A Commentary by John Stott
So this is the point to which the apostle has been relentlessly moving. The idolatrous and immoral Gentiles are ‘without excuse’ (1:20). All critical moralists, whether Jews or Gentiles, equally ‘have no excuse’ (2:1). The special status of Jews does not exonerate them. In fact, all the inhabitants of the whole world (3:19), without any exception, are inexcusable (*hypodikos*) before God, that is, ‘under accusation with no possibility of defence’. And by now the reason is plain. It is because all have known something of God and of morality (through Scripture in the case of the Jews, through nature in the case of the Gentiles), but all have disregarded and even stifled their knowledge in order to go their own way. So all are guilty and condemned before God.
*Therefore*, Paul concludes, *no-one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law* (20a), literally ‘by the works of the law’ (RSV.) What does he mean by this expression? ‘This is the first appearance’, writes Professor Dunn, ‘of a key phrase whose importance for understanding Paul’s thought in this letter can hardly be over-emphasized, but which has in fact frequently been misunderstood by successive generations of commentators’.
The traditional understanding of ‘works of the law’, promoted particularly by Lutheran scholars, is that Paul is referring to good works of righteousness and philanthropy, done in obedience to the law, and regarded by the Jews as the meritorious ground on which God accepted them.
This tradition is now being challenged, especially by Professor E.P.Sanders, on the ground that Palestinian Judaism was not a religion of works-righteousness and that therefore Paul cannot have been denying what the Jews were not affirming, namely salvation by meritorious works. Instead, as Professor Dunn elaborates, Paul’s target was narrower and quite specific, namely the ‘devout Jew’ who took it for granted that he was securely within God’s covenant, provided that he maintained his membership by ‘works of the law’, namely those ‘boundary markers’ like sabbath observance and the food laws which distinguished him from the Gentiles. Further, the reason Paul denied salvation by these works is that he was opposing privilege, not merit. For if salvation was by circumcision and cultural practices, only Jews and proselytes were included and Gentiles were excluded. In reaction to this, Paul emphasized not so much the freeness of God’s grace (against merit) as its impartiality (against elitism). Salvation ‘by works of the law’ bolstered pride and privilege; salvation by faith abolished them.
How shall we respond to this increasingly popular reconstruction? At least, I think, in two ways. First, Professor Dunn’s thesis (which he calls ‘the new perspective on Paul’), namely that by ‘works of the law’ Paul meant distinctively Jewish ‘identity markers’ like sabbath, circumcision and food regulations, is far from proved. The expression contains no hint within itself that the ‘works’ in mind are only cultural-ceremonial and not moral. Nor does Paul’s use of it suggest this limitation. For example, Romans 3:20 concludes Paul’s long argument that all human beings are morally sinful and guilty, including Jews whose transgressions include stealing and adultery (2:21f.), not ritual offences; the second part of Romans 3:20 defines the law’s function as revealing sin; Romans 3:28 contrasts justification by faith with ‘works of the law’, which cannot mean Mosaic ceremonial rules, as is clear from the example of Abraham (4:2) who lived long before Moses. Dr. Stephen Westerholm, who develops a powerful argument along these lines, writes ‘The “works of the law” which do not justify are the demands of the law that are not met, not those observed for the wrong reasons by Jews.’