Overestimating Obedience

[The man] said to him, ‘Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.’ And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, ‘You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me’ ” (vv. 20–21).

- Mark 10:19–22

Because fallen human beings readily forget that an inherently good act is motivated by wholehearted love for God (Deut. 6:4–5), we tend to overemphasize the actual goodness that we achieve. This is true even for Christians, who alone have been granted the Holy Spirit and the love of God (Rom. 5:5). We continue to sin even after conversion (1 John 1:8–9), which means we do not consistently love Him above all else. Yes, we truly love our Father if we are in Christ, but we do not love Him as fully as we ought, and so we continually need forgiveness. Nevertheless, we are prone to think that we have done better than we actually have, and it is hard for us to discern truly the extent to which we have done good.

If this is true of believers, how much more so is it of the unredeemed? The rich young ruler who asked Jesus how to gain eternal life shows how people overestimate their goodness—their obedience to God’s requirements. Jesus answered the man that keeping the commandments leads to eternal life (Mark 10:17–19). As Protestants, we are so accustomed to hearing that we cannot merit eternal life that we may forget how the law actually provides a way for people to earn heaven. If human beings were to obey God’s law, they would merit eternal life, but the standard to gain heaven in this way is absolute perfection. If a person fails to keep the law at one point, he has broken all of it (James 2:10). To live forever by keeping the commandments, we must keep them perfectly; we must be perfect as God is perfect (Matt. 5:48). Yet, no one born into sin can meet that standard. We need grace not because the law is not a way of salvation but because sinners cannot keep the law sufficiently to be saved. John Calvin comments: “The keeping of the law is righteousness, by which any man who kept the law perfectly—if there were such a man—would obtain life for himself. But as we are all destitute of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23), nothing but cursing will be found in the law; and nothing remains for us but to betake ourselves to the undeserved gift of righteousness.”

The rich man replied to Jesus that he had kept the commandments (Mark 10:20). But Jesus’ response to him demonstrates that he failed to meet God’s standard. Jesus saw that the man did not keep even the first commandment—to have no other gods before the only true God (Ex. 20:3). So, when Christ called the rich man to give up the true object of his worship—his money—he went away sorrowful, realizing he had not met the Lord’s requirements at all.

Coram Deo

As fallen people, we tend to overestimate our faithfulness to the Lord and to rely on our works for our right standing before God. But the gospel—and our consciences—tell us that we cannot do enough or be good enough to merit the kingdom. As we grow in Christ, we will be more honest before the Lord about our sin and how short we fall of His glory. Are you growing in honesty about your sin before God?

Passages for Further Study

Jeremiah 17:9
Matthew 19:17b–22
Romans 2:13; 3:23–24
Galatians 5:3

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