What Must I Do To Be Saved?

Text:  Mark 10:17-22

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

What must you do to inherit eternal life? 

This is a profound question to ponder.  It is a question that comes from the Gospel of Mark, where a rich young ruler wanted to acquire, win, and obtain life after death. 

So, what must one do to acquire, win, and obtain eternal life?  What must you do to acquire, win, and obtain eternal life?

When the average person on the street is asked this question, the top responses are that one obtains eternal life through being a good person, living a good life, and having upright morals.  Indeed, according to a large segment of Americans, if one lives by God’s rules, behaves like Jesus, treats others well, and esteems the golden rule, then eternal life is within one’s reach.[1]

Now, as we look back to our Gospel reading from this morning, it seems that Jesus agrees with a large segment of Americans as well.  He actually responds to the rich young ruler’s question by saying this,

“You know the commandments: you shall not murder; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; you shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.” 

Indeed, it seems that Jesus is telling the rich young ruler to follow the straight and narrow path in order to get eternal life.  It sounds like Jesus is telling him to give it his all and to fulfill the Ten Commandments in order to acquire eternal life. 

Is Jesus actually telling this guy to ‘work’ his way to eternal life, to climb the ladder towards heaven, to exert moral actions?  Contrary to what you might think, Jesus actually is.    

You see, the rich young ruler did not ask Jesus ‘where’ eternal life was found and he did not ask Jesus ‘how’ eternal life is accomplished, but rather He asks the question, “What must ‘I do’ for eternal life.”  In other words, the rich young ruler wants to ‘do’ his own salvation.  He wants a check list.  He wants to flex his own spiritual muscles.  He wants to pull himself up by his bootstraps.  He wants to earn eternal life by doing.   Furthermore, it appears that the rich young ruler thinks he has dotted all the i’s and crossed all the t’s and just wants a bit of affirmation from Jesus, to make sure that he is doing it right and well enough.    

Keep in mind though, before we get too ahead of ourselves, in asking this question, the rich young ruler is guaranteeing to get himself into trouble.  Furthermore, when we ask this question, it also guarantees to make our lives miserable as well.  Yes, far too many Christians ask this question and far too many pastors teach Christians to ask the question, “What must ‘I do’ to obtain eternal life.’”  The reason why it is guaranteed to make your life miserable in one way or another is that you and I will either become self-deceived to the point that we convince ourselves that we are actually pulling it off, or you and I will become disheartened, overwhelmed, depressed, and fearful knowing that we cannot get the job done.  To put this another way, if we think that we are able to acquire eternal life by our own doings, we not only are deceiving ourselves, but we will also become boorish arrogant snotty pharisaical persons, who think that we are better than everyone else.  On the other hand, if we realize that we cannot accomplish eternal life by our own doings, we end up going down the path of spiritual suicide leading to secularism or atheism.    

This is the way that it was with the rich young ruler.  He asks Jesus what he must do and then Jesus lays a list of dos and don’t upon him.  The rich young man – convinced that he is an upright and morally good person – arrogantly and foolishly responds that he has been doing the Ten Commandments since his youth.  To this Jesus then piles more things to do upon him.  He looks into the rich young ruler’s heart and sees that what the man loves more than God is his possessions.  Therefore, he tells the man to go and sell all that he has and follow him.

Now, Jesus is not trying to show him that he needed to learn to love others and not wealth before he could finally please God for eternal life and He is not telling the man to go and sell everything to the poor so that the man might earn eternal life before God.  But rather, Jesus is laying His finger on the chief sin in the man’s heart, the love of earthly possession.  Jesus is exposing the man’s self-righteousness and his false religion of foolishly trying to obtain eternal life by his own doing – by his own works.

Dear friends, when you live by your own perceived abilities to please God and try to obtain eternal life through your keeping of the law, the demands of the law will never relinquish.  If you think you are doing a pretty good job, there is always more to do; the Law will always demand more from you.  That is the seduction that is so easy to get ensnared into. 

Indeed, asking the question, “What must I do to acquire eternal life,” and then attempting to actually do something to acquire eternal life, is actually seductive. “This is the seduction of all false religions.  False religions teach that good works will eventually lead a person to salvation.  They all try to answer the question, ‘What must I do to inherit eternal life?’ Many of these religious systems espouse lives of great moral behavior to answer this question, but they all fail to answer the next question.  ‘What should I do when I fail to lead a righteous life?’  What does a Jew do when he fails to keep the laws of Moses?  What does a Muslim do when he fails to observe the Five Pillars of Islam?  What does the member of the secret society do when he can't maintain that purity of life and conduct so essentially necessary for gaining admission into the celestial lodge above?  These religions that are so eager to give us control over our own destiny all fail to mention what happens when we fail to produce the good works of salvation.”[2]

And so, Jesus having compassion for this rich young ruler crushes and causes his false religious system to fall apart by saying,

“One thing you lack; go, sell what you own and give the money to the poor and you will have treasures in heaven; then come, follow me.” 

