And he said unto him, Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God: but if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments. (Matthew 19:17)
In today’s passage, a rich young man comes to Christ and asks him the only question that really matters. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus’s response is a survey of the commandments of God (vv.18-19). What does Jesus mean here? Can we inherit eternal life by keeping the law?
The answer to this question is yes and no. Man, considered apart from his sin, is obligated to keep the law perfectly and be obedient to God. In that sense, if you were to find a person able to keep the law perfectly they could inherit eternal life on that basis. However, this is only to deal in hypotheticals. Outside of Christ, not only is our law-keeping unsuccessful and not only are we disobedient to God in our actions but we think we can bind God’s hands so that He will have to give us eternal life. Not only our actions but our hearts are bent against God. Even in Christ, our obedience to the law of God is incomplete and broken, sin not being banished from us entirely until we are glorified with the saints in heaven. We say “yes” to the question of the law allowing us to inherit eternal life so that we understand not only what the law requires, not only that there is one rule of holiness for all men, but also that this law requires perfect obedience. A perfect obedience we cannot offer because there are none righteous, no not one (Romans 3:10).
So, can we as fallen men be saved by keeping the law? No. Paul argues in Romans 3 why the law cannot justify us: not because the law is not intended to do that, indeed it is. It cannot justify us because of our imperfection. The law is perfection, coming from God as a perfect rule. We, as fallen and broken men, cannot keep that rule. Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin (Romans 3:20).
We see here that the law is a schoolmaster to bring us to Christ (Galatians 3:24). Christ uses the law with the rich young man to show him his sinfulness. The young man kept many points of the law; yet Christ finds one that he did not keep. One may keep the law and – failing in one point – be guilty of the whole law (James 2:10). Some take this passage to mean that Christ demands poverty of all those who would follow him, since he asked the young man to sell all the had and give to the poor. That is one sense of the passage; we all must be prepared to forsake all for the cause of Christ.
Yet, we must not lose sight of what Christ is doing in this passage. By telling the young man to sell all he has, Christ is using the law as a schoolmaster. He finds in the heart of this young man many sins against the 10th commandment against coveting. He left Christ because he could not part with his possessions; he esteemed them a greater treasure than the salvation and assurance we have in Christ. Indeed, in having the law displayed before him in the manner of this command the young man rejected Christ. He showed that his heart was unregenerate for he failed to go to Christ to be saved, the law revealing that to him.
Think of yourself. Are you hoping that Christ will not see some of the sins you hold in your heart or play out in your daily life? That he will overlook your transgressions? That he will be satisfied with your best efforts? Stop hiding your sins and repent.
As an exercise in your sanctfication, consider reading the Westminster Shorter Catechism questions on the law and comparing what is said there to your own heart. Is there any corner where you hold sins or which you do not take to Christ? Meditate upon these things.
I’ll close with a quote from Martin Luther on this use of the law:
The Law is not just another schoolmaster. The Law is a specialist to bring us to Christ. What would you think of a schoolmaster who could only torment and beat a child? Yet of such schoolmasters there were plenty in former times, regular bruisers. The Law is not that kind of a schoolmaster. It is not to torment us always. With its lashings it is only too anxious to drive us to Christ. The Law is like the good schoolmaster who trains his children to find pleasure in doing things they formerly detested.