What are the works of the law (Romans 3:20; Galatians 2:16)?

The works of the law refers to the requirements of the Mosaic law given to the Israelites in the first five books of the Old Testament. The apostle Paul wrote to different churches in his epistles, and he warned the believers in Rome and Galatia to not place their hope for salvation in their actions—the works of the law—but rather to place their hope for salvation in Jesus Christ.

Paul writes, "For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his [God's] sight" (Romans 3:20). He affirmed to the Galatian believers: "We know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified" (Galatians 2:16; cf. 3:5). Justification is being made right with God. Paul is saying that our works don't make us righteous before God, our faith in Jesus does.

The Roman and Galatian churches had both Jewish and Gentile believers. The early church struggled with how Jews and Gentiles could live and worship together. Paul is helping to affirm that the way of is the same for everyone. The Mosaic law did not provide salvation for the Jews, or non-Jews, in the Old Testament, and it does not provide salvation for anyone of any ethnic decent today. Salvation has always been by God's grace through faith. Paul elaborates on this in Romans 4 (see also Ephesians 2:1–10).

Paul was "a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless" (Philippians 3:5–6). But he counted that all loss "because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ" (Philippians 3:8–9). His adherence to the works of the law could not save him, and Paul came to understand that knowing Jesus was so much better than attempting to gain righteousness on his own.

Hebrews 10:1 explains, "For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near." "But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified" (Hebrews 10:12–14).

The Mosaic law included many dos (such as being circumcised and eating only certain "clean" foods) and don'ts (such as not murdering or not stealing). The Law was not bad, but it was also not a path to salvation. Why? Because there was no salvation unless there was perfection in following the Law. The Mosaic law contains over six hundred commandments, and breaking just one of them would make a person guilty (James 2:10). Paul writes: "For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, 'Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them'" (Galatians 3:10).

The key problem with the Law: it was impossible for anyone to fulfill every requirement perfectly. The only way for the Law to be a sure path to justification before God was if it were fulfilled without fault. No one but Jesus ever kept the Law without a mistake (Matthew 5:17–18; 2 Corinthians 5:21; 1 Peter 2:22; 1 John 3:5).

So, why the Law in the first place? The Law was designed to be for revelation not salvation. Paul says that the Law helps us to know what sin is (Romans 7:7). It reveals our own sinfulness and the perfect holiness of God (Romans 3:20). God is the standard, and the Law shows us that no one can meet His standard on their own (Romans 3:10). The Law shows us that we need a savior. Jesus was the perfect sacrifice that made a way for all who believe to be made righteous before God: "For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Corinthians 5:21; see also Galatians 2:21).

In Jesus Christ, we can become in right standing with God, not from our own perfection, but by placing our faith in the One who is perfect: " But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith" (Romans 3:21–25; see also through verse 31).

The evidence of our faith in Jesus Christ is the righteous living and the spiritual fruit that it produces in us as we walk out our Christian faith (Galatians 5:16–25; Ephesians 2:1–10; 5:1–21; Hebrews 10:14). We are not saved by these good works or any works of the Law. Rather, we are transformed in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17) and learn to walk in obedience to God's ways as He completes His good work in us by the power of the Holy Spirit (Philippians 2:12–13; John 15:1–11). We are justified by God alone, not by our own works.

Related Truth:

What does Ephesians 2:8–9 mean?

Is salvation by faith or works or both?

What is the law of sin and death (Romans 8:2)?

Why did God give the Mosaic Law? What is the purpose of the Mosaic Law?

What can Christians learn from the Mosaic law?

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