Evaluating the New Perspective on Paul (4) What Does Paul Mean by ‘Works of the Law’?

Part 1

So far our evaluation of the new perspective on Paul has addressed several general matters of method and the understanding of Second Temple Judaism associated with the work of E. P. Sanders. The most important test, however, of the new perspective is whether it adequately treats the writings of the apostle Paul. Does the new perspective offer a more compelling interpretation of the epistles of Paul, especially in terms of their teaching on the doctrine of justification, than that historically associated with the Protestant Reformation? Since the new perspective advertises itself as a more faithful reading of the apostle Paul than that stemming from the Reformation, the critical issue still confronting us is whether it provides a more satisfying account of Paul’s writings.

One of the key features of the new perspective is the way it treats Paul’s understanding of the “law” and the “works of the law.” In the older Reformation view, Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith alone was presented in stark contrast to any doctrine of justification by works performed in obedience to the law. An important aspect of the Reformation’s interpretation was the claim that justification is by faith alone apart from works of the law.



Since no sinner, whether Jew or Gentile, is able to keep the law of God perfectly, there is no possibility of finding acceptance or favor with God by works. Furthermore, in the Reformational view of Paul’s writings, the doctrine of justification was treated as, among other things, the apostle Paul’s answer to a kind of Jewish-Christian “legalism” that taught that we are justified by works performed in obedience to the law. In this older Reformational reading of the apostle Paul, the doctrine of justification was interpreted as Paul’s answer to the dilemma of the sinner who cannot find favor with God on the basis of works done in obedience to the law. Thus, justification by faith answered the question how an unrighteous sinner can find favor with God.

As we have seen in our survey of the new perspective, this older Reformation view, especially in its handling of Paul’s understanding of the law, is roundly rejected. According to Sanders, the apostle Paul developed his doctrine of justification from the prior vantage point of his conviction that salvation comes by faith in Christ. The problem with Judaism was not its legalism—after all, no such legalism was present in Second Temple Judaism. Rather, the problem with Judaism was that it was not Christianity.

Paul’s analysis of the human “plight” (no justification by works of the law) was the fruit of his prior conviction that the “solution” (justification by faith) to the human predicament can only be found in Christ. In Sanders’ reading of Paul’s writings, therefore, the doctrine of justification does not address the predicament of human sinfulness and inability to keep the law. Paul’s diagnosis that no one is justified by works of the law is a by-product of his basic conviction that faith in Christ is the way of incorporation into the new covenant community of Christ.

Moreover, according to two of the principal authors of the new perspective, James Dunn and N. T. Wright, Paul’s teaching about the “works of the law” is addressed primarily to a social problem, namely, the inclusion of Gentile believers together with Jews as members of the covenant people of God.

When Paul speaks of the “works of the law,” he is not referring to any general obligations of obedience that are required by the law. Rather, Paul is speaking particularly about those “boundary markers” that separated Jews from Gentiles (for example, circumcision, dietary requirements, and Sabbath or feast day provisions). The real problem that occasioned Paul’s development of his doctrine of justification was the failure of some Jewish-Christian opponents to embrace Gentiles as well as Jews among the covenant people of God.

The promise of inclusion within the covenant family of God, according to those who insisted upon adherence to the “boundary marker” requirements of the law, was restricted to the Jews or those who became identified as Jews by their adherence to these requirements.

According to Paul, however, justification by faith means that Gentiles are also included in the covenant community, though they are not under any obligation to identify with the Jewish covenant community by undergoing circumcision or fulfilling these requirements of the law. The “works of the law,” in this understanding of Paul’s writings, do not refer to general obligations of obedience to law as a basis for justification or acceptance with God. They refer to requirements in the Mosaic law that distinguished Jews from Gentiles.

In order to evaluate these claims of the new perspective, we need to answer three distinct, though related, questions:

  1. What does the apostle Paul mean by the language of “works of the law” or “works”, when he insists that no one is justified by them? Do the “works of the law” refer exclusively to what Dunn and Wright call the “boundary markers” of the law?
  2. Does the apostle Paul oppose the teaching of justification by works on the basis of his conviction that no one is able to do what the law requires? Or, is the real and primary occasion for Paul’s argument against justification by works of the law, his conviction that, now that Christ has come, the only way of inclusion among the people of God is through faith in Christ (arguing, as Sanders puts it, from “solution” to “plight”)?
  3. Is it correct to claim, as the Reformation did, that Paul opposed the “Judaizers” for teaching that justification rests upon human obedience to the requirements of the law? Does the apostle Paul oppose a “legalistic” distortion of the doctrine of justification, which taught that acceptance with God depends in some measure upon works of obedience to the law?


