What must I do to inherit eternal life?

Posted on August 24, 2016


St. Peter at the Pearly Gates. The book of life. A scale to measure our good vs. evil deeds. A courtroom. We all have a different visualization of what awaits us when we die. If you believe in the idea of heaven, what do you believe that it takes to get there? Will you get to argue your cause? Will it be pre-determined? Is the standard to get in that you need to be a saint, like Mother Teresa, or just a basically good person?

The very thought can cause severe anxiety! And today’s story is about a man who I believe had spent his entire life obsessing over this question. He wanted to know, definitively, how to enter eternal life.

As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone.”

Mark 10:17-18

This man, called ‘a ruler’ in a separate account in Luke, believes that he has found someone who can answer a question that he cares so much about that he runs and falls on his knees before Jesus! Jesus is very perceptive here and immediately picks up on what the ruler himself believes to be the answer to his own question: goodness. The ruler believed that Jesus was a good man, and that “goodness” was the way to enter the kingdom of God.

Jesus continues,

“You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, do not defraud, honor your father and mother.’”

“Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.”

Mark 10:19

I can just picture this man spending his whole life memorizing the Ten Commandments and working since boyhood to obey all of them. The commandments that Jesus chose to list are not… that hard to keep. Are these the commandments that God will ask you about before you can enter heaven?

Have you ever murdered?

Have you ever committed adultery?

Have you ever stolen?

Have you ever given false testimony?

Have you ever defrauded anyone?

Have you honored your father and mother?

Perhaps you are like the ruler in question and can easily say that you have kept all of these commandments. Or at least the “easy” ones. But Jesus had previously given a talk to a crowd of people, elaborating on several of these commandments.

In Matthew 5:28, Jesus says, “But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery in his heart.” GULP.

In Matthew 5:21-22, Jesus states that anger is subject to judgment just as much as “murder” (and you probably thought you were at LEAST safe on this one!).

Jesus made it clear in His teachings that the law, and the Ten Commandments, were not simply actions to avoid. Even thoughts that were sinful counted as breaking the law. And I’m sorry, but I think that never breaking any of the commandments—or even the small selection of commandments that Jesus listed to the ruler above—in word or thought or deed is impossible. And I believe that is Jesus’ point.

Jesus looked at him and loved him.

Mark 10:20

“If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.

Matthew 19:21

After the young ruler told Jesus that he had kept these commandments since he was a boy, ‘Jesus looked at him and loved him.’ And then he broke his heart. He named the one thing that this very rich ruler could never give up.

Jesus was God. He knew this man well and had loved him ever since he was a boy, fastidiously seeking to follow God and learning how to be perfect. Jesus knows you, too. He knows the one thing he could list that would destroy your attempt to consider yourself, or have God consider you, perfect.

How is this loving?

Even Jesus’ disciples were horrified by the continued narrowing of the pathway that a man could take to enter heaven. “They were greatly astonished and asked, “Who then can be saved?” Matthew 19:25.

But the amazing thing about Jesus is that He never once asks a person in the Bible, or us for that matter, to do something that He himself didn’t do.

For you see, there was once another ruler who had great wealth, wealth beyond anything you or I could picture. He had power to command the mightiest army, one that could never be defeated. He was worshipped and enthroned. And He gave it all up, not just for a life of small comforts or simplicity or a tiny home.  He gave up his wealth and power for a life of suffering, poverty, and rejection.


Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,

but made himself nothing,

taking the very nature of a servant,

being made in human likeness.

And being found in appearance as a man,

He humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross.

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name,

That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

And every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,

To the glory of God the Father.

Philippians 2:5-11

Do you want to enter the kingdom of God someday? Option 1 is exactly what the young ruler thought it was. You can be perfect as a human, and earn your way into heaven. But the word perfect is a standard beyond what any one person, from the time of their childhood, can ever hope to achieve.   “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.” James 2:10.

Option 2 is to admit that it is impossible for you to be perfect- and find someone who can be perfect in your place. When Jesus’ disciples asked him, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God!” Mark 10:27. Jesus himself was the answer to the rich young ruler’s question. Jesus is the way that you enter the kingdom of God.

That is love. At the point in time when Jesus spoke with this man, he hadn’t yet died an excruciating death on the cross. But he knew that he would. And so this dear man who was once a dear boy obeying God’s commandments was not lost. Jesus knew that the third day was coming and that soon, perfection was possible for this man in the form of Jesus’ atonement.

If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved. Romans 10:9-10

This is wonderful news if you are someone who is realizing for the very first time that you do not need to worry about all the things you have done wrong since childhood (or even just since yesterday, if you are like me). It is truly that easy to bend your heart’s knee and recognize Jesus as God, the one who can cover your sins for you and open wide the gate that’s impossible to enter by yourself.

But it is also wonderful news if you are a Christian struggling with perfectionism! Because in our relationship with God, He will ask us to give up our personal sin, just like he asked the rich ruler to give up his wealth. We read his teachings like the ones above about how even our thought life can be a place where we sin, and it can be so discouraging when we fail. Sometimes to cover up this feeling of failure we can become addicted to flattery and positive feedback from others about how “good” we are. But please remember that even on the days that you are following God closely—and, dare I say, perfectly—you are not proving that you are a good person, you are proving that with God you can do good things. To try to live your life perfectly using your own strength is to add heresy to the gospel.

When you accept Jesus as your ruler, when God sees you, He is not assessing whether you are a good person or not. He sees the spotless purity and perfection of Jesus, who died and in rising again conquered your sin forever. It is no surprise that there is a war going on inside of us that makes it painful and difficult to obey God. But in the end, Jesus wins the battle for you.

Please share this message with yourself throughout the day, and with any friends who you know could benefit from knowing beyond a shadow of a doubt that heaven’s gates are open wide to them because of Jesus.

Posted in: Seriously