…those who support the New Perspective on Paul, such as J.D.G. Dunn…and N.T. Wright…maintain that “works of the law” focuses on the boundary markers that separate Jews and Gentiles. The boundary markers, or identity badges, of Judaism were circumcision, food laws, and Sabbath. The problem with the Judaism in Paul’s day, then, was not legalism but exclusivism. “Works of law” highlights the nationalistic spirit of the Jews by which they excluded Gentiles from the promises of God. According to his interpretation, Paul does not indict the Jews for their failure to obey the law. Their fault was not inability but separatism.
-Thomas Schreiner from his book
40 Questions About Christians and Biblical Law
Question 5: What Does the Expression “Works of Law” Mean in Paul? pg 42
My previous review on earlier chapters of Schreiner’s book can be found in this morning’s “meditation,” Captured in the Glass. Please read that article before proceeding here.
It took me until this fifth chapter, uh…question to realize that Schreiner was writing this book primarily, or at least significantly, in order to refute the “New Perspective on Paul.” The New Perspective on Paul is actually a formal, academic interpretation of the writings of Paul, supported by a number of New Testament scholars. It also seems to dovetail nicely into the viewpoints of some commentators on Messianic Judaism, particularly those to support the distinction between Jewish and non-Jewish believers in Yeshua (Jesus) as Messiah relative to covenant signs (circumcision, food laws, and Sabbath).
But according to Schreiner, these scholars are dead wrong. I suspect that’s why my Pastor gave me this book. It really is a compelling book, but not in the way Pastor may have intended it.
Here’s Schreiner’s point of view on “works of the law.”
…”works of law” refers to the entire law and the actions that are required by the law. This is the most likely reading of Romans 3:20 (“For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin”) and Gal. 3:10 (“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'”).
As noted above, I wrote about earlier “questions” in Schreiner’s book in my previous blog post and apparently the subsequent questions form the foundation for later parts of the text. Unfortunately so do the errors that were previously established as well. As I mentioned before, Schreiner himself states that observing the Torah mitzvot was a perfectly acceptable response to obeying God after He redeemed the Israelites from Egypt and apparently it was OK until the coming of Jesus.
Look up Deuteronomy 30, Psalm 19, and Psalm 119 as just a few of the many examples of how the Torah was upheld, esteemed, thought beautiful, a source of wisdom, on, and on, and on, how wonderful the Law of Moses was.
How did it get morphed in the late Second Temple period to be such a pain in the neck for the Jewish people?
Even Schreiner acknowledges that Paul sincerely believed that the Torah was the authoritative word of God for the Jewish people. So what’s Schreiner’s beef with “works of the law?”
A number of arguments support the idea that “works of law” refers to the entire law and the deeds commanded by it…”Works of law” most naturally refers to all deeds commanded by the law. There is no reason to think that it is limited to or focuses on only part of the law, or that it refers to “evil works,” or that it refers to legalism.
-ibid, pg 43
So what? So what if “works of the law” refers to the Torah as a whole? I still maintain that Paul was talking about Jewish and Gentile people who believed that one needed to keep the whole of Torah without error in order to be saved. If you believe keeping the mitzvot will save you instead of faith in God, then you’ve got a problem. I agree. No matter how many of the mitzvot you perform and no matter how well you perform them, those acts are not what saves you from sin and death. Abraham had faith and it was counted to him as righteousness (Genesis 15:6, Romans 4:3).
If the mitzvot was a perfectly good response of obedience to God after Israel’s redemption in the days of Moses, why is it a problem in the days of Paul?
I know what you’re thinking. Schreiner thinks the same way.
For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all.
–James 2:10 (NASB)
Schreiner’s argument from Question 7: Is Perfect Obedience to the Law Mandatory for Salvation? states that the law is impossible to keep perfectly and therefore no one can be saved by keeping the law. He’s rocketing toward the supersessionistic conclusion that in order to be saved, Jews must abandon the Torah (which he erroneously believes Paul did) and cling to Jesus and grace in order to be saved. He is correct in that God expected Israel to observe the mitzvot, but he forgets that God established provisions for the Israelites when they sinned. He uses examples such as Proverbs 20:9 and Ecclesiastes 7:20 to demonstrate how the “Old Testament” Jews couldn’t keep the law and of course, he uses Romans 3:10 to indicate how the “New Testament” Jews couldn’t keep the law either.
But he is building his argument on sand or rather, on a false premise.
Those who do not do everything the law commands are cursed.
