Oct 29, 2006

The Rich Young Ruler

Mark 10:13–22

Only Christ can redeem us from the immeasurable debt we incur by our sin. In this sermon, R.C. Sproul continues his series in the gospel of Mark to investigate Jesus’ interaction with a rich young man who could not recognize his own spiritual bankruptcy.


We are in chapter 10 of Mark’s gospel, and we’re going to pick it up at Mark 10:13–22. I’d ask the congregation to stand for the reading of the Word of God.

Then they brought little children to Him, that He might touch them; but the disciples rebuked those who brought them. But when Jesus saw it, He was greatly displeased and said to them, “Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of God. Assuredly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will by no means enter it.” And He took them up in His arms, laid His hands on them, and blessed them.

Now as He 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?”

So Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God. You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery,’ ‘Do not murder,’ ‘Do not steal.’ ‘Do not bear false witness.’ ‘Do not defraud,’ ‘Honor your father and your mother.’”

And he answered and said to Him, “Teacher, all these things I have kept from my youth.”

Then Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “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.”

But he was sad at this word, and went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.

If you have ears to hear the Word of God, hear it now. Please be seated. Let’s pray.

Again, our Father and our God, we call to you for help that we might understand the crucial things that were communicated by Jesus to this man in his inquiry. For, O God, we also are concerned with the question, “What must we do to inherit eternal life?” Give us clarity of the gospel. For we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.

After Darkness, Light

If you’ve been to the old city of Geneva in Switzerland and gone to Reformation Park and the great wall that adorns it, you will see carved into the stone the Latin words, post tenebras lux: after darkness, light. That motto sought to capture what transpired in the sixteenth-century Reformation. What had been hidden through the accretions that crept in over the ages and particularly in the middle ages was the gospel in its purity. In the sixteenth century, that gospel, which had all but been eclipsed and was in the shadows of the darkness, came once again to light, and the Reformation was underway.

The Reformation, in the final analysis, was not about the pope. It wasn’t about Mary. It wasn’t about the church’s authority. It was about the gospel, and at that point it was touching what Luther called the article upon which the church stands or falls, what Calvin called the hinge upon which everything turns: the doctrine of justification by faith alone, which answers the question, “What must we do to be saved?” I didn’t plan to be at this text on Reformation Sunday. That happened in the providence of God, for in this encounter that Jesus had with the rich young ruler, we have one of the most important manifestations of the clarity of the gospel.

There is a link between what we looked at last week in terms of Jesus teaching on marriage and divorce and the discussion with the rich young ruler about the business of the little children that were brought to Jesus. I’m going to pass over that for the moment. God willing, I’ll come back to it and try to show what the link is, but for now I want us to give our attention to the narrative about the rich young ruler.

No Disinterested Bystander

We read in verse 17, “Now as He 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?’” Obviously, this man who comes with his inquiry is not a disinterested bystander at one of Jesus’ public orations. Here is a man who runs for all he is worth. He is eager to ask Jesus the question burning in his soul: “How can I inherit eternal life? What do I have to do?” He comes eagerly. He comes willingly. He comes with respect and honor. He falls on his knees before Jesus, and he uses a form of address that was somewhat unusual and rare among the Jews when he says to Him, “Good Teacher,” or, “Good Rabbi.” Let me pause there for a second.

One who held the office of rabbi in the Jewish community was considered one of the most distinguished and honorable persons in the community. It was the custom of the Jews that anytime the father, the patriarch of the family, entered a room, his children were required to stand in respect for him—with one notable exception. If one of the sons became a rabbi, then the custom was that when that son entered the room, his father would stand in respect of his son because of this elevated office.

So, it is with great respect that this young man asks Jesus, “Good Teacher, what do I have to do to inherit eternal life?” The Psalms in the Old Testament talked about inheriting life, and so often in the Old Testament the notion of inheriting life was related to obedience to the law. This man comes with that assumption that the only way he will ever inherit eternal life is by doing something that would make him just before God.

Why Do You Call Me Good?

I’m going to come back to that in a few moments, but for now let’s go on with the question, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Notice how Jesus answers the question with a question. He says: “Why are you calling Me good? Don’t you know that there’s only One who is good, even God?”

