Christianity Explored: What must I do to inherit eternal life?

A famous professor of surgery died and went to heaven. At the entrance he was asked by the gatekeeper: ‘Have you ever committed a sin you truly regret?’ ‘Yes,’ the professor answered. ‘When I was a young intern at the Hospital of Saint Lucas, we played soccer against another hospital team, and I scored a goal. I was actually off-side but the referee did not see it. The goal won us the match. I regret cheating now.’ ‘Well,’ said the gatekeeper. ‘That is a very minor sin. You may enter.’ ‘Thank you very much, Saint Peter,’ the professor answered. ‘I’m not Saint Peter,’ said the gatekeeper. ‘He is having his lunch break. I am Saint Lucas.’  “If God were to say to you: ‘Why should I let you into heaven? Why should I give you eternal life?’ what would you say?” In Mark 10 we meet someone who really wanted eternal life. I hope you do too.

The Ideal Candidate for Eternal Life: Good

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.  You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honour your father and mother.’” “Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.” Jesus looked at him and loved him.” (Mark 10:17-20)

An ideal candidate for eternal life?  What did he have going for him? Besides what we learn here, Matthew says he was young (Matthew 19:20) and Luke that he was a ruler (Luke 18:18).

1.1 He was Enthusiastic

“As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him…” Running was not considered dignified. But this young person didn’t care. He wanted to see Jesus so bad he ran. He was enthusiastic.

1.2 He was Humble

“…a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him.” He was a leader in the community. But he recognised he was in the presence of someone greater. He showed his respect for Jesus by kneeling before him. He was enthusiastic. He was humble.

1.3      He was Spiritual

“Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He was concerned enough about his destiny to ask Jesus.

1.4 He was Moral

“Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.” He sincerely believed he had lived a good moral life since childhood but instinctively perhaps he knew there was more. He probably brought a smile to Jesus’ face.

Jesus “looked at him and loved him.” What a catch. He was young, enthusiastic, humble, wealthy and influential. Just the kind of person you want to attract to the church. Certainly, the ideal candidate for eternal life: He was good. And yet…

2. The Impossible Criteria for Eternal Life: Godliness

“One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth. Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!” The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” (Mark 10:21-25)

The young man had asked Jesus what he needed to do to inherit eternal life. But when Jesus tells him, he doesn’t respond with joy or a desire to do it as quickly as possible. Instead, his face fell, he turns away, and goes home sad. Why? Because “he had great wealth”. It was too much for him. True, he kept the commandments dealing with our relationships with other people. But not the first and most important command.

“You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them” (Exodus 20:3-5).

No one is greater than God. No one and nothing is more important than him. If this rich young ruler really thought that loving and serving God, and enjoying eternal life, was more important than the things he had on earth, he would have gladly given away his money, to follow Jesus. The point is that if anyone is going to earn eternal life, they have to live perfectly, in relation to others, and in relation to God. His reaction shows that he wasn’t keeping all of God’s laws. He money had become an idol. His wealth was a more important treasure than  being with Jesus, serving God and having treasure in heaven. His money is more important to him than God. He was wrong in believing that he was fully keeping God’s laws. But he was also wrong in thinking that he could do something to earn eternal life. We can never do enough to inherit eternal life.

The Ideal Candidate for Eternal Life: Good
The Impossible Criteria for Eternal Life: Godliness

3. The Incredible Conclusion about Eternal Life: Grace

“The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, “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 10:26-27)

Then as now, people often believe that wealth and success are proof of God’s blessing. So the disciples were stunned by what Jesus said. If even a religious and wealthy person will find it hard to enter the kingdom of God, how can anyone else possibly do it? So they ask their own question. And it’s the right question to ask. Not “what can I do to be saved” but “who then can be saved?” Jesus replies: “With man this is impossible”. Earlier in this series, we discovered that we all have a heart condition.

“For from within, out of your hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile you.”” (Mark 7:21-23).

