Mark 10:17-27 Eternal Life: Free gift or Wage?

Have you ever confused a gift with a wage? Marketing scams are notorious for this.  Here is a free gift – a cruise, a set of knives, or some other trinket, if you sit through our presentation.  Again, this isn’t a gift, is a wage you are earning for giving your time to another.  But you know, this confusion can even exist in the spiritual life. Kids do this sometimes when they mistakenly ask, “Mommy, what must I do for you to love me more?”  Love has been confused as something to be earned.

I remember struggling with this while being trained as a missionary in 2000.  I was living with very same perspective of the child wanting to know what he had to do to be loved more, except instead of directing my question to my parents, it was directed towards God.  I constantly lived with the idea that if I did ABC then God would love me more and be happy with me; and if I did XYZ then he would stop loving me and be angry with me.  It was a horrible way to live the Christian life.

Unfortunately, many people live with this kind of mental checklist in their relationship with God.  Thankfully, the Scriptures present us with a story of a young man who had also confused his relationship with God, treating it more like a wage than like a gift.

Over the next two weeks we are going to look at the same story.  This week we are going to talk very specifically about the way this story illuminates the gift of salvation and eternal life.  Next week we will return to this story but probe it for its teaching on discipleship and living a cruciform life of denying oneself and taking up one’s cross and following Jesus”  (Mark 8:34).

But before we talk about discipleship, let’s be sure that we all understand Jesus’ teaching on salvation, inheriting eternal life. In my last sermon, I talked about the need to receive the Kingdom of God in the same way we receive a child from God, as a gift and a blessing to be celebrated.  The context that immediately precedes this story declares: the kingdom of God belongs to such as these [children].  Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom like a little child will never enter it. (Mark 10:14-15).  The kingdom is about freely receiving the gift of God!  Let us not forget that, for it is what makes the following exchange so startling:


Mark 10:17 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?”


Everything about this young man causes one to gather that he is a sincere, humble, inquisitive, and pious person.  Like anyone hoping to talk with a celebrity when they hear one is in town, he drops everything and runs to the place where Jesus is.  And he gets there in the nick of time. And when he arrives, he does what anyone in the presence of an authority figure must do.  He falls on his knees.

This posture of falling on one’s knees has fallen out of favor with westerners.  But in the ancient world, in other cultures, and in times past in our own European history, to fall on one’s knees was a sign of reverence and respect.  It was the position a slave took before his master, it was a way of saying, “I will do whatever you say.”  Certainly this was the man’s intention for he was troubled in his soul concerning his eternal security.

Before going any further, let me urge each and every one of us to spend much time on our knees before our Lord seeking to humble ourselves and receive from him the answers to the questions and concerns of our life which plague us or trouble us.  For certainly there is no better place to be than in the presence of our Lord humbly bowed.  As the Word declares of our Jesus, “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” (Phil. 2:9-11)

So what was the question that greatly troubled this young man?  It was and is a question that troubles many people.  In fact, there may even be people present today, young or old, it matters not, who are troubled by the same question?  What must I do to inherit eternal life? (Mark 10:17).  At the core of this man’s question is really a desire to know, to be certain that his life is secure for eternity.  His good life has not left him with any sense of security that God is indeed satisfied with him.  All his morality and proper living, his good deeds, his keeping of the commandments, hasn’t granted him any sense of eternal security for his soul.  And so he asks the question the only way he knows to ask, “What must I do?”

This poor man has confused a gift with a wage.  Even in his question the confusion is evident.  He wants to inherit something, but he wants to earn the inheritance.  The last time I checked, inheritances were passive things that happen to you.  You don’t do anything for them.  Someone else does the hard work of dying and you receive from the deceased’s action.  This young man has confused discipleship with salvation.

Not by our Effort – Keeping the Commandments

The rest of the story is filled with the details of Jesus’ interaction with the young man as he tries to bring him to the realization that eternal life can’t be earned.  It must be received as a gift, given by God. I say that because of the way Jesus draws the young man to the conclusion that he can’t do the one thing Jesus requires of him and so he is found in deep grief.  Jesus says to him,


Mark 10:19 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.’”

Mark 10:20 “Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.”


That statement is astounding to me.  This young man, like so many of us, thinks that his life is a good life.  He believes that he has been faithful in carrying out a righteous life.  As a sentinel guarding an entrance, this man declares that he has kept himself from evil.  He hasn’t allowed it entrance into his life, nor has he allowed it exit from his body.  He continuously honored his parents.  He never literally killed someone, not slept with another’s wife, not took one’s possessions or kept someone’s rightful due.

