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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
Preached At:Providence Canadian Reformed Church
 Hamilton, Ontario
Title:What to do to inherit eternal life
Text:Mark 10:17-22 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Our Salvation

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Psalm 47
Psalm 143:1 (after the law)
Psalm 49:1,2,5
Hymn 28
Hymn 22

Reading: Luke 18:9-14
Text: Mark 10:17-22
* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved congregation of the Lord Jesus,

Imagine the golden opportunity you’ve been praying for.  There’s the guy you work with.  There’s the girl that you go to school with.  You know that they’re not Christians and you’ve had some good conversations about superficial things.  But you’ve been praying for an open door to speak freely and openly about the gospel.  Then one day it happens.  They come up to you out of the blue and say, “What do I have to do to get into heaven?”  The door has opened.  What would you say?

Something similar happens in our text from Mark this morning.  No, we’re not told whether Jesus had any previous interactions with this person.  We don’t know if our Lord Jesus had been praying for him in any particular way.  But we do know that the question is the same:  “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” 

As we’ll see, the question has some issues sticking to it.  But the tenor or direction of the question is crucial, critical, correct.  It’s really one of the most important questions a person can ask.  How can we get into the life that lasts forever?  How can one live with God forever?  These are questions that the gospel answers.  So this morning I proclaim the Word to you:

What to do to inherit eternal life

We’ll see here:

1.      A natural question

2.      An unexpected answer

Jesus is on his way.  That way is leading to Jerusalem and the cross.  As he was travelling, someone came running up to him.  Later on in our text we learn that this was a rich man.  It would have been obvious to the disciples and Jesus.  Rich people today typically don’t shop at Value Village or what have you.  Usually they’re wearing new clothes bought at the high end shops.  You see them and you know that they’ve got cash in the bank.  Here too, likely it would have been obvious that his was not some back country hick.  This was a man who came from money.  The parallel passage in Matthew 19 tells us that he was a young man.  In other words, the money didn’t come from his own hard work, but probably from mom and, especially, dad.  And from Luke’s parallel (Luke 18) we learn that he was also a ruler.  That meant that he had a position of prominence in the local synagogue.  He was young, wealthy and powerful.  Putting Matthew, Mark and Luke together, we’ve come to refer to this person as the “rich young ruler.”    

Now this rich young ruler comes running up to Jesus and he kneels down in front of him.  This was a sign of respect.  He showed respect for Jesus with his actions and then also with his words.  He addresses Jesus as “Good teacher...” or “Good rabbi...”  This is an unusual way of speaking to a rabbi.  In fact, there are no parallels.  There’s no evidence in Jewish rabbinic literature of anyone ever speaking to a rabbi like this, calling him, “Good rabbi...”  Is he flattering Jesus or does he have a very high view of him?  It’s difficult to say for sure. 

But then comes the question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  There are two parts to this question and let’s take the second part first.  “Inheriting eternal life.”  That was a common expression in religious discussions during Jesus’ day.  It referred to the life to come, oftentimes to the resurrection.  Inheriting eternal life is, in a broad sense, salvation.  It doesn’t directly mean being saved from the wrath which is to come, but it does speak about eternal happiness in the presence of God.  And the idea of “inheriting” refers to entitlement.  So, “inheriting eternal life” in the mind of the rich young ruler means being entitled to eternal happiness in the presence of God.  Then not as a disembodied spirit, but as a complete person – again, there is a reference to the resurrection here.  Not to the resurrection of Jesus, but to the resurrection of righteous human beings in general. 

Now to the first part of the question:  “What must I do...”  In the thinking of the rich young ruler, this was a natural question.  In fact, for all people, this is a natural question.  What do I have to do?  What steps do I have to follow?  How can I do my part? 

The natural human tendency is to contribute to the equation involving eternal life.  Why?  Because at the end of the day, don’t we want part of the credit?  God can get some or even most of the glory, but it would be nice for us to have some too.  Surely there’s enough room on the podium for God and us.  We are hard-wired for law and obedience because through our efforts we think that we can share some of the honour that goes to God.  So, from that perspective, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” is a natural, understandable question.

