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26. Salvation and Perfection are Inseparable

Chapter 26

Salvation and Perfection are Inseparable

In this chapter we consider three matters of great importance regarding regenera­tion, renewal and perfection.

First, in the teaching of Jesus, there is no salvation apart from perfection. In the climate of present day Christianity, this will appear to be an astonishing statement and will therefore need to be examined in some depth.

Second, there is no perfection apart from faith. Combining this with the first point, we have the important principle of salvation by faith.

Third, we need to define more precisely the meaning of faith as seen in Scripture. The Reformation did us a great service by teach­ing us the principle of justification by faith, but failed to complete that service because of failing to define what that faith is. I therefore return to the subject of faith with the aim of arriving at a more precise definition.

1. No Salvation Apart from Perfection: ‘To Get Eternal Life’ Obey the Call to ‘Be Perfect’

In Scripture, there is no salvation without perfection. That is to say, we cannot hope to be saved without being perfect in heart. This is made unmistakably clear, for example, in the striking account of the rich young ruler, in Matthew 19.16-26. This passage is crucial for understanding the Lord’s teaching on salvation. Let us therefore read this account, paying special attention to the word “perfect” (verse 21) at the center of the passage:

16 Now a man came up to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?”

17 “Why do you ask me about what is good?” Jesus replied. “There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, obey the com­mandments.”

18 “Which ones?” the man inquired. Jesus replied, “‘Do not mur­der, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, 19 honor your father and mother,’ and ‘love your neighbor as your­self.’”

20 “All these I have kept,” the young man said. “What do I still lack?”

21 Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your poss­essions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

22 When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.

23 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 Again I tell 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.”

25 When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, “Who then can be saved?” 26 Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” (NIV)

(1) Seven References to Salvation

Let us look closely at this passage. What is the main issue here? The whole discussion is started by one simple but extremely import­ant question, “What must I do to have eternal life?” It means that whole account is centered on the question of obtaining eternal life, as confirmed by the words in boldface. The evidence for this is so abundant that it can be presented in seven points. Let us survey the evidence in order to establish beyond any doubt that the main topic is salvation.

Firstly, there is the question which starts the whole dis­cussion, namely the one asked by the rich young ruler: “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?” (v.16)

Secondly, Jesus refers to eternal life when he replies, “If you want to enter life, obey the com­mandments” (v.17).

Thirdly, Jesus refers again to eternal life when he speaks of “treasure in heaven” (v.21). Here we see its inseparable link with perfection: “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” How can you have treasure in heaven without entering the kingdom of heaven or having eternal life?

The “if you want to” clause, seen here and also in the second point, shows the parallel between “if you want to enter life” and “if you want to be perfect”; there is no use wanting to enter life if you don’t want to be perfect. Life and perfection are not two alternatives between which we choose, taking the one while rejecting the other. “To enter life” and “to be perfect” are inseparably linked.

It is not hard to see that we cannot have God’s life (eternal life) without His perfection (His character or image), and vice versa. His life and His character are indissolubly linked as two aspects of the one reality of God’s Person. Nor can we say we will accept this part of His predeter­mined plan of salvation for us, but not that part. We either take the whole or we will have nothing. We cannot tear it apart to suit our preferences.

Fourthly, Jesus says, “I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven” (v.23). Elsewhere he says, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit” (Jo.3.5). To be born of the Spirit (born anew) and to enter the Kingdom is to “enter life”.

Fifthly, Jesus again refers to the Kingdom when he says, “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” (v.24).

The word “enter,” used in the second, fourth and fifth points, high­lights the parallel between the phrases “to enter life”, “to enter the kingdom of heaven”, and “to enter the kingdom of God”.

Sixthly, the astonished disciples exclaim, “Who then can be saved?” (v.25)—which plainly demonstrates that the whole discuss­ion is about salvation.

Seventhly, Jesus concludes the discussion with a striking statement about inheriting eternal life that comes back to the initial question in verse 16 about how to get eternal life: “And every one who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and inherit eternal life” (v.29).

As this huge amount of evidence shows, this pass­age from beginning to end deals with the question of inheriting eternal life. Equally import­ant, the question of eternal life is intertwined with the matter of perfection (v.21). Without perfection of heart, you cannot enter into life, or inherit eternal life, or be saved, or enter the kingdom, or have treasure in heaven. All these are inextricably interrelated.

(2) Is the Lord’s Teaching Distasteful to Us?

Today we are so used to the preaching and teaching of a cheap gospel that we can read this passage and miss its obvious meaning. Jesus’ teaching on salvation is so distasteful to us that we tell ourselves that he could not mean what he says. But if that were so, could someone kindly tell us what he does mean? Or why he speaks of being perfect at all?

And when Jesus talks about perfection, how does he present it? Does he say to the rich young man, “My friend, you’re a nice person, and you’re on the right track spiritually. So I have a suggestion. Why don’t we add a cherry on top of the icing, and supplement your spirituality with a touch of perfection?”

But that is not how the Lord depicts perfect­ion. Perfection is not a matter of adding a little extra color, a bit of spiritual luxury, or some higher level of Christianity, but is something fundamental to salvation. It is crucial to the whole question of eternal life. When the rich young ruler turned away sorrowful, rejecting the call to be perfect, Jesus did not say, “That’s a pity. This is a good man, but he could have become even better by aiming for perfection”. What Jesus did say was, “It is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven” (v.23). It is an issue of salvation, not improvement.

