2007April3, Tuesday

Obeying in Faith

Posted in Uncategorized at 10:39 by Trey Austin

Sunday, which was Palm Sunday, i preached a sermon on the text from Matthew 19:13-21:17. I think that’s the longest passage of Scripture i ever expounded in one sermon. The sermon was called “Prince of the Humble, King of Babies,” and it traced the common thread through each one of the episodes in that text showing that the Kingdom of God not only belongs to little children, but children are the model citizens in the Kingdom, with their humility, meekness, submissiveness, and trusting obedience. Jesus himself is seen in those episodes, not only telling his disciples how not to try and vaunt themselves above one another or exalt themselves or seek greatness for themselves in the Kingdom, but he’s also seen demonstrating that same kind of humility and meekness, especially as he rides a donkey into Jerusalem and his praise is from children, the lame, and the blind.

One pericope in that, though, is the account of the “Rich Young Ruler.” Now, i’ve had to start cutting the grass here at the manse. I hate having to cut grass; it’s just so tedious. But during the time i cut grass, i have occasion to think and ponder certain things (when i don’t have some song stuck in my head). While i was cutting grass last week, during the time i was preparing for Sunday’s sermon, i was especially pondering what Jesus says to the Rich Young Ruler. Matthew’s text says this (19:16-17):

 16Now a man came up to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?”

 17“Why do you ask me about what is good?” Jesus replied. “There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, obey the commandments.”

Jesus tells this man that the answer to that age-old question, “What must i do to be saved?,” according to Jesus is, “Obey the commandments.”

Now, there are lots of different explanations out there as to what that means. Some people say that this is a “Second Use” of the Law kind of thing, where Jesus is using the Law to convict him of his own unrighteousness. That’s certainly possible, but given what takes place in the text, that seems highly unlikely. After all, what happened when Jesus told him that he needed one thing “to be perfect,” and that was to sell all his possessions and follow Christ? The man went away sad, because he refused to obey. But Christ didn’t call after him saying, “See! You can’t obey enough! You just have to have faith!” I’m sure that the Rich Young Man would have loved to hear, “All you have to do is have faith.” It would have been the perfect solution to his problem—he wouldn’t have had to sell his goods or worry about any failures on his part of obeying any other commandments; he could just trust God and that’d be it. But Jesus didn’t tell him that. When he refused to obey this one commandment that Christ had given him, it was a refusal of the Gospel itself. He was refusing the way of life that Christ was setting before him.

I also don’t think that it’s likely that there is some kind of Second Use going on here, because that would make Jesus quite dishonest. The whole premise of the Second Use of the Law is that it is impossible to obey God and so earn eternal life; presenting the Law in all its rigor, by that theory, is the antidote to that tendency to earn salvation for ourselves through works. But Jesus didn’t say anything like that. He said that obedience to God’s commandments is the way of eternal life. We can say that he was pointing out how to be right with God the way that Adam should have been, but that does no good, becasue it is impossible, now that the first Covenant God made with man is defunct, to try and go back and do what we failed to do in it. No, if Jesus is telling this man something inconsistent with the real answer to the question, he is open to the charge of lying to this man. Was he being untrue? God forbid that the priest in the order of the “King of Righteousness” would be so base as to lie!

So, if Jesus wasn’t lying, and if he was really telling him how to have eternal life, how do we square this with our understanding that we are right with God because of Christ and only because we have trusted in him him with humble and simple faith? Well, i think the answer is simple, and it’s not so elusive that it should be hard for us to find it. Obviously Jesus isn’t dividing up the Christian experience here the way some have done into a discreet justification and a separate sanctification. He’s seeing this man as a whole man whose problem is that he doesn’t have eternal life. So, if we’re trying to subject this passage to the ordo salutis, we’ll probably have trouble interpreting it (that’s not to say that the ordo doesn’t have some beneficial place and purpose in other areas, just that it muddies the waters here).

So, is obeying the commandments the way of eternal life? According to Jesus, yes it is, and we should listen to our Savior and King, because, in this very passage, this young man refused to listen to him, and he went away sad. Why did he go away sad? Because he refused to do that which Jesus told him would bring him eternal life. But how would obeying God’s commandments bring eternal life? Isn’t that the same thing as trying to establish “righteousness according to the Law” that Paul condemens? Apparently not. And here’s why: true fulfilling of the Law (not just nominal fulfilling of it the way that the Jews of Christ’s own day tried to “keep the Law”) can never be done apart from true faith. As the Hebrew writer says, “Without faith, it is imposible to please God” (11:6). Real obedience to God’s commandments can only be done through true faith. Any other attempt at obedience to the Law, apart from faith, is a self-exalting, self-promoting kind of faith—the kind of faith that seeks to establish its own righteousness. However, anyone who obeys the Law in true faith understands that he is incapable of saving himself by his own effort, and he must rely upon the one who called him and gave him the promise of life freely established on the righteousness of the true image of God, Jesus Christ.

Only this reading really fits with what the context actually says, and with what the rest of Scripture says. After all, Jehovah wasn’t trying to deceive Israel when he told them (Deut. 30):

11 Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. 12 It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, “Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” 13 Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, “Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” 14 No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it.  

Rather, this is a restoration of the proper meaning and purpose of the Law. The Law does condemn those who try to use it to justify themselves, but it is equally true that the way of eternal life is to obey God’s commandments. Both must be true if God’s word is to be true. Even after the man left, Jesus didn’t then turn to his disciples and say, “See, that’s what happens when you try to earn eternal life by works.” He could have said that, but he didn’t. Why? Because Jesus knew that no one can even keep the commandments of God apart from faith. Those who have faith will keep the Law, and those who don’t won’t. The irony is (and what Paul addresses so fervently) that those who do not have faith are those who so strongly claim that they are keeping the Law. However, what Jesus says there is what even the Psalms tell us.

Psalm 121:1, “Blessed is the man who fears the LORD, who finds great delight in his commands.”

This is the song of the man who trusts in God.

Faith and obedience are not enemies unless the one who is trying to “obey” doesn’t have faith to begin with.


  1. Great post, Trey, I think you stated it clearly as the text teaches. I believe in the importance of the “Gospel/Law” distinction, but sometimes this distinction can be used in such a way that a false dichotomy is put in it’s place.

    Blessings in Christ,
    Terry W. West

  2. Martin Thorley said,

    Thanks for sharing these thoughts Trey. I found it quite thought provoking and helpful.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: