The dismissal of “works of the law” as the means of justification has all kinds of overtones. Paul’s fundamental meaning is that no Jew can use possession of the Torah, and performance of its key symbolic “works” of ethnic demarcation, as demonstrations in the present time that they belong to the eschatological people of God, the people who will inherit the age to come. Torah is incapable of performing this function: When appealed to, it reminds its possessors of their own sin.
This Israel-specific and context-specific argument and meaning, vital though it is, must send off warning signals in other spheres as well. To the Roman moralist of Paul’s day, it might have said that clear thought and noble intention were not enough; the clearer the thought, the nobler the intention, the more this clarity and nobility would condemn the actual behavior. To an anxious monk of the early sixteenth century, fretting about his own justification, Paul’s words rang other bells. Performance of Christian duties is not enough. Despite the Reformation, the message had still not been heard by the devout John Wesley, until a fresh hearing of Luther’s commentary on Galatians caused light to dawn. In the post-Enlightenment period, many, including many Christians, have assumed that “the law,” here and elsewhere, refers to the Kantian ideal of a categorical moral imperative suspended over all humans, and have preached this “law” to make people recognize their guilt, in order then to declare the gospel to them.
These are important overtones of Paul’s statement here, but they are not its fundamental note. If we play an overtone, thinking it to be a fundamental, we shall set off new and different sets of overtones, which will not then harmonize with Paul’s original sound. Sadly, this has occurred again and again, not least within the Reformation tradition, which, eager for the universal relevance and the essential pro me (i.e., “for me”) of the gospel, and regarding Israel mainly as a classic example of the wrong way of approaching God or “religion,” has created a would-be “Pauline” theology in which half of what Paul was most eager to say in Romans has been screened out. Provided, however, one is careful to tell again the unique story of Israel and Jesus, not as an example of something else but as the fundamental truth of the gospel, many of the things the Reformers wanted to insist on can be retained and, indeed, enhanced. [The Letter to the Romans (NIB volume 10) pp.463-464]
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