Here is an account of what passed between Christ and a hopeful young gentleman that addressed himself to him upon a serious errand; he said to be a young man (Matt. 19:20); and I called him a gentleman, not only because he had great possessions, but because he was a ruler (Luke 18:18), a magistrate, a justice of peace in his country; it is probable that he had abilities beyond his years, else his youth would have debarred him from the magistracy.
Now concerning this young gentleman, we are told how fair he bid for heaven and came short.
I. How fair he bid for heaven, and how kindly and tenderly Christ treated him, in favour to good beginnings. Here is,
1. The gentleman’s serious address to Jesus Christ (Matt. 19:16); Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life? Not a better question could be asked, not more gravely.
(1.) He gives Christ an honourable title, Good Master—Didaskale agathe. It signifies not a ruling, but a teaching Master. His calling him Master, bespeaks his submissiveness, and willingness to be taught; and good Master, his affection and peculiar respect to the Teacher, like that of Nicodemus, Thou art a Teacher come from God. We read not of any that addressed themselves to Christ more respectfully than that Master in Israel and this ruler. It is a good thing when men’s quality and dignity increase their civility and courtesy. It was gentleman-like to give this title of respect to Christ, notwithstanding the present meanness of his appearance. It was not usual among the Jews to accost their teachers with the title of good; and therefore this bespeaks the uncommon respect he had for Christ. Note, Jesus Christ is a good Master, the best of teachers; none teaches like him; he is distinguished for his goodness, for he can have compassion on the ignorant; he is meek and lowly in heart.
(2.) He comes to him upon an errand of importance (none could be more so), and he came not to tempt him, but sincerely desiring to be taught by him. His question is, What good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life? By this it appears, [1.] That he had a firm belief of eternal life; he was no Sadducee. He was convinced that there is a happiness prepared for those in the other world, who are prepared for it in this world. [2.] That he was concerned to make it sure to himself that he should live eternally, and was desirous of that life more than any of the delights of this life. It was a rare thing for one of his age and quality to appear so much in care about another world. The rich are apt to think it below them to make such an enquiry as this; and young people think it time enough yet; but here was a young man, and a rich man, solicitous about his soul and eternity. [3.] That he was sensible something must be done, some good thing, for the attainment of this happiness. It is by patient continuance in well-doing that we seek for immortality, Rom. 2:7. We must be doing, and doing that which is good. The blood of Christ is the only purchase of eternal life (he merited it for us), but obedience to Christ is the appointed way to it, Heb. 5:9. [4.] That he was, or at least thought himself, willing to do what was to be done for the obtaining of this eternal life. Those that know what it is to have eternal life, and what it is to come short of it, will be glad to accept of it upon any terms. Such a holy violence does the kingdom of heaven suffer. Note, While there are many that say, Who will show us any good? our great enquiry should be, What shall we do, that we may have eternal life? What shall we do, to be for ever happy, happy in another world? For this world has not that in it that will make us happy.
2. The encouragement that Jesus Christ gave to this address. It is not his manner to send any away without an answer, that come to him on such an errand, for nothing pleases him more, Matt. 19:17. In his answer,
(1.) He tenderly assists his faith; for, doubtless, he did not mean it for a reproof, when he said, Why callest thou me good? But he would seem to find that faith in what he said, when he called him good Master, which the gentleman perhaps was not conscious to himself of; he intended no more than to own and honour him as a good man, but Christ would lead him to own and honour him as a good God; for there is none good but one, that is God. Note, As Christ is graciously ready to make the best that he can of what is said or done amiss; so he is ready to make the most that can be of what is well said and well done. His constructions are often better than our intentions; as in that, “I was hungry, and you gave me meat, though you little thought it was to me.” Christ will have this young man either know him to be God, or not call him good; to teach us to transfer to God all the praise that is at any time given to us. Do any call us good? Let us tell them all goodness is from God, and therefore not to us, but to him give glory. All crowns must lie before his throne. Note, God only is good, and there is none essentially, originally, and unchangeably, good, but God only. His goodness is of and from himself, and all the goodness in the creature is from him; he is the Fountain of goodness, and whatever the streams are, all the springs are in him, Jas. 1:17. He is the great Pattern and Sample of goodness; by him all goodness is to be measured; that is good which is like him, and agreeable to his mind. We in our language call him God, because he is good. In this, as in other things, our Lord Jesus was the Brightness of his glory (and his goodness is his glory), and the express image of his person, and therefore fitly called good Master.
(2.) He plainly directs his practice, in answer to his question. He started that thought of his being good, and therefore God, but did not stay upon it, lest he should seem to divert from, and so to drop, the main question, as many do in needless disputes and strifes of words. Now Christ’s answer is, in short, this, If thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments.
[1.] The end proposed is, entering into life. The young man, in his question, spoke of eternal life. Christ, in his answer, speaks of life; to teach us, that eternal life is the only true life. The words concerning that are the words of this life, Acts 5:20. The present life scarcely deserves the name of life, for in the midst of life we are in death. Or into life, that spiritual life which is the beginning and earnest of eternal life. He desired to know how he might have eternal life; Christ tells him how he might enter into it; we have it by the merit of Christ, a mystery which was not as yet fully revealed, and therefore Christ waives that; but the way of entering into it, is, by obedience, and Christ directs us in that. By the former we make our title, by this, as by our evidence, we prove it; it is by adding to faith virtue, that an entrance (the word here used) is ministered to us into the everlasting kingdom, 2 Pet. 1:5, 11. Christ, who is our Life, is the Way to the Father, and to the vision and fruition of him; he is the only Way, but duty, and the obedience of faith, are the way to Christ. There is an entrance into life hereafter, at death, at the great day, a complete entrance, and those only shall then enter into life, that do their duty; it is the diligent faithful servant that shall then enter into the joy of his Lord, and that joy will be his eternal life. There is an entrance into life now; we who have believed, do enter into rest, Heb. 4:3. We have peace, and comfort, and joy, in the believing prospect of the glory to be revealed, and to this also sincere obedience is indispensably necessary.
[2.] The way prescribed is, keeping the commandments. Note, Keeping the commandments of God, according as they are revealed and made known to us, is the only way to life and salvation; and sincerity herein is accepted through Christ as our gospel perfection, provision being made of pardon, upon repentance, wherein we come short. Through Christ we are delivered from the condemning power of the law, but the commanding power of it is lodged in the hand of the Mediator, and under that, in that hand, we still are under the law to Christ (1 Cor. 9:21), under it as a rule, though not as a covenant. Keeping the commandments includes faith in Jesus Christ, for that is the great commandment (1 John 3:23), and it was one of the laws of Moses, that, when the great Prophet should be raised up, they should hear him. Observe, In order to our happiness here and for ever, it is not enough for us to know the commandments of God, but we must keep them, keep in them as our way, keep to them as our rule, keep them as our treasure, and with care, as the apple of our eye.
[3.] At his further instance and request, he mentions some particular commandments which he must keep (Matt. 19:18, 19); The young man saith unto him, Which? Note, Those that would do the commandments of God, must seek them diligently, and enquire after them, what they are. Ezra set himself to seek the law, and to do it, Ezra 7:10. “There were many commandments in the law of Moses; good Master, let me know which those are, the keeping o which is necessary to salvation.”
In answer to this, Christ specifies several, especially the commandments of the second table. First, That which concerns our own and our neighbour’s life; Thou shalt do no murder. Secondly, Our own and our neighbour’s chastity, which should be as dear to us as life itself; Thou shalt not commit adultery. Thirdly, Our own and our neighbour’s wealth and outward estate, as hedged about by the law of property; Thou shalt not steal. Fourthly, That which concerns truth, and our own and our neighbour’s good name; Thou shalt not bear false witness, neither for thyself, nor against thy neighbour; for so it is here left at large. Fifthly, That which concerns the duties of particular relations; Honour thy father and mother. Sixthly, That comprehensive law of love, which is the spring and summary of all these duties, whence they all flow, on which they are all founded, and in which they are all fulfilled; Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself (Gal. 5:14; Rom. 13:9), that royal law, Jas. 2:8. Some think this comes in here, not as the sum of the second table, but as the particular import of the tenth commandment; Thou shalt not covet, which Mark is, Defraud not; intimating that it is not lawful for me to design advantage or gain to myself by the diminution or loss of another; for that is to covet, and to love myself better than my neighbour, whom I ought to love a myself, and to treat as I would myself be treated.
Our Saviour here specifies second-table duties only; not as if the first were of less account, but, 1. Because they that now sat in Moses’s seat, either wholly neglected, or greatly corrupted, these precepts in their preaching. While they pressed the tithing of mint, anise, and cummin,—judgment, and mercy, and faith, the summary of second-table duties, were overlooked, Matt. 23:23. Their preaching ran out all in rituals and nothing in morals; and therefore Christ pressed that most, which they least insisted on. As one truth, so one duty, must not jostle out another, but each must know its place, and be kept in it; but equity requires that that be helped up, which is most in danger of being thrust out. That is the present truth which we are called to bear our testimony to, not only which is opposed, but which is neglected. 2. Because he would teach him, and us all, that moral honesty is a necessary branch of true Christianity, and to be minded accordingly. Though a mere moral man comes short of being a complete Christian, yet an immoral man is certainly no true Christian; for the grace of God teaches us to live soberly and righteously, as well as godly. Nay, though first-table duties have in them more of the essence of religion, yet second-table duties have in them more of the evidence of it. Our light burns in love to God, but it shines in love to our neighbour.
II. See here how he came short, though he bid thus fair, and wherein he failed; he failed by two things.
1. By pride, and a vain conceit of his own merit and strength; this is the ruin of thousands, who keep themselves miserable by fancying themselves happy. When Christ told him what commandments he must keep, he answered very scornfully, All these things have I kept from my youth up, Matt. 19:20.
Now, (1.) According as he understood the law, as prohibiting only the outward acts of sin, I am apt to think that he said true, and Christ knew it, for he did not contradict him; nay, it is said in Mark, He loved him; so far was very good and pleasing to Christ. St. Paul reckons it a privilege, not contemptible in itself, though it was dross in comparison with Christ, that he was, as touching righteousness that is in the law, blameless, Phil. 3:6. His observance of these commands was universal; All these have I kept: it was early and constant; from my youth up. Note, A man may be free from gross sin, and yet come short of grace and glory. His hands may be clean from external pollutions, and yet he may perish eternally in his heart-wickedness. What shall we think then of those who do not attain to this; whose fraud and injustice, drunkenness and uncleanness, witness against them, that all these they have broken from their youth up, though they have named the name of Christ? Well, it is sad to come short of those that come short of heaven.
It was commendable also, that he desired to know further what his duty was; What lack I yet? He was convinced that he wanted something to fill up his works before God, and was therefore desirous to know it, because, if he was not mistaken in himself, he was willing to do it. Having not yet attained, he thus seemed to press forward. And he applied himself to Christ, whose doctrine was supposed to improve and perfect the Mosaic institution. He desired to know what were the peculiar precepts of his religion, that he might have all that was in them to polish and accomplish him. Who could bid fairer?
But, (2.) Even in this that he said, he discovered his ignorance and folly. [1.] Taking the law in its spiritual sense, as Christ expounded it, no doubt, in many things he had offended against all these commands. Had he been acquainted with the extent and spiritual meaning of the law, instead of saying, All these have I kept; what lack I yet? he would have said, with shame and sorrow, “All these have I broken, what shall I do to get my sins pardoned?” [2.] Take it how you will, what he said savoured of pride and vain-glory, and had in it too much of that boasting which is excluded by the law of faith (Rom. 3:27), and which excludes from justification, Luke 18:11, 14. He valued himself too much, as the Pharisees did, upon the plausibleness of his profession before men, and was proud of that, which spoiled the acceptableness of it. That word, What lack I yet? perhaps was not so much a desire of further instruction as a demand of the praise of his present fancied perfection, and a challenge to Christ himself to show him any one instance wherein he was deficient.
2. He came short by an inordinate love of the world, and his enjoyments in it. This was the fatal rock on which he split. Observe,
(1.) How he was tried in this matter (Matt. 19:21); Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast. Christ waived the matter of his boasted obedience to the law, and let that drop, because this would be a more effectual way of discovering him than a dispute of the extent of the law. “Come,” saith Christ, “if thou wilt be perfect, if thou wilt approve thyself sincere in thine obedience” (for sincerity is our gospel perfection), “if thou wilt come up to that which Christ has added to the law of Moses, if thou wilt be perfect, if thou wilt enter into life, and so be perfectly happy;” for that which Christ here prescribes, is not a thing of supererogation, or a perfection we may be saved without; but, in the main scope and intendment of it, it is our necessary and indispensable duty. What Christ said to him, he thus far said to us all, that, if we would approve ourselves Christians indeed, and would be found at last the heirs of eternal life, we must do these two things:
