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27. The Path of Eternal Life

– Chapter 27 –

The Path of Eternal Life

What must I do to inherit eternal life?

Let us continue to explore that most important question which the rich young ruler [1] asks the Lord Jesus. We have by no means exhausted the significance of his inquiry. Because of its import­ance, his question merits a second look from a different angle.

The importance of this account (which is found in all three synoptics, in Mt.19:16-30, Mk.10:17-31, Lk.18:18-30) lies in the fact that this is the only event in the gospels in which Jesus is sincerely asked this most vital question: What must I do to inherit eternal life?

I said “sincerely” because there are other ways to ask that quest­ion, perhaps out of intellectual, philosoph­ical, or theological interest for the purpose of academic discussion or debate. This is seen in Luke 10:25 where a lawyer (a specialist in the Old Testament law and its applica­tion to daily life) asks Jesus the same question. Either out of academic curiosity or possibly 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 conversation with the concise instruction, “Go and do likewise” (Lk.10:37).

By contrast the rich young man has a sin­cere and seeking heart. He does not treat the matter of eternal life as an academic question, and is hence only a step away from the king­dom and eternal life. But sadly his riches prevented him from taking that step. For him, giving up his possessions was comparable to giving up his life. 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)

The question of eternal life is that of the meaning of life. Before Jesus came into the world, the question of eternal life, or how to inherit it, 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 pointless. 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 much 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 as an academic or speculative topic but as something that is attain­able. There was something in the person and ministry of Jesus Christ that made that question mean­ingful.

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 70, 80, or 90 years of life in this world, the end will finally come. Life must reach its finish line, its terminus, and all its labors and achievements in the world will come to a final halt.

Many 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. He felt that this degree was his greatest achieve­ment in life.

Some academics in England, after having earned multiple degrees, join the Royal Geo­graphical Society. By joining the Society you can 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 think you are a surgeon!

Some people seek achievement not in the aca­demic world but in business. But after we have established our little business empire, the whole endeavor looks futile when we reach the end of our lives. But even before that, the achievements will look like a cruel joke if the years of hard work are reduced to zero by bank­ruptcy, which does happen in the business world.

I have a childhood friend who grew up together with me. Her mother and my mother were 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 but aging businessman, so he was glad to hand the reins of his business enterprise over to her. She became the 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’s 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 each other. I asked her how she was enjoying business. She found it boring: “I have learned a lot about business administration, 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. 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 tragic when people cannot find the meaning of life.

What is the meaning of life?

Without the hope of eternal life, there is nothing of enduring mean­ing to live for. 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, 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 will pass away. The glorious kingdoms of the past are now found 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 to me even if it were true, as ghost stories affirm. Perhaps the noblest thing to do in the face of such hopelessness is to put on a brave smile, and stoically accept the fact that one day all things will vanish into oblivion.

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 things are transient. He wanted some­thing enduring, eternal. Wealth, education and status did not provide him with an answer to the all-important question of eternal life.

Before Jesus came into the world, humankind was groping about in the 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 as 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)

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 everything away, including every proud achievement, from the sands of earthly existence.

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 it is swept 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.

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 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 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). Paul was one of 276 people on a ship that was being ripped 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 rattling in the churning sea and howling wind. He was probably a frail man, about sixty years old, with many scars on his face and body, a testimony to the beatings and stoning he had received during his mission­ary jour­neys. His body was weakened by hardship and disease. Some scholars (based on hints in his letters, especially Gal.4:13,14) think he may have contracted mal­aria while traveling through inhospitable terrains in Asia Minor on one of his missionary journeys; others suggest that he had contracted some kind of eye disease. This frail man gripped the railing as the ship was 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.” We can imagine one of the sailors saying to him, “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. Then 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 promise in the face of a hopeless situa­tion.

Here was a man to whom God sent a personal messenger from heaven. The mention of an angel carried weight with heathen sailors who believed in spiritual beings. Paul’s words reassured them. This was almost certain­ly the reason God sent an angel to him on this occasion, for it was not the usual way God communicated with him.

