The Bible distinguishes between the law and the gospel. The law demands perfect, exact, personal, and perpetual righteousness from us but the gospel gives to us salvation and life freely for the sake of Christ, who is our righteousness and freely through faith, which itself is a gift.
And a ruler asked him, “Good Teacher, what must 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 I have kept from my youth.” When Jesus heard this, 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.” But when he heard these things, he became very sad, for he was extremely rich. Jesus, seeing that he had become sad, said, “How difficult it is for those who have wealth 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 person to enter the kingdom of God.” Those who heard it said, “Then who can be saved?” But he said, “What is impossible with man is possible with God.” And Peter said, “See, we have left our 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 will not receive many times more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life” (Luke 18:18–30; ESV).
On Twitter, on February 18, 2022, a person hitherto unknown to me proposed, “I will never get over Jesus being asked how to get into heaven and basically says, ‘Don’t be rich.’” On what principle was our interlocutor operating? He announced, “Sorry, but the bible says, I believe it, that settles it” (sic). This is exactly the wrong interpretation of the story of the rich young ruler (hereafter RYR) because it follows a poor method of interpreting texts.
For orthodox Christians there is no question that whatever the Bible means to say is binding. That the Bible says something in Luke 18:18–30 is not question. What is question, however, is just what the Bible means to say and how do we know? These questions are relevant and pressing for those outside and inside the Reformed churches. I recall hearing this passage explained by a Reformed minister, who announced to his congregation, in effect, that our Lord really was calling the RYR to sell all he had. The implication seemed to be that, had the RYR done so, he would have received the benefit in question, i.e., eternal life.
Is this what Jesus says?
The RYR asks, “What must I do…”? As he asks that question he assumes that he can do something to inherit eternal life. It is the very assumption, our interlocutor also accepts, that Jesus is going to challenge. Jesus begins to question his premise when he says, “Why do you call me good?” The RYR assumes that he has goodness and that his good ness and Jesus’ goodness are on a continuum. They are not.