Salvation through the Law

Question from a visitor:

Mark 10:17-19 says, “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, do not defraud, honor your father and mother."

Jesus, as I see, is not talking about right and wrong but talking about how to achieve eternal life (salvation or justification). He was saying that the Law of Moses can justify the believer.

Paul represents only one form of early Christianity. Another important form was Jewish Christianity, which supports an alternative view. The disciples were stressing the Mosaic Law as the true way of salvation, and passages such as Mark 10:17-19 strongly support their claim unless there is another interpretation for it.

The early Christians did not regard the letters of Paul or any other Christian writings as a scripture at all. They only believed that the commandments of Jesus were equal to the Old Testament. Any Christian has the right to overlook the letters of Paul & dispute first on the basis only of the commandments of Jesus.

We read the New Testament stories with caution, where Paul had to go back to Jerusalem to seek authority from the disciples. They debated, and Paul even charged Peter with hypocrisy! If Paul had been speaking on behalf of God, he would not have gone back to consult other disciples, and they would not fall into such dispute. This means that his opinion was fallible unless they came to agreement.

Only in the second half of the second century the Christians who revered Paul so much started to give his writings equal authority to the Old Testament and to the sayings of Jesus. This is definitely not the opinion of all Christians at that time. This was a later development, so as a genuine interpreter of scripture we have to go back to Jesus first. Only then we can evaluate other people's teachings. This is my point, and my question to you. If the Old Testament laws can't be followed today this is another issue all together.

Response from Christian Data Resources:

Thank you for your questions. You have brought up some valid concerns, and I have attempted to address them below.

1) Salvation through the Law

Everyone who has ever received God's grace gift of salvation has received it through the perfect sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross. In Old Testament times, the people placed their faith in the pre-incarnate Christ by looking forward in time, based upon the Word from the prophets. In modern times, we have the extra benefit of actually having a historical record of Christ's sacrifice.

Yet, in one way, we are indeed justified through the law, although indirectly. Each of us are challenged by the law, but we all fall short. We all have personal sins in our lives (Romans 3:23, 6:23), and we also have imputed sin from Adam (Romans 5). As a result, none of us have lived a perfect life to satisfy the law. We are powerless to justify ourselves by our works (Galatians 2:16).

The answer to this dilemma is that God saves us by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8), through the perfect sacrificial lamb, Jesus Christ. He is the only one who was able to live a life free from sin, thereby fulfilling the law. We are saved when we simply have faith to accept this free gift of salvation from God. We are virtually fulfilling the law when we place our faith in the One who has actually fulfilled it.

Now, I agree that the passage in Mark 10:17-19 is somewhat confusing. However, please remember that the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) record the words of Jesus before he gave Himself up on the cross. In this respect, the Gospels are set in the same time frame as the Old Testament (before the cross), even though they are included in what we call "The New Testament." Jesus was speaking to those who did not yet realize that His coming death on the cross would be the sacrifice that they needed for their sins--to fulfill the law.

In this respect (the most logical from that perspective), Christ was most certainly speaking the truth when He told the man in Mark 10 that he must obey the commandments in order to inherit eternal life. When this man claimed to have fulfilled the law, Christ challenged him in verse 21 to "Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me." Only then, in verse 22, did the man realize that he had not truly obeyed every aspect of the law: "At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth."

2) Paul's Opinion

I too have been troubled by passages that seem to imply that Paul's opinion was fallible, even as he was under the direction of the Holy Spirit when writing his letters. With regard to his seeking authority from the disciples, I believe that this was simply an attempt for unification.

However, in addition to this instance, I find the following scriptures somewhat troubling:

- 1 Corinthians 7:6 says, "But this I say by way of concession, not of command."

- 1 Corinthians 7:25 says, "Now concerning virgins I have no command of the Lord, but I give an opinion as one who by the mercy of the Lord is trustworthy."

- 1 Corinthians 8:8 says, "I am not speaking this as a command, but as proving through the earnestness of others the sincerity of your love also."

Although I cannot fully explain this paradox, I do believe that there are far fewer such instances in Paul's letters than in most extra-biblical writings.