Perfection is not about reaching a higher spiritual state after having entered the kingdom of heaven. It is about entering the kingdom of heaven, period.

The disciples understood his point very well, and that is why they asked, “Who then can be saved if not this rich man? He is moral and religious, noble and upright, and if he is not saved, who stands a chance?” Jesus acknow­ledged their point: “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (v.26).

With men this is impossible. Jesus teaches a salvation that is impossible for the natural man to attain, or even accept in his egotistical way of thinking. Yet many churches do the opposite, preaching a sugar-coated gospel and hoping thereby to make it impossible for man to refuse.

Most significantly, Jesus makes perfection a condition for entering the kingdom of heaven (v.21). You might object to this, saying that this will only make salvation impossibly difficult. Well, you’re right! The Lord wants us to understand that his salvation is unacceptable and impossible to the natural man. That is how he himself proclaimed the gospel.

But what do many churches preach today? That salvation is by grace, the free gift of God, and that faith is the hand that reaches out to take it. Salvation, as presented today, makes it impossible for you to refuse it—unless you are a complete fool. What level-headed person would refuse a free gift with no strings attached? Here we see the wide gulf—no, the infinite chasm—between the gospel that Jesus preached, and the gospel that we so often hear today.

By the way, please explain, how did they arrive at that definition of faith in the first place? Where does Scripture ever say that faith is the hand that reaches out to accept the free gift? By what cunning innovation did they come up with this definition?

It may be more Biblical to portray faith in terms of knees (and heart) bowed humbly and gratefully before God who bestows His mercies, rather than as hands. The apostle writes, in Ephesians 3.14, “I bow my knees before the Father”. This verse is sandwiched between two references to faith, “We have boldness and confident access through faith in him” (v.12), and “So that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith” (v.17).

In sharp contrast to what is commonly preached today, Jesus gives a different answer to the question of eternal life: Be perfect. Happily for us, he doesn’t leave us in the dark about the meaning of “perfect”. As he explains to the rich young ruler, “To be perfect, you must give up all your possessions—which is the outward expression of offering up yourself to God, who had given you whatever you have in the first place (1Cor.4.7). Then you will have treasure in heaven which you cannot see with your eyes right now, but which you will receive in the future (this is a vital ingredient of faith, Heb.11.1; Gal.5.5; Ro.8.24). Then come, follow me.

Being perfect is here defined in terms of abandoning everything to follow Christ; this shows its connection to Christ-likeness. For what will be the outcome of following Christ daily but to become like him?

Hearing Jesus’ call to follow him, we can imagine the rich young ruler getting worried: “Lord, just now you were talking about keep­ing the commandments. If I may say so, I have kept them to the best of my ability.” Nobody, not even the Lord Jesus, doubts the sincerity of this rich young ruler. He has gen­uinely kept the command­ments to the best of his ability. Surely a nice person like him, after trying his best, deserves to inherit eternal life without necessarily following Jesus, doesn’t he?

But the Lord’s response is, “No, you must first sever your attach­ment to the world, which is represented by your possessions. Then, free from all hindrances, come and follow me.”

Many Christians have reacted negatively to the story of the rich young ruler: “There must be a mistake here. Salvation isn’t so diffi­cult or unrea­sonable. Let’s sit down and reassess the matter. The rich young man has kept the commandments to the best of his ability, and has never done a wicked deed. Give him a break. Let him give some of his possessions, not all. Given his wealth, that’s already a great sacrifice. If he keeps some of his possessions, he can be a good Christian by helping out the church financially.”

But Jesus takes it to the absolute limit: “No one of you can be my disciple who does not give up all his own possessions” (Luke 14.33). The term “no one” allows no one to be exempted. The word “all” rules out keeping anything in the world. It doesn’t take a genius to see the stark contrast between the gospel that Jesus preached, and the gospel that we hear today. In practice we dare not preach the true gospel, for fear of getting few converts. If you want to pack your church with people, you must avoid preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ because it is impossible for the natural man to accept it. It sticks like a fish bone in his throat.

I use the word “impossible” because that is the word Jesus uses in regard to salvation. It is impossible for the natural man to accept the gospel that Jesus preaches. Jesus knows it is impos­sible, and he has decreed it that way. Yet there are many Christians who think they know better and therefore have the right to change it.

(3) The Rich Young Ruler: As Perfect a Man as can be Found in the World

The rich young ruler is a most elegant and attrac­tive man and certainly one who could catch the eye of many a girl. He is not just rich, but “extremely rich” (Luke 18.23). In modern terms, you could picture him driving up to the Lord Jesus in a Mercedes sports coupe. Yet the admirable thing about him is that he is not arrogant at all. In this man we see the rare combination of wealth and humility. We marvel at his unassuming dignity and noble demeanor, the very qualities that are so rare in rich people.

He even kneels before Jesus (Mark 10.17), humbling himself before a teacher of lowly status in Israel. At this point Jesus is just a new­comer and upstart teacher, having been in his ministry for one or two years. Yet the rich man gets out of his Mercedes sports coupe, and kneels on the dusty ground, dirtying his pair of designer pants.

His self-effacing humility is in striking contrast to the way many rich people might swagger up to Jesus, saying, “Hey man, I want eternal life. What’s the deal?” If the rich young man had talked like that, the Lord would have ignored him. What we see instead is a man humbling himself on the ground.

