QUESTION: A friend of mine has said that the Bible is contradictory about salvation – saying in one passage it’s by works and in another it’s by grace. He pits Jesus and James against Paul and points out these specific passages: Matthew 19:17, Luke 10:26-28, Romans 3:28, Galatians 2:16, and James 2:24.
RESPONSE: This is not a contradiction when you look into it – as the overarching message of Scripture is that people are saved not by good works, but by grace through faith. The passages your friend lists as affirming salvation by works (Matthew 19, Luke10) are curious because in both cases, no one actually gets salvation by this means. In fact, the rich young ruler in Luke 10 specifically loses out on salvation as we are to understand by him leaving Jesus in tears!
So before we’re into it even two steps, we have good reasons to pause and not interpret this in a simplistic binary way. First, Jesus did not come to “abolish the law” (Matt 5:17) so it’s not altogether unexpected that He would say in Matthew 19 “if you want to enter life, obey the commandment” or to the Rich man in Luke 10, “do this and you will live”. This is consistent with everything in the O.T. law: “obey me and live”, being the repeated refrain of mosaic law (Lev 18:5 etc). In one sense we might say, OF COURSE there is salvation by works – provided you do ALL the works! This is what Paul affirmed in Galatians 5:3: If you are trying to find favor with God by being circumcised, you must obey all of the regulations in the whole law of Moses. NLT Paul even seems to think God will honor with eternal life those who don’t even have the law of Moses, when he says: Rom 2:6-9: “He will repay each one according to his works: eternal life to those who by patiently doing good seek for glory, honor, and immortality… and also to the Greek.” Of course in context of his whole argument, this offer is provided with a massive caveat.
A great big IF. If one can obey all God’s commandments. Then by definition, you are morally perfect like God. That means you have earned your salvation, and God owes you heaven as a simple matter of fairness. There would be no grace needed.
Because of this, I will sometimes coyly tell people, the bible says there’s only TWO ways to heaven. (People, used to Christians talking about one way to heaven, always perk up at that!) And then I mention that the first way, the most obvious way, and the plan everyone seems to be working on is, the DO plan. That is, ‘do enough’ to earn God’s acceptance. Then, before I outline the OTHER way, I quote Dr Phil: “how’s that working for you?” The problem is not in the law, it’s in us – as Jesus points out in the “works” passage in Matthew: “NO ONE is good, expect God alone.” That is, no one obeys perfectly.
This is the entire point Jesus is making with the rich young ruler – he’s NOT perfect, though he thinks he is. “One thing you lack”, Jesus tells him. Also, in the Luke passage notice in 10:29 the interesting comment: the lawyer is eager to “justify himself”. So in both cases neither of our star moral performers is anywhere near as good as they think they are. Jesus is actually using the law to point out the flaw in both men. Or perhaps more accurately we should say Jesus is using his own instruction (“sell your possessions”; “love your neighbor”) to show how both men are not obeying the law as they think they are.
Let me paraphrase the conversations to underscore what Jesus is doing:
The Matt 19 Passage:
Man: Hi Jesus, I’d like to get to heaven.
Jesus: Well, you have to be perfect, what is the standard of perfection?
Man: The law.
Jesus: Right! So how are you doing on that?
Man: Really, really good, I think – I’ve been a faithful rule follower my whole life!
Jesus: Really? Actually you’re not quite there yet. If you’re so great with the commandments, then you won’t mind selling all your possessions to follow me.
Man: What!! I’m good, but I’m not THAT good! (walks away)
The Luke 10 Passage:
Man: Hi Jesus I want to get to heaven.
Jesus: Well, what’s in the law, what’s God expect from you?
Man: Only two things: love God, and love my neighbor.
Jesus: Alright, good answer! So do it.
Man: Umm, uh, well, I have a question about that: Exactly WHO is my neighbor? Because there’s lots of people I don’t love, but I’m guessing (hoping) they’re not my neighbor.
