"He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury." (Rom 2:6-8)
"For Moses writes about the righteousness that is based on the law, that the person who does the commandments shall live by them." (Romans 10:5)
"...Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life? ... If you would enter life, keep the commandments." Matthew 19:15-17
What are we to make of the above statements by Paul and Jesus? Both of these texts plainly state that eternal life will be granted those who obey God's commandments. Since we know that salvation only comes by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, how are we to interpret such passages?
In light of these and other passages, my aim here is to show from Scripture that the law brings a curse upon those who do not do everything it prescribes (Gal 3:10) but the blessing of eternal life upon those who do (Rom 10:5, Gal 3:12; Lev 18:5) and that Gentiles who do not have the written law have this same law written on their conscience which will serve to either condemn or justify them at the last Day. A corresponding aim is to show that the continuing use of the law after the fall of the human race is not to reveal another way of salvation in addition to the covenant of grace revealed to Abraham and fulfilled in Christ, but to bind all men under sin and thus serve the pedagogical purpose of driving them to Christ who alone has fulfilled the broken covenant of works. The incarnate Christ’s full obedience to all the prescriptions of the divine law makes available a perfect righteousness before the law that is imputed or reckoned to those who put their trust in him. Likewise by bearing all the sanctions imposed by that law (for our transgressions against it) Christ also redeems the sinner from the curse of the law.
The popular cultural mythology about Christianity states that good people will go to heaven and evil people go to hell. Perhaps it is understandable because the Bible itself teaches that “those who have done good [will go] to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.” (John 5:29). But as I will show you, such statements eternal life through perfect law-keeping serve not to show the way to everlasting life (impossible in a fallen world) but as a teaching tool that reveals humanity’s utter hopelessness in the face of it. For those who undertake to follow this road of law-keeping are “obligated to keep the whole law” (Gal. 5:3). "For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it." (James 2:10) “… for it is written, "Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them" (Gal 3:10).
All unbelievers are now under this principle of works: that they are obligated to keep the whole law. This is because by rejecting Christ, they have chosen not to have a mediator, but instead, to represent themselves at the Divine bar of justice on that Day. The Scripture declares that they will be judged according to what they have done in the body, according to their works. But have you noticed that sometimes explaining this does not even scratch the surface of the skeptics conscience because they reason to themselves that God will either grade on a curve or will somehow overlook sin and see that they had relatively good intentions overall. Because some have difficulty believing they are sinners deserving the wrath of a holy God, I often find this to be an effective opening when sharing the gospel. When people say I have made some mistakes but “I am not a sinner” I simply take them to read the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew chapter’s 5-7) and when finished reading ask them if they have done this. The answer is, of course, always the same – that they have woefully fallen short - which proves Paul’s declaration of the intent of the divine legislation in Romans 3:20 that "...through the law comes knowledge of sin.” Now admittedly, many persons, such as Romans Catholics object to this interpretation saying that “God doesn't give impossible demands, it's not His nature.” But with Romans 3:20 in mind it is important to remember that the commands in the Scripture are in the imperative mood which declare, not man's ability, but his duty. Martin Luther in his classic, Bondage of the Will, explained that:
“…the commandments are not given inappropriately or pointlessly; but in order that through them the proud, blind man may learn the plague of his impotence, should he try to do as he is commanded. Again imperative passages, by which is signified, not what we can do, or do do...but what we ought to do, and what is required of us, so that our impotence may be made known to us and the knowledge of sin may be revealed in us. . Does it follow from: 'turn' that therefore you can turn? Does it follow from "'Love the Lord you God with all your heart' (Deut 6.5) that therefore you can, by nature, love with all your heart? What do arguments of this kind prove, but that the 'free-will' does not need the grace of God, but can do all things by its own power.”To make more sense the idea that God can and does give us commands that we are incapable of fulfilling, consider as an example, that if you were to borrow $10 million to set up a new company but soon after squandered it in a week of wild living in Vegas, you will return to the bank empty-handed. Yet it is common knowledge that inability to repay the huge debt does not alleviate you of the responsibility to do so. Your creditor still has every right to ask you for the money even though you cannot repay. The commands of God are given for a similar reason. He commands what we have a responsibility to obey, but after the fall, we are morally unable to do so, apart from Christ. So we can see that the problem is not with the law but with the human heart. As Augustine once said, the condition of one who is unregenerate is "not able not to sin" (non posse non peccare). We are unable to pay the debt we owe but in his mercy Christ does for us what we are unable to do for ourselves. That is why we call him a Savior, not simply someone who helps us help ourselves.
So even though a human being is morally incapable of obeying the law perfectly to receive eternal life, yet preaching the law to an unbeliever is not pointless. When we preach the law we are, in effect, declaring to them the biblical principle "do this and live". Scripture, in fact, actually reveals two ways that one might be saved. These two antithetical covenants can be filtered down to "Do this and live" (Leviticus 18:5; Romans 2:13; 10:5), and "The just shall live by faith" (Habakkuk 2:4; Romans 10:6; Galatians 3:11). These covenants are both based in the eternal covenant of redemption which was made in the eternal counsels of the Triune God (John 6:37-39). Both will come into play through the historical Christ. This first covenant was revealed in Eden in what theologians call the Covenant of Works. In its most basic form it consisted of the command "Do not eat, or you will die." It is easy enough to see that if you restate L for ~L, you get "Do this and live." When Adam failed to live up to the terms of the covenant, he plummeted he and his posterity into the curse of death. Now all who are "in Adam" are incapable of life through that original covenant. It should be noted that God also mentions, after the fall, that the way to the tree of life is blocked lest man eat and live. So there was a means by which Adam could have avoided the fall, that is, by obedience to God for a period or perhaps by eating from the tree of life. Considering all of the above there is a works principle operative in the garden and restated in the Mosaic covenant, and while it promised life for perfect obedience (Lev. 18:2) its purpose, rather, was to instill in us a loss of all hope in ourselves. In other words, the call to perfect obedience functioned for redemptive-historical, pedagogical purposes like reminding us of our fall in Adam and our inability to perfectly obey it, which would ultimately drive us to Christ who was Himself “born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons" (Gal 4:4) because Jesus fulfills all the conditions from our side. This alone drives us to understand that we have no hope except in Christ's perfect, abiding, and eternally-significant obedience in both his life and death for us (Rom. 5:19).
