Matthew 19:16-22, What must I do to obtain eternal life?

by Matt Slick

Matt. 19:16-22, “And behold, one came to Him and said, “Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may obtain eternal life?” 17 And He said to him, “Why are you asking Me about what is good? There is only One who is good; but if you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” 18 He said to Him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not commit murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; 19 Honor your father and mother; and You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 20 The young man said to Him, “All these things I have kept; what am I still lacking?” 21 Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be complete, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” 22 But when the young man heard this statement, he went away grieved; for he was one who owned much property.”  (The parallel passage is found in Mark 10:17-22 and Luke 18:18-23, listed at end of article).

This section of Scripture is important because Roman Catholics often use it to support their view that keeping the law of God is a necessary part of maintaining their right standing with God so they can be saved on the Day of Judgment.  Unfortunately, they will use verses like this and ignore others that teach we are justified by faith apart from the works of the law (Romans 3:28).  Let's take a look.

The person was asking what good works he must do to inherit eternal life (v. 16).  He believed that his salvation was dependent upon his faith in God and his works of the Law.  Jesus answered him according to his beliefs and quoted the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17) and Lev. 19:18 (Love your neighbor as yourself).  Notice that Jesus called Lev. 19:18 a commandment equal to the Ten Commandments.  The man boasted that he was keeping all these laws.  Was he?  As is typical with us all, we like to think we are doing well before God when in reality we aren't.  Jesus showed the man (and us) that he was failing to keep the Law (don't judge by your own standard, judge by God's).  Jesus told the man to sell his possessions and give it to the poor (i.e., love your neighbor as yourself) and then follow Him.  The man failed to do this (v. 22).  Jesus knew he wasn't keeping the Law and showed the man his failure.  His faith and works of the Law could not save him because he could not keep it.  Don't be like the boastful man who is good in his own eyes and estimation of keeping the Law.

So, for all who want to do good works to obtain eternal life, they are obligated to keep the Law.  But no one can, and that is the point.  No one can.  This is why James teaches in James 2:10, “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all.”  Paul says in Gal. 3:10, “For as many as are of the works of the Law are under a curse; for it is written, 'Cursed is everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the law, to perform them.'”  This further explains why we have Paul teaching us in Romans 3:28 that we are "justified by faith apart from the works of the Law" (including works done in love) because no one is able to keep the law perfectly as James 2:10 and Gal. 3:10 require.  Therefore, Matt. 19:16-22 isn’t teaching that faith and good works save us.  Instead, it is teaching that if you want to be justified by faith and works (even works of love), you must keep the Law perfectly.  You can’t.  Therefore, the Law condemns you.

What is the solution? 

The solution to the problem of the law is to trust in Jesus by faith alone--not by faith in your works.  The gospel message is that Jesus Christ, who is God in flesh (John 1:1, 14; Colossians 2:9), fulfilled the law perfectly and never sinned (1 Peter 2:22).  He fulfilled the Old Testament requirements of being a proper sacrifice for our sins (Lev. 17:11; Deut. 17:1; John 19:36).  Jesus did everything that is necessary when he fulfilled the Law. Therefore, we are justified without the works of the law (Rom. 3:28) and must put our faith and trust in what Christ did (Rom. 4:5; 5:1).   

Parallel Verses

  • Mark 10:17-22, "And as He was setting out on a journey, a man ran up to Him and knelt before Him, and began asking Him, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” 18 And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone. 19 “You know the commandments, ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’” 20 And he said to Him, “Teacher, I have kept all these things from my youth up.” 21 And looking at him, Jesus felt a love for him, and said to him, “One thing you lack: go and sell all you possess, and give to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” 22 But at these words his face fell, and he went away grieved, for he was one who owned much property."
  • Luke 18:18-23, "And a certain ruler questioned Him, saying, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” 19 And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone. 20 “You know the commandments, ‘Do not commit adultery, Do not murder, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother.’” 21 And he said, “All these things I have kept from my youth.” 22 And when Jesus heard this, He said to him, “One thing you still lack; sell all that you possess, and distribute it to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” 23 But when he had heard these things, he became very sad; for he was extremely rich."

 

 

 

 
 
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