This morning I want to continue our series on conversations with our Lord, and the purpose of this is to get an understanding of how our Lord ministered as an evangelist, really—how He directed conversations toward the truths that were necessary for entrance into the kingdom of heaven. We’ve been looking at a number of those with such great blessing. This morning we come to a familiar one, and I want you to turn in your Bible to Mark 10, verses 17 to 22; and this is another one of these conversations about salvation that is so important.
I’ve been talking to you now for a number of months about how important it is to get the gospel right and to get the gospel complete so that you don’t have short-circuited conversions, people who think they’re saved and they’re not, who haven’t heard enough depth in the gospel to know what they’re actually doing. We talked about the fact that the way of salvation is a narrow gate and hard to find, and we talked about the fact that it not only is hard to find, but it is costly: denying yourself, taking up your cross and following Jesus. We’re looking at these conversations that our Lord had as particularly an evangelist, so that we know exactly what should our responsibility be in proclaiming the gospel, since we have been given that commission.
And at the same time, I’ve been pointing out to you that it’s obvious that there are many people who think they’re Christians and who are not. We saw that in Matthew 7: “Many will say to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and I’ll say to them, ‘Depart from Me, I never knew you, you workers of iniquity.’” There are people who are deceived, lots of them. We also looked at the parable of the wheat and the tares. The true wheat—in Matthew 13—true believers; and alongside, tares sown by Satan, deceptive because we can’t necessarily tell them apart on the surface; and our Lord says not even to try to separate them, but leave that to the angels in the coming judgment.
We talked about Christian deconstruction, people who have said they were believers, and now are denouncing that, turning from that. And we talked about the #exvangelicals. There are more of these people doing this than we could ever really imagine, and it’s the fruit of false conversion. If you have people coming into churches who are not really Christians, though some may think they are, the reality is that there are many of them that will likely default. Some of them will become true Christians, but many of them will eventually walk away. And 1 John 2:19 says, “They went out from us, [because] they were not of us; if they had been of us, they would have continued with us.”
So in the matter of evangelism we want to make sure we’re giving the gospel well enough so that people are literally believing what they need to believe in order to genuinely be converted. And our Lord never made it easy, never. It is a narrow way. It is a struggle. He even said, “Many will attempt to come into the kingdom but won’t be able.” People will not be willing to hate their father and mother, and hate their own life, and give up everything for Christ and salvation. That’s a massive exchange. It’s pictured in the parable of the pearl of great price and the treasure hidden in the field, where a man finds the pearl, finds the treasure. In each case of the parables in Matthew 13, he sells everything, gives up everything to get the treasure of salvation, holding onto nothing.
It is that kind of commitment that we’re talking about when we talk about genuine salvation. There are some elements in that that we have pointed out, and I’m going to show them to you again today. It is necessary for people who are coming to Christ genuinely to understand two things really: to understand the sinfulness of sin and to understand the lordship of Christ. These are things that I have taught and preached for decades and decades. And some people accuse me of putting barriers in front of people’s conversion by saying they need to understand the sin in a deeper way, they need true repentance, and they need to confess Jesus as Lord and acknowledge that they are literally selling everything and turning it over to Him. But that is exactly what He teaches us, and that’s what we’re seeing.
So in Matthew and Mark and Luke, all three gospels, there’s a story about a young man. All three gospels cover the story with a few little variations. But Mark is the one we want to look at. He’s often called the rich young ruler; and it’s a one-on-one conversation with Jesus. So let me read, starting in verse 17 of Mark 10.
“As He was setting out on a journey, a man ran up to Him and knelt before Him, and asked Him, ‘Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone. 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.”’ And he said to Him, ‘Teacher, I have kept all these things from my youth up.’ Looking at him, Jesus felt a love for him 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.’ But at these words he was saddened, and he went away grieving, for he was one who owned much property.”
