I’m working on a new post concerning the sacraments, but it’s slow in coming (much like the last post on the communication of attributes in Christ’s two natures). For now, let’s do a quick look at a commonly-read passage from Luke. I read this passage in church today, and it’s been on my mind since.
The Rich Ruler
18 And a ruler asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 19 And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. 20 You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, Do not murder, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother.’” 21 And he said, “All these I have kept from my youth.” 22 When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” 23 But when he heard these things, he became very sad, for he was extremely rich. 24 Jesus, seeing that he had become sad, said, “How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! 25 For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” 26 Those who heard it said, “Then who can be saved?” 27 But he said, “What is impossible with man is possible with God.” 28 And Peter said, “See, we have left our homes and followed you.” 29 And he said to them, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers[a] or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, 30 who will not receive many times more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life.”
As I said, this is a commonly-read passage. I’ve sat in on many lessons and sermons where this passage was read or quoted. It seems fairly straightforward. A young, rich man approaches Jesus and asks “What must I do to be saved?” Inherent in the question is a timeless truth that this young man pulls to the surface directly and quickly: God will judge us, and there is a standard we must meet in order to be saved. Jesus answers him: “Give me everything you have. Give up your worldly treasure and receive eternal life!”
Of course, the young man walks away very sad… “I’ve got too much stuff to give up…”
Jesus explains: “This is why it’s difficult for rich men to be saved, but anybody who gives something up for me in this life will be vastly rewarded for it.”
Seems pretty straightforward, right? I always thought so.
One day about a year and a half ago when we were in our Baptist church, I was asked to fill in for the pastor for Sunday School one day when he would not be present. As I was preparing for the lesson, I read the above passage. I went back and read the entire chapter. I read it again. All told, I must have read it 10 times that evening.
I was amazed at what I was reading. How I had never seen this before? How could I have gone my entire life without seeing it? I was discovering the Law | Gospel distinction, without ever having heard that phrase. The phrase had never entered my mind yet, but the concept was clear in these passages: we can attempt to justify ourselves by the law in futility, or God can justify us in the gospel.
Go read the chapter for yourself now. First, Jesus makes the point through a lady who bugs a judge. The point: “You’re scared about what I just told you (read the end of chapter 17)? Don’t be. Learn to pray. Realize your dependence upon God. God will care for his elect. Don’t you believe this?”
The second section: One man justifies himself before God by his works, and one admits in all humility that he’s a sinner. The first explains why God should save him. The second begs for mercy. Which one was justified?….
The third section: Jesus tells us that whoever comes to God with the faith of a child will be saved. Candidly, I’ve heard some pretty terrible commentary on this in FE churches. This passage is typically chosen to demonstrate that we should not question God, and that typically means that we need to be extra “spiritual” by somebody’s definition. However, in the context of the chapter, I think one must ask: “How does a child have faith?”
In my FE circles, I’ve come to realize now that their interpretation of the passage hinges on their understanding of the nature of faith (the same understanding that forms their basis of their Baptism and Election doctrines): faith is something that must exist in an understanding mind, a learned mind, a mature mind, or an accountable mind -take your pick of words. Thus, to the typical FE, the faith spoken of in this passage becomes submission to Jesus.
But that isn’t what the passage says. The passage says that people were bringing even their infants to him. Infants don’t understand. Infants aren’t educated. Infants aren’t mature. In FE-ism, infants aren’t accountable (even though some still bear the curse of sin: death). Infants certainly don’t submit as the basis of their trust.
How does one have the faith of an infant? Just as an infant leans upon the mother’s breast, in love and in total unashamed reliance, so we must lean upon Christ. Stated differently, you don’t see infants trying to convince their mothers that they’re actually independent enough to survive on their own… “It’s ok, mum. I got this!”
And then we come to the main passage in this post, the rich young ruler. In a chapter full of Jesus praising people who look to God in admission of total dependence, why should we take this example any differently? The man attempts to justify himself before God (thereby insulting God), and Jesus clears the matter up for him: “Ok, Mr. law-keeper. Why is it that in the town where you live, as long as you have a cent to your name, that there exist people in need? Don’t tell ME that YOU’VE kept the law!”
In the FE prayer meetings I’ve sat in for this passage, I can tell you that even when this point was correctly uncovered (which was not often), the lesson took a turn for the worse and left the sinner to justify himself to God under the law… The very law that was meant to shut our mouths, we turned around and swallowed a double dose in an attempt to justify ourselves.
