Today’s passage is all about how to enter the kingdom of God and how to have eternal life. Entering the kingdom means becoming a member of God’s people. And all who become members of God’s people are promised eternal life, so that once our life in this world is over, we will go on living with God in the life to come. And so, this is a crucial passage because in it we discover how to have everlasting life in Christ’s everlasting kingdom.
Verses 13 to 16
And in the first part of today’s passage, parents were bringing children to the Lord so that he could bless them. In ancient times it was common for someone to lay his hands on another person in order to bless them or to bestow on them some kind of spiritual benefit. And this is what the parents want the Lord Jesus to do for their children: to bless them. But the disciples were trying to stop them. We can’t be sure why they wanted to stop them. Perhaps they thought the Lord was too busy. Perhaps they thought he was too important to meet little children and babies. However, when the Lord saw what the disciples were doing, he became indignant with them, cross with them, and he told them to let the children come to him.
And then he went on to speak about the kingdom and about how the kingdom of God belongs to such as these; and how anyone who does not receive the kingdom like a little child will never enter it. And what we should note about the Lord’s words is that he is raising the possibility that there will be some who cannot enter the kingdom of God. While everyone is invited to come into the kingdom, nevertheless not everyone will be able to enter it. They will not be able to enter it; and therefore they will not have everlasting life. Do you see that? The Lord said that anyone who does not receive the kingdom like a little child cannot enter it. They will never enter it. The Lord’s words in this passage teach us that not everyone is permitted to enter Christ’s kingdom and have eternal life.
As soon as we hear that we need to start asking ourselves:
How then can we enter it? If it is closed to some, then how can I make sure that I am one of the ones who is allowed to come into it?
And that is precisely what the next part of today’s passage is about. A man comes running up to the Lord Jesus to ask this very question:
What must I do to inherit eternal life?
He’s asking about how to enter the kingdom. Everyone who is a member of God’s kingdom will have eternal life. So what must I do to get into the kingdom of God where there is eternal life?
Tell me! I need to know! I don’t want to be shut out. I don’t want to find the door closed. I want to come in and have everlasting life. So what must I do in order to enter the kingdom and receive eternal life?
What’s the answer?
There are two very common — but incorrect — answers to this question. The first is this. We enter the kingdom and receive eternal life by keeping the commandments. This is the way of the law which says to us:
Do this and you will live.
And perhaps when we first read this passage, it seems to us that this is what the Lord Jesus is suggesting. The man asked what he must do; and so, the Lord answered him in the same way and referred him to some of the Ten Commandments. Look at verse 19. The Lord Jesus said to him:
You know the commandments. Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, do not defraud, honour your father and mother.
All of them — apart from the one forbidding fraud — are from the second half of the Ten Commandments. And so the Lord Jesus pointed the man to the commandments as if to say that these are the things he must do if he wants to enter the kingdom and receive eternal life. Obey the law. Keep the commandments. That’s what you have to do.
This is the way of law; and very many people think it’s the only way. Years ago I had a conversation with someone about Christianity and what the Christian faith is all about and the kinds of things I should be teaching. And the person I was speaking to was quite sure that what I should teach on Sundays is the Ten Commandments. I must teach people what the commandments are and I must urge people and exhort them to keep the commandments. You see, this person thought that Christianity is all about living a good life. It’s about being good and upright and respectable and decent. And if people keep the commandments, then God will accept them into his kingdom.
Our church’s Larger Catechism explains to us the way of the law. It asks the question:
What is the duty which God requires of man?
And the answer given is this:
The duty which God requires of man is obedience to his revealed will.
The next question explains that God has given us his moral law to show us what his will is. He’s given us his law — which is summarised by the Ten Commandments — to show us what he wants us to do. And the next question asks:
What is the moral law?
And the answer given is as follows:
The moral law is the declaration of the will of God to mankind. It directs and binds everyone to personal, perfect and perpetual conformity and obedience to it. Life is promised on it being fulfilled.
Do you see? According to our church’s Larger Catechism, the way of the law teaches us that our duty to God is to keep his moral law which is summarised in the Ten Commandments; and life is promised to us if we keep it. And so people will say that’s how we enter the kingdom. That’s how we get eternal life. That’s how we please God and become a member of his people. By keeping his commandments. By fulfilling our duty to obey his moral law. That’s what a Christian is.
And so, according to this view, what must we do to receive eternal life? We must keep the law. We must obey the commandments. We are bound — the Larger Catechism says — to personal, perfect and perpetual conformity to God’s law. Or what does the Bible say about the way of the law? In Psalm 15, for example, it says:
LORD, who may dwell in your sanctuary? Who may live on your holy hill?
