The problem facing Paul as an apostle was how to persuade his readers that YHWH would still count men — especially Gentiles — as righteous covenant members despite the fact that they did not keep the Torah.
Ever since Phinehas in Numbers 25 had shown himself zealous for YHWH by killing Zimri and Cozbi, Torah-observance had been the way Jews had demonstrated their loyalty to YHWH, so much so that loyalty to Torah just was loyalty to YHWH.
But with the coming of Jesus and the ingrafting of the Gentiles, that simple equation no longer held true. Loyalty to Torah was no longer the same thing as loyalty to YHWH. Paul’s point in Galatians is that Torah-ism is now a virtual denial that Jesus has brought about the fulfillment of the covenant with Abraham. It is thus an anachronism, an attempt to find something other than the Messiah to be the mediating and defining authority in the life of the people of God.
Because of the previous function of the Torah as the standard of loyalty to YHWH, Paul must use several different arguments. It is not enough to show that Jesus the Messiah has replaced the Torah as the covenant of God with His people. He also argues that acceptance of Jesus actually embodies the only thing that ever made the Torah an effective covenant in the first place. In order to do this, Paul distinguishes between loyalty to God and the works of the Torah (ἔργα νόμου) that had previously embodied that loyalty to God.
The ἔργα νόμου made the Jews different, and difference is, even today, frequently used as a test of loyalty. To take a rather crass example, it is why fraternity pledges are made to do bizarre things — carry a chicken around the college campus, for instance — to prove their loyalty to the fraternity and show how much they want to be “in.” Ezekiel 20:20 says that the Sabbath law functioned this way: “and keep my Sabbaths holy that they may be a sign between me and you, that you may know that I am YHWH your God.” Ezekiel does not say that keeping the Sabbath was a meritorious action, or that it could earn wages from God. Rather, it is a “sign” that functions within a relationship (“between me and you”) to cement the monogamy between YHWH and Israel (“that you may know that I am YHWH your God”). In other words, it was by doing this work that Israel expressed faith in (or loyalty to) YHWH.
This view of the relationship between faith and works explains why God’s judgment of individuals will be “according to works” or “according to what they have done”, and why Jesus says, “Well done, thou good and faithful (πίστος!) servant” (Mt. 25:21-22). Likewise, in Jesus’ description of the last judgment (Mt. 25:34ff), “the King will say to those on His right hand, ‘Come, you blessed of My father, inherit the kingdom already prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty, and you gave Me drink…” Jesus is not saying that the righteous have earned their way into heaven by meritorious actions. These things are mentioned because they are loyalty in action, i.e. because they are faith. Jesus does not say, “All these things are filthy rags, but I see that you have faith, so enter in without them.” No, a failure to do these works is itself disloyalty (ἀπιστία), or unfaith.
Accordingly, James 2:18 says, “Show me your faith without the works, and I will show (δείξω) you my faith from my works.” That is not analogous to statements like, “I will show you latent fingerprints by dusting them” or “I will show you that the crown is made of pure gold by immersing it in water.” It is not about the indirect revelation of an invisible fact by visible facts, where both sorts of facts have the same sort of existence. It is rather like, “I will show my wife that I am faithful to her by doing the dishes, and preserving the sanctity of our marriage bed, guarding my eyes and keeping away from adultery.” A faithfulness to one’s wife that does not have these things is not merely hidden. Rather, it is just unfaithfulness. Thus, James’ command, “Show me your faith without the works” does not have in mind a real possibility. No one can show faith without works, because faith does not exist without works.
