[ theologia ]
Theologia Cross Logo
Apologetics Bible Church History Miscellaneous Sacraments Soteriology Sermons Worship

Did Jesus Preach Gospel or Law to the Rich Young Ruler?

by Mark Horne

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)

Copyright © 2002

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.

Copyright © 2002


  1. The key to understanding Christ speaking to the Rich Young Ruler is in Romans 3:20 “for by the law is the knowledge of sin.” If you were to walk down the street and ask anyone if they thought they were a good person, most likely they would respond yes. Just as the rich man responded when Christ said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God.”(Mark 10:18) Then Jesus gave the Law as how to inherit eternal life. The Rich Young Ruler tells Jesus that he has kept all these things since his youth. Then Jesus tells him to sell whatever he has and follow him. Jesus was trying to get the Rich Man to see that he had broken the law and that he lacked love for God because he was serving his money, his god was his money, he loved his money more than he Loved God. By telling the Rich Man this, he should have seen that he was a sinner because he broke the law. We are to love God and not things. The first commandment is to Love the Lord God with all your heart. We still have to keep the Ten Commandments. In the Bible Jesus used the law to convert people. John Chpt.3, Luke 10, Matthew 15, Matt.chpt.5&7. Paul said he would not have known sin unless the law had shown him. There is no “Sinners Prayer in the Bible.” The law is perfect to convert not a sinners prayer. A person has to first see that they have been a transgressors of the law before they can see that they need salvation. True conversion is a change of heart, you change the heart then the mind will change.
    Psalm 19:7 – The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul; The testimony of the Lord is sure, making the wise the simple. (Jesus redeemed us from the curse of the law. Paul says we are still under the law. Our salvation is not dependant on the law, Jesus died on the cross for our salvation. Not much space to really go into depth.)

    Comment by B. Busskohl — June 11, 2008 @ 10:28 pm

  2. I think the key to whether its law comes in a very subtle wording change in the gospel of mark. “Jesus looking at him loved him, and said to him, “One thing you lack….”

    The point not being that works directly relate to salvation, not all men could give up their wealth and thusly become a follower of Christ. But that the heart of one who follows Christ gives up the thing that they love most for his sake not out of duty or obligation, but out of love as God gave his son not out of obligation but love.

    Jesus is teaching us that as teachers we must look at people in love, and attack the thing which holds them back from following without hindrance.

    Comment by wombat — November 2, 2010 @ 4:29 pm

  3. The young man seems to be the kind of person from whom goodness flows naturally. He seems to be saying that he in his personal sphere– family-friends- job his relationships are all in compliance with the Golden Rule and always have been There is not really an indication that money has led him astray. Jesus looked on him and loved him for this. But maybe it’s all been too easy for him maybe he was one of those people who do not have to struggle to be good and at his point in life nothing has really yet challenged him in the goodness department.

    Maybe Jesus was saying look for the challenge– a strait is the gate sort of thing “The kingdom of heaven is for the violent and only the violent bear it away-“- meaning if it it isn’t a struggle (violence to one’s will) to be good you are not reaching your highest state– you are not choosing good despite great cost. Selling all one’s wordly goods is a metaphor for doing what is hard for the sake of goodness.
    Most people don’t have to go looking– life will bring challenges to goodness to them— in their homes– in the workplace etc. And many people are not as successful in the moral life as the young man for many reasons some because they labor under the burden of their more difficult natures than that of this admirable young man. For them there is no need to go looking for venues in which to serve-with their worldly goods – the venues are on their doorstep. Maybe this encounter is Jesus” affirmation of our daily struggle and choices and He is saying reach up and out toward the good. As the commentator above states– give up the thing you love most – your comfort zone.
    I think this is it but there are still questions. Why is it only when you go against yourself or comfort zone that you are at your highest? What’s lesser about being just quietly comfortably good without strain if that’s your good fortune ?/

    Comment by joan pendleton — July 24, 2011 @ 8:51 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Leave a comment