In Romans, discussions about justification by “works” has a specific category of works in view – “from the works of the law” – Romans 2:7-10.
In Romans, Paul points to sin as the Great Leveler that places everyone in the same predicament, bondage now and “wrath” later. No one is excused from the penalty of sin, neither Jew nor Gentile, and all are without excuse. Without exception, God will “render to every man according to his works,” both Jew and Gentile, for with Him, “there is no respect of persons.”
But what, precisely, did the Apostle mean when he brought “works” into the equation? Good deeds and human efforts in general?
His repeated phrase, “to the Jew first, and also to the Greek,” points to the underlying issue in Rome, tensions between Jewish and Gentile believers, and fortunately, Paul explained what category of “works” he had in mind.
- “For as many as have sinned without law shall also perish without the law: and as many as have sinned under the law shall be judged by the law; for not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified” – (Romans 2:12-13).
Here, the law of Moses is under discussion and two different groups, Jews and Gentiles. Since the law was given to Israel, and to no other nation, Jews are “under the law.” In contrast, Gentiles are “without the law,” though God did not leave them without witness, and accordingly, many of them keep the law “by nature.”
Nevertheless, both groups are in the same fix; “both Jews and Greeks are all under sin… There is none righteous, not even one.” The Jews know the law, but sin all the same. But the law continues to bear witness against their disobedience:
- “As many things as the law speaks, to those in the law it speaks, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may come under judgment to God; wherefore from the works of law will no flesh be declared righteous before Him, for through law is a knowledge of sin” – (Romans 3:19-20).
The Mosaic law was given to expose sin for what it is, the trespass of God’s commandments, and to bear witness against sinful humanity. Therefore, no one is put right before God “from the works of the law.” However, there is another “law” by which men may be justified:
- (Romans 3:27-28) – “Where then is the glorying? It is excluded. From what manner of law? From works? No, but from a law of faith. We reckon, therefore, that a man is justified from faith apart from the works of the law.”
In principle, Paul is not opposed to the ideas of “law,” obedience, and doing good “works.” His point is quite specific: Men and women are not set right before God from the “works of the law,” that is, from the deeds required by the law of Moses.
Next, Paul presents Abraham as the model of faith. If he “was justified from works, he has whereof to glory.” But Abraham believed God, and it was “reckoned to him as righteousness.” This occurred BEFORE he was circumcised, and BEFORE the law that required circumcision was even given to Israel, therefore, he was not justified from the deeds required by that law. He became the “heir of the world,” not “through the law,” but instead, “through the righteousness of faith” – (Romans 4:1-13).
Paul certainly believed that salvation is an act of pure grace from a merciful God. But the issue in his letter was not “good works” and human effort in general versus sheer grace. The issue was whether Jews or Gentiles were set right before God on the basis of the “works of the law.” Paul’s answer was unequivocal: NO. Instead, men and women are justified before God from the “faith of Jesus Christ.”