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27. The Path of Eternal Life

Chapter 27

The Path of Eternal Life

1. What Must I Do to Inherit Eternal Life?

Let us continue to explore that most important question which the “rich young ruler” (as he is usually called[85]) asked. We have by no means exhausted the significance of his inquiry. Precisely because of its importance, the question calls for a second look from a different angle.

The importance of this account (narrated in all three Synoptic gospels, Matthew 19.16-30, Mark 10.17-31, Luke 18.18-30) is seen in the fact that this is the only event in the gospels in which Jesus is specifically and sincerely asked this most vital question: What must I do to inherit eternal life?

I said “sincerely” because there are, of course, other ways to ask that question, namely, as a question of intellectual, philosoph­ical or theo­logical interest. Asked in this way, the question is turned into a topic for academic discussion or debate.

This is what happens in Luke 10.25, where a lawyer[86] asks Jesus the same question the young man had asked. Either out of academic curiosity or perhaps hostility, he wants to see how Jesus would handle the question of inheriting eternal life. But no one who is more interested in theory than in practice will enter eternal life. That is why the Lord Jesus concludes the discussion with the concise instruction, “Go and do” (Lk.10.37).

The rich young man, on the other hand, is motivated by a sin­cere and seeking heart. He does not treat the question of eternal life as an academic one. He is therefore only a step away from the Kingdom and eternal life. Yet sadly, his riches prevented him from taking that step. Evidently, giving up his possessions was for him comparable to giving up his life. But in the end, what will his wealth profit him?

“For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life? Or what shall a man give in return for his life?” (Mt.16.26, ESV)

The question of eternal life is a question about the meaning of life. Before Jesus came into the world, the question of eternal life, or how to inherit eternal life, was irrelevant because no answer was available. Hitherto no one in the world, neither in religion nor in philosophy, could give a meaning­ful answer to the question of inheriting eternal life. In that sense, the question was meaningless. In our daydreams we may long for eternal life, but in reality nobody knew where it could be found or whether it even existed.

Before Jesus came, you could search high and low in religion or in philosophy for an answer to the question of eternal life, and emerge empty-handed. Not even the Old Testament has anything to say about eternal life apart from a few hints here and there.

The question of eternal life could not be discussed meaningfully until Jesus came. Then, all of a sudden, it made sense to ask the question not merely as an academic or speculative topic, but as something attainable or available. There was something in the person and ministry of Jesus Christ that made that question mean­ingful. We need to be aware of this so that we do not take the question of eternal life for granted.

2. The Futile Pursuit of Achievement

If eternal life is just an illusion, what is life all about? Does physical life have any enduring meaning? Even if we attain to sixty, seventy, or eighty years of life in this world, the end must finally come. Life must reach its finish line, its terminus, and with it all its labors and achievements in the world come to a final halt.

Many people study hard for many years, ex­pending time and effort to get a degree, then a second degree, then a third, acquiring impressive titles. I know of a person in England who, on the day after his graduation, rushed off to print his name card with Bachelor of Divinity after his name. He gave me one of his cards even though no introduction was needed, we having known each other for several years. At that time he felt that this degree was his greatest achieve­ment in life.

There are some people in England who, having gained such degrees as they could manage to obtain, join the Royal Geo­graphical Society. By joining the Society you could get the title F.R.G.S. (Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society), which looks almost like F.R.C.S. (Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons), so people may mistake you for a surgeon! In any case, many people want to add a few more letters after their names, and that would make their name cards look impressive.

Some people seek achievement not in the aca­demic world but in the business world. But after we have established our little business “empire,” the whole endeavor could eventually look futile when we reach the end of our lives. Or these achievements could look like a cruel joke in which years of hard work are reduced to zero by bankruptcy, which does happen quite frequently in the business world. The sigh of the futility of an earthbound life is poignantly expressed in the book of Ecclesiastes.

I have a childhood friend who grew up together with me. Her mother and my mother were already good friends before we were born, and they were even hoping that a nice arrangement could be worked out for the two of us! My childhood friend was exceptionally bright, and felt ready to take on the challenges of life. She went on to collect a whole array of degrees, including her Ph.D. She became a professor at Michigan State University in her area of scientific specialization. Eventually her pursuit reached its limit when she found nothing more in her field that stimul­ated her interest. With no further challenges to conquer in her field, she decided to go into business. Her father was a wealthy businessman, but he was aging and was glad to hand the reins of his business enterprise over to her. She became general-manager in her father’s import-export business in Hong Kong.

