Dialogue on the Rich Young Ruler and Good Works

Dialogue on the Rich Young Ruler and Good Works October 14, 2015


Christ and the Rich Young Ruler (1889), by Heinrich Hofmann (1824-1911) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]

John and Cindy Taylor are members of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. They are friends “in real life” and have been to our house several times. I also attended their wedding. This was an exchange about my post, Jesus vs. “Faith Alone” (Rich Young Ruler), on my Facebook page. John’s words will be in green; Cindy’s in blue.

* * * * *

The article mischaracterizes me. I’m not surprised. But I love you anyhow. You’re a dear friend.

I never mentioned you. :-) I took pains to note that Protestants are not saying, “don’t do good works”; only that works are not formally connected to salvation. This is all standard Protestant theology. It’s what “faith alone” means.

I understand. Did not say you mischaracterized me, only that the article mischaracterized me. The article does not represent a complete understanding of Protestant soteriology, but that is understandable in light of so many different views that are called “Protestant”.

1. It’s hard to be “complete” in 1500 words.

2. Feel free to fill in blanks you think are missing.

The James passage [James 2:14-26] is Christianity 101, along with Ephesians 2:8-10.

 I wanna hear answers to my questions asked in the paper: why did Jesus talk only about works when the ruler asked him how one is saved? How does that fit with a sola fide view of salvation?

Jesus also said the work of God is to believe in the One Whom He has sent. None of us can be saved by any good works we do, because only Jesus did and could keep the commandments perfectly, so we are saved on the basis of His merits, not ours. That’s grace.

After my dad and I heard a sermon on James 2, he explained it thus: “Your sin is so great, no amount of good works will save you; only faith in Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection will. Having said that, if good works do not follow your faith, your faith is probably counterfeit.”

I have no zeal to bat around the relationship between faith and works, when my dad explained it so clearly to me when I was ten years old.


I said both of those things in the paper. You still haven’t shown how I in any way distorted the “faith alone” teaching; nor answered why Jesus would mention only works with the rich young ruler.

St. Augustine said that our merit was merely God crowning His own graces. That’s what we Catholics believe. It doesn’t come from us, it comes from God, giving us the grace to do any good thing.


Good to hear from both of you! Hope you are well.

I agreed in the paper with what you have added, too.

Maybe you’ll give it a shot: why did Jesus talk only about works when the ruler asked him how one is saved? How does that fit with a sola fide view of salvation?

It easily fits with our view. We think works aren’t separated from faith in the process of salvation, even though grace is what saves us. We don’t separate works into a separate non-salvific category of sanctification.

So we don’t have to deny any passage about faith or any about grace. The Bible mentions faith in conjunction with salvation in many places, and works in conjunction with salvation in many places, and both together in many places. Both are involved in salvation.

So we don’t have to ignore or explain away passages that talk about works being also centrally involved in the process of salvation, because we don’t deny that. What we deny is a “works alone” or “works salvation” doctrine (Pelagianism).

Dave, do you believe we must be sanctified in order to be justified (saved)? If so, what is sanctification, if it is not being conformed to the likeness of Christ? I’m not able to give an answer to satisfy you until I better understand your thinking. Right now my thought is that Jesus’ point with the rich young ruler was that all the good works in the world can’t save him. Reason is that the rich young ruler lacked the faith required to do what Jesus required of him. Faith in the One before Whom he stood. I quoted this verse earlier, here it is again, John 6:29: “Jesus answered them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in Him Whom He has sent.'” That is the only work required for justification. Apart from justification there can be no sanctification. Let me ask you one more question: If works are essential to salvation, what good work did the thief on the cross do to be saved? His confession of faith was what saved him. Romans 10:9-10 comes to mind. Another is Zacchaeus’ repentance and faith, demonstrated by his deeds being the fruit thereof. I think our differences lie in what we believe about the relationship of sanctification to justification and whether it is God or our works that justify us. The works prove us before men. The faith, a gift from God, justifies us before God.

Thanks for your reply.

Catholics believe that we must be free from mortal sin (serious, grave sins, which can keep one from heaven), and justified, and regenerated (which we place at baptism). All of us, pretty much, have venial sins. These can be purged away in purgatory and don’t bar a person from heaven or salvation.

