The Law and Eternal Life



Matthean Context: Jesus is going to Jerusalem to be crucified (16:21 ff; 17:22; 20:17); he issues warnings against offenses to his children and warnings about anything that would keep one from the kingdom of heaven (18:6).


I. The approach of a seeker – verse 16

A. This passage in verse 20 tells us he was young. Luke 18:18 tells us he was a ruler. All three of the synoptics tell us he was rich. The nature of the question he asked indicates that both his wealth and his authority had been inherited. He was not toying with Jesus as was the practice of the Pharisees and scribes, but was in earnest as Mark informs us that he “came running and knelt before him.”

B. In the question between the Pharisees and Sadducees about what followed upon death, he had embraced the position that the self continued in some state. This state would be determined by something distinct between the blessed and the cursed.

C. He knew that goodness and eternal life could not be separated. Luke recorded the address as, “Good teacher, what must I do,” while Matthew omitted “Good” as an adjective for teacher and recorded the question as “What good deed must I do.” One manuscript tradition seemed to conflate the two with the statement being, “Good teacher, what good thing must I do, etc?” Perhaps the copyist’s conflation actually is historically correct, while Matthew and Luke merely summarized the intent of the question. Clearly he considered himself moral, but seemed to feel that something “good,” some superior meritorious work, a work of supererogation, had transcended his grasp. Certainly this teacher who spoke so clearly about entering into life or into hell fire (18:8, 9) knew the answer.


II. Jesus helps him define his terms – verse 17

A. In Luke, as in Mark, the response is, “Why do you call me good?” and in Matthew the response is a general statement, “Why do you ask me about the good?” The point they make in this narrative is that the young seeker introduced the subject of goodness, and Jesus used it to point him to a reality that must undergird all our thinking about merit and the right to eternal life. Eternal life is to live in the presence of absolute goodness and experience its blessings, and only one being constitutes all that is good, God alone. Jesus does not reject an idea of his own goodness or his deity, but used the question to draw the inquirer to a deeper consideration of what already had been revealed.

B. To show both the character of God and the clarity of divine revelation, Jesus answered him by saying, “Keep the commandments.”

  1. Of course, Jesus meant all of them, for they are not isolated entities but facets of a whole. James reminds us that “whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all” James 2:10). Obedience to God in recognition of his holiness and his sovereign prerogative over our lives gives singularity to the Law; a transgression of one of them, therefore, is a transgression of the fundamental principle and makes us lawbreakers.
  2. Jesus also showed that God manifests his goodness through the Law. Do we want to know what good thing we can do? It is revealed to us in the Law.
  3. The Law is not different for different cultures. The standard of righteousness and thus the standard of judgment is the same for all. Paul argued in Romans 2 that the same law revealed to the Jews is written on the heart of all people. It is not a different law but the same Law. “For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts” (Romans 2:14, 15).
  4. Also, we learn from this that no secret principle exists above or outside the Law to define the terms of eternal life. Should anyone keep the law without fail, either written by revelation or discerned from conscience, that person would be justified, “for it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified” (Romans 2:13). If any exist anywhere who have no special revelation of the standard of goodness required by God and yet so discern the principles and applications of the Law written on the heart, and do this in an unbroken stream of truly good behavior; if, that is, “by patience in well-doing [they] seek for glory and honor and immortality,” such “will receive eternal life” (Romans 2:6, 7). Nothing exists above the Law to define the goodness of God.
  5. In spite of that possibility for righteousness that exists as a principle of nature, innate moral perversity determines that none will ever pursue such an unbroken course of goodness; in fact, they never do so for “None is righteous, no not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one” (Romans 3:10-12).
  6. It is perfectly fitting, therefore, that Jesus would say, “If you would enter life, keep the commandments.”


III. How do we view the Law? – verses 18-20. Jesus pointed him to what is called “the second table,” and included the summary of the second table from Leviticus 19:18, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

A. That one has been obedient to these commandments is more demonstrably true or false than the commandments of the first table (“no other gods before me” etc.) It can be demonstrated clearly that one is a murderer, or a thief, or an adulterer, or a liar on the basis of external evidence. If one is in external violation of the second table it is clear that he is a lawbreaker.

B. The clarity of external conformity, however, is that which has caused such shallow perceptions and legalistic applications of these commandments. The true keeping of them is internal (Matthew 5:22, 27, 28).

C. The pharisaical notions about these commandments Jesus had opposed from the beginning of his ministry. He had warned, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20). Jesus also had given a rigorous interpretation of the passage from Leviticus, “But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:44, 45).

D. If one has violated the second table in any way, then he also has violated the first table. “Do not speak evil of one another, brethren,” so James warned. “He who speaks evil of a brother and judges his brother, speaks evil of the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law, but a judge. There is one Lawgiver” (James 4:11, 12).

E. The movement from the second table to the first table is a biblical principle for testing of true devotion to God. “No man can tame the tongue. It is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our God and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the similitude of God” (James 3:8, 9). “He who hates his brother is in darkness and walks in darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes (1 John 2:11)…. He who does not love his brother abides in death. He who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him (3:15) … If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen?” (4:20). Eternal life and the law are inextricably connected; a violation of the second table assumes a prior violation of the first table. Perfect conformity to the first table necessarily includes perfect conformity to the second table.

F. The young seeker asserted that he had kept all those commandments from his youth up (Luke 18:21). If he had done so, he would lack nothing for eternal life, for he would have perfect righteousness. He was aware, though, that such was not the case.


IV. How Jesus illustrated his lack of willingness to have eternal life — Verses 21, 22.

A. Jesus illustrated that he did not love his neighbor as himself, for he coveted all that he had for his own esteem and comfort. Even when the “good teacher” told him a sure demonstration of love for neighbor as himself, it only served to show that he was covetous and esteemed his own personal interests above those of his neighbor.

B. He showed that the rich young ruler did not desire eternal life above all things. It had not gripped his heart as much as it disturbed his conscience. When given the choice of temporal things or eternal life, he chose temporal things. When Jesus was illustrating to his disciples the great disparity between the views of men and the purpose of God, he asked, “What would it profit a man if he gained the world but lost his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?” (Matthew 16:26). This question came immediately after he showed that to follow him, one must deny himself and take up his cross.

C. Jesus invited this man to come to Jerusalem with him where he would pay the ransom price for sin by bearing the curse of sin and give all who would believe the hope of eternal life. Instead he walked away and chose to lose his soul at the price of keeping his wealth.

D. Though he expressed a desire for eternal life, he demonstrated that he had only temporal values – verses 22.


V. The stumbling block of riches – verse 23-26.

A. Jesus pointed out that riches make it hard to see the superior value of eternal things. Present comfort should serve only a type of eternal comfort; present beauty and friendships should serve only as types of the lovely fellowship of heaven. These blessings make us love and cling to life, but if they become ends in themselves, we have chosen that which will certainly perish over that which cannot perish. Riches taken to heart become idols that are desired above the true riches that exist only in the presence of the triune Jehovah.

B. Paul instructed the rich in this present age “not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy” (1 Timothy 6:17). They are to be rich in good works, generous with their material blessings, for in giving them they store them up as a “good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life.”

C. The themes of Law, righteousness, riches, and life are illustrated powerfully in this event in Jesus’ ministry. Only his righteousness can give us eternal life, which is to be valued far above any earthly position or comfort. We must not let earthly status or things make us walk away sadly. Heavenly glory secures for us joy in the throes of earthly adversity. “For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:18).

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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