Question: "What are the works of the law (Romans 3:20; Galatians 2:16)?"
Answer: In his letters, the apostle Paul warned the believers in the churches in Rome and Galatia not to place their hope for salvation in the works of the law. To the Roman Christians, he said, “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his [God’s] sight” (Romans 3:20). To the Galatian believers: “We know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ” (Galatians 2:16; cf. 3:5). To justify is to declare righteous.
The “works of the law” are the actions performed to fulfill the Mosaic Law found in the first five books of the Old Testament. Keeping the Sabbath, being circumcised (the issue before the Galatian churches), eating “clean” foods, and other ceremonies are powerless to justify us in the sight of God. In addition, following the morality of the law (not murdering, not committing adultery, not stealing) is insufficient to make us right in God’s eyes. No act on the part of sinful creatures can result in God’s declaring them to be righteous in His sight.
Why can’t the works of the law save us? First, because the works of the law can never be done completely. The standard is perfection, and that means “good enough” won’t pass muster. Paul explains to the Galatians: “All who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, as it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law’” (Galatians 3:10, emphasis added). James further explains that anyone who offends in just one point is guilty of breaking the whole of the law (James 2:10). There are over six hundred individual commandments in the Mosaic Law, and breaking just one of them one time renders a person guilty. No one but Jesus ever kept the law perfectly.
Second, the law was never intended to justify anyone; it was given to show us our sinfulness and to reveal the perfect holiness of the Lawgiver (Romans 3:20). Without the law, we would not know what sin is (Romans 7:7). The law is holy because God is holy. Just as a straightedge reveals the crookedness of a line, so the law of God exposes our lack of holiness. No one measures up to God’s standard (Romans 3:10). The law cannot justify; it can only condemn. No one can stand before a holy God on the basis of his own efforts, even if those efforts include a hearty attempt at keeping the works of the law.
If the works of the law justify no one, and serve only to reveal our own sinfulness and our desperate state, what are we to do? The Bible offers the only solution to the problem of sin: “But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe” (Romans 3:21–22). This is why “the just shall live by faith” (Romans 1:17, NKJV).
We can only be declared righteous “by faith apart from works of the law” (Romans 3:28), and that faith must rest in the only Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ: “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). To continue to attempt to earn a place in heaven through the works of the law is to ignore the sacrifice of Christ: “If righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!” (Galatians 2:21).