The Good Samaritan and Works: a response to revisionist views

Recent attempts to redefine the Reformed understanding of the story of the Good Samaritan have been advanced by advocates of the New Perspective on Paul. Because a number of those seeking to alter the traditional Reformed understanding of this parable come from within the Presbyterian Church in America, and because others who have advocated a revisionist view of this passage have close ties to the PCA, the following response to such readings is offered.

What follows is a revision of a sermon preached by David at Christ the Word Presbyterian Church in 2004.

PDF of this paper available here.

Salvation: Works or Election

Luke 10:21-37

The story of the Good Samaritan is one of those passages in Scripture where context is everything. Ignore context in this passage of Scripture and you end up drawing precisely the wrong conclusion from what Christ says.

To illustrate this, take the introductory and concluding phrases out of our passage and compare them to each other. First, the initiating phrase, the question posed by the lawyer or the scribe.

He rises to put Christ to the test by asking the question that Jesus ultimately answers with the story of the Good Samaritan:

Luke 10:25 "Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?"

This is the question and test: What shall I do to inherit eternal life?

Now Christ's concluding answer. He tells the story of the Good Samaritan. The man is left for dead by robbers. A priest ignores him. Then a Levite. Finally, a Samaritan who tends his wounds and pays for his recuperation. And in the end we have Christ's statement to the Scribe in verse 37: "You go and do likewise."

The question: "What shall I do to inherit eternal life?" The answer: the story of the Good Samaritan followed by Christ's concluding statement, "You go and do likewise."

What shall I do to inherit eternal life? Go and live like the Good Samaritan. Go and do likewise.

Ignore context and this is the conclusion you must draw. And many are drawing this conclusion, including many who call themselves Reformed.

So, for instance, one Reformed pastor says,

"If Jesus believed in Lutheranism, I respectfully submit that He missed a grand opportunity to teach it in Luke 10. It is effrontery, an insult, to suggest that Jesus" answer, 'Do this and you will live,' was anything other than plain truth. The problem of the expert was not that he obeyed the Law. Such a notion is 180 degrees wrong. The expert's problem was that he didn't obey the Law. Jesus' answer to his question was not trickery, not an effort to first make the man frustrated by the Law so as to prepare him for the Gospel. What nonsense. Rather it was Christ teaching that obedience to the Law was something very do-able and that such obedience, which includes repentance and faith, does save. Such obedience is a turning away from self and toward God." Steve Schlissel, in an interview available here:

Elsewhere, a PCA pastor writes of the story of the Good Samaritan:

The lawyer's attitude to the Torah reveals that he believes hearing the law is enough. Jesus unmasks this by showing it is the doer of the law who is justified. The priest and Levite were not justified in the story because they failed to act on behalf of a stranger in need. The Samaritan was justified because he was good neighbor. Merely possessing Torah and other badges of Jewish identity will not avail in God's law court at the last day; these precious gifts had to be combined with a living, loving, obedient faith....

The whole story of the Good Samaritan is about how to obtain eternal life, how to be justified at the last day. Jesus is laying out the path that leads to salvation for both Jews and Gentiles. We cannot sap the passage of soteriological significance by turning it into an ethical lesson. Jesus is not another Aesop, telling cute fables with clever morals at the end. We must not forget the broader context of the parable. Jesus is dealing with matters of life and death, of heaven and hell, of the new creation and the lake of fire. Who shall be justified at the last day? The Good Samaritans! Those who have been good neighbors! Those who have practiced love towards others, regardless of race or class! Rich Lusk, in a paper available here:

And again, a PCA pastor attacks the Reformed understanding of this commandment.

The issue in this story is not of a person trying to fulfill all of the law perfectly but not being able to do so. Rather, the issue involves someone who can begin treating the Samaritans better but who doesn't want to do so. He would rather exclude Samaritans from his definition of "neighbor" and thus justify not loving them at all. Mark Horne, in a paper available here:

According to these Reformed pastors, in the story of the Good Samaritan, Jesus illustrates a path to eternal life at odds with the rest of Scripture.

