"And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. 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.’” And he 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.” Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions" (Mark 10:17-22, ESV).
“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” That is the question asked and answered in Mark 10:17-22 and its parallels in Matthew 19:16-22 and Luke 18:18-23. The core of these three passages is the same, even though there are minor variations between them. In Mark 10:17-22, someone comes to Jesus saying, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus responds, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” One way this has been interpreted (e.g. by Jehovah’s Witnesses) is to understand Jesus as saying, Why are you calling me good? Only God is absolutely good and I’m not God.”
This interpretation, however, would contradict the broader context of Mark which clearly presents Jesus as saying and doing things that, in a first century Jewish context, would only be true of God. For example, Jesus is portrayed by Mark as claiming to directly forgive sins (Mark 2:2-12), to be Lord over the Sabbath (Mark 2:23-28), to overturn Old Testament dietary laws (Mark 7:19) et al.
Second, if Jesus was denying his deity, it seems a little strange that he would say that the way to eternal life was to follow him. In the Old Testament, “life” came through absolute covenant allegiance to God alone, not from following any prophet.
Finally, as we shall see in the immediate context, far from denying his deity, Jesus is actually testing the man, almost as if to say, “Are you coming to me as a good teacher who can answer your question, or are you coming to me as the Good One (God) who can give you the eternal life you seek?”
Jesus’ response to the question of how to gain eternal life is the same in all three passages: Keep the Commandments. The man responds saying “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.” The text says, Jesus “loved him” and told him he lacked one thing. As we will soon see, Jesus was not suggesting that this man needed to do one more good deed in order to be saved. Jesus was about to test the man on his claim to have kept the Commandments. The test was to sell what he owned, giving the proceeds to the poor, and to follow Jesus.
Jesus’ instruction for the man to sell everything is puzzling because Jesus did not tell everyone else to sell all they had in order to follow him. For example, he apparently didn’t tell Mary, Martha and Lazarus to sell their home, since Jesus stayed there on his travels to Jerusalem. When a man in the Decapolis begged to follow Jesus, Jesus didn’t tell him to sell his home either, but rather to return home and tell all the good things God had done for him (Luke 8:39). Similarly, the Gospel of John records that after Jesus’ death, one of the disciples took Jesus mother to the disciple’s home (John 19:26-27). If this disciple was John, as many interpreters assume, then not even one of Jesus’ inner circle of disciples had been required to sell everything! Other examples could be cited, but the important question is, why was Jesus telling this man to sell everything when Jesus had not made that demand of others?
That answer is that Jesus was testing this man. The man had claimed to have kept all of the Commandments so Jesus tested him on the very first Commandment—“You shall have no other gods before me.” Jesus was asking the man to demonstrate that he valued Jesus (the Good One) more than he valued his possessions. The man’s response indicated that he valued his possessions more than he valued Jesus. Contrary to the man’s claim to have kept all the Commandments, he failed on the very first one!
So how, according to Jesus, does one inherit eternal life? Keep the Commandments! But doesn’t this contradict Paul’s teaching that no one is justified by “works of the Law” and that by the Law comes the knowledge of sin (Romans 3:20, 28; Galatians 2:16; 3:5, 10)? Isn’t this understanding of Jesus’ teaching the kind of “salvation by works” which Paul so strongly condemns? Many have thought so. Many critics boldly declare that Paul taught a different Gospel than Jesus. Some Evangelicals have tried to deal with the issue by relegating the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) to the “Dispensation of the Law.” In fact, a pastor once told me, “There is precious little gospel in the Gospels”). I am convinced, however, that there is no contradiction between Jesus and Paul.
First, we need to understand that when Jesus tells people to keep the Commandments, he is not thinking of a legalistic following of rules and regulations. It was precisely this kind of heartless legalism that Jesus condemned so strongly in the Pharisees. We see this, for example, in Jesus’ story of the Pharisee and the tax collector. The Pharisee boasted in his good deeds, while the tax collector cried out, “God be merciful to me, a sinner.” Jesus said it was not the Pharisee, but the tax collector who went away justified (Luke 18:9-14).
Likewise, when Paul repeatedly condemns salvation by works he was attempting to refute a misinterpretation of the Law by those who focused, not on the heart, but on a legalistic following of the rules and regulations in order to be saved. That was a misuse of the Law by which no one could be saved because no one can keep the Law perfectly.
