And a ruler 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 commit adultery, Do not murder, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother.’ ” And he said, “All these I have kept from my youth.” 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.” But when he heard these things, he became very sad, for he was extremely rich. Jesus, seeing that he had become sad, said, “How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! 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.” Those who heard it said, “Then who can be saved?” But he said, “What is impossible with man is possible with God.” And Peter said, “See, we have left our homes and followed you.” And he said to them, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive many times more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life” (Luke 18:18–30; ESV).
On Twitter, on February 18, 2022, a person hitherto unknown to me proposed, “I will never get over Jesus being asked how to get into heaven and basically says, ‘Don’t be rich.’” On what principle was our interlocutor operating? He announced, “Sorry, but the bible says, I believe it, that settles it” (sic). This is exactly the wrong interpretation of the story of the rich young ruler (hereafter RYR) because it follows a poor method of interpreting texts.
For orthodox Christians there is no question that whatever the Bible means to say is binding. That the Bible says something in Luke 18:18–30 is not question. What is question, however, is just what the Bible means to say and how do we know? These questions are relevant and pressing for those outside and inside the Reformed churches. I recall hearing this passage explained by a Reformed minister, who announced to his congregation, in effect, that our Lord really was calling the RYR to sell all he had. The implication seemed to be that, had the RYR done so, he would have received the benefit in question, i.e., eternal life.
Is this what Jesus says?
The RYR asks, “What must I do…”? As he asks that question he assumes that he can do something to inherit eternal life. It is the very assumption, our interlocutor also accepts, that Jesus is going to challenge. Jesus begins to question his premise when he says, “Why do you call me good?” The RYR assumes that he has goodness and that his good ness and Jesus’ goodness are on a continuum. They are not.
Jesus says, “No one is good but God.” The RYR is not God therefore he is not good. If Jesus truly is good—if the RYR understood what he had just said—then the proper thing would have been for the RYR to throw himself at Jesus’ feet in worship and to beg for grace and mercy. He did not. He did not see himself as an object of grace and mercy. He saw himself as a fellow doer, if you will, of righteous deeds.
Jesus also changes the terms of the outcome: “you will have treasure in heaven.” The RYR came asking how to earn “eternal life” but our Lord knew the RYR’s heart. He knew what he really loved. He just wanted to add another possession to his collection. So, Jesus preaches the law to the RYR. This is the crucial thing to understand about this narrative. There are two kinds of words here: law and gospel. The first function of the law is to teach sinners the greatness of their sin and misery that is what Jesus does. The RYR needs to be shaken from his self-righteousness and complacency. “You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, Do not murder, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother.’ ” Our Lord, who himself had given these very commandments to Adam before the fall and to Moses at Sinai, knew very well that the RYR had not actually loved God with all his heart and his neighbor as himself but the RYR did not know that and says as much when he replies to Jesus’ summary of the law: “All these I have kept from my youth.”
By contrast, we see that Paul, in Romans 7, knew that he was not able to keep the law. In Romans 7:18 he lamented, “…for I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out.” The RYR really believed that he was good so our Lord turned up the heat, as it were: “One thing you lack. Sell all you have and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” The RYR went away said because he did not know the greatness of his poverty. He did not see that eternal life was standing before him. He still thought that he had to “do” something, that he had to perform. He was still under the covenant of works.
He went away sad because he was wealthy and because he loved his stuff more than God. He went away self-condemned because he thought of himself as righteous but, in reality, he was still in his sins. He had not fled to Jesus the only righteous one. He was not covered in the worthy, imputed righteousness of Christ.
Our Lord’s analysis is telling. It is difficult for the wealthy to enter the Kingdom of God. It is so because wealth often hides our misery in this world. It is easy for the rich to fall in love with this world. Had the RYR really kept the law, had he really understood what Jesus was asking he would have said, “Savior, after all that you have given me” (e.g., new life, true faith, and salvation) I will happily sell all I have and give it to the poor.” He did not because he was still in darkness and still in his sins. He still thought that Jesus was talking about money but Jesus was talking to him about his heart.
Those who were around them were as blind as the RYR. They too thought it was about doing. “Who then can be saved?” Jesus said, “What is impossible with man is possible with God.” Peter thought it was about self-sacrifice: “See, we have left our homes and followed you.”
The good news is that Jesus grants needy sinners, rich and poor, what they could never buy: new life, true faith, and free salvation. That is why he told Peter, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive many times more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life.”
The same Christ who saves sinners also sanctifies them. It may be that there will come a time when the needs of the brothers and sisters are such that the rich must sell what they have to love them but that love follows grace, it does not precede it. Our love for God and neighbor is not a precondition of our salvation. It is the natural consequence of the grace, the free favor, of Christ. Those who give freely are those who have received much freely. They know that they cannot earn heaven and that they cannot buy it. It was bought for them by Christ.
If Jesus really meant that everyone ought to sell all they have and give it to the poor, to whom did he imagine all the rich were going to sell their stuff? After all one has to have some wealth to buy the stuff other wealthy people are now selling. If everyone sold everything simultaneously, there would be no wealth since everything would lose its value instantly. To make this narrative about selling and giving is to miss the point entirely.
The Bible does say it and we should believe it. The Bible distinguishes between the law and the gospel. The law demands perfect, exact, personal, and perpetual righteousness from us but the gospel gives to us salvation and life freely for the sake of Christ, who is our righteousness and freely through faith, which itself is a gift. Praise God for the gift and its wonderful consequences.
©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.
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