Romans 4:1-5 (ESV)
1 What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? 2 For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. 3 For what does the Scripture say? "Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness." 4 Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. 5 And to the one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness,

Unfortunately, these men take the misreadings of the general mass of the Evangelical world and amplify them. The general Evangelical view of this story has become that Christians should simply live like the Good Samaritan, that Jesus' command here is: " Be like the Samaritan. This is how you should live."

But in the revisionist view of the Reformed pastors quoted above, and in the view of an increasing number of Reformed thinkers influenced by the teaching of N. T. Wright, the Good Samaritan is indeed a positive story about how we gain eternal life. And how do we inherit eternal life? by living like the Good Samaritan. These men greatly outdo the mistake of the average Arminian Evangelical. The average Evangelical never suggest that this story is about how to earn eternal life. The story is read simply without salvific context as a moral fable. This new generation of Reformed interpreters ties the story to its context, but totally inaccurately, woefully without regard for the logical flow of the passage.

Far from an endorsement of human works and human righteousness as the path to eternal life, the story of the Good Samaritan finds its origin in the doctrine of election. It flows out of the doctrine of election which Christ has been preaching.

That doctrine is the background of this scribe's question. Immediately prior to this story, Jesus' disciples return from a tremendously fruitful missionary journey. When they conclude describing the wonders they worked and the power God displayed through them, Jesus, "rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said, 'I thank you Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will."

These are fighting words to the scribes and Pharisees, cold water on the religious establishment of Israel. Jesus, as always, is telling the whole world that the scribes and Pharisees are not privy to God's truth, that they are not capable of grasping what even little children can see. He has been saying, "What makes the difference in eternal life is my decision. And I have chosen the little children of this world to receive the Kingdom of Heaven even as I have hidden my truth from those who think themselves and claim before the world to be wise and understanding."

So this scribe is seething. He is one of the wise. He is one of those possessing understanding. He knows the law. He's one of those who thinks heaven is his just reward. He has earned it. He deserves it. And now Jesus says, "It's by My choice, not yours, that the Kingdom is received," and he reacts. Everyone knows that this is an attack on him and his clan. He's among the "wise and understanding" Jesus is speaking of.

Verses 21 and 22 are Christ teaching election, pure and simple. And, of course, the scribe reacts in anger. Election? God's choice? I think not! I've earned the kingdom. I've obeyed. I've understood God's law. I've chosen heaven. It's my choice and you have no right to deny me it. That's the purpose and privilege of the law, it lets wise people like me choose and earn the Kingdom of Heaven.

But let's not exaggerate this Scribe's basis for confidence. Does this scribe actually think he can earn eternal life entirely by his own merits? Does he not know that God at various points speaks of His disgust with the sacrifices and offerings and deeds of righteousness by His people in the Old Testament. Surely he knows the blood of animals can never atone for the sins of man. He knows there must be a Messiah. He knows that God has promised Israel a Saviour. This man does not ultimately think that his deeds are sufficient in themselves to merit eternal life. What he thinks, as all the leaders of the Jews thought, is that through his good deeds, his deeds of righteousness he places himself in God's favor. By good deeds and obedience to the law he merits Divine mercy. He is not saved by those deeds. He is simply brought into God's favor by those deeds.

This is the position of this scribe. It is the universal confidence of his class. The Pharisees, scribes, priests and Levites all believe this. By their good deeds, by their first choosing and pursuing God, God is led to choose them. They choose God. They do works that bring them to God's attention in a positive way and God responds with His favor upon them.

But what Jesus is teaching here is a doctrine exactly the opposite of this. Jesus is teaching not human merit drawing God to look with favor on man, but Divine election without human merit, God choosing men and then giving them His righteousness. This is what Jesus is saying when He tells the crowd, "No one knows who the Father is except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal Him." It's not human choice that makes the difference, He's saying, but God's choice: God's election, not human decision. Divine sovereignty, not the human will, is the starting point in salvation.