When I met up with her in Hong Kong some years ago, I asked her, “What is a scientist like you doing in business?” She said, “I got bored with science, so I decided to give business a go. I climbed to the top of my academic profession, and there was nowhere else to go. When you reach the moun­tain top, you can’t go any higher. When I was still at the foot of the mountain, the peak looked so glorious. But when I reached the peak, it looked so small. I could not take a step backward or forward without falling off the peak! So it’s time to climb another mountain.”

As childhood friends, we could speak frankly to one another. I asked her how she was enjoying business. She found it boring: “I have learnt a lot about business administration, and the ins and outs of being a general-manager. But now there are no further interesting chall­enges for me.”

I asked her if she would like to try something else, but she was no longer sure there was anything still worth trying. One possibility was politics. The last I heard of her, she was at Stanford University doing political science, if I remember correctly. Having run out of things to do, why not pick up one or two more doctorates!

She is not doing any of this for money. Her father is wealthy, so she does not need to strive for riches. Even so, not only is life mean­ingless for her, even her marriage fell apart. She is now divorced from her husband who is also a scientist and professor. It is sad, indeed tragic, when people cannot find the meaning of life.

3. What is the Meaning of Life?

Without the hope of eternal life, there is really nothing of enduring meaning to live for. In this case, all the achieve­ments in life could be likened to a sand castle built by the seashore. People spend hours to build a sand castle, fashioning every little gate and tower, and even the surrounding moat. But when you return the next day, it is all washed away. There is no trace of the castle, not even an imprint in the sand.

Life is like that when it has no enduring pur­pose. We cannot make an enduring mark in the world; everything passes away. The glorious kingdoms of the past are now found only on the pages of history, or under the spade of an archaeologist who unearths some pottery, and concludes, “This kingdom was glorious in its time.” The present-day world powers look mighty and glorious, but they too will vanish into the pages of history.

Life has no true meaning unless it has an eternal purpose. Even as a teenager, I grappled with this dilemma, and was constantly wondering to myself, “What is life all about?” Thoughts of eternal life did not come to my mind because I knew nothing about it; and surviving eternally as some kind of disembodied spirit was not particularly appealing even if it were true, as ghost stories allegedly affirm. Perhaps the noblest thing to do in the face of such hopelessness was just to put on a brave smile, and stoically accept the fact that one day all things will vanish into oblivion.

4. The Futility of Life without Hope

The rich young ruler in Matthew 19 was like my childhood friend. He was wealthy and educated. He was well versed in the Law, which was the standard of education in Israel in those days. But he could not fail to realize that all these are transient. He desired something enduring, eternal. Wealth, education and status could provide him with no answer to the all-important question about eternal life.

Before Jesus came into the world, men were groping about blindly in darkness. But when he came, suddenly the question of eternal life became meaningful. The answer, however, is not an easy one. If anyone tells you that getting eternal life is easy as a “piece of cake,” don’t swallow that nonsense. As we will see, the path to eternal life is no easy road. Jesus himself said, “Narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it. (Mt.7.14, NKJV)

Before Jesus came into the world, people were living without hope or purpose. Today, too, those who don’t know him are walking in darkness. Sooner or later the power of death will come in like a tide, sweeping away everything, including every proud achievement, from the sands of earthly existence. Until Jesus comes into the picture, life is shrouded in unmitigated gloom.

We can try to put on a brave face, but the fact remains that we are without hope if Jesus does not come into our lives. We are like valiant soldiers fighting impossible odds, displaying a courageous demeanor in the face of certain defeat. Scientific know­ledge may prolong our lives by a few years. But even an artificial heart can only, so to speak, buy our sand castle a little more time before the tide sweeps it all away. We are soldiers fighting without the hope of victory, and moving closer and closer to the inevitable. Deep down in our hearts we know that the situation is grim, for death will one day conquer all.

5. Hope in the Midst of Darkness

In this suffocating air of hopelessness, the soldiers see the com­manding general appear on the scene. He stands purposefully and calmly, surveying the situation. He takes the necessary measures to turn the situation around. He personally leads his troops forward, calling them to follow. His very presence inspires hope among the battle-weary soldiers. The tide is turning, and victory looks possible. When Jesus came into a world lan­guishing in hopelessness, it finally became meaningful to talk about hope.

