Why Keeping God’s Commandments Cannot Save You

“Now we know that what things soever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin.” (Romans 3:19-20)

There was a woman I knew who was considered a very kind and giving person by everyone who lived around her. She had a lot of friends and everyone knew that they could trust her and count on her for help and good advice when they needed it. She was considered a sort of mentor to some of the younger girls in her community and was a well-liked, model citizen both to her peers and to those in positions of authority. Yet even with all of these things going for her, she sat down one day and wrote a heart-felt letter to the only person whom she felt could resolve the problem which perplexed her the most: she requested that this man grant permission for her to be put to death.

In addition to being a kind, giving person and a good friend to so many people, this woman was also a convicted murderer. The man to whom she sent her plea for what she believed would mercifully end her suffering was the Governor of the State wherein she was serving a life sentence with no possibility of parole. Already having served close to 15 years, this young lady preferred to be released from this life rather than live out the rest of her days behind prison walls. Her request was denied. The rumors abounded concerning the circumstances behind her crime; some said that she had been horribly abused, others claimed that drugs had so clouded her judgment that she really had no idea what she was doing when she pulled the trigger, killing her husband. She herself was notably silent on the subject — “I made a mistake” were the only words of explanation she ever seemed to offer. Yet mistake or not, she had been found guilty of first degree murder and would never live outside of prison again. Maybe it was public sympathy, maybe it was the inherent distaste of the judge presiding to sentence a 19-year-old girl to receive a lethal injection; either way, it was the determination of the court that this young woman would spend the remainder of her days in prison rather than face the Death Penalty. By all accounts, this inmate was a model prisoner. She had the rare distinction of having a nearly immaculate record while in confinement — her only offenses were petty and had occurred very early on in her incarceration. Most of the time she had served had been done without violating any rules or regulations whatsoever. But nothing she could do at this point could ever erase the fact that she was a criminal, a “law-breaker.” It only took one violation of the laws of the land for her to become a convicted felon. Subsequent “law-keeping” could do absolutely nothing to reverse her fate.

As we come to Romans 3:19-20 in this study, we hear the resounding echo of the holy Law of God, thundering its final verdict. Much as a judge’s gavel slamming down, the Law of God has issued its irrevocable decree with a finality that leaves the hearer utterly speechless. GUILTY!! The judgment is in and nothing is left for the convicted but to await to serve out the sentence handed down. No opportunity will be given to “make up for” our crimes or “erase” the conviction. We can no more compensate for our sins by living a “good” life henceforth than the woman I just told of would be able to overturn her conviction by being a “good” inmate from here on out. How would the judge in her case react if she were to write him a letter saying, “I know that I am guilty of murder, but I have kept my cell very clean, I haven’t been caught with any contraband, I have volunteered for several work crews, and I am always sure to fill out my requests to the Warden legibly and according to regulations.” Would the judge be inclined to release her back into society based on this? No. The thing about the law is that no amount of “law-keeping” can ever erase any law-breaking.” The law, in fact, is only concerned with those who violate it, not those who keep it. I have never had a Police Officer pull me over for driving safely within the speed limit, but I have been pulled over for breaking the posted speed limit! And, frankly, the Officer really didn’t care that I had driven the last hundred miles within the speed limit, nor did he really care that I drove the rest of the way home slowly. I received a ticket for breaking the law, but I have never received a commendation for obeying it!

This is the dilemma faced by anyone who attempts to be saved by keeping God’s Law. You can keep it perfectly your entire life, yet if you break it one single time, you are guilty and a “Law-breaker.” James tells us that even if we are guilty of breaking a single part of the Law, we have become guilty under the whole thing! (James 2:9-10). If we steal but do not commit adultery, it doesn’t matter: we are guilty of breaking the Law of God. Even if we were to do so only once. And as the Lord Jesus demonstrated in the Sermon on the Mount, breaking the Law of God has to do not only with our actions, but our thoughts and intentions, as well. We are all guilty of breaking it often, are we not? The Law of God only has the power to convict of sin and sentence every person to die because of it (Ezekiel 18:20, Romans 6:23). The Law of God does not have the power to save us any more than the legal statute prohibiting murder is able to exonerate the woman serving a life sentence. Our Salvation must come from somewhere else, it must come from a Savior Who has paid the penalty that we have earned.

