“Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” – Luke 10:25
The terms “everlasting life” and “eternal life” sometimes are used to mean the same – that is, life without end – but there is a difference in some cases.
Everyone has everlasting life, for the evil as well as the good live forever in the spiritual world after the death of the body. No one need ask “What shall I do to inherit everlasting life” for everyone is sure to have it. But to inherit eternal life is altogether different.
No short definition of eternal life can be made that carries to another its real meaning because it involves so much. Eternal life is life directly from God, the kind of life that is in God. But for such a definition to have meaning one must know at least something of the quality of life that is in God. It is like asking “What is sunlight?” Sunlight is indeed light directly from the sun, but such a definition does not tell us exactly what sunlight is.
With the Lord there is no such thing as time. A thousand years are as a day in His sight. The angels have no idea of time. Think of an angel four thousand years old. He does not think of years, for he is merely four thousand years advanced in the love and wisdom of the Lord. So eternal life means a life of continual increase in God’s life, a life that contains unlimited unfolding of the glory of God.
What can I do to inherit eternal life? Something else is involved. Since there is no time with God or the angels, to have eternal life is to live always in the present. Angels do not consider the past or the future. In fact, a short time after death the natural memory closes, and with this goes concern for the past. Even in this world, when we are living interiorly in our supreme love there no such concern. We may think we should always want to recall the good times we have had, the past associations with family and friends. But one could not have such recollection without also thinking about sufferings and sins. Were the natural memory to be opened in heaven, heaven would become like this world and sorrow, pain, and sin would be there.
The subsiding of recollection takes away nothing. It simply cancels out events, just as we do now when we forget depressions and sicknesses. Spiritual reflection takes its place, which does not go back into the past, but brings all the good of the past as continually present, and present with a completeness impossible in this world. By the closing of the natural memory, sin is forgiven and, by the great mercy of the Lord, all the evils done in this world. The mistakes and sins committed here are not so much as brought to the remembrance of the just. “But if the wicked will turn from all his sins that he hath committed, and keep all my statutes, and do that which is lawful and right, he shall surely live, he shall not die. All his transgressions that he hath committed, they shall not be mentioned unto him: in his righteousness that he hath done he shall live.” To have eternal life is to live without consciousness of the sins and sorrows of the past, to live in the present with all the good acquired remaining. Eternal life is like that. It buries all concern for the past by making all its blessings present, and fills the mind with joy.
Eternal life, then, is a life in which there are ever increasing joys, blessings, and peace. It is the soul’s satisfaction from the reception of the kind of life that is in and from God the Creator.
What shall I do to inherit eternal life? Inherit! That is the right word. What one inherits he does not acquire by his own efforts. It is a free gift through the labors of others. No one gets eternal life through merit. No one can in any way earn it, for it is worth more than anyone can give or can buy.
Even the least of it is worth more than anyone can acquire in a lifetime of labor; yea, it is declared to be worth more than the whole world. Furthermore, the more one works with the idea of meriting eternal life the farther away from it he gets, for then he is working for reward for self.
Yet there is a way to get it surely. When the young man asked, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” the Lord answered, “Keep the commandments.” This is the first and basic requirement. No one can enter into heaven unless he lives according to the precepts of the Decalogue by abstaining from the evils which are there forbidden and by abstaining from them because they are sins. This has always been the case for the Jew and the Christian alike, but with this difference, namely, that while the Jew was to live according to the letter of the law, the Christian is to live according to its spirit also. The old covenant was the law written on the tables of stone; the new covenant is the same law written upon the table of the heart. “This shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, saith the Lord, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people.” This is the covenant under which we live, as expressed by our Lord when He said, “If thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments.”
When the young man had been told that he must keep the commandments, he asked, “Which?” Jesus said, “Thou shalt do no murder, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Honour thy father and thy mother: and, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” To kill is to extinguish in oneself the love of good, which is life, to commit adultery is to unite good and truth with evil desires and false thoughts. To steal is to claim that goodness and truth are one’s own or derived from self. To honor father and mother is to love the Lord as the supreme good and truth. And to love the neighbor as oneself is to love the good in another, and another’s good as one loves his own.
The young man had lived up to the law according to the letter. He said, “All these things have I kept from my youth up.” The Lord did not dispute his claim – in another Gospel it is recorded that “Jesus beholding him loved him.” The Lord loves all obedience, however imperfect it may be. The young man thought that he was living a virtuous life, and he asked, “What lack I yet?” Then he was told to “go thy way, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven; and come, take up the cross, and follow me.” Not only is it necessary to put away our evils from before the eyes of men; we should put them away from before the eyes of God. One may outwardly keep the law and still in his heart be under the dominion of the world. We must give up self-seeking and pride in self. Only those who are poor in spirit can follow the Lord. “For thus saith the high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity, whose name is Holy; I dwell in the high and holy place, with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones.”
What shall I do to inherit eternal life? Keep the commandments in their spirit and in their letter. Sometimes truths are expressed in the writings in very simple but striking terms, as in the following statement: “Every least thought and act flows on in its effects to eternity. Therefore man ought constantly to have the eternal before him in every act, in all that he wills, thinks, and does. For what is in and of the body is nothing; but what is of the mind is eternal.”
This tells us that what is of the body and of this world passes away. What is of the mind and life endures. Men labor with zeal to acquire the things of this world which pass away. We think it sad when one fails in business and becomes destitute, particularly if he is in old age. But what if one enters the other life with nothing in him that is of God’s life? What of eternal failure – failure in heavenly riches?
No one need ever fail to acquire the eternal riches. As the commandments are loved and kept, the Lord gives the eternal possession. Keeping the commandments indeed requires self-sacrifice, but this sacrifice is all pure gain, as it involves only giving up what is wrong and imperfect and receiving in its place what is eternal.
In Bible times springs that never ran dry were called “living water.” Eternal life is a perpetually flowing spring of living water. It is unlimited in its power to give ever new beauty and gladness. All heaven is in eternal life. The infinitude of God is in eternal life. It is like the river that makes all things thrive wherever it goes.
“What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” Keep the commandments.
“Blessed are they that do his commandments, that they may have right to the tree of life, and may enter in through the gates into the city.”