how paul defines works of the law

The apostle Paul is well known for his teachings against the law. To the Galatians he writes that the law is a curse. To the Romans he writes that no flesh will be justified by the law. But what does he mean by “the law”. This is a contentious point among Christians. To those who preach salvation by faith plus works, “the law” is interpreted as the symbolic ordinances. To them, Paul is teaching primarily against circumcision but still requires Christians to follow the moral laws.

To those who preach salvation by faith alone, “the law” is interpreted as all law (symbolic and moral). To them, Paul is teaching that no matter what sin a Christian commits, they are still saved.

Perhaps the best way to figure out if Paul is referring to symbolic or moral law is to examine the context. Not only will the particular ways he uses “the law” give insight to his meaning, but also the immediate listed examples will help define the phrase. If Paul references symbolic law (like circumcision) but does not reference moral law (like thievery), then he might be talking about only symbolic law. If he talks about murder, thievery, and other moral sins, he probably is referring to moral law (and symbolic law). It is also important to note that Paul may sometimes be using one usage and later using the other. This possibility should not be ignored.

In Galatians (widely considered Paul’s earliest existent writing) Paul talks heavily about the law and about works. In Galatians he counters what are modernly known as “judaizers”, those who taught circumcision and a separation between Jews and Gentiles. While the tone of Galatians is primarily concerning circumcision, Paul lets the reader understand his point is more widespread than just that. Paul writes:

Gal 5:13 For you, brethren, have been called to liberty; only do not use liberty as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.
Gal 5:14 For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this: “YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.”…

If Paul was only speaking about symbolic law, it is hard to see how the law of circumcision is fulfilled by loving your neighbor. It is hard to see how liberty from the law would allow “opportunity of the flesh” if the moral law was still required. In fact, Paul goes on to expound on the “works of the flesh”:

Gal 5:18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.
Gal 5:19 Now the works of the flesh are evident, which are: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness,
Gal 5:20 idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies,
Gal 5:21 envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and the like; of which I tell you beforehand, just as I also told you in time past, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

Here Paul lists some of the works of the flesh. The general categories are moral laws, not symbolic laws. Galatians 5:21 ends with an interesting phrase: “those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” Is Paul teaching, contrary to how the text was reading before this verse, that Christians must follow the moral laws? The key to Paul’s thinking is the next couple of verses:

Gal 5:22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,
Gal 5:23 gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law.

Paul ends these verses about good works with “against such there is no law”. Apparently, he is contrasting this list of good works (against which there is no law) against the list of works of the flesh (against which there is law). Note that Galatians 5:18-23 form a block. Galatians 5:18 starts with talking about the Spirit and the law. Galatians 5:22-23 concludes the paragraph about the Spirit and the law. Galatians 5:18 states people are not under the law, then lists categories covered by the law. Then Galatians 5:22-23 contrast areas not covered by the law. This is all started by the statement: “you are not under the law”.

His point is that there are laws against the works of the flesh, but not against good works. He begins by stating we are not under the law. And because we are not under the law, we should not have to worry about being cut off from salvation for bad works. He contrasts this to good works, against which there is no law. Although we do not have to worry about moral law because we are not under the law, we should still do good works, because the state of “not being under the law” does not affect good works. We should not ignore good works with the same logic we ignore the works of the flesh. Good works are not covered by the law.

Then what is Paul’s meaning of “that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God”? Probably the best reading is that Paul is talking about people under the law. Paul is saying that “people judged by the law who do such things will not inherit the Kingdom of God.” Additional evidence for this is that the introductory verse talks about “those being led by the spirit”, which might be contrasted with those “not led by the spirit”.

There is a parallel passage in 1 Corinthians, that gives the reader more insight into the law and Paul’s meaning.

1Co 6:9 Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites,
1Co 6:10 nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God.
1Co 6:11 And such were some of you. But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God.
1Co 6:12 All things are lawful for me, but all things are not helpful. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any.

Here Paul sets up the mechanism by which sinners can inherit the Kingdom of God. They are washed of their sins, justified. He then concludes this statement with “all things are lawful to me”. He is saying even if he again commits one of these things, it is not unlawful. He is not under the law. He then cites examples of both symbolic and moral law to make his point:

1Co 6:13 Foods for the stomach and the stomach for foods, but God will destroy both it and them. Now the body is not for sexual immorality but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body.

In this passage, Paul is extra clear that the law (which we are not under) includes moral laws. This includes the long list of moral crimes, due to which unbelievers will not inherit the Kingdom of God.

All things considered, When Paul states believers are not under the “law” that this includes moral laws (such as murder, drunkenness, and idolatry). Sins will not cause a loss of salvation.

About christopher fisher

The blog is meant for educational/entertainment purposes. All material can be used and reproduced in any length for any purpose as long as I am cited as the source.
This entry was posted in Bible, Dispensationalism, Morality, Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to how paul defines works of the law

  1. Pingback: paul taught salvation by faith alone | reality is not optional

  2. Pingback: justification and salvation in James | reality is not optional

  3. Tom Torbeyns says:

    So kill but just believe? I think that is gnostic actually…

  4. Pingback: refuting acts 9 dispensationalism | reality is not optional

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