How is Matthew 18:8-9 explained in the context of non-works-based salvation?

When the Bible clearly establishes a doctrine in a large body of Scripture, you let that guide your interpretation of smaller, less clear passages. This is sometimes referred to as the principle of “clear reference”. It’s an excellent safeguard when interpreting the Bible.

Whole books of the Bible were written, to establish that salvation is by grace, through faith in Christ, not by our works (Ephesians; Romans; Galatians). Whatever Matthew 18:8-9 means, it cannot mean that someone can be saved by chopping off their limbs, or gouging out their eyes. With that larger context in view, Matthew 8:8-9 says,
If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell. (Matthew 18:8-9 NIV)
We know salvation comes through faith in Jesus Christ, not by our works. We know that everyone who is justified by God through faith in Christ, has also been glorified, so that there’s nothing that can separate the believer from the love of God (Romans 8:1-39).

We also know it’s the heart that is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked (Jeremiah 17:9). You can’t stop your heart from being corrupt, by chopping off your limbs. Jesus must be speaking figuratively, here. I believe He’s talking about the urgency with which we should avoid doing things that cause people to stumble or fall away from faith in Christ.

Someone whose life is habitually characterized by unbelief, unrepentant sin, or causing others to stop believing in Christ, shows they never had saving faith to begin with (1 John, James 2).

Image by Hans Braxmeier from Pixabay

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