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Trying to Deal Honestly with Luke 10.25-37; 18.18-30; and Parallels

By Mark Horne

When Christ enjoins upon the young man the duty of following him (Mt. 19:23), he does not give a counsel, but a command to all in common because no one can have a hope of salvation unless he follows Christ (2 Pet. 2:21), although from a particular cause it is peculiarly adapted to him. –Francis Turretin (Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Vol 2, p. 32; 11.4.11)

Copyright © 2001
The story of the Scribe and Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan and that of the rich young ruler are both commonly given a similar interpretation in PCA churches, as well as in other Evangelical churches. This interpretation might be characterized as Lutheran. What characterizes this interpretation is a stress on the difference between law and gospel. This difference is alleged to manifest itself in Jesus’ preaching “law” to the Scribe and the rich young ruler not so they will follow his directions, but so they will realize that they are incapable of such obedience. This realization will make them open to the offer of the Gospel, which is said to be sheer grace without any conditional commands.My argument in this essay is that this “Law-Gospel” interpretation of these two passages is in error. An accurate interpretation will not use the categories of “Law” and “Gospel” in such a way.1. Initial Considerations

The Hebrew Scriptures explicitly declare that there is no man who does not sin. King Solomon prayed at the dedication of the Temple,

When they sin against you (for there is no man who does not sin) and you are angry with them and deliver them to an enemy, so that they take them away captive to the land of the enemy, far off or near; if they take thought in the land where they have been taken captive, and repent and make supplication to you in the land of those who have taken them captive, saying, “We have sinned and have committed iniquity, we have acted wickedly”; if they return to Thee with all their heart and with all their soul in the land of their enemies who have taken them captive, and pray to Thee toward their land which you have given to their fathers, the city which you have chosen, and the house which I have built for your name; then hear their prayer and their supplication in heaven your dwelling place, and maintain their cause, and forgive your people who have sinned against you and all their transgressions which they have transgressed against you, and make them objects of compassion before those who have taken them captive, that they may have compassion on them (for they are your people and your inheritance which you have brought forth from Egypt, from the midst of the iron furnace), that your eyes may be open to the supplication of your servant and to the supplication of your people Israel, to listen to them whenever they call to you. For you have separated them from all the peoples of the earth as your inheritance, as you spoke through Moses your servant, when you brought our fathers forth from Egypt, O Lord GOD (First Kings 8.46-53).

Solomon was not revealing some well-kept secret when he stated that there is no man who does not sin. One of the songs, sung by pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem for worship, confessed

If you, LORD, marked iniquities,
O Lord, who could stand?
But there is forgiveness with you,
That you may be feared (Psalm 130.3, 4).

And David’s prayer was also sung in worship:

Hear my prayer, O LORD,
Give ear to my supplications!
Answer me in your faithfulness, in your righteousness!
And do not enter into judgment with your servant,
For in your sight no man living is righteous (Psalm 143.1, 2).

Solomon in his wisdom asked the rhetorical question, “Who can say, ‘I have cleansed my heart, I am pure from my sin’?” (Proverbs 20.9). He also wrote, “there is not a righteous man on earth who continually does good and who never sins” (Ecclesiastes 7.20).

If this was a longer essay and a more detailed one, it might be worth pursuing how David and possibly another Psalmist, and Solomon arrived at this conclusion about possibility of a man or woman living without sinning. Apart from their observations on life, what did they read in the earlier Scriptures that enabled them to make such confidently negative assertions? While a great deal of evidence was undoubtedly available, my hunch is that Solomon’s prayer refers to a specific strand from Moses’ farewell sermon. He mentions that all men sin while speaking of those taken out of the Promised Land reflects Deuteronomy 28-30, which begins by promising blessings for obedience and threatening curses that include exile. By the beginning of chapter 30, however, the threat is transformed into a prophecy in which Moses simply predicts that the people will go into exile and then be restored after God circumcises their hearts. Except for the hope after the exile, the last seven chapters of Deuteronomy paint a bleak picture of the future of God’s chosen people. Perhaps this portrayal of God’s own chosen people unable to remain in such a gracious covenant with God was one strand of evidence that led the writers of the Kingdom period to deduce that no one could live without sin.

But whatever may be said about earlier revelation, the fact is that we have straightforward statements in the Psalms and wisdom literature that no one is without sin. Thus, any Israelite in Palestine who claimed that he obeyed God “perfectly” would be either grossly ignorant or an unbeliever in Israel’s canonical Scriptures. This would be a possibility for the Sadducees who only accepted as canonical the Pentateuch. But it would not be a possibility for Jesus, nor for the main characters in either of our passages in Luke’s Gospel.