If Jesus’ point was that works have nothing to do with salvation at all, then (it seems very likely and sensible) He would have spoken about faith and belief instead. But He didn’t do that. He brought up the commandments and named six of them. Therefore, Jesus clearly thought that that was part of salvation. It has something to do with it. 

After that, He said the ruler lacked one thing. That would be faith, right? No! It was another work. He had to go and sell all he had to the poor. But he didn’t wanna do that, so Jesus observed that it was very difficult for a rich man to enter heaven.

The strong implication is that he placed his salvation in jeopardy by not doing the work that Jesus required him to do. I think we can all agree that he had made money his idol, which is serious sin; therefore, he couldn’t be saved as long as he had that idol in his heart.

I have written about how “belief” in Greek has also the component of obedience. It’s not merely assent. Works are not required if one can’t possibly do them. That was true of the thief on the cross. We also think he didn’t need to be baptized, and say that he had a “baptism of desire.”

I think our differences lie in what we believe about the relationship of sanctification to justification

That’s true. Catholics put them together, whereas Protestants make the first category a “non-salvific” one. We don’t believe that that is a biblical distinction.

and whether it is God or our works that justify us.

That’s not a difference. We believe in salvation by grace alone, just as you do. We believe that faith is necessary, as you do. Every good thing we do requires prior grace from God; otherwise, we couldn’t do anything good at all, ever. But what we believe differently from you, is a refusal to separate works from faith, as if it were totally a different category. If faith saves, and “faith without works is dead,” then obviously works are part of the whole equation, even though we agree with you that works alone save no one (the heresy of Pelagianism). 

It’s not just this passage that talks about works. I have found 50 passages having to do with the final judgment. Not a single one talks about faith alone.

Dave, we “separate” them temporarily, and only to better understand the significance of each, but we realize they go together. Similarly, if there is “one baptism” (Eph. 4:5), we have to temporarily think of the role of the water apart from the Holy Spirit (and vice versa) and then put them together again as vital components to the Sacrament, to better understand it.

I’m glad you brought up the rich young ruler because it forced me to see the two different kinds of works mentioned. Anyone can avoid stealing and adultery, and honor his parents. But for a very wealthy man to follow a homeless rabbi who had no place to lay his head (Mt. 8:20, Lk. 9:58) after giving up all his wealth (so he couldn’t return to it) would have required a faith quite different from what he had.

Sadly, I meet many respectable people, both Catholics and Protestants, who think they are “good people” whose “good works” will get them into heaven. But the rich young ruler trumps them all, for he had a track record from his youth that impressed Christ Himself, but it still was insufficient for salvation without a supernatural work in his heart that would have given him the courage to forsake all.

I think our views are actually close, but there is a distinction of category. Both views think works are necessary as indicative of authentic faith.

There really isn’t a whole lot to fight over here. We believe in salvation by grace and by faith, and 
we deny works-salvation (Pelagianism and Semi-Pelagianism).

You guys agree that good works are necessary in a Christian life. You just put ’em in a separate sanctification box, whereas we include ’em in the justification box. :-)

Right. Catholics mix sanctification with justification. Protestants recognize that justification is a one-time act of God declaring us not guilty, whereas sanctification is a continual work of God conforming the believer to be like Christ over the years of the believer’s lifetime on earth.

So with the rich young ruler, who asked about salvation (justification), Jesus talked only about works, which is (in your view) only part of non-salvific sanctification. 

That just doesn’t make sense to me. If salvation is being discussed, and if fait
h is front and center in that; — indeed “alone” — then I don’t see how Jesus could or would have avoided talking about it.

I think the best counter-answer Protestants can give was provided by a Lutheran in the combox of my post at Patheos. I still disagree with it, but he gave it a good (and detailed) shot, and I always admire zeal and passion.

You and John are good friends. I have a lot of respect and admiration for you. It’s great that we can talk and disagree amiably.

I still remember that legendary game of Bible trivia. Fun!

I’ll never forget Bible trivia games at your house on New Year’s Eve, Dave! You and your family are and always will be very special to us, no matter how far we live from you!

Well, that is awful sweet!

Dave, I see nothing either Cindy or I wrote that could lead anyone to think we believe that works is “…only part of non-salvific sanctification”. 

