SOLVED: What are the “Works of the Law”


When reading through Paul’s letters, one thing stands out – that he has no use of the “works of the law’. Paul writes such things as:

Galatians 2:16 KJV – “16 Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.”
Galatians 3:5, 10 KJV – “5 He therefore that ministereth to you the Spirit, and worketh miracles among you, [doeth he it] by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith? … 10 For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse: for it is written, Cursed [is] every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them.”

Defining “Works of the Law”

It is vitally important to define this phrase correctly, as many people use these texts as the foundational doctrine of salvation. But shockingly enough, a little research will turn up definitions and explanations that vary widely.

Definition 1 – Obeying Torah

In Modern-Day Corrupt Christianity, it is defined as “obedience to God’s Law”. This way of thinking interprets “works” as “doing” what God told you to do.

  • There are a number of problems with this definition, as God, Himself said that the precepts and ordinances of the Law are to be observed forever, eternal, to all generations. Did God lie? Why didn’t He say that those laws are only in effect until Messiah?
  • This definition is commonly used in conjunction with another misconstrued concept – that no one can obey God’s Law. This goes against common sense and the scripture. The scriptures are clear from beginning to end: God’s love endures forever. He is Holy, Pure, and Kind. He certainly would not demand His beloved people to obey a law that He knows they cannot obey – adding horrible curses to those who do not obey them. And then let them steep in that horrible abuse for over 1500 years.
    Also, the scriptures are clear: the law is “not too hard for you” (Deuteronomy 30)
  • Any law is a reflection of the lawgiver. If a law changes, it’s only because the lawgiver(s) changed. In this case, the Holy, Pure, and Good Torah is a reflection of God. And it will never change, as God never changes (Malachi 3:6)
  • To say that obeying the Law (works of the Law) will bring a curse is the exact opposite to what God said throughout the rest of the Bible.
  • In Galatians 5, 1 Corinthians 6, and several others passages of Paul’s letters, he specified sins that will get you EXCLUDED from the Kingdom of God. That, my friend, IS the Torah.

So then, it is impossible that the “works of the Law” should be defined as “obeying the Law of God”. Doing so would contradict all other scripture outside Paul’s letters. Paul is not to be used to override The Law, the Prophets, the Lord Jesus, Peter, James, or John. In so doing you become an idolater, idolizing Paul above all.

Definition 2 – Law of Sin

Another definition is that Paul is talking about the “law of sin” and not the Law of God. In other words, using this definition, the “works of the law” means acting out sinful inclinations – simply stated – sinning.

This definition may seem to fit in some instances. This view may, or may not be the correct view overall. However, it does bring a good concept to the table: that the Devil has a law too. And to sin is to obey his law. Unfortunately, far too many Christians ignore, deny, or even reject the Law of God. But they obey the law of the Devil. And they think they are “good” with God. Think again.

Definition 3 – The Positive Commands

In Judaism, it is traditionally taught that God’s Law, the Torah is comprised of 613 commands.

Of those 613 commands, 365 are negative commands. These commands are those which call for the abstinence of a certain work – such as “Thou shalt not murder”, or “Thou shalt not steal”. They are not commands of “work”. Rather, they demand that you do not do certain work.

On the other hand, the positive commands are commands that demand action. Thus, they are “working” commands.

Those who hold to this definition say that people are naturally inclined to “show off” by publicly obeying the positive commands of the Torah – all the while they are breaking Torah by doing what they are not supposed to do behind closed doors.

For example, a person can make a public display of how they obey certain positive commands, as positive commands, public actions are seen by all and are easy to prove. But secretly they could be coveting, or holding a grudge, or committing theft. And in so doing, they violate the Torah. And that is much harder to prove.

So then, it is easy to “appear” spiritual by adhering to the positive commands while hiding the fact that they also “do” what they should not do. They are hypocritical.

If the “works of the Law” are simply the positive commands, Paul is making a case that you can’t be saved by simply doing the positive commands if you also break the negative commands, which make up the majority of the Torah. This could be the reason why Paul made it clear throughout his letters that if a person breaks the Torah in committing fornication, variation, emulation, revelries, adultery, murder, prostitution, homosexuality, etc… they will not inherit the kingdom of God.

Using the “works of the Law” = positive commands definition, Paul’s letters make much more sense in that he is trying to weed out the hypocrites – telling them that they can’t be saved by the positive commands (alone). That they must also fulfill the negative commands – such commands Paul spelled out for us in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 & Galatians 5:19-21.

Definition 4 – Men’s Additions to the Torah

Current evidence shows that this definition is likely to be the most accurate.

Definition by Context, and Usage

One very effective way to define a certain word or phrase in scripture is to find that phrase in other portions of scripture and see how it’s used – especially by comparing documents that were written in the same era, as the meanings of words and phrases change rapidly throughout history.