This picture finds expression in one of Jesus’ most faithful disciples, in whose life Jesus could be so clearly seen that he could say, “Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ” (1Cor.11.1). On one voyage, Paul was one of 276 people on board a ship that was falling apart in a violent Mediterranean storm (Acts 27.18ff). The crew had done everything possible to hold the ship together, includ­ing wrapping cables under the ship. Everyone was terrified except one man—the apostle Paul—who made the difference, and 276 lives were saved.

We can imagine Paul standing on the ship that was creaking and groaning in the churning sea and the howling storm. He was probably a frail man, about sixty years old, who had many scars on his face and body, a testimony to many beatings and the stoning he had received during his missionary journeys. His body was weakened by hardship and disease. Some scholars (based on hints in Paul’s letters, especially Gal.4.13,14) think he may have contracted mal­aria while traveling through inhospitable terrains in Asia Minor during one of his missionary journeys; others suggest that he had contracted some kind of eye disease. There are various other suggestions. This frail man firmly gripped the railing as the ship was rocking and swaying wildly. Whereas the sailors were panicking like rabbits, this frail figure radiated calm and confidence.

Like the commanding general who stands at the scene of battle, Paul confidently assures the crew and the passengers: “Listen to me! Not one life on this ship will be lost.” One of them might with good reason have said to him, “Paul, with all due respect, you’re just a landlubber whereas we are professional seaman. You know nothing about ships or the ferocity of Mediter­ranean storms.”

Yet no one on the ship contradicts Paul, for although he is weak in body, he is mighty in spirit. And he says, “Now I urge you to take heart; for there will be no loss of life among you, but only of the ship” (v.22). After declaring that this is a message from an angel of God, Paul says, “So take heart, men, for I believe God that it will be just as it was told me” (v.25). Like Abraham, he has complete confidence in God’s word and God’s promise in the face of a hopeless situa­tion.

Praise Yahweh God! Here was a man to whom God sent a personal messenger from heaven. The mention of an angel carried weight, even with heathen sailors, who did believe in spiritual beings. Hence Paul’s words were reassuring. This was almost certain­ly the reason why God sent an angel to Paul on this occasion, for this was not the usual way God communicated with him. There is no other recorded instance of an angel carrying a message from the Lord to the apostle.

No angelic intermediary was needed to facilitate his communion with God, for he walked with Him. The fact is that Paul had such an abundance of “visions and revelations from the Lord” (2Cor.12.1), even “surpassingly great revelations,” that a “thorn” was placed in his flesh to keep him from becoming conceited (v.7).

Since the days of Noah, how many men have walked with God? Well, there was Abraham. But after him, it was a long time before Elijah and Elisha came onto the scene. In the history of the world, only a few people have walked with God closely enough to carry the torch of hope against the tide of hopelessness. In rare moments of history, there emerges such a man or woman, and one of them was the apostle Paul.

In that raging storm, Paul was merely walking in the steps of his Master. Jesus and his disciples were once crossing the Sea of Galilee on a small boat that was caught in a great storm. Though the disciples were experienced seamen, they were afraid, unlike Jesus who was sleeping peacefully in the midst of the storm. The disciples woke him up urgently, crying out, “Save us, Lord; we are perishing!” Jesus replied, “Why are you afraid, O men of little faith?” (Mt.8.26)

Men of little faith? But wasn’t their fear just­ified? Take a look at the twenty-foot waves! But the Lord, calm and composed, looked straight into the eye of the storm, and rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was immediate calm. The disciples marveled, “What sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey him?”

We are not first-hand witnesses of the event, so how do we know that it really happened? We know from the fact that all the disciples in that boat, except Judas, eventually sealed their witness with their blood. No one would die for a fairy tale. The apostle John, though he was the only disciple who was not martyred, had his full share of suffering when he was sentenced to hard labor in the mines of Patmos. The apostles lived, suffered, and died for the truth concerning Christ of which they were eyewitnesses. “What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we beheld and our hands handled, concerning the Word of Life [i.e. Christ]—what we have seen and heard we proclaim to you” (1Jo.1.1,3).

6. The Path to Eternal Life is Costly

When Jesus came into the world, it became meaningful to ask about eternal life. His very person made the question credible. It is to Jesus the rich young ruler raises the question about eternal life. Jesus answers to the effect, “You have studied the Law. What does it say? Do not kill, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not bear false witness, do not…” We could imagine the young man saying to him, “Lord, I am not asking what I must not do, but what I must do, to inherit eternal life.”