Christ told the rich young ruler to perform an act that would be impossible apart from faith. Similarly, Zaccheus’ giving half of his wealth to the poor and reimbursing fourfold everyone he had cheated, eliciting Jesus’ verdict that salvation had come to his house.

I can point to multiple things I have done that the selfish, egotistical sorry specimen of the human race that I used to be would have never done apart from justifying faith. Do I believe I am saved because I did them? Well, yes and no. By themselves, they are filthy rags (Is. 64:6), but together they also give evidence of a heart that received Christ as Savior, by which faith God pronounced a very guilty sinner “Not guilty!”

I think the positions are close in many ways. It’s mostly an abstraction, where the difference lies (how to classify things). Practically speaking, it’s the same: we all need grace, always, to do any good thing and to be saved. We have to exercise faith, and we need to do good works, which don’t save us in and of themselves, but which — enabled and generated by God’s grace — prove the authenticity of our faith. Baptism (whatever we think it does) is necessary for all Christians. 

We agree on all that! It’s far more than what we disagree about (more or less abstract definitions). I’ve always said that it’s a shame that the soteriology of Catholicism and classical Reformation Protestantism is in fact a lot closer than most on either side realize. And so the two sides end up slugging it out about stuff that is already agreed-upon, rightly-understood. We’re neither Pelagians nor semi-Pelagians, and you’re not antinomians or advocates of “cheap grace” (the stereotypes).

Our dialogue was great in that we didn’t have to reinvent the wheel, but could simply talk intelligently about the real differences, which are relatively minor. It was a pleasure, and a model, I think, of constructive, charitable, Catholic-Protestant dialogue.

Here are my replies to [what appears to be] a Lutheran [NServ] over in the combox for the post on Patheos. His lengthy comments and replies may be read there.

We know that works don’t save.

If faith alone is true, it doesn’t matter what the ruler asked; Jesus would have directed him to faith; not works.

Earlier in the chapter is irrelevant, too. I said in the post that faith was mentioned elsewhere. We know that. I wanna know why Jesus didn’t mention it to the rich young ruler.

That remains unanswered, because it seems to me that it is a difficulty in the Protestant position.

We need not deny that other discussions may have taken place. Of course.

But, this was a chance to present in the Bible, for our sakes, a simple doctrine of faith alone salvation. The man asks how he is to be saved. This was the chance to make “faith alone” crystal clear, in the inspired Bible, for all time; for our instruction. But instead, it was never mentioned.

You have put a lot of effort into your replies. Thanks for that. You’re a very educated Lutheran (I am judging by your link that you are a Wisconsin Synod Lutheran). I continue to believe, however, that the passage poses a big problem for Protestant “faith alone” views. It sure doesn’t seem like it would read the way it does, if faith alone is the truth of the matter.

This is, additionally, massively verified in 50 passages that I have collected about the last judgment. They all discuss works. Not a single one brings forth “faith alone”. Surely, this is quite odd and unexpected, given Protestant soteriology.

I already stated in the paper, “We believe (in agreement with Protestants) that we’re saved by God’s grace.” I guess you missed that.

You say, “It’s because the young ruler still has NOT been convinced that he is sinful by nature.”

So it’s your position that this also holds true for all 50 instances of works being the central issue at the last judgment: as I documented in my paper, linked [above]? That’s your standard answer every time works are brought up in conjunction with salvation, and faith isn’t?

Your theory completely falls apart there, because almost all the references are being spoken to believers. So, e.g., the seven Pauline references are from his letters to the Christians / churches at Rome, Corinth, and Thessalonika. He’s writing to Christians, but he’s still talking about works, with regard to the judgment.

According to your theory, he must switch over to faith alone. But he doesn’t. You wanna cite Romans 3:23-25 but ignore Romans 2:5-13, which is one in my collection about the judgment. Catholics have no problem incorporating both, but you guys have trouble with the works passages because they clash with the notion of faith alone.

Peter in three references does the same. He’s writing to Christians, too, who understand the basic law / grace thing you refer to. The writer of Hebrews and Jude (twice) also do the same thing. It’s all works. Jesus in Revelation talks about works again in writing to the seven churches:

Revelation 2:5 (RSV) Remember then from what you have fallen, repent and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.

Revelation 2:23 . . . I am he who searches mind and heart, and I will give to each of you as your works deserve.

Again and again, with all due respect, the Bible leads me to / is consistent with Catholic theology.

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