25And, behold, a certain lawyer stood up, and tempted him, saying, Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?26He said unto him, What is written in the law? how readest thou? 27And he answering said, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself.28And he said unto him, Thou hast answered right: this do, and thou shalt live.
36Which now of these three, thinkest thou, was neighbour unto him that fell among the thieves?37And he said, He that shewed mercy on him. Then said Jesus unto him, Go, and do thou likewise.
Taken out of the context of the entirety of the Scripture, this passage could sound like salvation is based upon our work performance. “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” “This do, and thou shalt live…Go, and do thou likewise.”
The problem is that we expect narrative passages to be used as an instruction manual: “Do this and this and this and this and then this happens.” Those who are familiar with Galatans 2:16 will sense right away that doing a good work according to the law runs counter to “by the works of the law shall no man be justified.”
16Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.
Narrative passages record life as it happens. The objective reality can be obscured by our subjective perception of all the dynamic interactions that are presented. Our first guess might be that Jesus was presenting the lawyer with a challenge. He stopped short of saying that the man would have eternal life. In fact, when He said, “do this, and thou shalt live,” Jesus was not speaking in casual conversation. He was actually using a specific Biblical formula that has a particular theological significance:
5Ye shall therefore keep my statutes, and my judgments: which if a man do, he shall live in them: I am the LORD.
29And testifiedst against them, that thou mightest bring them again unto thy law: yet they dealt proudly, and hearkened not unto thy commandments, but sinned against thy judgments, (which if a man do, he shall live in them;) and withdrew the shoulder, and hardened their neck, and would not hear.
11And I gave them my statutes, and shewed them my judgments, which if a man do, he shall even live in them.
13But the house of Israel rebelled against me in the wilderness: they walked not in my statutes, and they despised my judgments, which if a man do, he shall even live in them; and my sabbaths they greatly polluted: then I said, I would pour out my fury upon them in the wilderness, to consume them.
As a lawyer, this man would be very much aware of this phrase. In fact, Jesus first asked him, “What is written in the law? how readest thou?”
Paul capitalized on this concept in dealing with the problem of works for salvation. He pointed out that even though living of the law would give life, no one is actually able to do this — the purpose of the law would only be to convict us of our sin:
10And the commandment, which was ordained to life, I found to be unto death.11For sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it slew me.12Wherefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good.13Was then that which is good made death unto me? God forbid. But sin, that it might appear sin, working death in me by that which is good; that sin by the commandment might become exceeding sinful.
13(For not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified.
5For Moses describeth the righteousness which is of the law, That the man which doeth those things shall live by them.
26Cursed be he that confirmeth not all the words of this law to do them. And all the people shall say, Amen.
10For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse: for it is written, Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them.11But that no man is justified by the law in the sight of God, it is evident: for, The just shall live by faith.12And the law is not of faith: but, The man that doeth them shall live in them.13Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree:14That the blessing of Abraham might come on the Gentiles through Jesus Christ; that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.
10For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all.11For he that said, Do not commit adultery, said also, Do not kill. Now if thou commit no adultery, yet if thou kill, thou art become a transgressor of the law.
20Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin.
The convicting power of the law is evident in a similar occasion when Jesus was approached by the rich young ruler (see also Matthew 19:16-26).
18And a certain ruler asked him, saying, Good Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?19And Jesus said unto him, Why callest thou me good? none is good, save one, that is, God.20Thou knowest the commandments, Do not commit adultery, Do not kill, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honour thy father and thy mother.21And he said, All these have I kept from my youth up.22Now when Jesus heard these things, he said unto him, Yet lackest thou one thing: sell all that thou hast, and distribute unto the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, follow me.23And when he heard this, he was very sorrowful: for he was very rich.24And when Jesus saw that he was very sorrowful, he said, How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of God!25For it is easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.26And they that heard it said, Who then can be saved?
Being interested in the afterlife would indicate he was a Pharisee, that he was a ruler would suggest that he was of high religious rank. He was someone who would have been well familiar with the Law, just as Nicodemus was in John 3. Jesus challenged him with the Law, except with the commandment about covetousness at first. What appears evident is that His method is to draw people to the conclusion that they are not able to perform the law as they suppose they might be able to do.
In the case of the man given the story of the Good Samaritan, he would like to have justified himself that he was keeping both of the two great precepts of the Law to love God and his neighbor. Jesus tested him further by introducing the Samaritan, which would have affronted his Pharisaical sensibilities and revealed his insincerity and inability. No more is said in that passage of anything further.
In the account of the rich young ruler, we have further evidence of this in the young man rejecting Christ’s counsel because of his great possessions.
Jesus’ most complete statement on the matter is revealed in the Bread of Life Discourse:
28Then said they unto him, What shall we do, that we might work the works of God?29Jesus answered and said unto them, This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent.
After being asked for bread as a confirming miracle sign, Jesus indicated that the bread and drink He would give them was His flesh and blood. His explanation reinforced the teaching that what one should do is believe.
63It is the spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing: the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life.
By examining the larger context of Christ’s encounters with the Jews, especially the Pharisees, regarding the law, we understand that He did not teach that one is saved by the Law. He only used the law to bring about greater conviction of one’s inability to be perfect doers of the law and to find themselves coming up short.
19Now we know that what things soever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God.20Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin.21But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets;22Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference:23For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God;24Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus:25Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God;26To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus.27Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? of works? Nay: but by the law of faith.28Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.