What are "works of the law"?

In a thread (which is now closed) about justification by faith a few posters thought that the phrase “works of the law” applied only to the Jewish ceremonial law. I disagree, it seems to me that the phrase refers to the entire law and not just the ceremonial law.

Other opinions?

In some places it means the ceremonial law. In other places it means the whole law, but it gets more complicated when it does. I personally think it’s easier to explain it to people by equating it with the works of the Mosaic law first, and once they understand introduce the fact that it applies to the moral law too. Once they understand the idea on the basis of it being the Mosaic law, it is a much shorter road to travel to help them to see how the moral law doesn’t change the fact that works are necessary.

It seems to me that if you make Paul mean by “works of the Law” every kind of work, whether it be a ceremonial work of the Mosaic law, or a work of charity, or an abstaining from something forbidden by the Mosaic law, then you make Paul and James contradict each other. The Bible cannot be any clearer than James 2:24 about whether we are justified by faith alone or by works and faith. I think that probably James was speaking directly to people who thought that Paul meant that they were excused from the moral law or from performing acts of love.

This is certainly true at times, but not always.


This is somewhat long, and I don’t agree with all of it, but it will explain it.

I believe the works of the law refers primarily to the Levitical laws and rules imposed on Israel after the Golden Calf incident which were made a continuing thing after that generation died. According to the series Our Father’s Plan (based on A Father Who Keeps His Promises) by Scott Hahn, the sacrifices that Israel made at Sinai were intended to be a one-time thing to show their casting off of Egypt. Of course they went right back and made the golden calf. Only the Levites didn’t participate which is why the priesthood passed from the firstborn to them.

The point is that these works were supposed to be a single time happening. Since Israel kept stumbling they had to continually keep sacrificing these false gods to the One True God. The covenant that instituted the Levitical codes was between Moses and the people, not God and the people. It was to be valid until the original promises of the Abrahamic covenant were to be fulfilled in Christ and the priesthood reverts back to the firstborn (Jesus Christ). At this time sacrifices also revert back to the older types of bread and wine, etc.

I haven’t done it justice here by far, You can get the audio of this series at EWTN or read the book. Excellent study of the role of the covenant in salvation history.

Also, the Dead Sea scrolls apparently have shown that the term works of the law was not uncommon in the 1st century and refers to the Levitical code rather than the 10 Commandments, etc.(moral law).

The Law is simply the 10 Commandments God has given us.

The Works is simply keeping to the Commandments in which faith and love that draws from them.

Paul refers to this in his actions.

Paul was a well trained Pharisee. The “Law” meant a lot more than the Ten Commandments to a devout Jew. It was all the precepts that must be kept by a devout and orthodox Jew including all things things which must be done to ensure ritual cleanliness, such as ritual washings. In some places when he writes about “works of the Law” he specifically means these Jewish ritual requirements.

In other places when he writes about “works” generally, he refers to human actions generally and the moral law. One must be careful of the context.

When Paul began baptizing Gentiles a dispute arose because some Jewish Christians were telling these Gentile converts that they could not be truly Christian unless they also kept to these Jewish ritual works.

I would venture to say that even if an individual never sinned (ie, he kept the Moral Law in its entirety), he still couldn’t stand before God and demand entry into Heaven (ie., be justified). All he could be free to say is that he fulfilled the minimal requirements for being human. However, to be counted as a son of God, a man must receive that grace from God. Even the Council of Trent said that we are saved by grace through Christ. No observance of the moral law will earn you heaven. It just keeps you out of sin. Heaven is a gift that cannot be earned on our own merits. When a saint dies and sees the virtuous things he’s done in his life, he recognizes that these are merely the works of Christ in his life - not some things he has done on his own to barter for Heaven with.

I think we Catholics need to see this. I also think protestants need to understand that good works are a fruit of saving faith - but they are a necessary fruit. For, as James says, faith without works is dead. Can a dead faith save?

The “works of the law” under the Jewish system is the old law and the law that Paul talks about is the new law because the Jews failed to acknowledge the Son of God .Which by keeping the Commandments is where the fruits or the works of faith are the result of putting them into practice. Which is alot simplier than the Jewish interpretation of the Law. Jesus made it easier for us.
Works without faith has no value in God’s eyes.
We all have an obligation to reach out to the poor , sick,prisoners , the deaf, blind ,unclothed and the hungry

I believe Mickey hit it on the nosey. Works of the Law would have encompassed the old covenant laws. That is any law prior to Jesus. In this case the OT laws were not salvational. You could not moral your way into heaven. You could not ceremony your way into heaven. You could not sacrifice your way into heaven. You could not tithe your way into heaven. Any work done under obligation to God could not fulfill the law.

