My Pilgrimage From “Lordship” to Law/Gospel (part 2): Test Case—The Rich Young Ruler

In part 1 we considered the definition of Lordship Salvation and the Reformation distinction between Law and Gospel. If you read the “rich young ruler” passage in Matthew 19:16-30 as the LS folks frequently do, you will see Jesus calling people to surrender, submission, and discipleship. They teach that the ruler should heed the call of Jesus to totally surrender. Was Jesus giving the man the Gospel or the Law?

If you read it as Law (what theologians call the “first use” because it exposes the sin in unbelievers), then you clearly see Jesus uncovering the man’s heart by using the Law. This Law demands, condemns, and is unbendable. The Law preached by Jesus should lead the man to say, “I cannot keep such a law. I am guilty. I stand condemned. You are right in your precise assessment of me. Is there any hope or mercy to be found in God? In you, Jesus? Please be gracious. Have mercy upon me, the sinner.” Sadly, the text does not show any remorse, repentance, or the man’s perceived need of a seeking and saving Lord.

Look at Matthew 19:16–17 and ask yourself, “Does Jesus give the Law or Good news to the man?”

And behold, a man came up to him, saying, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.” (ESV)

Did Jesus preach the Gospel to the ruler? No. The Gospel is good news–it proclaims what God in Christ has done. It heralds an accomplished fact concerning the representative life and the substitutionary death of Jesus. It announces that Jesus has triumphed over sin, death, and Satan. Jesus did not preach the good news to the rich young ruler. Christ gave him Law (“keep the commandments”).

God extends an offer in the Gospel. He does not demand. God’s Gospel gives freely. It does not give to the sinner if the sinner first submits, commits, desires, treasures, or yields. The believer, in response to God’s saving work, will, in the category of holy living, begin to submit and surrender, but the response to the Gospel is not “believe and keep the Law.” The Gospel is not Mt. Sinai. The Gospel contains no threats, no punishments upon sinners, no warnings of doom, zero descriptions about thinking lightly of God’s work. Rather, the Gospel reveals forgiveness, joy, comfort, and a gracious assurance. Should we warn sinners about Hell and the wages of sin? Yes, but that is not good news. It is Law. “Do this perfectly or perish eternally” is not good news. It is awful news. It is terrifying news. While true, it is not the Gospel.

To be precise: the Gospel is different from why we need the Gospel. Sinners need the good news of Jesus Christ because they are sinners. Furthermore, the Gospel is not the means of receiving the Gospel. Our believing is not the Gospel, rather, it is the non-meritorious means of receiving all that Christ has done. Our conversion and holy life as Christians are not the Gospel, but they are fruit and evidence of it. When people reject the Gospel, there are consequences to such rejection, such as eternal Hell and God’s wrath, but those things are not strictly speaking part of the Gospel. The Gospel is good news! It is what the Triune God has done! The unbegotten Father sends the begotten, not made, Son to rescue sinners, freely and graciously. The Holy Spirit not only assisted/empowered the incarnate Jesus on earth, but He also wonderfully applies the benefits of Christ’s work (both His righteous Law keeping and substitutionary death for our sins) to our account. That is, indeed, good news.

LS all too often stresses submission and unconditional surrender of the sinner. In their attempt to avoid mere intellectual assent, they want to tell the unbeliever to DO something more than believe. That is Law. Instead, they should call unbelievers to rest in the person and finished work of a God Man who loves sinners. Many LS advocates think Matthew 19 has Jesus telling the man good news. Jesus is giving the Law and the Law alone.

The opposite of LS is not necessarily “Free Grace” theology or “easy believism.” It is Law/Gospel. The remedy for false converts is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The solution to carnal living is not more Law or Law added to the Gospel. Calling sinners to “surrender” is not the solution. Are LS advocates reluctant to offer the free Gospel because people might take advantage of such free grace and subsequently sin that “grace might abound?” (Romans 6:1). Paul was not reluctant at all.

An unbeliever never has to obey/surrender/keep the Law, treasure or desire God in order to be saved. Faith in Jesus Christ contains no personal obedience of the sinner. Faith looks away from self and believes in the perfect obedience of Another, the Lord Jesus. After a person is saved, there will obviously be obedience and surrender, but it will not be unconditional nor total.

Notice how carefully the Westminster Larger Catechism navigates faith and the fruit of faith, works:

Q. 73. How does faith justify a sinner in the sight of God?

A. Faith justifies a sinner in the sight of God, not because of those other graces which do always accompany it, or of good works that are the fruits of it, nor as if the grace of faith, or any act thereof, were imputed to him for his justification; but only as it is an instrument by which he receives and applies Christ and his righteousness.