To add courtesy to humility, he addresses Jesus as “Good Teacher” (Luke 18.18). But Jesus questions him on that point: Are you just being polite? Do you know what “good” really means, or what goodness really is?

The young man has a sincerity that is free of hypocrisy or superficiality. Jesus looks at him, and loves him (Mark 10.21) for the genuineness of his attitude.

More than that, we know that the young man is learned and capable, by the fact that he is a ruler (Luke 18.18). The word “ruler” may refer to a synagogue leader, or it may refer to a member of the Sanhedrin, the highest legal and religious body in Israel, roughly the equivalent of the Supreme Court. The Bible does not say whet­her he is a synagogue leader or a member of the Sanhedrin, or even both. This is not important because in any case, he must have been reason­ably learned and capable to hold either of these positions. In Israel, a position of this type is not obtained by wealth or social status, but by ability and knowledge, especially of the law. That is the more impressive given the fact that he is a young man (v.20).

What more do you want in a man? He is young, he is learned, he is a ruler, he is extremely rich. Yet he is humble, polite, moral and religious. Possessing all these admirable human qualities, he is a worthy represent­ative of all that is the best in the human race.

He is perfect as far as the world is concerned. If you are looking for the perfect man, he is an obvious candidate. He has every quality that you could look for in a man. And he has everything that anyone could wish for in the world: wealth, influence, status, learning, youth. Given that he is also moral and sincere, does this man not deserve to inherit eternal life?

The Lord Jesus, despite his love for the rich young ruler, refuses to lower the standard for the sake of admitting him into the kingdom.

This whole account brings into sharp contrast the fact that you can have everything in this world yet have nothing in the kingdom of God. You can have worldly (including moral) perfection, yet lack spiritual perfection.

But even more striking are the Lord’s words which make it clear that to obtain the spiritual we must give up whatever is worldly. We cannot have both, because they are incompatible. That is why Jesus could not admit the young ruler into the kingdom until he relinquishes his worldly attachments. No one who clings to the world can take hold of the kingdom.

This is an important spiritual truth, and we ignore it to our eternal cost. The Laodicean church appears to have been alarmingly ignorant of this vital truth. Or they, like so many today, auda­ciously chose to ignore it. The Lord Jesus says to them,

“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).

In their ignorance, these Christians are living in self-delusion, imagining that they have everything (“have need of nothing”) when in fact they have nothing. Their true spiritual condition is described as being “wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked” (five adjectives, their condition could scarcely get worse than that!)—and they were not even aware of it! That is how blind one could be in regard to spiritual reality when one is immersed in the world. Let us take heed.

(4) What Captivates Your Heart?

This is why Jesus is saying to the rich young man, “As far as the world is concerned, you are as perfect as you could be. But you lack one thing, the most important thing: perfect obedience to God. My friend, you cannot inherit eternal life because your heart is still tied to the world.”

Before we congratulate ourselves for not being attached to riches, let us search our hearts because there could well be something in the world that still appeals to us. If it is not money, it could be social status, recognition, or academic degrees. The important thing to remember is this: Whatever in the world captures your heart, that is what will stop you from following the Lord wholeheartedly. More than that, the thing which is gripping your heart (and you know what it is) will stop you from entering into life, as has happened in the case of the rich young man.

This young man was captive to his material wealth, if to nothing else. The wealthy probably rarely think of themselves as being captives of their riches; they think of themselves as mas­ters of what they possess, because they suppose that they can dispose of their goods or assets as they please. But the fact is that our possessions can, and usually do, control us by taking up our time, energy and attention to manage or care for them (such as house, car, bank account, etc.). The question is: Do we control our possessions, or do they control us? Anyone who confidently answers that he has control over his riches has not understood the meaning and truth of Jesus’ words, “the deceitfulness of riches” (Mt.13.22). Countless multitudes have been deceived by their riches; the rich young man proved to be no exception when it came to this decisive issue.

We may congratulate ourselves for not being rich, much less extremely rich. We own nothing of great value that we need to give up. If we take our belong­ings to a pawn shop, they may be rejected as worthless. Then we start rejoicing, “The rich young ruler cannot enter the kingdom but, hallelujah, we can!”

Not so fast. The Lord Jesus is never superficial. Riches encumbered this young man, but something else may be encumbering us. We can be certain that everyone is attracted to something in the world in one way or another. It may be a respected position in society, the pride of academic achievement, or the applause of men. To a performing artist, praise is better than diamonds. I knew about this only after listening to the self-revelations of several artists. Applause might not mean much to some people, but it is every­thing to the artist. It is music to his ears and the thing for which he lives, because it is the indicator of his success.

One way or another, everybody is attracted to something in the world, and that thing is specific to each person. And it is amazing what people are attracted to. Some are so obsessed with traveling that they will work for many years to save up enough for a trip around the world. To those who have traveled a lot, traveling is tedious, but to some it is something they eagerly aspire to.

Many people work like slaves to get a job promotion that comes with perks such as a swivel chair and an office cubicle. The cubicle may be small and suffocating, but for many a person it represents all of paradise. That leather swivel chair, half worn out, together with the executive desk, represents the sum total of his aspirations. Right now he dreams of sitting behind the desk pre­sently occupied by his manager, hoping that one day he will be able to put his feet on it and twiddle his thumbs in self-satisfaction. To get that cubicle, he is willing to toil like a slave for many years.

