The Insufficiency of Righteousness

“What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

It’s a question from Luke 18, Matthew 19, Mark 10, and every single Gospel Tract that’s ever been left on your windshield.

The question comes from the story of a man who has come to be known as the Rich Young Ruler, although none of the Gospel texts ever explicitly call him that. In the story, the man approaches Jesus and asks him the famous question – “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Jesus responds the way you might expect a Jewish rabbi to – “You have to keep the commandments. You shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, honor your father and mother.”

Because, of course, if one wants to inherit eternal life, they have to earn it, right? Isn’t that the whole reason that Jesus had to come and live and die for us? Because we weren’t able to keep all the commands, and so he had to come and keep them for us and then take our place for punishment?

Except that’s not how this story pans out.

“All these I have kept since I was a kid.” the man tells Jesus.

“You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

This is huge. Jesus apparently accepts that this man actually has been righteous since childhood. I’ve heard multiple sermons that made major points out of the fact that this man could not have been righteous. Jesus doesn’t make that point. Jesus doesn’t deny that the man has been righteous. Jesus denies that righteousness is enough inherit eternal life. It does not matter how well we can follow the Law, we still lack one thing – absolute and total surrender of everything we have and are into the service of God.

The apostles are somewhat incredulous. “Who could possibly hope to be saved, then?”

Jesus’ response is simple: “What is impossible for man is possible for God.”

So maybe we’ve taken the wrong approach.

Maybe we’ve focused for too long on how Jesus kept the Law for us, and we haven’t spent enough time focusing on how Jesus exemplified submission before God – giving up family, friends, power, a home, and eventually his life in service to the Father.

Maybe Jesus’ own standing before God wasn’t just because of his ability to keep the Law, but because of his willingness to surrender his own desires and follow God all the way to a cross. Perhaps salvation is not found in chasing after righteousness, but by submitting to the righteousness of God that’s already at work in our lives.

It seems like, though, more often than not, when I hear the story of the Rich Young Ruler presented, it’s always done so in a way that minimizes Jesus’ call to sell everything he owns and give to the poor. But for Jesus, it seems like that call is the difference between being a part of the kingdom of God and being left outside of it.

So when answering the question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” perhaps we ought to pay more attention to Jesus’ reaction to the Rich Young Ruler.  To inherit eternal life, we have to surrender our stuff, our power, our influence, our hopes, our desires, and our lives in service to the Kingdom.  We have to give up everything that distinguishes us from God, and keep following, even if it leads to death on a cross.

Maybe the reason for this is because without that total surrender, we retain an illusion that we are somehow capable of being self-sustaining. If we don’t give everything up to follow God, then we are at least attempting to serve the Kingdom of God by our own power, rather than by fully trusting in God.

The Bible is full of examples of powerless people being used by God. When Moses was an adopted son of a Pharaoh, he tried to start a revolution and failed, but when he was an outcast shepherd, God used him to rescue the Israelites. When Samson was full of strength, he couldn’t rescue the Israelite people, but when he was blind and weak, God used him to kill more Philistines than any time in the rest of his life. When Gideon’s army was 32,000 strong, God rejected them, but when the army was whittled them down to a mere 300 men, God used them to overthrow the Midianite army.

So perhaps the story of the Rich Young Ruler is a reminder that powerlessness is a prerequisite for the Kingdom of God. Surrender is a major part of salvation. We can keep all the commands. We can do everything God and the Bible ever told us to. We can be model citizens that rescue cats from trees and babies from burning buildings. But there is one thing we lack. We have to give ourselves up. We have to become powerless. We have to become poor. We have to become weak. We have to throw ourselves onto the grace and righteousness of God, and in doing that, we inherit eternal life. Because somewhere in the surrender, we become one with God through Christ.

May we enter into the righteousness of God, rather than trying to attain it by ourselves. May we follow God so closely that we surrender everything in service to Him. May we trust fully in the ability of our God to use us in his Kingdom, especially when we are incapable of doing anything for ourselves.

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