Jesus came to save the lost. In His glorification between the Advents, He sends out His people to continue His saving mission: “As the Father has sent me, so send I you” (John 20:21). The professing church has existed for 2000 years and has had unparalleled institutional influence on culture, especially in the West. This has created many religious (to varying degrees!) but lost people. Some think they’re saved because they were baptized as a baby and have not killed anyone. Some think that God overlooks their sins because He knows no one is perfect. They have any number of excuses, rationalizations, and evasions to justify their unbelief, their external religiosity, and their refusal to come under full subjection to Christ through His covenant text.
How are we to advance the gospel and the kingdom among these people, who have a form of godliness but deny the power thereof? (While not wishing to deny the explicitly Christian-theistic context of Paul’s phrase, I contend that most of the unsaved in America fall into this category, even if they currently profess another religion, including the explicit self-worship of atheism.) We have already begun looking at the way Jesus handles this with the young ruler of the synagogue. Through our Lord’s example we have learned to not be fooled by the external appearance of religious people (for it can be mere external activity disconnected from a truly repentant heart), to confront them with the holiness of God (for that exposes their imperfect and autonomous sense of goodness when compared to the blinding, devastating perfection of God) and to expose their sin in the mirror of the Law (for there the holy standard of the perfect God is displayed to convict the world and drive us to the Savior). Today, we will conclude our study of that narrative with four additional points of counsel for evangelizing the religious but unsaved.
Since this message is a continuation of last week’s study, I will pick up the outline where it left off.
D. Show Love in Spite of Sinfulness (v. 21a)
The young man has just expressed his own spiritual delusion by thinking he has kept all of God’s commands since his youth up (v. 20)! This proves his externalism, for Jesus has already demonstrated the true intent of the Law to regulate the heart’s attitudes/desires/intents, not just external behavior (cf. Matthew 5). Perhaps there is a mixture of sincerity and evasion here. He really thinks he has obeyed the Lord from his youth, but that is at best in his external behavior, not the depths of his heart. (This is mot to say he wasn’t sincere in avoiding external law-breaking, just that it falls short of the heart repentance and consecration the Lord desires.) And perhaps he is also attempting to deflect from the Lord’s unyielding standard. But in any case, he has just shown himself to be a prideful, deceived, and autonomous sinner, whatever his sincerity and earnestness.
Some Christians, in the name of defending and proclaiming truth, would advocate being scaldingly sarcastic, disdainful, scathingly rebuking, or even mean-spirited. At times there is a place for certain kinds of forceful bluntness. But Jesus does not do this. Jesus does not belittle the man, roll His eyes at how stupid and blind he is, or express anger towards him. Rather, He feels great love and compassion for him. The Greek text is lit. “and began to love him.” This does not mean Jesus did not love the young man before, but that our Lord’s heart surged with a deep love for His creation and his fallen fellow-man who was cut off from Him and His Father in blindness. Our Lord does not want anyone to perish, elect or not. He does desire that the whole world be saved, though in His sovereignty He does not choose to save all. He wants this young man to know His perfect salvation, not just for the glory He and the Father and Spirit will get through his worship and obedience but also because it is what is best for this young man. It is what he was created for. And it breaks the heart of God that people He created and whom He deeply loves are blind to Him, His purposes, His rule, His holiness, His promise, their sin, their need, and their potential role in the great drama of redemption and the extension of His kingdom.
In our earnestness to contend for the truth, have we forgotten to love people well? Have we become so focused on “loving people enough to tell them the truth”—which many times is often a fleshly excuse to be prideful and be a jerk and baptize it in “loving” motives—that we have ignored actually feeling love for them, and loving them in ways they will receive as loving without compromising the truth? Do we actually love lost people, as individual people created personally and loved by God with a destiny personally ordained by Him, or do we look at them as a project, as ministry, as—God help us—a conquest? And do we love them enough to have real, fully-orbed relationship with them, not just a relationship focused on sharing the gospel or rebuking their sin?
Worse, are we so disgusted by their sin that we withhold love from them? O that the Lord would break our hearts and baptize us in His deep love for the world, that it might find personal, enduring, and permanent expression through us to real people who need to be transformed and redeemed by that love. May our love be a means to their redemption—O God, make it so!