Clearly, he wanted eternal life; that’s the question he posed. But clearly, he wanted it on his terms; and clearly, the Lord had different terms. Again, this points up for us the necessary elements in a true conversion. You might even see this young man as the best prospect for salvation in the gospels. He’s there; he’s asking the right question; he wants eternal life. I would assume that we would be happy to find ourselves having a conversation with someone who was that far along in understanding what they didn’t have to literally bring it to the very fore and say, “How can I have eternal life?” Usually we have to start long before that, because they don’t know what eternal life is, they’re not really ready for eternal life. But this young man was right there; he wanted eternal life.
And you might assume that Jesus really missed this opportunity, because the answers that Jesus gives the young man are very confusing on the surface. If someone came to you and said, “What do I do to obtain eternal life?” you’re very likely to say, “Well, you need to invite Christ into your life. Ask the Lord to forgive you, and believe in Him.” And you would be accurate to saying that. John 3:16, “God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him will not perish, but have everlasting—or eternal—life.”
So you would be right that they need to believe in Christ. But Jesus doesn’t say that to the man. You would be right even to give an explanation of the gospel, talk about the death of Christ, talk about His substitutionary atonement, and He, taking the place of sinners, provides salvation for all who turn to Him. But He doesn’t do that either. What He does do on the surface seems odd; and it would be in some conditions. But we have to understand this: He knew what this young man was thinking. John 2:25, “He . . . knew what was in man.” Nobody needed to tell Him anything about people—not just their behavior but their thoughts—because He knew what was in the heart of man.
So He’s a heart reader, He’s a mind reader, and He knows exactly where this rich young ruler is, and He knows that he’s not ready for the gospel. You can’t give him the good news because he has to hear the bad news first. And the central point of this encounter is that somebody can want eternal life and walk away without it, even when they went to the Son of God. You might think that if anybody could reel this guy in, Jesus could. Jesus doesn’t make it easy; He really makes it virtually impossible for this man on his own terms to become a Christian.
You don’t want people becoming a Christian on their own terms, you don’t want people assuming they’re receiving eternal life on their own terms, but rather on God’s terms. This is the test of all tests and the test of this young man’s life. He had to come to grips with two things: sin and submission. To understand his sin, he needed a better understanding of the holiness of God; and to understand submission, he needed to submit himself totally to the authority of Christ no matter what He asked him to do. And as it turns out, he was not willing to do either. He was not willing to reconsider his spiritual condition, and he was not willing to submit to the lordship of Christ. He wanted eternal life, but again, he wanted it on his terms.
So often the gospel is offered this way: “Come to Jesus, and He’ll do this for you, and this for you, and this for you; and you make the list, and He’ll meet every need.” That’s not the case. You come to Jesus, and you throw away the list, and you come on His terms.
This young man never questions Jesus’ teaching, but he will not, he will not receive eternal life unless it fits his desires. He is not going to trade what he has achieved for the glories of heaven. This is the struggle, because it’s a sell-all issue. He is a sinner clinging to the illusion of self-righteousness, and he is clinging to the pride of wanting to run his own life. He really loved himself to the degree that he was satisfied with himself. He didn’t want to reconsider the holiness of God or his own sinfulness; nor did he have any interest in submitting everything, everything to Jesus.
So much of the work of evangelism is overlooked because people fail to come to these two points. Evangelism is not just leading someone to the place where they want eternal life. Most people would want eternal life, escape from judgment, escape from punishment, escape from hell, the blessings of heaven. That’s not the question. The question is, “What are they willing to give up to receive it?” And that’s the issue here.
This young man appears like the ideal prospect for the gospel; he’s the ideal seeker, and Jesus could just make a few statements, and he would be in the kingdom. But He doesn’t; and what Jesus does say at first is confounding. So let’s look at the story, starting in verse 17.
“As He was setting out on a journey,” meaning our Lord; this is part of His ministry in Perea, and He is next going to head toward Jerusalem and His death there. But as He tours the area of Perea and anticipates heading south for the Passover at which He will be crucified, “a man runs up to Him,” “a man.” And he is a religious man. He’s a religious man, we know, because the other gospel writers tell us. Very religious man, and he has a very important question: “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” He thought he was on the brink, just as we might think he was just exactly where he should be, right there at the door. You might even think he’s knocking and the door should be opened. But the truth of the matter is he was far from where he needed to be to receive eternal life.
