Remember the Rich Young Man: True Commitment to Jesus Christ

Text: Mark 10:17-27

(Basis of the Message given to the Campus Bible Fellowship-TUP during their 15th Anniversary on November 22, 2011 at Fellowship Baptist Church, Talisay City, Negros Occidental)


This passage is perplexing because this isn’t how we usually do evangelism. We try to make it as easy as possible for the potential convert. It seems that here the Lord is trying to make it as difficult as possible.

The passage also poses a peculiar danger (through no fault of its own) in that it is so easy to understand it in a way that compromises or dilutes the gospel of grace. There is the very real danger that we can misuse it so as to preach moralism and legalism instead of salvation by grace through faith in Christ Jesus.

1. So, is this passage teaching legalism or moralism?

No, lest we contradict so much of what the N.T. has to say about justification by grace through faith and not by works. Incidentally, the verses prior to this passage are about receiving the kingdom as a free gift in the way a helpless child would.

2. Then what’s the point of this story?

First, let’s dispose of a few preliminary matters: “No one is good but God alone.” Jesus was not denying that he was God; rather, he was trying to show what was implied by acknowledging that he was truly good.

Also, it may be Jesus said this because he knew he was dealing with a person who was confident of his own goodness, and who therefore had to be put in his place early on. “Only God is good” – in which case, no one else is (Rom. 3:23).

Jesus was trying to get the rich young man to see that he wasn’t as good as he thought he was. The fact is he didn’t love God as he should. Jesus wasn’t imposing a legalistic condition for salvation. In fact, as the disciples themselves realized, if this were the way of salvation – perfectly loving and obeying God – no one would be saved!

So what Jesus was actually doing was exposing the young man’s spiritual condition and shattering his confidence in his own righteousness, not for the purpose of shaming him, but to lead him to confession and repentance.

Among the Jews, the rich depended on their riches to save themselves because through their wealth they could do a lot of good works. And wasn’t wealth proof that God was pleased with them? Jesus was challenging the rich young man to carry this position to its logical conclusion: Sell all you have, give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.

“Jesus was not making either philantrophy or poverty a requirement for salvation, but exposing the young man’s heart.” (J. MacArthur)

“The issue was to determine whether he would submit to the lordship of Christ no matter what he asked of him. So, as he would not acknowledge his sin and repent, neither would he submit to the Sovereign Savior. Such unwillingness on both counts kept him from the eternal life he sought.” (J. MacArthur)

The rich man came to Jesus adopting a stance of self-righteousness, and therefore of boastfulness. “What can I do…” So Jesus had to meet him on the level which he (the young man) chose and give him a dose of his own medicine, so to speak. “So you think eternal life is a matter of achievement, something you can do? Try this.”

What Jesus was trying to do was to show the young man that he was a sinner in need of salvation, just like everyone else; that, contrary to what he believed, he hadn’t really kept God’s commandments: he didn’t really love God above all things. Externally, he kept the commandments pretty well, but his heart was still very much in the grip of greed. The demand to sell all you have could have been a dare to carry the idea that wealth could save him to its logical extreme or a challenge to strip himself of the external trappings of righteousness.

3. What’s the key to this passage?

The key to the interpretation of this passage is verse 27.

The point is not to sell all you have and give to the poor in order to be saved, the point is: left to ourselves we are not willing to be saved on Jesus’ terms, no matter how good we think we are. That is why salvation is impossible with man; it has to be by grace.

Not even the rich could buy salvation; in the first place, they’re not willing to part with all of it!

The “impossible” here is being saved by keeping God’s commands perfectly. The “possible” here is God saving those who could not keep his commands perfectly. There is hope even for rich young rulers who could not give up everything for Christ, if only they’re willing to acknowledge that they’re sinful and helpless and need Christ.