Such teaching is a stick in the eye to this scribe. Election, salvation by the choice of God, not by wisdom, not by understanding or status or works: these are the backdrop to this story of the Good Samaritan. These are the background we must constantly bear in mind if we are to grasp what Jesus is saying here.

As we go through these verses bear in mind four questions. These questions will order your thinking about this exchange between Christ and the teacher of the law.

1. What is the nature of the test the scribe puts Christ to?
2. Why does the scribe suddenly find himself on the defensive?
3. Why does the scribe ask his second question, "Who is my neighbor?"
4. What point does Christ make in the debate with the scribe by telling the story of the Good Samaritan?

1. What is the nature of this test?

We must remember what none of the recent Reformed commentators who would revise our view of this passage seem to notice: the exchange between Jesus and the scribe which leads to the telling of the story of the Good Samaritan begins as a test, a "temptation" of Christ by the scribe. The scribe's question may seem innocent, but in fact, it's thoroughly disingenuous.

The technique the scribe uses here in seeking to trap Jesus is one commonly used by the scribes and Pharisees.

In technical terms, the trap he sets is known as "the horns of a dilemma."

Jesus has been teaching, "I choose who enters my Kingdom. I choose, not you. I am the gate. I am the door. It's by me that you enter the Kingdom of heaven."

So with unctuous humility this man rises. "Sir, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?" he asks. Jesus has just said what he can do. Nothing. He can't do anything at all. "No one knows who the Father is except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal Him." This is what Jesus has just said: "My Kingdom is received by election, not by human choice or action. It comes as I give it, not as you demand it or in accord with how you think you've earned it.'

To which this man, this expert in the law, rises and asks, "What shall I do to inherit eternal life." He is consciously misunderstanding Jesus. Remember, again, it's a test, a trap, a tempting, not an innocent question. Scripture tells us this.

He's trying to catch Christ between the Scylla of denying the law and the Charybdis of admitting that obedience to the law is the path to eternal life, between the devil on the one hand, and the deep blue sea on the other.

"Make your choice, Jesus," he's saying in essence. "Tell us that we inherit eternal life by election. Say to us very clearly that the Father chooses men independent of who they are and how they have obeyed His law. Put it in so many words and see how this crowd responds. Tell them you deny the whole basis of our nation and religion. Tell these people who think they stand apart from all others in that they have the Law of God that obedience to the law gets them nowhere. Dismiss the law as the path to eternal life and you've discarded everything they hold dear, everything they think makes them unique and special. Go ahead Jesus. Tell them you choose and that obedience to the law has nothing to do with it. See where that gets you."

It's akin to asking a politician in the USA to demonstrate his commitment to the First Amendment, to freedom of expression, by burning a flag. He's hanged if he does, and hanged if he doesn't. No matter which way he turns his goose is cooked.

As this scribe sees it, he presents Jesus with two equally untenable options. Either He admits that it's not through His choice, that it's not by election that men and women inherit the Kingdom of Heaven, either He backs down from His previous claims and upholds the law as the basis of salvation, or he spits on centuries of Jewish heritage by denying that God's favor is the product of obedience to His law.

This is the nature of this test. Election or obedience to the law, Jesus. Salvation as a result of human deeds, through God looking with favor on us because of our obedience to His law, or by election. "You can have it one way or the other, but not both," this man suggests to Christ.

2. What does Jesus do that puts the scribe on the defensive?

The second question we must ask is this: what does Jesus do in verses 25-28 that leads to the scribe's sudden defensiveness in verse 29? A reversal clearly takes place in these verses. Initially, the scribe regards himself as on the offensive and Christ on the defensive. He thinks he has Christ on the ropes, pinned on the horns of a dilemma.