Again, I just say most people in a scenario like this would tell him to pray a prayer, believe in Jesus, give him some gospel truth. And with someone like this, that would have been a false conversion because he had not come to grips with the sinfulness of his sin, nor would he submit to the lordship of Christ. So the Lord shows us how to put barriers in front of superficial seekers, OK, how to put barriers in front of superficial seekers.
Now this is a basic question: “How does one obtain eternal life?” And I don’t want to push the issue of the language here, “What shall I do?” It’s not that he’s saying, “I have to do something to have eternal life”; it’s a fair question. He’s just saying, “What do I do to have eternal life?”
So on the premise of that question, let’s see if we can reconstruct what he’s thinking. And from the human side, to obtain eternal life, there are some very good elements here. First of all, he knew what he wanted. Fair enough? He knew what he wanted. He wanted eternal life, which means he knew he didn’t have it. He lacked confidence that he had really received the life of God in his soul. This is one thing he knows he doesn’t have. He has a lot, but he knows he doesn’t have eternal life.
And somebody might say, “Well, how do you know you have eternal life until you get into eternity?” Well, if the eternity aspect of it meant only the length of life, you wouldn’t know. But eternal life is not just the length of life, it’s a kind of life, it’s a quality of life, and he knew he didn’t have that.
Eternal life is the life of God. The life that is eternal is divine life. Human life is not eternal, divine life is. It’s the life that knows God. It’s the life in which God pours grace, mercy, wisdom, peace, joy, hope.
Now what’s interesting about this man is he’s young. He’s young, Matthew tells us in his account. And then Luke adds that he was a ruler. So the rich young ruler. Probably the ruler of a synagogue, which would, for a young man—that would be a very formidable responsibility; usually that was saved for the older people. So this is a very religious young man who has achieved prominence in the religious community to the point that he is a ruler in the synagogue. Devout, religious Jew; rich, young, prominent, influential, moral, respected; so highly respected that they elevated him in the synagogue.
And this is such a special young man that in Matthew’s account, it starts with, “Behold.” Matthew says, “Behold,” like this is an amazing thing, this is a wondrous thing, that one like him, a ruler in the synagogue, wealthy and young, would be grappling with fears and doubts about his spiritual life. That’s exactly what he’s doing.
He knew he did not have eternal life. He was honest enough with his own heart and his own soul. There wasn’t that rest that we just sung about, “It is well with my soul.” It wasn’t with his. There wasn’t the peace and the joy and the settled hope that he would want. He was restless. He was unfulfilled. You could say he was anxious as well.
And this is really where the gospel does start. It starts with knowing you need something you don’t have. And he’s absolutely right. He didn’t have eternal life, and he needed it more than anything because eternal life—it is the life of God in a person that lasts forever. Divine life.
To the Jews, the term eternal life was very familiar. It was a quality of life: God’s life, divine life, the life of the age to come, kingdom life, heavenly life, the life of God, the life principle that makes one spiritually alive forever, the life that comes with the new birth and regeneration, the life that is unaffected by death, the life that is never going to be condemned—as we read in Romans 8. It’s knowing it is well with your soul; it’s knowing that and finding rest and peace and hope in that reality. So this is a good place to start. He knows he doesn’t have the life of God in his soul. He knows he’s a carnal man, let’s put it that way.
And the second thing you can say commending him is this was a deep issue. He felt it deeply: “What shall I do?” Some people who don’t have the life of God can wander through life and never question the end of their condition. This young man did. He knew he didn’t have eternal life; he wanted it desperately, to the degree that even though he’s the ruler of a local synagogue and a man of dignity, he comes running to Jesus, and it says that he knelt down in front of Him. This is a posture of humility. And according to Matthew 19:20, he said, “What am I . . . lacking?” “What is missing in my life?” Strong need, the cry of an unsatisfied, unsettled, unfulfilled person.
Now he lived an outwardly exemplary religious life. He was moral. He was dutiful. He was conformed to the standards of Judaism externally, and a leader in the synagogue. But his heart was not satisfied. All his religion is external, which is typical of all false religion, including Pharisaical Judaism. There’s a vacuum in his heart. There’s a hole in his soul. This is not psychological, this is spiritual. So it’s good. He knew what he didn’t have, and he knew what he needed.
