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The Gospel Is Not for Good People

by Stephen Davey Scripture Reference: Matthew 19:16–30; 20:1–16; Mark 10:17–31; Luke 18:18–30

We cannot fully grasp God’s grace without understanding the depth of our own sin and unworthiness. This is true for unbelievers in need of salvation, as well as followers of Christ, who walk by faith.


When we left Jesus in our last Wisdom Journey, He was stressing the need for childlike humility and faith. As He continues on His final journey to Jerusalem, He encounters a man who is pretty convinced he is good enough to get into heaven.

Luke describes this rich young man as a “ruler” (Luke 18:18). Possibly he is a ruler of a local synagogue or perhaps even a member of the Sanhedrin[1]—the supreme court of Israel. Clearly, he is a model of morality—a religious leader and a very prominent one.

But he is troubled about something. In fact, he has come to the conclusion that he is missing something necessary to go to heaven. And so, he comes to Jesus to find out what it is.

He asks Jesus here in Matthew 19:16, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” And Jesus responds a little surprisingly in verse 17, “If you would enter life, keep the commandments.”

I must tell you, that is a very surprising answer. I would have jumped right in with a gospel presentation—we are saved by faith alone. It looks like Jesus is agreeing with this man that eternal life is earned through good works. What is Jesus doing?

Well, remember, Jesus knows this man’s heart. He knows that if this man is going to receive eternal life, he must realize the depth of his own sin. He is already confident that he is a good man, but he just needs to do one more good thing to make it into heaven. He is just not sure what that one good thing is.

So, Jesus points him to the law—and the commandments. And the man responds in verse 18 by asking Jesus, “Which ones?” So, Jesus rattles off six commandments, knowing that this man will mentally check them off as accomplished:

You shall not 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.” (verses 18-19)

Verse 20: “The young man said to him, ‘All these I have kept. [That is, I checked all the boxes.] What do I still lack?’” Then Jesus delivers another surprising answer in verse 21:

“If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”

Ah, now Jesus is getting to the heart of this man’s sin. Jesus knows he loves his money and his possessions and his social standing above everything else. He conformed outwardly, but he secretly nursed a covetous, proud, greedy heart.

Verse 22 tells us, “He went away sorrowful.” His actions make it clear that he values possessions over people; he cherishes his greed more than he actually wants God.

The truth is, the gospel is not for good people who seem to check all the boxes. It is for people who recognize they are sinners; they will never check off all the boxes perfectly—they need to be saved.

With that, the Lord turns around and uses this encounter as a teachable moment for His disciples, as He speaks to them in verses 23-24:

“Only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.”

Now you might have heard that there was a gate in the old city of Jerusalem called the Needle Gate and that camels could not enter it without kneeling down. That is an interesting idea; the only trouble is, it is not true. It is what we might call an “urban legend.” Jesus is describing a literal camel and a literal needle—and a camel is never going to be squeezed through the eye of a needle.

The disciples get the picture immediately, because they respond, “Who then can be saved?” (verse 25).

Jesus answers in the next verse: “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” In other words, salvation is impossible to achieve—you cannot earn it. Heaven is not a reward for good behavior. It is a gift given to sinners who receive it by faith in Christ alone.

The rich man walked away because he was unwilling to leave all to accept God’s gift by faith and follow Jesus. Now Peter says to Jesus, “We have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” (verse 27).

I love Peter—the Sunday school class leader—who raises his hand and effectively says, “Lord, we disciples have a lot of struggles, but being rich like that guy isn’t one of them. We’ve walked away from any kind of prosperous business or life; so, if you don’t mind my asking, what will there be for us in the coming kingdom?”[2]

You might think the Lord would jump down Peter’s throat, rebuking him. Instead, the Lord actually encourages him—and us as well—by speaking of when He returns and establishes His kingdom:

“In the new world, when the Son of Man will sit on His glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone 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 will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.” (verses 28-30)

That rich man who just walked away was first, preeminent on earth at the moment. But the disciples, poor as dirt, will one day be preeminent as co-rulers with the Lord in His kingdom.

With that the Lord delivers a parable in Matthew 20 to illustrate this:

“The kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard.” (verses 1-2)

In these days, a denarius represented the normal pay for a day’s work.

Well, as the day wears on, the owner of the vineyard sees the need for more workers. So, he returns to the marketplace at the third hour, or 9:00 a.m., to enlist more workers. No specific pay is promised, but the owner promises to pay them “whatever is right,” according to verse 4. Then again, verses 5 and 6 tell us, he goes back to get more workers at 3:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m.

When the workday ends, the laborers are paid their wages. And amazingly, they are each paid one denarius for their work—even the ones who started later in the day. As expected, those who worked all day begin to grumble. The master responds to them with these words:

“I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?” (verses 13-15)

It was true. He kept his word; he didn’t cheat anyone. He was simply generous with the later workers. Then in verse 30 Jesus repeats the principle He gave earlier: “The last will be first, and the first last.”

So, what is the point? The point is that we are all going to be rewarded by the Lord, not based on what we deserve, but based on His incredible generosity.

Salvation is all of God’s grace. The rewards we will one day receive for serving the Lord will still be the result of God’s grace. We will all sing the same song the apostle Paul sang, as it were, in 1 Corinthians 15:10: “By the grace of God I am what I am.”

[1] Robert H. Stein, Luke, The New American Commentary, vol. 24 (Broadman, 1992), 456.

[2] Charles R. Swindoll, Insights on Matthew: Volume 2 (Tyndale House, 2020), 116.

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