Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 32: Matthew, Mark and Luke, Part II, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
Matthew 19:16-22; Mark 10:17-22;
16. And, lo, one came and said to him, Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life? 17. Who said to him, Why callest thou me good? There is none good but God alone? 614 but if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments. 18. He saith to him, Which? And Jesus said, Thou shalt not murder, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, 19 Honor thy father and mother: and, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. 20. The young man saith to him, All these things have I kept from my youth: what do I still want? 21. Jesus saith to him, If thou wilt be perfect, go sell what thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have a treasure in heaven; and come, follow me. 22. And when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful; for he had many possessions. 615
17. And as he was going out into the road, one ran, and, when he had kneeled down, asked him, Good Master, what shall I do, that I may obtain eternal life? 18. And Jesus said to him, Why callest thou me good? There is none good but God alone. 19. Thou knowest the commandments, Do not commit adultery, Do not kill, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Defraud not, Honor thy father and mother. 20. But he answering said to him, Master, all these things have I kept from my youth. 21. And Jesus, beholding him, loved him, and said to him, Thou art in want of one thing, go sell what thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have a treasure in heaven; and come, follow me, taking the cross on thy shoulders. 22. But he, affected with uneasiness on account of the saying, went away sorrowful; for he had many possessions.
18. And a certain ruler asked him, saying, Good Master, what shall I do, that I may obtain eternal life? 19. And Jesus said to him, Why callest thou me good? None is good but God alone. 20. Thou knowest the commandments, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness. Honor thy father and thy mother. 21. And he said, All these things have I kept from my youth. 22. Having heard this, Jesus said to him, Yet one thing thou wantest; sell all that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have a treasure in heaven; and come, follow me. 23. Having heard these things, he was grieved; for he was very rich.
Matthew 19:16. And, lo, one. Luke says that he was a ruler, (ἄρχων,) that is, a man of very high authority, not one of the common people. 616 And though riches procure respect, 617 yet he appears to be here represented to have been held in high estimation as a good man. For my own part, after weighing all the circumstances, I have no doubt that, though he is called a young man, he belonged to the class of those who upheld the integrity of the Elders, by a sober and regular life. 618 He did not come treacherously, as the scribes were wont to do, but from a desire of instruction; and, accordingly, both by words and by kneeling, he testifies his reverence for Christ as a faithful teacher. But, on the other hand, a blind confidence in his works hindered him from profiting under Christ, to whom, in other respects, he wished to be submissive. Thus, in our own day, we find some who are not ill-disposed, but who, under the influence of I know not what shadowy holiness, 619 hardly relish the doctrine of the Gospel.
But, in order to form a more correct judgment of the meaning of the answer, we must attend to the form of the question. He does not simply ask how and by what means he shall reach life, but what good thing he shall do, in order to obtain it. He therefore dreams of merits, on account of which he may receive eternal life as a reward due; and therefore Christ appropriately sends him to the keeping of the law, which unquestionably is the way of life, as I shall explain more fully afterwards.
17. Why callest thou me good? I do not understand this correction in so refined a sense as is given by a good part of interpreters, as if Christ intended to suggest his Divinity; for they imagine that these words mean, “If thou perceivest in me nothing more exalted than human nature, thou falsely appliest to me the epithet good, which belongs to God alone.” I do acknowledge that, strictly speaking, men and even angels do not deserve so honorable a title; because they have not a drop of goodness in themselves, but borrowed from God; and because in the former, goodness is only begun, and is not perfect. But Christ had no other intention than to maintain the truth of his doctrine; as if he had said, “Thou falsely callest me a good Master, unless thou acknowledgest that I have come from God.” The essence of his Godhead, therefore, is not here maintained, but the young man is directed to admit the truth of the doctrine. He had already felt some disposition to obey; but Christ wishes him to rise higher, that he may hear God speaking. For — as it is customary with men to make angels of those who are devils — they indiscriminately give the appellation of good teachers to those in whom they perceive nothing divine; but those modes of speaking are only profanations of the gifts of God. We need not wonder, therefore, if Christ, in order to maintain the authority of his doctrine, directs the young man to God.
