Bending the Heart for the Impossible

After unearthing the themes of prayer, discipleship, and humility in Luke 18, what remains of the chapters seem less applicable to encouraging Biblical discipleship. Perhaps this is true, but Luke’s story placement for the rich young ruler is fascinating. Jesus has just finished comparing a Pharisee and tax collector (Lk. 18:9-14) and exalted the person that the Jewish society disdained. Christ has exalted little children into the kingdom and rebuking the disciples (Lk. 18:15-17). It is not on a mere whim that Luke records this infamous question and answer. “What does entering the kingdom then look like?” is the natural question arising from these teachings of Jesus. Poor discipleship has been exemplified, but what does proper discipleship look like?

18 And a ruler asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 19 And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. 20 You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, Do not murder, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother.’” 21 And he said, “All these I have kept from my youth.” —Luke 18:18-21

Perhaps parents relate more to this formulated question. “Dad, what must I do to go out tonight?” or “Mom, what must I do to be done with dinner?” There is not anything wrong with be willing to act and work. These types of questions are certainly better than the truisms my daughter has been spouting lately, “Dad, if I have to watch TV than I have to watch TV.” This young rule understands he did not naturally deserve to inherit eternal life. In religious fervor, he was bent on doing what needed to be done to earn God’s favor. But he was guilty of “a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge” (Rom. 10:2).

Christ’s Confusing Answer

Christ’s answer honestly addresses this fervor. And perhaps Christ’s answer has left many confused about the nature of justification. The reason Christ does not say, “Hey dummy, just believe in me and you will be justified by faith” is because the rulers desire for eternal life is not bad. Christ condescends to the rich ruler’s thinking in an effort to show him that earning his justification is an impossibility (Lk. 18:27). In fact, apart from Christ this is the greatest impossibility (2 Cor. 1:18-20). For this reason, Christ responds,“Why do you call me good?” and concludes with “One thing you still lack” (Lk. 18:22). The rich young ruler misses out on Christ’s point that God is the high standard and that no disciple, through adherence to the law, could achieve this. The teacher standing right in front of him was the only exception. He was the impossible possibility. Christ’s second response seeks to push the point, he strikes to the heart of the ruler and the ruler breaks. He breaks apart from Christ. He has missed out on Christ revealing that through him, the “good teacher,” is the inheritance to eternal life. What is “impossible with man” has become possible through the God-man that stood before the ruler.

Check List Discipleship

What does this story communicate about discipleship? It re-iterates that completing a check list, even a holy one, is not the equivalent to following the Good Teacher. The root issue of discipleship is the heart. So, when our discipleship programs become merely external rituals we should be willing to acknowledge what they are and what Paul would say about them,

For while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come. —1 Timothy 4:8

True discipleship has to be convinced that its programs must die to themselves in order to follow Christ. True discipleship must be bent on affirming the greatest impossibility and that all of the physical effort in discipleship is non-meritorious in making us a disciple. Instead the church needs to stress the grace of God.

It is true that one does not explicitly hear “what must I do” often in the church today. The truth is the religious answer lies before us. Sunday School, good church attendance, Bible study, fellowship, and un-healthy food at the potlucks. These are the marks of religious fervor and remain a blessing (especially the food part) from God for his disciples. We must return to instructing new Christians that taking on a loaded schedule of godly things does not a disciple make. Instead, the bending heart that merely asks “Who then can be saved?” will find the God-man ready to accomplish the impossible. This will affect how we counsel parents to disciple their children. This will alter how we view parents with children who cannot attend Bible study. This must transform our vision of who Christ’s disciples are and how we can edify each other.

Joshua Torrey is a New Mexico boy in an Austin, TX world. He is husband to Alaina and father to Kenzie & Judah and spends his free time studying for the edification of his household. These studies include the intricacies of hockey, football, curling, beer, and theology. You can follow him @benNuwn and read his theological musings and running commentary of the Scriptures at The Torrey Gazette.