Do you love a good question? Surveys show that the average young child asks anywhere from 200 to 400 questions per day! We can all learn a lot when the correct answers are given to our questions. Matthew records a really good question asked by a rich young ruler. He asked, “What good thing must I do to get eternal life?” In the interaction between Jesus and the rich young ruler, we are reminded that our misconceptions and preconceived notions can keep us from hearing what we need to hear about our salvation.
The man in the gospel accounts was described as young man who was both wealthy (Mark 10:17-27; Luke 18:18-27) and of prominent social standing. This rich young ruler wanted to be sure he would receive eternal life, so he asked what he could do to get it. He viewed eternal life as something that one achieves.
Do you think you can get to heaven by what you do? There are two prevailing ideas to get to heaven. The first is God’s plan, and the second, the Moral plan, or man’s plan. The Moral plan could be called the DO plan. It’s all about everything that you do: living a good life, keeping religious teaching and check list of rules. Every religion in the world (except Christianity) fits into the DO plan. Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Jehovah’s Witness and the Mormons teach that your welfare in the afterlife is based on your morality in this life.
Then there’s God’s plan the DONE plan. Everything that needed to be done to assure you a place in heaven was done by Jesus Christ, through His death and resurrection, 2000 years ago. The DO plan requires 100% perfection from birth to death. The DONE Plan required Jesus Christ’s perfection.
Jesus punches at this young man’s obsession with being good. In verse 17, Jesus said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? No one is good but God.” And Jesus takes this term “good” that is so subjective, and he defines it. So long as goodness is left in the abstract we can attribute goodness to anybody. We can all come off smelling like roses, morally speaking, depending with whom we compare ourselves. But Jesus applies a concrete standard to the concept of good. He provides a measurable definition; a standard by which all goodness can be measured. He says, “No one is good, but God.” There’s the benchmark of goodness. It’s the Holy Perfection of God. If you’re planning to work the moral plan to get to heaven, then you need to know the absolute standard of goodness. You need to know how good you have to be.
It is theoretically possible to get to heaven on the moral plan, so long as you meet the standard. And the standard is the holy, righteous, absolute perfection of God. In verse 17, Jesus says it this way, “If you want to enter into life (on the moral plan), keep the commandments.” And he means keep them perfectly. That means, not only from now on, but from the moment of birth till the moment of death. One slip, one blunder, one word of anger, would mean instant disqualification. James says, “For whoever shall keep the whole Law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all” (2:10).
So access to heaven on the moral plan is a theoretical possibility, but a practical absurdity. Unfortunately, our friend in the story doesn’t get it yet. He still thinks the moral plan is a good bet.
In response to Jesus’ statement to keep the commandments, the young man blurts, “Which ones?” He doesn’t get it that Jesus is describing a perfect, humanly unachievable standard, and yet he thinks it’s a manageable assignment. He thinks there’s a set of commandments that he can obey to such a degree that he can satisfy the perfectly holy standard of God, and qualify him for heaven.
So Jesus works with him, and lobs a few sample commandments his way. “Don’t murder. Don’t commit adultery. Don’t steal. Don’t lie. Honor your parents. Love your neighbor as yourself” (v18-19). And as Jesus talks, our friend is adding up his score, and he’s feeling pretty pleased with himself. In verse 20 he says, “All these I have kept since my youth.”
This young man needs to be educated, and Jesus is about to enlighten him, and it’s not going to be pretty. The young man’s problem is that he thinks external conformity to a set of rules is sufficient to access heaven and satisfy God. But God is not interested in external conformity to a set of commandments-that’s religion. He wants your heart-that’s relationship. In Matthew chapter 5, Jesus said that it’s not enough to not murder people. If you’re angry with someone, you’ve broken the spirit of that commandment, because God wants your heart. Jesus went on to say that it’s not enough to not commit adultery. If you look at a woman with lustful thoughts in your heart, you’ve broken the spirit of that commandment, because God wants your heart.
Man looks at the outward appearance of a person, but God looks at the heart. We measure with a mirror and yard stick, God measures with a x-ray and a dipstick. He goes inside, to the heart. Jesus could have exposed the nakedness of this damaged heart right there. But he didn’t. He decided to expose his heart in another way. Jesus He does it by exposing an entirely different heart issue in this young man’s life. Before we get to that, let’s pick up another insight about the moral plan.
The Result of the Moral Plan
In verse 20, the young man says, “All these I have kept… What do I still LACK?” This young man is still deluded. He still thinks his moral plan is watertight, and capable of getting him to heaven. He still hasn’t caught what Jesus is saying. He still feels that he is a good person. Good enough for heaven. “All these I have kept since my youth.” Yet, in spite of what he says, in spite of his wealth, his youthfulness, and his power, he knows something is still missing. “What do I still lack?” Sure as he is about the moral plan, he’s not sure he’s bound for heaven. He’s restless. No matter how good he thinks he is, he still has this nagging fear that he’s not ready to die. And he says to Jesus “What am I still lacking?” He doesn’t get this feeling just because of what Jesus has been saying. That feeling is evident in his opening question to Jesus. “What good thing shall I do that I may have eternal life?” Implication? I’m missing something, and I don’t know what it is!
A lot of people who hope to achieve heaven on the moral plan, experience that same restlessness. It’s a nagging fear that they know that they’re not ready to die. Whenever I ask someone who’s working the moral plan, “are you sure that you’re going to heaven?” They almost always reply, “I hope so, and I’d like to. But I can’t say for sure.” In other words, no matter how good they are, they’re not sure that they’re good enough. That’s the problem with striving for a standard when you don’t know what the standard is. You never know if, or when, you’ve hit it.
God wants you to be certain that you are heaven bound. We will look at this in the next post.