Did Jesus teach Salvation through Law?
Attempting to bypass the unique role of Jesus, critics have ignored other verses and focused on this one paragraph (and the rich young ruler account in Matthew 19:16-30) to argue that Jesus simply came to confirm the Law of Moses. This is the standard approach of critics—ignore ninety-nine passages which directly refute their ideas, and selectively present one or two misinterpreted passages which seem to confirm their ideas. To honestly interpret any passage of writing, it is important to interpret it based on the overall book. So let us examine these two assertions; 1) that Jesus taught salvation came through the Law only, and 2) that Jesus’ primary mission was to simply reconfirm the Law of Moses.
View of Salvation in the Torah
When we examine the complete Gospel accounts, we find that Jesus repeatedly emphasized that it is impossible to earn salvation through observing the Law, but salvation comes as an undeserved gift of God’s grace, mediated through Jesus’ sinless sacrifice as a propitiation for sins. This was not a new method of salvation; it was the same teaching that stretched back through all the Scriptures, that a coming Messiah would bring salvation to God’s people. Genesis says that Abraham was justified by his faith or “belief” (
); not by observing the Law. Not once in the entire Law of Moses does it say that it was the means for people earning eternal salvation or a ticket to heaven. There was no promise of heaven for observing the Law. On the contrary, it says repeatedly that the Torah law was intended as guidelines specifically for the Israelites to prosper and have peace in Palestine. It related to earthly prosperity, not earning heaven. It also showed the Israelites how utterly impossible it was to maintain one hundred percent of God’s Law and thereby earn one’s own salvation. The Law of Moses did however contain a sacrificial system which kept the Israelites aware of the need for substitutionary atonement—the shedding of blood to cover their sins. Obviously, they knew that killing animals couldn’t actually atone for sin, but it kept them aware of the need for a future ultimate, perfect sacrifice.
View of Salvation in the Zabur
In the Zabur of David, it is clear that humans can never be righteous in God’s sight:
“For my iniquities have gone over my head;
like a heavy burden, they are too heavy for me.” (Psalm 38:4)
Do not bring your servant into judgment,
for no-one living is righteous before you. (Psalm 143:2)
“Hide your face from my sins,
and blot out all my iniquities.” (Psalm 51:9)
“For God alone my soul waits in silence;
from him comes my salvation.
He only is my rock and my salvation, my fortress;
I shall not be greatly shaken.” (Psalm 62:1,2)
If you O Lord, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand?
But with you there is forgiveness …
with him is full redemption.
He himself will redeem Israel from all their sin.
So repeatedly we see that all humans, even the Prophet David, depend alone on God’s mercy for salvation, and God accomplishes this forgiveness and salvation through “redemption” it says. This redemption is more clearly explained as ‘atonement’:
“When we were overwhelmed by sins,
You will provide atonement for them.” (Psalm 65:3)
[The word translated “atonement” here is כּפר (kâphar) in the original Hebrew, which more fully means to pardon for a sin by paying a penalty.]
View of Salvation in the Prophets’ Writings
It was clear since the days of Abraham that salvation was entirely a free gift of God which would come through a future offspring of Abraham (
) through the line of Judah (
) and David (
). Gradually through the prophets God gave a clearer and clearer picture of this coming “Messiah” who would save his people from their sins. The prophet Isaiah described this Savior’s role as follows:
“…he shall bear their iniquities.” (Isaiah 53:11)
“He was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that was upon him brought us peace, and by his wounds we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:5)
.”.and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” (Isaiah 53:6)
Jesus claimed to be the fulfillment of this promise, the “Messiah” who was to come, as the Qur’ān also testifies. On the first day of his three-year ministry, Jesus declared his “mission statement” which was his claim to be the “Anointed One” (Messiah) who would bring people liberty, freedom and good news (Luke 4:18-21). In short, Jesus’ overall teaching on salvation and law was as follows: The Law is good but people can’t earn eternal salvation through it; salvation comes only by God’s unmerited grace provided through Jesus’ sinless self-sacrifice. This salvation is gained through following Jesus and trusting him as the means of God’s salvation. No verse in the Bible contradicts this teaching, while hundreds of verses confirm it.
Let us return now to the account of the rich young man. The young man’s question “what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” showed that he saw the law as a means for salvation. When Jesus responded, “If you would enter life, keep the commandments,” he was helping the young man to see the impossibility of earning salvation by living a 100% pure life. If humans lived 100% perfect lives, they could theoretically earn salvation, but this is impossible. The young man hadn’t realized this yet, and Jesus began to help him realize this. Critics like to stop reading at the second verse, but if we keep reading the account to the end, we see that Jesus finally helps the young man to see his inability to follow the Law completely, and Jesus’ final answer to “how do I get eternal life?” is “come, follow me” (Matthew 19:21). In the next verses, the disciples are amazed and scared to hear that even this seemingly righteous young man is not good enough to be saved, saying “who then can be saved?” (verse 26). Jesus replied, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” In other words, it is impossible for man to earn salvation, but God alone can provide unmerited salvation to sinful humanity. So this passage does not present the law as a means of salvation, but actually it shows the opposite, that man can never earn salvation through observing the Law.
Now let us examine Matthew 5:17-20. Jesus boldly claims to “fulfill” the Law of Moses. If his mission were to simply ‘confirm’, ‘reinstate’ or ‘reemphasize’ the Law, he certainly wouldn’t use that word. According to the Webster dictionary, ‘fulfill’ means to ‘complete’ or ‘bring to an end’ or ‘meet the requirements of’ or ‘satisfy’—which fits perfectly with the Gospel’s overall teaching. Jesus didn’t abolish the Law, he lived a perfect life and thereby became the only person to complete or fulfill the Law. In a wider sense, he came to fulfill the prophecy of a coming Savior which was spoken of in the Torah (Law). In the next verse (18), he emphasizes what the critics deny, that the Tawrat cannot be changed, that it will remain unchanged until the completion of history ( akhirat ).
