A Question I Was Asked:

How Can Matthew 19:16-22 Be Explained? Can We Be Saved By Keeping the Law? What About Calling and Election?

How can Matthew 19:16-22 be explained? Can we be saved by keeping the Law? What about calling and election? Could Jesus even be teaching 'salvation by works'?

UK Apologetics Reply:

Okay let us look at this:

16. Just then a man came up to Jesus and asked, "Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?" 17. "Why do you ask me about what is good?" Jesus replied. "There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, keep the commandments." 18. "Which ones?" he inquired. Jesus replied, "'You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, 19. honor your father and mother,' and 'love your neighbor as yourself.'" 20. "All these I have kept," the young man said. "What do I still lack?" 21. Jesus answered, "If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me." 22. When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth. (Matthew 19:16-22, NIV).

The parallel passages to this can be found in Mark 10:17-22 and in Luke 18:18-23.

This is not saying that calling and election are wrong teachings - very, very far from it. This is looking at the matter from an entirely different angle for the help and benefit of a man of little understanding.

So the simple answer to this question is that Jesus was answering this man according to his own level of understanding, just as parents will often answer a child's questions according to the child's level of understanding. This man thought that being saved was all about him doing certain things; it's a legalistic approach: if I do this, then God must do that. Of course it is clear from the teachings of the Holy Bible, especially the New Testament, that this is just not so. Being saved also concerns matters like calling, repentance and election. We just have to face the fact that some people are just not being called at the present time, we can do nothing about that, but must simply leave the matter to God.

Since this young man was approaching Jesus and showing interest there were signs he possibly was indeed being called, so Jesus tests him further. The young man insists he had always kept God's commandments (verse 20), in itself, not a good sign because nobody keeps the ten commandments perfectly, sometimes it's best to be honest and to admit struggling in some areas. Of course, it is the commandments which are being discussed here because presumably the man was a Jew and those of Israelitish descent lived under that law code until Christ expired upon the cross and the New Covenant commenced for all peoples. This would have been far too early for Jesus to start teaching this man about the principles found within sermon on the mount and the Law of Christ. At that stage all of that was 'advanced teaching' for the disciples alone. The enquirer was, as we say, quite 'green.' For him, being saved was all about him doing certain things.

Of course, Jesus knew at once that this man had not kept the law perfectly and probably spotted just a little boastfulness in him, so He now gave him a major test: "If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me." (Verse 21). Now this went well beyond the law. If he was really being called, the response would have been very keen and eager. But this was too much for this man who had great possessions, possessions which he had no intention of parting with, so he walked away (verse 22).
Very likely, this man simply was not being called right then. Indeed he might simply have been making amicable and friendly conversation and was curious about Jesus. He did not understand calling nor election. He wanted to "get" Eternal Life and probably hoped there was some easy formula. It does not work like that, of course. If the man had enthusiastically responded to the suggestions of Jesus it would surely have been an indicator that he probably was being called; in which case he received an open invitation to join Jesus right there and then!

The fact that only the commandments were being discussed here with no discussion of weighty matters like calling, election, repentance and life-long commitment is simply a reflection of where the man stood in understanding at that point. His understanding was limited and Jesus dealt with him according to this limited understanding. So Jesus was not saying that people can be saved simply by keeping the law, irrespective of calling and election. Having said that, it will always go better on the day of judgment with people who have lived decent and godly lives as much as they have been able.

Good Works Cannot Saves Us

So let us be clear that Matthew 19:16-22 isn't teaching that good works save us. In fact, Jesus gently leads the man in Matthew 19 to come to see that good works were not enough, he needed to deny himself and bring Christ into his life. We cannot earn salvation by 'doing' things; it is an unmerited gift of God. The man clearly demonstrated that - at that point in his life - he was not the subject of God's calling and election.

The solution here is to trust in Jesus by faith alone, not to trust in one's good works, they can never save any of us. Jesus fulfilled the law perfectly and never sinned (1 Peter 2:22), He therefore satisfied the Old Testament demands by being the true and proper sacrifice for our sins. Jesus did everything that is necessary when He fulfilled the Law. Therefore, we are justified without the works of the law (Romans 3:28) and must put our faith and trust in what Christ accomplished upon the cross (Romans 4:5, 5:1). Of course, this is not saying we should now live irresponsible, riotous or dissolute lives - very far from it! Our Christian standards are best summed up by the Law of Christ, as outlined in such places as Matthew 5-7 (the sermon on the mount), 1 Corinthians 13, Galatians 5:22-26 and Philippians 1:9,27;4:8-9.

Robin A. Brace. March 25th, 2016.