Within the context of New Testament times it was too.  For the Jews, it had become a matter of what they could do to secure a place in the resurrection.  Think of how Paul describes his life as a Pharisee in Philippians 3.  He had it all together, he had the legalistic righteousness down pat, or so he thought.  But he threw all of that away when he became a Christian.  Paul was the one who wrote in Galatians 3:10, “All who rely on observing the law are under a curse...”  And then in verse 12 he said, “the law is not of faith” – which really means that doing and faith are opposed to one another when it comes to how we obtain salvation.  As a Jew, Paul relied on his own doing, on obedience to God.  As a Christian, however, he relied on Christ through faith.

So, this was a natural question then and it is a natural question now.  It is a question which arises out of our fallen human nature.  In other words, it is natural, but it is wrong.  It’s a question that reveals a fallen human heart.  And the fact that this rich young ruler was asking it seems to indicate that he was concerned about eternal life.  He’s not sure that he has done what needs to be done.  He’s tried, but he wants to cover all his bases and make sure that he hasn’t left something out.  So when Jesus is travelling by, he runs for him and asks this rabbi the question on his heart.

Now normally, a Jewish leader addressed in a highly respectful way would respond in kind.  Especially if the one speaking like that was a man of some wealth and influence.  If you were listening in and you were Jewish you would expect Jesus to say something like, “Well, highly respected sir, let me address your question.”  But his reply, right from the start, is unexpected.

He says, “Why do you call me good?  No one is good – except God alone.”  These words are open to serious misunderstanding.  They have been seriously misunderstood through the centuries.  I have a little booklet from the Jehovah’s Witnesses.  I have it from a bunch of years ago when I still accepted literature from them.  Knowing what I do now, I don’t recommend that you accept their literature when they come to your door.  But that’s an aside.  The booklet is called Should You Believe in the Trinity?  Is Jesus Christ the Almighty God?  On page 17 of this booklet it says,

Jesus further showed that he was a separate being from God by saying, “Why do you call me good?  No one is good but God alone.” (Mark 10:18)  So Jesus was saying that no one is as good as God is, not even Jesus himself.  God is good in a way that separates him from Jesus.

Is that really what the text means?  Was Jesus saying something here about his divinity or lack thereof? 

Well, we know that other places in Scripture clearly assert Jesus’ divinity.  Think of John 1:1, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”  Or John 20:28 where Thomas sees the risen Saviour and exclaims, “My Lord and my God!”  Of course, the Jehovah’s Witnesses and other heretics try to explain away these texts, but I think we can agree that they are clear enough.  There are many other passages that speak in the same way.  Scripture must interpret Scripture.  So, we know that Jesus was not denying his divinity here. 

Rather, he was working from within the perspective of the rich young ruler.  The rich young ruler didn’t recognize him as the Son of God, or as the Messiah.  He didn’t say, “You are the Christ, the son of the living God.”  He saw Jesus merely as a man, a good man, perhaps a respectable teacher.  But he had the idea that people could have a sort of absolute, moral goodness and it’s this idea that Jesus is responding to here.  God alone is perfect, holy, and sinless.  God alone is good in an absolute sense.  In Psalm 119:68, the psalmist speaks to God and says, “You are good, and do good.”  Goodness is defined by God’s character and actions. 

The law of God reveals the goodness of God.  So our Lord Jesus rehearses some of the commandments.  He mentions the ones prohibiting murder, adultery, theft, false testimony and honouring parents.  If you’re listening carefully, you’ll notice that I skipped one.  It’s the odd one in what Jesus mentions here:  do not defraud.  Which of the Ten Commandments is that?  It’s not obviously any of them.  However, it does fall under the heading of the tenth commandment that prohibits coveting.  Illegally taking what belongs to somebody else is the practical result of coveting.  I admit that it’s not exactly clear why Jesus puts the tenth commandment in this form, but it could have something to do with the fact that this was a rich young ruler.  Perhaps the riches did not come honestly.  But all we can do is speculate. 

The other question that may come to your mind here is the fact that Jesus doesn’t mention the first four commandments, only the last six, what are sometimes called the second table of the law.  He only mentions the commandments that have to do with your neighbour, none of the ones that have to do with God.  This can be explained in the light of what Scripture says in 1 John 4:20, “...anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen.”  If you fail in keeping these laws, you will never succeed in keeping the other four laws either.  Moreover, when it comes down to it, breaking just one of the commandments is the same as breaking them all.  Isn’t that what James 2:10 says?  “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.” 

