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The Religious Rich Young Ruler (Mt 19; Mk 10; Lk 18): The Standard of Christ’s Gospel Preaching

Updated: Mar 7

Your take on a few passages in the NT will most likely tell where you fall in the spectrum of belief on the required saving response to the gospel message. I don't believe there is a more important subject today. Nothing bothers me more than wrong teachings about salvation, much of which are found in professing evangelicalism and fundamentalism. Nothing matters more to an individual than whether he’s ready for eternity or not. Being deceived about this is the most damning thing that could occur to a person, far worse than even genocidal murder on a scale of bad.

We don't want to tell someone the wrong thing about salvation. We've got to get this right. We know that Jesus and the Apostles were concerned about responses to the saving message, because that is expressed all over the NT. We should be too.

From the beginning, and throughout Jesus' ministry, He preached,

"Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand."

You see that in Matt 3:2, 4:17, 10:7, Lk 10:9, 11, 11:20, and 21:31 and you could say it was the foundation of Christ’s preaching (Matt 4:17; Mk 1:14-15; 6:12). When Jesus said that the kingdom was near or nigh, He was saying that the King had arrived and you're going to have to do something about that. What is it that someone does with the true King when He arrives? He receives Him as King. He submits and surrenders to Him as King. That's what Jesus preached, that He was King, and He needed to be received if you were to be saved. That also fits with Psalm 2.

The account of Christ’s dealing with the rich young ruler (Matt 19:17-30; Mk 10:16-31; Lk 18:18-30) is an excellent case study in salvation, on evangelizing, and buttresses the following Scripture passages on salvation: Mk 8:34-38; Mt 10:32-39; 11:28-30; 16:24-26; 19:16-30; Lk 9:23-26, 57-62; 12:8-9; 13:23-30; 14:16-35; 17:26-33; 18:9-17, 18-30; Jn 12:24-26. These are at the heart of the teaching of Jesus.

The account of “the rich young ruler” presents a huge problem for those who wish to hijack the salvation explanations of Jesus and twist them into something more convenient to superficial professions of faith.

Introduction to the Religious Rich Young Ruler

My attention here is on the Luke edition in 18:18-30. Here are most of those verses:

“And a certain ruler asked him, saying, Good Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life? And Jesus said unto him, Why callest thou me good? none is good, save one, that is , God. Thou knowest the commandments, Do not commit adultery, Do not kill, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honour thy father and thy mother. And he said, All these have I kept from my youth up. Now when Jesus heard these things, he said unto him, Yet lackest thou one thing: sell all that thou hast, and distribute unto the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, follow me. And when he heard this, he was very sorrowful: for he was very rich. And when Jesus saw that he was very sorrowful, he said, How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through a needle's eye, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God. And they that heard it said, Who then can be saved. And he said, The things which are impossible with men are possible with God.“ (vv. 18-27)

The mostly unconverted Jews of Jesus' day thought the kingdom was for them. It was a given. Jesus spent much time to dispel that wrong assumption as recorded in the middle of Luke. The older son, representing religious Israel, was on the outside of the Father's house, and the younger (prodigal) son on the inside as that parable ends in Lk 15. The rich man paralleled the religious leaders of Israel and he lifted up his eyes in Hell in Lk 16.

Jesus spoke of the kingdom in brutal terms in Lk 17, ending with many as a feast for carnivorous birds. As we enter Lk 18, we’d want to be sure that we were in the kingdom, rather than the victims of the slaughter there (cf. 2 Th 1:7-9; Rev 19:14-21). In Lk 18:9, Jesus starts with illustration after illustration to indicate the saving response to the gospel by humbling before God. He gives very little to no teaching on the work of Christ in salvation in them.

In the first one, He models the publican, who "would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner." Jesus said He went away justified. Then Jesus deals with children and the need to humble one self like children to enter the kingdom of God. At the end of Lk 18, after the "certain ruler," we get the blind man who repeatedly cried out, calling Jesus "the son of David," and had a similar response as the publican with "Lord, have mercy on me." The beginning of Lk 19 presents rich Zacchaeus and his response with almost no sense of his doctrinal belief, except that He was going to turn from his old and sinful ways and follow Jesus, just like the blind man did. Then after in Lk 19, Jesus tells still another story to illustrate the right response.