Sin comes from within, from our hearts – and we all sin. We don’t love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. We have a heart problem, and nothing we do can cure it.
This is why Jesus came. He came “to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Jesus came to rescue us from our sin, by taking the punishment we deserve.  And we know that the ransom price was paid and accepted because of the resurrection. Jesus died to pay for sin, and rose from death to prove that sin was truly paid for. This is why Jesus says: “With man this is impossible”. Nothing we do can cure our heart problem – only Jesus can. But what then is the answer to the disciples’ question? “Who then can be saved?” The answer to comes from another meeting with Jesus. Just before the rich young ruler came to Jesus, some other people came to Jesus.

They weren’t rich. They weren’t important. They weren’t even adults: they were little children. While greatly loved by their parents children had little or no status in society.

“People were bringing little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them.” (Mark 10:13-16)

These children had nothing to offer Jesus. They hadn’t done anything to deserve his love and acceptance. Perhaps that’s why the disciples didn’t want Jesus to be bothered by them. But listen to what Jesus says:

“…the kingdom of God belongs to such as these … anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a child will never enter it”  (Mark 10:14-15).

These children did nothing to earn acceptance by Jesus. All they did was come to him. And Jesus took them in his arms. He put his hands on them, and he blessed them. Here is the answer to the rich man’s question about eternal life. And to the disciples’ question about being saved. The answer is that only those who receive the kingdom of God like a child will enter it.

We can’t do anything to earn eternal life. We can’t work our way into heaven. Nothing we do can cure our heart problem. We can’t do anything ourselves in order to be saved. But we can receive it as a free gift – paid for by the death of Jesus. It’s not about what we must do for God. Rather, it’s the amazing thing Christ has done for us. The Bible calls this “grace” – God’s undeserved gift to us. And like a child, all we can do is receive it.

The Ideal Candidate for Eternal Life: Good.
The Impossible Criteria for Eternal Life: Godliness.
The Incredible Conclusion about Eternal Life: Grace.

Victor Hugo’s  Les Miserables is a moving 1,500 page illustration of grace. Valjean, imprisoned for 19 long years for stealing bread to feed his family, longs to escape his past. But the world does not readily accept ex-convicts and he faces rejection where ever he goes. Valjean is shown kindness by the Bishop who provides him with shelter. On being burgled and beaten by Valjean, the Bishop could have treated him in one of three ways, just as God could treat you, and we treat others.

First, he could have treated Valjean with justice. That is what his housekeeper wants. The Bishop could have given this criminal what he deserves; no more, no less. How often do we hear the cry for justice today? In this case the spoons would have been returned and Valjean imprisoned for the theft and grievous bodily harm. With his criminal record he could have been executed.

Second, the Bishop could have treated Valjean with mercy. Mercy is giving him less than he deserves.  In that instance he could have said, “Return the spoons and I won’t press charges.” That is being merciful, and the best of our world will at times show mercy.

But the Bishop demonstrates neither justice nor mercy. He treats Valjean with grace.  He gives this criminal a very expensive, utterly undeserved gift. “Yes, of course I gave him the silverware. But why did you not take the candlesticks? That was very foolish. Madame Jillou, fetch the silver candlesticks. They are worth at least 2,000 francs. Why did you leave them?”

That is grace.  Receiving a totally undeserved gift. No wonder Jean Valjean can only stutter out “Are you really letting me go?”  And if you are not stunned by God’s grace at ‘really letting you go’ then you have either not really understood your plight, or the extent of his love, or both. Why? Why are you doing this?” We should cry out like Valjean. He cannot comprehend such undeserved love and generosity. And nor indeed can Madame Jillou. She could so easily represent the Pharisees of Jesus day and many religious people today. You can see from her face that she thinks it is a scandal. It is lunacy, that a guilty person should be treated in this way. “Why? Why are you doing this?” The Bishop replies, “Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to evil, with this silver I have bought your soul and now I am giving you back to God.” That is the effect of grace. Ephesians 2 tells us:

3.1 We Become a New Person

“But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions–it is by grace you have been saved.” (Ephesians 2:4-5)

The Christian is literally a new person. Born all over again. Like Valjean, we have been “made alive”, by God’s grace. The past is forgiven and forgotten. That is why the early church gave new names to people when they became Christians. They were literally new people. That is why this church is a condemnation free zone. All is forgiven. A new person.