The commandments are to be kept.  God demands obedience from all people.  Perfect obedience would merit favour from God.  Leviticus 18:5 had promised life for obedience, “Keep my decrees and laws, for the man who obeys them will live by them.”  You could say, “Do this and live.”  But there is a problem and I think you know what it is.  If you don’t, in the following verses of our text, Jesus exposes it. 

But before he does, the rich young ruler responds.  He’s been chastened by Jesus and no longer calls him “good,” instead he basically takes the adjective for himself.  He called Jesus “good,” and now he says, “Teacher, I’ve kept all these commandments since I was a youth.”  Now he’s not all that old at this point yet.  When he refers to his “youth,” he’s speaking about being twelve years old.  When a Jewish boy turned twelve, he placed himself under the yoke of the law.  He became responsible for personally keeping all of the commandments of the Torah.  In modern day Judaism, this is what they call the Bar Mitzvah.  That ceremony didn’t exist in the days of Jesus yet, but the idea was still there.  A Jewish boy came of age at twelve and then after that he was expected to live according to the law of God. 

This rich young ruler claims that he has done exactly that.  He claims precise and comprehensive obedience to the law of God.  As for legalistic righteousness, flawless.  Perfection perfected.  This young man claimed to have it all together.  He had reason to be proud of himself.  So he thought.  He was deceiving himself.

Loved ones, anyone of us who thinks that we have it all together in any sort of precise and comprehensive way – we’re deceiving ourselves too.  That’s the thing about sin, you see.  Sin by its very nature is deceitful.  Sin covers itself up, camouflages itself in your life so that you become blind to it.  “Who me, sin?  No way!”  A sort of perfectionism can easily insinuate itself into your thinking and life. 

The British Methodist John Wesley fell into a sort of perfectionism.  Now he didn’t believe that he himself was sinless, but he believed that others had achieved it.  He believed that it was possible for Christians to attain perfection in this life.  Once he was asked about great Christians who had sinned.  I forget exactly who was mentioned.  But John Wesley denied it and said that they had not sinned, but rather had just made mistakes in judgment.  That’s a convenient rationalization that many people adopt.  “I don’t sin, I just make mistakes.”  Where in your heart does that kind of language originate?  It comes from a little room with a disproportionate amount of pull.  The room is filled with a poison.  It’s the poison of the great serpent Satan.  It’s pride.  The rich young man’s perfectionist attitude reflected the pride that consumed him.  Whenever we adopt the same attitude and speak in the same way, we’re talking as if we’re living in that room filled with poison.               

How different was the tax collector in the parable that Jesus told in Luke 18!  The Pharisee was the mirror image of the rich young ruler.  “God, I thank you that I’m not like other men.  And I’m not definitely not like that tax collector over there.”  But the tax collector knew his sin.  He cried out, “God, have mercy on me a sinner.”  Those are the words approved by Jesus.  “God, have mercy on me a sinner.”  Those are the words endorsed by the holy God.  Those are the kinds of words we need on our lips when we approach God.  We are sinners and we ought not ever to let our sin deceive us into thinking otherwise. 

Verse 21 tells us what Jesus did with this sinner so filled with pride, so self-deceived.  He looked at him and loved him.  Some people have read a lot into those words.  Some have reasoned that this young man must have been one of the elect because Jesus loved him.  In this way of thinking, Jesus has no love for anyone but his elect.  God has no love for anyone but the elect.  It is true that God does have a special love for the elect.  But is it true that God has no favourable disposition towards all people?  Doesn’t he desire the repentance of the wicked?  Doesn’t Psalm 145:17 say, “The LORD is righteous in all his ways, and loving toward all he has made”?  Therefore, it’s not right to try and say something about this young man’s eternal destination based on the statement that Jesus loved him.  This statement is not there for that purpose. 

Rather, it shows us the compassion of Jesus for those who are trapped in their own self-deception.  Our Saviour saw the pride of this young man and he felt for him.  Here was another son of Adam lost and dead in sin.  More than that he was a child of the covenant.  He had received the sign and seal of the covenant in circumcision.  Here he was, ensnared by sin.  Jesus looked at him and loved him.  And we’re children of the covenant too, and we can find comfort and assurance for ourselves from these words.  You and I may be more self-deceived than we can imagine or admit.  Quite likely.  But brothers and sisters, we are still loved by Jesus.  You need to turn to him continually and keep on trusting his work for you.  If he would somehow love this rich young ruler who said nothing about faith in him, surely he would love you as you keep on resting in him.