Sola Fide is faith alone in Jesus Christ. It is not a resting faith in Jesus including submission, forsaking, yielding, and commitment. Knowledge, assent, and trust comprise saving faith, not knowledge, assent, and submission or surrender. Obedience, faithfulness, and surrender certainly follow justification and the new birth, but they are not the ground nor the instrument. Jesus is the ground, and faith alone is the instrument. Categories matter.

Advantage #2 – Keeping Categories Distinct

LS often confuses Justification and Sanctification by asking a professing believer, “Have you surrendered to the Lordship of Jesus in every area of your life?” (Law focused). “Are you living a holy enough life?” (Law centered). Instead, the believer should first be asked, “Do you believe in the Risen Savior?” (Gospel centered). “Are you resting in the finished and perfect work of the God-Man? (Gospel focused). Sanctification by faith will be reserved for another article. I am not saying that holy living is irrelevant, unnecessary, or optional. I am saying that godliness is not the ground of anyone’s salvation.

Caspar Olevianus could have been anticipating LS when he wrote, “The Law does not promise freely, but under the condition that you keep it completely… the Gospel promises freely the remission of sins and life, not if we keep the law, but for the sake of the Son of God, through faith.” The Gospel is not conditional. There is nothing a person must do before they believe. Sola Fide is exactly that, “faith alone.” Must a person stop sinning in order to come to Christ? No. Must a person surrender their lives to Jesus so they can believe? No. Is surrender the same as believe? No. Does God justify the ungodly? Yes. There is nothing a person can or must do so that they can trust the Risen Savior. In other words, there is no law they must obey (yield, submit, commit, surrender, etc.) before they believe. Rest in Christ alone, not in Jesus and your surrender. Trust the Savior alone, not Him plus yielding or forsaking sin. If forsaking sin is a prerequisite to coming to Christ, the forsaking is to be 100%. When a person is drawn by the Father and believes, there will certainly be a forsaking of sin, but that is in the category of Sanctification/Of good works, not Justification. We must place surrender, commitment, yielding, submission, and desiring in the Sanctification category.

LS tends to make holy living the test for justification. This also confuses categories. While sweat and toil are necessary in the believer’s quest to mortify sin (and live unto righteousness), hard work is not in the category of justification by faith alone. A believer’s works are not Jesus. Many err by making a Christian’s holy life, “a Christ of it to save them,” as Thomas Wilcox states. Holy living (as great as it is and as much as it should be stressed) is never (now or finally) your justification before a Triune God.

Test Case—Romans 2:13

Romans 2:13 says, “For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified.” (ESV) Regularly, LS advocates utilize this passage as a motivation for holy living, so that the Christian will be certain that their profession is valid enough by proving it with good works. “Are you doing the Law?” “Make sure you keep doing the Law?” “Obey.” “Are you a false convert?” Once again, proper categories are essential.

What is the Law/Gospel solution to Romans 2:13? First, the larger context of Romans 1–3a is Law. Paul is systematically dismantling every person, whether they are unrighteous (Chapter 1) or moralistically “righteous” in their own eyes (chapters 2–3a). Paul is insisting that the readers of these chapters agree that they do not have the righteousness required by the Lord (perfect righteousness). Second, the immediate context begins with verse 6 saying, “He will render to each one according to his works.” What does God require? Perfection. Is your life perfect? Has it always been perfect? Paul wants the reader to abandon all hope in and of himself/herself so that he/she will look for the relief provided by God Himself. Third, a normal reading of the text is all that is needed. If people could perfectly obey, why would God condemn them? We know that Adam’s sin has affected each person, so Romans 2:13 is only hypothetical, but the point remains: exactly and entirely obey or you are doomed. Paul will eventually prod them to find their righteousness provided by Another, the God man (Romans 3:21ff.).

LS, in its desire to stress holy living turns Romans 2:13, which is a law designed to drive the unbeliever to acknowledge his need for perfect righteousness, into a law for Christians. This is a category error. The passage is not addressed to Christians to obey. Did you know that the Reformed Confessions and Church Creeds greatly assist keeping categories separate? Ignoring Creeds and Confessions have detrimental effects upon the Church, and this is a case in point. Carnal professors in the church are not a new problem. Theological debates over spurious faith have already occurred. We can learn from the past. This is not a new battle. But we must be careful not to take passages like Romans 2 and wedge them into a sanctification or holy living category. Most every Confession separates their chapters related to the subject this way:

  • Justification
  • Sanctification
  • Of Good works

Just looking at the categories above, one could solve a lot of problems. Categories keep things in and they keep things out. Do not blend categories. Do not confuse categories. Observe the logical progression of categories. Justification leads to God’s sanctifying work which yields good works.