So this story is in a sense a prelude to the gospel. It’s about getting self-confident, self-righteous people to see that they can’t do anything to inherit eternal life. It’s about getting them to see their need of savior. It’s about getting them to acknowledge their sinfulness and helplessness so that they will come to receive eternal life as a free gift of grace. (Gal. 3:21ff)

4. In the light of this passage, what is true commitment to Jesus?

The problem with the rich young ruler was not that he didn’t sell all that he had. The problem was, when his self-righteousness was exposed for the sham that it was, he walked away instead of acknowledging that he wasn’t so righteous after all, that he couldn’t reach Jesus’ standards, that he couldn’t keep Christ’s demands. The problem was when his sinfulness (his treasuring money above Jesus) was exposed he didn’t say, “Lord, be merciful to me a sinner!” For had he done so, he would have found not only forgiveness (after all, Jesus came not for the righteous, but for sinners), but also the strength to surrender everything. “Lord, I believe; help thou my unbelief!”

At the end of the day, the commitment required of us is the absolute surrender of ourselves to Christ just as we are: lost and helpless sinners who cannot save and change ourselves, who have lost all confidence in ourselves or in anything else to save ourselves, who trust in Christ alone to save us in spite of our sinfulness. “Just as I am, without one plea, but that thy blood was shed for me.” (Phil. 3:8-9)

5. Are we diluting the force of this passage, twisting its meaning?

In fine, the point of the demand, the requirement, in this passage is to make us realize that we can’t keep it! But if you don’t agree with this interpretation what’s the alternative? Are we to impose additional conditions for salvation besides simple faith in Christ?

Incidentally, why didn’t Jesus require the same thing from the woman at the well? Because he knew that she already knew how sinful and helpless she was and how much she needed a Savior. The same could not be said of the rich young ruler.

And Jesus also didn’t impose the same requirement on Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus, of course, gave much of his money away (not all of it), but he did it out of gratitude, not in order to be saved. Once again, Jesus saw that Zacchaeus already saw his need of a Savior.

Forsaking all for Jesus is something we can’t do without grace, and is something we can’t do perfectly even with grace. Case in point: Peter, after leaving all to follow Jesus, later on denied him and went back to fishing. (The Lord eventually restored him by grace.) And even after pentecost he in a sense forsook the gospel by siding with the circumcision party in the book of Galatians. The point is if perfectly forsaking all for Jesus were a condition for salvation we’re all in trouble!

Besides, in I Cor. 13:3 giving up everything is no guarantee our hearts are right with God.

Conclusion: What’s true commitment to Jesus?

Lest you think no surrender whatsoever is involved in coming to Christ, in reality the sinner who has surrendered himself in all of his sinfulness and helplessness to Christ for salvation has in principle absolutely surrendered all of his life to Christ. After all, we receive Christ as Lord and Savior. We repent of our sins and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. But all throughout our lives there still has to happen the daily and gradual unfolding and outworking of this principle of absolute surrender . In other words, the seed of absolute surrender (of genuine repentance) is planted in the heart at the moment of faith,but it is not fully grown all at once; it must grow gradually.

True commitment is not about immediate perfection; it is about pressing on towards perfection (Phil. 3:12-14)

True commitment to Jesus Christ is a perseverance in repentance: always forsaking our confidence in the flesh, always trusting in Jesus Christ alone for righteousness, and always seeking to love him and obey him with all our hearts, no matter how many times we fail and no matter how far away the goal.

“It is better to limp in the path, than to run outside of it.” (Augustine)


Doesn’t saving faith involve treasuring Christ above all things? Yes, it does. But this too is a product of God’s grace. Besides, it is something you awaken to at regeneration, grow into in sanctification, and completely possess at glorification. You get a glimpse of it and a taste of it (i.e., the preciousness of Christ) at the moment of conversion and you spend the rest of your life pursuing it. It isn’t full grown all at once. Once again, Phil. 3:12ff applies.

One thought on “Remember the Rich Young Man: True Commitment to Jesus Christ”

  1. Dear Dennis,

    Interesting points you have there. John MacArthur, which you cite, is heavily theological. How about approaching it through a different methodology?

    You may want to check out the Lukan point of view of the same story in, “One Thing You Lack: The Radical Demand to Sell All to Enter the Kingdom in Luke 18:18-30.” You may copy, paste, and browse the following link:

    The methodology used is a redaction analysis of the Greek, drawing out the Lukan theological emphasis, which is quite different from Matthew and Mark. Hope you will find it insightful and revealing, by God’s grace.

    Take care,


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