[1.] We must practically prefer the heavenly treasures before all the wealth and riches in this world. That glory must have the pre-eminence in our judgment and esteem before this glory. No thanks to us to prefer heaven before hell, the worst man in the world would be glad of that Jerusalem for a refuge when he can stay no longer here, and to have it in reserve; but to make it our choice, and to prefer it before this earth—that is to be a Christian indeed. Now, as an evidence of this, First, We must dispose of what we have in this world, for the honour of God, and in his service: “Sell that thou hast, and give to the poor. If the occasions of charity be very pressing, sell thy possessions that thou mayest have to give to them that need; as the first Christians did, with an eye to this precept, Acts 4:34. Sell what thou canst spare for pious uses, all thy superfluities; if thou canst not otherwise do good with it, sell it. Sit loose to it, be willing to part with it for the honour of God, and the relief of the poor.” A gracious contempt of the world, and compassion of the poor and afflicted ones in it, are in all a necessary condition of salvation; and in those that have wherewithal, giving of alms is as necessary an evidence of that contempt of the world, and compassion to our brethren; by this the trial will be at the great day, Matt. 25:35. Though many that call themselves Christians, do not act as if they believed it; it is certain, that, when we embrace Christ, we must let go the world, for we cannot serve God and mammon. Christ knew that covetousness was the sin that did most easily beset this young man, that, though what he had he had got honestly, yet he could not cheerfully part with it, and by this he discovered his insincerity. This command was like the call to Abraham, Get thee out of thy country, to a land that I will show thee. As God tries believers by their strongest graces, so hypocrites by their strongest corruptions. Secondly, We must depend upon what we hope for in the other world as an abundant recompence for all we have left, or lost, or laid out, for God in this world; Thou shalt have treasure in heaven. We must, in the way of chargeable duty, trust God for a happiness out of sight, which will make us rich amends for all our expenses in God’s service. The precept sounded hard and harsh; “Sell that thou hast, and give it away;” and the objection against it would soon arise, that “Charity begins at home;” therefore Christ immediately annexes this assurance of a treasure in heaven. Note, Christ’s promises make his precepts easy, and his yoke not only tolerable, but pleasant, and sweet, and very comfortable; yet this promise was as much a trial of this young man’s faith as the precept was of his charity, and contempt of the world.
[2.] We must devote ourselves entirely to the conduct and government of our Lord Jesus; Come, and follow me. It seems here to be meant of a close and constant attendance upon his person, such as the selling of what he had in the world was as necessary to as it was to the other disciples to quit their callings; but of us it is required that we follow Christ, that we duly attend upon his ordinances, strictly conform to his pattern, and cheerfully submit to his disposals, and by upright and universal obedience observe his statutes, and keep his laws, and all this from a principle of love to him, and dependence on him, and with a holy contempt of every thing else in comparison of him, and much more in competition with him. This is to follow Christ fully. To sell all, and give to the poor, will not serve, unless we come, and follow Christ. If I give all my goods to feed the poor, and have not love, it profits me nothing. Well, on these terms, and on no lower, is salvation to be had; and they are very easy and reasonable terms, and will appear so to those who are brought to be glad of it upon any terms.
(2.) See how he was discovered. This touched him in a tender part (Matt. 19:22); When he heard that saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.
[1.] He was a rich man, and loved his riches, and therefore went away. He did not like eternal life upon these terms. Note, First, Those who have much in the world are in the greatest temptation to love it, and to set their hearts upon it. Such is the bewitching nature of worldly wealth, that those who want it least desire most; when riches increase, then is the danger of setting the heart upon them, Ps. 62:10. If he had had but two mites in all the world, and had been commanded to give them to the poor, or but one handful of meal in the barrel, and a little oil in the cruse, and had been bidden to make a cake of that for a poor prophet, the trial, one would think, had been much greater, yet those trials have been overcome (Luke 21:4; 1 Kgs. 17:14); which shows that the love of the world draws stronger than the most pressing necessities. Secondly, The reigning love of this world keeps many from Christ, who seem to have some good desires toward him. A great estate, as to those who are got above it, is a great furtherance, so to those who are entangled in the love of it, it is a great hindrance, in the way to heaven.
Yet something of honesty there was in it, that, when he did not like the terms, he went away, and would not pretend to that, which he could not find in his heart to come up to the strictness of; better so than do as Demas did, who, having known the way of righteousness, afterward turned aside, out of love to this present world, to the greater scandal of his profession; since he could not be a complete Christian, he would not be a hypocrite.
[2.] Yet he was a thinking man, and well-inclined, and therefore went away sorrowful. He had a leaning toward Christ, and was loth to part with him. Note, Many a one is ruined by the sin he commits with reluctance; leaves Christ sorrowfully, and yet is never truly sorry for leaving him, for, if he were, he would return to him. Thus this man’s wealth was vexation of spirit to him, then when it was his temptation. What then would the sorrow be afterward, when his possessions would be gone, and all hopes of eternal life gone too?