Tucked in the middle of all this (and more like it) is the account of a “certain ruler.” From the words of this passage in Lk 18, I'm convinced that this ruler of the synagogue, a very religious man, already had some belief in Jesus Christ to the degree that many would see as sufficient to be saved if they didn't see later that he obviously wasn't. From the parallel accounts, he ran to Jesus and knelt down before Him. This was all very public. He called Jesus "Good Master." The Pharisees didn't believe anyone was good, but God, which is why Jesus asked the question, "Why callest thou me good?" which He followed with, "None is good, save one, that is God."

The Rich Young Ruler's Problem

For all this religious leader had allegedly done — he believed that he had kept all the law from his youth up (v. 21) — he still wasn't sure of eternal life. The rich young ruler had three problems, and Jesus dealt with all of them in this passage.

1. His first problem was not understanding His need. His righteousness was not sufficient to save himself. He needed to see the desperate condition he was in if he was going to confront his second problem. Even if he did see his need, that wouldn't assume he was saved. The ruler was obviously covetous. He “layeth up treasure for himself,” rather than being “rich toward God.” (Lk 12:21). Jesus pinpointed that sin. He was self-righteous. He was proud. He wasn't abasing himself. He transgressed both the first and second greatest commandments.

2. His second problem related to the first, in that he wouldn’t repent and turn from his idolatry of riches. He wouldn’t forsake all for Christ (Lk 14:25-33). The love of riches and worldly possessions was to strong for him, and he wouldn't say no. Not, "couldn't," because he could; we all can. Every sinner is granted the ability to repent (Rom 2:1-5) and respond to the light they have been given (Jn 12:36) because "the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men" (Ti 2:11). Right before him, the rich young ruler had the very Grace of God, the Light, the Lord who grants repentance. But he wouldn't.

3. His third problem related to His reception of Jesus Christ. He was confessing that Jesus was God and that He was the source of eternal life. He was confessing that. Confessing it doesn't mean repentantly believing it. Jesus challenged that confession, to see where his allegiance lay and whether it came from a repentant heart, from a broken will, from a poor spirit. If Jesus was God, He could command. He listed commandments obviously from God that the young ruler said he had kept from his youth. Then Jesus focused on one other commandment, "Thou shalt not covet," one He had left out of His original list.

He commanded the young ruler:

“Sell all that thou hast, and distribute unto the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, follow me."

There were actually five commands given (the fifth is listed in Marks account): “Sell, distribute, come, take up the cross and follow me.” This is exactly what Jesus had said in Lk 9:23-26; Mk 8:34-38 and Mt 16:24-26, what many would call “discipleship passages." Jesus is preaching to a lost, unregenerate, unsaved Jew — why would he talk about discipleship with a lost person?? (hmmm). Furthermore, the pretext and context is completely and entirely about salvation, as is essentially everything in the four gospels (they are called "gospels" for a reason). What Jesus preached to the lost person in Lk 18 is the same He had preached in Lk 9:23-26 (and likewise with the other Gospel accounts, besides John). This is the response that should be called for in order for someone to be saved.

If you take the name of Jesus out of the equation here, the easy believist and non-lordship or anti-lordship people would say that this person blew his opportunity with the young ruler. He was front-loading works. He was confusing grace. He was tail wagging the dog. He was putting the cart before the horse. You get the idea.

The young ruler was confessing Jesus was God and could give eternal life. Alright, if you think I'm God, in essence, Jesus was saying, then you will do what I tell you, and here's what I want. And Jesus commands him to sell, distribute, come, take up the cross and follow. The young ruler wouldn't do that. Why not? He wasn't truly repentant. He wasn’t desperate enough. He wasn’t of a poor spirit. He was too self-righteous. He was proud. He wasn’t humble and submissive to the King. He wasn't surrendering to Jesus as his Lord. He refused to repent. He didn’t fear the Lord.

