Jesus vs. the “Faith Alone” Doctrine (Rich Young Ruler)

Jesus vs. the “Faith Alone” Doctrine (Rich Young Ruler) October 12, 2015


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Matthew 19:16-24 (RSV) And behold, one came up to him, saying, “Teacher, what good deed must I do, to have eternal life?” [17] And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? One there is who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.” [18] He said to him, “Which?” And Jesus said, “You shall not kill, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, [19] Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” [20] The young man said to him, “All these I have observed; what do I still lack?” [21] Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” [22] When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful; for he had great possessions. [23] And Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, it will be hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. [24] Again I tell you, 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.” 

Mark 10:17, 19, 21 . . . “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” . . . [19] You know the commandments: . . . [21] And Jesus looking upon him loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”

Luke 18:18, 20, 22 And a ruler asked him, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” . . . [20] You know the commandments: . . .  [22] And when Jesus heard it, he said to him, “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” 

The standard evangelical teaching in terms of “how one is saved” is called sola fide, or “salvation / justification by faith alone.” It doesn’t mean that evangelical Protestants frown upon or discourage good works. Both Luther and Calvin taught that good works should be present in any Christian’s life, and that if they were not, their faith was suspect in terms of its being a genuine faith. They were not antinomians.

But Protestants do formally separate works from salvation, putting it in the separate box of sanctification, rather than justification. To put it another way, if you ask a Protestant how to be saved, he virtually never would say, “do good works x, y, and z.” He will say, rather, “repent, have faith in Jesus Christ; believe in Him; put your faith and trust in Him as your Lord and Savior.”

This is fundamental to Protestantism. Many Protestants erroneously think that Catholics teach “‘works-salvation” or the heresy known to history as Pelagianism. Or they will say that since Catholics believe in faith + works, they are semi-Pelagians. But the Catholic Church condemned both heresies 1400 or more years ago. We do not believe that we are saved by works. We believe (in agreement with Protestants) that we’re saved by God’s grace, that faith without works is dead (as it says in James), and that faith and works are two sides of the same “coin” of justification / salvation.

What is most striking about this incident in the life of Jesus — given Protestant views — is the almost sole emphasis on works rather than faith, in Jesus’ reply to the rich young ruler’s question (I have combined elements in all three accounts), “what good deed must I / shall I do to inherit / have eternal life?” It’s reiterated over and over again: works, works, works. It doesn’t follow that faith is not involved, too. Elsewhere, Jesus and Paul and other biblical writers say plenty about faith and assent. But it does mean that works are central in the whole equation and can’t be separated from faith and put in a secondary category.

Right at the beginning of the incident, the ruler asks, “what good deed must I do?” Inheriting eternal life is clearly synonymous with “ultimate salvation.” According to Protestant soteriology (theology of salvation), this isn’t even the right question to ask. Their immediate reply would be, “you have a fundamental misunderstanding of salvation. You can’t do anything to be saved. No work you do is sufficient. All you can do is have faith in Jesus Christ, Who died for your sins.” That’s evangelical Protestant doctrine.

The interesting consideration here, then, is: why doesn’t Jesus act like a good evangelical and correct him right out of the starting-gate? Jesus would have failed Soteriology 0101 in any evangelical seminary or divinity school. Not only are good works, or deeds front and center; he also asks about which deed “must” he do. There is an element of necessity. If he doesn’t do some sort of good deed, he won’t be saved. But if this is essentially wrong and wrongheaded, Jesus would have corrected him by saying that he was wrong to be thinking about works rather than faith, and about thinking that any work was necessary for salvation.

He doesn’t do that at all. Instead, Jesus strengthens the man’s initial assumptions and explains what works he has to do to be saved: “If you would enter life, keep the commandments.” It’s a required condition for obtaining a desired goal: “If you want x, do y.” Y is necessary to obtain x, and y = keeping commandments, which are good works, in order to achieve x (eternal life). This is not like any sermon I ever heard in my 13 years as an evangelical! This is not how we were taught to share our faith in street witnessing, in order to “get people saved.”

Then Jesus even individually names six commandments. This means that, since they are all required to achieve eternal life, not observing any of them would disqualify one from salvation. Elsewhere in the New Testament there are several passages that list sins which, if habitually committed, would bar one from heaven. Jesus says not a word about faith. Why didn’t He say, “have faith in Me“? Again, in other places, He does emphasize that point. But here He ignores it.

This listing of commandments as a minimal requirement for salvation is consistent with what Jesus taught in His Sermon on the Mount:

Matthew 5:17-20 “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them. [18] For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. [19] Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. [20] For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” 

The man says he had observed the commandments. So far so good. It’s like getting six out of ten answers right on a school exam. You still have to get four more right to receive an A+. According to Jesus, he also has to do one more big thing, that he “lacks” — in order to be saved. He has to sell all he has and give it to the poor. Note that this isn’t required of every man to do. It’s not a general rule of Christianity. But for the rich young ruler, it was an absolute necessity. Most commentators think that it was because the ruler had made money his idol, putting it above God in his allegiance. That’s why he had to part with it; so that God would occupy the highest place in His life. 

In any event, it is a requirement for his salvation. Once again, it is a good work that is made central. It’s clear that it was necessary, from Jesus’ concluding statement about it being difficult for rich men to enter the kingdom. They so often make money their idol, that it can jeopardize their very salvation. This is also notable in illustrating that salvation is not a cookie-cutter matter. What is required for one person (in terms of works that exhibit faith) may not be for the next.

Therefore, I submit that evangelicals ought to change their Bibles, to better fit their theology. The Bible we have is plainly far too “Catholic.” Perhaps it should read something like the following:

Matthew 19:16-18, 21-23 (REV: Revised Evangelical Version) . . . “Teacher, what must I believe, to have eternal life?” [17] And he said to him, “If you would enter life, exercise faith alone in the son of man.” [18] He said to him, “Which commandments should I keep, in order to be saved?” And Jesus said, “none can save you.” . . . [21] Jesus said to him,Say the sinner’s prayer, so you will be saved; and come, follow me.” [22] When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful; for he couldn’t bring himself to say the sinner’s prayer. [23] And Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, it will be hard for a man without faith alone to enter the kingdom of heaven.”



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