Some of the critics of the Christian faith go to this text, and they say, “Here is manifest evidence that Jesus did not consider Himself sinless and Jesus saw weaknesses in His own righteousness, because He disavows any description of Himself as being good.” I’m quite convinced that is not why the man heard these words from the lips of Jesus. Jesus was not saying to the man: “Why do you call Me good? I’m not good. Only God is good.” Jesus knew that the man did not know to whom he was asking the question. Jesus knew that this man did not know that he was talking to God incarnate. Jesus was calling attention to this man’s superficial understanding of what goodness is, just like we do. Just like the world, it’s so easy for us to call each other good. We say, “He’s a good man, she’s a good woman, he’s a good child,” and so on without giving much thought or consideration to what goodness entails. Good is a relative term, and we use it by comparing one person to another.

How to Judge Goodness

We compare ourselves to each other, just as we talk about animals. I say about my dog, “My dog is a good dog.” What do I mean by that? I don’t mean that my dog has a highly refined ethical sense of propriety or that my dog knows how to make those hard decisions that righteousness requires. No, I’m just saying that as dogs go, my dog is a pretty good dog. My dog comes when I call her. She doesn’t bite the mailman. She’s housebroken. That’s what a good dog is.

So, what do we mean when we say that a man is good? Maybe we mean he doesn’t bite the mailman, he comes when we call him, and he’s housebroken. Hardly so. What we mean is that compared to other people, he’s pretty good. We are warned in Scripture, however, not to judge ourselves by ourselves or to judge ourselves among ourselves. Rather, we are to understand that goodness is ultimately defined by the character of God, whose character is made manifest in the law. When we judge ourselves against the ultimate standard of the righteousness of God, we will understand why at first the Psalmist and then the Apostle Paul in Romans say: “There is none righteous. There is none who does good, no, not one.” We say that surely the Bible is exaggerating and speaking hyperbolically when it says, “There is no one who does any good.”

Calvin noted that we see among pagans all kinds of self-sacrificial acts or what he called civic virtue, where people abstain from stealing, or they give from the depths of their hearts to needy causes without being believers. That’s a good thing. Calvin said, “What we mean by that is that people externally do those things from time to time that correspond to the law of God, but God requires that everything we do be motivated by a heart that loves Him and seeks to honor Him.”

Before God will consider our deeds to be good deeds, He looks not only on their outward conformity to His law, but He also looks at our hearts. He says, “Did this deed proceed from a heart that 100% wants to glorify Me?” He knows the answer to that and so do you. So, from the viewpoint of God, there is none righteous, no, not a single one. With the same superficial view of the good that the rich young ruler has, however, we come assuming that we can do something to inherit eternal life.

Law and Gospel

Notice the contrast in language between the rich young ruler and the children who were brought to Jesus, of whom the disciples said, “Don’t bother the Master with these little ones.” It says that Jesus was very displeased about this. Did Jesus say: “Let them come. Forbid them not. For as such belong to the kingdom of God. And I say to you, ‘Assuredly, unless you receive the kingdom of God like one of these little ones,’” you shall have difficulty inheriting the kingdom? No, He says, “Unless you receive the kingdom like one of these little ones, you in no way will enter into the kingdom.” So, the rich man is looking for a way to do something that will make him worthy to inherit the kingdom. He’s still looking to the law, and he doesn’t understand it.

I have to tell you what happened last Sunday. The text was on marriage and divorce. I tried to set forth the text to you. One of the ministers who came to the pastor’s conference we were having came early to church, as part of the congregation, and after the service he said to me: “I loved your style of worship. I loved the preaching. I loved the church. I loved everything about it, but you know, I didn’t hear the gospel this morning. I heard the law. Where was the gospel?” My first thought was, “People come to this church to hear the gospel all the time.” Then I thought, “But today they didn’t, today they heard the law.”

There may have been people who walked out of church thinking, “I guess I’m going to hell,” because I didn’t give them the gospel. The law is supposed to drive us to the gospel, to expose our need, to expose our sin, and to cause us to abandon all hope of earning our way into the kingdom of God. I should have said last Sunday that if you’re involved in an illegitimate divorce, or if you’re involved with pornography, these are not the unforgivable sins. These sins are what sent Christ to the cross, and if you put your trust in Him, and are justified by faith, your sins will be forgiven. Divorced people can get in the kingdom of God. That’s the good news.

Misunderstanding the Law

Jesus, before He sets forth any gospel to this young man, takes him straight to the law. “What do I have to do to inherit the kingdom of God?” the man asks. Jesus answers, “You know the law.” Then He sets before him what’s often called the second table of the law, that part of the law which refers to our interactions as human beings. The first commandments talk about our relationship to God: “Thou shall not have no other gods before Me,” “Thou shall not make unto thee any graven images,” “Thou shall not take the name of the Lord in vain,” and, “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.” Those are all about how we relate to God. From there it goes on with the prohibitions against murder, theft, adultery, covetousness, false witness, and the rest. But Jesus starts with the second part.

