Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

The "Works of the Law" in Romans and Galatians: A New Defense of the Subjective Genitive

Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

The "Works of the Law" in Romans and Galatians: A New Defense of the Subjective Genitive

Article excerpt

The emphasis in this turn of phrase would then lie not so much on human failure fully to obey the Law (though that is implied) as on the Law's own inability (owing to the gripping power of sin) to produce in people a righteousness that can survive before the bar of God's judgment. The issue is precisely whether the Jewish people are right to place their confidence in the righteousness provided by the Law (Rom 2:17-18; Phil 3:9; cf. Bar 4:4; 2 Bar. 48:22). In this essay, I will explore the possibility that this third proposal has considerable merit and is based on a more reliable exegetical basis than any of the other options.


In this article, I use the word "justify" and its cognates repeatedly. It is not practical to define in each and every instance what I mean by the terminology, so I will state at the outset what I understand "justification" to mean in Pauline theology (with particular regard to Romans and Galatians). Romans 1:16-17 is very instructive in this regard. For Paul, the "gospel" reveals the "righteousness of God" to those who have faith. To be "justified" is to receive the soteriological benefit of the righteousness of God. What it means to receive the soteriological benefit ("the power of God to salvation") of the righteousness of God can be determined by 1:18- 32, where Paul describes the consequences of the revelation of "the wrath of God." The gospel is the opposite ofthat. Whereas the revelation of God's wrath brings a darkened heart (1:21), a giving over to the enslaving power of sin (1:24, 26, 28), and the judgment that one deserves death (1:32), the justification offered in the gospel illumines the heart (cf. 2 Cor 3:16), frees from the power of sin (Rom 6:7), and reconciles the ungodly to God (Rom 4:5; 5:1; 8:1). To be justified is simply to be accepted into the family of God (Gal 3:24-26), and so to have God's condemning judgment removed- a judgment that includes bondage to the power of sin (Rom 6:14-23).


The "Works of the Law" in Romans

Romans 3:20

Paul's argument throughout 3:1-18 is that God's "words" have not ultimately benefited the nation to whom they were entrusted. Israel failed to believe God's word (3:3), failed to live righteously before God (3:5), and ultimately failed to carry out the will of God in the world with any greater success than the Gentiles (3:10-18). This is why Paul - speaking in a prophetic manner- believed that his Jewish people stood condemned before the bar of divine judgment, alongside the rest of humanity. Paul drives this point home in 3:19-20. What he insists is that the Law has failed to produce righteousness in Israel in the midst of the world.

What, then, has the Law accomplished? Paul answers that what the Law has done is close every mouth (3:19b) and put the whole world in the position of needing to give an account of its sinful actions before the bar of divine judgment (3:19c). In short, what the Law has done is to provide "the knowledge of sin" to Israel (3:20b).10 The issue at stake here is precisely the question of what the Law has, and has not, been able to do for Israel.

What most exegetes continue to overlook is that in this context Paul is not even addressing the question: What works must a person perform in order to be justified?11 If one looks back at the preceding context, it is clear that he is instead asking the question: What benefit have the "words" of God provided to the Jewish people? The issue at stake in 3:20 is the historical evidence (as witnessed by Israel's conduct) of the effectiveness of God's words (contained in the Law) in dealing with the problem of sin, not the existential question of how many works a person must perform to be accepted before God.

Romans 3:28

Paul then insists that the scheme he has just presented excludes human boasting (3:27). Boasting is said to be excluded by "a law of faith." In other words, boasting is excluded when one comes to understand that the true purpose of the Law (for the elect; see Rom 1 1:7) was not to enable the Jew to earn his own righteous status before God by means of personal merit;13 rather, Paul's scheme insists that the purpose of the Law is to promote "faith" in God's righteousness, which was displayed in the soteric mission of his Son Jesus (cf. …

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