Before we deal with these passages, we need to take into account how Luke describes Zacharias and Elizabeth: “they were both righteous in the sight of God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and requirements of the Lord” (1.6). This should terminate any thought that “keeping the law” necessarily implies sinless obedience to all God’s commands. In fact, given the fact that the Mosaic Law made provision for getting one’s sins forgiven, it is difficult to see how anyone could claim that the Mosaic Law demanded perfect obedience to God’s commands as a condition for eternal life. A law code, which includes provisions for receiving forgiveness for breaking parts of the code, is clearly not expecting moral perfection of the people under the code. God’s covenant was with sinners, after all. We should not be surprised to read Luke’s description of Zacharias and Elizabeth.

Notice, incidentally, that the Apostle Paul exhorts the church in Philippi to be “blameless.”

Do all things without grumbling or disputing; that you may prove yourselves to be blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you appear as lights in the world, holding fast the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may have cause to glory because I did not run in vain nor toil in vain (Philippians 2.14-16).

Yet, to my knowledge, no one ever claims that the Apostle Paul expected the Philippians to be sinless. Nor, strangely, does anyone insist that the Apostle Paul is here preaching “law” so that the Philippians will give up any hope of appearing as lights in the world, and instead beg God for the unconditional grace of the Gospel.

2. The Rich Young Ruler: Luke 18.18-30

The Rich Young Ruler asked Jesus what he needed to do to inherit eternal life (i.e. be raised by God in glory at the resurrection). Jesus lists the seventh, sixth, eighth, ninth, and fifth commands of the Decalogue. The young man then replies, “All these things I have kept from my youth.” Our immediate question should be: Why should we assume that the Rich Young Ruler meant anything different than Luke did when describing Zacharias and Elizabeth?

According to the parallel passage in Mark’s Gospel, in response to this answer, “looking at him, Jesus felt a love for him” (10.21). This makes it even more implausible to suggest that the Rich Young Ruler was boldly setting aside First Kings 8.46; Psalm 130.3, 4; 143.1, 2; Proverbs 20.9; and Ecclesiastes 7.20. When the Sadducees contradict the doctrine of the resurrection, we see Jesus explicitly argue against them. If there were any intent on the part of the Ruler to contradict the doctrine of universal sinfulness then we would expect Jesus to take similar action.

The fact of the matter is that Jesus gives us every reason to think that he agrees with the Rich Young Ruler’s description of himself. “One thing you still lack; sell all that you possess, and distribute it to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Luke 18.22). To tell a person that, in addition to what he claims to have done, he must do one thing more, assumes that one accepts that the person has indeed done what he claims he has done. If Jesus’ real problem with the Ruler was his claim to have never sinned, it seems odd that he would simply insist on one more good work.

Finally, there is nothing in this text that even approaches the issue of a person realizing that he cannot obey all God’s commands without sinning. On the contrary, Peter and the rest of the disciples have done exactly what Jesus asked of the Young Ruler (Luke 10.28). The Rich Young Ruler did not go away sad because he realized that he could not obey all God’s commands perfectly. He did so because he realized that he could obey Jesus’ command, however imperfectly, but that he didn’t want to do so, even if it cost him the resurrection of glory.

3. The Parable of the Good Samaritan: Luke 10.25-37

In reply to a statement of the two greatest commandments, Jesus says, “You have answered correctly; ‘do this, and you will live’ [Leviticus 18.5]” (10.28). The popular Evangelical reading of this statement assumes that Jesus is saying that one must obey the law perfectly in order to receive eternal life. But why should we think that this was Jesus’ meaning? The reaction of the Scribe gives us no evidence of such a meaning. He doesn’t ask, “How can anyone be sinless?” but rather, “Who is my neighbor?” And Jesus doesn’t tell a parable of someone finding it impossible to sinlessly love his wife as he ought to, but rather a story involving racial boundaries that had been used to systematically pervert the application of the law.

The issue in this story is not of a person trying to fulfill all of the law perfectly but not being able to do so. Rather, the issue involves someone who can begin treating the Samaritans better but who doesn’t want to do so. He would rather exclude Samaritans from his definition of “neighbor” and thus justify not loving them at all.

To repeat what has been said before, Luke 1.6 gives us firm evidence that sinners who are following God can be described “walking blamelessly in all the commandments and requirements of the Lord.” The burden of proof needs to be met by those who insist Jesus was telling the scribe that he must be sinless in order to inherit life.

Furthermore, if the Scribe had thought Jesus was claiming that sinless perfection was required, he would have obviously accused Jesus of not knowing the Scriptures that, as we have seen, clearly show that God’s gracious covenant is intended for sinful men to promise them salvation and glory.