The young man is to be commended for understanding that there was something he had to do to inherit eternal life. But when Jesus told him exactly what it was he needed to do, the young man was dumbfounded. He departed quietly and sorrowfully, for he found the cost too high.

The path to eternal life is so costly and difficult that we cannot walk it alone; without Jesus we cannot proceed along that path. Nor can we climb the ladder to heaven in our own strength. We go forward and upward together with Jesus, or not at all.

On the way to eternal life, two difficulties confront us immed­iately: Firstly, it is very costly to walk on that road. Secondly, the road is fraught with many dangers, one of the greatest of which is the false teachers who say that eternal life is a gift costs you nothing.

We must decide in our minds whether it is costly or not. Jesus says it is costly, but many people say it is not. It is difficult enough to grapple with the cost without having false teachers telling us that we are wasting our time because there is no cost at all. When the gospel is preached it will always be opposed by a false gospel.

7. Does Paul Have a Different Teaching?

When we talk about the high cost of eternal life as seen in Jesus’ teaching, some will immediately say that Paul’s teaching is different. They often refer to Acts 16.30-31 where the Philippian jailer asks Paul and Silas, “What must I do to be saved?” Paul re­plies, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household”.

You are probably more familiar with this verse than with Jesus’ answer regarding eternal life. Few Christian can recall the Jesus’ exact words to the rich young ruler, but most Christians can readily quote Paul’s statement, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.” This is taught to children already in Sunday school.

The obvious question arises, Are these two different answers? The question of eternal life seems to be getting one answer from Jesus and a different one from Paul. Are these contradictory answers?

8. The Lord’s Demand has Three Aspects

To resolve the apparent contradiction, we need to ob­serve that the Lord’s demand (or requirement to be met, or condition to be fulfilled) given to the rich young ruler has three aspects.

Firstly, it is a functional requirement, one that serves a signi­ficant spiritual purpose: to detach him from the world, so that he can become attached to Jesus. That is why the Lord uses the voca­bulary of action. In fact the whole passage is brimming with action verbs. Within one verse we see four powerful action verbs: Go, sell your possessions, and give to the poor; then come[87] follow me (Mt.19.21). The four verbs are go, sell, give, and follow. These are functional demands which we must fulfill if we are to inherit eternal life.

Secondly, the demand is a total demand. The Lord tells the rich young man to sell all that he has.

Thirdly, it is an impossible demand. “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (v.26). The Lord wants us to know that we cannot obtain salvation by our own abil­ity, cleverness, or will power. We don’t have the power to fulfill God’s requirements unless His grace operates in us through the Spirit.

Positionalism and Deception

Tragically, and contrary to the Lord’s teaching, many churches inter­pret salva­tion in a positional rather than a functional way. It is alleged that by faith a legal transition takes place that makes us positionally righteous even if nothing functional has actually taken place. God is said to establish our legal position as righteous so that we are declared righteous even if we are still enslaved to sin—a legal status without the corresponding reality!

Positionalism is legal fiction. To say that you have died when you have not died is legal fiction. No, it is worse than that, it is a lie. Fabric­ating a death certificate to make the legal authorities believe that you have died, is gross deception. Sending a letter to the government declaring that you are dead and won’t be paying taxes anymore, is fraud.

Even worse, God is alleged to be the perpetrator of this deception! Is this not a blasphemous suggestion? And on whom is this deception perpetrated? On Himself, who else? Is that not to suggest that God is deceiving Himself by so doing? Surely such notions are so twisted and perverse as to be unworthy of the Christian faith.

Furthermore, positional Christianity does not address the root problem at all. We previously considered the hypothetical case of a drug addict who is arrested for cocaine possession. He is brought before the judge, and is sentenced to imprisonment and a large fine. Then somebody comes along, either a good friend or a rich uncle, who offers to pay the huge fine and even to go to jail in his stead. The drug addict is now legally free, though he is still controlled by cocaine and the power of sin. What would be the point of legal for­giveness if he is being destroyed by cocaine and a sinful lifestyle?

This is not to say there is no legal pardon. There is. The point is that inheriting eternal life involves much more than that. From the term “eternal life” itself, it should be evident to any per­ceptive person that to receive it means receiving life, not just a pardon. “Eternal life” is the new life we can receive from God now and which continues into eternity.