And thirdly, he’s very urgent about it. That is evidenced in verse 17 by his running and his kneeling. He is in a hurry. He is in turmoil. All his religion, all his wealth, all his position has not settled his heart, and there’s an urgency. He wants eternal life. He wants to know that God is in his life; and so he comes.
Not only are those things essential; you need to know what you don’t have, what you want, and to seek it diligently. But there’s a fourth reality here, and this is probably the most important thing of all: He came to the right source. If you’re going to ask somebody how to obtain eternal life, you couldn’t do better than Jesus. Jesus is even called, 1 John 5:20, that eternal life. John 1, in Him was life; He is the life—the way, the truth, and the life.
And he comes to Him, and he comes recognizing that He is a teacher. Look at the 17th verse: “Good Teacher.” And then in verse 20 he repeats, “Teacher.” So he thinks he has found a teacher who knows the way to eternal life. Nothing says that he knew He was God. Nothing conclusive about what he thought about the nature of Christ. I think it’s fair to assume that he thought of Him as a teacher—Good Teacher, not just any teacher, but a uniquely good teacher, agathos, internally good, essentially good, morally good, inwardly good, virtuous, upright. “I think I have found the teacher who can tell me how to have eternal life.”
So what he is saying about Jesus is that Jesus is a good teacher; let’s leave it at that. There’s nothing to indicate that he thought He was God or the Son of God. But he believes because of exposure to Jesus that He is a good teacher, obviously beyond any other teacher he’d ever heard. And so he has come to the right source. First John 5:11 says, “And this is the record, that God has given to us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.” The man didn’t know it, but he was talking to the eternal life, the One who always was, the One who had no beginning and no end.
So he knew what he wanted, he felt the need deeply, he sought eagerly, he came to the right person, and then top it off, he asked the right question, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” By “inherit,” he means to take possession, to receive, to acquire.
With all that leading up to Jesus’ response, verse 18, Jesus speaks to him. He doesn’t say, “Believe in the gospel and you’ll be saved.” Wouldn’t be wrong to say that. But what He does say is shocking, verse 18, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone.” “You’re throwing around the word ‘good.’ You called Me a good teacher.” Jesus is talking to him on a human level. He knows he thinks Jesus is just a man, but a really good man; and so he doesn’t understand good in its purest form, or he wouldn’t call any man good, because there’s no one good except God alone.
Let me tell you something about God. Everything about God’s nature is absolute; everything is absolute. That is to say, when it says that He is good, it means He is all good all the time and never anything but good. When it says God is righteous, it means just exactly that: His righteousness is perfection. When it talks about His holiness—that He is holy, holy, holy—He is perfectly holy. Whenever you use virtuous terms to refer to God, including the word good, you have to understand that when applied to God, God is good and nothing but good, to the max, in perfection always. And when our Lord answers him by saying, “Why do you call Me good?” He’s exposing the fact that this young man had a much lower standard of goodness than he should have had; and He makes it clear: “No one is good except God alone.”
So only God is good? Yeah, if you define good as perfection, right? That’s the answer. He says, “Only God is good.” So using good in the absolute sense of perfection. He’s saying to the young man, “You’re throwing around this idea of goodness in kind of a cavalier way, as if you had some kind of relative approach to goodness, some kind of relative idea of goodness and righteousness and holiness.”
And of course, that’s exactly what he had, because he’s in a self-righteous system; he’s a self-righteous person, so he thinks he’s good. But that’s because he doesn’t understand absolute goodness, the absolute goodness that characterizes God, and therefore is required by God. He doesn’t understand that to come to God you have to be perfect, “as your Father in heaven is perfect,” Jesus said. So he needs a lesson on righteousness and sin.
“Why are you calling Me good?” Well, he’s a religious legalist, so he has a concept of good that is lower than the absolute character of God. He also thinks he’s good, verse 20, “I’ve kept all these things from my youth up.” “I’m the very personification of goodness, righteousness, virtue.” And if he thinks he is the personification of righteousness and goodness, then he has a very low view of righteousness and goodness, which means he has a low view of God, which is accommodating a high view of himself. So our Lord says to him, “Look, we have to go back to the beginning and understand that God is good in a way that is only true of Him; and if you’re less than that, you’re not good.”