Let me put it this way: Jesus starts with the easy part. He says: “You know the law. Thou shall not murder. Thou shalt not steal. Thou shalt not commit adultery.” Suddenly this eager young man, who came rushing to Jesus to find out how to get in God’s kingdom, breathes an audible sigh of relief: “Thank goodness. Is that all I have to do? All I have to do is keep the law.”

He says: “Jesus, I’ve never committed adultery. I’ve never stolen anything. I’ve never murdered anybody. I’m not a covetous person. All these things have I done since I was a little boy. I was born and reared in the Jewish community. We recited the law all the time. I know the Decalogue. It’s written on my heart. I keep those commandments every day.” You would expect Jesus to say, “No you don’t.” Jesus could have said to the young man, “Sir, you haven’t kept a single one of the Ten Commandments since you got out of your bed this morning.”

Obviously, the man had not heard Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus explained to the people there that if you’ve refrained from full-orbed adultery, but you have lust in your heart, you have broken the law. Even if you’ve never taken a human life, if you’ve been angry without just cause, if you’ve hated your brother, if you’ve insulted him, you’ve broken the law against murder. Jesus revealed that the demands of God’s law are far deeper than the mere, simple outward obedience that is spelled out.

The rich young ruler didn’t understand. He had a superficial understanding of the good. He had a superficial understanding of the law. He still harbored the hope within himself that he could earn his way into heaven. Beloved, he’s no different from the vast majority of people in this country today, and from the overwhelming majority of people who are in churches each Sunday morning.

Why Should I Let You into My Heaven?

When I was teaching evangelism and following the outline of Evangelism Explosion, we had diagnostic questions, and one of the questions was this: If you were to die tonight and stand before God, and God said to you, “Why should I let you into My heaven?” what would you say? Let me stop right there. What would you say? If God looked you in the eye and said, “Why should I let you in?” how would you answer that question?

I kept track of people’s answers from inside the church. Eighty percent gave what we call a works-righteousness answer. They said this: “I’ve tried to live a good life. I’m not a criminal. I’ve never murdered anybody. I go to church every Sunday, or almost every Sunday. I go to Sunday School. I’m a deacon. I’m an elder. I’m a minister.” Those are the answers that were given eighty percent of the time, where people were relying upon their performance, their good deeds, and their obedience to get them into heaven.

I was so alarmed that the gospel had not been communicated to people, that once again justification by faith alone had gone into the darkness, that I wanted to make sure my family understood it. So, I asked my five-year-old son at the time, “Son, if you were to die tonight, and you stood before God, and God looked at you and said, ‘Why should I let you into My heaven?’ what would you say?” He thought that was the easiest question I ever asked him. He looked up at me and said, “I would say, ‘Because I’m dead.’” In this Calvinistic household, the prevailing understanding of salvation among my children was justification by death—all you have to do to go to heaven is to die. If you don’t believe that’s the prevailing view in our culture, attend a funeral. You can be a pagan all your life, but suddenly when you die, you’re translated into the kingdom of light because we think that we can make it to heaven by works.

The Compassion of Jesus

Well, Jesus doesn’t give a lecture to the young man. He doesn’t say: “No, you haven’t kept the law since you were a little boy. No, you don’t understand the gospel. You don’t understand justification by faith alone.” Rather, He was trying to help this man understand what God requires. After the man said, “All these things I’ve kept from my youth,” Mark tells us that Jesus, looking at him, loved him. Isn’t that interesting? The young man says to Jesus, the Judge of heaven and earth who is standing right in front of him, “I’ve kept the law since I was a little boy,” and Jesus looks at him and loves him.

Why does He love him? Is it because He was so happy to finally find an Israelite in whom there was no guile, to finally find somebody in the Jewish community that did in fact keep the law from the time he was a little boy? Did Jesus love this fellow because he was so lovely? I don’t believe the rich young ruler was an arrogant man. To be sure, his answers were implicitly arrogant, but I don’t think that was his demeanor. I don’t think that was his attitude. He really wanted to know, and he believed that he had kept the law.