Something in the world is captivating your heart. For some people, it is food. Hong Kong people are familiar with this, and they don’t need me to explain it for them. Food is the joy and content­ment of life, for which one is willing to work hard. Not just the Chinese but also the French. When we traveled in France, I was shocked by the (to me) outrageous menu prices, yet the restaurants were full of people. Either the people are fabulously rich, or food is for them an enjoyment that is worthy of financial sacrifice. They toil all day at the office in order to wine and dine in the evening.

This doesn’t mean that as Christians we do not, or are not permitted to, enjoy a good meal. We can and we do. But we must let neither this nor anything else become an obsessive desire which we cling to, and which drives our lives. The Apostle puts it like this:

What I mean, brothers, is that the time is short. From now on… those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep; those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For the world in its present form is passing away. I would like you to be free from concern. (1Cor.7.29-32)

Whatever enslaves our heart must be cut off. It is a most painful surgery. Actually, it is impossible for the natural man to sign the consent form for that surgery. If he cries out to the Lord, “I can’t do it. I can’t give it up!” then he is absolutely correct. It is impossible with man.

Summarizing our first point: Without perfect­ion of heart, no one can inherit eternal life. The word that Jesus uses, teleios (τέλειος), is the common Greek word for perfect or complete. In this context, it means perfect obedience to God. It is the readiness to give up every­thing in the world, especially the things that captivate our hearts. We must turn our backs on them, deny ourselves, and follow the Lord. The gospel that Jesus preaches has no crowd appeal. Far from being a crowd-pleaser, Jesus speaks to those who pursue only the truth.

2. Perfection Calls for a Faith That Believes in the Impossible

We are talking about faith because we are talking about the impossible. That is the first and basic character of faith in Scripture. If our definition of faith does not include the impossible, then we are not talking about Biblical faith. New Testament faith always has to do with the humanly impossible. Faith is not required for anything that is possible to man. If we could gain eternal life by human wisdom or effort, we would not need faith.

Let us consider the popular cliché, Salvation is a free gift, and faith is accepting that free gift. The first question that comes to mind is this: Is there anything impossible about this? Is it beyond human ability to accept a free gift? If somebody offers you a free movie ticket, a free car, or even eternal life with no strings attached, what is so impossible about accepting it? On the contrary, the offer is too good to turn down.

There are many today who, by taking a few verses (Ro.5.15,16; 6.23) out of their context, tell us that all we have to do to be saved is to receive eternal life as a free gift. That is basically all there is to it. When we compare the Lord’s teaching with this extract from Paul’s letter, we are left wondering whether we are listening to the same gospel, and whether there is a glaring and, indeed, irreconcilable contradiction between Jesus’ teaching and Paul’s.

In Jesus’ teaching, eternal life is compared to a priceless pearl (Mt.13.46). It is utterly beyond our means to earn it. If we are ever to obtain it, then obviously there is no other way than to receive it as a gift from God, for only God can give it. But He does not give it indiscrim­inately or unconditionally.

What is the condition? In the parable, the man had to sell all he had in order to acquire the pearl. That is not to say that the pearl of eternal life is only worth what we possess (for our possessions may be relatively worthless), but it is to say that unless we are prepared to part with all we have in order to obtain that pearl, it will never be given to us.

Does Paul teach anything different? We have become accustomed to hearing preachers say that the only condition which Paul teaches for receiving the gift of salvation is to have a faith that, like outstretched hands, receives or takes that gift. But this is a misrepre­sentation of Paul’s teaching, indeed a falsification of it, even if it is unintentional.

The truth is that Paul stresses exactly the same truth as Jesus. By the phrase “all things” (in Phil.3.8, “I have suffered the loss of all things”) the apostle does not only mean material things or possessions, but our very lives. This can be seen from the following statements, “I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live” (Gal.2.20); “the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Gal.6.14). These are truly radical statements, and they are true of every believer, “For we have become united with him in the likeness of his death…our old self was crucified with him” (Rom.6.5,6).

Again, where does the New Testament portray faith as the hand that accepts the free gift of salvation? Have we become so bold as to invent our own gospel, and to reduce God’s costly grace to a cheap grace which anyone who is out to get something for nothing would gladly clutch at? Even the gospel is made to cater to man’s limitless greed!

Wholly to the contrary, New Testament faith has to do with what is impos­sible for man to accomplish. This comes out clearly, for example, in Matthew 17.20, where the disciples ask Jesus why they could not cast out a demon. Jesus replies,

“Because of the littleness of your faith; for truly I say to you, if you have faith as a mustard seed, you shall say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it shall move; and nothing shall be impossible to you.”

If you have faith, nothing will be impossible to you, because God will act when you have faith. Mark 9.22-23 tells of a man who begs Jesus to save his demon-possessed son: “If you can do anything, have pity on us and help us.” Jesus replies, “‘If you can!’ All things are possible to him who believes.”

Salvation is impossible to man. Let us bear in mind that in answer to the disciples’ question, “Who then can be saved?” (Mt.19.25), Jesus says, “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (v.26).

Yes, all things—even impossible things—are possible to him who believes. Because salvation is utterly impossible to man, it depends utterly on God through faith. If being saved is as easy as reaching out for a piece of free bread, what exactly do we need faith for? Why do you need faith to accept a free gift? When friends give us Christmas gifts, do we need faith to accept them? But if a stranger sends us a gift, we would certainly be cautious until his motive is established, but this has little to do with the question of faith.

