In part one we noted the distinctions of positional, ideal, and special discipleship. Now we turn to the account of the rich young ruler to discern how and why he forfeited this great opportunity to follow the Lord Jesus Christ.
A. The rich young ruler forfeited positional discipleship–salvation (Matt. 19:16-22).
This story has a sad ending: “But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful…” (Matt. 19:22). Contrast that with the optimistic beginning of this encounter: “Now as He [Jesus] was going out on the road, one came running, knelt before Him, and asked Him, ‘Good Teacher, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?'” (Mark 10:17). The young man was eager and concerned about life’s ultimate issue–one’s eternal destiny.
Although only God knows the heart, we can infer some factors related to this discussion. The young man missed salvation because of a lack of true faith–it was misplaced.
1. This religious man depended on his own righteousness.
This explains the meaning behind Christ’s response: “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God’…” (Matt. 19:17). Was Jesus implying that He was not absolutely good? Of course not. Scripture is explicit regarding Christ’s sinlessness: “Who committed no sin, Nor was deceit found in His mouth”(1 Pet 2:22; cf. 2 Cor 5:21; Heb 7:26; 1 John 3:5). Christ could boldly declare to skeptics, “Which of you convicts Me of sin?” (John 8:46).
Then, why did Christ question the young man’s meaning in calling Him, “Good Teacher”? This inquirer need a much higher conception of ultimate Goodness. Only God is good; yet, Jesus is God (John 1:1,14). Jesus deserved this title, but the young man did not really understand this attribute of Christ.
The initial question also implied the man’s self righteousness: “What GOOD THING shall I DO that I may have eternal life?” (Matt 19:16). The rich man assumed that he was already good and acceptable to God, but some act(s) of righteousness may still have been needed to ensure his salvation.
How can a person discover his need of divine righteousness –the kind necessary to dwell with God eternally? The law of God is the chosen instrument to convince people of their need for forgiveness and their inability to achieve acceptable righteousness. As Paul put it, “Therefore the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith” (Gal. 3:24). Therefore, Christ used this tool: “So He said to him, ‘… But if you want to enter into life, keep the commandments.’ He said to Him, ‘Which ones?’ 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 your mother,’ and, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself'” (Matt. 19:17b-19).
Instead of recognizing his need for forgiveness, the young man replied, “…All these things I have kept from my youth. What do I still lack?” (Matt. 19:20). The only way he would recognize the futility of trusting his own ‘good’ works was to have his moral failures unmasked. Christ raised the bar of righteousness: “… One thing you lack: Go your way, sell whatever you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, take up the cross, and follow Me” (Mark 10:21). This command revealed the required standard of perfection (Matt. 19:21). The young man’s refusal to do obey demonstrated that faith in himself was futile.
When we are “poor in spirit” and are convicted of our sinfulness and need of a savior, we are then–and only then–candidates for God’s gracious salvation (Cf. Rom. 3:23-25). The Lord Jesus affirmed this truth to other inquirers: “Then they said to Him, ‘What shall we do, that we may work the works of God?’ Jesus answered and said to them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He sent'” (John 6:28,29).
Reader, have you abandoned all self righteousness to take refuge in Christ’s gracious salvation?
2. This rich man depended on his wealth.
In first century Judaism, prosperity was interpreted as a sign of God’s favor and approval. No wonder that the Twelve reacted as they did: “Then Jesus looked around and said to His disciples, ‘How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God!’ And the disciples were astonished at His words. But Jesus answered again and said to them, ‘Children, how hard it is for those who trust in riches to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God'” (Mark 10:23-26).
Note that Jesus warned those who “trust in riches.” This implies that the rich young man was indeed depending on his own material wealth as an evidence of divine approval. Such misplaced trust was dramatically illustrated in the sudden death of the rich fool in Luke 12:20.
If “good works” and material wealth were not enough to gain heaven, what hope is available for the average person? “And they were greatly astonished, saying among themselves, ‘Who then can be saved?’ But Jesus looked at them and said, ‘With men it is impossible, but not with God; for with God all things are possible'” (Mark 10:26,27).
Salvation is always a miracle of God’s grace. Dear reader, prosperity in the here and now is no guarantee of bliss after death. Don’t misplace your faith!
Part 2 of 4
 This distinguishes the gospel from world religions. Alternate, man-made paths toward God have to do with attempting to merit salvation one way or another. However, God’s redemption is exclusively available through the One Who accomplished it (John 14:6; Acts 4:12). Salvation can only be received by faith in Christ due to the unmerited favor of God: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast” (Eph. 2:9).
Copyright 2007 by John Woodward. Permission is granted to reprint this article for non-commercial use. Bible quotations are from the New King James Version, copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson.