Can Keeping the Law Save?

One of the key differences between True Christianity and world religions or cults is the basis of man’s salvation. Contrary to Christianity’s teaching that only God saves man, false religions teach that man save himself by good works. In his book, Crucifixion or Crucifiction, Ahmed Deedat wrote:

“As against the teaching of the Master (Jesus), that salvation comes only through keeping the commandments (Matthew 19:16-17), Paul nails the law and the commandments to the cross (Colossians 2:14) and claims that salvation can only be obtained by the death and resurrection of Christ.”

This is one of the most commonly used Bible texts used to support the teaching of salvation by law. It is claimed that when the young ruler came to Jesus and asked Him how He could be saved, Jesus told him to “observe the law” (Mk. 10:19-20, Mt. 19:18-20). But apostle Paul says that a person is saved by faith in Jesus (Rom. 3:21:28, Gal. 2:16). Some even reach a bizarre conclusion: Christians are following apostle Paul and not Jesus.

Selective presentation of facts does not help – irrespective of which side one is on – but rather damages one’s cause. This unfounded conclusion can only be sustained by willful ignorance. For instance, in the proceeding verses of Matthew 19:17 (which is never included), though the young ruler admits he obeys the Law,but  Jesus told him he still lacks something, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor…then come, follow me.” (vs 21) By God’s standard, he was still not perfect even though he kept the Law. He could only attain that by following Christ wholeheartedly. Perfection doesn’t come by keeping the Law it comes by faith in Christ.

When one takes the New Testament as a whole, instead of getting caught up with isolated texts, this truth clearly unfolds. In that Matthew 19 above, Jesus listed 6 out of the 10 commandments which governs one’s relationship with others – which he kept – but not the first four which deals with one’s devotion to God in which he was sorely lacking. The problem of that rich man was his love of money which surpassed his love for God. Hence, his following Christ was the same as his keeping the first  four commandments. In Mark 10:29-30, Jesus assured that as many as have left all they had “for Me and the gospel” will receive “eternal life.” He didn’t say it’s by observing the law that they will qualify for it.

Jesus is revealed as the One who “shall save His people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21) and He had the power to forgive men’s sins (Lk. 7:48-50). Certainly, He is more than a Prophet, He is the Saviour. He says that “whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” It says “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.” (John 3:15-18). When the people came to Him and asked “What must we do to do the works God requires?” He replied “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.” (Jn. 6:28-29). He said “For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life…” (v 40)

The case of the penitent thief at the cross also refutes the salvation by the law idea. First, he saw himself as a sinner under condemnation: “We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve.” Second, he saw Jesus as being more than a prophet or a mere man but as the Lord who had a kingdom and could decide his judgement: “Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And Jesus said to him “Today you will be with me in paradise.” (Lk 23:41-43). Salvation is not received by keeping the Law, but by faith in Christ and His finished work.

Another Bible text misused is Matthew 5:17 “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy but to fulfil it.” Legalists have jumped on this verse and run off with it “Yes, Jesus said we must fulfil the law!” They are reading their preconceived ideas into this text rather than letting it speak for itself. A Bible scholar explains that:

“In Matthew 5:17-18 Christ affirmed that not the smallest letter or stroke would pass from the law until it would be fulfilled. In verse 17 He referred to the law or the prophets, a common phrase designating the entire Old Testament. In this rather strong statement, Jesus affirmed the inviolability of the entire Old Testament and thereby affirmed the inspiration of the entire Old Testament.” (Paul Enns, The Moody Handbook of Theology, 2008, 164)

The proceeding verse says: “Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called the least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt. 5:19)

The “these commandments” Jesus was referring to were the ones He gave from verses 21-48 on to chapter 6, not the Old Testament laws. There, He was correcting the misinterpretations of the Law by the religious teachers. He wasn’t correcting what “You have read” but rather what “You have heard.” Big difference. The Greek word translated as “fulfil” is plero, and it means to satisfy, expire, and to end by fulfilling like when prophecies are fulfilled. Every jot and tittle of the whole law or contract at Sinai was fulfilled, ended, and abolished in Christ and “done away” by Him when He made the new contract/covenant with His blood (2 Cor. 3:6-15, Gal. 3:19-25, Heb. 7:11).