9. A Closer Look at the Lord’s Threefold Requirement

First: A Functional Requirement

Jesus makes a practicable demand, one that can and must be obeyed in order to inherit eternal life. The important fact is that obedience to Jesus’ call opens the heart to the Holy Spirit to do God’s saving and transform­ing work in us.

But many preachers, by quoting certain verses selectively without reference to their context, interpret Paul to say that there is no demand. In this way, they put the apostle in the position of contradicting his Lord. But even if you suppose that the teaching of Paul is different from what Jesus teaches, whom should you follow, the servant or the Master?

Paul is in Perfect Harmony with His Master

Any suggestion of a difference between Jesus and Paul quickly collapses upon an examination of the vocabulary used in relation to eternal life. The crucial words here are “inherit eternal life”.

Both Mark (10.17) and Luke (18.18) agree in reporting that these were the words used by the rich young ruler. But he is certainly not the first to use this phrase. Jesus already used the word “inherit” at the beginning of his ministry in the third beatitude, “the meek will inherit the earth” (Mt.5.5). In the seventh beatitude he said, “the peacemakers…will be called the sons of God,” because peacemakers thereby prove themselves to be God’s children (Mt.5.9), and it is the children who inherit from their Father. Jesus also uses the phrase “inherit eternal life” in Matthew 19.29.

Likewise, the apostle Paul uses the words “inherit,” “inheritance” and “heir” frequently with reference to believers. The phrase “inherit the kingdom of God,” which is the equivalent of inheriting eternal life, is found in 1Cor. 6.9,10; 15.50; Gal.5.21. Nor is this usage confined to Paul; a similar use of “inherit” appears also in James 2.5; 1Peter 3.9; Revelation 21.7. “Inherit salvation” occurs in Hebrews 1.14.

Paul also speaks of “an inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God” (Eph.5.5; cf. Gal.3.18; Col.1.12; 3.24; Ac.20.32). The Holy Spirit “is given as a pledge of our inheritance, with a view to the redemption of God’s own possession, to the praise of His glory” (Eph.1.14).

Those who are entitled to inherit are called “heirs”. It is usually a person’s children who are named his heirs. This was true also in Biblical times: “When the tenants saw the son, they said among themselves, ‘This is the heir’” (Mt.21.38; Mk.12.6,7; Lk.20.13,14). In Luke 12.13 we hear of two sons squabbling over their inheritance. Accordingly, Paul writes concerning believers,

Because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.” So you are no longer a slave, but a son; and since you are a son, God has made you also an heir. (Gal.4.6-7, NIV)

And again,

Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory. (Ro.8.17)

The second passage shows that the apostle, like his Master, makes it clear that being the children and heirs of God is conditional upon sharing in Christ’s sufferings; the “if indeed” brings this out forcefully. Wasn’t Jesus calling the rich young ruler to follow him and share in his sufferings when he stated his functional requirements? Jesus was not asking him to do anything more (indeed, quite a lot less) than what he himself did, to suffer and to lay down his life for us.

To inherit certainly means to receive something, but to receive it in a particular way. In what way? To inherit does not mean to get something by one’s own efforts or through one’s own achievement; it does not mean to earn something. How then do we inherit something? The requirement or condition is that we are named in the will of someone to whom we are related in some specific way. Sons and/or daughters are usually named as inheritors.

Since only God can give eternal life, the question of how to inherit eternal life is therefore a question of how to enter into the Father-child relationship with God. It is precisely the requirements or conditions for inheriting eternal life that Jesus is talking about. It is the faithful and obedient children who prove to be truly God’s children.

Second: A Total Requirement

Secondly, the Lord’s call to the rich young ruler involves a total demand: Sell all that you have. That does not mean that he expects you to rush off to the marketplace and sell the shirt off your back and then freeze in the Canadian winter. As we saw in an earlier chapter, selling our possessions does not mean selling the things we need, but rather the things that are extra and which we store away. Do not store up treasure on earth, but store up treasure in heaven (Mt.6.19,20; Lk.18.22).

This does not, however, diminish the fact that the Lord’s demand is total. His total demand, moreover, goes far beyond material possessions. It includes our hearts, above all. It is possible to give away all our belongings, yet not have love (1Cor.13.3). We are called to love God with all our heart, all our soul, all our mind, all our strength; and our neighbor as ourselves.

