If you read through the gospels, you may find that there seem to be a few options on how one can receive eternal life, or be saved, or enter the kingdom of heaven. I want to look at two such instances and see if in fact there are multiple options for salvation.
Option One Scenario: The Rich Young Ruler – Luke 18:18-27
18 And a ruler asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 19 And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. 20 You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, Do not murder, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother.’” 21 And he said, “All these I have kept from my youth.” 22 When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” 23 But when he heard these things, he became very sad, for he was extremely rich. 24 Jesus, seeing that he had become sad, said, “How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! 25 For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” 26 Those who heard it said, “Then who can be saved?” 27 But he said, “What is impossible with men is possible with God.”
Option One Summary:
It seems on the surface that inheriting eternal life involves keeping the commandments and then selling all your possessions and following Jesus.
Option Two Scenario: Nicodemus – John 3:1-18
1 Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. 2 This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” 4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? 11 Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.
Option Two Summary:
Here we learn that we must be born again and believe in Jesus. It says nothing here about commandments or the poor. So what is the deal? Are there different ways to heaven?
First of all, notice the opening statements of each individual. By the way, both of these guys were Jewish rulers. We know Nicodemus was a Pharisee. Perhaps the young man was as well, we don’t know for sure. But they both would have known the Scriptures pretty well and the young man shows he knows and has kept (so he says) the commandments.
The young ruler, though, starts off his conversation with “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Right out of the gate, he is looking for what he can do. Jesus plays along. Nicodemus’ conversation starts a little different. He actually doesn’t ask anything, he just makes a simple observation: that Jesus is obviously from God because of the signs He had been doing. At the end of Chapter Two, many Jews believed in His name because of these signs, but this doesn’t seem to have led to salvation as Jesus did not entrust himself to the people. He did not believe in them or there ‘belief’. So Jesus goes further here with Nicodemus and later explains what ‘belief’ He is looking for. They both seem to sense something is lacking. In fact, in Matthew’s account of the young ruler, he actually asks “what do I still lack?” Nicodemus seems as well to be searching for more. He did in fact come to Jesus at night.
Back to the young ruler, though. He thought salvation could be obtained by works. He was proud of what he had done and wanted perhaps to hear that he had done enough. Jesus cut to his heart though when He told him to sell his possessions and give to the poor and then follow Him. The young ruler was very wealthy, which was understood to be a sign of God’s favor. But it seems here to have no impact on God’s favor as Jesus tells him to sell it all. This he could not do. By this attitude, we see that he failed to keep the very first commandment which is to have no other gods before God (like money or wealth). Jesus then tells His disciples that it is “easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” Well, if wealth is a sign of God’s favor, then this pretty much rules out everybody on the planet, except for one thing: while obtaining salvation is impossible for man to do, with God it is possible. Now we can see that Jesus’ teachings are not that different after all.
He tells Nicodemus that one must be born again, born of water and spirit. As a teacher of Israel, Nicodemus should have recalled Ezekiel 36 (even though he would not have had a particular chapter) where God said that He would sprinkle clean water on them (Israel) and clean them from their uncleanness. He would give them a new heart and spirit. He would remove their heart of stone and replace it with a heart of flesh. He would put His spirit within them and cause them to obey Him (Ezekiel36:22-32). This, by the way was not for their sake but for the sake of His holy name. Jesus explains that being born again means being born of the spirit, or as John wrote in 1:13, born of God.
Nicodemus still struggled so Jesus gave him another explanation that he would have surely known: the serpent that Moses lifted up in the wilderness. Jesus explained that as the serpent then represented the sins of the people of Israel and that looking upon it in faith would save them if they had been bitten by the real snakes; so Jesus (the Son of Man) would be lifted up, representing the sins of the world, that whoever looked to Him in faith believing He took their sins away, would have eternal life.
So, if you can see from the very brief exegesis, both men were told that trusting Christ was involved, but in both cases, Christ said that salvation is a work of God.
8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast. – Ephesians 2:8-9