Luke 18:18-25 “A certain ruler asked him, ‘Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ ‘Why do you call me good?’ Jesus answered. ‘No-one is good– except God alone. You know the commandments: Do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honour your father and mother.’ ‘All these I have kept since I was a boy,’ he said. When Jesus heard this, he said to him, ‘You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.’ When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was a man of great wealth. Jesus looked at him and said, ‘How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, 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.’”
One day a rich, healthy, young ruler came running up to Jesus, and he knelt before him. He looked to everyone watching like a man who was desperate for salvation, and yet he was desperate only up to a point. It was soon evident, from some searching questions of Jesus, that there are some things which he’d never let go even to have eternal life. Now we are to ask ourselves at how many points is that true of us? “Seek ye first the kingdom of God,” says Jesus. Your first priority, every day of your life, is to be the living God. Of how many of us is God’s reign of grace over our lives our number one priority? That was not the case with this man. He was not prepared to put eternal life in the ‘most supreme’ category in his life. There were some things which he wouldn’t let go, even for the kingdom of God, and that is true of some of you. The same choice faces every fallen child of Adam, and for us which of the many siren voice is calling to us, seducing us, pulling us away from Christ? Is there some ‘urgent duty,’ in our eyes, something more attractive? Are there other activities, and other possessions, and other ambitions, and other people more precious to us than Jesus Christ? Here was a young man who looked so promising, but after all was he that anxious to possess eternal life? Was the kingdom of God a priority to him? The Lord was searching him and probing him, so that at last he stood exposed in his insincerity as a man pretending that his problem was that he didn’t know how he could gain eternal life, whereas he did know. You also know. It is not complicated; trusting in Jesus Christ for our acceptance by God and obeying him. Here’s a man who was absolutely confident with his thoughts about the Lord Jesus, that he felt he could go publicly to the Son of God, and acknowledge him with a word of praise, and ask him a big public question, but all along he was treasuring the things of the earth far above Jesus Christ. He was a man who wouldn’t yield to what he already knew and cast himself on the Saviour. He wouldn’t say,
‘Just as I am, poor, wretched, blind;
Sight, riches, healing of the mind,
Yea, all I need, in Thee to find,
O Lamb of God, I come” (Charlotte Elliott, 1789-1871).
This man stood condemned by his values and words; he was a self-deceived man, and a complacent man, who thought he could look God straight in the face without a blush. He even announced that he has done all the will of God from his boyhood, and so when he complements Jesus in public it is as a self-conscious wise judge of men, the kind of man who smiles quietly and nods and strokes his beard, confident about himself. But such a smug man is a lost man, a self-deluded man, someone who, for all his pretence to religious knowledge, is committed to this world and its goods. He would rather have those things than have eternal life on the only terms any man may receive it, God’s own terms, in other words, that we acknowledge our sin and our need of the Saviour Jesus.
By the world’s standards this man wasn’t a poor man. By the standards of most of the professing church he wasn’t a man to be pitied. My difficulty is to make this man look absurd to you because according to the mind of most religious people alive today he isn’t absurd. He was a man to envy; the model for all religious men who, like him, think of themselves as ‘seeking after God’ and wanting the sensible confirming answers to their ‘deep’ questions. Yet from the standpoint of the being of God, and the redemptive sacrifice of Christ, this man is a lost man. Continuing on his way as he was this man was on the broad road, and that road leads to destruction. He was going there because he pretended not to know the truth, while in fact he was refusing to act in the light of the knowledge God had given in abundance to him. He lived during the three most remarkable years this world has ever seen, when Jesus of Nazareth preached the Sermon on the Mount on this planet, when he spoke to the winds and waves and they obeyed him, the years in which he showed his authority over death itself. This young man was standing in marvellous, invincible complacency before Christ Jehovah the incarnate Ancient of Days, and he was complementing God the Son on being good, while he himself, he tells our Lord, was someone without blame. He was an utterly pathetic figure, confronting all the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ and saying no to it because he prefered his own riches. So our Lord was responding to this man by searching and probing and exposing the complacency of this man.