I think of Jesus approaching Jerusalem and weeping, crying out in prophetic lament, “Oh, Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and all who were sent before, how often I would have gathered you to Myself like a hen gathers her chicks, but you would not.” When our Lord met people as lost as this young man, His heart was filled with compassion. I think Jesus wanted to look at this man, put His arms around him, and say: “Don’t you understand? The only way you get into the kingdom is if you bring nothing in your hand. You have to receive it like a child. You can’t buy it. You can’t earn it. You can’t possibly deserve it. You have to receive it. It’s by grace and grace alone.” Instead, Jesus tries to show him his error, step by step.

The Test of the First Commandment

The rich young ruler claims, “I’ve kept the whole law since I was a little boy.” It’s as if Jesus replies: “You’ve kept the law? Let’s put it to the test. There’s one little thing you lack. You’ve done so well all those years, but you’re going to miss this inheritance because of one requirement. All you have to do is go out and sell all that you have, give it to the poor, pick up your cross, and follow Me—then you’ll inherit the kingdom.”

Folks, if all I had to do to get into the kingdom of God was to get rid of all my private property, I wouldn’t wait until tomorrow to dispose of it. I’d give it away today, because what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul? What could be sillier than to seek mammon rather than the kingdom of God?

Understand that Jesus is not setting down a universal rule for anybody to enter the kingdom of God. He is not saying that everyone must divest themselves of all private property, enter a monastery, become an ascetic in the wilderness, take an oath of poverty, or seek redemption through poverty mysticism. That is not what Jesus is saying. Rather, He is addressing His comments to this specific fellow.

Jesus is saying to the rich young ruler, “You’ve kept all the law? Let’s start with number one: ‘Thou shall have no other gods before Me.’” Jesus knew that money was this man’s god. Money was this man’s idol. Maybe he went to synagogue and temple worship, but all week long his mind was consumed with questions of wealth. What would his final estate be? The money ranked ahead of God. It’s all that he lacked. So, Jesus says: “Get rid of it. Pluck out the eye, cut off the hand, cut off the foot—whatever keeps you from the kingdom of God, get rid of it. That’s all you have to do.”

The Rich Young Ruler Bankrupt

After Jesus’ words, the rich young ruler’s sigh of relief was transformed into a groan of despair, for the Bible says, “He was sad at this word.” That word is not strong enough. He was downcast. In the Greek it says that he was “appalled” or “shocked” by these words. He was devastated.

This man who ran to Jesus walked away from Him in sorrow. He walked away from Jesus. The Pearl of Great Price was standing right in front of him. All the treasures of heaven and earth were in the One he walked away from. It’s like a man who wouldn’t trade a nickel for a billion dollars, but even that’s a poor analogy. He thought his own possessions were worth more than Jesus. He’d rather have had his own bank account than the kingdom of God.

Beloved, here is what the young man didn’t understand. The Bible says he was wealthy. He had a great estate. He had many riches. But the reality was, he was bankrupt, utterly and completely bankrupt. As he stood there talking to Jesus, the shadow of his credit report was hanging over him, for the Bible says that all of us are debtors who cannot pay their debts.

Have you ever owed more than you had the resources to pay? God requires from us that we be holy even as He is holy. The minute we sin, we are now in debt to the righteousness of God. When we sin again, we’re going further into debt. Paul says that we are heaping up wrath for the day of God’s wrath (Rom. 2:5). That debt grows bigger and bigger every time we sin. If somebody left us a zillion dollars, it couldn’t pay our account.

The tragedy in this event was that the only person in the universe who could get the rich young ruler out of bankruptcy, the only person in the universe who could pay the debt that the man couldn’t possibly pay himself, was standing right in front of him.

Christ Pays Our Debt

This is what the gospel is about. Christ pays for us. He purchases us. He pays our debt, and He gives to us His righteousness, which is the only thing that will satisfy the demands of God’s law. By faith, when you put your trust in Christ and Christ alone and despair of your own wealth, you let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also, and cling to Jesus. Then you receive the inheritance that you need to get into the kingdom of God.

Luther understood all of this. After years in the monastery, after pilgrimages to Rome, after self-denial, after being the monk among monks, he kept falling further in debt, until he fled to Jesus gladly. He stayed there because he understood that the just shall live by faith. Let’s pray.

Father, we are beggars who have no bread. We are debtors who have no money, but You have poured out a Treasure to us in Jesus. You’ve given us the Pearl of Great Price. O God, don’t ever let us walk away from You. Amen.

The transcript has been lightly edited for readability.