Next we will examine if the Scriptures teach that, at least in "theory," a person can obtain eternal life by his own works. Of course the Scriptures declare in no uncertain terms that no one has ever obtained eternal life as a result of his own works but the question which confronts us is whether or not it is theoretically possible.
This is important because if a person is born spiritually dead then no amount of law-keeping could possibly bring eternal life and no amount of law-keeping could serve to justify a person before God. That is because once a person falls under the sentence of spiritual death then if he is ever going to be justified it must be by the pentalty being paid. He must be "justified by death," he must be "justified by blood" (Ro.5:9).
In the following passage Paul says that the commandment was "ordained to life":
"For I was alive without the law once: but when the commandment came, sin revived, and I died. And the commandment, which was ordained to life, I found to be unto death" (Ro.7:9-10).
In what way can it be said that the law was "ordained to life"? Let us examine the following exchange between a lawyer and the Lord Jesus Christ:
"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" (Lk.10:25-28).
Sir Robert Anderson says:
" 'What shall I do to inherit eternal life?' The question was framed by a professional theologian, to test the orthodoxy of the great Rabbi of Nazareth. For evidently it was rumoured that the new Teacher was telling the people of a short road to Heaven. And the answer given was clear - no other answer, indeed, is possible; for what a man inherits is his by right - eternal life is the reward and goal of a perfect life on earth. A perfect life, mark - the standard being perfect love to God and man" (Anderson, Redemption Truths [Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1980], 11).
There is no doubt that the Lord Jesus made it abundantly clear that it is at least theoretically possible for a person to gain eternal life by keeping the law. We can see a similiar conversation in the book of Matthew where the Lord Jesus said, "If thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments" (Mt.19:17).
What the Lord Jesus said there is either true or it is not. And since the Lord Jesus would never say anything that is not true we can understand that it is at least theoretically possible for a person to obtain eternal life by his own works.
In the second chapter of the book of Romans Paul reveals that a man can theoretically obtain eternal life by his "deeds" or by his "works":
"But after thy hardness and impenitent heart treasurest up unto thyself wrath against the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God; Who will render to every man according to his deeds: To them who by patient continuance in well doing seek for glory and honour and immortality, eternal life: But unto them that are contentious, and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, indignation and wrath, Tribulation and anguish, upon every soul of man that doeth evil, of the Jew first, and also of the Gentile" (Ro.2:5-9).
Those who continue in well doing will be given eternal life. Anderson says that man has the ability to continue in well doing:
"Therefore also is it that while 'patient continuance in well doing' is within the human capacity, Rom. 2:6-11 applies to all whether with or without a divine revelation...The dogma of the moral depravity of man, and irremediable, cannot be reconciled with divine justice in punishing sin. If by the law of his fallen nature man were incapable of doing right, it would be clearly inequitable to punish him for doing wrong. If the Fall had made him crooked-backed, to punish him for not standing upright, would be worthy of an unscrupulous and cruel tyrant. But we must distinguish between theological dogma and divine truth. That man is without excuse is the clear testimony of Holy Writ" [emphasis added] (Anderson, "Sin and Judgment to Come," The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth; Volume VI [Chicago: Testimony Publishing Co., 1910], 42-43, 38-39).
Here Paul says that it is the doers of the law who shall be justified:
"For not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified" (Ro.2:13).
If it was theoretically impossible for those under the law to be justified before God by law-keeping then it certainly would make no sense for Paul to say that "the doers of the law shall be justified." If it is not theoretically possible for anyone to obtain eternal life by keeping the commandements then the Lord Jesus certainly would not have told anyone that they could inherit eternal life by keeping the law. But He did!
If "law" was never a way whereby a man could theoretically obtain righteousness then why would Paul say that "Christ is the end of law for righteousness to every one that believes"?:
"For Christ is the end of law for righteousness to every one that believes" (Ro.10:4; DBY).
Paul also speaks of the believing remnant out of national Israel and says that their election is of grace and therefore "it is no more of works":
"Even so then at this present time also there is a remnant according to the election of grace. And if by grace, then is it no more of works: otherwise grace is no more grace" (Ro.11:5-6).
If no one could theoretically be saved by "works" then why would Paul say that "it is no longer of works"?
All of this demonstrates that no one is born in a state of being that can be described as being spiritually dead. If a person is born spiritually dead then no amount of law-keeping could possibly bring eternal life and no amount of law-keeping could serve to justify a person before God. That is because once a person falls under the sentence of spiritual death then if he is ever going to be justified it must be by the pentalty being paid. He must be "justified by death," he must be "justified by blood" (Ro.5:9).