“And behold, a man came up to him, saying, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” … Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” (Matthew 19:16,21).
Now, to be saved one does not have to sell all they have and give it to the poor. That's not how we're saved. According to the gospel we're saved by grace through faith, apart from our works. So why did Jesus tell the rich man to do this? There are a few ways in which people try to figure this out. According to one theological “system of thought”, people prior to the resurrection of Christ were saved by the good deeds that they did. However, I cannot agree with this in any way; the Bible makes it clear that it is impossible for a man to be saved by his works, which will never be good enough. We are saved through faith and mankind always has been saved through faith. Of those living in the Old Testament period under Moses, but who rebelled against God, the Book of Hebrews says “For good news came to us just as to them, but the message they heard did not benefit them, because they were not united by faith with those who listened.” (Hebrews 4:2) Faith has always been necessary for salvation. Alternatively, then, there are those who say that our good deeds, whilst they don't save us, will earn us “rewards” in heaven. And these people will point to verse 21 of Matthew 19, cited above... “go, sell... and you will have treasure in heaven...” Now, I was involved in a fellowship that took this particular view.
Peter, upon hearing this, remarked “See, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” Jesus replies, “Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name's sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life.” The way I see it, the man had asked about how he could obtain eternal life, and the answer was that he should give to the poor and follow Christ to inherit eternal life. And Jesus is saying to Peter, who thinks that there might be some special reward for their sacrifice, that anyone who forsakes anything for Christ will receive “a hundredfold” and inherit eternal life. What my friends at that fellowship seemed to do was divide Christians into two groups – those that are going to inherit eternal life, and those who, for their great sacrifices to Christ, would inherit eternal life “and then some...” But this passage, if it refers to anything over and above eternal life itself at all, seems to apply it all to a single group of people. If you're saved you will forsake the various things of this world which prevent you from serving Christ. Why did Jesus tell this man to sell all that he had if he wanted eternal life? The point was not that we are saved by some good deed such as this, but rather that this was Jesus Christ Himself asking this man to do something, but he would not. The passage says that the man “went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.” Jesus was showing the man that to be saved one must follow Christ as their Lord. Jesus told him this quite clearly; in verse 21 He said, “come, follow me.” In another passage of Scripture, Jesus said “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 16:24). In another place He said, “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” (Matthew 6:24). All who will inherit eternal life itself will necessarily have forsaken whatever idols stand in the place of God.
As though this isn't clear enough, Jesus continues to answer Peter with a parable. I'll summarize the parable quickly, from Matthew 20:1-16. A master hires some men one morning to work for him. Later in the day he hires some more men, and later still he hires some more. But at the end of the day he pays all of the men the same amount. Those who were hired in the morning complain saying, “But we worked longer than the others!” But the master says, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong. … Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?” (Matthew 20:13,15). Pay given to one who works is earned; it is not an act of generosity to give it to him. So the employer, here, is referring to what is over and above the few hours that these men worked. It is a gift. But, it is clear that it was not earned; it was given to the ones who did less work. The more we understand that our performance doesn’t earn us anything, the more, in fact, that we will be rewarded.
The Christian life is likened to servanthood throughout the Bible. Every Christian is a servant of God. If the idea of being a servant makes you sorrowful, then you are in the place of the man who came to Jesus asking how he might have eternal life. There is, perhaps, something you're not willing to give up. But what we really need to do is trust God that our lives are better off without something, or that we’re better off doing something He desires of us. One thing I have found is that I am never happier than when I am doing the will of God. If I know I ought to be doing something but I don't want to do it, then before long I find myself depressed and wondering why I'm feeling so down. And then I remember, and I begin to do what I know I ought to be doing, and my joy and happiness are restored! But what is my motivation? Not some reward in heaven, nor trying to earn God's favour by doing good, but simply that Christ is worthy of all that I have. For the Apostle Paul, simply to be doing the work of God was his reward. (Philippians 3:14). My own joy and happiness in doing God’s will are my reward. And when I have given all that I have, I am still just a servant after all...
Will any one of you who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, “Come at once and recline at table?” Will he not rather say to him, “Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink?” Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, “We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.” (Luke 17:7-10)