Romans 3:26: To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus.
When the Apostle Paul was giving his testimony in Acts 22, he acknowledged his listeners’ zeal toward God. He was trying to appeal to his common ground with them, including their respect for the law.
Acts 22:3: I am verily a man which am a Jew, born in Tarsus, a city in Cilicia, yet brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, and taught according to the perfect manner of the law of the fathers, and was zealous toward God, as ye all are this day.
There are also several biblical encounters in which Jesus acknowledges various unbelievers’ familiarity with the law. We’ll look at two of them.
The first is with a certain ruler (sometimes referred to as “the rich young ruler”).
Matthew 19:16-22:  And, behold, one came and said unto him, Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?  And he said unto him, Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God: but if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments.  He saith unto him, Which? Jesus said, Thou shalt do no murder, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness,  Honour thy father and thy mother: and, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.  The young man saith unto him, All these things have I kept from my youth up: what lack I yet?  Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me.  But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful: for he had great possessions.
As verse 16 indicates, this certain ruler believed he could earn eternal life by some work of righteousness. It is clear from verse 17 that the man did not know who Jesus was. In verse 18, Jesus tells him he will enter into life (have eternal life) if he will just keep the commandments. The man asks “which ones,” and Jesus mentions six of the commandments. The man makes the ridiculous claim, in verse 20, that he has kept all of these commandments. Jesus, playing along with him, asks him to sell his possessions and give the money to the poor. At this point, the man realizes that he has not kept all of the commandments perfectly, is not willing to, and therefore goes away sorrowful and unsaved.
The certain ruler does not go away unsaved because he is unwilling to sell his possessions, give the money to the poor, or follow Jesus in discipleship. No, he goes away unsaved because he does not know who Jesus is, and he was hoping to justify himself by keeping laws.
The second encounter is with a certain lawyer.
Luke 10:25-29:  And, behold, a certain lawyer stood up, and tempted him, saying, Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?  He said unto him, What is written in the law? how readest thou?  And he answering said, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself.  And he said unto him, Thou hast answered right: this do, and thou shalt live.  But he, willing to justify himself, said unto Jesus, And who is my neighbour?
This certain lawyer, like the certain ruler, asked Jesus what he could do to earn eternal life. Again, Jesus tells him to just keep the law, knowing that no one (besides Jesus) has ever kept the law perfectly. Here, the Bible is clear that the certain lawyer was willing to justify himself (verse 29).
The certain ruler and the certain lawyer are indicative of the mindset that Paul references in Romans 10:1-4:  Brethren, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel is, that they might be saved.  For I bear them record that they have a zeal of God, but not according to knowledge.  For they being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God.
In a similar manner, Lordship “salvation” has assumed the mantle of the Pharisees – trying to become justified, stay justified, or prove one is justified by keeping rules.
The ardent believers in false gospels of works will often cloak their departures from the truth of the gospel by parsing scripture. These people often think they are being Bereans (see Acts 17). In reality, they are misusing scripture to corrupt the gospel. In so doing, they are leading people away from Christ.
Ron Shea sums this up fairly succinctly:
We acknowledge that believers may fall into error or confusion regarding salvation and works after their conversion, as happened to the church of Galatia (Galatians 1:6-7. 3:1). We further acknowledge that the believers of Galatia were regarded as “brethren,” (Galatians 1:3), having fallen into this grievous error subsequent to their coming to an authentic faith in Christ (Galatians 3:1-3). We note, however, that the authors of this grievous error, who had never believed on Christ alone, having simply added Jesus Christ to a pre-existing confession of salvation by works (Acts 15:1) were regarded as “false brethren.” (Galatians 2:4). To this end, we affirm that a lost sinner must, at some time in his life, believe on Christ alone, apart from the works of the law, for his salvation, and that apart from such an authentic moment of saving faith, there is no hope of salvation.
The Bible is clear that zeal for God, knowledge of the law, and searching scripture are not sufficient for eternal life. Eternal life is received by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.
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