In his defense, the young ruler was simply living out the common theology of the day, the things he had been taught since his youth. Rabbinic theology taught “That man possesses the ability to fulfill the commandments of God perfectly; [this] was so firmly believed by the rabbis that they spoke in all seriousness of people who had kept the whole Law from A to Z.” (Lane, Gospel Mark, 366n45).

We might think of this young man as akin to a Paul, honestly declaring, “If others think they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless” (Phil. 3:4-6).

I have a premise that this story is meant to elaborate on the command against stealing and defrauding like Jesus’ other teachings that expand our understanding of murder to include anger, or adultery to include lust.  I believe Jesus is ultimately trying to show this man that his failure to care for others is really a form of thievery and fraud.  Listen to what Jesus says to him next:

Mark 10:21 Jesus looked at him and loved him. “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.”

Only one thing is lacking?  Wow!  If I could be so lucky as to only have one thing lacking.  That is what many of us think isn’t it?  But that one thing it turns out is a really big thing.  The one thing this man has failed at is: loving others by caring for their physical needs.  To fail to care for another in known need is really to steal life from them and to contribute to their murder.  The Heidelberg Catechism declares this in excellent fashion in Q105-111.  Let me read a few of the answers included in the catechism: “I am not to belittle, insult, hate, or kill my neighbor – not by my thoughts, my words, my look or gesture, and certainly not by actual deeds (105)…God tells us to love our neighbors…to protect them from harm as much as we can (107)…in God’s sight theft also includes…all greed (110).  I am to do whatever I can for my neighbor’s good, that I treat others as I would like them to treat me, and that I work faithfully so that I may share with those in need (111).”

Do you see how Jesus’ ‘one thing’ is meant to drive the man to the conclusion that all human effort is insufficient in order to earn salvation? As William Lane put it, “The law had not yet done its job of bringing one to the edge of human effort” (Lane 368-9).  The Law of God was meant to show us that we fail regularly at loving God and loving our neighbor.  As Paul said in Romans 13:9-10, “The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  Love does no harm to its neighbor.  Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.”


By the radical demand to love the poor, the rich young ruler is being driven to acknowledge his own failure to keep the law.  Unfortunately, he doesn’t state his inability to do what is asked, rather he just leaves greatly shocked!  Appalled in fact.  He is distressed severely. The text says he went away sad, but that is not nearly a strong enough word.  Paul uses the same word in 1Th 4:13 to refer to the sadness, grief one experiences when someone dies. 1Th. 4:13 Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope.


When confronted by his great sin, this young man finds himself in an apparently hopeless situation that is greatly emotional, painful, and distressing.  For the one intent on doing and earning, this realization presents no hope.  But there is hope.  There is hope, but it involves a change in perspective, a change from earning eternal life to receiving eternal life. So how does one receive eternal life?  Or rephrasing the young man’s question, “How does one inherit eternal life?”


How do we become an heir?


Simply put.  One inherits eternal life because the author of eternity dies and grants that gift to his heirs.  That happens in a number of ways, first of which is by faith.  Faith believes that God is working for us so that we no longer must work to secure our eternal future.

    • Eph. 1:11-14 In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, in order that we, who were the first to hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory. And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession — to the praise of his glory.
    • BORN a Child of the Promise
      • Gal. 4:30 But what does the Scripture say? “Get rid of the slave woman and her son, for the slave woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with the free woman’s son.”  There is a physical birth and a spiritual birth.  The physical is the work of men, the spiritual is the work of God on our behalf (Jn 3).  Ask and you shall receive (Jn 16:24).  God wont withhold the Spirit from those who ask (Lk 11:13).
        • 1Cor. 6:9-11 Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.
        • Titus 3:7 so that, having been justified by his [God’s] grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.
        • All of these verbs are passives, done to us.
          • Gal. 5:19-21  The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.
          • 1Pet. 3:9 Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult, but with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing.
            • 1Pet. 1:3-5 In his great mercy he has given us new birth…and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade — kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time.
            • Heb. 6:12 We do not want you to become lazy, but to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised.
            • OVERCOMERS
              • Rev. 21:6-7 He said to me: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To him who is thirsty I will give to drink without cost from the spring of the water of life. He who overcomes will inherit all this [New Jerusalem, live with God, removal death, pain…], and I will be his God and he will be my son.
              • We persevere in our faith and dependence upon God to the end.
                • Camel through eye of needle…who can be saved…all things are possible with God!
                • Who then can be saved? With man this is impossible, but not with God, all things are possible with God (Mk 10:26-27)
                • God acts on our behalf in Christ, crucified, died, buried, rez, and ascended so that we gain the great assurance that the price has been paid.  This is how we inherit eternal life. As a gift, not as a wage for Rom. 6:22-23 But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves to God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life. 23 For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

About Scott Roberts

pastor of Hope in Christ Church, Bellingham, WA
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