Why Being Good And Keeping The 10 Commandments Doesn’t Save Us

Grace For The Journey


5AprWhen we share the gospel we often hear folks saying they believe that getting into heaven is about being as good as you can be, like keeping the 10 Commandments. Turning to James 2:10-11 is helpful when answering this response, “For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all.  For He who said, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ also said, ‘Do not murder.’  Now if you do not commit adultery, but you do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. 

James says: “For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in line point, he is guilty of all.”  Given the examples provided in these verses, it seems clear that James has in mind what we often describe as the “moral law” in the Old Testament.  Much of the “cultic law,” such as dietary laws or other laws of rite and ritual, are no longer binding upon believers today.  But the “moral law” is timeless.  Every culture has some sense of moral law woven into the fabric of their existence, even if that culture fails to understand that their sense of law is rooted in the grace of God.

For Christians, the moral law is aptly summarized in the “Ten Commandments,” (Exodus 20:1-17; Deuteronomy 5:6-21.)  This moral law is a cohesive unit to be obeyed in its entirety.  We are not permitted to ignore any of them.  James says we are to “keep the whole law.”

This raises a necessary clarification: James is writing to Christians.  We’ve noted in previous posts that James’ letter is not about how to become a Christian, but how to behave as a Christian.  He is writing to those who have been saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ.  So . . .

James is not teaching here

That the way one is saved

Is by keeping the Old Testament Law,

Keeping the 10 Commandments.

Many people think that that’s what the Bible teaches.  Many people wrongly think that Christianity is about following rules and regulations.  But . . .

Christianity is not so much about

Following principles as it is about

Following a Person, Jesus Christ.

Jesus is the only one who obeyed perfectly “the whole” law so that we could be forgiven of our sin.  Once we have trusted Jesus as our Lord and Savior, we live out the moral law in obedience to God not as a means by which to be saved – that has been accomplished already through faith in Jesus – but as a means of honoring and glorifying God with our new hearts.

One of the primary functions of the Old Testament law is to convict unbelievers of their sin, forever pointing out their inability to keep the law and pointing to the only one who perfectly has, Jesus Christ (see Romans 3:20; Galatians 3:21-24).

The Bible is a mirror.  As we look into it, we must allow it to show us what we are before we can expect to do what it says.  And we can’t really do what it says until we first see what we are.

We must first

See our sin

Before we can rightly

See our Savior.

Then we turn to Him, trusting Him as Lord.  We are saved by grace through faith in Christ.  Jesus lived for us and died for us.  He kept the law perfectly and thus fulfilled the law on our behalf.  He died, taking our punishment for breaking the law, and He rose from the dead so we could be declared righteous by faith in Him.

So . . .

If we have been saved through faith in Christ,

Then the law is now “lived out” in us,

Not to gain our justification,

But to grow in our sanctification.

Christians live the law

Not in an effort to get saved;

Christians live the moral law

Because they are saved.

James teaches that Christians, then, should be living out this moral law, by “keeping” the whole law.”  Unfortunately, many in James’ day thought of the law as the means of gaining salvation:

The Jew was very apt at regarding the law as a series of detached injunctions.  To keep one was to gain credit; to break one was to incur debt.  A man could add up the ones he kept and subtract the ones he broke and so emerge with a credit or a debit balance.

This is exactly how many today regard the observance of biblical commands.  They think if they keep a biblical command they will gain a credit, and when they break a biblical command they will incur a debt.  They hope that they will have more credits than debts in the end and perhaps tip the scales of justice in their favor.

But one reason it is impossible to be saved by keeping the law (Romans 3:20; Galatians 2:16) is precisely because it is a cohesive unit.

A person must obey it in its entirety

And no person does that

Consistently and perfectly.

To break one single command

Is to break all the law,

Much in the way one single crack

On a windshield affects the entire windshield.

If you hope to be saved by keeping the law, you would have to keep all of it consistently and perfectly.

Christians live the law not in an  effort to get saved;

Christians live the moral law because they are saved.

Think about taking a test in school.  Say there are 100 questions worth one point each and you miss 5, you get a 95%.  That’s an A by most calculations.  But imagine if you took that test and there are 100 questions worth one point each and you miss only one and receive an F.  You would argue, “But I got 99 right, I only missed one!”  The teacher replies, “Doesn’t matter.  This test is pass or fail test and because you did not get all of the questions correct, you fail.”

If you’re hoping to keep the Old Testament law as a means of earning salvation, you need to know that God does not grade on a curve.  You’ve got to keep the whole law in its entirety.  Breaking any one of them is to break all of them.  Breaking just one command makes us “a transgressor of the law.”

Imagine you are rushing to catch a plane.  You are hurrying through check-in, moving quickly through the security line, and now running to the gate so you can catch the plane.  But when you finally reach that gate it does not matter whether you are just one minute late or ten minutes late, once that gate is closed you are not getting on that plane.  It doesn’t matter how close you got, you are not allowed to board that flight.

If you are not a Christian, it doesn’t matter how closely you try to follow the 10 Commandments.  It really doesn’t matter how “close” you get, because you are not saved by keeping the law. Nobody keeps the law consistently and perfectly –

Nobody but Jesus.

That’s why

He is the only way to God.

From the standpoint of an unbeliever, “sin is sin,” whether it is murder or adultery or lying.

Just one sin will keep a person

From getting into heaven.

It doesn’t matter if

It’s a so-called “big” sin

Or a so-called “little” sin;

It doesn’t matter whether

You just “thought” it

Or you actually “did” it.

Just one is enough to keep

Anyone from entering heaven.

This raises the need for another important word of clarification. While the phrase “sin is sin” is rightly used when referring to an unbeliever’s ability to earn forgiveness or his hoping somehow to gain entrance to heaven based on an accrued number of “credits” he hopes outnumber his “debts,” it is not always appropriate to use this phrase.

Not all sins are equal in the sense that not all are equally heinous, equally ugly, or equally reprehensible.  The issue is not the degree of the sin but the disobedient that sin causes.  You could be fired from your job for lying to a co-worker or for physically beating a co-worker, but which would you rather have to explain at your next job interview?  Would you rather your daughter be found guilty of driving too fast or for robbing a bank?  One has a greater degree of wrong; but both are definite acts of wrong.

All sin is equally deadly in terms of a lost person’s hope of gaining some sense of favor before God, doing good works in the hopes of becoming more “savable.”

A proper understanding of this is needed when talking with good people who think they are good enough, or are doing enough good things, to satisfy God’s righteous standard and make it to heaven.

This is God Word …

This is Grace for your Journey …

Rest and Rejoice in this eternal truth!

Pastor Terry

Ephesians 4:7 – “But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it.”

Hebrews 4:16 – “Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”

Hebrews 4:16, “And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that always having all sufficiency in everything, you may have an abundance for every good deed.”


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