What got between him and Jesus, if he was serious about obtaining eternal life, was his stuff. He valued his things and riches, more than He did the Lord and King, heaven, the kingdom of God, eternal life or being right with God. Jesus was expecting total allegiance to Him as a term of salvation. You can’t embrace self or another idol such as material and riches or another sin or false religion and receive Jesus. That doesn’t work. Forsaking all and turning from everything is required. Nothing less. This is repentant faith. If the young ruler really did believe Jesus was God, and believed in God for salvation, then he would be willing to do whatever Jesus said. This is lordship, which is inseparable from repentant faith. Someone who won’t "follow Jesus," who won't do whatever He says (which is vast majority of the evangelical and protestant world), doesn’t actually believe in Him. He is in rebellion against God. He won’t repent even though the King has come and revealed Himself.

In Lk 18 or any of the parallel passages, Jesus says nothing to the young ruler about substitutionary death or sacrificially shed blood. The assumption is that the man already knew that He could obtain eternal life from Jesus. Hence his questions. Hence his running and coming to Jesus and bowing down before Him. He wasn't willing, however, to follow Jesus Christ, to do whatever Jesus said. If you are not willing to do that, then you do not in fact believe in Jesus Christ or want to believe in Him, even though you may profess Him with your lips. You won’t trust in Him and you are continuing to trust yourself. You are hanging on to your own life (and your own possessions) for your own sake. Your life doesn't belong to Jesus, it belongs to yourself. You won’t give it up, you won’t lose your life for Christ and the gospels sake (Mk 8:34-37; Matt 16:24-26; Jn 12:24-25).

All of the above is in the context of what is required to get into the kingdom, to have eternal life, according to God the Son. It reflects both repentance and faith. To turn this account into ‘discipleship” or “dedication” is to rip it from its context, to confuse what is required for salvation. It essentially perverts the gospel, diminishing saving faith to the intellect. Salvation does come from believing in Jesus Christ. He must however be the Jesus of the Bible, Who is God and Lord. That is a clear implication of the young ruler passage.

Non-lordship or anti-lordship people will shrink or depreciate the identity of Jesus. They make Him more palatable to a worldly audience. Why? They wish to keep their lives for themselves, and be saved in essence by a less than scriptural Jesus. Lots of people want Jesus as Saviour. The ruler wanted eternal life from Jesus, but he didn’t want Him as a Boss. This is the apostate of 2 Pet 2:1 who denies the Lord who bought him.

The rich ruler also wasn’t seeking to “do” works to earn for himself eternal life, as preachers oftentimes claim, especially those who use perverted versions of the Bible. He believed he had kept all the law since he was a youth and he still didn't think he had obtained eternal life. That's why he came to Jesus. Claiming he was trying to earn Heaven through works because he asked “what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”, is eisegetically interpreting this passage, reading into the text something that isn’t there. But this is another fruit of the ungodly, blasphemous versions of Scripture.

The reason he didn’t get saved is not because he didn’t “accept Jesus as Saviour,” a common but misinformed phrase. The text says nothing about that. The man believed in Jesus as Saviour, he believed that Jesus could provide him the way of eternal life, or in other words, be saved. A plain reading of that text would have one conclude that the rich young ruler left sorrowful because He didn't want to sell, distribute, come, take up cross and follow. He wanted to keep his life for himself, because He refused to repent and surrender to Jesus Christ as Lord. He wasn't willing to trade a temporal worthless life out of faith for eternal life in glory. He loved his worldly possessions and riches more than he loved God. Thus he refused to repent and submit to Jesus as Lord. It’s that simple because that is exactly what the text says.

The ruler represented the stony soil of the parable of the sower.

"They on the rock are they, which, when they hear, receive the word with joy; and these have no root, which for a while believe, and in time of temptation fall away." (Lk 8:13).

The time between “receiv[ing] the word with joy” and the “time of temptation fall away,” may be very short, as we note in this account. At some point of trials they fall away, and for the rich young ruler, it was immediately. We see that here as Jesus tried his faith, his belief that Jesus was God and the giver of eternal life. Matthew reads: “And when the sun was up, they were scorched; and because they had no root, they withered away." (13:6). The word had been received with joy, the sun came up, and because their was no root, which is Christ, he withered away. That fast, because Jesus wielded the Sword wisely, precisely how it must be. God tests faith immediately and ongoing.

