“Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.””
(John 8:51 ESV)
If we just took this verse in isolation, we might think that Jesus is teaching salvation by works. After all, that’s what he means here, right? All one has to do to never see death is keep Jesus’ word.
The word that we translate “keep” in verse 51 means: “to persist in obedience, keep, observe, fulfill, pay attention to” [BDAG – Super awesome Greek lexicon]. So yes, Jesus is teaching salvation by works, right? Well…not so fast.
Here are a couple of other verses in which John quotes Jesus using the same word “keep.”
- ““If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”
(John 14:15 ESV)
- “Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.””
(John 14:21 ESV)
“Keeping” seems to be based on “loving.” In other words, we are not called to keep Jesus’ words in a slavish desire for eternal life, we are called to keep them because we love him and are devoted to him and cherish him.
This begins to get us to the truth of eternal life. Jesus wasn’t saying that eternal life rested upon obedience to him, he was saying that eternal life rested on a person, on him. Keeping his word was outward proof that one had been changed forever by belief in a person.
John summarizes nicely for us in the most famous verse in the Bible:
““For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16 ESV).
Eternal life is based upon belief in a person, not works. That person is Jesus.