This guy comes up to Jesus and asks him, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus’ initial response is sort of a shock: “Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone.” He does not say this as though to contrast Himself with God, but rather to make a point about man vs God, generally. Nobody is good. Only God is good. This is a huge hint to help us understand where Jesus is going with the next part of his answer: “You know the commandments, ‘DO NOT MURDER, DO NOT COMMIT ADULTERY, DO NOT STEAL, DO NOT BEAR FALSE WITNESS, Do not defraud, HONOR YOUR FATHER AND MOTHER.’”
Now let’s be honest. This isn’t anything like the answer you were expecting, is it? This guy just wants to know how to be saved. In our thinking Jesus is supposed to share the Gospel now. This man is open to instruction now in a way he might never be again. His question was like a giant lob in slow-pitch softball, just waiting for Jesus to connect with “the Gospel bat.” All Jesus needed to do to make us happy was tell him to “believe” or maybe “repent and believe.” Instead, Jesus whips out a can of law, and starts laying it on thick. Murder. Adultery. Theft. Lying.
If somebody did that today, we’d tell them it was a terrible waste of an excellent opportunity to share the Gospel. But we don’t really feel free to do that with Jesus. So what do we make of this, and how do we apply it as we seek to learn from Jesus and become more like Him? Before we can answer that, we should probably read the rest of the story.
The man responds to Jesus with, “Teacher, I have kept all these things from my youth up.” Then it says, “Looking at him, Jesus felt a love for him…” (Here we all breathe a sigh of relief. Aha! Here comes the good news, right?) “…and said to him, ‘One thing you lack: go and sell all you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.'”
Did you catch that? Jesus felt love for him. So He… gave him more law. Ugh. Jesus just doesn’t seem to have the same “gospel centered” message we have, does He? But wait. It gets worse. The story continues: “at these words he was saddened, and he went away grieving, for he was one who owned much property.”
Here was a man who wanted to know how to be saved. He asked Jesus how to be saved. Jesus’ answer was, “keep the law.” When the guy says he’s been keeping it, Jesus shows him where he hasn’t been, and how to change it. Jesus discourages the man so much with all the talk of the law that the man walks away sad.
There are a few choices for how to understand this:
- Someone who approaches the Bible as if it’s a timeline everything must fit into in its proper place might dodge the bullet by saying Jesus couldn’t preach the Gospel yet because He hadn’t yet died, but now He has and so we can skip over the Law, going straight to the Gospel.
- A heretic would have no problem with the story: Jesus made a mistake.
- A Christian who honors Scripture by allowing it to mold his thinking and life will recognize that the only legitimate answer is that Jesus was proclaiming the gospel, here. The fact that we don’t see it that way only reveals our failure to properly grasp what “proclaiming the gospel” looks like.
Jesus’ great love for the man caused Him to hammer away with law, law, and more law—not letting up on him. Not even after he walked away from Jesus mourning. Jesus was preaching the Gospel here and his Gospel preaching was not in error or a failure.
Jesus showed us how to preach the gospel to those who think they are good. How to preach the Gospel to the righteous, the clean, those who think they see. In other words, it’s no failure to “get to the gospel” when we call men to obedience to the Law without ending the call to obedience with an explanation that “Jesus did it all,” and now “it’s all by grace,” “grace is everything,” and “isn’t grace wonderful?”
If we think the Gospel must always be preached by turning unbelievers away from the Law to Jesus, and the sooner the better, we need to re-examine our theology because, by our criteria, Jesus here failed to get to the gospel.
Not just once, either, because Jesus preached the Gospel like this regularly.
Why did Jesus take this tack? Because what this young man needed to hear was not, “Cheer up. You’re worse than you think you are, but the good news is better than you can possibly imagine.” This man thought he was good and, until he was convinced otherwise, he could never obey that last command Jesus gave him—”come follow me.” Jesus himself is the One Who said He didn’t come for good men, for the righteous. The only thing that can convince a man who thinks he is good that he isn’t good at all is being helped to see more clearly what the law of God truly requires of him. You can tell him “you can’t keep the law” or “you’re worse than you think you are” until you’re blue in the face. It’s not going to accomplish what preaching the law will accomplish. Preaching the law is the tutor to Christ. It’s true gospel preaching all on its own, the same way Jesus did it.
If we love people like Jesus did, we’ll regularly give them God’s law and let them stew in it until it’s done it’s work and the rich young ruler is finally ready to give up the money he loves and come follow Jesus.