He actually didn’t have genuine faith, a legitimate profession, so he couldn’t sustain any kind of profession when sacrifice was called for, as represented by the sun scorching. He had no root. Jesus tested his profession which couldn’t sustain the test of His commands. If he really did believe in Christ, He could give up his stuff, even as Abraham could offer up Isaac by faith. Lost people inevitably fail Gods test.

The man had come to Jesus to obtain eternal life. Do you think that Jesus was telling him what he needed to know or what? Look at the little phrase between "sell, distribute" and "come, take up the cross, follow me." “Thou shalt have treasure in heaven." If he would sell, distribute, come, take up the cross and follow Christ, he would have treasure in heaven. Jesus wasn’t teaching salvation by works. You can’t genuinely repent and believe if you love something more than Him.

"No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon." (Matt 6:24)

What is Needed for Salvation

The first steps towards salvation is to receive the love of the truth, that they might be saved (2 Th 2:10), and as it turned out, the ruler didn’t love the truth. He had a greater love. The young rich ruler could never truly believe in Jesus because he loved his possessions too much. People may mock the idea of giving up possessions to be saved, but Jesus said he needed to. He had to give up everything. If you want to be Christ’s disciple (which starts at conversion, what we are saved to), you must forsake all that you have (Lk 14:33; Mt 19:27-29), like the so-called prodigal, the lost young son did (Lk 15), like Saul of Tarsus did (Ac 9:4-20; Phil 3:3-11). You can't put Jesus on the shelf with all your other idols — He must be there alone — if you repentantly believe in Him.

Men don't have to give up their money to be saved. No. They have to give up everything, their life, their everything, to be saved. That is scriptural faith. The money was the one thing, however, that the young ruler couldn't part with, because he was covetous. Only less the number of the commands to "follow me" did Jesus command to give up your life, your self (“psuche”), in order to have eternal life. You can't hang on to your soul (“psuche”) and expect Jesus to cleanse it for all eternity. For a soul to be converted (Ps 19), to be restored (Ps 23), to be returned to God (Is 55:7), it must be offered to God by faith. Those who hang on to their soul won't have it cleansed.

The ruler had a certain kind of belief in Jesus to come to Him in the first place, but it wasn’t a saving repentant belief, not a substantive, deep enough faith, to sustain the test of his own possessions. You can't believe in Jesus, plus material things. You can't serve God and mammon. You have to make that choice. And in that choice, the "certain ruler" chose his money. It's impossible for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. In the same way, it's virtually impossible for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God, for he is trusting in his own riches.

The religious leaders believed that riches were a sign of some kind of good favour with God. To them, someone who was rich was certainly ready for the kingdom. Just the opposite was in fact true, someone who trusted in his riches couldn't get in. It's actually impossible for anyone to be saved except by the grace of God. It's difficult and even impossible for a rich man, but it is possible with God (v. 27). “All things are possible with God." Jesus proved that in the immediate context by saving Zacchaeus, a rich publican who did repent (Lk 19:1-10).

The story in Lk 18, Matt 19 and Mk 10 provides an example of how Jesus dealt with unbelievers. If they professed to believe in Him in some fashion or to some degree, He challenged that. We should do likewise. In this case, Jesus exposed the rebellious heart of the young ruler by commanding him to sell, distribute, come, take up the cross and follow Him. Are people saved by selling, distributing, coming, and following? No. But if they won't do those things, they are demonstrating rejection of Christ by refusing to repent and believe and obey what God says. Thus they don't believe in Jesus Christ. His willingness to do those things would have manifested a true saving faith. Not works but true faith.

Those who won't believe in Jesus Christ as Lord are not saved, just like the rich ruler wasn't saved. This is not adding works to grace. Salvation is only by grace through faith. However, the faith must be in Jesus, the Jesus of the Bible, not a made up one that makes it more convenient for modern, worldly evangelistic methods, and the faith must be repentant. You want people to be clear about who Jesus is and their need to repent. If Jesus was in fact the King, which He was, and the ruler believed in Him, he would do whatever He said. But he didn't want to do that because He wanted to hang on to His riches. And then Jesus goes on to talk about that after, about the difficulty of the rich to be saved.