What difficulty is there to receiving a free gift from God? I haven’t met anyone who refused salvation as a free gift because he thought that God had some hidden or dubious motive! What God requires of us is never concealed in unintelligible “fine print,” but is plainly stated in His word; there is nothing secretive about it.

As a general rule, doesn’t getting something for nothing appeal to our human nature? Is there anything in this that we, by nature, find impossible to do? Does this have anything to do with Biblical faith?

3. Abrahamic Faith as Model of Biblical Faith

Romans 4 is an important chapter that defines faith in terms of the impossible. When Paul speaks of justification by faith, he never cheapens faith into something that is humanly possible, making total reliance upon God unnecessary. Paul is too well versed in the word of God to make this error. In Romans 4, Paul talks about the faith—Abrahamic faith—that constitutes saving faith:

And without becoming weak in faith he [Abraham] contem­plated his own body, now as good as dead since he was about a hundred years old, and the deadness of Sarah’s womb; yet, with respect to the promise of God, he did not waver in unbelief, but grew strong in faith, giving glory to God. (vv.19-20)

When God promised Abraham that one day his des­cendants will be as the stars of the heavens and the sands of the sea, why did Abraham have to exercise faith? Because this was humanly impossible! He was already a hundred years old, but that was not the most daunting impossibility. The main obstacle was that Sarah was already ninety years old, and had been barren all her life. If she could not bear a child at the age of twenty, how could she at ninety? She had long lived past the age of child-bearing. Yet it was in the face of these impossibilities that Abraham believed God; and this, as Romans 4 tells us repeatedly, was accounted to him as righteous­ness.

Abrahamic faith typifies saving faith, a faith that believes that God can do the impossible, and must indeed do the impos­sible in order to fulfill His word in us. Paul applies Abrahamic faith to us, in the affirmation that Abraham is the father of all who believe (v.11), and in the following:

But the words, “It was counted to him,” were written not for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in Him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification[80]. (vv.23-25, ESV)

In speaking of Abraham’s faith, Paul refers specifically to the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It takes a great miracle, one that is impossible to man, to raise someone from the dead.

In fact the whole gospel is characterized by the impossible. Nothing in the gospel is possible to man, have you noticed that? Nothing in the gospel can be accepted on the basis of human reasoning. Right from the start, for example, we are confronted with an impossibility: the virgin birth of Jesus.

“Impossibilities” characterize his life, from his birth to his resurrect­ion to his ascension. Ascension into heaven? Now that is beyond the realm of the humanly possible! And how did Jesus ascend into heaven? “Oh, that’s easy. When Jesus was standing there, a cloud passed by and picked him up, but it was really a UFO!” People today would rather invent a wild explanation than believe that God can perform miracles.

There is nothing in the gospels that is acceptable to natural human reason; what God does is “supernatural” to the human mind. For this reason, the gospel in its nature confounds human or natural explanations. God in His wisdom established a gospel of which not a single aspect could be understood or accepted on the basis of human reasoning alone. If you don’t believe in God’s supernatural power, the gospel would be nothing more than fairy-tale nonsense or mythology. Looked at from the exclusively natural or human point of view, one cannot be a Christian because there is nothing in God’s saving work that is not supernatural.

Man’s Rejection of the Impossible

Turned off by the offensiveness of the gospel, the natural man tries to make it palatable by making the impossible into something possible. A striking example of this has to do with today’s passage.

After the rich young ruler walks away, grieved and disappointed, the Lord Jesus says, “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.” This is a vivid way of describing the impossible, as is explicitly stated two verses later, “With men this is impossible.”

But what does one Bible commentator tell us? He invents a story about a city gate called the Eye of a Needle, which a camel can just squeeze through. How amazing! I have searched high and low through every scholarly commentary, encyclopedia and dictionary, and none is aware of any evidence for such a city gate. [81]

What motivated this commentator to invent such a story? Jesus says it is impossible, yet people decide it is possible. In their own imagination they fabricated the story of a city gate called “Eye of a Needle,” when in fact nothing of this kind is known to history, arch­aeology or biblical scholarship. I am curious as to which preacher first fabricated this whole thing in his brazen attempt to explain away the impossible by replacing it with something possible.[82]

The gospel offends the natural man, and God forbid that we impudently remove the offense. Yet there are those who una­shamedly twist the gospel into a shape they prefer. It may be hard for a camel to squeeze through a small gate, but at least that is still possible. Such people willfully choose to disregard and to contra­dict the Lord’s unambiguous statement that it is “impossible”.

First: Faith is Confidence in God who Accomplishes the Impossible

The first and most basic aspect of faith is its confidence in a God who does the impossible. In this light, let us consider something that is humanly impossible. Can your heart turn away from the world? Can the rich young ruler give up all his possessions? That’s impos­sible! Can a musician give up his music? That’s equally impossible. Music is his life. To give up his music is to give up his life.

That is precisely the point! The whole point is to give up your life, and nothing less. This leads to a dilemma because it is impossible to give up your life. But the impossible becomes possible when God works in your life and you accept by faith that He can accomplish the impossible in you. The rich young man could have said, “Lord, to be honest, I cannot let go of my riches. You are asking for the impossible. But if eternal life is that valuable, then do a miracle of transformation in my heart so that I may regard my riches as rubbish and gladly give them up.”