Third: An Impossible Requirement

Thirdly, the Lord’s demand is an impossible demand. The natural man cannot possibly give up everything he has, much less his very self. Fulfilling God’s demand requires a miraculous transform­ation of heart. But preachers today remove the element of the impossible when they say, for example, that you need only believe that Jesus died for you. What is so difficult, much less impossible, about believing that Jesus loves you?

All of Europe is nominally Christian. In Germany and in Scan­dinavia, almost everyone is officially Lutheran. If you should ask them whether they are Christians, most of them would say, “Of course I am. What do you think I am, a heathen?” In Switzerland I once asked a woman if she was Christian, and she felt insulted. “Of course I am a Christian. Do I look like a heathen to you?” But how are you a Christian if you don’t even go to church? “But I do go to church—at Christmas!”

An impossible demand? For many people in Europe, it is impossible not to be a Christian (and therefore impossible not to believe in Jesus in some sense) since the alternative seems unthinkable: to be a hea­then, which appears to be more or less equivalent to being some kind of barbarian! You may not even be considered a member of Swiss or German society if you are not a Christian. Some Swiss people have told me that if you state that you have no religion, you might have difficulty getting hospital treatment, if more than simple treatment is required, or even getting a burial place in a cemetery.

10. The Free Gift of Eternal Life

Some Christians will say, “I know the Bible too. The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus. It is written there in Romans 6.23, in black and white. Eternal life is a free gift. A free gift, by definition, has no demands at all, much less a functional demand, a total demand, and an impossible de­mand. If a gift has any demands at all, it is no longer free.”

As was mentioned earlier, the path of eternal life is fraught with two great problems. Firstly, eternal life is very costly. Secondly, there are many traps along the way, with the greatest danger coming from false teachers. The second problem is more dangerous than the first. That is because you may be willing to accept the cost, but are unable to discern the false teachers. Most Christians are not sufficiently equipped in God’s word to handle these vital issues of the Christian life.

When quoting from Romans or any other part of Paul’s writings, it needs to be understood that this apostle of Jesus taught nothing different from what his Master taught. The need to choose between Jesus and Paul does not exist because there has never been a more faithful servant of Jesus than Paul.

You may protest, “But Romans 6.23 clearly says it’s a free gift!” My dear friend, don’t do what people were doing even in Paul’s day, namely, twisting his teachings by taking them out of the context of his general teaching and making him say what he didn’t intend to say. Peter gives this warning:

Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction. (2 Peter 3.15-16, NIV)

But there seems to be nothing particularly hard to understand about the words “the free gift of God”. Yes, the words as they stand are simple enough—until the important question is asked about whether God has said anything else about His free gift and how it is received. How, then, are these words to be correctly understood?

A basic principle of Biblical exegesis is to study the verse in context; this applies to human writing, how much more to the Scriptures? What is the context of the verse in which these words stand? Could it be that those who quote that verse have never noticed that it stands as the last verse of Romans 6? As the last verse, it is the conclusion of the whole chapter. Have they ever bothered to read that chapter to see how that conclusion was arrived at? Had they done so, they would have seen how exactly that free gift is received.

I was reading a magazine the other day, and I came across an interest­ing advertisement for a free book, which was promoted as follows: “This free gift will cost you your life. It cost me mine.” Yes, this gift is free but it is going to cost you your life. The advertise­ment was so intriguing that I cut it out for future reference. This book is about missionary work, and is sent free of charge, postage paid, to anyone who wants to know more about missions. It comes with a warning that if you read the book, you might want to become a missionary yourself. Yes, that free gift is going to cost you every­thing. The person in the ad says, “The free gift changed my life. After reading the book, I gave up everything, including my job, to become a missionary.”

Eternal life is a free gift, but a costly free gift.

11. A Brief Exposition of Romans 6: Death, Then Life

The first eight verses of Romans 6 talk about death, and they tell us that we must die before we can get life. Many Christians reverse the order, thinking that you get the free gift first, and then later you give up your life (but only if you want to). This is incorrect. Paul says our old self must die before we get the free gift of new, eternal life from God. He says in verses 1-4:

What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were there­fore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. (NIV)

Paul repeatedly talks about death before he talks about life. The “new life” in verse 4 does not take effect until we die with Christ, and are buried with him. As for our place in the world, we are dead and buried. Hence baptism is “baptism into death” (v.4). If anyone thinks it is a fictional death, let Paul tell him otherwise: “Far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Gal.6.14).

Paul glories in the cross. It is the means by which Paul died to the world, and the world to him; he is finished with the world, and the world with him. There is nothing fictional about it, as is per­fectly clear from his words, “I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ” (Phil.3.8).