1. THE LORD CALLS UPON THIS MAN TO MAKE SOME DECISIONS.
Now we believe in this congregation that our God reigns over heaven earth and hell, that he is sovereign, and we also believe that the work of redemption was accomplished by God the Son; it is all finished, nothing needs to be added to its perfection. Every penny of sinners’ debts has been paid, and yet here is a man who was being asked by Jesus to make a decision and take action, despite God’s sovereignty and the marvellous cry of Golgotha, “It is finished.” There is still a doing to be done. There are still decisions to be made. There are still steps to be taken. A change of direction is required.
“What must I do?” (v.18) asked the man, and Jesus didn’t slap him down saying, “It’s not up to you to do anything.” He didn’t tell him that he had nothing to do. He didn’t tell him that it was all a matter of divine election. He didn’t say, “It’s all a matter of what God has done.” The Lord Christ showed it was a good question and told him, “Yes, there are decisions to be made. Yes, there were doings to be effected. Yes, there were steps to be taken.” There are in fact the great two actions that God requires of every single person who would receive eternal life. We exercise our responsibility and we do what we have to do. Our conscience charges us, and our affections warm us, and our wills are moved to make a decision. We respond to God. What do we do?
i] We must turn from our idols, even the sin that so easily besets us. The Bible calls this action ‘repentance,’ and it was the first message that the Lord Jesus brought to his own people. It means a moral 180 degree turn around. Here was this young ruler, and eternal life was something he knew he didn’t have, but he did have great riches. He loved his riches very much. Here was a man whose god was Mammon, that is, material things. Before them he bowed. When he was thinking about nothing special his mind drifted off to the things he owned. God says to this man that he should get rid of it, of all that stuff that he was clinging to. Our Lord didn’t tell him to make a bonfire of everything and destroy the lot. It was not illicitly earned, It was not contagious or corrupting in and of itself. Others could profit from his home and his furnishings, his land, flocks and herds. But Christ actually said to this rich young man, “Sell it all! Auction all your possessions, and then give away the proceeds to other people.” To those who were dying of hunger, men and women with nowhere to sleep at night, “Set them up with a new start. Lift them out of their penury. Love them as you love yourself. Your possessions mean everything to you, but they are killing your soul. Get rid of them and let the poor profit.”
Jesus “was preaching the tenth commandment in an applicatory fashion. Christ was using God’s word, ‘Thou shalt not covet,’ as a knife to lance the festering sore of greed in this man’s soul. The sin was invisible to the human eye. It did not show its colours on the surface of the ruler’s behaviour. But in all its filth and ugliness, covetousness ruled his soul. Like a dart, the law of God pierced the conscience of this youth for the first time. Had Jesus merely said, ‘Do not covet,’ this polite seeker would have said, ‘I do not desire anyone’s property or wealth. I am satisfied with my station in life.’ It wouldn’t do simply to quote to this young man the actual words of the law of God in Exodus 20 once again. Jesus applied the tenth of God’s commands forbidding covetousness into a practical test by commanding him that he abandon all his riches. Alas, the youth loved his money more than he loved God and his Son and his Spirit. The words of Jesus fell on deaf ears, and he turned away. But when he went away, he had a clear consciousness that he was a covetousness sinner. He was deficient in love for God, upon which all of the law was hanging” (Walter J. Chantry, “Today’s Gospel,” Banner of Truth, 1970, p.44).
What was the thrust of Jesus’ counsels? It is surely that if this man or any person aches to know everlasting life then he has to change his whole lifestyle. This man’s self-identity was inextricably linked with his possessions. The foundation of his lifestyle was his wealth. That is not the case for every person. There are men who have built their lives on other foundations, but they too are equally shaky. They are all foundations of sand. Men and women build their lives on academic reputation, on artistic achievement, on business acumen, on political influence, on religious office. They have built their lives upon every kind of foundation imaginable. They have lived for every kind of idol; every life here has its own idol, its own preoccupation, and obsession.
There is nothing wrong with having an obsession. It is normal, and human, and commendable to have a great love to live for. Let’s all have it, some driving force that so captivates us that we spend and are spent in its pursuit. This is the longing that motivates us and imparts order, and consistency, and dynamism to our lives. Let us all have a magnificent obsession. God desires that. To every single man God says, “You must have an obsession.” Then God refuses to leave the choice of obsession open-ended. He doesn’t say, “Make your own idol, and live all your days for it.” What God says is, “Let me, the one true and living God, become your obsession. You must find all your joy and satisfaction in me.”
