The United States, along with much of the West, experiences a unique, spiritually-charged state of affairs: No other part of the world has as enduring a Christian influence and history (though Africa was vibrantly Christian long before the gospel took full root in the West, the violent encroachment of Islam as well as lingering paganism obliterated Christianity in that region almost entirely until the modern missionary movement) while simultaneously having so thoroughly and aggressively apostatized from that privilege. While the influence of Christian theism on the West in general and America in particular is indelible and has shaped the consciences, worldview, and affections of millions of people, the current state of affairs in our fair nation is anything but open to a fully robust Christian worldview. While God is still at work, and not every place is equally capitulated to the spirit of the age, there is a deeply-rooted and harsh anti-Christ system that paints every institution and cultural endeavor progressively more bleakly.
The residual effects of this cultural heritage and subsequent en-masse apostasy are many, but perhaps the most pernicious is the millions of people who consider themselves Christians while holding to a vague, unscriptural, moralistic sort of works-righteousness. They may be active in a church or not; they may be liberal or conservative. They may adhere tightly to the system of teaching in a professing Christian church, or they may build a spiritual smorgasbord to rival every buffet restaurant in the land. But in any case, lacking repentant faith in Jesus Christ alone to make them acceptable before God on the basis of His shed blood alone, and thus lacking the regenerated heart that fundamentally yields to His dominion as personally exercised through the Word by the indwelling Holy Spirit, they are religious, but lost.
In my estimation, this describes many of the people in America who profess to be Christians. Especially for those who have some personally meaningful connection to professed Christianity but are not born again, how are true Christians to take the Great Commission to them? Untold numbers have a form of godliness but deny the power thereof through ungodly living and entrenched unbelief. Many will walk out of church buildings and into Hell because they have never surrendered in repentant faith to the Lord Jesus Christ.
The One who desires the whole world to be saved and takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked is especially desirous that the many who have attached themselves to His Church apart from repentance come to a real, saving knowledge of Him. His interaction with the rich young ruler is of prime importance in leading many of them into that perfect salvation.
A. Don’t Be Fooled by External Appearances (v. 17)
The Lord is beginning to leave Perea and go to Jericho, and from there to Jerusalem. As He does so, He and His band are interrupted by a man. Matthew calls him young (19:20) and Luke adds that he was very rich (18:23) and a ruler (v. 18), likely of the synagogue. The man is sincere. He is the picture of humility—running was considered unseemly for the elite in Jesus’ day, and to kneel before someone was to place yourself in a subservient position before them. That the man did so publicly, openly, and before a man vituperatively hated by the Jewish leadership indicates whatever his flaws, he is sincere and serious about his question. He is not playing. He knows eternal life is at stake.
But he does more: He calls Jesus “Good Teacher.” This is both a recognition of Jesus’ personal and inherent goodness, and an affirmation of the rightness of His teaching (and His legitimacy as a teacher). Think of it—this wealthy, devoted, publicly religious man—far more religious than many professed Christians in our day—comes publicly to the very source of salvation, acknowledges Him as a teacher of truth, and humbles himself before Him. Surely Jesus ought to simply lead him in a prayer and declare him a win for the kingdom of God! He is earnest, sincere, and evidently knows he is lacking eternal life.
To get saved is simple, but it is not easy. To truly get from the place of deeply-rooted self-righteousness and autonomy to brokenness and desperation looking to Jesus alone takes a miracle of God. This man is closer to that point than many, but he is still too far away. Jesus recognizes that, and does not coddle him. He is not fooled by the man’s sincere but far-short understanding of himself, his need, and Jesus. By that, I do not mean Jesus unequivocally rejects it as worthless—surely any sincerity towards the things of God is a work of common grace enlivening the image of God within the soul—but rather that He is not fooled into thinking it means more than it does. There are deeply-rooted issues in the man’s heart that must be dealt with if he is to be able to savingly respond to the gospel. The next verses illustrate how to accomplish this.
B. Point Them to the Character of God (v. 18)
Jesus stops the man with an initially perplexing statement: “Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone.” We must be very careful with this statement to understand what Jesus is and is not saying. For example, some heretics delight in using this passage as a boilerplate denial of the deity of the Lord Jesus. He appears to distinguish between the man’s calling Him good and the uniqueness of God’s goodness, after all.