4. Sanctification by Faith

The Law-Gospel hermeneutic is extra-ordinarily implausible in these two cases. Why are people so prone to interpret these passages in such a manner? I think the motive is to protect the doctrine of justification by faith. If so, I offer the following considerations:

(a) Justification by faith is set over against any form of justification by works. But the Law-Gospel hermeneutic actually claims that Jesus advocated some form of works-righteousness, only to rescue the doctrine of justification by faith by positing that Jesus was not really intending for anyone to try to be justified by works. Isn’t this a rather self-defeating way to argue for justification by faith alone? What is to keep an opponent from claiming that we ourselves are admitting that justification is by works but then trying to deny it by a contrived and unsupported claim that Jesus didn’t really mean it? Are we not giving Roman Catholics ammunition by insisting that Jesus actually did tell the Rich Young Ruler and the Scribe that they could inherit life by being good enough?

(b) If Jesus did indeed mean for the Rich Young Ruler to sell all he had and then follow him in order to be saved from the wrath to come, this does not mean that Jesus advocated justification by meritorious good works or ultimately by any other kind of good works. We are given, in the New Testament, a situation very much like that of the Rich Young Ruler, which unquestionably entails salvation by faith.

By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter; choosing rather to endure ill-treatment with the people of God, than to enjoy the passing pleasures of sin; considering the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures of Egypt; for he was looking to the reward (Hebrews 11.14-26).

Moses was saved not because he did “enough” good works or earned anything in God’s sight. He was saved because he trusted God. But because he trusted God he aligned himself with God’s people rather than with the Egyptians.

Jesus was presenting the Rich Young Ruler with a similar decision. Israel was under judgment and living by faith no longer could be done in the usual way. Jesus was calling whoever would listen (whoever had ears to hear) to join him and trust him to bring them into the Kingdom and save them from the coming judgment. Thus he was offering the Rich Young Ruler an opportunity to choose “rather to endure ill-treatment with the people of God, than to enjoy the passing pleasures of sin; considering the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures of” Israel.

(c) This interpretation, I think, offers a satisfactory explanation, for Jesus’ mysterious initial comment “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone” (Luke 8.19). To illustrate my point, I will take another part of Hebrews 11:

By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac; and he who had received the promises was offering up his only begotten son; it was he to whom it was said, “In Isaac your descendants shall be called.” He considered that God is able to raise men even from the dead; from which he also received him back as a type (vv. 17-19).

Offering up one’s son as a human sacrifice is normally reprehensible, but when God called Abraham to do it, he decided he could trust God’s guidance. The Rich Young Ruler has been living according to God’s covenant and has enjoyed many blessings. But in a time of judgment, such blessings can become snares. The Ruler needed to realize that his riches were only relatively good. God was the absolute. If God was calling him to leave his wealth behind then it was no longer good. God alone is good, and Jesus was showing the Ruler how to pursue him in faith.

(d) In the case of the Scribe, the situation is slightly different. The Scribe was not living in a way that would normally be considered believing and faithful as the Rich Young Ruler was. The Scribe was living in sin. Not only was his ethic perverse, but also he himself already suspected it was perverse. Jesus was able to get him to condemn himself from his own mouth. Jesus’ call was simply that he repent from sin and live according to God’s commands. Obviously, if the Scribe refused to recognize the Samaritan as his neighbor then he is guilty of unbelief. If he repented and acknowledged the Samaritan as his neighbor, then it would show that he trusted God. Jesus was calling the Scribe to faith.

To sum up, my interpretation of these two passages is much less contrived and bolsters the Protestant concern for salvation by faith. Indeed, I am arguing that these two stories show us that not only justification but sanctification is by faith because faith believes God’s promises and takes action according to those promises. As the Westminster Confession states in its chapter “Of Saving Faith”:

By this faith, a Christian believeth to be true whatsoever is revealed in the Word, for the authority of God himself speaking therein; and acteth differently upon that which each particular passage thereof containeth; yielding obedience to the commands, trembling at the threatenings, and embracing the promises of God for this life, and that which is to come (14.2a).

5. Conclusion

The typical interpretations of Luke 10.25-37 and 18.18-30 along the lines of a Law-Gospel hermeneutic are obviously flawed and end up undermining the very doctrine they are trying to protect. They allow Jesus to actually encourage people to be justified by good works and then try to save the Reformation slogan sola fide (“faith alone”) by claiming Jesus really was using a clever ploy to get people to give up trying to be justified by good works.

A better interpretation allows Jesus to simply call people to repentance and faith. Because faith involves trusting God’s promises, it involves concrete actions. Nevertheless, such works are not meritorious nor an attempt to earn God’s favor. Rather they are manifestations of a trust in God to save us and take care of us.

Copyright © 2001FOR FURTHER READINGWe Have One Father, Even God / Mark HorneLaw and Gospel / John M. Frame

1 Comment »


    Comment by Chris Puppel — April 19, 2015 @ 2:55 am

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