And behold, a man came up to him, saying, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.” He said to him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The young man said to him, “All these I have kept. What do I still lack?” Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.
Matthew 19:16–22, ESV
At first glance, the story of the rich young ruler seems to contradict the teaching of the New Testament about salvation. The writings of Paul and John make it very clear that salvation is by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. However, when the rich young ruler asks Jesus how he can have eternal life, Jesus’ first answer is “Keep the commandments.”
I believe there is a lot more to it than that. The rich young ruler (Luke 18:18 calls him a “ruler,” i.e., a leader in a local synagogue) held certain assumptions about how one earns God’s favor. As a religious Jew, he probably believed that “Keep the commandments” was the way to enter the kingdom of heaven. Jesus repeated the young man’s expectations, allowed him to confess his dissatisfaction, and then showed him what he really lacked.
To obtain eternal life, he needed to move beyond his expectations, set aside the one thing that was holding him back most, and then follow Jesus.
As I shared in a recent post, the rich young ruler seems to be seeking one good deed—one quick fix—to obtain eternal life. He has been obeying the Ten Commandments all of his life. He had diligently followed the Torah and the traditions passed on by previous generations of rabbis. Yet, he knew something was missing.
Our society continues to seek quick fixes, and much American Christianity baptizes this cultural craving into our theology. Many treat salvation this way: Come to the altar, say a quick prayer, and go back to your seat. Now, your salvation is eternally secure.
Perhaps we are wisest to recognize that the sinner’s prayer is merely a milestone, not the entire solution to our spiritual problem. Milestones punctuate key turning points in our lives, but we usually remember that they are only transition points. The milestone leads to a new prolonged process of living. The newborn baby, who has just passed from the uterus to the outside world, has experienced a milestone, but life has only begun. Newlyweds who just completed a wedding ceremony have completed the milestone to begin married life; now, they must spend the rest of their lives building a happy marriage. The milestone was just the beginning.
The rich young ruler had not one, but two great tasks before him. First, Jesus told him to sell all he owned and give the money to the poor. He had followed the letter of the law long enough. However, he had not moved on to the spirit of the law: to love the Lord God, and to love his neighbors. He had great wealth. It was easy to say his prayers and worship God in the synagogue as long as he had an abundance of possessions. His wealth had become an idol, standing between him and God. Like the rich man in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19–31), he would be accountable to God for holding onto his riches when God expected him to share with those less fortunate than him.
Having sold his possessions and giving them to the poor, the rich man would face a second step in obtaining eternal life: “Come, follow me.” Following Jesus is the crux of eternal life: “And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3).
Eternal life is more than a “sinner’s prayer.” It is a new, abundant life that begins at a point in time during one’s life on earth (perhaps with the aforementioned prayer) and which continues to grow and develop throughout our life in the body. Physical death is not the beginning of eternal life: It is merely a milestone along the journey. To victoriously live the abundant life Jesus offers, there may be some baggage in our lives that may need to be set aside.
What baggage is holding you down in your walk with the Lord? Is it your possessions? Is it an unhealthy relationship? Is it a hobby or habit that may be at worst sinful or at best unproductive? As I continue Lent 2017, I take time to ask myself these questions to see where God is leading me next. I encourage you to do the same. “…[L]et us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”
This post copyright © 2017 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.