drove money-changers from the temple courts. A necessity of ‘separation’ from the impure is also noted:

We have separated from the majority of the people and from all their uncleanness and from being party to these matters or going along with them in these things. And you know that no unfaithfulness, deception, or evil are found in our hands, for we give some thought to these issues.
—4Q398, Frags. 14-17, Column 1

A connection between this apostasy and eschatology is also found:

In the book of Moses it is written [. . .] that you “will turn from the path and evil will befall you.” And it is written “that when all these things happen to you in the Last Days, the blessing and the curse, that you call them to mind and return to Him with all your heart and with all your soul.” [. . .] at the end of the age, then you shall live .

Their message seems clear: if the defilement and impurity of both Israel and the temple continues, God will abandon them. But those near Qumran expected a restoration of Israel—a return to God—to occur in ‘the Last Days':

[W]hen those of Israel shall return to the Law of Moses with all their heart and will never turn away again.

The scroll concludes:

Now, we have written to you some of the works of the Law, those which we determined would be beneficial for you and your people, because we have seen that you possess insight and knowledge of the Law. Understand all these things and beseech Him to set your counsel straight and so keep you away from evil thoughts and the counsel of Belial. Then you shall rejoice at the end time when you find the essence of our words to be true. And it will be reckoned to you as righteousness, in that you have done what is right and good before Him, to your own benefit and to that of Israel.

The purpose of these works is the purity and salvation of Israel. Those at Qumran were engaged in what they saw as an apocalyptic battle against the corruption in Jerusalem, along with a temple plagued to its core with leprosy. Even the Pharisees worked to extend the purity and ritual laws of the temple outside its walls, but their work was met with unexpected resistance in a new rabbi named Jesus—a rabbi who scandalously hailed from a land of Gentiles to the north.

In Paul, the ritual ‘works of the law’ are expanded even further to include common, Jewish distinctives, such as circumcision (Romans 2:25-29; 3:30; 4:9-13). The heart of both Romans and Galatians is not faith vs. works but rather: ‘You don’t have to become a Jew first in order to be a true Christian.’ To become a Christian is to be united to Christ—and this is a promise offered to the whole world, for “there is no distinction” (Rom. 3:22). Salvation is alone in and through Christ, the true and final Israel. The ritually pure temple is now the Body of Christ, the Church and temple of the living God. While the Essenes and even Pharisees were both right-headed in a desire to purify Israel, they were also both wrong in how this would take place.

When the temple was destroyed by a Roman army in A.D. 70, Jesus’ promise to both fulfill and forever replace that temple was made complete. In that event, the Last Days and the dawn of a new age in Christ had begun. In the Church, the people of Israel had returned to God with all their heart, as Jesus fulfilled the whole story of Israel in his life, death, and resurrection. The people of God, united to him through Christ, are now made pure through the mysteries of our faith. And the ‘good news’ or Gospel of Jesus Christ is a message for the whole world—Jew and Gentile.

The early Christian debates—preserved by the apostle in his letters—are not about merit, legalism, or faith vs. works, but rather how one becomes a Christian. Faithfulness, endurance, charity, hope, and love will ever be a part of the Church and her mission to see the whole world transformed by the Grace of God. We need not worry about medieval squabbles over merit and legalism, but can rather focus entirely on Christ and how each one of us can be transformed into his image and likeness.


  1. John Burnett says

    Thanks for your very insightful article, .. as a former Evangelical/Calvinist of 40 years and recent convert to Orthodoxy, your article gives clarity to what has always been a rather “murky” issue.

    John B

  2. Bradley Tarr says

    thanks so much for this Gabe! I was headed toward Rome, but now I feel my soul drawn toward the fullness and unmodified faith. May I friend you on Facebook? we know many mutual Orthodox people.