Under the new system which Saint Paul compares and contrasts to, we have a system by which faith, hope and charity (love) prevail. In other words a system by which God’s grace (kindness) prevails as we are adopted into His body.

Works of the law was a system by which man failed, but works of God saves. James speaks of works done under the inspiration of God. If you understand this we are simply instruments of that grace. Meaning we allow God to reach out to others through us. We take none of the glory, since we could not achieve this on our own will. In that manner we play a different role. If God reaches through us we are meritorious, since God has earned salvation for us.



When St. Paul writes about “works of the law” he was referring to the Jewish ceremonial and ritual laws. He was not referring to the moral law, the 10 commandments.

Jesus taught that to enter heaven we must believe everything God has revealed (have faith) and obey His teachings. When we do this we receive the grace of salvation, and we grow in this grace. If we don’t obey, but commit mortal sin then we lose this grace. If we die unrepentant for our mortal sins, then we end up in hell.

When a Jew becomes a Christian, he is no longer under the law of Moses, but he is under the law of Christ, as taught by His Church.
Just as when someone moves his residence from New York to Florida, after a while he is no longer under the laws of New York, but he is under the laws of Florida. The laws did not change, but the authority of the laws over the person changed.

Now the controversey started when some Jewish Christians known as the Judiazers **said that faith and obedience to God is not enough. **They said that in addition to believing and obeying Jesus, Christians also had to follow the ceremonial and ritual laws of the Law of Moses in order to be saved, (that is circumcision and the Jewish feast days. These were known as the “works of the law”. Notice that God did not say Christians had to follow the Law of Moses, Jesus did not say Christians had follow the Law of Moses, the Church did not say Christians had to follow the Law of Moses. But certain men, on their own, said that Christians had to follow the Law of Moses. By following these laws, the Christian was not doing it out of faith in Jesus, because He never taught that Christians were under the law of Moses. They were not practicing obedience to God, (which is necessary to be saved), because God never taught that Christians had to obey the Law of Moses. The law of Moses was ONLY for the Isrealites. It was not for anyone else.
So if a Christian decided that he had to follow the Law of Moses, then he was not doing it out of faith in Jesus, nor out of obedience to Jesus. He was doing it because of his own reasoning or the reasoning of the Judiazers. He was putting his faith in the opinions of men. He was not trying to obey God, because God never taught that Christians were under the Law of Moses. He was trying to earn his own salvation, he was trying to get to heaven on his own, apart from Grace, which we receive through faith and obedience to God.

Now, some people thought that St. Paul was against the idea of obeying God with the intention of obtaining a reward of final salvation. Of course this was false. St. Paul was against the idea that faith in Jesus and His Church and obedience to God was not sufficient. St. Paul was against the idea that in addition to faith and obedience, Christians must follow the man-made idea, that Circumcision, sabbath observance and other ceremonial laws of the Law of Moses must be followed.

Since these people got confused, James makes it clear that faith and obedience to God are both necessary to enter heaven. (Of course if one dies right after conversion and repentance, then the intention to obey is sufficient. ) So James is writing about works of the moral law, obeying God. Paul was writing about the ceremonial rituals of the Law of Moses, which is NOT obeying God for Christians.

To clear up some things. Before Jesus came, Jews had to follow the law of Moses, out of faith in God. If they did so, they could escape hell. They could not be saved, that is, they could not be made a child of God and have the right to heaven, because Jesus had not yet merited the grace of salvation, so no one could go to heaven yet.
It was not till Jesus died and rose that He merited the grace for our salvation. If we have faith in Jesus, that is if we believe all He taught the apostles, which is handed down in the Church today, then we can receive the grace of salvation, or sanctifying grace through baptism and the other sacraments. If we obey the teachings of Jesus, as He taught the apostles who handed then down through the Church, then we can preserve and grow in this grace. If we die in this grace which saves us, then we will go to heaven to be with Jesus and everyone else in heaven, for eternity.

We got into this same discussion at a Bible study in my church a while back.
As it happened, a relative of mine lives next door to a family–the 2 sets of kids have grown up together-- Anyhow, the lady next door has decided that she needs to keep all the Jewish ceremonial & dietary laws.
She won’t let the kids eat pork, & they can’t have pizza ( no milk & meat together). She wants all their clothes 100% cotton or whatever (Leviticus somewhere).
They can’t turn lights on & off from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.
No they are not Jewish. This is a Christian family. The kids are rebelling big time. They are all mixed up. She is mixing other people up. She even prays in Hebrew (which she has learned a few words by rote), because ‘God speaks Hebrew’…(:confused: ??? He’s God. He understands them all!)
My point is: This is what was happening to the people that Paul was writing to. They were trying to be everything, & frustrating themselves in the process.
James was writing to people with a different problem. They were becoming arrogant about themselves. They were presuming on God’s mercy & love.
2 different sets of people. 2 different problems. 2 writers. One Gospel.
The solutin is not contradictory; it is complementary.
God bless.