Beyond admonishments to be content with our stations in life and debates on whether not God requires people to give all of their possessions away, I remember hearing a very interesting exchange once regarding this passage…
“I was always confused over this story. Jesus deals so matter-of-factly with the man. Why didn’t Jesus show him grace?
Well, do you think the man got less than he deserved or more?
Well, he’s still alive and has everything he came with. But he’s obviously sad. It seems like people did a lot worse than this and Jesus forgave them, sometimes before they even asked him to. Why did Jesus make it so tough on him and so easy on others? It just doesn’t seem like this story has any winners.
Jesus tells us how to be a winner. The rich young ruler was not saved because he was not willing to give everything he had. Had he been willing, he would have been saved.”
Indeed. If we were all willing to give everything we have to Jesus, we wouldn’t sin and wouldn’t need a savior.
In one FE church, we went through a series called Not a Fan. The entire series is about a man who gave up all of his wealth to serve God and others. He had a tremendous witness in front of others, and the videos made this clear. As each video unfolded, you learned of more that the character did for God: things he gave up, things he took on, and the way he treated others. The series’ aim was to motivate people to move from being a “fan” of God to a “completely committed follower.”
I had difficulty connecting with this series. I always walked away from the lessons feeling as though the point is that God couldn’t save me if I didn’t do more. There was no emphasis placed on Christ’s work as my mediator and substitute. There was no emphasis on his emptying himself of glory to live as I do, under the frailties of human flesh. No, it was all about me and what I had to do in order to prove my devotion to God.
For a prime example of this, examine this pdf closely. It could have come from the teaching series itself, but it’s actually a summary from another group. What does this lesson confess? It confesses that to prove our salvation, we must be able to prove our devotion to Christ by our visible lives beyond a shadow of a doubt. Notice the strong wording in the lesson.
As we read before, the point of the law is to condemn, to shut mouths. We know that it cannot then create faithful trust in an individual unless it is immediately followed with the good news that there is someone who has fulfilled the law in our place!
For a bit of irony, read question 2 at the end of the pdf. Obviously the man was improperly basing his faith upon his own righteous actions. What is the pdf suggesting that we do differently? Become a completely committed follower. That’s right. The same failure the rich young ruler had, this lesson expects you to surpass because it tells you how to be saved: complete devotion to God.
This standard is impossible in our fallen state.
If this standard is impossible, then I must ask what is the point in teaching this way? Since the standard is impossible, I can only think of two outcomes for preaching and teaching like what we see in the lesson. Taken to its conclusion, there are those who become despondent that they cannot keep the law according to the demands of the lesson. These people will believe themselves to be unsavable and give up. Secondly, there are those who self righteously believe that they keep the law. How can these be saved since they believe they have met God’s requirements? This is the very point of the passages in Luke. What then can be gained by such preaching and teaching?
Some reading of the Book of Concord on this topic (see paragraph 10) puts me in good company. Of course, we Christians in actuality tend to vascillate between these two extremes but there’s no comfort to be found in this middle-ground, either -just a perpetual state of numbness brought on by suppression of our knowledge that the law we’re using to justify ourselves reflects our own failure back to us. The answer to this numbness is not in the law, but in the gospel.
Jesus said it is not the healthy who need a physician but the sick. Again, why are we so quick to prescribe another another dose of the law? The gospel is right in the passage: “with man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” The entire point of the New Testament is that there is one who has fulfilled the law in our place. We must repent and keep the law, but not out of a sense of legal obligation. Rather, we keep it as the law of Christ, a law of love.
But love cannot grow from the law, because the law was meant to bring condemnation. It is the Spirit who brings life, and he brings it when the gospel is proclaimed: that Jesus Christ was born of a virgin woman, lived a perfectly obedient life, died, was buried, rose again from the dead, and ascended into heaven and sits in a position of favor with the Father. Jesus bore all sin. Jesus has secured your salvation. There is no need to work for it, and indeed you cannot work for it. There is nothing you need to “do” in order to be saved, it has already been “done.” Rest yourself in God’s grace in Christ; believe that he’s done this great thing for you apart from your best effort and intentions, and you will be saved! Then, live your life in gratitude to him because you are loved by God in Christ.
Oh, Christ thou lamb of God! Thou that takest away the sin of the world, have mercy upon us! Amen.