That’s the idea of the law. The law was to put the goodness of God on display, and the law came not to make people righteous, it came basically to reveal them as sinners. The law was there to show that the righteousness that belonged to God, the goodness that belonged to God was impossible for man. So he’s like those that Paul talks about in Romans 10, chapter 10, verse 3: They had an elevated view of their own righteousness and a diminished view of the righteousness of God. Because you don’t know the righteousness of God truly, you go about to establish your own righteousness.” In other words, you think God is less righteous than He is, you’re more righteous than you are, and so you can please God on your terms.
But God is absolute goodness, absolute perfection, absolute holiness, absolute righteousness; and Scripture says, “Be holy, as I am holy.” That’s the standard of goodness. And he needed to come to grips with the fact that he was not what he thought he was. There’s no point in him coming to find out what additional thing he needs to add to all the achievements that he has already accomplished by his goodness. Unless you’re perfectly good, you’re totally condemned. So Jesus needed to put a barrier up at the point of this man’s understanding of sin and righteousness.
This is where the gospel always has to start. If somebody comes and said, “What do I do to inherit or receive eternal life?” you back them off. You back them off into the category of sin and righteousness. But this direct attack on the young man exposed him, in this essential category of his view of himself regarding sin.
Our Lord says in verse 19, and He starts quoting the second half of the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments: “Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not bear false witness, do not defraud, honor your father and mother.” So He’s rattling off some of the Ten Commandments. “And he said to Him, ‘Teacher, I’ve kept all these things from my youth up.’”
Well, that’s not possible. That’s not possible. Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount said, “If you hate, you’re a murderer. If you lust, you’ve committed adultery in your heart. If you covet, you’re a thief.” You can violate those not only in action, but in attitude.
So this man is completely distorted about his condition. He thinks he is righteous enough that he only needs to do one more thing to reach eternal life because he’s kept the law. And again, look, any legalistic system has to define keeping the law in a superficial way because they have evil hearts and they know it. So it’s all about the external.
“I’ve kept all these things.” He’s blind to his own sinfulness. He lived in constant, lifelong violation of the perfection of God. He doesn’t know it, but he’s a blasphemer, and he’s a proud one, elevating himself. He really worshiped himself, not God. And so his response when confronted with law and righteousness: “I’m in. I’ve kept it all from my youth up.”
Verse 21, “Looking at him, Jesus felt a love for him”—that’s sympathy, compassion—“and said to him, ‘[OK,] one thing you lack: go and sell all you possess, give to the poor, and you’ll have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.’” And you might say, “Wait a minute; that’s another wrong answer. The first wrong answer was He gave him the law when He should have told him to believe the gospel. Now it sounds like Jesus is saying, ‘If you want eternal life, give up your possessions. Sell everything you possess and give it to the poor. Come and follow, Me.’ Salvation by philanthropy?”
Jesus had “a love for him”; important to note that because that means He would only say what was true to him. But what our Lord is saying is really the great test that he has to face: “Will you confess Me as Lord? Will you yield up everything if I ask?” It’s not that he’s going to receive eternal life by giving up all his possession, it is that he will not receive eternal life until he confesses Jesus as Lord, who may ask him to give all of his possessions up.
First of all, you have to acknowledge your sinfulness, and then you have to submit to the lordship of Christ. This is so important because many people come to the gospel, and they have a superficial understanding of their own sinfulness, so their repentance isn’t real, heartfelt. And they think Jesus wants to give them everything they want, when Jesus wants the authority in their life to tell them to give up everything they have. Very different. Invite Jesus in your life, and you’ll get what you want? No, invite into your life, and you’ll get what He wants. That’s submission. That’s Luke 9:23, “If any man come after Me, let him deny himself, deny himself,” hate his own life.