Schreiner’s problem is that he assumes it was God’s intention that Israel keep the law perfectly in order to be saved…salvation by works. Would God really expect that? He didn’t seem to in Genesis 15. He redeemed Israel before He gave the Torah at Sinai (see my review of the FFOZ TV episode Exile and Redemption for the actual, Biblical definition of “redemption,” which is much more than how Schreiner understands the term), so obviously that redemption or salvation was not based on the Israelites keeping the Torah, being obedient, or any other form of “works-based salvation.”
So what was Paul complaining about, then? What was his problem with the law? His problem was with people, both Jews and Gentiles, who erroneously thought just keeping the law would save them. That’s why he was against Gentiles converting to Judaism (see the Book of Galatians), since they were laboring under the false teaching that they had to keep the law in order to be saved.
That wasn’t Paul’s understanding of the law and it certainly wasn’t God’s.
But if Paul is saying that those who convert to Judaism and thus who are bound to the Sinai covenant and its conditions, the mitzvot of Torah, don’t keep the law perfectly, and not keeping the law perfectly doesn’t cause them to lose their salvation, what is this curse Paul’s talking about?
You’ll find the blessings the Israelite were to receive for observing the mitzvot and the curses they were to suffer from for disobedience in next week’s Torah Portion Ki Tavo: Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8. The actual actions that must be committed in order to be cursed are listed in verses Deuteronomy 27:15-26 and 28:15-19. So what are the consequences of being cursed?
The Lord will let loose against you calamity, panic, and frustration in all the enterprises you undertake, so that you shall soon be utterly wiped out because of your evildoing in forsaking Me. The Lord will make pestilence cling to you, until He has put an end to you in the land that you are entering to possess. The Lord will strike you with consumption, fever, and inflammation, with scorching heat and drought, with blight and mildew; they shall hound you until you perish. The skies above your head shall be copper and the earth under you iron. The Lord will make the rain of your land dust, and sand shall drop on you from the sky, until you are wiped out.
The Lord will put you to rout before your enemies; you shall march out against them by a single road, but flee from them by many roads; and you shall become a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth. Your carcasses shall become food for all the birds of the sky and all the beasts of the earth, with none to frighten them off.
The Lord will strike you with the Egyptian inflammation, with hemorrhoids, boil-scars, and itch, from which you shall never recover.
The Lord will strike you with madness, blindness, and dismay. You shall grope at noon as a blind man gropes in the dark; you shall not prosper in your ventures, but shall be constantly abused and robbed, with none to give help.
–Deuteronomy 28:20-29 (JPS Tanakh)
That’s not the entire list, of course. You’ll have to read the rest of that chapter to find all of the curses. None of them says that the Children of Israel will lose their salvation and go to Hell when they die if they don’t keep the law perfectly.
Whenever Israel has been unfaithful to God and to their sincere, faithful obedience to the mitzvot, what consequence has God delivered to Israel? What consequence do we always see in the Tanakh (Old Testament)? What effects of these consequences do we see to this very day?
The Lord will scatter you among all the peoples from one end of the earth to the other, and there you shall serve other gods, wood and stone, whom neither you nor your ancestors have experienced. Yet even among those nations you shall find no peace, nor shall your foot find a place to rest. The Lord will give you there an anguished heart and eyes that pine and a despondent spirit. The life you face shall be precarious; you shall be in terror, night and day, with no assurance of survival. In the morning you shall say, “If only it were evening!” and in the evening you shall say, “If only it were morning!” — because of what your heart shall dread and your eyes shall see. The Lord will send you back to Egypt in galleys, by a route which I told you you should not see again. There you shall offer yourselves for sale to your enemies as male and female slaves, but none will buy.
–Deuteronomy 28:64-68 (JPS Tanakh)
War, famine, destruction of the cities of Israel, and exile to the diaspora.
What was Paul’s problem? Did he know what was coming? Israel was occupied by the Roman Empire. At a thought, the Romans could swoop down on Israel, destroy the Temple, raze Jerusalem, and remove the Jewish people from their Land. If you were born Jewish in the late Second Temple period, there must have been an exceptional sense of being responsible for performing the mitzvot, since they knew the consequences of failure. But how could Gentile believers and God-fearers who were only somewhat familiar with the Torah, truly understand he horrendous consequences of converting to Judaism, being bound by the Torah, and what would happen if they weren’t obedient? The lived memory of all of the previous disasters that had befallen Israel, including the destruction of Solomon’s Temple and the Babylonian exile, were imprinted on every single Jew. But how could the Goyim who had recently come to faith in Messiah even begin to understand?