E. Call Them to Repentance (v. 21b)
Jesus does not stop at loving the man, but His love takes action. He sees the man’s idolatry of self and things, and calls him to forsake it. What is the one thing the young man lacks? Not another meritorious work, which can never please the ineffably holy God, but the thing that will put him into a right relationship with that God: repentance!
Why does Jesus call him to sell all he has and give it to the poor? This verse can easily be misunderstood. Jesus does not require everyone to do this. Nor is this selling some kind of meritorious work that will earn him salvation. Rather, it is a necessary expression of faith and repentance. Jesus puts His finger on the very thing that was the man’s obstacle to conversion. His unwillingness to part from his things and thus from his idolatry—his unwillingness to love Jesus above all with all his heart, soul, mind, and strength—exposed his unbelief and cut him off from salvation. We cannot serve our idols and God, for in serving an idol we are really serving ourselves.
Repentance is a change in affection, evaluation, and perception that leads to a change in behavior. While we will never be perfect in this life, the repentant faith in principle at conversion places us on a definitive narrow path of expressed repentance and lived out righteousness that we must persevere on not merely to demonstrate we are already saved but to actually go to heaven. We will not enter heaven if we are not obedient to the Lord! We cannot have heaven and our idols. O that God would give us a greater repentance, a deeper fidelity to Him, and a satisfaction of Him that puts both gift and Giver in their proper place.
F. Call Them to Faith by Following Christ (v. 21c)
Having called the man to part with his sin the Lord calls him to faith as well—repentance is not complete if it does not turn in faith to Christ, and faith is incomplete if it is not expressed in daily, humble, persevering, affectionate, persistent following of Christ as Lord and Master. Faith is not just believing facts. Faith is not just assenting that certain things are true. Faith is believing and loving those things and the Person they express enough to do what He says!
Churches must emphasize discipleship—that of being a learner and student of the Lord Jesus Christ as He teaches us how to live, how to feel, what to believe, and what to prioritize. We follow Jesus as we do what He says and believe all His words. We obey all the commands He moved His Apostles to write in the New Testament, conforming our thinking to all the doctrinal and affectional truth His has revealed. We join and serve in a local church where His Word is proclaimed fully and faithfully. We seek to disciple and be discipled. We pray according to His will. We confess our sins. We build biblical community. And a thousand other things that shape and renew our hearts according to His holy and righteous image.
The point of all this is that faith cannot be abstracted from the life. Faith cannot be separated from a lived-out way of life (just as unbelief cannot be abstracted from the disobedient lifestyle that is its expression). Jesus does not merely call the man to believe facts, but to follow! He does not merely call him to avoid sin, but to actively, joyfully, and believingly build a lifestyle of faithful obedience.
That is faith.
G. Trust in God’s Sovereignty to Save His Own (v. 22)
But the young man’s heart was too wedded to his things, to his idolatry. We know this because instead of responding in faith and obedience to Jesus’ call, he realizes the cost is at cross-purposes with what he really wants, and he is saddened. Perhaps he was hoping Jesus would not call him to do anything too hard, but then salvation is in one sense at complete variance with our fallen nature and receiving Christ is the hardest thing we will ever do. He realizes to have heaven he will have to give up what he really loves, and he is saddened, for he owned much property (v. 22b). His stuff is too important to him. He wants heaven, but not enough to give up the thing that is keeping him from it.
And he walks away.
Note what Jesus does not do: He does not resist the man. He does not soften the demand. He does not plead for the man to stay. Now, we should beg the lost to be saved. We should not take no for an answer. They ought to have to climb over us to go to hell. But we also ought not force the issue if they are unrepentant. It is okay to let them go, for only God can change the heart. If even God incarnate did not press the issue, should we? We are not God! God uses means—necessary means that cannot be suspended—but He chooses to bless the means. We share the gospel fully, call for a response, and then leave the results to God. This does not mean we aren’t persistent or share the gospel only once, but it does mean we do not rely on ourselves as though we are God’s only chance!
As we live and minister in a fallen world, we will meet dear people who are religious but unregenerate. Jesus has modeled for us how to reach them. May He be pleased to use our efforts to draw countless numbers into a vital relationship with Him as Savior and Lord!