Concise Lexicon of Christianity

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Can a Person Be Saved by Obeying the Torah?

As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life? Jesus said to him, Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’ He said to him, Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth. Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me. When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
—Mark 10:18-22

The Man Obeyed the Torah

Many people misunderstand the TorahThe first five books of the Old Testament, thinking God intended it as a method of obtaining eternal life. They imagine that the reason you can’t obey your way into heaven is that no one could possibly keep all the laws in the Torah, but then we have to ask why God would give a law that no one can obey? Some say He gave an impossible law to teach us that we cannot earn salvation, but that is the same as saying that God is taunting us.

Apparently, few people have actually read the Torah. It contains absolutely no promise of eternal life. All of the benefits of obeying the Torah are this-worldlyDeuteronomy 28. Paul constantly belabors this point with Gentile Christians, who misunderstand the Torah as a means of salvation. You cannot earn salvation by works of the Law because that is like trying to go to a baseball game with opera tickets!

Any rabbi will tell you that obeying the Torah does not get you into heaven, it only makes you righteous. If you want forgiveness and entry into heaven, you have to attend the Yom Kippur service at the synagogue and pray for God’s grace to forgive you and bless you. The Jews understand what the Torah is all about, it’s the gentile believers who were confused.

The New Testament recounts a number of people who obeyed all the laws in the Torah, among them Jesus, of course, Paul (Philippians 3:6), and apparently the man in this passage, too. Jesus reminded him of the Law, and when the man replied that he had done all those things, Jesus didn’t rebuke him by saying it was impossible. Jesus was not shy of calling God His Father, why would He not say something along the lines of You are wrong. I am the only one who can perfectly obey the Law? Jesus wasn’t amazed that the man’s presumption, He looked at him and loved him, because the man has shown that he had attained righteousness and was ready for the next step.

Salvation by Faith?

Salvation by faith is not salvation by thinking lovely thoughts, having the right opinion, saying the right words out loud, backing the right politician, or sincerely holding religious beliefs.

Jesus said If you love me, you will keep my commandments in John 14:15. That makes perfect sense, because if we love Him, we have faith in Him, and if we have faith in Him, we trust Him. If we trust Him, we will take His advice and do what He tells us to do. If we just say that we trust Him, but do not take His advice or do He tells us to do, we are liars, because we do not actually have faith in Him.

Hence, faith in Jesus consists of obeying Jesus’ commandments.

What are Jesus’ commandments? We can find them all over the gospels, but what we are concermed about in this context are His commandments for this particular man. He told him to sell all he had and give it to the poor. The man heard the commandment, but did not have enough faith in Jesus to obey it. He does not have enough faith to enter the Kingdom of God.

For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.
—Ephesians 2:10 NRSV

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