Compare these two different answers to the question how one may be saved:
a) Then he [the jailer in Philippi] brought them outside and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” They answered, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” (Acts 16:30-31).
b) A man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’” He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money[a] to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” (Mark 10:17-22).
In the Evangelical/fundamentalist tradition the Acts passage gives exactly the correct answer. What Paul and Silas there say is precisely what the evangelistic preacher says. Only this one thing counts, that one should believe in the Lord Jesus Christ.
But the passage in Mark is on a quite different footing. Few in that tradition of Christianity will be asked if they have kept the Ten Commandments, as if that would answer the question of the means of salvation.
Even fewer in fundamentalist churches are likely to be told that they may inherit eternal life through selling their goods and giving to the poor. Although this is the very teaching of Jesus himself, one will commonly find that it is effectively downgraded and made figurative, and subordinated to the type of answer that the Acts passage gives. The ‘goods’ that the young man possesses, it may well be suggested, are not actual goods or money that he has to give to the poor, but rather are his worldly bases of security, his knowledge, his morality, his attendance at church: it is these, rather than actual possessions and money, that he has to get rid of. Put at its crudest, this interpretation says that ‘sell what you have and give to the poor’ means ‘make a decision for Christ and become an evangelical’. This is a very drastic reinterpretation of Jesus’ words.
But the need for so drastic a change in their meaning should not surprise us too much: for what Jesus says, taken for itself, would seem to imply that eternal life may be ensured through the keeping of the commandments plus the giving away of one’s property – a teaching that might well seem to many to be a complete contradiction of the idea of justification by faith.
James Barr, Escaping from Fundamentalism, page 113.
James Barr FBA (1924–2006) was an Old Testament scholar. At the University of Oxford, he was the Oriel Professor of the Interpretation of Holy Scripture from 1976 to 1978, and the Regius Professor of Hebrew from 1978 to 1989.
He was also an outspoken critic of conservative evangelicalism, which he attacked in his 1977 book Fundamentalism. In particular he criticised evangelical scholars such as J. I. Packer for affirming the doctrine of scriptural inerrancy, the teaching that the Bible is without error. Barr’s other works about fundamentalism include The Scope and Authority of the Bible (1980) and Escaping Fundamentalism (1984). He was often invited to appear in BBC religious programming.