Fuller

When Being Good Isn’t Enough

January 18, 2022 • Life for Leaders

Scripture – Luke 18:18-23 (NRSV)

A certain ruler asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honor your father and mother.’” He replied, “I have kept all these since my youth.” When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “There is still one thing lacking. Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” But when he heard this, he became sad; for he was very rich.

Focus

So, Jesus shows us that we cannot be good enough to inherit eternal life. Only God is that good. The great news is that the uniquely good God gives us the gift of eternal, abundant life. When we receive this gift through faith, we discover a new capacity for goodness, not because we are so good, but because the utterly good God has redeemed us and lives within us through the Spirit.

Today’s devotion is part of the series Following Jesus Today.

Devotion

Luke 18:18-23 tells the story of the so-called Rich Young Ruler and his encounter with Jesus. (Luke identifies the man as a ruler; Matthew 19:22 notes that he was young; Matthew, Mark, and Luke all mention his wealth or possessions.) The story begins with the ruler asking Jesus, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Luke 18:18). Jesus did not answer the man’s question, however. Rather, he responded, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honor your father and mother’” (18:19-20).

As we read this story, we wonder why Jesus brought up the idea of goodness. It seems to be off topic. Also, why did he refer to some of the Ten Commandments? What was Jesus’s point? Before I try to answer these questions, let’s finish the story.

In response to Jesus, the ruler said, “I have kept all these since my youth” (Luke 18:21). We sense his enthusiasm, even his pride in saying this. He believed that he had lived in such a way that he deserved to inherit eternal life. He had done the right things and avoided doing the wrong things. He was good enough to be worthy of eternal life. At first, it seemed to him that Jesus was affirming his confidence in his goodness.

But then Jesus threw the ruler a curveball: “There is still one thing lacking. Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me” (Luke 18:22). Luke tells us the ruler was “sad” when he heard this because “he was very rich” (18:23). Though not stated, Luke implies that this was a step too far for the young ruler. It’s likely that he considered his riches to be evidence of God’s blessing, a reward for being good. The rich ruler was unprepared to give away his things in order to follow Jesus, even if this meant he would have “treasure in heaven” (18:22). His goodness had limits, after all.

As this story unfolds, we come to see why Jesus brought up the seemingly extraneous topic of goodness. Jesus, knowing the heart of the ruler, sensed that he believed one’s personal goodness made one worthy to inherit eternal life. But this was a mistake. The only being in all creation who was good enough for this was God. As Jesus said, “No one is good but God alone” (Luke 18:19). An amplified translation might read, “No one is good enough for eternal life but God alone.”

Thus, the story of the Rich Young Ruler fits perfectly after the previous story in Luke 18, the one where people were bringing infants to Jesus. There, as you may recall, Jesus said, “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it” (18:17). Infants would never be able to receive the kingdom of God, which is another way of talking about inheriting eternal life, through their good efforts. They were utterly dependent on those who cared for them. In a similar way, we are utterly dependent on God and God’s grace when it comes to the kingdom of God. We cannot gain entry to the kingdom by our good works, no matter how good they might be. Rather, we “receive” the kingdom as a gift from God.

If you’ve been a Christian for a while, I expect you know this. You’ve heard it preached. You’ve studied it in Scripture. But, if you’re like me, there is a part of you that is like the young ruler. Throughout my pastoral life, I’ve asked dozens of Christians, “If you were to die today, why would God welcome you into heaven?” The majority of them begin their answer by saying something like, “Well, I’ve tried to be a good person.” When I raise my eyebrows in a questioning sort of way, they hurriedly add, “Oh, of course, I trust Jesus as my Savior.” So, they know the “right answer,” but still have this inclination to believe that their goodness somehow contributes to their entry into God’s kingdom. Perhaps you can relate.

Now, let me be clear, our goodness does matter. Ephesians 2:8-9 makes it abundantly clear that we are saved by God’s grace, received in faith, and not by our good works. But then Ephesians says, “For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life” (Ephesians 2:10). God has good works for us to do, but they are a result of being saved by grace through faith. Our goodness doesn’t earn our entrance into God’s kingdom, but once having entered by grace through faith, our goodness is an expression of God’s goodness at work within us.

So, Jesus shows the ruler, and shows us, that we cannot be good enough to inherit eternal life. Only God is that good. The great news is that the uniquely good God gives us the gift of eternal life. When we receive this gift through faith, we discover a new capacity for goodness, not because we are so good, but because the utterly good God has redeemed us and lives within us through the Spirit.

Reflect

As you read the story of the Rich Young Ruler, how do you react? What are your thoughts? What are your feelings?

Is there some part of you that still thinks you need to be good enough to inherit eternal life? If so, where has this thought come from?

What good deeds do you do as a conscious response to God’s goodness at work in you?

Act

Do something good today, something extra, perhaps, in response to God’s goodness in your life.

Pray

Lord Jesus, thank you for the way you interacted with the rich young ruler. Thank you for helping him to see that his goodness would never be enough for him to inherit the kingdom. Thank you for helping us to see this truth in the story.

Again, Lord, I’m reminded that eternal life, that is, the life of the coming kingdom, is a gift from you. I don’t earn it, but I can receive it. Like a child, I am dependent on you and your grace for this gift. Thank you for your generosity.

Help me, Lord, to do good works, not in order to earn my salvation, but in response to salvation freely given. Keep me away from pride that puts a barrier between you and me. Rather, fill me with gratitude for your goodness and its transforming role in my life. Amen.

Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the unique website of our partners, the Theology of Work Project. Commentary on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: Wealth (Mark 10:17-22)


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