Second, for both Jesus and Paul, the essence of the Law was to love God with all one’s being, and to love one’s neighbor (and even one’s enemy). That Jesus understood the Law this way is clear from a story in which a teacher of the Law tried to test Jesus asking “What shall I do to inherit eternal life.” When Jesus asked him what the Law said, the lawyer replied, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus replied, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live” (Luke, 10:27-28). In Matthew’s version, Jesus adds, “On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:34-40). For Jesus, the essence of the Law was to love God with every fiber of one’s being and to love one’s neighbor as one’s self.
Although Paul sums up the Law as love for neighbors in Galatians 5:14 and Romans 13:9 there can be no doubt that he assumed love for God as well. So for both Paul and Jesus, keeping the Law was at its core about loving devotion to God above all else. The twist is that Jesus taught that he and the Father are One. He taught that his followers must love him (Jesus) more than father, mother, sister, brother, son, daughter or even their own lives, i.e. to have no other gods before him (Matthew 10:37; Matthew 16:24-26; Mark 8:34-37; Luke 9:23; Luke 14:26; John 12:25).
Third, both Jesus and Paul were reflecting the teaching of the Law itself. In the Law, keeping the Commandments was always intended to spring from a heart of loving devotion toward God. Exodus 20:5 said that God shows “steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.” Deuteronomy 6:4-6 said, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart.” Deuteronomy 11:1 said, “You shall therefore love the Lord your God and keep his charge, his statutes, his rules, and his commandments always. Deuteronomy 7:9 said that God “keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments.” This quote was later repeated in Daniel 9:4 and Nehemiah 1:15.
In fact, Isaiah 1 made it very clear that a covenant relationship with God was not just about keeping commandments by rote. God, though Isaiah, condemns the people of Israel, likening them to Sodom and Gomorrah (1:10), saying that he is fed up with their sacrifices, offerings, feast days and Sabbath observances—all of which were commanded in the Law! What God wanted first was their repentance—a change of heart! The Law, at its core, was intended to be about absolute loving devotion and allegiance to God. Keeping the Commandments was to be an act of obedience springing from this kind of faith.
Similarly, for both Jesus and Paul, keeping commandments was the fruit of a heart of loving devotion/allegiance to God, not a means by which one was to earn eternal life (John 15:5-8; Luke 18:9-14; Romans 1:5; 16:26; Romans 2:6-8; Ephesians 2:8-10; Acts 26:20). This heart of loving devotion to the Lord results in keeping the commandments (John 14:15, 21; 23-24, 1 John 5:2-3).
Far from contradicting Jesus, Paul was teaching exactly what Jesus taught, and both were teaching what the Law had taught—the twist being that Jesus claimed to be one with the Father. So when Paul insists that we are saved by faith, he is not speaking of intellectual assent to certain doctrines. He is not talking about merely repeating a prayer to “ask Jesus into your heart” or to “receive Christ” like one would receive a gift. He’s not even talking about “trusting Christ” like one would trust a chair by sitting in it (According to Matthew 7:21-23 there are people who are trusting that Christ will accept them into heaven but will be sadly mistaken). By the word “faith”, Paul is referring to the kind of loving devotion and allegiance to the Lord (the Good One) above all else demanded by the Law of Moses and by Jesus himself. This is why Paul wrote that “If anyone has no love for the Lord, let him be accursed” (1 Corinthians 16:22).
In other words, salvation in the Old Testament was by grace through a covenant devotion/allegiance to God above all else—an allegiance which resulted in keeping the Commandments. Jesus agreed, but insisted that this loving devotion or allegiance to God consisted of allegiance to him. Paul’s word for this Spirit instilled heart of loving devotion/allegiance to the Lord above all is “faith.”
Of course no one other than Jesus has ever kept the Law perfectly and no one loves the Father with the kind of absolute devotion Jesus had. But that is why God instituted the sacrifices under the Old Covenant, pointing to the One Final Sacrifice under the New Covenant. As we saw in Isaiah 1, however, even the sacrifices were of no avail if someone was just going through the motions apart from a heart of faith.
 According to Matthew’s Gospel Jesus asks, “Why do you ask me about what is good” but the point is the same. “Why are you asking me about what is good”—are you coming to me as a teacher who can give you an answer OR as the One who can grant you the eternal life you seek?
 This is also true of John the Baptist: Luke 3:8.