One of the major tenants of the New Perspective on Paul is that the phrase "works of law" only refer to the specific Jewish identity markers in law. As James Dunn (1) puts it:
"‘Works of law', 'works of the law' are nowhere understood here, either by his Jewish interlocutors or by Paul himself, as works which earn God's favor, as merit-amassing observances. They are rather seen as badges: they are simply what membership of the covenant people involves, what mark out the Jews as God's people;...in other words, Paul has in view precisely what Sanders calls 'covenantal nomism.' And what he denies is that God's justification depends on 'covenantal nomism,' that God's grace extends only to those who wear the badge of the covenant."
In this blog post I will give two counter examples to what Dunn argues here about the phrase "works of law", I will show that the term means more than the narrow definition of mere Jewish identity markers.
Counter Example 1:
Romans 2:14-15 14 For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. 15 They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them
Explanation: Here Paul is teaching us that us that the gentiles lack the Mosaic law, which would include these Jewish identity markers like circumcision and so on. But yet Paul says that even though they do not have the Mosaic law they have another law, namely, the Law that is written on their heart, this would be the natural law. But Paul uses the Greek phrase argon tou nomou or "work of the law" to describe this natural law. Thus, this shows us that the phrase "work of the law" is not refering only to the narrow use of the Mosaic law but the general natural law instilled on all mankind.
Counter Example 2:
Romans 3:19-20 19 Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. 20 For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.
Explanation: At this point Paul has shown that both Gentiles (Romans 1) and Jews (Romans 2) both stand condemned before God. Romans 3:19-20 offers a summary statement of this universal condemnation to lead us to the Gospel of Justification by faith alone. Paul begins in verse 19 to remind us that all are held accountable to God because they are under the law. This cannot be referring to just the Mosaic law alone because only the Jews are held accountable to the Mosaic law, but not the Gentiles and then, if this were true, the whole world would not be held accountable under the law. But Paul seems to be stressing that the whole world is held accountable and thus the phrase "under the law" has to be referring to the moral law of God by which everyone is subject to; both Jew and Gentile. Paul continues in verse 20 to say that no one will be justified in his sight by "works of the law". Paul has just shown that all are held accountable to God and then he goes on to argue that because of this no one will be justified in his sight because of being under the law. Paul uses the phrase "works of the law" to title this universal law by which Jews and Gentiles stand condemned. Thus, the phrase works of law have a much broader meaning than just the narrow identity badges of the Jewish people.
We can see from this that the New perspective on Paul is unreasonable because it ultimately rests on unbiblical presuppositions. But I think Paul's traditional Reformed message is worth considering. Paul tells us that we are all condemned before a Holy God. But the question that we must think about is this: How are we to be made right before a Holy God that is terribly angry at the countless sins we have committed ? I think Paul answers this question clearly:
Romans 3:21-22 21 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it- 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.
Romans 4:5-8 5 And to the one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, 6 just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works: 7 "Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; 8 blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin."
Thus, the Word of God teaches us that we cannot be made right before God by works, but by Faith in Jesus Christ who imputes to us his works (Phil. 3:9).
*** For more useful material on this subject read Douglas Moo's commentary on the Book of Romans***
1. Cf. Jesus, Paul, and the Law: Studies in Mark and Galatians (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press), 1990; Romans; The Epistle to the Galatians (Black's New Testament Commentary; Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers), 1993.