Why did Jesus ask the rich young ruler about obeying the commandments? Can salvation come through obedience to commands?
The account of the rich young ruler is found in Matthew 19:16-22, Mark 10:17-22, and Luke 18:18-23. In each case he is found asking Jesus how to receive eternal life. Why did Jesus tell Him to obey the commandments in response?
A closer look at the account reveals His purpose in this response. To answer the man's question, Jesus first noted that "only God is good," an Old Testament reference to God's perfection. He then followed with telling Him to obey the commandments. To this, the man replied, "Which ones?" (Matthew 19:18). Jesus mentioned several of the Ten Commandments by name, including commands against murder, adultery, theft, bearing false witness, honoring father and mother, and then ending with the additional command of loving your neighbor as yourself.
In reply, the man states, "All these I have kept. What do I still lack?" (Matthew 19:20). To answer, Jesus gave him an application that revealed he was not truly keeping the command to love his neighbor as himself, nor putting God first in his life. Jesus said, "If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me" (Matthew 19:21). In response, the man left in sorrow, for he had many possessions.
Jesus used this as a teaching moment with His disciples, teaching that riches make it more difficult to choose to follow Christ. The principle was not salvation by obeying commandments, but one of choosing Christ above all else. In fact, John 3:16 emphasizes that salvation comes through believing in Jesus, not by obeying the commandments.
Obeying the commandments was not wrong, but was impossible and insufficient to provide a right relationship with God. These external actions did not adequately change the heart. Instead, faith in Jesus as Lord is required (Ephesians 2:8-9; Romans 10:9-10). Those who truly believe must be willing to give up anything necessary to follow Him. In this man's case, his barrier was his wealth.
The application of this passage to our lives today is not to seek eternal life through obeying the Old Testament laws. Romans 3:20 notes, "For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin." Galatians 2:16 also clearly teaches, "we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified."
Instead, eternal life is found in Jesus Christ. He offers it by grace through faith: "For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast" (Ephesians 2:8-9).
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