“But Jesus observed the Jewish Law” someone may say. Yes, He did. We are told that “God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law.” (Gal. 4:4) Jesus was born a Jew in the flesh and was under the Jewish Law. But after His death, that Law contract was taken away (Col. 2:13-14). What the Bible means by Jesus fulfilling the Law can be understood by this example. When you build a house, a builder fulfils the contract to finish the building by completing the structure, not by tearing away the contract. And once the work has been completed to the client’s satisfaction, the contract is fulfilled and the builder is no longer bound by it.

Likewise, Jesus didn’t come to rip up the Law but fulfilled it by keeping it perfectly. Once it is fulfilled by Christ, that law contract is no longer binding on God’s people. Christians are now under a new law called “the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2) or “the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus” (Rom 8:2). The former law covenant given through Moses to the nation of Israel came to an end when Jesus’ death fulfilled it. So “we have been discharged from the law” (Romans 7:6).

“Does this mean that Christians are not under any sort of law?” No. There are also laws given in the New Testament directed to Christians. For example, Jesus emphasised two laws which sums up the ten commandments – love of God and love of neighbour (Mt. 22:36-40). Some OT laws no longer apply to Christians (such as sabbath keeping) while some commands were reaffirmed. This is similar to when a nation changes its constitution. Once the new constitution is legally in place, people are no longer required to obey the former one, even if some old laws are repeated in the new. So a person would need to study the new constitution carefully to see what laws now apply. Unlike the old laws which operated from the outside, now when people trust in Christ and become saved, they are empowered and transformed by God Spirit and grace from the inside to live obedient lives to the commands defined and interpreted by the New Testament.

Why Can’t the Law Save Us?

1. Man being basically evil can’t really keep the law. “Has not Moses given you the law? Yet not one of you keeps the law” (Jn. 7:19). The law was given to show man what sin is (“for by the law is the knowledge of sin” Romans 3:20).

2. For one to keep the old Jewish laws, he had to keep the whole law all the time. To break it at any point is to break all of it (James 2:10-11, Gal. 3:10). But man can’t keep the law perfectly, only Christ could do it.

3. The Law was not given to justify or save man, but was “our tutor to bring us to Christ that we might be justified by faith.” (Gal. 3:24). The Greek word paidagogos translated as tutor means a servant who was hired to walk the child to school and teach him the elements of education. The Law teaches us the basic elements of righteousness, and also leads us to the school (Christ) where we can learn the real lesson.

4. There has been a change of the law. In the OT, the priesthood could only come from Aaron’s lineage, but Christ our High Priest came from Judah’s tribe (Hebrews 7:11-14). It was God’s plan to replace the Old law with a New law (Jer. 31:31-35). This He did through Christ. “He sets aside the first to establish the second” (Heb 10:9). The old Law was a covenant between God and the nation of Israel while the new was a covenant between God and as many believe in Jesus as Saviour. Therefore, no one can have a right standing before God unless He is in this New Covenant.

5. Salvation by grace through faith in Christ is not an “invention of apostle Paul” but is the consistent teaching of the NT (see John 1:12-13, 29, Acts 3:16-19, 10:43-48, 1John 5:4-5).

6  Finally, scripture distinguishes between: “the first covenant” and the “second covenant” (Heb 8:7); “the law of Moses” (Acts 13:38-39) and “the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2); the “law of sin” (Rom 7:23) and the “law of righteousness” (Rom. 9:31); the glorious covenant and the more glorious covenant (2 Cor. 3:7-10), the law of works (Rom. 3:26-31) and the law of grace (Jn. 1:17); that which is “powerless to save” (Heb. 9:12-13) and that which “saves to the uttermost” (Heb. 7:25).

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