The Definition of “Impossible”

For the sake of precision and completeness, a distinction needs to be made between the relatively impossible and the absolutely impos­sible. This distinction is made necessary by the definition of the word “impossible”. If any standard dictionary is consulted, it will be seen that one of the definitions given for “impossible” is “very difficult” or “extremely difficult,” as in “an impossible child” or “an impossible situation”.

It is also made necessary by the fact that impossible often refers to something not normally possible. For example, a musician will not normally abandon his passion for music; that would be some­thing quite inconceivable to him. Yet it is not absolutely impossible that he could encounter some exceptional circumstance in life which might leave him so depressed as to refuse to return to music again. A wealthy man would not normally give away his wealth, but it is not altogether inconceivable that some rich person may find himself unexpectedly facing a terminal illness and without anyone to whom he particularly desires to bequeath his wealth; not desiring that much of it will be taken away in death duties, he may choose to give it away to the poor by way of some charitable organization.

It needs to be made clear, therefore, that when we speak of the “impossible” in relation to salvation, we mean absolutely impossible, just as the impossibilities that Abraham faced were absolute in character. In other cases, however, such as the examples mentioned in the preceding paragraph, it will now be clear that the impossibilities referred to were of a relative kind. Yet what is relatively or “normally” impossible is experienced as something genuinely impos­sible at that time, hence the word “impossible” is quite properly used to describe it.

Second: Grace is Specific to Each Person

Faith has to do with grace. Grace means that God does for us what we cannot do for ourselves. Grace means that salvation is God’s work, not man’s.

The second point is this: God’s grace is specific to each person. In Romans 4, for example, grace is shown specifically to Abraham. In Matthew 19, the invitation, “Come, follow me,” is given specifically (though not exclusively) to the rich young ruler.

God’s grace to you and to me is very specific. He does not treat you as a face in a crowd, a record in a database, or a name in a telephone book. God knows you as a distinct person, and He will do a work of grace specifically in your life. In turn, it is you and specifically you, who must exercise faith. You cannot sneak into the kingdom of heaven on someone else’s coattails; it is you who must make the response of faith.

God speaks to every individual. That is why faith cannot be second-hand. We are not saved just because our father is a pastor, or our mother is a good Christian. It is you who must make the response of faith, and enter the kingdom of your own accord. Moreover, it is you who must turn your back on the world. In this connection, we can speak of personal faith insofar as each person makes a personal commitment on his or her part.

God’s love is not just shown to the human race, but to you specifically. “For God so loved the world…”—but I am just a face in the crowd, a nobody in this vast world. Yet Paul speaks of “the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me(Gal.2.20). God’s love is shown to you specifically and not merely to the whole world. Faith apprehends the truth that Christ died on the cross specifically for me.

God’s specific love calls for a spe­cific response of faith. This is seen in the case of Abraham and in the case of the rich young ruler. Because Abraham depended on God’s grace by faith, he succeeded where the rich young ruler failed.

Third: Faith believes God’s Promise

The third point about faith is that faith always has to do with a promise. The word “promise” is prominent in Romans 4, where it occurs five times in the space of nine verses (vv.13-21). The two cen­tral themes of this chapter—faith and promise—are linked in this way: Abraham received God’s promise by faith.

What is a promise? It is something you don’t have in your hands right now, but which you will have in the future. A promise is seen, for example, in Jesus’ invitation to the rich young ruler: Sell what you have (present) and you will have treasure in heaven (future). By faith you exchange the present for the future. Your faith in God rests on His faithfulness and His promise, which He will certainly fulfill at the proper time in the future.

Faith looks forward not back­ward

The standard question regarding faith—“Do you believe that Jesus died for you?”—is not the right one. Because faith looks to the future, the question should be, “Seeing what Jesus did for you in the past, do you believe you will inherit eternal life in the future?” We are not saved through a memory, but through a faith that looks to God’s promises.

We are not saved just by believing that Jesus died for us in the distant past. Faith has to do with the past only insofar as the past relates to the future, that is, insofar as the past event (e.g. the atonement) is itself of a promissory character relating to the future.

“Future” here does not refer to some vague, indefinite or uncer­tain future, which is the only kind of future the unbeliever has. For the believer, the future refers specifically to both the immediate future and the more distant future. By faith we believe that what Jesus did in the past avails for us:

(1) In the immediate future, that is, in the next moment or next day—very close to the present moment. This means that we can act upon his saving work immediately; for example, we can contritely ask for his forgiveness of our sins and receive his forgiveness the very next moment.

(2) His saving work will avail for us in the somewhat more distant future, for example, at the Resurrection.

You can tell whether you have true faith by whether you look to the future and to the promises of God. Abraham lived by the promises of God. He walked with his eyes focused on the future, unlike many Christians who walk with their eyes looking back. How important is the future to you? Do you look with eager expectation for eternal life, “the hope of salvation” (1Thess.5.8)?

Hope is a central concept in Paul’s writings. The Greek word elpis (ελπίς, hope) occurs 36 times in his writings, but only 17 times in the rest of the New Testament. It occurs 13 times in the book of Romans alone. In the New Testament, hope means looking forward with eager expect­ation. The English word “hope” does not bring out its full meaning. The word apokaradokia (ἀποκαρακοκία, “eager longing, deep desire”) appears only twice in the New Testament, and in both instances it serves as a kind of synonym of “hope,” expressing its emotional aspect.[83]

Do we have a forward-looking faith? Or are we like the natural man who clings to what he has now, unwilling to let go of the present for something that is in the future? That is precisely the problem with the rich young ruler. He has great riches in his hands right now. He sees the Mercedes Benz parked in his driveway. He opens the door, and touches the leather seats. He presses a button, and the roof goes down. Hmmm, nice. He presses another button, and the CD starts playing. These are tangible things he can experience right now whereas treasure in heaven is too remote.

