Did Jesus preach “Law” or “Gospel” to the rich young ruler?

When Christ enjoins upon the young man the duty of following him (Mt. 19:23), he does not give a counsel, but a command to all in common because no one can have a hope of salvation unless he follows Christ (2 Pet. 2:21), although from a particular cause it is peculiarly adapted to him. –Francis Turretin (Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Vol 2, p. 32; 11.4.11)


And a certain ruler questioned Him, saying, “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 commit adultery, Do not murder, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother.’” And he said, “All these things I have kept from my youth.” And when Jesus heard this, He said to him, “One thing you still lack; sell all that you possess, and distribute it to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” But when he had heard these things, he became very sad; for he was extremely rich. And Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for those who are wealthy to enter the kingdom of God! For 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.” And they who heard it said, “Then who can be saved?” But He said, “The things impossible with men are possible with God.” And Peter said, “Behold, we have left our own homes, and followed You.” And He said to them, “Truly I say to you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who shall not receive many times as much at this time and in the age to come, eternal life.”

I’m asking this question about the Rich Young Ruler because recently I have become aware that some in my own theological tradition have claimed that Jesus never told him the Gospel. Rather, they claim that Jesus preached “Law” in order to make him realize he could never be good enough to merit eternal life. Presumably Jesus wanted to meet him at a later date in order to tell him the true Gospel–that Jesus intended to live a perfect life and then die for his sins in order to give him eternal life as a free gift.

This is a bizarre claim in my judgment. After all, what would these people say of a preacher who, when asked how to be sure one was saved from the wrath of God, deliberately misled him and let him walk away without ever giving him correct information?

The reason some wish to claim that Jesus failed to preach the gospel to the rich young ruler is because he told the man to do things in order to inherit eternal life. But that objection will not stand up to scrutiny in Luke’s Gospel. Luke, after all, tells us of John the Baptist that “with many other exhortations also he preached the gospel to the people” (3.18). John’s Gospel message was about the coming enthronement and presence of God resulting in judgment and vindication (3.15-17). The exhortations which accompanied this Gospel message included “produce fruit in keeping with repentance” (v. 8), “Let the man who has two tunics share with him who has none; and let him who has food do likewise” (v. 11), “Collect no more than what you have been ordered to” (v. 13), and “Do not take money from anyone by force, or accuse anyone falsely, and be content with your wages” (v. 14). These are the exhortations that Luke says are involved in John’s preaching of the Gospel. How can we claim that Jesus’ command to the Rich Young Ruler involves something other than the Gospel?

Of course, the proper response to the Gospel is not to try to be good enough to earn God’s favor. The Gospel itself is a declaration that this is the day of God’s favor. Rather, the proper response to the Gospel is to trust God and therefore do the appropriate acts of one who trusts God.

Jesus was calling the Rich Young Ruler to place his faith and trust in him rather than in his own riches–a besetting temptation for those with wealth. As the Apostle Paul writes,

Instruct those who are rich in this present world not to be conceited or to fix their hope on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly supplies us with all things to enjoy. Instruct them to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is life indeed (First Timothy 6.17-19).

This is what Peter and the other disciples had chosen to do out of their trust in Jesus (as Jesus himself affirmed) but which the Rich Young Ruler refused to do.

Likewise, in that classic chapter on faith, the author of Hebrews shows us that Moses was once in a similar position to the Rich Young Ruler but decided to trust God rather than his earthly inheritance:

By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter; choosing rather to endure ill-treatment with the people of God, than to enjoy the passing pleasures of sin; considering the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures of Egypt; for he was looking to the reward” (Hebrews 11.24-26).

I can’t say that God calls us in Christ to sell all that we have and give to the poor. But I can say he calls us to join with his church in a congregation of believers, to regularly worship and learn the Word of God and participate together in the Lord’s Supper and to give no less than ten percent of our income to Him through that branch of the visible church. We have it much easier than Moses or the Rich Young Ruler.

No doubt in our era it would be appropriate to explain to those old enough to understand how the death and resurrection of Jesus are the way in which has become the savior of all who trust in him and to give other information as well.

But still, “follow Jesus”; that’s the Gospel. Don’t walk away sad.

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