So God is saying to this man, destroy every lesser god. Break them in pieces. Destroy their temple. Rase those idols to the ground. Undermine their foundations and blow them up. Leave no trace of them. Go down and down and remove every little bit so that you can’t build on them ever again. I want them demolished. I want the great swinging iron ball suspended by the crane to crash against that idol, and crash against it again, and keep crashing against it until your idol is unrecognisably broken apart into a thousand pieces, so that all the king’s horses and all the king’s men can’t put it back together again. And then you’ve not finished your demolition work; you root up its foundations too. God is calling for a genuine thoroughgoing repentance. Root and branch change. Infrastructure and superstructure demolition. Here is a young man asking this moment – and asking sincerely – how he can get eternal life, how he can reach the glory of God, and God is replying to him that he can’t ignore repentance. There is no diversion around it. “Rase your old way of life to the ground. Blow up all the external and outward, and then destroy the foundations.” We’ve got to abandon them, demolish them and forsake them entirely and utterly. Let me exemplify and personalize what I am saying.
Consider the patriarch Abraham who is the father of all of us who believe in God, how he had to leave Ur of the Chaldees at the command of God. He quit the place and the people he knew and loved and he set out on a long journey into the unknown believing just this, that the Lord who’d commanded would never abandon him. The apostles James and John had to leave their father and the fishing business. Matthew had to leave his profitable tax collecting work. The Thessalonians turned from their idols to serve the living and true God. There is no life without renunciation, and that turning away is not at the level of the superficial. We may not make a mere public rejection of our lifestyle, but right in the depths of our personalities before the holy God we abandon all self-centred and worldly thinking. We change our emotional life utterly and entirely, our depressions and our enthusiams. Whatever might have been our priorities until this time we abandon them. Have we lived for money? For drugs? For sport? For music? For prestige? For comfort? For the business? For sex? For the family? Have I simply lived for anything that gives me pleasure? In other words, have I lived for myself? Have I spent my weekends in the lusts of the flesh and the mind? Then what is all of that ultimately but this, “I have been my own god, and I have said, ‘My soul, live for yourself. Take your ease. Eat, drink and be merry. Express yourself and satisfy yourself’”? That, surely, is the horrible defiance of a life which was created and sustained by God to be lived for the glorious God; one precious life misspent on baubles and gewgaws.
The Lord was requiring of this young man that he deliberately abdicated his vaunted sovereignty over his own life, that he denied himself and became a Christian, a Christ-obsessed man and a Christ-centred man. We are being asked whether we are sincere about being Christians, whether it’s a big deal with us about gaining eternal life. If it is then Christ reminds us that there is just one way, by selling up everything, destroying the idols we’ve served so far, and renouncing that old way of life. There is no way that anyone can get to God while avoiding the spirit and action demanded by repentance. Signing a card, or walking to the front or being baptized will not do it. Moving fallaciously into some kind of assurance because we have completed a religion course of instruction at the end of which someone has told us, “You are now a Christian,” will not do it. None of that can be a substitute for repentance. No formal religious ceremony can replace repenting of our sins and destroying them. Speaking in tongues is no substitute for it. Having a bishop’s hands placed on our heads will not do. Getting baptized is no way to have eternal life, nor going through the congregation’s procedures for joining its membership. There has to be a broken and a contrite heart. There has to be the painful turning from what has been my god so far in my life, and I turn my back on it, turning to the mighty living God whom hitherto I have despised. Every idol that has had any influence over us has to be broken in bits. Let’s pray, “Help me to tear it from the throne and worship only Thee.” If you are a stranger to repentance you are a stranger to God. You have not known the Lord if you’ve not known true repentance.