Many Christians think to themselves, “Must I really give up what I have now to gain something still future? My bank book shows that I have a reasonable amount in my account. This is real. It is here and now. I’m not going to give it up for treasure in heaven. I don’t live in cloud-cuckoo-land. I am not overly enamored of a future heavenly utopia. I did not get rich by daydreaming but by being practical. I will stick to the present! So long as I have the sort of ‘faith’ that helps me along in the present by providing some emotional support, that’s good enough for me.” But that is not Biblical faith or saving faith.

Faith exchanges the present for the future

This way of thinking is impossible, indeed unacceptable, to the natural man because in terms of worldly wisdom, the present life, indeed the present moment, is all that you have. You might not see tomorrow or the day after tomorrow, never mind eternity. Faith is contrary to human reasoning. The natural man says, “This is unrea­sonable. I have invested so many years to get this degree. Exchange it for eternity? No thanks. I can taste the lollipop in my mouth, but I can’t taste eternity. Give up the present for the future? I might not have a future!”

He is absolutely right. The natural man has no future. Only a man of faith—Abrahamic faith—has a future. Abraham suc­ceeded where the rich young ruler failed, because he willingly of­fered up everything to God, even his only son, for he was looking for the city which has foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (Heb.11.10), the city where God Himself dwells (Rev.21.2,3).

Jesus is saying to us, “My friend, if you have faith, let go of what you have, ex­change the present for the future, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come and follow me. What you will get from following me in this present age may be ‘blood, sweat and tears,’ but in the age to come you will inherit the fullness of eternal life (Mt.19.29, etc).”

The natural man is frightened by all this talk about taking up the cross and following Christ. But how vastly different is the way in which a spiritual man of faith, like the apostle Paul, looks at the cross he bears: “For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2Cor.4.17). Compared to the “eternal weight of glory,” Paul considers the cross he bears as only a “slight[84] momentary affliction”!

Just what this “slight affliction” refers to is mentioned a few verses earlier in the same chapter (2Cor.4.8-12). Only someone of great faith can refer to such an immense catalogue of affliction as “slight” or “light”! And that is because Paul already sees the “eternal weight of glory”! For faith sees the promises of God. It looks “not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient (“momentary”), but the things that are unseen are eternal” (2Cor.4:18).

This is impossible for the natural man. But by God’s abundant and unfailing grace, faith trusts in God’s faithfulness to accomplish the impossible. Here, too, it is “by grace, through faith”.

Hope in Scripture is not Wishful Thinking but Confident Expectation

Promise has to do with hope, but not hope as that word is generally used. In daily usage, the word “hope” means little more than wishful thinking, as in, “I hope the weather will be nice tomorrow.” This does not represent the meaning of the Greek elpis as it is used in the Scriptures. “Confident expectation” more accurately defines the word in the Bible. This is because hope in the Bible is imbued with the element of faith, which results in “confident expectation”. This confidence, especially in the New Testament, rests in the fact that God’s promises in Christ are always “Yes” (2Cor.1.20). “Faithful is He who calls you, and He also will bring it to pass” (1Thess.5.24).

Hope characterized the life of Abraham, who gave up everything to follow God. At the time when God made him a promise—that his descendants will be as the stars of the heavens and the sands of the sea—Abraham didn’t even have a child! His body was as good as dead, and Sarah’s even more so, being childless in all her ninety years. Yet Abraham believed God’s promise. Romans 4.21 says that he was “fully convinced” (ESV, RSV, NKJV; “fully persuaded” KJV, NIV; “fully assured” NASB). Though confronted by all the human facts and reasons that made the fulfillment of the promise absol­utely impossible, he accepted the promise of God with absolute conviction.

This conviction was no make-believe or wishful thinking, for it had a solid basis. And what did Abraham base his faith on? On nothing less than God’s faithful character and omnipotent power, for Abraham was “fully convinced that God was able to do what He had promised” (v.21). If God cannot be trusted, then nothing and no one can be trusted. Moreover, no one who has ever trusted in God has ever been put to shame for his trust (see also Isa.45.17; 50.7; 54.4; Ro.9.33; 1Pt.2.6, etc).

True faith hinges on this point. Do you believe that God is able? We are not talking about believing in some intellectual or theoretical sense, but in a real and practical sense—so real as to cause us to willingly give up our present “realities” for the kind of future which only God can give. Do we believe that our God—King of kings, and Lord of lords—is able to do what He has promised us in Christ?

That is saving and justifying faith, the kind we see in Romans 4. We must never twist faith into something wishy-washy, and then mumble something about justification by faith. True faith, as defined by Paul and by the Lord Jesus himself, is the full conviction that God will do as He says, for He is both able and willing. This is the solid foundation of the perfect obedience of faith.


An Appended Note

The relevance of Abraham’s faith to justification by faith

A proper understanding of Romans 4 will necessarily affect our under­standing of “justification” profoundly. If we go along with the widely-held view that justification means “declared righteous,” then there would be no relevant link between justification and Abraham’s faith, and Paul’s reference to justification here (v.25;5.1) would be a logical non sequitur, that is, it is left hanging without any clear connection or relevance to all that was previously said about Abraham’s faith and what God did in him.

