How Would You Answer?

More thoughts springing from the discussion we’re having in Seminary 101, which features the Apologetics and Outreach class of Professor Jerram Barrs (available for free on Covenant Seminary’s website):

Imagine if someone came up to you and asked a simple question: what must I do to inherit eternal life? I’d guess that, for many Christians, this would be the perfect opportunity to launch into the basics of the gospel: you’ve sinned against a holy God, Christ has died to pay the penalty that your sin deserves, and you must place your faith in him to become righteous in God’s eyes and, as a result, enjoy eternal life with him forever.

That’s why I find the account of Jesus’ conversation with an expert in the law in Luke 10 so interesting. There, Jesus is asked precisely the question mentioned above. But instead of replying with something along the lines of what I just outlined, he asks a question of his own. Here’s the exchange as Luke records it:

25 On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?” 27 He answered: “ ‘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, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’’” 28 “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.

As long as we’re talking about questions, here’s one I think the text begs us to ask: why did Jesus respond the way he did? It seems to fly in the face of the gospel. As Jesus repeatedly states—and the apostles argue after him—salvation is possible only by trusting in him and his substitutionary work, never by sheer obedience to God’s commands (see, e.g., John 6:40, 11:25-26; Gal. 3:10-14; Rom. 3:21-26; 1 Pet. 1:3, 8-9, 18-19; 1 John 4:10, 5:11-12). Why then does Jesus say what he said?

Two things should be said. First, Jesus is fully prepared to admit that one could theoretically be justified by perfect obedience in the law: “Do this (i.e., obey the two commands),” he says, “and you will live.” But secondly, because the standard of obedience is God’s own righteousness, he’s also completely aware that no person—infected with sin as we are—can satisfactorily obey the law. Instead, we fall pitifully short. While the expert in the law would likely agree with the first point, he does not yet understand the second.

That this is true can be understood by from the next verse: “But [the expert] wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’” He was apparently confident that Jesus’ definition would allow him to demonstrate how well he had fulfilled the command. But Jesus’ reply is not nearly what he expects. He answers by way of a story—the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37). Functioning as an extended illustration, the parable reveals that love for one’s neighbor encompasses far more than what the expert had believed. In reality, he had not even begun to fulfill this fundamental obligation of the law.

A bit of reflection helps us realize that if Jesus would have simply launched into the basic points of the gospel with this man, it would have fallen on thoroughly deaf ears—those who do not yet understand the reality and significance of their sin won’t recognize the need for a Savior. Instead, Jesus first gives his attention to removing a major impediment in this man’s life to embracing the truth he—like everyone else—so desperately needs.

This is an important lesson for us to learn as we seek to influence others for Christ. We too will encounter those who will not yet be ready to hear a simple summary of the gospel. Perhaps they don’t yet believe in God at all. Maybe they doubt Jesus was a genuine historical figure. Or it could be that they, like the expert in the law, don’t yet understand their sin and its consequences. Many more examples could be added to the list, but it suffices to say that each presents a barrier that must be confronted before the gospel can be understood and accepted.

Of course we won’t know which obstacles exist if we don’t know what an individual actually believes, which suggests our first concern will likely be asking questions and seeking genuine understanding. Then, should God choose to give us the opportunity, we’re far more likely to be able to commend the truth of God and his gospel in necessary and effective ways.

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