But suddenly, in verse 29, we find the scribe on the defensive. Now, for some reason, he's the one seeking to justify himself. We read, "But he (the scribe) seeking to justify himself, said to Jesus..." He is seeking to prove his righteousness. That's the meaning of the word Luke uses here. But the scribe, seeking to prove himself righteous, said to Jesus.... Odd, isn't it? Thirty seconds ago he thought he had Christ on the ropes. Now he's scuttling about, desperately seeking to shore up his own position.

What brings about this reversal?

Christ, as He often does in such situations, responds to the scribe's test with a question of His own. Now this particular question by Christ seems fairly easy. The scribe doesn't see any hook in it, at least initially. It's not like the question Jesus asks later when the Jewish leaders ask Him by what authority He does the things He does and He says to them, I'll answer your question after you first answer mine: "Tell me, where did the baptism of John come from?" That question was loaded from the outset. The Pharisees smell danger in that question immediately.

Not so this question to the scribe. He's got an easy one, he thinks. He's gotten a cream-puff when Jesus asks, "What is written in the Law? How do you read it?"

"Let me tell you," he says eagerly, "I know the answer to this." He answers by saying exactly what Christ said on an occasion when He was asked the most important commandment. Jesus summed up the law by repeating two commandments: the first, taken from Deuteronomy 6:5, 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 the second, from Leviticus 19:18, Love your neighbor as yourself.

The scribe gives the same answer to Christ. Perhaps He'd heard Christ answer the question. Perhaps it was a common way to summarize the law.

And so, he jumps all over himself delivering over the answer. "Let me tell you," he says, "I know the answer. '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 your neighbor as yourself.' There it is Jesus. You asked, I answered. Obey the law. That's what you have to do."

He's so eager to deliver this answer he never sees the danger facing him. And so, in verse 28, we find Jesus sticking in the knife, and it goes in so smoothly, so matter-of-factly, so precisely that at first this expert in the law doesn't even know that it's entered him. It's a coup de theatre. It's the rug pulled out from under him without him ever expecting it. All he knows is that suddenly, the tables are turned. Jesus' simple response is this: "You have answered correctly," Jesus replied, "do this and you will live."

And suddenly, Humpty Dumpty has his great fall. A moment ago he was sitting up on the wall, kicking his heels in the sun, thinking himself the great master of the spiritual universe, relishing the licking, the comeuppance, he's on the verge of delivering to Christ, and Bam! He's down! Bam, his fall is great and the destruction immense.

Do you see what Jesus does here? He sticks a pin smack dab in the center of this man's confidence. He tells him, "Okay, have it your way. Yes, 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, with all your mind, love your neighbor as yourself,' and you will inherit eternal life." And suddenly, the scribe is pinned! He gets the answer he wanted, but rather than that answer undermining Christ's teaching on election and establishing his own position as he'd thought, he's now on the defensive.

"Yes, you have it," Jesus tells him. "Live a perfect life by the law's terms; never deviate a centimeter from the demands of the law, never allow a thing to come between you and God, never allow yourself to wrong your neighbor and you're quite right, do that and you certainly will inherit eternal life."

Do you see how day turns to night for this scribe? Christ skewers him with his own answer and logic. Suddenly the tables are turned. That's why we read in verse 29 that, "wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, 'And who is my neighbor?'"

3. Why does the scribe ask his second question, "Who is my neighbor?"

A second mistake made by those holding revisionist views of this passage is to misconstrue the motivation of the scribe's second question of Christ. Having ignored that the exchange between Christ and the scribe began as a test, they refuse to acknowledge the dramatic turning of the tables evident in the scribe's second question. Each of the interpreters who make this story a formula for obtaining eternal life ignores what we are clearly told by Luke: this scribe is on the defensive even before Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan. A man on the offensive just four verses earlier is now scrambling to defend himself. This is why he asks, "Who is my neighbor?" Luke says he asked this question, "seeking to justify himself."

