Last summer I had a pretty intense (and, I thought, fun!) debate with a fellow whom I had heard preach on James chapter 2--the 'faith without works is dead' passage. I thought that his message totally misrepresented James's own, essentially contradicting the apostle's words.
The message came out this way, of course, because in the Protestant tradition we tend to hold up Paul and James as these two sort of opposing voices on the matter of justification. 'Paul says we're justified by faith, not works; James says we're justified by works, not faith.' This is a gross distortion of both views, but it's also a good summary of the popular take on it all. With this on the table, we're left no choice but to do some 'creative interpretations' of the view that we think is off, and that's usually James. 'He can't mean what he said; you have to read this in light of Paul...'
Romans is usually what they mean by 'Paul'. I had Romans 3:28 quoted at me more than once last summer: "For we know that a man is justified by faith and not by works of the law."
This response always left me unsatisfied. Not because I'm not willing to let scripture lead me--I hope that's not what this is all about. It's because I knew that "works of the law" in Romans and "works" in James are not the same thing. This is indisputable. Read the contexts for the two. Paul is talking about something specifically Jewish with a very particular meaning. James is talking about good works in general, like visiting orphans and widows in their distress or taming the tongue.
Lately I've found myself returning to this issue. Not by studying James this time, but by studying Romans. I wanted to read this wonderful letter one more time, slowly and thoroughly, before heading to seminary. Along with it I've been reading a lot of secondary literature: studies on the letter's context, suggestions of alternative translations at points, etc.
All of this has brought to my attention once again this really crucial phrase in the letter: 'works of the law.'
How are we to understand this phrase?
The traditional Protestant view (coming from Luther) of 'works of the law' can be best explained with an illustration: "works of the law" are akin to the things Roman Catholics do--going to mass, receiving the sacraments--to try and ensure their salvation. They are works meant to impart the saving grace of God to an individual. The Jews were doing works that they felt earned, merited salvation for them. These were works prescribed in the law.
This is the traditional Protestant/Lutheran view. For *many* reasons, I do not share it.
Before anything else, a misunderstanding of ancient Judaism has to be exposed here.
Ancient Jews did not understand themselves as doing works, say following the laws in the Pentateuch, to merit salvation from God. Instead, they hoped for salvation simply on the basis of their being Jews. They were the covenant people of God, and God would be faithful to them. Salvation didn't follow any particular actions, but it followed a state of being: being Jewish. This is why proselytes, converts to ancient Judaism, had to receive the mark of circumcision. Circumcision was a sign of your membership in God's covenant community, your place as a child of Abraham, a Jew.
This is also the reason behind the activities of different Jewish factions in the 1st century. Pharisees didn't meticulously follow the law to try and earn salvation. They meticulously followed the law to set themselves apart, to prove themselves to really be God's chosen nation, up and against all of those who didn't meet the standards.
The same is true of the Zealots and the Essenes, waging war with the pagans and living in isolation from a corrupt world (respectively) to set themselves apart as clearly as they could. The distinctions between themselves and the Gentiles--or between themselves and other Israelites not living up to their part of the covenant with God--proved that they were really the people of YHWH.
The difference is sometimes hard to keep clear, but it's important: salvation did not rest in the works of the people, following the law, but it rested instead in God's faithfulness to his covenant with Israel ... so make sure that you are Israel!
This attitude, that we're talking about Israel's God, the God of the Jews, is what Paul is setting out to attack in Romans.
"Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? But a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of the Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one. He will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised by faith." (Romans 3:27-30)
Right here Paul is drawing some connections and one grand dichotomy.
The opposition, however, is not between what you might expect. Paul's not putting 'works, Jews, and circumcision' against 'faith, Gentiles, and uncircumcision.'
Instead, Paul places 'justification by works of the law' and "the Jews only" up against 'justification by faith', "the Gentiles also", and "the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised by faith."
He is countering claims of exclusivism from the Jews with the vision of God justifying all peoples, Jewish or not, by faith.
What then are 'works of the law'?
Works of the law in Romans are "those things which distinguish you as Jewish."
That is why, in Paul's logic, to say that we are justified by "works of the law" is the same as suggesting that "God is the God of Jews only" (:27-29).
Maybe a good paraphrase of 3:28 would be "people are justified by faith, not by simply being Jewish."