Good question. The short answer is no. The purpose of the law was designed to reveal sin. "Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin." (Romans 3:20) With the exception of the Romans 2 clause (I will talk about it at the end of this discussion), Salvation in the NT is strictly the act of a Saviour redeeming humanity. Take the story of the rich young ruler that asks Jesus the question how to be saved:
Mark 10 The Rich and the Kingdom of God
17 As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”18 “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. 19 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’[d]” 20 “Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.” 21 Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” 22 At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.23 Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!”24 The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, “Children, how hard it is[e] to enter the kingdom of God! 25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”26 The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, “Who then can be saved?” 27 Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.”
Verses 17-20 Almost suggest that one could be saved by works, and through the law, yet it is important to recognize that Jesus is engaging in a conversation to determine the rich young ruler's intentions. Jesus is using a question to determine the intentions of the Rich Young Ruler. What also must be highlighted in this passage is that Jesus has compassion and lovingly tries to remove an obstacle to following him in Verse 21.It was a common belief in Judaism that riches were a mark of God’s favour. To be rich in Jewish society is to be the best in both social and spiritual status'. Christian prosperity teachers and the popular culture of today have both taught and acted on the same assumptions. But once again Jesus springs a surprise. Max Lucado says this about this narrative:
"Don’t miss the thrust of this passage: You cannot save yourself. Not through the right rituals. Not through the right doctrine. Not through the right devotion. Not through the right goose bumps. Jesus’ point is crystal clear: It is impossible for human beings to save themselves."
I have heard in sermons before the idea that the "eye of the needle" is a low laying gate in Jerusalem that forced the camels to crouch down to pass through. This is to suggest that with the right amount of piety and humility a rich person could enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Let me say this of that method of interpretation: It is wrong! There is no gate in Jerusalem called "The eye of the needle". Even more it misses the point that Jesus is driving at.
When Jesus declares that it easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, he is actually being literal (contextually speaking). Jesus is not condemning being affluent financially, he is making a cultural statement about a group of people that were considered as the most holy and blessed. The reaction of disciples is appropriate: "Who then can be saved?" If rich people who are considered the most pious of society cannot make it to heaven then who can? The answer is provided in Jesus' response: "All things are possible through God". Jesus is the only one who can save you. The kingdom demands more than merely keeping many commandments; if a disciple would recognize Christ as his king, that disciple must surrender to him possessions, life, and even his/her identity. Whether Jesus then allows the disciple to use some of what the disciple has surrendered is Jesus’ choice.
I think one the biggest reasons Christians have fallen into doctrines such as entire sanctification (the holiness movements), prosperity doctrines, and a striving based relationship approach to God is due to, in some measure, believing that we can save ourselves. We may not admit it on the surface, but in practice we try to earn the gift of justification that is the beginning of our sanctification. We should be people of holiness! The difference is that I recognize that the striving and seeking for holiness on your own effort does not lead to Jesus; Jesus leads us to holiness.
Most people equate holiness as sin avoidance. When you tell people to “seek holiness to see God” most people will interpret that as, “I need to try harder to meet with God.” The problem with that is that it is works based and not the Gospel. The law saves no one. Paul (not me, the Apostle) echoes this when he writes, "Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by believing what you heard?"(Gal 3:2) There is no life in having a rules based approach to following Jesus. The Apostle Paul would call us foolish for even trying to approach Jesus through a "system of salvation".
Consider for a moment that every other religious/non-religious system on the planet reduces salvation as being your own Saviour. There are two ways to be your own Saviour: Self-indulgence, and moralism. Just like in the parable of the two sons there are two ways to separate your self from the Father. (Luke 15). I think we can both agree that the younger son separated himself from the Father by living for himself. (i.e. Prostitutes, Wild Parties) but we must remember the Elder son. The Elder son was steeped in Moralism. (The belief that a set of practices, adherences will result in self- justification.) I know many Muslims whose devotion to prayer can make Christians look really bad. The Elder Son thought that his obedience to his Father gave him control over the Father’s things, and was so upset at his Father's mercy to the disobedient younger son. Jesus is addressing our motivation in doing good! The Gospel is not immorality or morality, religion or irreligion, its off the scale its something else ! Have you ever thought if I do (insert action) the Father will love me more? Let me release you from that bondage: the Father loves you! Live in that love ! Soak in that love! It will change your life.
The danger in telling people to try to strive for holiness to get relationship with God is that it reduces to the Gospel to any other religious/non-religious system. If salvation/relationship/holiness could be earned:
1.The Pharisees would have achieved salvation in there own right
2.The Law would have saved you
3.There is no need for Jesus.
Let me suggest to you that the only way to follow Jesus is in relationship with him. There is a loving God who desires to meet with us and make us a new creation. Only when people are transformed by the work of the Spirit can they live truly holy lives where the avoidance of sin is a result. Moralistic/Works based people obey God to get things; Gospel people obey God because they love Him. With that said; there needs to be call to holiness and to shining our light before men, however I believe that you need to know that your works/striving is not going to make God love you more. You can’t have works lead to grace; true grace leads you to works out of love. The Gospel is relationship with a God of love.
To summarize: You have been made holy, now live that holiness out.
Ok long answer (well not so long after my previous material) now is yes: In the absence of the knowledge of Jesus one could still find eternal life. Imagine for a moment an African tribe that has never heard the Gospel message until recently. What do you say to them when they ask you what happens to the fate of long deceased grandma ? You tell them that God is judge and will judge them through their standard of righteousness. "To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honour and immortality, he will give eternal life." (Romans 2:7) Of course this is a very small back door in the area of salvation. It's all based on the premise that you are only held accountable for what you know. If you've never heard of Jesus it would difficult to use that as the standard of salvation. It is in that situation that you are judged by the truths of general revelation.
Until next time,