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Mark 10:17-22 – Can you do something to inherit eternal life?

When we talk to people about their need to be reconciled to God, there will be some who don’t agree. They think that God is an understanding person who just wants us to do the best we can. As long as you do good and enjoy life, that’s all there is to it. To them, there is no coming judgment or urgency to do more. In support of this way of thinking, someone recently referred to this story and proposed that Jesus taught that eternal life can be acquired by obeying the commandments. Isn’t that what Jesus said to the rich, young ruler?

For those of us who have studied the Bible at length, this seems like a strange thing to believe. Throughout the Bible, nobody has been able to obey the law by themselves except for Jesus. All are marked as sinners by God and we don’t deserve anything but the coming judgment. And this is why Jesus was sent. He came to “save His people from their sins” not to overlook their sins and help them to just obey the commandments. But people still want to cling to their own ideas and think that they can be good enough to convince God that they are okay.

Let’s take a look at Mark 10:17-22 and consider what Jesus says to the rich, young ruler. Does he tell him he can gain eternal life by obeying the ten commandments? Or does he say something entirely different? Let’s take a look.

  1. What does it say?

    While Jesus was walking down the road, a man ran up to him with an urgent question. The question seems to have been asked with respect because the man knelt before Jesus and addressed him as “Good Teacher.” He then asked Jesus what he should do1 to inherit2 eternal life.

    Notice that Jesus didn’t give him a direct answer. Instead, He gave the man two things two think about. First, He asked the man why he had called Him good since only God is good. Second, He reminded the man of the commandments he already knew: (1) Do not commit adultery. (2) Do not murder. (3) Do not steal. (4) Do not lie. (5) Do not defraud. (6) Honor your parents. After hearing Jesus’ response, the man completely overlooked Jesus’ question about goodness. But he quickly responded to Jesus statement about the commandments. He told Jesus that he had kept all of those commandments since he was young.

    Jesus observed the man and loved him. He then lovingly pointed out what the man still lacked. Jesus instructed him to go home, sell his belongings, and give the proceeds to the poor. If he would do this, he would have treasure in heaven. Once this was done, Jesus called on him to take up the cross and follow Him. But the man didn’t like what he heard. He left Jesus with great sorrow because he was very rich.
  2. What does it mean?

    Have you ever asked someone for advice and later realized that they weren’t answering the question you asked them? In this case, Jesus had been asked how the man could inherit eternal life but he didn’t answer his question. What we see Jesus doing is answering the man with a question and then confronting his world view with two thoughts.

    Is anyone good enough to inherit eternal life?

    Jesus asked the young man why he called him a Good Teacher. Jesus stated that nobody is good except God. So why did he consider Jesus to be good? This question was asked by Jesus to make the man think. You call me good but only God is good. Why do you think I am good?

    Perhaps the man had watched Jesus and heard his excellent teaching. As he watched Him, the man saw that He was good and always said and did what was right. To him, Jesus was good. But when Jesus confronted this notion, the man became uncomfortable. It is true that nobody is good except God. Was he willing to admit that Jesus was God? I don’t think so. In verse 20, the man no longer calls Jesus good but just Teacher.

    Jesus’ question was designed to make the man think. It sets up everything that follows in the rest of the conversation. Nobody is good but God. The Bible says this clearly in many places. Can you think of those places?

    Job 42:5-6 – “I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees You. Therefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”

    Isaiah 64:6 – “But we are all like an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are like filthy rags; we all fade as a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away.”

    Romans 3:9-12 – “What then? Are we better than they? Not at all. For we have previously charged both Jews and Greeks that they are all under sin. As it is written: ‘There is none righteous, no, not one; there is none who understands; there is none who seeks after God. They have all turned aside; they have together become unprofitable; there is none who does good, no, not one.'”

    This is an important way to begin the conversation with someone who thinks he can inherit eternal life by doing something. The truth is that none of us is good. That is why Jesus came. He came to save us from our sins because we could not. If you only get one thing from this message, please understand what Jesus is saying. Nobody is good but God.

    Have you been able to keep all the commandments?

