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“Works religion” in contemporary “Christian” discussions is a term that is not always clearly understood. Some people, for instance, apply the term to God’s commands. This is a deadly thing to do! Others have in mind those things a person does that will merit a good response from other people (such as charitable deeds).

When Paul wrote to the church in Rome he mentioned that one is justified by faith “apart from the works of the law.” The importance of that remark is best understood in the context and in relation to the Jewish way of thinking that has taken place through the multitude of years. For instance, in the Chumash (Rabbinic Jewish commentary) this remark is made about the high priesthood of Melchizedek in relation to Noah’s son Shem. “The Sages derive that Melchizedek did not pass on the priesthood to his heirs; it was stripped from him [Melchizedek] and given to Abraham. Even though Abraham was a descendent of Melchizedek, i.e., Shem, he won the priesthood through personal merit, not through inheritance” (p. 65, the entirety of remarks on Genesis 14:19).

Take note of the word merit. This is a word that is used throughout the Chumash. In the summary remarks of Genesis 15:1-6, we read: “It is axiomatic that God treats a person according to what his deeds have earned him, and that his store of merit becomes depleted if God changes the course of nature for his benefit” (p. 66, italics added, RT ).

When Paul used the word “works” in Romans 3, this is an idea he had in mind (cf. 9:30-10:3). Thus, the word “works” is NOT interpreted correctly when understood to refer to God’s commands because, after all, they are God’s commands! “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome” (1 John 5:2-3, ESV).