“For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse: for it is written, Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them. But that no man is justified by the law in the sight of God, it is evident: for, The just shall live by faith.” (Galatians 3:10-11)

The New Testament makes it abundantly clear that no one will be justified with God by keeping His Law. Even still, there are groups and entire denominations calling themselves “Christian” who are trying to do just that. They will consign Christ’s atoning work some role in the process in order to call themselves “Bible-believing Christians”, but for all practical purposes, they are attempting to be justified with God based on their own Commandment keeping. In many of their teachings, the line between what “pleases God” and what God “requires” for Salvation becomes so blurred that it is impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins! Yet the focus inevitably seems to be placed on one or two aspects of the Law of Moses (particularly Sabbath-keeping and Jewish dietary guidelines) which are obsessed over to the exclusion of the rest of it. There are really only two ways that we may come to God; through Christ by Grace or through ourselves by works. It is one or the other and only Grace will save us! We are not at liberty to intermingle God’s Grace with our works and present this to Him for Salvation, we can only trust in one of them. Legalism, the keeping of God’s Law for Salvation, was among the earliest distortions of the Gospel Message and is soundly refuted by huge portions of the New Testament– including the entire Book of Galatians. It is fitting that any appeal to God’s Law for Salvation would be shown to be futile immediately before the only Way for Justification with God is disclosed in Romans 3.

10 responses

  1. Thank you Loren, for taking us through all the reasons why we can’t be saved by keeping the ten commandments. We want to be able to do things ourselves, to work, to be good enough, to get the credit. But not on this one we can’t! So thankful that He is the only way and as long as I am relying on Him, I am saved.
    God bless you and the work of your hands!

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  2. Hi Loren,

    It is devastating that some who claim to be Christians preach a salvation through works…. Their false preaching not only condemns them, but all those who choose to follow them…. People love to glory in their own strength and give a blind eye to all their gross weaknesses….. It reminds me of Jesus talking to the Pharisees and telling them how they travel all over the world to make one convert and then make him twice as fit for hell as they are.

    It is only God’s grace that saves us through faith…. Thank you for this good explanation.

    Margaret

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  3. Thank you, Loren

    There are some who live that way because they choose to. There are others who live the way they do because they know no better.

    Thank you for taking the time to review and present what you have shared with us. For one who was ‘born and raised’ in a ‘first day’ church of worship, I have no problem accepting this as truth. For others who were taught other things from the days of youth, it’s an extremely difficult concept to grasp and believe it or not, they can find scriptures to justify their belief.

    I have taken to praying as I’ve been taught, that truth would be revealed. I know God… I have a relationship with Him. It was not always like this. I started out with Him, explored my options and then returned to find Him still loving me. I am thankful and grateful of what He has revealed to me. I feel pain and great sadness for those who are blindly led along another path. I can only continue to pray that God would guide them back to Himself, that they would be open to hearing His truth and that they would place His words above the words of man.

    If we think seriously about the size (people and locations ) of those who teach obedience to the law as a pre-requisite for salvation, we cannot honestly think this is a fly-by-night theory. It has been around for a long time and it still exists because people believe it to be so. I hardly think those who preach a distortions believe they’re in error… They pray fervently and teach so convincingly, you will believe if you don’t know differently. They research the scriptures and share their ‘truth’ not realizing that what they have is “a form of godliness”.

    I am thankful tonight that He saw it fit to snatch me from the jaws of death. I am thankful that redemption was in His plans so that I would have an opportunity to spend forever with Him. I am thankful that He will not contradict Himself and that His words remain unchanged.

    Thank you again for sharing. God bless you. Ephesians 2 8-9 is enough for me. Sadly, not everyone gets it. Praying the Holy Spirit will continue to stir the hearts of those who are yet walking in error so that they will study His words and learn the truth contained therein.

    “Where would we be if not for His grace? ” (Israel Houghton)
    Ephesians 2: 8 -9 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast

    Blessings,
    ann

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  4. Thanks, Deb, for the wonderful comments!

    “We want to be able to do things ourselves, to work, to be good enough, to get the credit.”

