When the rich young ruler approached Christ, he asked, “Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?” That “good thing” is works.
In commenting on this passage, John MacArthur writes,
“Our Lord gave this young man a test. He had to choose between his possessions and Jesus Christ. He failed the test. No matter what points of doctrine he affirmed, because he was unwilling to turn from what else he loved most, he could not be a disciple of Christ. Salvation is only for those who are willing to give Christ first place in their lives.” (The Gospel According to Jesus: [Revised & Expanded Edition], p. 85.)That citation from the revised edition of The Gospel According to Jesus is a sanitized revision of what John MacArthur first wrote. In the original edition, John MacArthur states:
“Our Lord gave this young man a test. He had to choose between his possessions and Jesus Christ. He failed the test. No matter what he believed, since he was unwilling to forsake all, he could not be a disciple of Christ. Salvation is for those who are willing to forsake everything.” (p. 78.)From his book Hard to Believe MacArthur wrote:
“And he needed to be willing to submit to the Lord Jesus, even if it meant he had to give up all his earthly possessions. He might not ask, but the requirement for eternal life is the willingness to give it all up if he does.” (p. 9.)During a Trinity Broadcasting Network interview MacArthur stated:
In fact Jesus said this, “If you come to Me it may cost you your family. But if you’re not willing to hate your family you can’t be My disciple. If you come to Me you might have to give all your possessions away and give them to the poor. If you are not willing to do that you are not worthy to be My disciple.”For a moment lets say the man confessed his sin of covetousness, asked Jesus to forgive him. He also expressed a willingness to give away all that he had, but Jesus did not ask him to do so on the spot. Is he a saved man? Did he meet the Lordship gospel requirement for eternal life? Assuming he is saved the man begins to follow Jesus and some time later Jesus turns to him and says, “Today, I want you to give all that you have to the poor.” If that man hesitates to obey this command, what does it mean? Is he is in danger of losing his salvation? Was he never saved in the first place? If one concludes he was never saved in the first place then any act of disobedience, in the life of a professing believer, must raise the same question.
When I lived in Florida there was a period time when I was witnessing to a young man who worked at a fast food restaurant. His name was Tom and he was interested in spiritual things. My wife remembers how I would visit Tom late at night, actually in the hours just after midnight, at his restaurant and we would pour over the Bible. I was very clear about his sin, God’s wrath and his need to repent and by faith receive Jesus Christ as his only hope for salvation. After a number of weeks Tom believed the Bible and received Jesus Christ as his personal Savior.
He began to take steps of growth that one might expect of a new believer. One day, right out of the blue, he asked me what I thought about his hair. Now Tom had long flowing hair. His hair was not dirty or sloppy, just long and not what you would call a good testimony for Christ. His hair was not an issue as a lost man, his sin and guilt before God was. A few weeks after receiving Christ, during his personal reading of the Bible, he came across this passage.
1 Corinthians 11:14 “Doth not even nature itself teach you, that, if a man have long hair, it is a shame unto him?”So, for Tom his hair had become an issue. The Lord had pricked Tom’s heart about his hair. Tom felt as though the verse meant for him that he should get a haircut. I told him that if he felt God wanted that for him then he should obey. Tom said he would get his hair cut that week. Tom knew he should get his hair cut, he wanted to get his hair cut, but just could not bring himself to do it. Tom became unwilling to get his haircut: Does this mean he was never saved in the first place, or has he fallen into carnality? I am convinced he had a time of carnality.
A short time later Tom moved to one of the western states. I knew from the first time I met him he would be moving soon, which is why I was urgent about seeing him as often as possible to present the gospel. In my heart I think Tom probably got that hair cut some where along the way. Tom’s hair was not the issue for receiving or keeping eternal life no more than the giving away possessions was for the rich young ruler.
Giving up earthly possessions, or even the willingness to do so does not bring anyone closer to eternal life! Salvation is a free gift! The gift of God is not conditional on haircuts, forsaking possessions, station in life or performing personal acts of charity. The Scriptures are very clear: Man cannot be saved by any personal work of righteousness (Titus 3:5). Attaching the performance of and/or promise to perform the works of discipleship to faith in Christ corrupts “the simplicity that is in Christ” (2 Cor. 11:3) and will “frustrate the grace of God” (Gal. 2:21). Man is saved through personal faith in Jesus Christ alone!
Ephesians 2:8-9 For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.In his quote above John MacArthur says, “no matter what he believed.” Taking that at face value leads one to the conclusion that John MacArthur is suggesting that believing on the Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 16:31) is insufficient for salvation. For the Lordship advocate, even if the young man believed that Jesus was the Messiah, believed that Jesus was the Savior, and expressed dependent faith in Christ, that would be insufficient to save him. It is clear that John MacArthur, representing the Lordship position, conditions eternal salvation not on simple belief alone, but also on the lost man’s upfront promise to perform the “good works” (Eph. 2:10) expected of a born again disciple of Christ.
In the case of this rich young ruler, the Lordship advocate would state that his salvation depended on the surrender of his riches. Some might back away from that by saying the man had only to be willing to surrender his riches. Dr. Charles Ryrie wrote:
“Is eternal life gained by keeping the commandments, even by keeping them perfectly, if anyone could do that? Paul answered that very question at the conclusion of his synagogue message in Antioch in Pisidia. He said that only through Jesus is everyone who believes justified and that no one could be justified by the Law of Moses (Acts 13:39). . . . So even if the rich young man's claim were true that he had kept the commandments the Lord mentioned, he still could not have gained eternal life, even if he had kept them perfectly.” (So Great Salvation, p. 86.)
This article first appeared in December 2006 and is an updated excerpt from the revised and expanded edition of In Defense of the Gospel: Biblical Answers to Lordship Salvation, pp. 178-ff.