But this misses the point. To assume Jesus is denying His deity further assumes the ruler thinks Jesus is God, and that Jesus is then correcting Him. But there is nothing in the text to indicate the ruler thought this. Indeed, most people in the gospels were slow to realize Jesus was Yahweh incarnate. Indeed, Jesus’ words are both an affirmation of His deity and an assault on the man’s autonomous conception of goodness!
First, Jesus confronts the man’s wrong understanding of Him. The man calls Jesus good, but Jesus cautions him to wrestle with the implications. If only God is good (and He is, in the essential-absolute-inherent sense), and the man rightly calls Jesus good, then is he prepared to accept the implications? For Jesus is Himself God in His undiluted, eternal, sovereign, and essential essence. You cannot call Jesus good in the fullest sense unless He is eternal God. (Even Unitarians and others hesitate to ascribe less than full goodness to Jesus, though they do not follow the logical implications of that ascription.)
Second, our Lord assaults the man’s faulty definition of goodness. He seizes upon the man calling Him good to make a larger point. The point is that goodness originates with, is inherent within and essential to, and is defined by God. The implication, as will be later teased out, is that the man’s understanding of goodness was faulty. It was man-centered. It was a moralistic, self-righteous, Pharisaical, grade-on-the-curve understanding of goodness. This is precisely the self-understanding people have today. Rather than understanding the blinding and absolute holiness of God that will judge them in their staggering unholiness, they assume God is just like them—making excuses for “small” or less overt sins (think of the Pharisees, who condemned physical adultery and murder but justified lust and hatred). This compromised, anemic, weak goodness is not the God with whom we have to do. Goodness is defined by God’s holy and unchanging character as revealed in the Scriptures. That is that standard by which any action, attitude, or affection is judged.
If we measure ourselves by ourselves, we come out looking decent, if not stellar. But compare ourselves to the unmixed, devastating, blinding goodness and purity of the Eternal One and our desperate need for a Savior sears itself into our consciousness. Those enamored by their own morality need to be wrecked by the perfect holiness of God. We turn now to the only way to do this.
C. Expose Sin in the Mirror of the Law (v. 19)
Historically, orthodox theologians have recognized three uses of God’s moral law (whether this law is the Mosaic, the law of Christ, or the 10 Commandments alone is not relevant to my point). The first is to curb unrighteousness; the Law cannot make anyone holy, but by being a standard for conduct it can hedge in at least certain expressions of unrighteousness. The second use is to expose sin as sin by revealing the holy standard and character of God. The third is applicable to Christians only and sees the law as a guide to personal holiness.
Jesus employs the second use here. The perfect character of God is revealed in His holy Law, and seeing the inflexibility of that standard is intended to drive us to the One who kept the Law perfectly on our behalf. Only after we are united to Christ by faith and have His perfect imputed righteousness forever can we actually fulfill the Law as we walk in the power of the Spirit (Romans 8:3).
Christ lists the sixth through ninth and the fifth of the Ten Commandments (these all deal with interpersonal relationships; the first four concern our direct relationship to God). Likely Jesus focuses on the second half to underscore the man’s need for salvation: If he cannot even perfectly keep the interpersonal commands, themselves demanded by God, how can he expect to have kept the ones directly governing his walk with God?
Our Lord adds something that is likely an allusion to or paraphrase of the command against coveting: “Do not defraud.” To defraud is to not give someone what they have reason to expect from you, including that which you have presented yourself as offering or desiring. This command is vastly applicable to a thousand interpersonal interactions, and we have all broken it.
The intent of giving the Law—and unpacking its true comprehensive scope, as He does in the Sermon on the Mount—is to expose the sinner’s self-righteousness by confronting him or her with the awesome holiness of God. Only as this is done can we sinners see ourselves as we truly are—and only then can we savingly respond to the wondrous promise God makes to us in the gospel.
We will conclude the story next week. But you only have right now. O precious religious but lost friend—abandon all hope of your own righteousness. Be broken by your failure to live up to the staggering holiness of Almighty God. And run to Christ by faith alone, who is your only hope, your only righteousness, and your only acceptance before that holy God who loves you and wishes for you to know His love in this world and the next.