“If you want to enter into life, keep the commandments” (Matthew 19:17).
Are we saved by keeping the Old Testament Law? By keeping the commandments?
In our earlier installments on this chapter, we pointed out that if all we had on the subject of divorce were these words–especially Matthew 19:9–we would conclude that anyone divorcing “without cause” is an adulterer, the only remedy for which would be another divorce. However, no scripture is of private interpretation, the Bible itself says, meaning among other things that we should not build our doctrine on one verse in isolation. Take the full teaching of Scripture on a subject.
And we tried to point out that the whole of Scripture makes it clear that a sin forgiven is gone forever, and adulterers are no longer such when the benefits of Calvary are applied. “Such were some of you,” says I Corinthians 6:11. A most blessed phrase!
In the same way, if our Lord’s instructions to the “rich young ruler” were all we had on the subject of the Old Testament Law, we would gravitate to His saying “If you want to enter into life, keep the commandments” (Matthew 19:17) and be sentenced to a lifetime of endless frustration in our attempts to do something that cannot be done. But we have the rest of the Lord’s teachings as well as the epistles to the Romans and Galatians. And of course, we have the 15th chapter of Acts where that very question was on the table before the church leaders.
To keep our discussion here brief–always a good idea but one which I struggle with at times!–I want to reference just one Old Testament text which knocks this out of the park.
Exodus chapter 20 gives us the Ten Commandments.
Sometimes when people tell me the Ten Commandments are their religion, if we are able to discuss the matter, I will ask them four questions:
–Where are they found in Scripture? Answer: Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5.
–Name them. If these are your religion, you should be able to recite them.
–Why haven’t you kept the first one? “Thou shalt have no other Gods before me” nails us all. No one has lived up to that. We have worshiped ourselves, our inventions, our loved ones, and put a thousand things before Him.
–And the biggest question of all for those who claim the Ten Words as their religion: Why in the same chapter giving us these commandments does the Lord give instructions for building an altar? Why would we need an altar if all we had to do was to “keep the rules”?
Exodus 20:24-25, a stunning reminder
An altar of earth you may make for me, and you shall sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your peace offerings, your sheep and your oxen. In every place where I record my name, I will come to you and I will bless you. And if you make me an altar of stone, you shall not build it of hewn stone; for if you use your tool on it, you have profaned it.
The obvious point of this is: The Lord who gave the commandments knew we could not keep them.
His standard is what it is. He does not lower His standards to the level which we can keep. We have all “sinned and come short of His glory” (Romans 3:23).
Among other definitions of sin found throughout the Word, sin is the transgression of the law (I John 3:4). Failure to keep God’s commands is to sin. And that, we remind ourselves, is not a reference just to the “big ten” but to “every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). Throughout the gospels, when our Lord spoke of people “obeying all that I have commanded you” (see Luke 17:10 for instance), He was not speaking of the Old Testament commandments but of His own teaching.
So, we are sinners. And sinners will be needing a way back into the presence of the Lord. They will require their sin to be dealt with and the heart of God to be satisfied.
Sin requires a sacrifice. “Without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sin” (Hebrews 9:22, but the entire chapter).
Therefore, the Lord our wonderful forgiving, loving, beneficent Creator, made a way for us from the beginning: He gave us provisions for an altar.
Every Old Testament altar is a picture of the cross of Calvary.
Notice those two verses at the end of Exodus 20. God says we can build an altar of dirt or of stone in order to make our sacrifices. That simple statement alone nails this. Why would we need an altar for forgiveness if we were keeping the Law? Answer: God knew what we would find out–we cannot keep the Law.
That was the point our Lord hoped to make to the rich young ruler that day. He thought he was keeping the commandments of the Law–and the Lord loved him for his efforts (see Mark 10:21). But he wasn’t. And to show the lad that he had failed in even the first command, Jesus told him to give up his wealth. He could not, for his wealth had become his lord. And he went away sorrowful (Mark 10:22).
Do we have a wonderful Lord or what?
The Lord has been “on our side” from the beginning! “God so loved the world!” Consider a few things almost at random from Scripture…
“I am willing,” said our Lord in Mark 1:41.
In Mark 2:5, the Lord forgives sins before anyone has even asked!
In Mark 3:5, He healed a man on the Sabbath in the face of the hard-hearted opposition who were just daring Him to do that! He did it anyway. What love!
In Luke 23:34, Jesus is praying the forgiveness of the Father upon those who are that very moment in the process of executing Him! What amazing love!
“God is for us,” says Romans 8:31. (I insist that “if God is for us” literally means “since God is for us!”) The consistent testimony of Scripture and every verse of the wonderful 8th chapter of Romans sings with this truth: God is for us. He wants us to do well. He loves us. After all, says verse 32, “He who did not spare His own Son, how shall He not also with Him freely give us all things?”
Wow. We read this and sit there with our mouths agape. Such love.
“Fear not, little children,” said our Lord. “It is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32).
Let me end this little rhapsody with a wonderful line from Psalm 103. “He Himself knows our frame; He is mindful that we are but dust” (v. 14). Reflect on that a moment….
–The One who created us knows we are made of humble stuff.
–He knew He was getting no bargain when He saved us.
–When we sin, the only one surprised is us.
“What a wonderful God we serve! Amazing grace–that saved a wretch like me! How great Thou art!”