Jesus: Well, let me tell you a story (the Good Samaritan) that will define neighbor for you, in a way that will show, you do NOT, in fact, love your neighbor as God demands.
To miss how Jesus is using the law is to miss the entire point of BOTH stories. He is not using the law to outline a way of salvation. He is using it to expose these “good” men as law breakers. For the rich young ruler in Matthew 19, Jesus is exposing something very specific. The man claims to have obeyed all the law, “since his youth”. Really? The arrogance is astounding. He’s never lied? So Jesus tells him to sell everything. Why? To give ANOTHER law by which he can be sure he’s earned salvation? No, to expose him. To expose the fact that he is a lawbreaker like everyone else.
How so? Well, this demand (and his unwillingness to receive it) exposed the fact that he was consistently breaking the very 1st commandment, “no other gods before me”, with his addiction to wealth and power. To apply Jesus demand would have broken him, and brought him to a faith-filled dependence on God’s mercy alone. If he applies the call of Jesus, he will have to die – to pride and self sufficiency – and only THEN will he live. That death to self Jesus is calling him to undergo (which he refuses) for the sake of the Kingdom is synonymous with salvation by grace alone through faith alone. How is it different?
You see, faith is not merely ‘belief’, it’s a full-hearted turning to God, in repentance and trust in his mercy alone to save.
In fact, defining the word ‘faith’ shows how the James passage ALSO affirms salvation by grace and not by works, even though James does say, “You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.” James is defining faith simplistically – as mere belief: Mental assent to truth. We know he’s working on a different definition than Paul because he says, this “faith” is what demons have (2:19)! Well clearly this kind of “faith” (which amounts to doctrinal accuracy) doesn’t save anyone.
So when James says we’re not saved by “faith”, he is not contradicting Paul or Jesus, because he’s not talking about the same kind of faith! To posit a true contradiction we have to be working with the same definitions. The faith that simply “believes in certain dogmas” is not the kind of faith Paul promotes in his letters. Read Romans 6:1-5 and see Paul calling the commitment of faith a kind of dying to sin as we invite the newness of the Christlife in. James and Paul are here in perfect agreement. Real faith is a whole person brokenness, it always includes repentance, and always produces good fruit. Thus, without the fruit of repentance, we can presume there is no faith, thus no salvation.
Whenever I want to talk about salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, ironically, the Gospel passages I come back to most are the very passages that your friend says contradict salvation by grace alone!! They affirm so clearly the central view of scripture, of Jesus, and of ALL his apostles, that we are “saved by the grace of the Lord Jesus,” Acts 15:11.
A final note about the Luke passage in particular: If you think Luke 10:28 is teaching salvation by works, one should remember a couple chapters later, the same Jesus, recorded by the same author, is very clearly hammering the message of salvation by grace (Luke 15). The problem with saying that Jesus affirmed salvation by works is not that this makes him contradict Paul, but that this makes Him contradict Himself!! Clearly, unless Jesus is completely confused, he is up to something. And I think his strategy is clear. It goes something like this: grace to the humble, law to the proud.
Jesus ALWAYS threw the law in the faces of proud people (again in Luke 11:42). When he does so, it may APPEAR he is setting up a system of salvation by works, but what you see is always that the law winds up being used as a lever of conviction. It starts as the “way to life”, but winds up becoming the crushing weight of perfection that opens eyes and shows how far we fall short.
So, when you see Jesus’ OVERALL strategy in this way (law to the proud, grace to the humble), you see how perfectly consistent Paul is with his Master when he declares:
“for no one can ever be made right in God’s sight by doing what his law commands. For the more we know God’s law, the clearer it becomes that we aren’t obeying it.” NLTRomans 3:20
The only way out of this predicament, is to abandon the law (good works) as a means to be saved, and instead to repent, throw ourselves on the mercy of God and receive by faith God’s forgiving love. And this is Jesus message of grace, consistently seen all over Luke’s gospel. (Study Luke 5:20; Luke 7:47; Luke 15; Luke 18:13-14)