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Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology
Works of the Law
The term erga nomou ("works of the Law") is used by Paul to denote deeds prescribed by the Mosaic Law ( Romans 2:15; 3:20,27 , 28; Galatians 2:16; 3:2,5 , 10 ). Although not found in the Old Testament or later rabbinic literature, this phrase appears in Qumran literature (maase torah,4QFlor 1:1-7; cf. 1QS 6:18; 1QpHab 7:11). At times Paul shortens the phrase and uses erga, "works" (Romans 4:2,6; 9:11,32; 11:6 ), referring to a mode of relationship to the Law and set in contrast to faith in Christ.
Various interpretations of this phrase include: "good works, " in the sense of humankind's striving for self-achievement apart from God; observances of Mosaic Law that seek to earn God's favor; and distinctive Jewish identity markers (i.e., circumcision, dietary regulations, and Sabbath observance). Judaism was "nomistic, " observing the Law not as a means of justification but as a response to a gracious God, who Acts on behalf of his people and requires that they in turn identify themselves as his people by keeping his ordinances (covenantal nomism). In this context, the performance of "works of the law" does not refer to an individual's striving for moral improvement, but to a religious mode of existence, marked out by certain religious practices that demonstrate the individual's covenant relationship. Paul's polemical argument in Galatians, however, is concerned with the inherent legalism of the Judaizers, who required Gentile converts to observe Jewish traditions in order to qualify as members of God's covenant people. Thus, when Paul uses erga nomou, he is not just referring to nomistic practices, but to merit-amassing observance of the Law as well.
The nonattainability of righteousness by keeping the Law is attested to by Paul in Philippians 3:4-9 . The works of the Law the apostle was "blameless" in performing actually were hindrances to true righteousness, found only in Christ. Any attempt to justify oneself before God based on meritorious action is counted as "loss" or "refuse." Trusting in one's ability to keep the Law is a reliance on the "flesh" (Philippians 3:3 ) and an attempt to establish one's "own righteousness" (Romans 10:3 ). Thus, the cross of Christ, as the sole basis of justification, becomes an "offense, " because it repudiates any other means of obtaining righteousness (1 Corinthians 1:23; Galatians 5:11; cf. Romans 9:33 ).
R. David Rightmire
Bibliography . G. Bertram, TDNT, 2: 635-55; F. F. Bruce, Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 57 (1974-75): 259-79; C. E. B. Cranfield, Scottish Journal of Theology 17 (1964): 43-68; W. D. Davies, Paul and Rabbinic Judaism; J. D. G. Dunn, Jesus, Paul and the Law; J. A. Fitzmyer, Paul and His Theology; D. P. Fuller, WTJ 38 (1975): 28-42; R. H. Gundry, Biblica 66 (1985): 1-38; H. C. Hahn, NIDNTT, 3: 1147-51; R. Heiligenthal, Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament, 2:49-50; R. N. Longenecker, Galatians; idem, Paul: Apostle of Liberty; H. Ridderbos, Paul: An Outline of His Theology; E. P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism; idem, Paul, the Law, and the Jewish People; S. Westerholm, Israel's Law and the Church's Faith: Paul and His Recent Interpreters .
Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Edited by Walter A. Elwell
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of Baker Book House Company, PO Box 6287, Grand Rapids, Michigan 49516-6287.
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Elwell, Walter A. Entry for 'Works of the Law'. Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/bed/w/works-of-the-law.html. 1996.