Was this Paul’s motivation? Probably not entirely, but it must have factored in. The other motivation is that it simply wasn’t necessary for Gentiles to convert, since, as I’ve been trying to hammer home, keeping the law does not save you!!! Any Christian who states this as the reason Paul “rejected” the law is barking up the wrong tree. Not only does a Gentile converting to Judaism and taking up the mitzvot not save that Gentile (and it doesn’t save Jewish people, either), but it makes that Gentile and lots of others like him/her a loaded gun pointed at the head of Israel. A bunch of Gentiles who don’t know squat about a experiential Torah lifestyle abruptly converting to Judaism on the mistaken notion that it will save them (and that Jesus isn’t enough) means a whole pool of “newbies” have just been primed to lead Israel into the next disaster because they don’t realize the tremendous responsibility they possess.
As it turns out, that disaster happened anyway, but I can see Paul’s point in saying that anyone who doesn’t keep the law perfectly brings a curse upon themselves and Israel. No, one little screw up wouldn’t do it, but lots and lots of Jews (including converts) over a sustained period of time who were being disobedient always resulted in exactly those curses being delivered by God upon Israel (and please understand that after each exile, God always redeemed and restored the Jews to their Land).
When Paul said that anyone who does not keep the law is under a curse, it has nothing to do with salvation and going to Hell. It does not mean the Torah is bad. It does not mean Jews in Messiah should give up the mitzvot. It does not mean Jewish faith in God and performance of the commandments are mutually exclusive. Quite the opposite. Jesus gives the mitzvot their full meaning. He was the only Jewish person to ever keep the mitzvot perfectly. He’s the poster child for Torah obedience. He also takes away the curses of failing to be perfect and remember, even Jesus said, Be perfect for your Father in Heaven is perfect (Matthew 5:48).
Did Jesus expect his Jewish disciples to keep the law perfectly? How could he? We have a Biblical record that no one ever kept the law perfectly. What is being perfect? Works? Heaven forbid! What justifies us before God? Works? Not a chance. It’s faith. It’s always been faith. If a Jew keeps the law, no matter how imperfectly, are they instantly sent to Hell, are they sent to Hell when they die, or are they even instantly exiled from their Land? No. The consequences are for a faithlessness, corporate Israel, and faithlessness leads to lack of obedience. Lack of obedience is the symptom, the indicator of lack of faith. That’s the trigger for the consequences, the curses.
In Messiah, the curses are redeemed, removed, done with.
Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree”— in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we would receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.
Yes, if Jesus removed the curse of the Law, then why would believing Gentiles converting to Judaism be a threat? Because, as we see from Paul’s argument in Galatians, the Gentiles were under the mistaken impression that keeping the Law justified them. In the end, if Israel believed observance of the mitzvot also justified them apart from faith, then that’s the recipe for exile.
Jesus died to redeem us from sin. He paid the price. He died for us. As Paul told the churches in Galatia, Jesus opened the door so both Jews and Gentiles could come to faith and thus be justified before God. In his death and resurrection, he fulfilled that part of the Abrahamic covenant that says he is the “seed” that blesses all the nations.
But also, in Messiah, Jewish believers are free from the curses and the obligation to be perfect, for only in Messiah is anyone considered justified before God. In Acts 15:10 Peter called the law a “burden.” Why would he say that? On some level, maybe it was. Maybe part of what Messiah brings to the table for the Jewish people is the freedom from the curses of the Law so that they are free to observe the mitzvot without a “burden.” This sets the stage so the Jewish people can ultimately be returned to their Land, to Israel, by Messiah.
For the Jewish people, faith and observance go hand in hand, Jewish observance of the mitzvot is the outward response and indicator of faith.
I have to thank Schreiner and my Pastor for this book. My brain is still percolating, I’m shooting from the hip, and half-rambling in this blog post, but I think I’m coming to a better understanding of Paul, the law, and maybe even Galatians. I think I’m getting closer to the Christian puzzle of “the law is bad.” I hope as I continue reading Schreiner’s book that my brain will be opened up and God will provide more illumination. I feel like He’s flipped the switch. Maybe it’s just a night-light so far. But the dawn is coming.
For more on this, see the commentary “Blessings Over Curses” at JewishJournal.com.
The next review in this series is Schreiner’s Law of Torah and Sin.