One writer suggests, counter to all the evidence, that this is the continuation of his attack against Jesus. In other words, rather than trying to justify himself, he is seeking to force Jesus to justify Himself:

When the lawyer asks, "Who is my neighbor?" he is obviously thinking he can limit his obligations to love to his Jewish neighbors (or more specifically, Jews who are ritually clean). He is suggesting that Jesus has been neighborly to all the wrong sorts of people (cf. Lk. 15:1-2). He is distorting the law so that it comes to mean in practice the opposite of what it actually says. (Lusk:

This point is key to this passage. If the revisionists are right in their view of this passage, the scribe has absolutely no reason to respond defensively at this point. He has said what he believes is required to inherit eternal life. Jesus has responded, "You have answered correctly, do this, and you will live." If the revisionists are right, the argument is over and the scribe is vindicated. He and Jesus have agreed. Jesus has converted to his view. The argument has been won.

What reason does this scribe have to defend himself at this point if Jesus' answer is exactly what he sought? There is no reason at all for defensiveness here by the revisionist view. But there is defensiveness. The scribe suddenly, "seeking to justify himself, said to Jesus, 'And who is my neighbor?'"

Why this response? Because suddenly the scribe realizes the danger his answer poses to his own soul. He's thought the law an easy standard. He's thought his half-hearted devotion will render him worthy of God's love and mercy. Jesus gives him the Law in spades. "That's right," He says, "keep it absolutely, keep it perfectly, don't just play around the edges of it, keep it down to the very last jot and tittle and you will indeed inherit eternal life.

It's the answer the scribe sought. But far from inspiring hope and confidence, this man suddenly finds himself deeply on the defensive.

Those who wish to establish that Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan to demonstrate obedience to the law as the path to eternal life fail entirely to grasp the logical flow of this passage.

To view Jesus' parable in this light they must first make the scribe an honest inquirer simply seeking the path to eternal life. Yet Scripture tells us clearly this was not the case. He was testing Jesus. He was not an honest seeker. There is a distinctly negative connotation to the word Luke employs in verse 25 to describe the scribe's question. It is a tempting of Christ, a trap, not an innocent question.

Having failed to recognize the malign nature of the initial question, they also fail to determine the nature of the test. They take the scribe's question at face value when Scripture clearly reveals by describing the question as a test that there are subterranean currents to this question, concealed traps and hazards. Yet they never once try to define the test. And of course, they fail to do so because the very nature of the test undermines their reading of these verses. They are taking the view of the scribe. They are advocating the position of the Scribe. If Jesus' answer is actually what they say it is, then the Scribe has won his encounter with Christ. Christ has defaulted to the scribal position.

Amazingly as well, they fail again to note the discordant note in the scribe's "seeking to justify himself" in verse 29. Why is he on the defensive suddenly--and why is he seeking to justify himself before the parable is told? He didn't start with an honest query, but a test. He wasn't looking to justify himself, but to force Jesus to justify Himself. But in verse 29 he's clearly on the defensive. Why? According to those who suggest that Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan to illustrate the path of obedience that leads to life, this scribe should find himself on the defensive only after Jesus tells the parable. That's when this scribe's racial exclusiveness becomes evident, when his failure to embrace the law in its entirety becomes evident. They ignore his defensiveness before the parable.

By ignoring these signs of conflict, of an argument preceding the story of the Good Samaritan, they fail entirely to understand the logical flow of the passage.

If you want salvation on your terms, in accord with your choice, then keep the law, Jesus says. But the scribe has an out for such a situation. His brothers in the legal trade have come up with an escape from such a trap. The scribe asks, "Who is my neighbor?" because according to the teaching of his day, only those with whom you got along, those who treated you well and who you treated well in return were your neighbors.

No Gentile was ever the neighbor of a Jew unless the Jew specifically claimed him as a neighbor. And a Jew had no obligation to aid a Samaritan or any other Gentile even if aiding would save a life because no Gentile could ever be the neighbor of a Jew.

So you see the background of the scribe's question. He's letting himself off the hook Jesus has put him on by claiming that the only people he hasn't loved as much as himself are those who were never his neighbors in the first place. As long as his definition of neighbor holds true he's safe.

