“What Must I Do To Gain Eternal Life?” - The Rich Man and The Prosperity “Gospel.”
Where do we stand with God?
In a study of Matthew 19:16-30 "The Rich and the Kingdom of God", we learn about an encounter Jesus had with a rich man who questions Jesus on how he can gain eternal life. "And someone came to Him and said, “Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may obtain eternal life?” (Matt. 19:16 ). The man calls Jesus “teacher” or rabbi in Hebrew, so it appears he is not yet convinced about Jesus’ claims to be Messiah. In Pharisaic Judaism, Jews believed they were included in the Kingdom of Heaven automatically simply because they were born Jewish. So long as a Jew remained in good standing by keeping the Law and respecting the traditions, he or she was Heaven bound. What this man was asking of Jesus was not typical, but because the standard for being considered a “good” Jew had never been adequately defined by the rabbis, he couldn’t know for sure where he stood with God.
What is the minimum standard?
Jesus tells the man to keep the commandments of the Law, "Why are you asking Me about what is good? There is only One who is good; but if you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments” (Matt 19:17), and the man replies “Which ones?”. In other words, what are God’s minimum standards? Even today, the world assumes that God has set some minimum standard of behaviour that gets a person into Heaven. Sometimes it is seen as a scale of our good deeds outweighing our bad deeds. Different religions will propose different checklists on what God wants us to do, but every version of this system suffers from the same problem. How do we know when we’ve done enough to enter Heaven? What is good enough? And more so, what is considered a good deed/work?
That’s the central flaw in the world’s view of Heaven, everyone assumes there is a standard but no one knows what that standard is. As the standard is unknown, the world lives in fear of death, and without a sense of peace about what happens after a person dies. Life is forever chasing an invisible finish line, always wondering if we will measure up on the day the race ends. That’s the burden the world carries every day, and what this man who was questioning Jesus carried.
Only God is good.
Jesus corrects the man by saying only God is intrinsically good, there is no sliding scale. And He said to him, “Why are you asking Me about what is good? There is only One who is good”, (Matt 19:17). God’s standard for measuring goodness is not relative, it’s about being as good as God.”They have all turned aside, together they have become corrupt; There is no one who does good, not even one” (Psa. 14:3). The entire world operates thinking their goodness must rise above some cutline in the middle of their scale and almost everyone assumes they are above that imaginary line. Jesus says God’s standard is way higher than the world ever imagined it to be, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23).
By what standard?
By telling the man “but if you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments” (Matt 19:17), Jesus set a trap for the man’s ego so He can expose a false assumption the man is making. Jesus consciously selects certain commandments that He knows will please the man, “YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT MURDER; YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT ADULTERY; YOU SHALL NOT STEAL; YOU SHALL NOT BEAR FALSE WITNESS; HONOR YOUR FATHER AND MOTHER; and YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF,” (Matt. 19:19). Jesus does this to demonstrate that even though by the standard of the law, the man could consider himself saved, his convictions still caused him doubt."The young man said to Him, “All these things I have kept; what am I still lacking?” (Matt. 19:20).
Why wasn’t he satisfied with Jesus’ answer? In giving the list of 6 laws that the man can say he has met, Jesus points out the impossibility of finding a standard of performance that satisfies our soul. Inside every person, God has placed a conscience and our conscience is a witness testifying against us; our sin continues to convict us. That’s why there is no peace for anyone who tries to work their way to Heaven, you become forever trapped in a cycle of doing, and then falling short, followed by guilt and worry.
God has programmed our conscience to never be satisfied with our personal standard and to keep seeking the truth. The problem is the world’s flawed understanding of God and ourselves. We assume His standard for Heaven is less than perfection because that’s the only standard we can hope to meet.
Jesus goes on to say“If you wish to be complete, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me. But when the young man heard this statement, he went away grieving; for he was one who owned much property” (Matt. 19: 21-22). We might think he would have been happy to finally receive the checklist he has always wanted, as it's just one more thing. Jesus told the man to stop trusting in his wealth, turn his back on the world, and come follow Him. Sadly, the man was so attached to the world and his wealth that if Heaven required giving that up, he couldn’t accept it. So he left grieving, not because he concluded he couldn’t get into Heaven, but because he rejects Jesus’ rules and is sad he has to keep looking for an answer.
The world will say it wants to know God’s standard for entering Heaven, but in reality, they only want a standard that meets their desires. Like this man, they keep shopping for an answer until they find one they like. The standard to enter the Kingdom is perfection, and the means for obtaining perfection is found in following Jesus. To enter Heaven we must equal the righteousness of God, the perfection of God.
The Good News.
Since we are all imperfect, there is no method, no checklist of things we can do to achieve that standard. The Bible tells us that the only way to meet God’s standard of perfection is to receive God’s perfection assigned to us by faith. "He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor. 5:21). Our salvation comes only by the grace of God, which precludes the possibility of claiming we had anything to do with our salvation. "For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph. 2:8-9).