What does all this mean for us? It means that Paul gladly fulfilled in his own life what Jesus required of the rich young ruler—and more. Listen to him as he bade the Ephesian elders farewell for the last time:

“…the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprison­ment and afflictions await me. But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.” (Acts 20.23,24, ESV).

Looking at the apostle’s teaching and at his life, how can anyone imagine that he taught and practiced anything differently from his Master? Anyone who construes Paul to stand in a position that contradicts his Lord must be held in contempt of God’s Word and, therefore, of God Himself.

12. To Whom Does God Give His Gift of Eternal Life?

Does anyone still think that Jesus and Paul taught differently? To clinch the matter, let us look yet more closely and carefully at the apostle’s teaching.

In order not to be guilty of irresponsibly lifting the “gift” of Romans 6.23 out of its context and misapplying it, it is also necess­ary to under­stand some other important aspects of Paul’s teaching directly relevant to this verse. In this connection, the concept of being a redeemed slave of God or of Christ is a very important one for Paul. He uses the word “slave” (doulos, δοῦλος) some thirty times; and the verb “to be a slave” and other cognate forms in another thirty instances. This adds up to a total of sixty times. It gives us an idea of its importance for him. Formerly we were slaves to sin, but now, in the new life, we are slaves of right­eousness, slaves of God.

The common term for the owner of slaves is “Lord”. This gives specific meaning to the term as it is applied to Jesus. This tells us one important way in which the apostle understood the term “Christ Jesus our Lord”. This term appears precisely in Romans 6.23, though Paul also uses it frequently elsewhere.

In the immediate context of Romans chapter 6, the word “slave” (doulos) appears in vv.16,17,19,20; “enslave” (douloō) vv.18,22; “to be, and to serve, as slave” (douleuō) v.6. These amount to seven occurrences of doulos and its cognates in this chapter alone. It is obvious, therefore, that the concept of slave with its associated ideas is central to this chapter. So any proper exposition of this chapter must work with these dominant ideas.

In view of these facts, let us read Romans 6.22-23. We immed­iately discover that these ideas are woven into these verses them­selves as part of their very fabric:

22 But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves to God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life. 23 For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Consider carefully verse 22: Eternal life is the result of being a slave to God. Notice, too, that “eternal life” is mentioned in both these verses. This indicates that it is the subject of these verses. In them, significantly, Paul describes salvation as having a definite sequential order: (i) freedom from sin; (ii) becoming slaves of God; (iii) sanctification/holiness; (iv) the gift of eternal life. Can it be stated any more clearly than that? It is the slaves of God who receive the gift of eternal life.

Verses 22 and 23 are linked by the word “for”; again emphasizing the fact that receiving the free gift of eternal life is inseparable from being slaves of God. Yet many preachers quote Paul out of context, and think they can dish out eternal life like confetti: “Stretch out your hands, and eternal life will drop from the sky!”

Unlike a hired worker, a slave receives no wages from his master as hired workers do. A slave works for nothing, and anything that he gets is a free gift. Only slaves of God will receive eternal life as a free gift. As slaves, we are not legally entitled to wages, yet God is so gracious a Master that He gives us something far better than wages: the gift of eternal life. Even more amazing, Jesus is willing to die for his slaves in order to secure eternal life for them!

Although we are rightfully his slaves, having been “bought with a price” as the apostle tells us (1Cor.6.20; 7.23), yet Jesus (with whose blood we were bought, Acts 20.28) told his disciples that he considers them friends rather than slaves (Jo.15.15).

Does anyone still ignorantly imagine that Paul teaches something different from Jesus?

As for Paul, he considers “slave” a title of the greatest honor for himself. Many of his letters begin with, “Paul, a slave of Jesus Christ” (e.g. Romans 1.1), which is sometimes translated as “Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ”. Interestingly, Paul never refers to himself specifically as a “son of God”. It is to His beloved slaves that God gives the gift of eternal life.



[85] In Mt.19.22 he is described as “young” and “had great wealth,” and as a “ruler” in Lk.18.18.

[86] A lawyer was one who specialized in Old Testament law and its application to daily life.

[87] The Greek deuro, here translated as “come,” is an adverb. Though it is not a verb it sometimes functions rather like a verb. Here, in the Greek, it is joined with the word immediately following it: “come follow,” thus forming one unit.

 

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