The entire human race, therefore, stands condemned under the covenant of works and no person can extricate themselves from it through their own exertions (Rom 9:16). In case non-Jews (who do not have the written law) think they can escape this responsibility, this condemnation also includes all people because, according to the Scripture, God has reveled the moral law to the conscience of all men. Man cannot escape the fact that he must make moral decisions at every hour of the day and all people know in their heart that sanctions must take place when injustice takes place. Strong support for this idea can be found in Romans chapters 1-2, a passage where Paul is proving that both Jews and Gentiles are both under sin. So to prove that Gentiles who do not have God’s written law, are still accountable to it because God has placed it in their conscience consider:
“For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them.” (Rom 2:14-15)This is a classic proof-text for God’s law in natural revelation. This argument begins in the first chapter where Paul says that “…his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.” But they “by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.” (Rom. 1:18-20). So all people will be inexcusable before God at the time of judgment even though they did not have access to special revelation. In other words, in nature God reveals a sense of morality and justice to the hearts of all, such that those who fail to keep it know that they deserve Divine wrath. So it becomes abundantly clear that God has written the works principle on every mans’ conscience including the knowledge of its obligations and sanctions for not keeping it.
In light of this, what are we to make of passages such as "He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life" (Rom 2:6-7)?
This text is given to us by Paul in the context of building up a massive case for the universal sinfulness of both Jews and Gentiles alike; that all persons fall short of God's infinitely holy standard and justly deserve death. So in this part of his argument, Paul is, in effect, explaining that that “DO THIS AND LIVE" is placed before all humanity. But in what follows Paul tears down this edifice by showing that man is incapable of life by that covenant.
I agree with both Douglas Moo and Charles Hodge’s interpretation that this passage is still in keeping with Pauls’ argument [that all are under sin] and that this is a statement of the law and of what will take place to the wicked when they stand before God in the end. It’s standard is perfect obedience which no one will be able to reach, with the exception of Jesus Christ. This passage, therefore, further demonstrates Paul’s argument that no one can be justified by works of the law, since through the law men may learn the plague of their impotence, when they actually thy to do as they are commanded.
But thanks be to God for Jesus who obeyed ALL the prescriptions of the divine law. Being a human being "under the law" was a necessary part of the work Jesus did on our behalf. We could not be declared righteous apart from Christ's active obedience. This means being killed as an infant by Herod would not have been sufficient. His incarnation had great significance because in it He succeeded where both Adam and the nation of Israel failed. Jesus, the True Israel, declared that he came "not to abolish the law but to fulfill it". That is, fulfill all of God's righteous demands that God commands of humans who are unable, due to sin, to accomplish themselves. Likewise to John the Baptist, Jesus (who did not need to be baptized Himself) said he should rather be baptized by John to "fulfill all righteousness." Further, His priestly duties required and who was both blameless and without sin for God first desires obedience, not sacrifice. Consider that Jesus obedience is said to have made him perfect enabling Him to become the source of eternal salvation: "In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, being designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek." (Hebrews 5:7-9) Jesus' humanity and law keeping is, therefore, an integral part of His work for us. Lets now return to the question that God calls us to do things that we are morally incapable of. Why? Because the covenant of works still stands to those who are not in Christ ... even though they are incapable of fulfilling that covenant. God has given all men over to sin that have might have mercy on them all in Christ. God has, therefore, not rescinded His law which says "Do this and Live". We herald the law (and the gospel) to people, (1) to let them know that if they would live they must perfectly obey the commandments of God, (2) so that persons will recognize they are morally impotent to do so. It is then that the law serves its pedagogical function – for in seeing their own inability and spiritual bankruptcy can only flee to Christ for salvation.
So Christ is not being disingenuous when he tells the rich young ruler that if he wants eternal life he must obey the commandments. As we can see from the story, it served a pedagogical purpose in showing that no man can be saved by his own efforts. But when the disciples discern that the standard is too high when they ask ‘who then can be saved?” Jesus adds, “what is impossible with man is possible with God.” When we abandon hope in our own efforts, and instead, trust in Jesus Christ we are saved by someone who was not only sinless, but who obeyed the covenant of works perfectly from our side, obeying where Adam failed (Rom 5:19). He lived the life we should have lived and died the death we justly deserve. So, in fact, the reason we can be saved by grace alone is because Jesus took it upon Himself to do for us what we could not do for ourselves (i.e. obey the Law as a human being). For among fallen humanity no one is able to keep the Law because of original sin and total depravity, but in Him we are counted as having kept the Law (Rom 8:3,4). Those who trust in Christ alone can be assured that they have a perfect Savior who saves them from all their sin. In the new covenant in Christ's blood, God “remembers” not to treat us as our sins justly deserve.
"For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us..." (Rom 8:3,4)