    That’s just it. The ego of man desires a salvation that can be worked out through our own efforts. A few verses after this passage, Paul writes: “Where is boasting then? It is excluded” (Rom. 3:27). We all want to boast about our “good works” and what great people we are. My daughter is going through a stage right now where every time I have to get on to her brother she asks, “Daddy, am I being good?” She knows she is. She just wants to make sure that I know that she is being good :) It seems that we’re born with that desire to “boast” about doing good. Yet when we come to the Cross of Christ, there is no room for boasting. The Lord Jesus is the only One Who will receive the credit for saving us.

    “So thankful that He is the only way and as long as I am relying on Him, I am saved.”

    So am I, Deb, so am I!! I am glad that my Salvation is not based on my works because, honestly, I would be in a whole lot of trouble.

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  5. “But there rose up certain of the sect of the Pharisees which believed, saying, That it was needful to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses… [Peter said unto them] Now therefore why tempt ye God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear? But we believe that through the grace of the LORD Jesus Christ we shall be saved, even as they.” (Acts 15:5, 10, 11)

    Margaret, what a great comparison with what Jesus told the Pharisees about travelling the world to make a convert. It is interesting that those who teach a “salvation through works” invariably seem to emphasize works that are very outwardly manifested. The focus is on the ritual, the ceremony — not the inward thoughts and desires of the heart. It is easy to objectively determine whether or not a person has undergone a public ceremony, or to know whether or not a person attends church on a certain day of the week, or whether or not they eat meat. It is simple to stand up before one’s own group and point to these very obvious things and claim that they are an indicator of “righteousness.” But what about sins like covetousness? Lust of the flesh? Pride? Hatred of others? What about the unseen attitudes of the heart which cannot be seen in others, neither can they readily be perceived by others in us?

    There is a very real, albeit very false, comfort for those who attend churches which are heavily steeped in ritual and ceremony. As long as you say certain memorized prayers, perform certain orchestrated rituals, go through certain public displays and ceremonies, then you are all right with God. These are tangible things, things that you can immediately point to and verify. It becomes unnecessary to determine if one’s own heart is right with God, so long as all of the rites are being observed.

    “It is only God’s grace that saves us through faith”

    Amen, Margaret :)

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  6. “While evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived.” (2 Tim. 3:13 ESV)

    When I was younger, I listened to a lot of the preaching of “Prosperity Theology.” I didn’t know much about the Bible myself and it impressed me how these “teachers” could back up what they were saying with Scripture (although the verses they quoted were heavily ripped from context and their interpretations twisted, as I would later learn). What they taught made sense to me because I really did not know any better. Many of the critics of Prosperity Theology, as well as critics of other types of heresy and cultic teachings, accuse the proponents of deliberately misleading and misguiding people. Do some of these teachers intentionally deceive? Without a doubt. Do they all? I honestly do not think they do.

    Some of the more prominent Prosperity Preachers receive donations totaling in the millions of dollars each and every month, so there is obviously a financial incentive to spreading their message. But are they all nothing but con artists, swindlers? We cannot really know for certain what is in the heart of each of these individuals, but I can tell you one thing: when I followed these teachings, I really believed it! And, personally, I think that a lot of the people I listened to really believed it, too. I have no doubt that the well-intentioned folks from the cults who come knocking at our doors to spread their message really believe what they are peddling; for not only are they failing to profit from their endeavors, they are paying from their own pockets to finance them. If their belief in what they are doing is not genuine, then there remains no explanation for why they would continue to do so.

    As you mentioned, many of these people are born into these groups and have been indoctrinated practically since birth. They have not only failed to learn any differently, a deep-rooted distrust and suspicion has been planted deep within them toward any contradictory teachings and any criticism of their beliefs is met with very adamant resistance. “They have been warned”, as it were, ” that there are those seeking to deceive them” — even if that “deception” is the authentic Message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The leaders in these groups deceive their flocks, not out of malice or deliberate manipulation, but because they themselves have been deceived.

    I pray for those trapped in these cults and sects that they would come to a real, saving knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ and be freed by His Grace. I praise God for this forum that He has entrusted me with because I know that He is using it to reach people. My objective is to shine the Light of God’s Word to everyone who visits this website, regardless of what their current beliefs are. I firmly believe that the Word of God is powerful (Heb. 4:12) and that it will accomplish His purposes, not returning unto the Lord void (Isaiah 55:11). I realize that the subject matters I write about are controversial and, to some, even offensive. I recognize that at times I can be pretty blunt in my presentation, but I already feel that I am constantly guilty of stretching the bounds of how much a person is willing to sit and read on the Internet! Any more delicate approach or “beating around the bush” would surely cause even the most patient to “click out” of what they’re reading.