The Law of Moses was given to him by God , It is only literary and historically that it was the Law unto Moses. No Governing Body or Authority has ever changed. What has changed was that Christ came to set a new light on the old law which is still govern by God. God had inspired Paul to carry out the new law. The old Jewish Law has became invalid in God’s eyes because they the Jewish People were set free from the old law if they followed Christ’s teachings. If the Jews follow the old Law , it means they don’t accept Jesus as their Saviour.

It is true that Christ came to shed a new light upon the old version of the Works of the Law where Paul had a mighty task ahead of him… his job was to present through the guidance of the Holy Spirit a new understanding of living the Law . First he makes it very clear that Christ came to give us freedom from sin and the newness of Life thus a truly Spiritual Life in Christ that by Faith in Christ and not by our own works that we are justified by faith apart from the Works of the Law. We no longer have to do Works to be accepted by Christ. We only need to accept Christ to have a new life and Identity with him. Christ has done the great work for us and when we truly accept Christ we donot have any work debts to pay.
Paul does say that in order to live a truly Christian Life is to live it and this is where the new “Living Law” comes in. Gone is the practice of the old law and live the new in Christ , that is the dynamics of Faith which lays down the foundation for the Body of Christ and the Spiritual fruiths of the Holy Spirit which adds to the Spiritual principles and Christian practices that Christ had taught.
Sadly was the principle reason was Christ was crucified and many Christians were martyrs in Christ. Amen

Saul as a pharisee was taught and believed that one was saved from damnation by faithfully observing the over 600 Mosiac laws of the Old Testament. When he became Paul and understood the significance of the Jesus event he saw a contradiction here and believed that if salvation was only through Jesus Christ then The Law no longer held. He was convinced at that point that it was not either one or the other or both, but that it was faith alone in Jesus Christ that saves. It was at a meeting in Jerusalem (sometimes called the first Council of the Church) that he convinced Peter and the others that this was correct. One did not have to become an observant Jew before being Christian or while being a Christian. It took some time before this was completely accepted by those who converted from Judaism. Thus all those portions of the Mosaic Law that did not derive from Natural Law and the Ten Commandments were no longer required. Those who had found Faith in Jesus Christ performed the works found in the Eight Beatitudes and in Matthew 25 however it was not through these works that they were saved but it was because they were saved that they performed these works so it is not both or either/or. As James said Faith without works is dead. They go together like the horse and carriage in the old song about love and marriage. This is not a statement of OSAS.

DC why do you say that Paul was not referring to the 10 commandments? Works of the law is very general and the text in this case does not differentiate.

What does Paul think is necessary for salvation? Consider this:
Romans 2: 25-29 “Circumcision, to be sure, has value if you observe the law; but if you break the law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision. Again, if an uncircumcised man keeps the precepts of the law, will he not be considered circumcised? Indeed, those who are physically uncircumcised but carry out the law will pass judgment on you, with your written law and circumcision, who break the law. One is not a Jew outwardly. True circumcision is not outward, in the flesh. Rather, one is a Jew inwardly, and circumcision is of the heart, in the spirit, not the letter; his praise is not from human beings but from God.”

Paul tells us in Romans 2 that Gentiles are capable of knowing the moral laws because they are self-evident. So Jews have no advantage for salvation by knowing the moral laws and Levitical laws, such as Circumcision and dietary laws (Romans 14). The “obedience of faith” (Romans 1:5) is what is important. That is, after we come to believe that Jesus is God, we must practice what we preach. We have to have a living faith. Romans 2:5-8 “By your stubbornness and impenitent heart, you are storing up wrath for yourself for the day of wrath and revelation of the just judgment of God, who will repay everyone according to his works: eternal life to those who seek glory, honor, and immortality through perseverance in good works, but wrath and fury to those who selfishly disobey the truth and obey wickedness.”

The moral laws and charity are permanent though. Matt 5:17-18 “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished.” The Sermon on the Mount takes all the “thou shalt nots” and expands them with the “Thou shalts”; that is, Jesus says the way to become happy is by living a life of virtue. “Circumcision is of the heart” is what matters.

Paul says we are saved by faith in Jesus because he is distinguishing it from salvation by Levitical law, which is what Jews believed at the time. Read Romans with the controversy in Acts 15 in mind.

In James, however, the concept of faith means intellectual consent, so he spells out that salvation requires consent and charity.