A Hypothetical Situation
Imagine a situation where you are stranded on an island, and by all rights you should die there because the conditions are harsh; and although there exists a place where you could live without any troubles or fears, it is impossible to reach that place without dying in the effort to get there. However, you soon receive some instructions: There is a way to live on this island without succumbing to the harsh conditions, and — what’s more — there is someone willing and able to take you from this island to the place without troubles or fears. He is the same one who has sent you the instructions on how to live here on the island. But he hasn’t come to get you yet. What you need to do is live according to his instructions and wait for him to come and get you.
Unfortunately, before long, you start to misunderstand the message he has given. Instead of using his instructions to live on the island in anticipation of the fulfillment of his promise to come get you, you start to think that his instructions are a way for you to get to the place with no troubles and no fears on your own, without waiting for him. You see the instructions, and they are good instructions. You see yourself and you think you are pretty good at following the instructions. What you don’t realize is that trying to get to the place with no troubles and no fears on your own is still a suicide mission. This is not how the instructions were meant to be used, and now your misunderstanding of them threatens to send you to your death.
A Real-Life Misunderstanding
The above hypothetical situation helpfully illustrates some of Israel’s wrong thinking about the law they had received and what it was meant to accomplish. Consider Luke’s account of a lawyer challenging Jesus from Luke 10:25-28,
“And a lawyer stood up and put Him to the test, saying, ‘Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?’ And He said to him, ‘What is written in the Law? How does it read to you?’ And he answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.’ And He said to him, ‘You have answered correctly; do this and you will live.’”1
Now it might not be immediately obvious that the lawyer was misunderstanding the function of the law — it might even seem like Jesus was affirming the thought that it was possible for the man to do something to gain eternal life. However, this is where it is helpful to consider the context of the words Jesus spoke in response to the lawyer’s quotation from the law: “Do this and you will live,” is a direct quotation from several Old Testament texts, beginning with Leviticus 18:5 and tracing through Deuteronomy, Nehemiah, and Ezekiel.
Covenant Faithfulness and Covenant Blessings
Much like in the island illustration, when God told his people Israel that they would “live” if they kept his commandments, he did not mean “live” in the sense of eternal life (that is, in terms of getting to the place with no troubles and no fears). Rather, this comes in a section of Scripture where God is giving instructions on how to “live” in covenant with him, thereby experiencing his covenant blessings as entailed in a good life “lived” in the land he was promising them. This “life” was not eternal life — it was, rather, the life his people would enjoy in this world if they trusted God’s promises for eternal life and followed his commandments from the overflow of the love he had given them through his promises. If, however, they did not do what he commanded, they would experience the covenant curses, which would keep them from “living” — the law breakers being “cut off” from their people (Lev 18:29), and the people “spewed” out of the land (Lev 18:28).
How Did Israel Do?
Now it might not surprise you to hear that Israel generally failed to “live” in the way commanded for covenant faithfulness, and as a result, the land spewed them out. In the context of that happening, Ezekiel quoted from Leviticus 18:5, using it to rebuke the people for their disobedience (Ezek 20:11; cf. 20:11–26). Similarly, Nehemiah used Leviticus 18:5 to explain the fact that God had turned his people out of their land and given it to others because of their stubborn refusal to keep his commandments (Neh 9:29–30). It was clear from Israel’s history and from their Scriptures that they had failed to keep the law God had commanded — again, not so that they would gain eternal life, but so that they would “live” in the land with God’s blessings.
Back to Jesus’ Reasoning
Jesus certainly would have known that the prophets reasoned this way about the keeping of the law and Leviticus 18:5, and he would have expected the lawyer to know the law also (as reflected in his question, “What is written in the Law? How does it read to you?”). By pointing to the law and particularly to Leviticus 18:5, Jesus was reminding the lawyer that he and his people — as privileged as they were — had so failed at “doing” that for which they were responsible for and for which they had been spewed out of the land. How could this man imagine that he could use the law (the means by which he and his people hadn’t even continued under covenant blessing in the land) in order to attain that for which it was never designed, getting him to eternal life?