Keep the commandments. This passage was erroneously interpreted by some of the ancients, whom the Papists have followed, as if Christ taught that, by beeping the law, we may merit eternal life On the contrary, Christ did not take into consideration what men can do, but replied to the question, What is the righteousness of works? or, What does the Law require? And certainly we ought to believe that God comprehended in his law the way of living holily and righteously, in which righteousness is included; for not without reason did Moses make this statement,
He that does these things shall live in them, (Le 18:5;)
I call heaven and earth to witness that l have
this day showed you life, (De 30:19.)
We have no right, therefore, to deny that the keeping of the law is righteousness, by which any man who kept the law perfectly — if there were such a man — would obtain life for himself. But as we are all destitute of the glory of God, (Ro 3:23,) nothing but cursing will be found in the law; and nothing remains for us but to betake ourselves to the undeserved gift of righteousness. And therefore Paul lays down a twofold righteousness, the righteousness of the law, (Ro 10:5,) and the righteousness of faith, (Ro 10:6.) He makes the first to consist in works, and the second, in the free grace of Christ.
Hence we infer, that this reply of Christ is legal, because it was proper that the young man who inquired about the righteousness of works should first be taught that no man is accounted righteous before God unless he has fulfilled the law, 620 (which is impossible,) that, convinced of his weakness, he might betake himself to the assistance of faith. I acknowledge, therefore, that, as God has promised the reward of eternal life to those who keep his law, we ought to hold by this way, if the weakness of our flesh did not prevent; but Scripture teaches us, that it is through our own fault that it becomes necessary for us to receive as a gift what we cannot obtain by works. If it be objected, that it is in vain to hold out to us the righteousness which is in the law, (Ro 10:5,) which no man will ever be able to reach, I reply, since it is the first part of instruction, by which we are led to the righteousness which is obtained by prayer, it is far from being superfluous; and, therefore, when Paul says, that the doers of the law are justified, (Ro 2:13,) he excludes all from the righteousness of the law.
This passage sets aside all the inventions which the Papists have contrived in order to obtain salvation. For not only are they mistaken in wishing to lay God under obligation to them by their good works, to bestow salvation as a debt; but when they apply themselves to do what is right, they leave out of view the doctrine of the law, and attend chiefly to their pretended devotions, as they call them, not that they openly reject the law of God, but that they greatly prefer human traditions. 621 But what does Christ say? That the only worship of which God approves is that which he has prescribed; because obedience is better to him than all sacrifices, 622 (1Sa 15:22.) So then, while the Papists are employed in frivolous traditions, let every man who endeavors to regulate his life by obedience to Christ direct his whole attention to keep the commandments of the law.
18. Thou shalt not murder It is surprising that, though Christ intended to show that we are bound to obey the whole law, he should mention the second table only; but he did so, because from the duties of charity the disposition of every man is better ascertained. Piety towards God holds, no doubt, a higher rank; 623 but as the observation of the first table is often feigned by hypocrites, the second table is better adapted for making a scrutiny. 624 Let us know, therefore, that Christ selected those commandments in which is contained a proof of true righteousness; but by a synecdoche he takes a part for the whole. As to the circumstance of his placing that commandment last which speaks of honoring parents, it is of no consequence, for he paid no attention to the regular order. Yet it is worthy of notice, that this commandment is declared to belong to the second table, that no one may be led astray by the error of Josephus, who thought that it belonged to the first table. 625 What is added at the end, Thou shalt love thy neighbor, contains nothing different from the former commandments, but is, general explanation of them all.
The young man saith to him. The law must have been dead to him, when he vainly imagined that he was so righteous; for if he had not flattered himself through hypocrisy, it was an excellent advice to him to learn humility, to contemplate his spots and blemishes in the mirror of the law. But, intoxicated with foolish confidence, he fearlessly boasts that he has discharged his duty properly from his childhood. Paul acknowledges that the same thing happened to himself, that, so long as the power of the law was unknown to him, he believed that he was alive; but that, after he knew what the law could do, a deadly wound was inflicted on him, (Ro 7:9.) So the reply of Christ, which follows, was suited to the man’s disposition. And yet Christ does not demand any thing beyond the commandments of the law, but, as the bare recital had not affected him, Christ employed other words for detecting the hidden disease of avarice.
I confess that we are nowhere commanded in the law to sell all; but as the design of the law is, to bring men to self-denial, and as it expressly condemns covetousness, we see that Christ had no other object in view than to correct the false conviction of the young man. 626 for if he had known himself thoroughly, as soon as he heard the mention of the law, he would have acknowledged that he was liable to the judgment of God; but now, when the bare words of the law do not sufficiently convince him of his guilt, the inward meaning is expressed by other words. If Christ now demanded any thing beyond the commandments of the law, he would be at variance with himself. He just now taught that perfect righteousness is comprehended in the commandments of the law: how then will it agree with this to charge the law with deficiency? Besides, the protestation of Moses, (De 30:15,) which I formerly quoted, would be false.
Mark 10:21. One thing thou wantest. Christ therefore does not mean that the young man wanted one Thing beyond the keeping of the law, but in the very keeping of the law. For though the law nowhere obliges us to sell all, yet as it represses all sinful desires, and teaches us to bear the cross, as it bids us be prepared for hunger and poverty, the young man is very far from keeping it fully, so long as he is attached to his riches, and burns with covetousness. And he says that one thing is wanting, because he does not need to preach to him about fornication and murder, but to point out a particular disease, as if he were laying his finger on the sore.
It ought also to be observed, that he does not only enjoin him to sell, but likewise to give to the poor; for to part with riches would not be in itself a virtue, but rather a vain ambition. Profane historians applaud Crates, a Theban, because he threw into the sea his money and all that he reckoned valuable; for he did not think that he could save himself unless his wealth were lost; as if it would not have been better to bestow on others what he imagined to be more than he needed. Certainly, as charity is the bond of perfection, (Col 3:14,) he who deprives others, along with himself, of the use of money, deserves no praise; and therefore Christ applauds not simply the selling but liberality in assisting the poor
The mortification of the flesh is still more strongly urged by Christ, when he says, Follow me. For he enjoins him not only to become his disciple, but to submit his shoulders to bear the cross, as Mark expressly states. And it was necessary that such an excitement should be applied; for, having been accustomed to the ease, and leisure and conveniences, of home, he had never experienced, in the smallest degree, what it was to crucify the old man, and to subdue the desires of the flesh. But it is excessively ridiculous in the monks, under the pretense of this passage, to claim for themselves state of perfection. First, it is easy to infer, that Christ does not command all without exception to sell all that they have; for the husbandman, who had been accustomed to live by his labor, and to support his children, would do wrong in selling his possession, if he were not constrained to it by any necessity. To keep what God has put in our power, provided that, by maintaining ourselves and our family in sober and frugal manner, we bestow some portion on the poor, is a greater virtue than to squander all. But what sort of thing is that famous selling, on which the monks plume themselves? A good part of them, finding no provision at home, plunge themselves into monasteries as well-stocked hog-styes. All take such good care of themselves, that they feed in idleness on the bread of others. A rare exchange truly, when those who are ordered to give to the poor what they justly possess are not satisfied with their own, but seize on the property of others.
Jesus beholding him, loved him. The inference which the Papists draw from this, that works morally good — that is, works which are not performed by the impulse of the Spirit, but go before regeneration — have the merit of congruity, is an excessively childish contrivance. For if merit be alleged to be the consequence of the love of God, we must then say that frogs and fleas have merit, because all the creatures of God, without exception, are the objects of his love. To distinguish the degrees of love is, therefore, a matter of importance. 627 As to the present passage, it may be enough to state briefly, that God embraces in fatherly love none but his children, whom he has regenerated with the Spirit of adoption, and that it is in consequence of this love that they are accepted at his tribunal. In this sense, to be loved by God, and to be justified in his sight, are synonymous terms. 628
But God is sometimes said to love those whom he does not approve or justify; for, since the preservation of the human race is agreeable to Him — which consists in justice, uprightness, moderation, prudence, fidelity, and temperance — he is said to love the political virtues; not that they are meritorious of salvation or of grace, but that they have reference to an end of which he approves. In this sense, under various points of view, God loved Aristides and Fabricius, and also hated them; for, in so far as he had bestowed on them outward righteousness, and that for the general advantage, he loved his own work in them; but as their heart was impure, the outward semblance of righteousness was of no avail for obtaining righteousness. For we know that by faith alone hearts are purified, and that the Spirit of uprightness is given to the members of Christ alone. Thus the question is answered, How was it possible that Christ should love a man who was proud and a hypocrite, while nothing is more hateful to God than these two vices? For it is not inconsistent, that the good seed, which God has implanted in some natures, shall be loved by Him, and yet that He should reject their persons and works on account of corruption.