These are the two barriers that our Lord puts up in this encounter. Barrier number one: He needs to understand the holiness of God and the sinfulness of his own proud, self-righteous heart because repentance is required. And then he needs to be willing to give up everything, if that’s what the Lord asks. That’s like the parables in Matthew 13: Sell all to buy the pearl, which is a symbol of salvation. Sell all to buy the treasure in the field, another symbol of salvation. Are you willing to give it all up? Will you submit to the lordship of Christ? You don’t come to Jesus in order to get what you want, you come to Jesus in order to live the rest of your life receiving what He wants.
If evangelism was done this way, we’d have a lot less false converts. If all you have to do is pray the prayer, whether you grapple with your own sinfulness and God’s righteousness or not, if all you have to do is tell Jesus to give you what you want, I can imagine people lining up to get what they want. But it’s the opposite. True saving faith is confessing Jesus as Lord and setting aside what you want—that’s deny yourself, even to the point of death—taking up a cross, and follow Him. So those are critical barriers in evangelism: Does the sinner understand righteousness and sin, and does the sinner understand submission to the lordship of Christ?
Many people come to Jesus. They want to pray the prayer. They want to make the confession, “I believe in Jesus.” But are they really coming like the publican, pounding on their chest and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner”? You have to come empty-handed. You bring nothing, you offer nothing; you have nothing to offer.
You come as the Beatitudes say: bankrupt, poor in spirit, meek, sorrowful, empty, offering nothing that you’ve achieved to God. And then you say, “Lord, I acknowledge You as my King, my Lord. I only want what You want.” That’s the heart and soul of saving faith.
Beware of the selfish seeker who believes that he’s good enough to receive eternal life, and who wants eternal life because he thinks it’ll give him what he wants that’s missing in his life; when the truth is, a real salvation is a complete self-emptying, complete recognition of one’s sinfulness with nothing to contribute to salvation, and an eager willingness to say, “Jesus is Lord; I want only His will.”
This makes salvation hard; and that’s what happens in verse 23, “Jesus, looking around, said to His disciples, ‘How hard it will be for those who are wealthy to enter the kingdom of God!’” It’s really hard. The more successful you are, the more prominent you are, the more wealth you have, the prouder you are. “It is easier,” Jesus says in verse 25, “for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” Success, prosperity, wealth, riches accrues to a person’s pride and piles up pride; and the idea that you would strip yourself bare, nothing but a wretched sinner, and be willing to give up everything for the sovereign lordship of Christ is very difficult.
Verse 26, “They were more astonished and said to Him, ‘Then who can be saved?’ Looking at them, Jesus said, ‘With people it is impossible, but not with God; for all things are possible with God.’” That’s important, isn’t it? Salvation is hard. Salvation is hard. Humanly, it’s impossible; but with God, it’s possible. And in 1 Corinthians 1, we read that God chooses those that’ll be saved, and He chooses very few of the high and the mighty, very few. The poor, the nobodies, the destitute, the lowlifes—for His own glory.
As long as you think you can make some righteous contribution to your salvation, you will not be able to receive the gift of eternal life; and until you acknowledge the lordship of Christ to the degree that He is Lord of your life, and you live not for Him to give you what you want, but for you to give Him first place in all that He desires. Salvation is saying, “Christ, I’m an unworthy sinner. Take me, though I have nothing to offer, and do with me whatever You will.” That’s the heart attitude that our Lord did not see in this young man. Poor, destitute people might be more likely to come to that point than those who have been very successful; but every sinner has to come there to receive eternal life.
Father, it’s always a wonderful revelation to us when we open Your Word, and it makes such clear and powerful truths evident. We can look at the Bible, and it’s a lot of Bible verses, a lot of statements, a lot of sayings, and it can all sort of blend together, until we focus deeply into one passage, which is why expository preaching is so critical, to bear down on this critical encounter between Jesus and the rich young ruler, that we might understand that You require that we understand the sinfulness of sin and the sovereign authority of Christ; and understanding the sinfulness of sin, we turn from it in repentance; and understanding the sovereign authority of Christ, we turn to Him in submission. That’s necessary for true salvation, and that is how to obtain eternal life. Grant that to some even here this day, we pray in Christ’s name. Amen.
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