We know this is dealing with salvation for the reasons already mentioned but also because of v 26, "they that heard it said, Who then can be saved?" Unlike the ruler, Peter and those with him had relinquished their possessions and people to follow Christ. Look what Peter says to Jesus: “Behold, we have forsaken all, and followed thee” (Matt 19:27). What Jesus said to the ruler, to “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” was understood by the apostles to be saying, "forsake all, and follow Christ.” That's how it reads. Jesus confirms forsaking all to follow Him as being salvation indeed, in vv. 29-30, with the end result “life everlasting.”

The rich young ruler presents a major problem for those who wish to hijack the salvation explanations of Jesus and turn them into something more convenient to superficial professions of faith. People for the most part don’t like the gospel language of denying self, losing ones life for Christ and the gospel, turning from all sin, self, stuff, and people, taking up the cross and surrendering to Jesus as Lord, Boss, King and following Him. They claim it corrupts the simplicity that is in Christ, even though Christ preached that as His gospel, when He preached to the lost multitudes, to lost “disciples,” and the lost rich young ruler. So did Jesus corrupt His own gospel, the simplicity that is in Himself? I trow not! Yet that is exactly what is being accused of Christ by these non-Lordship and anti-Lordship easy believist.

Not only do they get these crucial passages wrong, they typically also get 2 Cor 11:3 wrong. The word “simplicity” translated from “haplotes” does not mean “simple” as we would think of it today, as in basic, easy, uncomplicated, but rather singleness, sincerity, mental honesty, the virtue of one who is free from pretence and hypocrisy, and also bountifulness and liberality. It doesn’t imply low intelligence or easy believism is required or it’s not the true gospel! That is a false definition and red herring to feed a false system of a simple, easy and quick salvation, when the Bible teaches something entirely different. It sure wasn’t simple or easy or quick for the rich young ruler was it?

This passage on the rich young ruler is a very telling one against the easy believism / pray a prayer crowd. When the ruler asked Jesus what he should do to have Eternal Life, Jesus did not lead him to pray a prayer or to just “believe.” Also, when the ruler turned away in sorrow, Jesus did not run after him or say, "I must have said the wrong thing." No, Jesus blamed the man's love of money for keeping him from repenting and truly turning to God by faith and believing in the gospel of Christ.

This would have to be one of the key passages on how to do evangelism, but it is rarely used as such.

Lordship salvation is just salvation. You cannot divide Jesus up and cherry pick which part of Him you desire. He is the LORD Jesus Christ. His rule must be submitted to in all areas of life, and receiving Jesus as Lord is receiving Him over all aspects of my life: what I believe, work, do, dress, listen to, watch, read, spend my time with, etc. When someone truly receives Christ, one receives the whole Christ, who is both Lord snd Saviour, who is Prophet, Priest, and King — one cannot receive a divided Christ, One in His Priestly office without receiving (or wanting) Him in His Kingly office.

“That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow . . . And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Phil 2:10-11).

I have no problem saying that salvation comes from obedience. It does. The Bible teaches that we are saved by obeying the gospel and is the obedience of faith, even as Jesus stated clearly in Jn 6 in response to the question:

"What shall we do, that we might work the works of God? Jesus answered and said unto them, This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent." (Jn 6:28-29).

It is "obeying the gospel" as Rom 10:16; 2 Th 1:8; 1 Pet 4:17 succinctly declare. We obey the command to believe in Jesus Christ, which is based upon the command to repent. That command to repent and believe in Him is akin to a command to love Him and to serve Him.

God is seeking for those who will worship Him. The first act of worship is the offering of someone's soul to God. That is faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. It is also loving Him by obeying that commandment. It is serving Him because it is a sacrifice of yourself to Him. Can a person be saved who will not yield his self to God? No. He doesn't believe in the Lord. He isn't poor in spirit. He is hanging on to his own life. He wants his own way. And more. Like the rich young ruler.

Are you like the rich young ruler? Having a profession but never having repented and been born again? Please click the picture below to go to the link that tells you, with all urgency and supplication, how you can be born again through the Lord Jesus Christ, that He may have mercy on your sinful and wicked heart.


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