There is no other recorded instance of an angel carrying a mess­age from God to the apostle, for Paul did not need an angelic intermediary to facilitate his communion with God, with whom he walked. Indeed Paul had an abundance of “visions and revelations from the Lord” (2Cor.12:1), even “surpassingly great revelations,” such that a “thorn” was placed in his flesh to keep him from being conceited (v.7).

Since the days of Noah, how many have walked with God? There was Abraham. But after him, it was a long time before Moses and later Elijah and Elisha came into the scene. In history only a few have walked with God closely enough to carry the torch of hope against the tide of hopeless­ness. In these 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 storm. Though the disciples were experienced sea­men, they became afraid whereas Jesus was sleeping peacefully in the midst of the storm. The disciples woke him up, 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 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 share of suffering when he was exiled to Patmos. The apostles lived, suffered, and died for the truth concerning Christ of which they were eyewitnesses.

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 was Jesus whom the rich young ruler asked about eternal life. Jesus answered him 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 can 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 is something one has to do to inherit eternal life. But when Jesus told him 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 on 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 that costs you nothing.

We must decide in our minds whether it is costly or not. Jesus says it is costly, but many say it is not. It is difficult enough to grapple with the cost without having false teachers telling us 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.

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 in which 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’ teaching about inheriting eternal life. Few Christians can recall Jesus’ exact words to the rich young ruler, but most can readily quote Paul’s statement, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.” This is taught to many children 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 another from Paul. Are these contradictory answers?

The Lord’s demand has three aspects

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

Firstly, it is a functional requirement that serves a spiritual purpose: to detach the rich young ruler from the world so that he may 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 [2] follow me (Mt.19:21). The four verbs are go, sell, give, and follow. These are function­al demands that 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 God Himself, who else? Does that not imply that God is deceiving Himself in so doing? Such notions are so twisted and per­verse as to be unworthy of the Christian faith.

More than that, positional Christianity does not address the root problem. We previously considered the hypothetical case of a drug addict who is arrested for cocaine possession. He is brought before the judge, and sentenced to imprisonment and a large fine. Then some­body comes along, a good friend or a rich uncle, who offers to pay the huge fine and even go to jail in his stead. In this hypothetical case, 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 still being destroyed by cocaine and a sinful lifestyle?

This is not to say that 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 that to receive it means receiving life, not just a pardon. “Eternal life” is the new life we receive from God now, and which continues into eternity.

A closer look at the Lord’s threefold requirement

First: A functional requirement

Jesus makes a practicable demand, one that must be obeyed to inherit eternal life. Obedience to this call opens our hearts to the Holy Spirit to do God’s saving and transform­ing work in us. But many preachers quote verses selectively without refer­ence to their context to make Paul say that there is no demand. They thus put the apostle in the position of contradicting his Lord. But even if you think that Paul’s teach­ing 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 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,” since peacemakers thereby prove themselves to be God’s children (Mt.5:9), and since it is the children who inherit from their Father. Jesus also uses the phrase “inherit eternal life” in Matthew 19:29.

Paul likewise 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 restricted to Paul; a similar use of “inherit” appears also in James 2:5; 1Pet.3:9; Rev.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; Acts 20:32). The Holy Spirit “is given as a pledge of our inheritance, with a view to the redemption of God’s own possession” (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 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, two sons squab­ble 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. (Galatians 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. (Romans 8:17)

The second of these passages shows that Paul, like his Master, teaches that being the children and heirs of God is conditional upon sharing in Christ’s sufferings; the “if indeed” brings this out forcefully. Didn’t Jesus call 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, a lot less) than what Jesus himself did, namely, lay down his life for us.

To inherit certainly means to receive something, but in a particu­lar way. What way? To inherit something does not mean getting it by one’s own efforts or achievement; it is not earned. In inheriting some­thing, the requirement or condit­ion is that we are named in the will of someone to whom we are related in some way. Sons and daughters are usually named as inheritors.

