Sunday, January 30, 2011 Login

Paul vs. Jesus on Salvation

Regular contributor Atheist Under Ur Bed’s post on the problematic nature of how the Bible answers the fundamental and important (at least for Christians) question, what must we do to be saved? has generated some interesting comments. I will briefly weigh in on some of this here.

Imagine you have two scenarios. In one scenario, a man approaches Paul, the great apostle, and asks him what he should do to earn salvation. In another scenario, a man approaches Jesus and also asks him what he should do to earn salvation. Presumably, unless Paul is off his rocker, both men should receive essentially the same answer. After all, a just and merciful god creates a clear set of requirments and then sticks to them.

We don’t actually need to imagine these scenarios because examples can be found in the New Testament. Consider first Acts 16:25-34Open Link in New Window:

25 About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. 26Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened. 27When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, since he supposed that the prisoners had escaped. 28But Paul shouted in a loud voice, ‘Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.’ 29The jailer called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. 30Then he brought them outside and said, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’ 31They answered, ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.’ 32They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. 33At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. 34He brought them up into the house and set food before them; and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God.

Seems pretty straightforward. You are saved by believing in the Lord Jesus. He and his family are subsequently baptized, but there is no suggestion that this is necessary maneuver as far as the salvation goes.

Now consider Matthew 19:16-22Open Link in New Window:

16 Then someone came to him and said, ‘Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?’ 17And he said to him, ‘Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.’ 18He said to him, ‘Which ones?’ And Jesus said, ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; 19Honour your father and mother; also, You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ 20The young man said to him, ‘I have kept all these; what do I still lack?’ 21Jesus said to him, ‘If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ 22When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

Here the man also seeks the key to securing eternal life. Granted, he asks a loaded question. What good deed must I do? Jesus replies that only one is truly good, presumably God, but nevertheless, if you want eternal life you must keep the commandments. The man persists, asking Jesus what he still lacks. Here Jesus replies that the man should sell all of his possessions, not to have eternal life per se, but in order to be “perfect.” All this is pretty straight forward as well. To achieve eternal life one must keep the commandments. If you want to have “treasure in heaven” (whatever that is), then sell all of your possessions in this life. What about believing (faith) in Jesus? Jesus doesn’t mention this supposedly crucial fact.

A Christian could respond by pointing out that neither Paul nor Jesus explicitly say that their answers are the only requirement. For example, Paul says that you must believe in Jesus. He does not say that you only must believe in Jesus. Therefore there is no contradiction between Paul and Jesus’ responses.

I find such a comment to be rather disingenous. When the jailer askes Paul how to be saved and Paul replies with ‘believe in Jesus’ the implication is clearly that this is all that is required. If it wasn’t, then why would he not say as much?

Imagine that I run a business and that junior employees are required to do X and Y in order to get a promotion. One of these employees asks me what he needs to do to be promoted. I reply “Do X.” Should I not be surprised if that same employee is upset when he later learns that he did not get the promotion because he also happened to not do Y?

Or, to be even more explicit, consider this:

Imagine that you are the jailer in Acts 16Open Link in New Window. You ask Paul and Silas, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” The only response that they give you is, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” Of course, you heed their advice.

But when you die and are standing at the gates of heaven you are told that you have not been saved and will not be joining God and Jesus in heaven. You protest, repeating what Paul and Silas told you earlier. The gatekeeper responds: It is true that you need to believe in the Lord Jesus, but Jesus also said that you must keep the commandments.

I hardly think that you would feel consoled by reassuring yourself that Paul and Silas merely made an omission, and that they really were not explicit as to whether or not this was the only requirement. Too bad the jailer didn’t have the gospels at hand to tease out the full list of requirements that Paul and Silas so thoughtfully decided not to give him. The point is that such an omission is unthinkable – why would the author of Acts omit important requirements for eternal life unless he didn’t agree with them?

Arthenor has a slightly different reply to this situation:

The young ruler has asked how to earn entrance into heaven. Jesus gives the young man three answers. First, he tells the young man that only God is good. This should have informed the young man that the standard was God’s perfection and no man would ever measure up to that standard. This young man apparently ignored this so Jesus continued by pointing him to the Law. The Law was given as a perfect standard. By keeping it, one could earn salvation. However, no person besides Jesus Christ ever fully kept the Law…Again the young man does not make the connection. He claims perfection in the keeping of the Law, but he still wants something more to ensure his merit. Jesus then gives him a final command: to give all he had to the poor and follow Jesus. Notice that Jesus prefaces the command with “if thou wilt be perfect”. Jesus is proving the young man’s imperfection to him by giving him something he will not do. This command is not a command given to Christians to follow in order to receive eternal life. It was a proof to a young man that one could not earn eternal life. Rather, the only way to receive eternal life is to accept God’s gift of salvation through the work of Christ. We are imperfect and therefore can not earn eternal life by doing good things.

This is also being disingenous because it re-casts the meaning of the whole episode in terms of other ideas that Arthenor already believes from elsewhere. For example, Jesus does not inform the young man that it is impossible to keep the commandments nor does he correct his claim that he has – he just tells him that he should keep the commandments as a direct response to the man’s inquiry. The young man never makes the “connection” because Jesus doesn’t make the connection, either. If he seems to make such a connection elsewhere in this gospel or another, well, then that does this young man no good.

Notice how Arthenor concludes by saying that “Rather, the only way to receive eternal life is to accept God’s gift of salvation through the work of Christ.” That is all well and good, but keep in mind that Jesus does not tell the young man this. No where is the young man ever informed of this condition in response to his inquiry. The young man would not have come to this conclusion. And that is the point. Arthenor provides no solution to this issue by simply insisting that what Jesus omits is really there.

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