I was going through posts from many years ago and came across this one, on an issue I’ve always thought was unusually interesting: if the writer of the Gospel of Matthew (whoever that was) and the apostle Paul had been locked in a room and not allowed to emerge until they had hammered out a consensus statement on how one attains eternal life, would they still be in there, possibly with their skeletons locked in a mutual death grip? I didn’t put it that way when I posted this so long ago, but I was younger and milder then I suppose.
Here’s how I expressed it then. What do you think?
One of my major goals as a professor of New Testament is to get my students to understand that the NT is not a single entity with a solid and consistent message. There are numerous authors who were writing at different times, in different parts of the world, to different audiences, and with different – sometimes strikingly different – understandings about important issues. In fact, about key issues, such as who Jesus was and what his role was in salvation.
One of the assignments that I used to give was to have students compare Matthew’s view of salvation with that found in Paul. Specifically, what is the role of doing what the Law demands and of doing good deeds? If someone abides by the law and does good deeds for others – will that bring about salvation?
The way I get them to think about those questions is by looking at two passages, one in Matthew and the other in Paul. The first is Matthew’s version of the “rich young ruler” (he’s actually not a “young ruler” in any of the Gospel accounts; in one he’s young and in another he’s a ruler: but that’s just what the passage is typically called). According to this passage, how does one receive eternal life? Here’s the passage.
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16 Then someone came to him and said, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” 17 And 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.” 18 He 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; 19 Honor your father and mother; also, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 20 The young man said to him, “I have kept all these; what do I still lack?” 21 Jesus 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.”
OK, so according to Matthew Jesus tells this person that to have eternal life, he needs to keep the commandments (he cites not only some of the ten commandments but the “love command” as well). Note: he answers the question about “eternal life” by telling the man to keep the commandments; if he wants to be even *better* than that, he should accept voluntary abject poverty in order to help others; then he will have even more than eternal life, he’ll be one of the rich folk in heaven. But just to get there? Keep the commandments!
Is that what Paul thought and taught?
To complete the exercise I ask them to imagine that twenty years later, this same man (the rich fellow who is told that if he keeps the commandments of the Jewish law he will have eternal life; and that if he gives away his possessions for the poor he’ll be “perfect”) comes up to the apostle Paul and asks him the same question that he asked Jesus (according to Matthew). Would Paul *also* tell him that if he keeps the commandments of the Law he will have eternal life? And that he can be perfect before God living in poverty for the sake of others? Is that how he can have salvation? Consider what Paul says in Galatians:
Gal 2: 16, 21
We know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law…. 21 I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.
I’m amazed at how many of my students don’t see that there is any tension or discrepancy here. But I always press hard the question. If Jesus is right that eternal life comes to those who keep the commandments of the Jewish Law, then how can Paul be right that no one can be made right with God by doing what the Law demands?
On the other hand, the matter is complicated by the fact that Matthew too thinks that Jesus’ death brings salvation; that’s more or less the point of his narrative. So are Matthew and Paul reconcilable or not? If it were an easy answer, it would not be a very interesting assignment!
You too may have an opinion. I just ask one thing: don’t reconcile these two passages to make them say the same thing without considering the option that in fact they might be saying two very different things. And don’t assume they are necessarily contradictory without seeing if they may, at heart, be very similar. THEN make up your mind.