Before directly taking up these questions in turn, we need to begin with a preliminary observation regarding the apostle Paul’s usage of the language of “the law” or “law” in his writings. One of the great difficulties in sorting out Paul’s understanding of the law is the diversity of ways in which he speaks of it. Sometimes he speaks in a highly favorable way about the law, whereas on other occasions he speaks rather negatively about it.

Any failure to pay close attention to the way the term “law” is used in a particular passage can lead to serious misunderstanding. Or, to the put the matter differently, if it is assumed that Paul is using the language of “law” in a uniform way throughout his writings, the likelihood of misunderstanding is very great. The context in each instance must always be taken into consideration before determining what Paul means by his various references to the law.

For our purpose here, it is enough to note the following distinct ways in which Paul speaks of the “law” in his epistles.1

  1. The most important use of the language of “law” or “the law” in Paul’s writings refers to the administration of the law of Moses (Romans 2:17–27; 5:13–14; 7; 10:4–5; Galatians 3:10–12,17–24; 5:3–4). In Romans 5:13, for example, speaking of the disobedience of Adam and its consequence, the apostle notes that “until the law sin was in the world.” The “law” in this passage refers to the law as it was given through Moses.
  2. Even though the most important use of the language of “the law” refers broadly to the law of Moses, it is significant to note that the apostle Paul can also speak of the law of Moses in a broader and a narrower sense. In the broader sense, “the law” refers to what might be called the Mosaic administration of the covenant, which in its comprehensive teaching is fully compatible with the gospel of “righteousness by faith” (e.g. Rom. 3:21; cf. Rom. 8:4). However, in a narrower sense, the law of Moses often refers specifically to the obligations and demands of the law (e.g. 1 Cororinthians 9:8; 15:56; Romans 2:12–13, 23–27; 3:20–21,28; 4:15; 5:20; 7:5,7–9 8:4; 13:8–10; Galatians 2:16,19; 3:10; 5:3 5:14). When speaking of the law in this narrower sense, the apostle Paul emphasizes that it belongs to a particular era of the history of redemption, after the giving of the promise to Abraham 430 years earlier (Galatians 3:17) and prior to the coming of Christ in the fullness of time (Galatians 3:24; 4:1–7; Romans 6:14-15). Moreover, in the more specific sense of the commandments of the law of Moses, Paul emphasizes the contrast or antithesis between the righteousness of faith and the righteousness of (obedience to) the law (Romans 4).
  3. 3. Sometimes the apostle Paul uses the language of “law” to refer to something like a “principle,” “order,” or “rule” (Romans 3:27; 7:21,23,25; 8:2). In these passages, the “law” refers to a rule that governs human life and conduct. For example, in Romans 7:21 Paul says that “I find it to be a law that when I want do right, evil lies close at hand.” “Law” in this passage simply refers to a principle that governs the lives of those who want to do what pleases God: they find that the temptation to do otherwise lies close at hand.
  4. Consistent with the usage of “law” to refer to the law of Moses, Paul often uses the language of “law” to refer to the Old Testament Scripture as a whole or more particularly to the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible written by Moses (1 Corinthians 9:8–9; 14:21,34; Romans 3:19, 21; Galatians 4:21–31).
  5. In Romans 2:14–15, 26–27, the apostle Paul declares that the Gentiles, to whom “the [Mosaic] law” was not given, have the “work of the law written on their hearts” (v. 15). Though this passage does not explicitly assert the common theological distinction between the “moral” and the “ceremonial” law, it does suggest that the moral requirements of the Mosaic law are in some sense known by those to whom the law was not given, as it was to Israel. Even the Gentiles, who do not have the written law of Moses, know what the law requires.
  6. The apostle Paul also contrasts the “law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2; compare 1 Corinthians 9:21) to the law of Moses, since it does not require circumcision. This “law of Christ” is the distinctive norm of conduct for those who are united to Christ by faith and who walk in step with the Holy Spirit of the new covenant. For those who are united with Christ and indwelt by His Spirit, there is a sense in which there is no longer a need for the written ordinances of the law. The believer’s life in the Spirit of Christ expresses itself in a freedom and maturity of obedience that does not require the specifying of the precepts and prohibitions of the law.


1 For more detailed treatments of Paul’s uses of the language of “law,” see Thomas R. Schreiner, The Law and Its Fulfillment (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993), pp. 33–40; Douglas J. Moo, “‘Law,’ ‘Works of the Law,’ and Legalism in Paul,” Westminster Theological Journal 45 (1983): 73–100; Stephen Westerholm, “Torah, nomos, and Law: A Question of ‘Meaning,’” Studies in Religion 15 (1986): 327–36; and Colin G. Kruse, Paul, The Law, and Justification (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1996), pp. 287–90.

Dr. Cornel Venema is the President of Mid-America Reformed Seminary where he also teaches Doctrinal Studies. Dr. Venema is a contributing editor to The Outlook.