With these words, Jesus reveals the rich young ruler’s heart; with these words Jesus shows that beneath the shiny reputation, underneath the clean demeanor, under the classy reputation, and in the smooth talk, is a poor miserable sinner clinging to his earthly possession.  He reveals the man’s false religious system.  He shows that the man’s god is money.  He strips away his self-righteousness.  He causes him to fall apart and to hit rock bottom. 

Jesus told this rich young man, not what he wanted to hear, but what he needed to hear.  Jesus broke this man down, humbled him, and made him disheartened. 

Believe it or not, the Lord loves you the same way that He loved this man.  This man needed to hear about his hopelessness; he needed to be brought to see his depraved and wicked heart.  The rich young ruler needed to understand that he was not self-sufficient, but needed a Savior.  The same is with you and me. 

Truly, “Jesus loves us the same way.  He sends the Holy Spirit to convict us of our sin.  The Holy Spirit comes to us through the Word of God and shines the searing light of the law into our hearts.  He shows our true nature to us.  He takes us to the depths of pure terror as He shows us the future we have earned for ourselves.  He shows us the true hopelessness of our good works.”[3]

In other words, the Holy Spirit through the Word shows us that if we think that we are obtaining salvation by our own doing, we are not working towards heaven, but are digging ourselves to hell.  The reason being, good works are for our neighbor, not for us to use as a bargaining chip before God.  God does not need our good works, but our neighbor does.  We do not do and cannot do good works to be a Christian, but we do good works because we already are.  Furthermore, we must keep in mind that because of sin, salvation is unaccomplishable for sinners.  We cannot climb high enough, work hard enough, bleed long enough, surrender enough, and suffer adequately to achieve perfection or erase sins.  Because of this, eternal life is something that cannot be merited… but… it is something that is inherited. 

Dear friends, you cannot merit eternal life, but take comfort right now, eternal life is inherited.  With merit, you earn; with an inheritance you receive. 

Frankly put, the Lord is gracious to you and me when we are repented.  That is to say, when the Lord through the Law crushes us, He is actually stripping us of thinking that we can merit salvation, so that He can gift us salvation. 

Think about that!  When our hands are full of our own spiritual accomplishments and our own works, they cannot receive the gift that was accomplished at Mt. Calvary.  Thus, the Lord in His goodness, stripped the rich young ruler of his spiritual endeavors so that he might be giveable.  And He does the same to us. 

You and I cannot produce holiness and eternal life for ourselves; we must receive it entirely from God.  To self-fabricate holiness or to attempt to merit salvation is actually abhorrent to God.  But praise be to God that He kills us through the Law, that He levels us, that He gifts us repentance rendering us as sinners.  Furthermore, praise be to God that the Gospel is for sinners only!   Praise God that He does not keep this salvation - this gift of eternal life - to Himself.  Instead, He comes to us on our earthly journey so that He may gift us forgiveness, life, and salvation. 

What does this mean?  It means that your Christian faith does not depend on your performance or meriting, but upon receiving from the Lord.  And yes, the Lord gives Himself to you.  

As beggars you and I have access to the Father’s presence and His grace.  It is an inheritance that the Holy Spirit delivers to you from this altar, from your baptisms, and from the Holy Word.  As inheritors we do not ask, “What must I do,” but we confess, “Look at what I’ve been given; look at what Jesus did for me; while I was an enemy of God, Christ died for me; He claimed me!” 

Indeed, you have received, receive, and will receive grace upon grace—the Lord’s inheritance for you. 

Forgiveness, life, and salvation are yours.  Truly, they are yours right now.  The Lord hasn’t held back.  You, who have ears, hear this.  The Lord is for you.  His forgiveness, life, and salvation are for you.  It is yours.  It is all gift, an inheritance for you now and for eternity. 
In the name of Jesus,  Amen

[1] Pew Research Center, “Many Americans Say Other Faiths Can Lead to Eternal Life,”  http://www.pewforum.org/2008/12/18/many-americans-say-other-faiths-can-lead-to-eternal-life/#2 (accessed October 10, 2015).

[2] James T. Batchelor, “Nineteenth Sunday After Pentecost,” LCMS Sermons, http://lcmssermons.com/index.php?sn=1455 (Accessed October 10, 2015).

[3] Ibid.

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