Martin Luther, the father of the Protestant Reformation, provided what can be considered the standard view Protestant view about Paul’s concern about the works of the law and justification. In his Preface to Romans, he attempts to provide the reader of Romans a primer on how to understand some of the keywords in Paul’s letter, including law. Regard law, he says:
You must not understand the word law here in human fashion, i.e., a regulation about what sort of works must be done or must not be done. That’s the way it is with human laws: you satisfy the demands of the law with works, whether your heart is in it or not. God judges what is in the depths of the heart. Therefore his law also makes demands on the depths of the heart and doesn’t let the heart rest content in works; rather it punishes as hypocrisy and lies all works done apart from the depths of the heart. All human beings are called liars (Psalm 116), since none of them keeps or can keep God’s law from the depths of the heart. Everyone finds inside himself an aversion to good and a craving for evil. Where there is no free desire for good, there the heart has not set itself on God’s law. There also sin is surely to be found and the deserved wrath of God, whether a lot of good works and an honorable life appear outwardly or not.1
For Luther, law is understood as God’s ethical demands upon human beings. Luther certainly understands that God’s ethical demands are associated with the instructions of Moses as he soon thereafter references Romans 2. In his commentary on Galatians 2.16, he associates Law with Moses. Luther does not dehistoricize the meaning of the law from the Torah, but rather he considers the law as reflected in the Torah. To that end, it may be better to suggest that Luther does not think of law as limited to the Torah, but as God’s general ethical demands upon all people as expressed in the Torah. As such, Luther’s exegesis does not recognize law as being limited within the arrangement of a specific covenant with a specific people, but rather is limited by a general principal of God’s grace. For Luther, Paul’s Gospel essentially represents the conflict that humans face between trying to live in obedience to God’s ethical commands with receiving God’s grace to justify us in faith, which is the classic Luthern antithesis between Law and Grace.
One major implication for Luther’s understanding of law is how it impacts his understanding of works. For Luther, works is a matter of human effort to obey God, not simply conform to the commands of Torah. In short, we can consider “works of the law” to mean “human attempts to obey God’s ethical demands” for Luther.
Now, for those who know me know I am influenced by much of the scholarship coming out of the so-called New Perspective of Paul, particularly in its grandfather E.P. Sanders (whose scholarship influence James Dunn as the father of the NPP) and one of its children in N.T. Wright.2 So, one might be inclined to think I would push back on Luther’s understands of works and Torah here. However, I am of the opinion that Luther didn’t get Paul’s overall theology terribly wrong, but he did get the precise meaning of Paul’s wording wrong, meaning that he failed to understand the specific nuances and complexities of Paul’s argument. Tis a small price to pay in comparison to helping 16th century Europeans read the Scriptures afresh again.
So, I don’t think Luther was entirely off-base in how he understood Paul. My critique of Luther is more narrow than broad in that he treats works of law as representing a general, anthropological and theological reality rather than it pointing to something more specific among the life of first-century Jews. Luther as a person can certainly be forgiven for his lack of historical sensitivity, even though his historical ignorance combined with his later hostility towards Jews would contribute to anti-Semitism that would have dire and deadly consequences in the 20th century. Today, we have mountains material from that period of history that have been largely combed over because of the rise of historical-critical studies, in addition ot use now being aware of the damage that such wrong and distorted views can have in modern societies capable of wide-spread violence and bloodshed. The scholarship of Luther’s day with limited by the sources they had and the influence that Roman Catholicism had on Biblical scholarship. At the time, the main view in Catholicism came from Jerome, who considers works of the law to refer to the ceremonial parts of the Torah, such as Sabbaths, circumcision, etc.
If I were to decide whether Luther or Jerome was closest to understanding Paul’s meaning, I would have to consider Luther was the closer of the two. Much like James Dunn’s view that Pauk’s concern about the works of the Torah related primarily to certain boundaries markers of Jewish identity such as circumcision, Sabbath, diet, etc. Jerome believed that the works of the Torah was referring to very specific Jewish practices. This is not without reason as any close reading of Paul will note that Paul tends to pick certain issues out that were consider highly important to Jewish identities, such as circumcision, meal fellowship and diet, how one sees the days of the week, etc. However, there is no real exegetical basis to suggest Paul’s usage of the phrase ἔργον νόμου was limited to only some of the commandments and not the whole. In fact, Paul’s letter to the Galatians seems to explicitly discount this view of the phrase as Paul says everyone who is under the Torah is under a curse by quoting from LXX Deuteronomy 27.26, which essentially stipulates the faithful Jew is to obey all of God’s instruction. Having to pick between Luther and Jerome, Luther’s account of the works of the law makes a better sense of Paul’s discourse than Jerome’s.
In other words, I would suggest that Luther represented considerable hermeneutical progress in getting the meaning of Paul’s epistles correct from his background, even as the influence of Luther’s remaining errors were left unchecked and contributed to the moral regress into widespread violence, evil, and hatred towards the Jews in the 20th century. To that end, I can be deeply sympathetic with the New Perspective on Paul that has sought to stem the tide of anti-semitism in Biblical Studies and views of Judaism, but yet still recognize the benefit of Luther’s exegetical and theological move in his day.
His narrow *exegetical* error (which would contribute to much broader and more sweeping theological. historical, and ethical errors down the line of history) was to suggest two things: (1) that works was about moral human effort and (2) to not sufficiently recognize the peculiar and specific nature of the Torah in distinction from other forms of praxis. I will address the second first.