The love of our Lord Jesus compelled him to do some open heart surgery on this rich young ruler.  He cut him open with the scalpel of the law to reveal that there was no heart of flesh, but a dead, cold, heart of stone.  Jesus said that he was missing one thing.  And he went for the man’s god, that’s god with a small ‘g.’  He told him to sell everything, give to the poor, and then he’d have the treasure in heaven.  Then follow Jesus, taking up the cross.  When Jesus said all this, he didn’t mean that this man was going to earn his way to salvation.  He knew where the rich young man’s heart was – this heart surgeon has x-ray vision.  He knew that this was the one thing that this young man could never do, because his loyalty and commitment was set on this.  He talked piously about keeping all the commandments, but under all that camouflage was an idolater.  That’s the point of Jesus’ words here:  he’s exposing the man for the sinner that he is.  He does that with the intention of getting him to repent of his wickedness and look for salvation somewhere else.  “What must I do?” is the wrong question.  “Who can save me, a wretched sinner?” is the right question.  That the question that the Lord Jesus wanted to see this rich young ruler asking. 

We don’t know the ultimate outcome of this open-heart surgery.  As I said, we know nothing of what later happened to this rich young ruler, whether he repented and believed in Christ or not.  What we do know is that at that immediate moment, he didn’t.  His face fell – he became sullen and obviously distressed.  And he went away sad, because he had great wealth.  Or better yet:  great wealth had him.  He was enslaved not to the God who had given the law, but to his possessions, his money, his wealth.  He had broken the first commandment and thereby had actually broken them all and put himself in an unpayable debt to God.  He was defeated and he knew it. 

We don’t know what became of the rich young ruler.  But God didn’t give us this text so that we could speculate about his salvation.  Rather, it’s here so that we would be exposed by God, by Christ, for the sinners we truly are.  It’s here so that we abandon all our pretensions to personal, intrinsic righteousness and look outside ourselves for help.  It’s here so that we constantly turn to the Saviour who shows his love for sinners.  So that we would not go away sad, but filled with joy.  It’s here so that we too would take the Word of God to the lost, so that they too would have their defences broken down by the law, so that they can find life, peace and joy in the gospel.

So, what are you going to say when God answers your prayers and gives you that open door?  What are you going to say when your unbelieving friend or acquaintance says, “What do I have to do to get into heaven?”  I’d suggest something like this, “The Bible teaches us that there is only one thing that you can do.  Listen: I’m a sinner.  And so are you.  We break God’s commandments all the time.  And that’s a problem because God isn’t like Santa Claus, he’s holy, holy far beyond anything you can imagine.  He won’t have sinners, even the least sinner, standing before him.  We owe him a huge debt that we can’t pay ourselves.  If we die with that debt outstanding, we’re in serious trouble for eternity.  But there’s good news.  For God sent his Son to die in the place of sinners.  When you believe in Jesus, your sins are forgiven and wiped away.  And it gets better because Jesus obeyed the law perfectly in the place of everyone who trusts in him.  What do you need to do?  Say, ‘I’m a sinner and I hate my sin, and I want Jesus to take it all away for me.  I can’t do it, I need him.’”  Repent and believe in Jesus Christ.  That, loved ones, is how anyone may inherit eternal life and find joy.  Nothing more and nothing less.  AMEN.     


Our heavenly Father, holy God majestic on high,

Again your Word has pricked us.  You have exposed us.  We acknowledge it.  We are revealed to be sinners, in ourselves no different than the rich young ruler.  We tell lies about ourselves, we pridefully pretend to have our own righteousness when we don’t.  Father, have mercy on us and forgive all of our self-deception and pride through Christ.  We pray that you would help us to continually throw ourselves on him, relying on him alone for our salvation and well-being.  Please work in us with your Holy Spirit so that we follow him in faith, believing that he has done everything for us and in our place.  And we pray that you would lead us to the great day when faith shall become sight.  In Christ we already possess eternal life, but Father we long to be done with sin and move into the fullness of perfection and righteousness.  Please make it happen quickly.

We thank you for the gospel.  We thank you for the love of our Saviour.  We thank you for your Word. 



* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

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