Abraham was not simply declared to become the father of many nations as though such a declaration was all that was needed to make him such. But he was made the father of many nations by a life-giving transformation within his body, which was “as good as dead” (4.19), but which now received new life and has become a channel of life, such that he became the father of nations according to God’s promise; and this was all because “he believed the God who gives life to the dead” (4.17).

Abraham believed God even though the situation he and Sarah were in made the fulfillment of God’s promise impossible as far as man is concerned. He believed at a time when the eye and the mind could apprehend nothing but what was impossible. He be­lieved first, the fulfillment of the promise followed afterwards.

By faith Abraham was “fully persuaded that God had the power to do what He had promised [viz., give new life to one “as good as dead” so that the promise could be fulfilled]. This is why ‘it was credited to him as righteousness’” (4.21,22, square brackets and italics added). What is the evidence that “it was credited to him”? Was it not the fact that he did actually receive that new life in his own body, while the same was true for Sarah? By God’s life-giving power they were made capable of fulfilling God’s promise to them. Unless the same is true in the case of all who believe as Abraham did (4.23,24), then there is no relevant application of Abraham’s experience to “our justification” (4.25) at all.

What happened in the case of Abraham and Sarah was nothing less than a resurrection that God effectuated within their bodies. It is precisely this fact that makes relevant Paul’s references to God “having raised Jesus our Lord from the dead” and “raised (him) to life” at the conclusion of this chapter (4.24,25). God did this “for our justification” (4.25) “through faith” (5.1), with the result that like Abraham we too receive “new life”. This is explicitly affirmed in Ro.6.4, “Just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (NIV). This new life in us is made possible by the resurrection of Christ for us. Only if justification is related to a resurrection in us, as in the case of Abraham, does it follow perfectly from the topic in the chapter.

The firm link between Righteousness and Life

In Scripture, righteousness and life are always firmly linked together. “He who is steadfast in righteousness will attain to life, and he who pursues evil will bring about his own death” (Prov.11.19). Righteousness and life are connected, and likewise evil and death are connected (see also Prov.12.28; 21.21; Ezek.18.27, etc.). The apostle Paul himself explicitly makes that connection in Romans chapter 5 which is linked to the previous chapter by “therefore”.

In Romans 5 the concomitants “righteousness” and “life” are mentioned together three times (vv.17,18,21; cf. Gal.3.21). In Rom­ans 5.18 the apostle uses the term “justification of life,” which NIV renders as “justification that brings life”.

Once we have grasped the fact that righteousness and life are inseparably connected and that we cannot have the one without the other, we will see that when righteousness is “credited” or “reckoned” to Abraham (Ro.4.3,5,6,9,10,22,23) and to those who be­lieve as Abraham did (vv.11,24), that clearly means that life is credited to (granted to or made available to) them.

“Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness”. These words in Romans 4.3 are a quotation of Genesis 15.6. To appre­ciate their significance more fully, consider the following observations:

(1) Was Abraham not already a righteous man who had close communion with God ever since he first heard God’s call and fully obeyed Him (Gen.12.1ff.)? His righteousness is confirmed in the events recorded in chapters 12 to 14. What then is the signi­ficance of his now being credited with righteousness? An answer can be found in the next important observation.

(2) Here we need to note that this being credited with righteousness had directly to do with the fact that Abraham was heirless and that he and his wife were incapable of having a child. When God promised him that He would grant him an heir “from your own body” (15.4), “Abraham believed Yahweh” (15.6). It had, therefore, to do with a life-giving work which God would do in Abraham and Sarah that would make it possible for them to bring forth life in the form of a child and heir.

It should now be unmistakably clear that the crediting of Abraham with righteousness meant that God will very soon commence in him and Sarah an amazing life-transforming work by which their “as good as dead” bodies will have a new life that could bring forth life. Likewise, if we are credited with right­eousness through faith, or justified by faith, we can begin to experience new life in Christ because of God’s life-giving work in us.

Like Abraham, we too were “as good as dead,” being “dead in transgressions and sins” (Eph.2.1). But whereas Abraham’s problem was physical, ours was spiritual and for that reason was much more serious. There was no way for God to save us from our disastrous spiritual predicament except through the death and resurrection of His beloved Son. By this means, “God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ” (Eph.2.4,5; Col.2.13).

[80] See the Appended Note at the end of this chapter.

[81] New Bible Dictionary, 2nd Edition, in the article “Eye of a Needle,” says that the imagery of a camel or an elephant going through the eye of a needle, is fam­iliar to the rabbinic writings, e.g. the Talmud, and that it signifies something very unusual, very difficult, and impossible. The dictionary further says “there is no historical evidence to support” the view that “needle’s eye” is the name of “a narrow gateway for pedestrians”. (BC)

[82] A well-known Christian leader, in his recent best-selling book, admits to having promulgated this teaching (viz. a city gate called Eye of a Needle). He had been teaching it for many years in order to support his health-and-wealth gospel. Regretting what he has done, he now publicly rejects that interpretation. It is not clear, however, if he was the one who invented it. (BC)

[83] Romans 8.19, “hope” v.20; Philippians 1.20.

[84] This is the same word (elaphros, ἐλαφρός, which also means “light” in weight) as appears in Mt.11.30, “For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light”.


(c) 2012 Christian Disciples Church