This past Sunday, I preached on the Lord’s parable of the rich man and Lazarus from the Gospel of Luke (sermon audio available here). At the end of the parable, Jesus describes the rich man in hell begging that Abraham send Lazarus to warn the rich man’s brothers that they need to repent if they are to avoid hell. When Abraham replies, “They have Moses and the prophets – let them hear them,” the rich man replies, “No, father Abraham; but if one goes to them from the dead, they will repent..” But to this Abraham says, “If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead.” Coming from Jesus’ mouth, this is clearly a statement about His own resurrection, and the fact that those who refused to repent based on the teaching of the Old Testament would continue in the hard-heartedness despite Jesus’ resurrection.
Some readers have puzzled over this, based on an idea that faith is granted to person regardless of anything they have done – that there’s nothing a person can do of their own strength to prepare to receive faith in Christ. But the reality is that this teaching – that living by the spirit of the Old Testament prepares a person to believe in Jesus Christ as Lord – is found throughout the New Testament, especially in the gospel of John, for example in John 3:21: “He who does the truth comes to the light, that his deeds may be clearly seen, that they have been done in God.”
Here’s how Bible scholar John Noland addresses the passage in his commentary on Luke:
Taken as a universal principle, this final statement by Abraham raises considerable difficulties, since it would seem to presuppose that the law and the prophets constitute the decisive revelation of God: nobody can get any further than they get with the law and the prophets. But Jesus’ ministry itself certainly reached people who were left outside by the law and the prophets, and the post-resurrection early church saw the repentance of both Jews and Gentiles under the impact of the message of the resurrection of Jesus. If, however, we turn the direction of perception around and look here for an explanation of how certain segments of the Jewish population could have failed to repent when they heard the message of Jesus and of his followers, even in the light of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, the sentiment expressed becomes unproblematic: the resurrection of Jesus (as indeed the earlier ministry of Jesus himself) makes no impact upon them because, despite whatever they may seem to be on the surface, they have, in their failure to attend to God’s call upon them in the law, already hardened their hearts to the voice of God. (emphasis added)
Noland points out that there is a similar emphasis in Luke’s narrative of Jesus’ infancy; for example Simeon is described in Luke 2:25 as “just and devout,” and it is this that prepares him to receive the Lord with joy.
All of this implies something that seems a little contrary to what we might expect: rather than faith leading to goodness, in these cases it seems that goodness leads to faith. I think the reality is that there’s a more complex interplay – first a person needs to believe something enough to act on it, so in a sense faith comes first. But once a person has acted on whatever he’s chosen to believe in, to repent of sin because he’s willing to believe it’s sin, he gains an ability to recognize truth in a way that he hadn’t been able to before. All of which is summed up in one of my favorite passages from the book Doctrine of Faith:
As the internal acknowledgment of truth is faith, and as faith and truth are a one, it follows that an external acknowledgment without an internal one is not faith, and also that a persuasion of what is false is not faith. An external acknowledgment without an internal one is a faith in what is unknown, and a faith in what is unknown is mere knowledge, which if confirmed becomes persuasion. They who are in such knowledge and persuasion think a thing true because somebody has said so, or they think it is true from their having confirmed it; and yet what is false can be confirmed just as well as what is true, and sometimes better. …If any one should think within himself, or say to some one else, “Who is able to have the internal acknowledgment of truth which is faith? not I;” let me tell him how he may have it: Shun evils as sins, and come to the Lord, and you will have as much of it as you desire. (Doctrine of Faith 11-12, emphasis added)
(Image is “The Rich Man and Lazarus” by Fyodor Bronnikov, from Wikipedia.)