But Christ doesn't cooperate. Instead of holding to the tradition of the scribes, He tells the story of the Good Samaritan.

4. What point is Jesus making in the story of the Good Samaritan?

What is Jesus' point in telling this story? Is it a story which reveals the path to eternal life? Is it really Jesus' enshrinement of human deeds and human works as the pathway to eternal life these revisionists would have it be? Is Jesus really telling this man, "This is how you should live to inherit eternal life?" Is His point really, "Be like this man, be the Good Samaritan, and you will inherit eternal life."?

It's intriguing to note that our passage never says this is a parable. Luke is usually fairly careful to describe Christ's stories either as parables or as similes. In chapter 5 when Jesus told the parable of the sower, Luke very carefully says that Jesus "spoke to them by means of a parable." This is true later in Luke as well. Not every parable is introduced as a parable, but at the start of every string of parables, Luke clearly says that Jesus spoke in a parable. And so I wonder, could Jesus here be recounting a story that the scribe himself had experienced, could this be this man's own story somehow? Ultimately it doesn't matter. Either way, the story is Jesus' answer to the scribe's question.

"Who is my neighbor?" the scribe asks, defensively, seeking to justify himself. And by this story Jesus answers his question.

"Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?" Jesus asks in conclusion.

Christ is saying to the scribe, "You want to know who your neighbor is? I'll tell you who: your neighbor is the Samaritan dog, your neighbor is any member of that despised race, that class of man you despise above all others. That's who you must love as much as yourself if you're to inherit the Kingdom of Heaven through obedience to the law."

And Jesus said to him, "You go and do likewise."

You've answered your own question, Jesus tells him. Fulfill the law to the last jot and tittle. Love even the Samaritan. Call all men your neighbor. Love all men as you love yourself and you really can claim the reward of heaven.

But Christ's tone here is far from reassuring. There's irony in it, perhaps a touch of sarcasm. Christ responds to this man who thinks himself blameless before God with an answer precisely aimed at the chink in his armor.

This passage is not about how to live a good life, it's a passage about how impossible the good life, the righteous life is to live. You can't do it, Jesus is telling the scribe. You can't do it. Try all you want, you still fall short. You're left with Me.

I fear the revisionists among us on this passage have missed the forest for the trees. They've seen the individual words. They've read the individual sentences. But they've missed the logic of this passage and thus fundamentally misconstrued its message. Unfortunately, they are led down this path by commitments very similar to those of the scribe. They desire to return to a Roman Catholic view of justification, and this desire causes them to ignore what has been clear about this passage to generations of Reformed theologians, beginning, if not before, with Calvin, who writes in his commentary on this passage:

Luke 10:26. What is written in the law? He receives from Christ a reply different from what he had expected. And, indeed, no other rule of a holy and righteous life was prescribed by Christ than what had been laid down by the Law of Moses; for the perfect love of God and of our neighbors comprehends the utmost perfection of righteousness. Yet it must be observed, that Christ speaks here about obtaining salvation, in agreement with the question which had been put to him; for he does not teach absolutely, as in other passages, how men may arrive at eternal life, but how they ought to live, in order to be accounted righteous in the sight of God. :Now it is certain that in the Law there is prescribed to men a rule by which they ought to regulate their life, so as to obtain salvation in the sight of God. That the Law can do nothing else than condemn, and is therefore called the doctrine of death, and is said by Paul to increase transgressions, arises not from any fault of its doctrine, but because it is impossible for us to perform what it enjoins. Therefore, though no man is justified by the Law yet the Law itself contains the highest righteousness, because it does not falsely hold out salvation to its followers, if any one fully observed all that it commands. Nor ought we to look upon this as a strange manner of teaching, that God first demands the righteousness of works, and next offers a gratuitous righteousness without works; for it is necessary that men should be convinced of their righteous condemnation, that they may betake themselves to the mercy of God.