The plan of salvation is implied somewhat obscurely early in the Bible even before Adam has sinned. In light of this we are forced to infer that as created (Gen. 2:7) from the temporal earth (Gen. 1:1; 8:22; Heb. 1:11) Adam, in contrast with his Creator (Rom. 1:23, etc.), is by nature mortal and corruptible like the rest of the animal creation and hence naturally in need of salvation or eternal life even apart from sin. While still in the Garden of Eden he is told that in order to transcend the death to which he is subject by nature, or, to put it more positively, in order to gain (eternal) life, he must keep the commandment (Gen. 2:16-17). This, as we all know, he failed to do (cf. Gen. 3:6) and so he was paid the wages of sin (Rom. 6:23), died (Gen. 5:5) and returned to the dust from which he was taken (Gen. 3:19). Considering the fact that as the first and hence representative man according to the flesh he did as he did, it is hardly surprising that his posterity did likewise, all the more so since they had his sinful example and influence to contend with. In other words, they repeated if they did not actually imitate his sin (pace Art. 9 of the C of E). In the circumstances, as Paul intimates in Romans 5:12-21 they inevitably, but not necessarily as church dogma would have us believe, capitulated.
The point being made is one of the most common assertions in Scripture that if a man keeps God’s statutes he will live (Lev. 18:5, cf. Ezek. 20:11.13,21; Luke 10:28; Rom. 10:5; Gal. 3:12, etc.). If he does not, he will die (Gen. 2:17; James 1:15). Jesus apparently believed this to be axiomatic, for when questioned by the rich young ruler about how to gain eternal life Jesus bluntly asserts that it is necessary to keep the commandments (Mt. 19:17).
Keeping the Law
This of course is as we all know a tall order quite beyond the capabilities of ordinary men and women. For all that, in Mark 10:20 the young ruler boldly asserts that he has kept the commandments from his youth. Strangely, Jesus does not attempt to contradict him but simply takes him at his word. Perhaps we haven’t been told the whole story but in any case Jesus makes it clear that keeping the commandments is not enough. First, he recognizes that love of material riches is a stumbling block for his interlocutor and that he should sell all he has and give to the poor. In this way he will lay up treasure for himself in heaven. Secondly, Jesus tells him to follow him, and this according to Jesus’ teaching elsewhere will involve radical self-denial (Mark. 8:34).
The Inadequacy of (Keeping) the Law
There is doubtless another point Jesus is making. When he himself, having pleased his heavenly Father by keeping the law to perfection, permanently (John 1:32) received the Spirit and gained eternal life at his baptism, he pointed out to John the Baptist that he had to fulfil all righteousness (Mt. 3:13-17). In other words, keeping the law of Moses was not enough. Something more was necessary for him to achieve the perfection required by God (Mt. 5:48). To meet this requirement he would need the Spirit without measure (John 3:34). And as God’s Son he would doubtless receive this as Scripture implies (John 1:32, cf. Luke 1:32f.; Acts 13:34b).
The author of Hebrews makes the same point in a different way in 7:18f. and 8:7. While keeping the letter of the law was the precondition of salvation or regeneration, perfection demanded something more, that is, his total commitment to his heavenly Father and love for his neighbour as himself. As we all know Jesus himself achieved this (Heb. 5:9; 7:28) by giving himself (his flesh, Col. 1:22; 1 Pet. 3:18) as a sacrifice for his people according to the will of God (Heb. 2:9f., cf. 3:1-5). In this way he attained to perfection. After making purification for sins he sat at God’s right hand becoming the exact imprint of his nature (Heb. 1:3) and upholding the universe by his power (cf. Mt. 28:18; Rom. 1:4).
It is at this point that we realize how important it was for the rich young ruler as it is for us that keeping the law (of which we are incapable in any case) is inadequate. We need above all to follow Jesus, to accept him as our Saviour. In this way we receive by faith his righteousness, the precondition of eternal life (Lev. 18:5, cf. Gal. 5:5). He alone fulfilled all righteousness. He alone achieved the perfection which was God’s standard (Mt. 19:21) and he alone was in a position to lay down his life in atonement for our sins (John 10:17f.). In light of this we must understand that following Jesus implies trusting in him alone for salvation (John 14:6). As Peter strongly asserts in Acts 4:12, there is no other name under heaven among men by which we must be saved.
Paul underlines the fact that our call as human beings is to keep the law and seek glory and honour (Rom. 2:7,10, cf. 1 Pet. 1:7) in accordance with the original mandate given to Adam in Genesis and accomplished by Jesus (Heb. 2:9). As the second Adam Jesus paved our way, conquered in the flesh (Rom. 8:3; Heb. 2:14f.), brought to light both life and incorruption (2 Tim. 1:10) and provided us with the perfection we needed (Mt. 5:48) to enter into the very presence of the holy God of heaven (Heb. 6:19f.; 9:11f., 24; 10:19f.; 12:2).