Jesus did give this man a checklist for entering Heaven, but that checklist had only one point on it; stop trusting in your works and start following Him. God has told us from the very beginning that pleasing God isn’t too difficult: we don’t need a checklist, a method for approval, or to earn our way into heaven. We simply need to believe in Him, trust in His claim to be God and in His death in our place, then confess that belief. That’s why Jesus uttered the phrase “It is finished” on the cross, as a declaration that all the work necessary to reconcile us to the Father had been accomplished on our behalf by Him.
The only way to enter the Kingdom, to go to Heaven, is to be born again, to be given Christ’s sinless spirit through our faith in the word of Christ. We would expect everyone to be receptive to salvation made so easy, so why would anyone reject such a simple and powerful truth? Jesus explains why, "And Jesus said to His disciples, “Truly I say to you, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I say to 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” (Matt. 19:23-24).
The Problem with Wealth
Jesus is not saying that wealth has such a corrupting influence that it holds the power to block our entry into Heaven, nor is being rich an instant disqualification from Heaven. There are no “good” works that can gain us Heaven, and that even includes the good work of giving away money. Under Pharisaic Judaism, wealth was viewed as divine favour or a sign that God approved of a person. In their view if a person was wealthy, God had assigned that reward to the person because they lived an especially righteous life. Consequently, it also gave a view that poor people were under God's judgment and therefore could be treated unfairly. It became a license for greed because it encouraged the unrestrained pursuit of material wealth.
The problem with wealth and the easy life it creates is in how it deludes a person into thinking they do not need God’s mercy. Wealth’s effect on a heart can be understood as the opposite of the effect of experiencing a crisis or trauma. When someone fears for their life – or they endure a difficult set of circumstances – questions of life and death come to mind. God can use difficult circumstances to draw a person’s heart toward Jesus and away from the world.
However, when someone is too satisfied with life, they lose interest in what comes next. It is the most powerful spiritual sedative known to the world. Can a rich man find his way to Heaven? No, not if that man sees his wealth as proof that he’s already there. The false view of wealth is not limited to first-century Judaism, it still exists today.
The Prosperity Gospel
Today, there is a form of false teaching in the church claiming that wealth is proof of God’s favour, and it’s called the Prosperity Gospel. However, the word “gospel” means “good news”, and this is not good news at all - its heresy. The false teaching claims that God wants to make us wealthy and that if we do our part, then He will gladly do so. It sadly also teaches that if you lack wealth, then there is something in your relationship with God that is lacking and needs to be corrected.
A prosperity false teacher tells us the way to pleasing God is to give our wealth to the teacher so that God may return it to us. Like the Pharisees, these false teachers will point to their wealth as proof their teaching is true, saying their wealth vindicates them. Jesus said the church of the last days would point to its wealth as proof that it needed nothing, "Because you say, “I am rich, and have become wealthy, and have need of nothing,” and you do not know that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked” (Rev. 3:17). They want the wealth of this world, not the next, and that's where their hearts stay.
Wealth itself is not an enemy, on the contrary, wealthy Christians possess great potential to impact the Kingdom by their wealth if they put it to work for Jesus. The Lord Himself has assigned great wealth to godly men throughout history such as Abraham, Joseph, David, and Solomon. The problem is not wealth itself but our love for it, our dependence upon it, and our desire for it compete with our affection for Christ. “For the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil, and some by longing for it have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.” (1 Tim. 6:10).
There is a prosperity teaching in the Bible, but the teaching says sacrifice now to prosper later. “And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or farms for My name’s sake, will receive many times as much, and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last; and the last, first" (Matt. 19:29-30). Jesus says that as we make earthly sacrifices to serve Him like losing family or possessions, He will replace them with heavenly equivalents many times over. Every time we choose to obey Christ, we’re simultaneously saying no to something else, something our flesh prefers. That’s why Jesus ends saying the first will be last and the last will be first, He’s speaking about this eternal tradeoff; where we can have our reward now or later.
Wealth isn’t the only thing blocking people from seeking a way into Heaven, people place their trust in intellect or physical beauty or career achievement or social status or fame or ancestral background. The achievement of these desires become an excuse to put aside concerns over what comes after death. Since we’re all prone to these misplaced affections, how does anyone rise above the noises to hear the voice of God? The odds seem so low and so the disciples ask, “Then who can be saved?” (Matt 19:25).
Not Our Choice.
If salvation requires people to turn from trusting in wealth or anything else in this world to follow Jesus, then salvation is impossible. “And looking at them Jesus said to them, “With people this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” (Matt 19:26). The human heart is desperately wicked and it will not seek God on its own, The power to turn a heart away from the world and toward the Lord belongs to God alone. The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it (John 1:5); “who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God" (John 1:13). Those who are born again are not saved because of their ancestors, nor of any good work, nor of a personal choice to follow Jesus. It was only because they were born again by God that they turned to the Light. All we do is receive that work by faith, “not by works so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:9). He brings faith to us by His Spirit because it’s impossible for the human heart to turn away from the world on its own, “You did not choose me, but I chose you..” (John 15:26).
But we should always give thanks to God for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God has chosen you from the beginning for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and faith in the truth” (2 Thessalonians 2:13).