Advantage #3 – Understanding The Different Uses Of God’s Law

The third use of the Law (the Law as a guide to believers) is much different than the first use of the Law (a mirror to condemn the unbeliever). While God’s Law does not change, our relationship to the Law Giver is different after God saves us. As unbelievers, we all stood before God as Creator and Judge. As believers, we stand before God as Father. Instead of condemning Christians, the Law now guides and directs a believer’s life. It is my experience that most LS teachers either do not believe in the different uses of the Law or if they do believe them, they do not teach the differences accurately.

True or false? God accepts frail and sin-tainted works from believers because He accepts His children. The answer is, “true,” and it is directly related to the uses of the Law and LS. God as Judge would never accept any sin-tainted work, yet God as Father loves His children and therefore receives their less-than-perfect works. If Gordon Ramsey, the chef of Master Chef TV fame, judged the cake of an eight-year-old, he might call the child names for making such a bad cake. But if that eight-year-old was his daughter and she baked the cake for his birthday, he would smile and eat every last crumb.

Earthly fathers often chasten disobedience, but they do not kick the sinful child out of the house. Earthly father pity, provide, and protect their children. If not careful, LS teachers confuse the commands of God and deliver God’s Law to Christians as first use and not third use. Instead of wanting to honor the heavenly Father for all that He has done and all that He is, Christians are afraid of disobeying God because they think He might un-adopt them. Instead of believers obeying God out of gratitude for His fatherly care, they obey because they are worried about their standing before God. When the first and third uses of the law are blended, Christians wonder if they are showing a lack of true submission and they question their salvation when they struggle with obedience. These doubts are reoriented when people understand their different relationship to the Lawgiver.

Additionally, rightly teaching the third use of the Law allows pastors and Bible teachers to stress Christian obedience, while steering clear of lawlessness or antinomianism. LS and Reformed alike stress holy living. There is no debate there. Pastors preaching the third use (a guide or norm) sound like they are encouraging the congregation to obey. Instead of motivating the people by fear, dread or doom, the motivation is the love of the Triune God. God loves His children with an everlasting love. God loves Christians so much that He guides them with the Law, for their good and for His glory.

When I was in the LS camp, I often saw the congregation full of false converts and I thought it was my job to root them out. Using the LS model, I spent too much time challenging the faith of the false professor and not adequate time encouraging the weak and frail Christian. I did not have much room for the bruised reed and smoldering wick like Jesus did.

Is it not the privilege of the pastor to proclaim the excellencies of Jesus Christ? Should not the believing congregant, while convicted during the sermon, leave the Lord’s Day service encouraged, built up, and focused on the grace of God for them? Hebrews is essentially a sermon. The epistle drives, chapter by chapter, the listener’s attention to the High Priest, Jesus Christ. Hebrews 12:2 captures the essence of the author’s goal, saying, “looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” (ESV) Yes, Jesus did surrender and submit for us. That is good news. Because of Jesus’ life and works, we now have an Advocate through whom we receive God’s Law. It is now a joy to obey it because even our disobedience is forgiven.

Stay tuned for part 3.

©Mike Abendroth. All Rights Reserved.


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  1. Thank you so much for this article! LS was the environment I was immersed in for the majority of my life. I was a false convert for 50+ years in believing that I had such a part in my salvation. It wasn’t until I was at a crisis point nine years ago that God graciously led me to the true doctrines of grace, and resting in Christ alone for my salvation. I was surprised to discover that many of my held beliefs about justification and sanctification were more Roman Catholic than Protestant.

    In LS, it is not merely justification that is distorted, but sanctification is as well. In order to be “Filled with the Spirit” or reach the “Higher Christian life”, a series of hoops must be jumped through as well. Total surrender, death to self, repentance of all known sin, etc. So in order to get God’s help to live a holy life, one has to be able to meet the the conditions of a holy life first. Completely illogical as well as unbiblical.

  2. Excellent article! Sadly, in contemporary evangelical teaching, the gospel has come to mean moral reform, as the undisputed proof of regeneration. The worse you can present yourself as a sinner before conversion, the more acceptance you receive by demonstrating that you have become a better person. That is moralism, not the gospel of trusting in the merits of Christ. That is not the teaching of the Reformers. It is a return to the errors of Rome. Heidelberg Catechism 20, 21 and 30. I dare say it is another gospel!

    • You know, I’ve tried to study as much about the history of Christianity as I have been able during the past 10-15 years and it seems to me like there is a pattern of repetition that has been going on over the centuries, i.e., some of the same off-center movements that appeared in the earliest years simply repeating themselves dressed up differently with a new label.

    • The book of Galatians addresses just that other gospel! Luther’s favourite, in his battle against Rome’s false gospel of works righteousness. It is as old as Christianity, it is it’s that other gospel that is not the gospel. Gal. 1:8

  3. Wonderful teaching. I look forward to part 3. I love the law/gospel distinction. The doctrine of justification and the truth of the imputed righteousness of Christ freed me from bondage to works righteousness. I never tire of hearing these truths.

  4. Thank you for these words of encouragement and hope. Too many times I have heard the passage from Matthew 19:16-30 misused as a call to greater piety instead of one that presents the necessity of believing upon Christ for salvation. Your words were right on the mark.

  5. Hi Dr. Clark,
    I just double checked, MacArthur’s Study Bible clearly states that Christ was utilizing the “Law” and not the Gospel to expose the Rich Young Ruler’s heart. Y’all had me concerned for a minute.

  6. I just pulled it off the shelf… It’s nearly identical. In the first edition the section runs from pages 78-88. Mr. MacArthur states that Christ was not sharing the Gospel with him (78). MacArthur goes on to say say that Christ was defining the “law” in such a way as to show that he could not be justified by it (85). On pages 87 and 88, he makes it abundantly clear that Christ is not demanding perfection, but that you must be willing to obey. Something the RYR was not willing to do.

    • John,

      There’s a reason why confessional Reformed (and Lutheran) folk have been expressing concern about The Gospel According to Jesus since it first appeared in print. I’ve read multiple editions and addressed some issues. I’ve linked to multiple essays and interviews in the resources above.

      What is in question here is what, according to MacArthur et al. is the gospel? What is the nature of faith in the act of justification and in salvation? Mike Abendroth can speak for himself (as he has done in this series) but your account, “Christ was not demanding perfection, but that you must be willing to obey” is a Roman Catholic view of the passage. That is not the Reformation view.

      What Jesus was doing, according to the Reformation, was preaching the law in its pedagogical use to teach the RJR the greatness of his sin and misery. Jesus was not saying, in effect, “you must be willing to obey.” That is the Keswick view, from which the “Lordship Salvation” position is derived.

      The Reformation view, which Mike has been articulating is another approach entirely. What the RJR needs to know is that the law, properly understood, demands perfect obedience. That’s the pedagogical function of the law.

      In the words of the Heidelberg Catechism (1563), there are three things that everyone must know in order to live and die and the comfort of the gospel: “first, the greatness of my sin and misery, second how I am redeemed from all my sins and misery, and third, how I am to be thankful for such redemption.” It goes on to say that we learn the greatness of our sin and misery “out of the law of God.” We learn the good news of our free redemption from the gospel of free grace. When Christ gives us new life and true faith (and with it all the benefits of Christ), then he empowers us to live the new life (according to God’s moral law) as a consequence of his justifying and saving grace.

      This is a different paradigm. Had MacArthur been working from within the Reformation paradigm, instead of a Keswick/Wesleyan paradigm, the book would have been radically different and there would have been no complaints from or controversy with the confessional Reformation traditions.

      Check out the resources linked to Mike’s article. I especially recommend that you begin with the Office Hours interview I did with Mike Horton some years ago. He does a brilliant job of explaining the difference between the Reformation and TGAJ.

  7. Dr. Clark, I paraphrased only one small section when I stated “must be willing to obey”. In that section- pages 87 and 88- I believe MacArthur is speaking of the aftermath of regeneration. In other words sanctification = a willingness to obey (by God’s Grace of course). I think it would be beneficial if you re-read that section and critiqued it directly. I’m just a lowly laymen, I could have befuddled the whole thing. Also, I’ve listed to that Office Hours episode, recently actually. Dr. Horton spends very little time critiquing JMac. He even states that later editions of the book clarified- correctly- the issue at hand (again, I’m paraphrasing). Thanks for the interaction and stay cool out there in SoCal.

    • John,

      Please read my analysis of TGAJ. It wasn’t that long ago that I read both major editions.

      Your paraphrase is close enough.

      If MacArthur had simply stuck with the Reformation We could have avoided the whole controversy. He didn’t. The book cannot be salvaged.

      Please take a look at this analysis. I stand by it.

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