There is a familiar story to many that appears in the text of Matthew 19:16-30. A young man comes to Jesus calling Him Good Teacher asking what he needed to do to "have eternal life?" A young man asking a good question and asking the right person. I have heard this story preached many times and heard it spoken about in several bible studies. Some obvious lessons come forcefully from the example of this text. We see the need for a total devotion to God. Jesus said you cannot serve two masters and this young man was trying to do just that. Indeed this situation shows us exactly what Jesus meant back in the Sermon On the Mount, for this young man had to choose between the two and when the choice was made, the one he loved more was revealed. The story shows us that Jesus really means for us to place Him first before everything else. It also reveals the need to rid our lives of things that may keep us from a total devotion unto Christ. In these two thoughts or teachings have been the vast majority of messages I have heard preached from the text. They are good and needed lessons for obviously we need to hear them and understand them. However, there are a couple more things I think are just as important to see in the text. Within the conversation between this young man and Jesus is the accepted certainty of the existence of eternal life and salvation. For the question was specifically about how he could receive eternal life. The man knew, or it seems implied that he knew, that Jesus had the knowledge to which this man desired. The fact that there is an eternal life was never in doubt by Jesus or by the one who came questioning. The obvious acceptance of the question and the further discussion should reaffirm the Christian's hope and faith that with Jesus there is eternal life. Not only is the hope of an eternal life so fervently expressed there are some points regarding the "receiving" element of this eternal life that beg our attention. Whole doctrinal discourses seem to extend from the theory that salvation is completely void of any act, "works" or "deeds" or actions on our part. There are some who claim any "required" deed would inherently give birth to "saving oneself through works" and "negate the grace of God." My intention here is not to build a straw-man but simply to frame some popular ideas that are taught within western Christianity. A careful study of scripture would certainly reveal these particular ideas, and those of a similar construction, to be difficult to uphold. Let me ask a simple question, did Jesus ask this young man to save himself through righteous deeds? It seems impossible for the honest student to deny that Jesus said that this man had to "keep the commandments." Likewise it will be difficult for those who argue against "religious deeds" to refute Jesus demand that this young man sell all that he had (that's a work is it not), give to the poor (hmm.... I think that would be a deed or work as well) and follow after Him, yet again we have another action commanded by Jesus. Don't get me wrong, I'm not advocating that we are saved by religious deeds, on the contrary, I believe what is being demonstrated is that faith is not a apart from action and deed. Furthermore that Jesus requiring actions on our part does not negate the fact that we are saved by the grace of God. James had said we are "not saved by faith only" he also said in James two that he would show his faith by his works. So let me answer the question I posed in the last paragraph, no I don't believe Jesus asked this young man to "save himself" through "righteous deeds." I believe Jesus was saying that you have to put Him first, that means keeping the commandments of God... yes that’s what he told this young man and it is what He has spoken to all of us, "If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him." (John 4:23).
Jesus calls all to hear, believe, confess, repent, be baptized and live faithfully for Him. Doing so is not trying to save oneself apart from grace, instead it’s loving Jesus and through faith putting Him first in our lives. It is by the grace of God and the work of Jesus on the cross that there is a way of salvation and the ability to be saved, and keeping the things that Jesus has commanded is in accordance with His beautiful saving work. Will we do the things Jesus has put before us and pick up our cross and follow after Him or will we go away sorrowful as the young man in the text?