ii] We have to follow Jesus Christ, wherever he leads us. The first command was one of repentance, and the second is the command to believe. Faith and repentance are inseparable. Turn your back on everything you’ve lived for, and then you have to ‘turn your front’ towards God, to following Christ in what he believes, how he lives, the way he treats sinners and saints, men, women and children, his family, neighbours and enemies. Peter writes that Christ has left us an example that we should walk in his steps, and that is what following him means. “I will give you eternal life,” says Christ, “and you come and follow me. You become my servant. Submit your mind to my teachings for I am the great Prophet. Bow your will to my commandments, for I am your King. Plead the merit of my sacrifice for I am your great High Priest. Only on these terms do I offer any salvation or life.” Are you following Christ like that? That is the true Christian life, and every sermon is an exhortation to that end. There was a cox of a Great Britain Olympic crew and in a boatrace he was summoning the eight to a supreme effort. To the rhythm of the stroke he cried out these words, “If not now – when? If not you – who?” That is what the commanding invitation of the gospel says, “Follow Jesus Christ. If not now – when? If not you – who?”
Jesus’ answer, you can see, is a reply to his question about doing. It is not as to how one can be justified in the sight of God, but what anyone must do to get eternal life. To be saved one has to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. Entrust yourself to him. Look to him and be joined to him by faith and be saved. All of a sinner’s hope for forgiveness and divine mercy is found in the great accomplishments of the Son of God alone, so believe upon him without delay. But when we are asked what are we to do to have eternal life then the answer is to follow Jesus Christ through thick and thin, always serving him, always doing his will. It is not enough to make a religious decision without that kind of faith, the faith that manifests itself in a change of life. The reality of the faith that saves is shown like this, when your entire life is lived in submission to the Lordship of the Saviour. You don’t see it all at the beginning, but you are prepared to follow him wherever he takes you. That is the confession you make that he is God the Son. It is a deliberate rising and moving on, and walking in his steps. Jesus says that he can take us to God if we follow him and so we place ourselves among that flock which follows this good Shepherd whithersoever he goes. He is our teacher, our protector, our leader and we are following him along the narrow way that leads to life. It is the way of the most stringent morality and personal cross-bearing. It is not the easiest, but if today we want to have eternal life, then it is only by repenting of our sins and following Christ.
It is no use hiding from the thrust of Jesus’ words by saying, “Yes, but being converted is an experience people have.” We have got it wrong. The professing church has got it wrong at such a crucial issue. Think of it! Of course it is an experience, but it is not a vague and narrow experience. It is the experience of repenting; it is the experience of denying myself and following Jesus. It is the experience of pouring contempt on all my pride. It is the experience of destroying my idols, and rasing the old temples to the ground. I experience mortifying the flesh; I pluck out the right eye and cut off the right arm when they offend me. I do it. By the constraint of grace, and by the power of the Spirit I do it, but the Spirit does not do it for me. I experience these things. It is all experiential. The Lord Jesus bore the judgment instead of me; that is never, never my experience; he hung there alone in the wrath of God on Golgotha, but I pass judgment on my sins day by day and I put them to death. The Spirit doesn’t do the murdering of my sins instead of me, he strengthens me to do it. He comes alongside me and empowers. I have to change my lifestyle and follow the Lord. It is not enough to rejoice that I am through the narrow gate; henceforth I must walk the narrow way, and follow my Lord. Follow, follow, I will follow Jesus, anywhere, everywhere, I will follow on.
The Lord asks, “Do you want eternal life? Do you really want it? Then I tell you that it has pleased God to bring many sons to glory, and he has appointed me as the Captain of their salvation. I will bring you to God if you follow me even through the valley of the shadow of death. I will not leave you.” Can we make the answer to this question “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” simpler or clearer? I’m sure we can. But can we make it easier? That is what I question. Simpler? Yes. Clearer? Yes. More eloquent and brilliant? Yes, but easier? No. Let us not pretend that we don’t know how to get eternal life. Let us begin there. Then let us destroy all that has been lording it over us so far, and let us follow the Saviour.
As Walter Chantry once wrote, “If Jesus had been satisfied to save the rich man because he made an intellectual admission that Jesus was the Saviour, the New Testament would have been a different book. First the young man would have gone away happy. Had Jesus been willing to be the personal Saviour of one over whom Jesus was not the Lord, John could not have written, ‘He that saith, I know him, and keepeth not his commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him’ (I Jn. 2:4). Were he to offer the rich ruler heavenly treasures without the stipulation that he must follow him, James could never have instructed us that ‘Faith without works is dead’ (Walter J. Chantry, Today’s Gospel, Banner of Truth, Edinburgh, 1970, p. 61).
