In Mark 10, a young rich man eagerly comes to Jesus. He is a winner who does not want to give up trying to win.
The good thing about him is that he has a desire for something more, something beyond worldly winning. He asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
It is good to ask about eternal life, but his question reveals a deep flaw. You see, as Robert Capon notes, while he wants something more, he can’t imagine pursuing it in any other way than doing through more winning and striving. His question shows he believes there are techniques for inheriting eternal life.
Breaking the Law
Jesus knows the man’s mindset. He responds, “You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’” Jesus is showing him that the law can save no one because the law can be kept by no one. He’s bringing up the law so the young man will take an honest look at how unsuccessful he’s been at practicing the righteousness he thinks is the answer to his problems.
But instead of recognizing his shortcomings as measured by these basic commands, this guy cuts Jesus off with, “I’ve done all those things perfectly since I was a kid.” In effect what he’s saying is, “Why don’t you give me a harder, more grown-up spiritual assignment?”
And how does Jesus respond? This is good for us to see. After being cut-off and ignored, Jesus looks at him and loves him. That’s what he does to us.
Jesus loves us when we don’t get it, when we rebel, when we rely on our own selves and not him. He is the picture of perfect, patient love.
So, with patient love and cosmic understatement, Jesus presses the law even further. “You only have to do one simple little thing.” The man’s eyes widen with anticipation. “Sell all that you have and give to the poor . . . and follow me.”
Jesus has really just applied the first of the Ten Commandments to this rich guy: Worship no other gods but God. Serve nothing but God. Jesus is revealing to him how much he fails to fulfill the commandments because he worships his wealth so much and asking him to give it up.
Jesus does the same thing to us, too. It might not be riches, but it could be anything you love more than God. Your idol is whatever you rely on to justify your existence. This text is not really about wealth, but idolatry. We are all guilty of loving something more than God, so Jesus turns the law on us, too.
Intensifying the Law
There is a reason we write about law and gospel so much: it’s because Jesus and the Apostle Paul talked and wrote about it so much. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus intensified the law when he took the Ten Commandments and told us, it is not just about our outward behavior. If you sin inwardly you have broken all of the law.
Then, in Matthew 22:37 he summarized the law with two prongs. He was asked, “What is the greatest commandment?” He replied: “Love God with all your heart” (summarizing the first four commandments), and “Love your neighbor as yourself” (summarizing the last six).
Jesus made the law even more dangerous and intense than it was in the Old Testament. He wasn’t just explaining an ethical code for his followers—he was freaking people out so they would know their need for a Savior.
This is what’s supposed to happen when we read: “Love the Lord with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength . . . and love your neighbor as yourself.” That is the law pointing directly at us and asking us to give an account. Our response is not “Sure, that sounds easy and fun,” but instead “Lord have mercy on us!” We need mercy because we fail at those two things.
You don’t love God or your neighbor perfectly. That’s why you need a Savior.
The Law is a Mirror
You see, the law is a mirror. It reflects to us our problem, our condition, our need, and our death. The law is good because it shows us reality. When we look in the mirror, it says, “You need to shave or apply some make-up.” Like a mirror, the law shows us our problem, but it doesn’t fix our problem. The law cannot generate what it commands.
The correct response to understanding the perfect law of a perfect God is what the disciples say in Mark 10:26: “Who then can be saved?”
When applied to sin, the law curses us with judgment. In the presence of the law, only a holy substitute can save us, or else we leave in depression like the young man. Look at what the Apostle Paul says in Romans 7 and 8: “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! . . . There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do” (Romans 7:24–8:3).
Jesus died on the cross in our place to take away our curse for breaking God’s law. Galatians 3:13 says, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us.”
Because of the cross and resurrection of Jesus, there is an answer to the disciples’ question, “Who then can be saved?” The good news comes when Jesus says, “With man [salvation] is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God” (Mark 10:27).
That’s the point of the law and the gospel: with us, salvation is impossible (law), but for God, everything is possible (gospel). It’s when we face the impossibility of doing anything to save ourselves that the gospel of Jesus floods in.