    Even so, I try very hard not to make a “full frontal attack” on specific heretical teachings, because I don’t believe that it ever works. My hope is that God might use posts such as this one to work on the hearts of those He is drawing to Himself, hearts who have been indoctrinated into these false teachings but have decided to put the Lord and His Word in a higher place of authority than the organization to which they belong.

    Thank you, Ann, for reading this “epistle of a comment” and thanks for continuing to read what I write and sharing your edifying thoughts about it :)

    *English Standard Version (ESV)
    The Holy Bible, English Standard Version Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.

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  7. Loren, This is another terrific post. I know people who belong to very legalistic denominations who are very vocal about keeping the law of the Sabbath and the dietary restrictions. What I have noticed, however, is that they tend to be critical and lack any semblance of grace and mercy towards others. They can follow the rules, but they don’t seem to love, at least they do not love their enemies or those who are different from them. It is very sad, indeed, that they truly believe that legalism is what God desires. Peace, Linda

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  8. “Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted.” (Gal. 6:1)

    Hi Linda, thanks for the wonderfully encouraging comments!

    I have been confronted a few times by folks from legalistic denominations, denominations with emphasis on “Sabbath-keeping” and dietary laws, and their primary goal seemed to be to get everyone to go to church on Saturday. I cannot speak for everyone belonging to these groups, but the ones I have conversed with did not display any sort of “spirit of meekness” when they attempted to “set me straight.” On the contrary, their approach seemed to be one of arrogance, condescension, pride, and self-righteousness. There was absolutely no sense of love in their message, no feeling that they really cared about me as a person — it was an approach of accusation, judgment, and finger-pointing.

    I intend to go into detail when I reach the appropriate Bible passages that demonstrate that the Christian is not under the Law of the Sabbath, but under Grace; that we do not observe the Sabbath (Saturday), but “the Lord’s Day” (Sunday) in honor of the Resurrection of our precious Savior. A Christian is, of course, free to observe the Sabbath in any way that they feel personally led; but when they begin to try to compel another to do likewise, they are in error (Rom. 14:4-6, Col. 2:16-17).

    God bless you, Linda, and thanks again for sharing these insightful observations :)

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  9. Something that I have found very interesting is when a legalist tries to justify works for Salvation, they will immediately run to the book of James, chapter two, and ” prove ” that faith plus works saves you. Anyone who will properly and rightly divide Romans four and James two will reach the same conclusion that the Bible reaches; that we are not justified IN GOD’S EYES by works. The legalist insists that the Bible statement in Romans 4:2 ” for if Abraham were justified by works ” means ” works of the Law ” The Bible doesn’t agree , and says ” by works “. How could Abraham attempt to be justified by something that didn’t even exist ! When the Bible says ” by works “, it means by any works in any dispensation of time. I ” work ” to receive a paycheck; Salvation is not a paycheck. If we had to ” keep commandments ” to remain saved, we, like Adam, would become lost the very second we disobeyed God’s commandment. By the way, chances are that someone who is a Salvation by works advocate is also a losing Salvation advocate. They in fact use Adam as an example of ” becoming lost the second time “, but will not accept that they become lost the same way by committing ONE sin by breaking ONE commandment. Losing Salvation theology falls with Adam, as well as commandment keeping for Salvation.

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  10. Hi Larry, thanks for sharing your thoughts on this :)

    “Therefore as by the offence of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation; even so by the righteousness of One the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life.” (Romans 5:18)

    I think you have put this very well. It’s either works or it’s grace; no two ways about it (Rom. 11:6). We are either saved by the righteousness of One (Christ Jesus) or we are condemned; the option of being saved by our own righteousness just isn’t an option.

    Thanks for commenting on this post and taking the time to give us your insights on it. By the way, I wrote a few posts a while back comparing and contrasting Romans 4 and James 2 (you can click here for part 1).

    God bless you,

    Loren

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