Missing Jesus’ Intent
Perhaps Jesus’ response with the Old Testament quotation was a bit too subtle for the lawyer, since he continued to want “to justify himself” — evidently he was confident that he had accomplished the “loving God” part and thought maybe he could check the “loving neighbor” box also, provided that “neighbor” was not too expansively defined (Luke 10:29). Rather than seeing Jesus’ point (which was Ezekiel’s point and Nehemiah’s point as well) that the Israelites, by their doing, had proven serially incapable of meeting God’s standard for sustained blessing in the land — let alone eternal salvation! — the lawyer continued to hope that he could accomplish his own righteousness before God through the law.
The Right Response — for Israel, for the Lawyer, and for Us
Jesus went on to offer a further rebuke of the lawyer’s sensibilities by illustrating through a parable that the heart the Lord wants from his people was not found in Israel — not among the Levites, nor even among the priests (Luke 10:31-32). What Israel needed was the same thing that the lawyer needed, and it is the same thing that we need: A new heart from God to love him and others (Deut 30:6; Luke 10:33, 37; Rom 2:29).2 The fact is, there is no step-by-step “how to” when it comes to attaining this need because we are completely incapable of giving ourselves a new heart. It is the Holy Spirit who creates this new heart through his word (John 3:6; 1 Pet 1:23; Jas 1:18).
So does this mean that we have no part to play? Well yes, in terms of actually producing new life in ourselves and in terms of our own justification. But notice Jesus’ instruction to the lawyer at the end of their interaction: “Go and do the same” (Luke 10:37). Because his word is meant to lead men to repentance — and we have a responsibility to respond to his word with repentance and faith — we must obey what he has said in every respect, humbling ourselves before the Word (Isa 66:2b), turning our laughter to mourning, and our joy to gloom (Jas 4:9).3
How does all of this apply in the counseling room? First, it should remind us and our counselees that there is no way for us to give ourselves eternal life — or to justify ourselves, or to give ourselves a new heart. No matter how helpful our counsel — and if it is coming from God’s Word (as it must be), its content is not just helpful but necessary and sufficient for all matters of life (2 Tim 3:16; 2 Pet 1:3). We cannot give a counselee a checklist by which he can be saved if he works to check off every requirement.
Secondly, we can learn from the way Jesus understood and applied the law. While a discussion of the various uses of the law exceeds the scope of this blog post, Jesus clearly expected that God’s Word would have its intended effect on its hearers, and that he could proceed to give them authoritative instruction by which they should live their lives.4 Similarly, in the counseling room we can proceed to give biblically-based counsel for our counselees to follow, in order to live in a God-pleasing manner that keeps with the gospel’s call on their lives (2 Cor 5:9; Eph 4:1). If they submit to what the Bible says, they will live in a way that proclaims Christ’s excellencies (1 Pet 2:9); if they rebel against it, they may go away sad like the Rich Young Ruler (Matt 19:22), realizing that they do not have the will (i.e., the heart) to live in a way that is pleasing to the Lord. In both cases, we should realize together with the apostle Paul that the law is and always was unable to save, and so — praise his name! — God did through Christ what the law could not do for us (Rom 8:3).
- Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations in this post are from the NASB translation.
- That the Samaritan “felt compassion” (Luke 10:33) indicates that his actions flowed from what was in his heart (cf. Luke 6:45) — and Jesus’ instruction to the lawyer was to go and do the same (Luke 10:37).
- Although exposure to the Bible will not guarantee someone’s salvation, it is important to realize the necessity of biblical revelation to salvation: If someone never hears or reads the truth, he won’t believe it (Rom 10:13-17). While it is true that reading won’t save a person, it is also true that God saves a person through his Word — therefore, it is imperative that we share God’s Word with unbelievers, praying that it will produce a repentant and believing heart in them.
- See, for example, his interaction with the Rich Young Ruler (Matt 19:16-26). In this case, the effect of the law on its hearer was to harden him in his unrepentance, which Jesus tested by calling him to faithful application of the law he claimed to be keeping.
Want content updates by email?
Visit our subscription page to select what type of content you would like to be notified about!