And the answer we find in the psalm is:
He whose walk is blameless and who does what is righteous.
That’s what we must do. We must be blameless, perfect.
Now, if I ended the sermon here, and sent you home, then I would be sending you home with this message:
Obey. Try hard to obey. Try hard to keep the commandments. If you find it difficult to do all the things God says, then just try harder. Do you want to get to heaven? Do you want to have eternal life? Then you need to obey God’s laws.
And we’d all go home and we’d try and we’d try and we’d try. But you know what would happen? Some time during the week, there would be something we forgot to do that we were supposed to do. There would be some law which we forget to keep. And then someone would come up to us; and they’re annoyed with us; and they’d demand to know why we didn’t do what we were meant to do. And we’re embarrassed. We’re ashamed. But we don’t want this person to think badly of us. So what do we do? We make something up. We make up an excuse. We lie. We break the commandment forbidding false testimony. Or perhaps someone annoys us; and we lose our temper with them; and we shout at them; and perhaps say something hurtful. And so we break the commandment not to murder, because the Lord Jesus tells us that the command not to murder includes more than murder, but it includes hurting some by insulting them or thinking unkindly of them. Or perhaps a teenager is talking to his parents; and he says something cheeky and he’s disrespectful. Well, he’s broken the fifth commandment which tells children to honour their parents. Or perhaps we see our neighbour has a new car; and we’re green with envy; and we’re annoyed with him because he can afford a new car while you can’t. And so, you’re broken the tenth commandment which says we mustn’t covet.
Do you see? Who is it who can dwell in the presence of the Lord? The Bible say it’s he whose walk is blameless. Are you blameless so that no one would ever find fault with you? What are we bound to? We’re bound to personal, perfect and perpetual conformity to God’s law. Is your obedience perfect and perpetual? Do you obey God’s law always?
The man who was talking to the Lord Jesus thinks that his obedience has been perfect. When the Lord directed him to the commandments, he replied that he had kept all of them since he was a boy:
All my life I’ve done these things.
And yet look what happened. The Lord Jesus was able to show him that he hadn’t even kept the greatest commandment or the second greatest commandment. What’s the greatest commandment? It’s to love the Lord with all our heart and soul and mind and strength. In other words, we’ve to love the Lord above all other things. And what’s the second greatest commandment? It’s to love our neighbour as ourselves. Those are the two great commandments: love the Lord above all other things; and love your neighbour. And yet when the Lord Jesus asked this man to sell everything he had and to give it to his needy neighbour, he wasn’t willing to do so. He couldn’t do it, because he loved his great wealth more than he loved the Lord and more than he loved his needy neighbour.
The Law says: Keep the commandments. Who may dwell in God’s sanctuary? Who may live in his holy hill? He whose walk is blameless. What are we bound to? To personal, perfect and perpetual conformity to God’s law. That’s what we must do. Yet we can’t. So if I ended the sermon now and sent you home, you might try to keep the commandments; and you might even try really, really hard. But very soon you’d slip up. What then? And what about all the times you have failed to his commandments in the past?
The Larger Catechism says that life is promised to those who fulfil God’s law and that death is threatened to those who break it. Death. Judgment. Condemnation. It’s what we’re all faced with, because none of us, none of us, is able to keep God’s law perfectly and all the time.
This is not the way for sinners like us to receive eternal life. Faced with the obligation to obey perfectly and always, we’d all go away sad like the man in today’s story.
Is there another way? Well, some people are pinning their hopes on God’s love. God is a God of love, they say. He will not let anyone perish; and he will not punish anyone. He’ll forgive everyone whatever they have done wrong, because after all, he’s a God of love, isn’t it? And we hear this view regularly on TV and on the radio and in conversations. And we hear it regularly at funerals: someone has died and all their life they did whatever they wanted and they showed no interest in Christianity and they never thought to give thanks to the Lord for his good gifts to them. And yet at the funeral, people speak as if it’s obvious that this person who did not ever worship the Lord is now in heaven with the Lord. And you see, everyone thinks that God will accept this person because God is a God of love and he accepts us as we are and he overlooks all our faults. Have you heard people saying these things?
And yet what do we learn from this passage? It’s very surprising, but look at verse 21 where it says the Lord Jesus looked at this man who had come to him and the Lord Jesus loved him. The Lord Jesus loved this man. And yet, at the end of their conversation, the Lord Jesus let the man walk away. The Lord loved him, but the man remained outside of Christ’s kingdom. And so, this is a warning to all those who say that because God is a God of love he will not condemn anyone. Even though the Lord loved this man, he let him walk away.
