“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.” He said to him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The young man said to him, “All these I have kept. What do I still lack?” “Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.
(Matthew 19:16-22 ESV)
Today we conclude the story of the rich young ruler who came to Jesus seeking the answer to how he could obtain eternal life. Jesus, as He usually did, did not give this man a direct answer. Instead He conversed with the man in order to correct the man’s mistaken theology.
After getting the man to think about what was really “good” (only God) and also whether he had kept God’s commandments (the man thought he did, but obviously didn’t) Jesus next statement – the one we study today – exposes this man’s true problem. He loved his possessions more than he valued eternity in heaven.
Many people misunderstand Jesus’ challenge to this man. Jesus is not saying that anyone who wants to go to heaven must give up all their worldly possessions and live in poverty. The only person Jesus ever said this to was this young man. And He said it to him because He – being God – knew this man loved his possessions more than he loved God.
Thus the man was breaking the first of the Ten Commandments – God was not his god. His earthly wealth was his God [Exodus 20:3]. Hence this man was a sinner, even though he didn’t realize it.
No one can accept God’s offer of forgiveness until they think they need to be forgiven. And no one will think they need to be forgiven unless they first realize they’re a sinner. That is, they need to first repent – change their way of thinking about themselves. Repentance is the first step towards salvation. That is why the first words of Jesus’ ministry were “Repent!” [Matthew 4:17].
Salvation isn’t for those who keep a set of rules, not even God’s rules. God’s rules were never meant to be kept by anyone because they can’t be [Romans 7:7]. Instead, salvation is for those whose spirit is broken as a result of recognizing their own sinfulness by comparing themselves to the rules. They’ve come to see the futility of hoping in themselves [Matthew 5:3].
Jesus’ approach with this man is a great example of how to do personal evangelism. If someone asked the average Christian how to go to heaven most Christians would suggest praying the “sinner’s prayer”. But such a prayer is not a silver bullet. It’s not the words that matter but the status of one’s heart. It would be futile for someone who had not been broken by the reality of their own sin to pray such a prayer.
Therefore any personal evangelism that fails to identify someone as a sinner is destined to fail. But sadly many Christians have bought into the cultural lie of “tolerance”. Being tolerant of sin is not loving because it misleads people into thinking they are good when they are not.
Jesus never tolerated sin. Instead He exposed it knowing full well that His listeners would be offended. But as we learned previously, being offended is the first step to realizing truth [Matthew 15:12].
Years ago there was a best seller entitled “I’m OK, You’re OK”. This is a lie. The reality is “I’m a mess, you’re a mess”. And we need to realize we’re a mess before we can enter heaven.
Comments? Questions? I’d love to hear from you. Please feel free to contact me about this post.