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Deeds of the Law


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Now we know that whatever the Law says, it speaks to those who are under the Law, so that every mouth may be closed and all the world may become accountable to God; because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin.

—Romans 3:19–20

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Critics of sola fide are fond of pointing out that Paul doesn’t use the precise words “faith alone” But there’s no escaping his meaning: the immediate context makes it plain. Remember that final, devastating point in Paul’s lengthy discourse on sin: “By the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20). In other words, works are worthless for justification. Paul’s very next statement is that “the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, [is granted] to all and on all who believe” (Rom. 3:22). That is a clear affirmation of the principle of sola fide.

Most Roman Catholic theologians (and a fairly recent strain of nominal Protestants who reject the principle of sola fide) have claimed that when Paul speaks of “the deeds of the law,” he means only the formal rituals and other ceremonial features of the law—circumcision, rules governing ceremonial cleanness, and such. But Paul’s use of this phrase simply cannot be narrowed down that way, in a heretical effort to give sinners some credit for their salvation.

In Romans 7, for example, when Paul wanted to illustrate the law’s utter inability to justify sinners, the one precept he chose to single out as an example is the tenth commandment: “You shall not covet” (Rom. 7:7; cf. Ex. 20:17). Coveting is arguably the least of all the sins named in the Decalogue. It deals with desire. Resisting or committing that sin is not something that entails any kind of action. So when Paul speaks of the deeds of the law,” he is using that expression in the broadest possible sense. His meaning cannot be limited to the rituals and ceremonial features of the law. Quite the contrary: the expression “deeds of the law” as Paul consistently employs it would include any thought, action, or attitude that aims to gain God’s approval through a show of obedience to the Old Testament’s 613 commandments. No matter how rigorously the sinner tries to follow the law, seeking justification before God that way is a futile exercise.

—John MacArthur, The Gospel according to Paul (Thomas Nelson, 2017), 61–62.



Posted 2018·07·02 by David Kjos
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Posted in: John MacArthur · Justification · New Perspective on Paul · Papism · Sola Fide · The Gospel according to Paul

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