The Torah law can be divided into three parts; the Moral Law, the Ceremonial Law, and the Civil Law. It is clear that the Ceremonial Law (the animal sacrifice system and temple worship rules) were fulfilled (ie. brought to an end) by Jesus’ death on the cross, which history dramatically confirmed a few years later with the permanent destruction of the Temple and the end of the Jewish sacrificial worship system. The Civil Law was intended for the political administration of Israel, and Jesus gave no indication that this was to be followed. The Moral Law (the Ten Commandments and many others) is to be practiced by all people (Jews, Muslims, Christians) until the end of time, for it is based on the character of God and was broader than just the people of Israel. This part of the law is what Jesus is talking about in verse 19, and what he emphasized throughout his wider teaching (see Mt 7:12). In verse 20, Jesus says, “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Though salvation is not earned through the Law but through following Jesus the Savior, our faith must produce good fruit in righteous behavior.
This understanding of Matthew 5:17-20 is confirmed in another verse where Jesus said,
“The Law and the Prophets were until John; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is preached, and everyone forces his way into it. But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one dot of the Law to become void.” (Luke 16:16)
Here Jesus says that while the Tawrat will endure and its moral law is still to be obeyed, Jesus’ good news of salvation brings a totally new focus.
Reemphasizing the Law or Bringing Good News of Salvation?
We know from history that there were plenty of other Jewish scholars in Jesus’ day who simply re-emphasized the Torah law, rabbis like Hillel and Gamaliel and the Pharisees, who were all obsessed with the Law. There is no reason why God would have needed to send Jesus as simply one more rabbi who emphasized the Law. Both the Bible and Qur’ān say he brought “good news” (euangel or اِنْجِيل ). Reemphasizing a thousand-year-old Law that was still being widely observed can hardly be construed as “good news”! Salvation from sin by God’s provision of grace is the best news thinkable. Any historian will tell you that Jesus’ teaching was quite different than these scribes of the Law, who he claimed, “shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces” (Mt 23:13) when they misconstrued the Law as a means of salvation.
Now let us look at the dozens of other passages which show clearly that Jesus saw salvation as coming through his sacrifice as a means of God’s grace, not through observing the Law:
Jesus’ Own Words
- Jesus said, “For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” (John 6:40)
- Jesus said that his blood .”.is poured out for the many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Matthew 26:28)
- Jesus said, “the Son of Man must be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” (John 3:15)
- Jesus said, .”.the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:28; Mark 10:45)
- Jesus said, “I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved” (John 10:9)
- Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)
- Jesus said, “I will raise him up on the last day .. Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life, I am the bread of life .. if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever.” (John 6:44,47,48,51)
- Jesus said, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” (John 10:11)
- Jesus said, “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.” (John 10:28)
- Jesus said, “Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.” (John 11:25)
- Jesus said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to whom you have given him.” (John17:1-2)
- Jesus said, “This is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” (John 17:3)
- Jesus said, “was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” And beginning with Moses and the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” (Luke 24:26-27)
- Jesus said, “I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns as well; for I was sent for this purpose.” (Luke 4:43)
- Jesus said, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” (John 6:29)
- Jesus said, “For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world .. I am the bread of life.” (John 6:33,35)
- Jesus said, “Whoever drinks the water that I will give him will never be thirsty forever. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (John 4:14)
- Jesus said, “For as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whom he will.” (John 5:21)
Many of Jesus’ parables clearly illustrated that salvation could not be earned through observing the Law alone nor was it based on merit:
- The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matthew 18:21-35)
- The Laborers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16)
- The Wedding Feast Parable (Matthew 22:1-10)
- The Prodigal Son Parable (Luke 15:11-32)
Jesus’ repeated predictions of his suffering, death and resurrection (Mt 17:22, Mk 9:31, Mt 20:17, Mt 17:9) indicate how central this event was in his ministry. There is not room here to give all of Jesus’ statements indicating salvation through him alone.
Jesus’ Disciples’ Testimony
Finally, we have the testimony of Jesus’ twelve disciples who absorbed his teaching for three years:
- Peter said, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins” (Acts 2:38, only days after Jesus’ ascension)
- Peter said, “there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12, only days after Jesus’ ascension)
- Peter said, “you were redeemed.. with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect.” (1 Peter 1:18-19)
- Peter said, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.” (1 Peter 2:24) As Peter also said, “We did not follow cleverly-invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.” (2 Peter 1:16)
- James said, “for whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.” (James 2:10)
- John said, “we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not only for our sins but also for the sins of the whole world.” (1 John 2:1,2)
Warnings of Ignoring Jesus’ Salvation and Words:
Jesus demands a response from all people. To believe in Jesus means not just to call him a prophet but to accept what he claimed about himself; otherwise you are believing in an imaginary Jesus. You cannot “believe” someone and deny their teaching. Since Jesus claimed to be the foretold ‘Anointed Savior,” there is eternal danger in denying his claims:
- Jesus said, “unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins.” (John 8:24)
- Jesus said, “The one who rejects me and does not receive my words has a judge; the word that I have spoken will judge him on the last day.” (John 12:48)
- Jesus said, “If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me? Whoever is of God hears the words of God.” (John 8:46,47)
- Jesus said, “the one who rejects me rejects him who sent me.” (Luke 10:16)
- Jesus said, “I tell you, everyone who acknowledges me before men, the Son of Man also will acknowledge before the angels of God, but the one who denies me before men will be denied before the angels of God.” (Luke 12:8-9)