And this is where it gets really interesting.

Biblical Usage

Shockingly, Paul is the only author in the Bible that uses this phrase. We find no such phrase in the Torah, in the Prophets, or any other New Testament book.

Paul sticks out like a sore thumb in this respect. His writings are very different than any of the other Biblical texts.

If “works of the law” means to obey the Law, then why isn’t it used throughout the Law?

If “works of the law” means to put effort into obeying God, then why doesn’t Moses, or any Prophet, or any other Apostle say anything about it? Not even the Lord, Himself uses that terminology.

In fact, you will not find this phrase in any of the rabbinic literature of that time either!

Miqsat Ma’aseh haTorah (MMT)

This leads us to our final destination in this discussion. There is one ancient document that uses that same terminology – It is found in the Dead Sea Scrolls, in a document called the MMT.

The MMT is short for “Miqsat Ma’aseh haTorah”. It is Hebrew that means “pertinent works of the law”. The phrase I want to hone in on – Ma’aseh haTorah – “Works of the Law”!

Finally we have found a document from Paul’s relative era that uses the same terminology. And more than that. It does something that Paul never did – it defines what the “works of the law” truly are.

MMT says that the “pertinent works of the Law” are 20+ religious precepts, or halakhot. In simple terms, the “works of the Law” are rabbinic additions to the Torah.

I say 20+ halakhot because some scholars believe that as many as a dozen more precepts perished in the deteriorated, and fragmented manuscripts.

What do the 20+ precepts entail? you may ask

According to an article written by Martin Abegg from the Biblical Archaeological Society, found in the Biblical Archaeological Review November/December (1994), he says,

“The issues include bringing Gentile corn into the Temple, the presentation of Gentile offerings, and the cooking of sacrificial meat in unfit (impure) vessels. Other rulings concern cleansing of lepers, admitting the blind and the deaf into the Temple; and permitting intermarriage with Ammonite and Moabite converts,”…

In short, these precepts, these halakhot, are rabbinic additions to the Torah, and NOT the Torah itself.

Using this definition, “works of the law” is akin to “the traditions of men” as Jesus called it. And in this respect, Jesus and Paul harmonize.

Martin Abegg goes on to say,

“Looking at Galatians and Romans in the light of MMT, it seems clear that Paul, using the same terminology, is rebutting the theology of documents such as MMT.”

Works of the Law vs Faith

In the quote at the beginning of this article, we read Paul’s letter to the Galatians in which he pits the “works of the Law” against the “hearing of faith”.

One must understand that Paul defines the works of faith by quoting the Torah in Romans 10:

Romans 10:6-8 KJV – “6 But the righteousness which is of faith speaketh on this wise, Say not in thine heart, Who shall ascend into heaven? (that is, to bring Christ down [from above]:) 7 Or, Who shall descend into the deep? (that is, to bring up Christ again from the dead.) 8 But what saith it? The word is nigh thee, [even] in thy mouth, and in thy heart: that is, the word of faith, which we preach;”

This is a direct quote from Deuteronomy 30:

Deuteronomy 30:11-14 NIV – “11 Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. 12 It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, “Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” 13 Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, “Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” 14 No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it.”

So then, according to the MMT definition of “works of the law”, Paul asks a simple question in Galatians 3:5 “He therefore that ministereth to you the Spirit, and worketh miracles among you, [doeth he it] by the works of the law (men’s traditions/additions to Torah), or by the hearing of faith (obeying God’s commands)?

Made Perfect By the Flesh?

Paul did it again, using figures of speech when he said,

Galatians 3:3 Are you so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are you now being made perfect by the flesh?

“made perfect in the flesh” is another phrase that is often misunderstood in modern Christian circles. They think it means to “act out the Law of God”. In other words, to obey the Law of God in your body, or in “the flesh”. Some people go as far at to say that the Torah is fleshly.

But does this really mean that the Law of God is fleshly, which is opposed to the “Spirit”.

Paul: Torah is Spiritual

The Apostle Paul made it clear:

Romans 7:12 – “12 Wherefore the law [is] holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good.”

and again,

Romans 7:14 – “14 For we know that the law is spiritual: but I am carnal, sold under sin.”

Following the Spirit vs Following the Law

Many Christians believe that the Spirit is contrary to the Torah. They believe that going by the Spirit is diametrically opposed to going by the Law.

So, if anyone decided to be Torah observant, they condemn them for it, saying that instead of going by the Law, they should go by the Spirit.

Herein is the problem, the scriptures are clear, God is Spirit! (John 4:24)

And God never changes. God boldly announces, “I AM THE LORD, I CHANGE NOT” (Malachi 3:6)

Therefore, when Moses received the Torah on Mount Sinai, He received it from God who is a Spirit. In short, Moses receive the Torah from the Spirit!

And so, the Law of God IS THE LAW OF THE SPIRIT.

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