The writer of Hebrews stated “not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works [actions], and of faith [faithfulness] toward God, Of the doctrine of baptisms [washings], and of laying on of hands, and of resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment” (Heb 6:1-2). The Greek ergon translated typically as “works” simply means “actions,” whatever actions the context requires. Here, it’s the actions of the high priest on the annual day of atonement. They were “dead actions” because they didn’t remit sins. In Leviticus chapter 16, the high priest would “wash his flesh in water” (vs. 4,24) before and after laying his hands on the head, “lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat” (v. 21). He would also sprinkle the blood of a bull and a goat upon the mercy seat, “And he shall take of the blood of the bullock, and sprinkle it with his finger upon the mercy seat … Then shall he kill the goat of the sin offering, that is for the people, and bring his blood within the vail, and do with that blood as he did with the blood of the bullock, and sprinkle it upon the mercy seat” (vs. 14,15). “But into the second went the high priest alone once every year, not without blood … For if the blood of bulls and of goats, and the ashes of an heifer sprinkling the unclean, sanctifieth to the purifying of the flesh: How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works [actions] to serve the living God?” (Heb 9:7,13-14). God’s people were to repent or turn away from these “dead actions” and trust in Christ’s “faith [faithfulness] toward God” (Heb 6:1) as the true sacrifice for their sins.
Romans chapter 3 is about Jesus Christ’s faithfulness to give Himself as our sacrifice versus the actions of offering animal sacrifices mandated by the law, “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith [faithfulness] without the deeds [actions] of the law” (v. 28). Christ’s faithfulness, “the faithfulness of Jesus Christ … Jesus’ faithfulness” (vs. 22,26 NET), was that He shed His blood upon the true mercy seat, “Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation [mercy seat] through faith [faithfulness] in his blood” (v. 25). And Paul continued this thought into chapter 4 concerning the actions of Abraham and David.
“What shall we say then that Abraham our father, as pertaining to the flesh, hath found? For if Abraham were justified by works [actions], he hath whereof to glory; but not before God. For what saith the scripture? Abraham believed [trusted] God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness.” (Rom 4:1-3). What was it that Abraham came to find, recognize, and understand? Having built altars to offer animal sacrifices after his pagan upbringing, “there he builded an altar unto the LORD, and called upon the name of the LORD” (Gen 12:8), “Unto the place of the altar, which he had made there at the first: and there Abram called on the name of the LORD” (Gen 13:4), “and built there an altar unto the LORD” (Gen 13:18), he found that righteousness came by trusting God, “And he believed [trusted] in the LORD; and he counted it to him for righteousness” (Gen 15:6). And we’re not told of him building another altar until the one upon which he was to offer his son in obedience to God, “Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar upon the wood” (Gen 22:9). Thus, “justified by works [actions]” are Abraham’s actions of building altars for sacrifices.
“Even as David also describeth the blessedness of the man, unto whom God imputeth righteousness without works [actions], Saying, Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin.” (Rom 4:6-8). In Psalm 32 from which Paul was quoting, David said he was forgiven by confessing his sins, “I acknowledged my sin unto thee, and mine iniquity have I not hid. I said, I will confess my transgressions unto the LORD; and thou forgavest the iniquity of my sin” (Psa 32:5). That “God imputeth righteousness without works [actions],” is that David said nothing in this Psalm about actions of animal sacrifices—only acknowledging and confessing sin.
Even when David sinned in the matter of Uriah the Hittite and Bathsheba, he not only acknowledged his sin but also said plainly that he did NOT offer an animal sacrifice, “Wash me throughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me. For thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it: thou delightest not in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.” (Psa 51:2-3,16-17). David understood that animal sacrifices were dead actions that never remitted sins.
In the contexts which Paul was teaching the actions of offering animal sacrifices, the Greek ergon has been translated “works” instead of “actions,” imposing a wrong understanding. Thus, the false gospel message of faith versus works is proclaimed—that we’re saved by believing and not by keeping God’s commandments.