    The second thing that Jesus points out to the man is his own inability to keep God’s commands. When he referred to a number of the commandments, he gave a limited number of them. Had the man committed adultery? Had the man murdered anyone? Had he stolen from anyone? Had he lied or defrauded someone? Had his dishonored his parents? According to what the man said, he had faithfully obeyed these commandments since he was young. But did you notice which of the ten commandments Jesus left out? He left out the tenth commandment.

    Exodus 10:17 – “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his male servant, nor his female servant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbor’s.”

    The rich, young man had built up his reputation by doing all of the commands that he could. But the one thing that he hadn’t obeyed was this command about coveting. He had many possessions and was unwilling to give them up to follow Jesus. While he was fairly good when compared to other people, he still was guilty of breaking the law. And this vice of his was what was keeping him from finding the answer he was looking for. He wanted eternal life but he only wanted it if he could earn it the way he wanted to.

    Both of these questions point to the problem and answer for all people. In order to inherit eternal life, a person must first recognize his own sinfulness and then his inability to do anything to gain eternal life. Eternal life with God is only available by faith. Consider what the Bible says about this in other places.

    Ephesians 2:8-9 – “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.”

    Titus 3:5-7 – “not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior, that having been justified by His grace we should become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.”

    And please notice one other thing. The rich, young ruler was right about one thing. Jesus is good. He is good because He is God. And because He is God, He was able to take our place and pay for our sins.

    1 Peter 3:18 – “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God.”

    No amount of good deeds could overcome our guilt. But Jesus, who never sinned, gave His life for us. He suffered the penalty that we deserved so that we could be forgiven by God and reconciled to the One we have sinned again.
  3. How does it apply?

    There are two ways to apply this message:

    First, if you are like the rich, young ruler, listen to what Jesus said. You can never be reconciled to God by doing anything. Your only hope is to trust in what Jesus did for you. He took your place when He died on the cross. He gave His perfect life to pay the price for your sins. And now the only thing that you can “do” is believe. As God convicts you of your sinfulness and lack of righteousness, he wants you to turn from your sin and place your faith in Jesus.

    John 3:16 – “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”

    This is your only hope of escaping the judgment you rightfully deserve for your sins against God and it is your only hope for eternal life.

    Second, if you are already a believer, you should learn from Jesus’ example. When talking with people about their sin and need to trust in Jesus, it is easy to get into an argument of competing ideas. Telling someone they must do what you believe doesn’t work very well—even if you tell them it is God’s message from the Bible. Jesus used questions and statements to make people think. (I must admit that I have much to learn from Jesus about this.) When asked a question, the person has to think about it. Why do you think that? Do you consider yourself to be a good person? Questions likes this can often lead to a deeper conversation.


Jesus was the Master Teacher. His way of dealing with people was quite different than most. And this is what drew so many to him. He spoke to all people regardless of their place in society. Sometimes He spoke inrather candid terms. Other times He asked questions. But He always pointed people to the truth in one way or another.

Let us take the time to consider how we can lovingly speak the truth to others. And let us consider how we can implement Jesus’ methods as we do that. Perhaps the Lord will strengthen our witness to the lost as we follow in His steps.


1 “The aroist verb do implies that the achievement of some great exploit, which he expected Jesus to point out to him, woudl assure him of eternal life after what he had already achieved.” Hiebert 285.

2 Mark uses the verb κληρονομήσω (future) which is defined by BAGD as “inherit … acquire, obtain, come into possession of” (BAGD 434) while Mounce is more descriptive with “inheritance, transfer of property and possessions from one generation to another, usually within a family or clan and usually upon the death of the owner. This word often has an implication of a legitimate, historic right to the objects inherited.” It seems that the usual meaning is to inherit something.


Grassmick, John D., “Mark” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary New Testament, USA: SP Publications, 1983.

Hiebert, D. Edmond, The Gospel of Mark, Greenville: Bob Jones University Press, 1994.

McGee, J. Vernon, Thru the Bible with J. Vernon McGee, Vol. IV, Matthew through Romans, Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1983.