If you’ve been a faithful reader of this blog, you might've noticed that I’ve discussed this story back when we were studying the book of Mark. I made some points that will overlap what I’m going to say here, but there’s enough new material that I feel it justifies spending another posting on it in a mini-series on evangelism. I'd recommend that you read it if you haven’t already, since there are some sticky issues with this passage which I address there and not here.
The problem I want to address with this story is a tendency I see in a lot of evangelism. I don’t have any softer way to put it: We make it too easy for people to come to Christ.
What?! Keith, are you crazy? I thought that we’re supposed to want as many people to come to Christ as possible!! In fact, I thought that God wants as many people to come to him as possible. Well, there’s a case to be made for that. If you’ve been reading the blog for a while, you know my litany: He takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked but rather that they turn from their ways and live. He’s not willing that anyone perish but that all come to repentance. He wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.
All of this is absolutely true. So what do I mean? I mean that in our eagerness to see someone “accept Jesus,” we fly through our explanation and end up leaving them with false assurance.
We can do this with two ways: Someone might not really understand that they’re a sinner in desperate need of a Savior. I think this was the rich young ruler’s problem in today’s reading. Why did Jesus not start out with the Roman Road of salvation with him or something similar? True, the cross was still in the future, but when the seeker asks him “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” he didn't tell him “Realize that you’re a sinner and place your faith in me.” He led the young man right back to the Law, to the commandments. If the young man was ready, as Spurgeon quipped, instead of saying “All these I have kept since I was a boy,” he should've said “All these I have broken since I was a boy.”
That would've shown he was ready for the next step: Actually placing his faith in Jesus to save and forgive him. But his self-righteous response showed he didn’t know this. As someone once said, “You have to get someone lost before you get them saved.” If they don’t know and realize that they’re lost and in desperate need of a Savior, there’s little point in telling them about what Jesus did for them.
The second problem with some evangelism is illustrated by the young man’s second answer. Jesus told him “One thing you lack. Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” The young man gave an answer to this when he walked away "sad." He was sad, but he walked away, which meant he was telling Jesus “No,” or “Not yet,” (which of course also means “No”).
This highlights the second aspect that I think is missing from much modern evangelism: A call to repentance. That’s a three dollar word meaning that you resolve to stop doing things your way and to start doing things God’s way (with his help). It’s a change of heart that will express itself in a change of behavior.
Now, I need to reemphasize something I said in the earlier posting on this: This story is not the end-all and be-all of biblical evangelism. From the rest of the Bible, we know that Jesus doesn't require every prospective follower to sell everything he has and give it to the poor, and the rest of Scripture is crystal clear that we're saved by grace through faith in Christ plus nothing. This was a requirement that Christ placed on this young man because he (Jesus) saw that the young man wasn’t ready to surrender his life, which was demonstrated by his walking away. He had no self-awareness of his sin, and thus wasn't ready at all to do what it takes to become a follower.
This is a word of warning to all of us who are sooooo anxious to see someone “walking down the aisle” and signing a card and joining a church and being baptized that we fail to present how much we all need a Savior--and the claims of Christ on a believer--in full. And if someone did all these things (e.g., walking the aisle) and never is truly saved, I’d submit that they’re probably worse off than before. False assurance is a deadly enemy to the soul, and I think we’re going to be held accountable someday for that.
Father God, I want to please people, and I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. That’s natural. But the last thing I want to be is responsible for someone not making it into your Kingdom. Please set a guard over my mouth so that I say nothing that doesn’t come straight from you.