So here in this passage we’re faced with a tremendous problem. Firstly, not everyone will enter the kingdom of God and so receive eternal life. Secondly, when the man asked the Lord what we have to do to enter God’s kingdom and inherit eternal life, the Lord said we’re to keep the commandments; and yet none of us has done that or is able to do that. Thirdly, we cannot rely on the fact that God is love, because even though the Lord loved this man, he let the man walk away. So what are we to do? As Peter asks in verse 26:
Who then can be saved?
The first way I mentioned is — according to Tim Keller — the way of religion. Religion says that if we keep the law, we’ll be accepted by God. If we do certain things, God will accept us. If we’re good enough, then God will let us into his kingdom. That’s religion.
The second way is — according to Tim Keller — the way of irreligion. It says that we can do as we please. It doesn’t matter what we do, because God will overlook our faults. Do whatever you like; it doesn’t matter, because in the end, God will forgive. That’s the way of irreligion.
But the third way is the gospel. And the word ‘gospel’ means good news; and it’s good news because this is about what the Lord Jesus has done for us. There has only ever been one person who has obeyed God’s law perfectly and perpetually; and it’s the Lord Jesus Christ. He alone has kept God’s commandments perfectly and perpetually. He alone is without sin; and he alone has the right to come into the presence of God. But the good news of the gospel is that the Lord Jesus has obeyed God’s law on behalf of his people. He has done what we cannot do ourselves and he has done it for us and on our behalf.
So, imagine a small boy who wants to go and see his favourite team play football. But he can’t afford the ticket. He hasn’t enough money to get in to the match. But along comes his friend; and his friend walks up to the ticket office and puts the right money down and he gets the ticket and gives it to the boy. And the boy goes in and enjoys the match. That’s the gospel. The way of religion says the boy simply has to go and get the money somehow and pay his own way in. The way of irreligion says you can just break in. But the gospel says the ticket must be bought and paid for, fairly and honestly; and here, I’ll buy it for you. None of us by ourselves can get into God’s kingdom. We can’t obey God’s law perfectly and perpetually. We can’t make up to God for our past sins. And so we can’t get in to enjoy eternal life. The door is locked to us. We’re shut out. But then the Lord Jesus comes along and he purchases our salvation by obeying God’s law for us and by dying on the cross to pay for our sins. He pays the price; and the door is opened to us.
Small children are helpless, aren’t they? They need their parents to care for them. And so, their parents will wash them and dress them and take them to play school and collect them afterwards. They’ll cook for them and even help to feed them. Small children are helpless and they need their parents and someone else to do most things for them. Well, in verse 15 of today’s passage the Lord said that anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it. The gospel says to us:
You’re like a little child. You’re not capable of entering the kingdom by yourself. You need help. You need someone else to do what’s necessary for you. When it comes to getting into the kingdom and getting eternal life, you’re as helpless as a little child. So stop trying to do it on your own; and rely on the Lord Jesus who has done it for you.
This is the way we get into the kingdom. This is the way we become a member of God’s people. This is what a Christian is. It’s someone who realises:
I can’t do this myself. I can’t walk blamelessly. I can’t keep the law perfectly and perpetually. But I’m trusting in the Lord Jesus who has done all things necessary to bring me to God.
This is the way we get into the kingdom.
This is what the Bible teaches us. And, of course, it’s what our church’s Larger Catechism also teaches us. After teaching us that the law binds us to personal, perfect and perpetual conformity and obedience to it, it goes on to explain the commandments and what they require us to do. And then it explains how every sin deserves God’s wrath and curse both in this life and the next. But then it asks what we must do to be saved from God’s wrath and curse? What must we do to inherit eternal life? And the answer is: We must turn from our sin and unbelief and we must trust in the only Saviour of the world. In other words, it gives us the gospel: the good news of Jesus Christ who died to pay for our sins and who was raised to give us life; and whoever repents and believes in him will be saved from the wrath of God which is what we deserve; and instead they will be forgiven by God and will receive from him the free gift of eternal life.
So, now that you’ve heard the gospel, I can finish the sermon and send you way. You can go away now and know that entering Christ’s kingdom is not about trying really hard to obey God’s commandments. And it’s not about doing whatever I want, because God is a God of love who will overlook my faults. No, entering Christ’s kingdom is about relying on Christ, trusting in him, because he’s the one who has kept God’s law perfectly and he did it for me; and he’s the one who died on the cross to pay for my sins and for all the ways I’ve disobeyed God. So, just as a little child relies on others, so I’m relying on Christ and I’m trusting in him. And through faith in the Saviour, we enter God’s kingdom where there is forgiveness and peace and the hope of everlasting life.