Like most dutiful Christians, Luther read the Scriptures as providing the instructions for Christian faith and life. As a result, he like anyone else would have been inclined to read the Old Testament, and the Torah more specifically, as containing ethical obligations that come from God. Luther had a lessened historical consciousness that would lead him to overlook the Torah being God’s instruction specifically to the people of Israel and that in the first century; the commandments of the God of Israel were not even known by most people in the Roman Empire. Rather, God’s Word was counter-cultural to a peculiar people, and as such was not considered to be God’s commands directly given to all humanity but God’s instruction to His people. However, Luther living in the midst of a Christianized word would understand the Law of Moses more as if it was a king giving a law to his imperial subjects.
As a result, Luther appears to understand the Law as the direct expression of God’s will to humanity in general. However, Paul is not engaging in some general discussion about the ethical inability of all humans to obey God. Paul definitely shares this understanding about human inability, although not in terms of the bondage of the will that Luther does. Rather, in Romans, he takes pains to intellectually argue that the Jews are not in any better of a position than the Gentiles in virtue of their being instructed out of the Torah. Israel is not somehow more virtuous and blameless as a people simply because God gave them the Torah. They lived with many of the same ethical weaknesses that were often pointed out of the Gentiles. This is represented by Paul in compressing Israel’s ethical history into a concise statement that sin increased about the Israelites even after they had been given the Torah (Romans 5.20) because they shared in Adam’s nature as the Gentiles did. Paul is not therefore referring to some general sense of God’s will and ethical obligations given to humanity by the law, but rather the whole set of God’s instructions to Israel given through Moses.
This leads me to the second point. Luther understood works as essentially referring to human efforts to obey God. I don’t think this quite gets at Paul’s point when talking about the works of the Torah. Rather, I think works of the Torah refer to the interpretive traditions that many Israelites developed to be obedient to God’s instructions. They would provide specific instructions about how one was to obey the commandments, such as what would and would not classify as working on the Sabbath. Meanwhile, Paul was not concerned with people being instructed by the Torah, as his multiples quotations for the Torah to support his ethical instruct reveal. Nor was he condemning obedience to the Torah by Jews or suggesting the impossibility of doing such, as Romans 2.13 and 8.4 shows that he thinks that Jews can and should obey Torah (through Christ) and it will impact God’s judgment of them. Rather, the problem with Paul is how the Torah is used to pursue righteousness. The letter of the Torah was old (Rom. 7.6) and could kill a person (2 Cor. 3.6). In an effort to try to be righteous, many Israelites would dutifully try to obey the letter of the Torah. The problem is that despite the various practices they created to obey Torah, their efforts to put them into practice would never solve the problem of sin in their life (cf. Col. 2.20-23). No matter how many practices one derived from Torah to try to help order one’s life in accordance to God’s will, one would never be free from the powers of sin and death. A person living under Torah would still find themselves giving into sin, even as they struggled against it (Romans 7.7-25).
So, when Paul is saying that the works of the Torah will not justify a person, he is not referring to some sort of works-righteousness by which a person accumulates enough merits to avoid God’s judgment. Rather, he is referring to the attempts to having such a character of life that God would look at a Torah-observant Jew and say “you are now among the righteous.” Israel’s history would show that having the Torah and trying to obey it was no guarantee of moral development and formation; it was often the exact opposite. Only God’s word of grace to justify people in faith even as they had lived in ungodliness could deliver and redeem a person from their sin, not the efforts of Jews to try to become righteous by their attempts to put the actions they derived from interpreting the Torah.
To some extent, Luther is close to Paul’s own theology and anthropology of sin when Luther talks about the inability of the human will to genuinely obey God. But Paul does not downplay Jewish obedience to Torah it is God instructing who is actively instructing them through the Spirit, but rather Jewish efforts to form their lives through interpretation and application of the Torah to their lives. In so doing, they are stuck in the past and a veil is over their hearts preventing them from hearing what the Spirit is telling God’s people in Christ today. The Torah was God’s covenant instruction for Israel coming out of the Exodus and coming into the land God had promises the patriarchs, a covenant that the people of Israel repeatedly disregarded.
This is why Paul almost goes ballistic against the Gentiles believers in Galatia when they start flirting with idea of adding circumcision and the works of the Torah to their lives. Their life in Christ was begun by the Holy Spirit, and so to go to Torah was to take away one’s seeking of righteousness through the Spirit, but to focus instead of matters of the flesh and human teachings. By trying to add circumcision and Torah when they had never been circumcised or followed the Torah, their focus would go away from being taught and directed by God.
At stake for Paul and the works of the Torah is that a person must be instructed by God through the Holy Spirit to be able to submit to and obey God; trying to focus on interpretation and application of the Torah to doing specific works means that one is not being instructed by God but by something or someone else. God can certainly use the Torah to instruct people, but they must have faith like Abraham’s before they can be so receptive; they must have received the Spirit before they can understand the real Spiritual purposes that the Torah were a past expression of; they must be conformed to Christ before they will be able to live out these purposes.
So, in the end, I would posit that for Paul, the works of the Torah refers to the application of the Torah in specific practices that devout Jews would follow to try to improve their moral and ethical character. Not quite Luther’s view of the works of the law that lead to a false, negative stereotyping of the Jews, but Luther is certainly much closer than the Catholic interpretations of the time as coming from Jerome.