Matthew 19:22. He went away sorrowful. The result at length showed how widely distant the young man was from that perfection to which Christ had called him; for how comes it that he withdraws from the school of Christ, but because he finds it uneasy to be stripped of his riches? But if we are not prepared to endure poverty, it is manifest that covetousness reigns in us. And this is what I said at the outset, that the order which Christ gave, to sell all that he had, was not an addition to the law, but the scrutiny of a concealed vice. 629 For the more deeply a man is tainted by this or the other vice, the more strikingly will it be dragged forth to light by being reproved. We are reminded also by this example that, if we would persevere steadily in the school of Christ, we must renounce the flesh. This young man, who had brought both a desire to learn and modesty, withdrew from Christ, because it was hard to part with a darling vice. The same thing will happen to us, unless the sweetness of the grace of Christ render all the allurements of the flesh distasteful to us. Whether or not this temptation was temporary, so that the young man afterwards repented, we know not; but it may be conjectured with probability, that his covetousness kept him back from making any proficiency.
“Il n’y a nul bon, sinon un seul, c’est Dieu:” — “There is none good but one only, it is God.”
“Car il avoit beaucoup de richesses;” — “for he had much wealth.”
“Que c’estoit un prince ou seigneur; c’est a dire, un homme d’estat et de grande authorite;” — “that he was a prince or lord; that is to say, a man of rank and of great authority.”
“Combien que les richesses rendent un homme honorable au monde;” — “though riches render a man honorable in the world.”
“Non point par trahison, et pour surprendre Christ;” — “not by treachery, and to take Christ by surprise.”
“Pource qu’ils sont enveloppez de ie ne scay quelle ombre de sainctete;” — “because they are covered by I know not what shadow of holiness.”
“Sinon qu'il ait accompli toute la loy de poinct en poinct;” — “unless he has fulfilled all the law in every point."
“D’autant qu’ils font bien plus grand cas de leurs traditions humaines, que des commandemens de Dieu;” — “because they set far higher value on their human traditions than on the commandments of God.”
“Pource qu’il estime plus obeissance que tous les sacrifices du monde;” — “because he esteems obedience more than all the sacrifices in the world.”
“Vray est qu’entre les commandemens ceux qui parlent de la recognoissance que nous devons a Dieu tienent le premier degre;” — “it is true that, among the commandments, those which speak of the acknowledgment which we owe to God hold the first rank.”
“A faire examen pour cognoistre les personnes;” — “to make a scrutiny for knowing persons.”
Josephus says that there were five on each table, from which it must be inferred, that he considered the Fifth commandment as belonging to the First Table. His words are: He showed them the two tables, with the ten commandments engraven upon them, Five upon each table; and the writin was by the hand of God. — (Ant. 3. 6, 8.) — Ed.
“La fausse persuasion et presomption de ee ieune homme;” — “the false conviction and presumption of this young man.”
“Parquoy il est besoin de mettre quelque distinction, et recognoistre qu’il y a divers degrez d’amour en Dieu;” — “wherefore it is necessary to state some distinction, and to observe that there are various degrees of love in God.”
“Signifient du tout une mesme chose;” — “mean entirely the same thing.”
“Que c’a este pour sonder et descouvrir un vice cache;” — “that it was to search and discover a concealed vice.”