2. THE LORD LET HIM SADLY GO AWAY.
He came to Jesus running, but he left him grieving. “ He became very sad,” we are told (v.23). It had been a young face. A religious face. A hopeful face. A healthy face. A happy face, but after Jesus had spoken to him there was a different visage. It was a crestfallen face. Mark tells us, “He went away sad, because he had great wealth.” How did he go away? He went away with his youth, and his riches, and his authority, and his religion, and his health, and his morality. That is how he came, and that is how he left Jesus. He went away far richer than you or me. Our Lord didn’t charge him a counselling fee. No expenses were incurred for the interview, and yet he went away without eternal life. He went away as an unbeliever.
What shall we say? We shall find some consolation that he went away sad. That in itself is an amazing thing; a man one day came to Jesus and went away sad. I didn’t think the Lord did things like that. Why didn’t Jesus call him back? Why didn’t he find him a place in the church which would be a little less demanding, a little easier and less revolutionary? Our Lord didn’t know of any. There is no other formula to answer his question; no other way of bypassing repentance and faith, and if today you refuse to get rid of all your idols, and refuse to follow Christ no preacher in the world has the right to speak peace to your soul, not even the incarnate God of love, especially not him.
I say to you that if you go away today with your possessions and with your old lifestyle, and if the idol you brought into this place goes out of the door with you then . . . at least . . . go away sad. That is the only promising thing about this young man, that he was at the end of this brief conversation disturbed. If you are going to go away from us then go away sad. Yes, by all means, but there is a better way. Don’t go away. Don’t take your possessions with you out of the door. Don’t go on in the way that it’s been. Don’t go on in that old lifestyle, with the old man alive and well. Don’t take him home out of the door.
Alas, if you do take your old man away still alive then do it with your head bowed in sorrow, a broken heart and a lump in your throat. But better still, don’t go away. Do what Jesus says, sell all you have and follow him. Take up your cross and follow him. Don’t say to yourself that you are going to think about this and that you are going to seek him. Don’t vow that before the next meeting you are going to deal with this problem. Don’t make any such promises. Salvation is not about vowing, it is about doing. Here is the Lord Jesus Christ, and he is saying to this man, “Follow me,” and from this moment onwards let’s follow him. You can never begin to follow Christ too soon. You can believe that you are following him too soon, but you cannot start following the Saviour too soon.
Where do we begin? Is there a heart saying, “O for a closer walk with God?” Is that heart saying,
“The dearest idol I have known whate’er that idol be,
Help me to tear it from the throne and worship only Thee”? (William Cowper)
Let us pray that prayer, but in our own words, confessing and destroying our own idols. Let us pray that prayer until we know that it has been answered. God has helped us to tear it off the throne and then let us follow Jesus.
If you won’t follow my Saviour you’re going to follow someone or something. We are all on a road, some way or other, and the unremarkable fact about a road is that it leads somewhere, every road going to a specific destination, and that has to be true for the road you’re on. When Marlon Brando, the most famous and idolised Hollywood actor of this generation, breathed his last, his earthly course ended with him as a recluse, grossly overweight, surviving on peach-flavoured iced tea and frankfurters, ten million dollars in debt, sued for a further 63 million dollars by a mother of some of his 11 acknowledged children. He had not lived for that, but that is what he attained. How was he at the end of his life? In his own words, “Kind of isolated and alone after years of being analysed and exploited by a psychoanalyst.” His self-appointed ‘saviours’ in fact helped to destroy him. What an end to that earthly existence which had begun with youth, health, riches, fame and power. He was steadily deserted by all his idols during his 80 years – what a judgment on the pathetic gods he lived for. One by one they all forsook him and let him die, but then what? After death man faces the judgment of God. Brando was no exception, and neither will you be. So where is your road heading? To destruction without Jesus or to life with him? “Follow Jesus Christ! If not now – when? If not you – who?”
January 15 2012, GEOFF THOMAS