This view of the relationship between faith and works can also explain why Paul argues against works as wage-earning and debt in Romans 4:4: “Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt.” A wage relationship does not embody the loyalty that God requires. John 10:12-13 makes this explicit: “But a hireling (μισθωτός), he who is not the shepherd, one who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees…The hireling flees because he is a hireling (!) and does not care about the sheep.” The relationship is not one of πίστις, and the result is abandonment. “But God is faithful (πίστος)” (1 Cor. 1:9, 10:13, and elsewhere). Thus, Ezekiel 34 indicts the unfaithfulness of the shepherds, promises that YHWH will shepherd the flock Himself, and via His servant David, and concludes with an affirmation of covenant loyalty: “Thus they shall know that I, YHWH their God, am with them, and they, the house of Israel, are My people, says YHWH God. You are my flock, the flock of My pasture; you are men, and I am your God,’ says YHWH God.” (Ez. 34:30-31)
The relationship of Jacob and Laban is an interesting test case about works and faith (loyalty). Laban had first received David with the words, “Surely thou art my bone and my flesh.” (Gen. 29:14) David Daube comments:
This was not just a friendly greeting but a formal recognition of the ties of kinship between them. …We are told that, on Laban receiving Jacob in this manner, Jacob ‘dwelt with him for a month.’ ‘To dwell together,’ yashab yaḥadh, is technical of the remaining together of coheirs as one family.” So the initial relationship between the two men was grounded on family ties and the loyalty that such a relationship implies…
If the foregoing considerations are correct, they throw light on Laban’s proposal at the end of the month. This is usually interpreted on the lines of the LXX and Vulgate: ‘Because thou art my brother, shouldest thou therefore serve me for nought?’ That is to say, the first half is taken as an assertion — ‘thou art my brother’ — and only the second as a question — ‘shouldest thou serve me for nought?’ However, quite apart from the inconsistency of such openhandedness with Laban’s character, it is doubtful whether this rendering is the most plausible from the philological standpoint. On the basis of the prevalent view one would expect something like halo’ ‘aḥi ‘ atta lamma ta’abbedheni ḥinnam, “Art thou not my brother? Why then shouldest thou serve me for nought?” What we find is hakhi ‘aḥi ‘atta wa’abhadtani ḥinnam. The proper translation appears to be: ‘Art thou my brother? And shouldest thou serve me for nought?’ Both halves, that is, are questions, and the meaning is: ‘Thou art not my brother, and therefore shouldest not serve me for nought.’
“This was not an act of generosity. On the contrary, it was a disavowal of the brotherhood, the relationship, which Laban had acknowledged when first receiving his nephew… When Jacob was offered a reward for his work, it was degradation, not promotion: having lost his status in the family, he became a hireling.
This change from a gracious familial relationship to a relationship of employer and employee also marks the beginning of Jacob and Laban’s mutual distrust, their attempts to cheat each other, and ultimately, the end of the relationship between them. Having changed the basis of the relationship, Laban must introduce wages. Where before, Laban would have blessed Jacob with wealth as part of the love of one kinsman for another, now their relationship will be governed quite strictly by the letter of the law — by the “Pottery Barn rule” that forced Jacob to take Leah as a wife when he had thought he was marrying Rachel; by the ten changes to Jacob’s wages; by the exacting enforcement of accounting (Gen. 31:39); by the contract about speckled and spotted livestock. In the end, wages and contracts were not sufficient to keep Jacob in an otherwise broken relationship, so that he left Laban and took his riches with him. Relationships are sustained by faith or loyalty (amonah, πίστις). (I believe it is Wendell Berry who pointed out that contract law must be intensified the weaker a community is.)
I hope this puts into a new light Paul’s statement that “Israel, pursuing the law of righteousness, has not attained to the law of righteousness. Why? Because they did not seek it by faith, but as it were, by the works of the law.” (Romans 9:31-32) The problem was not that the Israel was a nation of Pelagians, but that they were not loyal to God. They were supposed to be sons, and instead they showed the kind of disloyalty of hired hands, all the while insisting that they should be treated as sons because they had done some specified things. The proof of their disloyalty was their rejection of the Messiah. Sure enough, Paul’s next statement is, “For they stumbled at that stumbling stone. As it is written, ‘Behold, I lay in Zion a stumbling stone and rock of offense. And whoever believes on Him will not be put to shame.” (9:33)