“16 And, behold, one came and said unto him, Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life? 17 And he said unto him, Why callest thou me good? [there is] none good but one, [that is], God: but if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments.
18 He saith unto him, Which? Jesus said, Thou shalt do no murder, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, 19 Honour thy father and [thy] mother: and, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.
20 The young man saith unto him, All these things have I kept from my youth up: what lack I yet? 21 Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go [and] sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come [and] follow me. 22 But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful: for he had great possessions.” (Matthew 19)
When discussing how someone can gain eternal life, Mormons have frequently pointed to these words Jesus spoke to the rich young man – especially his words in v. 17: “but if thou will enter into life, keep the commandments.” They then often state that these words show that keeping the commandments are essential for gaining eternal life. Case closed.
But does that interpretation even coincide with what Mormonism teaches? As many Mormons are quick to point out, Mormonism does talk about grace. Mormonism teaches that no one can gain eternal life by their own merits. “For we know that it is by grace we are saved, after all we can do” (2 Nephi 25:23) is one of the foundational passages of the LDS Church. Mormonism teaches that it takes a combination of God’s grace and man’s effort to enter God’s presence. “The phrase ‘after all we can’ teaches that effort is required on our part to receive the fullness of the Lord’s grace and be made worthy to dwell with Him.” (True to the Faith, p. 77)
But that is not what Jesus told the young man! He doesn’t even hint at grace. All he talks about is keeping the commandments. If Mormons want to point to these words as a template for gaining eternal life then they had better not mention grace at all – because Jesus doesn’t. Here Jesus says it’s 100% – not 50%, not 25%, not 1% – but 100% about keeping the commandments.
That is God’s consistent answer to the question: “what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?” If the question is about what a person needs to do, then God’s answer is you have to do everything. You have to perfectly keep all the commandments. If that is the question, then grace is not part of the answer.
That, my friends, is a sobering answer. It is one that can easily lead to despair. And that is God’s exact intent! He wants people to despair – of their own goodness and efforts. That is what Jesus wanted to accomplish with the young man – he wanted the young man to throw up his hands at the impossibility of doing this. He wanted that because only people who realize that they are in deep trouble look to him for rescue.
Suppose, for a moment, that there was a person who had to get across the ocean but didn’t realize how big it was. He was a good swimmer so he thought he could swim across. He was convinced that he could do it, even after many told him he couldn’t. Finally they urge him to get into the water and start swimming. They do that for the express purpose of proving to him that he will fail – so that he won’t try when nobody will be around to save him.
Jesus was doing a similar thing with this young man. He wanted to impress upon him the impossibility of his keeping all the commandments. Thus no mention of grace. Contrary to what Mormonism teaches salvation is not a both/and proposition. It is not both by grace and works. It is an either/or proposition. Either by grace or by works. It’s one or the other. Not both/and. The story of the young man, contrary to what many Mormons state, does not support the both/and proposition, but the either/or one. This is an important point to remember when this story is being discussed.
Even more important to see – and believe – is that our salvation depends 100% on what Jesus did and 0% on what we do. To him be all the glory!