3.2 We Receive a New Position

“And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus.” (Ephesians 2:6)

The very moment we surrender to Jesus we become children of God and we begin to live in his presence.  Eternal life does not begin when we die, it has already begun for those who trust in Christ.  For now its by faith not sight, but no less real.  Physically we are still earth bound, limited by space and time,  but spiritually we have already entered eternity, and have a new position with Christ. As children of God we have access to the Father.  We don’t have to make an appointment to see one of his subordinates, we don’t have to pray to one of the saints to put in a good word for us. As his children we have immediate access 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We are now already with Christ. So keep your head up, you are a child of God. That is why we do not play ecclesiastical games with special positions or special titles or special clothes. The words we say to the newly baptised are these. “We are children of the same heavenly father, we welcome you.” Lets practice it.  We become a new person, we receive a new position.

3.3 We See from a New Perspective

“And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus.” (Ephesians 2:6)

Our position with Christ gives us a whole new perspective on the world. Progressively we see the world in a different light. Now from His point of view.  Behaviour we once thought was OK has to change because the Holy Spirit now indwells us. As we read the Bible, and as we listen and talk to our Father we learn to see things His way.  This world is no longer our home. Heaven is our home. Our presence here is temporary so we must not get too attached.  He has made us a new person, he has given us a new position and a new perspective. Why?

“in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith–and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God– not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Ephesians 2:7-10)

We are saved by grace, through faith, for good works.
It is very, very important we get these in the right order.

By Grace                 =      the origin of our salvation
Through Faith           =      the means of our salvation
For Good works       =      the evidence of our salvation

We are not saved by our good works, but for them, and even they have been prepared for us by God to fulfill. Do you know the good works that God has prepared in advance for you to do for him? That is why he has given each one of us talents and resources to build his church and extend his kingdom. We each have a unique role to play in and through Christ Church. Don’t fool yourself into thinking the paid staff do the ministry. No. They are here to equip you and motivate you and multiply you in ministry. Your gifts matter.

The Greek word for “workmanship” is poiema from which we get our English word “poem”. Coming to Christ is just the beginning. The beginning of a beautiful relationship of grace, love and service of God within His family. The rest of Ephesians 2 goes on to describe how God has called us to be one in Christ. One family, one people, one church, the unique dwelling place of God on earth. A haven of grace.  But the grace of God only becomes real to us when we see ourselves standing before God as Valjean stood before the bishop: utterly guilty with no resources to draw on; facing a terrible punishment for what we have done to him.  Until we see ourselves in that state, we won’t see the amazing generosity of God’s gift of forgiveness to us through Christ’s death on the cross for us, paying for our sin, himself.

At the heart of grace then is the fact that it is undeserved. I have done nothing to earn it. I can never deserve it. Faith is saying ‘thank you’ and receiving the gift that is offered. It is turning to God, in utter weakness, in total dependence and receiving what we do not deserve: deliverance from a terrible sentence and punishment. And like Valjean, it should leave us stunned.  Victor Hugo also wrote these words: ‘Life’s greatest happiness is to be convinced we are loved.’

Living by grace is to find my identity, my ultimate worth as a human being, in the love of God, who knows exactly what I am like and yet loves me unconditionally. How can we not treat others with the same grace that God in Christ has shown us? C.S. Lewis put it like this: “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.” Have you? Have you received the gift of God’s grace? Have you found the grace of God overwhelming? Have you realised you are more wicked than you ever imagined but more loved than you ever dreamed? Then respond today. Lets pray.

With sincere thanks to Rico Tice and the Christianity Explored Course and also to sermon by Owen Bourgaize “The Rich Young Ruler” and Gordon Curley, “The First Shall be Last” both accessible from Sermon Central

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