Since only God can give eternal life, the question of how to inherit eternal life is a question of how to enter into the Father-child relationship with God. That is precisely the requirement or condition for inheriting eternal life which Jesus talks 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. It doesn’t mean that he expects you to rush off to the marketplace, sell the shirt off your back, and freeze in the Canadian winter. As we saw earlier, selling our possessions does not mean selling the things we need but selling 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).

But this does not 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 takes a miraculous transform­ation of heart. But preachers today remove the element of the impossible when they say that you need only believe that Jesus died for you. What is so difficult, much less impossible, about believing that Jesus loves you?

Europe is nominally Christian. In Germany and Scandinavia, al­most everyone is officially Lutheran. If you ask them whether they are Christians, most 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 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 a barbarian! You may not even be considered a member of Swiss or German society if you are not Christian. Some Swiss people have told me that if you state that you have no religion, you may have difficulty getting hospital treatment beyond basic care, or getting a burial place in a cemetery.

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, an impossible de­mand. If a gift has any demands, it is no longer free.”

As we 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 because you may be willing to accept the high 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 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 is imaginary 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)

To be sure, there is nothing particularly hard to understand about the words “the free gift of God”. The words as they stand are simple enough — until the vital question is asked whether the Bible says 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. If this is true of human writing, how much more of Scripture? What then is the context of Romans 6:23? Have we failed to notice that it stands as the last verse of Romans chapter 6, and is therefore its conclusion? Have we ever bothered to read chapter 6 to see how Paul’s conclusion was arrived at?

While reading a magazine the other day, I came across an inter­est­ing ad for a free book that 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 ad 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 about missions. It comes with a warning that if you read the book, you might 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.

A brief exposition of Romans 6

Death, then life

The first part of Romans 6, spanning verses 1 to 8, is about death, and says that we must die before we get life. Many Christians reverse the order: get the free gift first, then later 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 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. “I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ” (Phil. 3:8). Hence Paul fulfilled in his own life what Jesus required of the rich young ruler, and more. In bidding the Ephesian elders farewell for the last time, Paul says:

“… 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 Paul’s life and teaching, how can anyone imagine that he taught and practiced anything differently from his Master? Anyone who construes Paul to contradict his Lord must be held in contempt of God’s Word and, therefore, of God Himself.

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 at Paul’s teaching.

To avoid lifting the “gift” of Romans 6:23 out of its context and distorting it, we need to under­stand some other important aspects of Paul’s teaching directly relevant to this verse. The concept of 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 another thirty times, for a total of sixty times, indicating its importance for him. Formerly we were slaves to sin, but now we are slaves of right­eousness and of God.

“Lord” is the common term for the owner of a slave. This gives specific meaning to the term “Lord” as it is applied to Jesus, including the term “Christ Jesus our Lord” which appears precisely in Romans 6:23, though Paul also uses it frequently elsewhere.

In Romans chapter 6, “slave” (doulos) appears in vv.16,17,19,20; “enslave” (douloō) in vv.18,22; “to be, and to serve, as slave” (douleuō) in v.6. These amount to seven occurrences of doulos and its cognates in this chapter alone. Hence the concept of slave with its associated ideas is central to this chapter.

In view of these biblical facts, let us read Romans 6:22-23. We will immed­iately discover the same ideas which are woven into these verses 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.

Verse 22 says that eternal life is the result of being a slave of God! Notice that “eternal life” is mentioned in both these verses, indicating that it is the subject of these verses. In them Paul portrays salvation as having a definite sequential order: (i) freedom from sin; (ii) be­coming a slave 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,” emphasizing again that receiving the free gift of eternal life is inseparable from being slaves of God. Yet many preachers quote Paul out of context, and 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. A slave works for nothing, so anything he gets is 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 in order to secure eternal life for his slaves!

Though we are rightfully slaves of Jesus, having been “bought with a price” (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 (Jn.15:15).

Does anyone still think that Paul teaches something different from Jesus? Paul regards “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), sometimes translated as “Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ”. Interestingly, Paul never refers to himself as a “son of God”.

It is to His beloved slaves that God gives the gift of eternal life.



[1] He is often referred to as “the rich young ruler” in Christian literature because he is young and wealthy (Mt.19:22) and is a ruler (Lk.18:18).

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

 

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