Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Saved by the law?

Does it say anywhere in the New Testament that you can you be saved by following the law? 

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,
Paul Walker


  1. Hey Paul, thanks for the good word. I really appreciated the exegesis of the passage in Mark 10. Your last paragraph kind of caught me off guard though. I've never heard that there is a "back door in the area of salvation". You quote Romans 2:7, but if you look at the chapter as a whole I think it's hard to glean the meaning you did from the entire passage. I think that Romans 2:28,29 sum up what Paul is getting at in Chapter 2 quite well. Saying that God judges people according to "their standard of righteousness" is quite a bold statement. What if their method of achieving righteousness involves child sacrifice. Also, what impact does this view have on Christian missions? I'm not trying to start any controversy, maybe some conversation.

  2. Hey Chris! Thanks for reading. First off I just want to say that asking good questions should never start controversy. I really believe that when we wrestle through our theology, we love the Lord with our mind. (Mark 12:30)

    Ok, so let’s take a look at Romans 2. Verses 1-6 Paul establishes that God’s judgment is based on truth. Paul is attacking Jewish presumption based on their covenant relationship with God that they had been spared of judge. In fact they are held to a higher account as they had the law! Verse 7-11 Jews and Gentiles that persist in doing seek what God desires and rewarded with eternal life. This passage raises the question as to how a judgment by works relates to justification by faith, which is later developed in Romans. This leads us to V 12-16. The crux of what we are talking about. It’s talking about the Gentiles who without knowing it

    “Verse 12-16 Those that live under the law are judged by it; those who live without the law are judged in accordance with the response to the demands of the law written on their hearts.” – Life in the Spirit New Testament Commentary

    I like the way The Message puts this:

    “If you sin without knowing what you're doing, God takes that into account. But if you sin knowing full well what you're doing, that's a different story entirely. Merely hearing God's law is a waste of your time if you don't do what he commands. Doing, not hearing, is what makes the difference with God.

    When outsiders who have never heard of God's law follow it more or less by instinct, they confirm its truth by their obedience. They show that God's law is not something alien, imposed on us from without, but woven into the very fabric of our creation. There is something deep within them that echoes God's yes and no, right and wrong. Their response to God's yes and no will become public knowledge on the day God makes his final decision about every man and woman. The Message from God that I proclaim through Jesus Christ takes into account all these differences.”- Romans 2:12-16 The Message

    So what happens when you have a society that is isolated from knowledge of Jesus, and the Law? It is then that Paul believes that God has revealed himself in a general revelation. I agree that “their standard of righteousness” is a bold statement, however I am assuming that all societies are permeated with the truth of God’s general revelation, which I believe is exactly what Paul is getting at. One thing is certain in this discussion: How do we deal with the salvation state of un-evangelized culture that are apart from the Law? C. S. Lewis thought that the problem of the un-evangelized is solved by adopting the view that people can be saved on the basis of Christ’s death by an appropriate response to the light that they do have.

  3. Now you provide a really excellent example of a society that is practicing child sacrifice. What do we say to such a society? I think there are two possible approaches we could take.

    1. This is an example of a society that has rejected general revelation of God. They have entered into sin by denying the sacredness of human life. (This option is probably closer to what Paul teaches)

    2. They are morally ignorant. We apply the doctrine of “the age of accountability” to the problem of an isolated culture that has no foundation of morality. If the Law was designed to reveal sin, could the lack of that revelation constitute a different means of judgment? (I think this harder to prove through scripture, although an interesting concept)

    So what does this mean for missions? I think we must realize that this “possibility” of salvation based on general revelation is just that: a possibility. The person within the isolated society is just as likely to reject the general revelation of God, as they are to accept it. Even if they do accept the general revelation, they are still confined with “the law” as they know it. We must admit that Grace is far superior to any form of the Law.

    Regardless of this whole discussion, we who follow Jesus have no option but to fulfill the Great Commission and go into the entire world. Our mission and purpose should always be centered in the revelation of Jesus and his teaching.

    Grace and Peace,
    Paul Walker

  4. Ya definitely an interesting and tough topic to work through. I'm just thinking that at the time of judgement, the majority of people could use the excuse that "I didn't know the whole truth and I did the best with what I had." Maybe there will be some cases where this will be legitimate, but I think we should try to get to the heart of what Paul was teaching in this passage. I mentioned Romans 2:28,29 - the law (circumcision, etc...) is not required for salvation, but the Spirit (circumcision of the heart) is. So, when we talk about people being accountable according to what they know, I think we need to be careful to explain this (and in your last couple comments I think that you have explained what you meant). I'd agree, people can be saved without knowing the law, and even without being preached to by man. That's how amazing God's love and power is. God himself is revealing his truth to people and leading them into right relationship with him by his Spirit.

    One last thought - While we can assume that all societies are permeated with the truth of God’s general revelation, we must also assume that all societies have inherited a sinful nature. If we don't go any farther in the Romans 2 passage than verse 15 we might assume that man, on his own, is moral. That man knows what is right and is capable of carrying those actions out apart from God. But I think that Paul clarifies this in verse 29. The laws that are written on man's heart are their by the Spirit and it is God who has lead these Gentiles that Paul is speaking of into righteousness.

    Thanks for the food for thought Paul. I'll have to try to keep an eye on your facebook to see when you have written another blog entry.

  5. Thanks again Chris for your thoughtful remarks and kind words! You've already convinced me that blogging is a great way to have a dialogue.

    As for Romans 2:28-29; I totally meant to say something about those verses! I was going to say that Paul often writes with in the framework of a diatribe. A diatribe is a rhetorical technique where one creates a dialog with a fictitious opponent. In this dialog, there is a back and forth questioning between the two people. This rhetorical technique is advantageous because it highlights the strengths of one person’s views and the weakness of the others. I believe that entire book of Romans is a perfect example of a diatribe. The first chapter of Romans firmly establishes that man is immoral, that we have "traded the truth for a lie". Romans 2 follows 1:18-32, where Paul demonstrates how the gentiles are under the wrath of God because His general revelation that holds them accountable. I do believe I left out verses 17-29 when I was writing my reply as they are addressing the Jewish readers of the text and their unrighteousness; and I was more concerned with the state of the righteous Gentiles in response to Romans 1. I do, however believe your emphasis is completely correct (and needed) as it starts to bring Paul’s argument full circle.

    Check out Dr. William Lane Craig's material on salvation and God's foreknowledge in relation to modalism ( God knows the outcome of an infinate number of free will decisions) He is definately one the leading theologians on the subject. (and also the smartest guy I've ever met) The book is called "Divine Foreknowledge and Human Freedom: The coherence of theism: Omnicience." Also his website www.reasonablefaith.org has some great material on just about any theological discussion. Also check out his debate with Christopher Hitchens. It is pure awesomeness: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gVB9tdF1sDE

    Peace and love,
    Paul Walker