This is from R.C. Sproul’s chapter “The Insanity of Luther” from his book titled The Holiness of God (pages 124-134).
God does not lower His own standards to accommodate us. He remains altogether holy, altogether righteous, and altogether just. But we are unjust, and therein lies our dilemma. Luther’s legal mind was haunted by the question, How can an unjust person survive in the presence of a just God? Where everyone else was at ease in the matter, Luther was in agony: “Do you not know that God dwells in light of the wonder of God. We approach; we prepare ourselves to approach. What wonder then that his majesty overpower us and shatters!”
Luther was polar opposite to the biblical character of the rich young ruler who came to Jesus inquiring about his salvation: ‘A certain ruler asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ ‘Why do you call me good?’ Jesus answered. ‘No one is good—except God alone. You know the commandments: “Do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honor your father and mother”‘” (Luke 18: 18-20).
People often miss something in this well-known meeting between Jesus and the rich young ruler. It is the significance of the man’s greeting to Jesus. He called Him “Good teacher.”
Jesus did not miss the significance of it. Jesus knew at once that He was talking to a man who had a superficial understanding of the meaning of the word good. The man wanted to talk to Jesus about salvation. Instead, Jesus subtly turned the conversation around to a discussion about what goodness was. He took the opportunity to give the man an unforgettable lesson on the meaning of “good.”
Jesus focused on the man’s greeting: “Why do you call me good?” He accented the question with a further qualification: “No one is good–except God alone.” Let a red alert sound here. Some people, even learned theologians, have stumbled over Jesus’ comments. Some hear Jesus saying in effect, “Why are you calling me good? I am not good. Only God is good. I am not God. I am not good.”
By no means was Jesus denying His own deity here. And He was not denying His own goodness. Given the right understanding, it would have been perfectly fitting for the rich young ruler to call Jesus good. Jesus was good. He was the incarnation of the good. The point is, however, that the rich man was not aware of that. He was honoring Jesus as a great teacher, but that is all he saw in Him. He had no idea he was speaking to God incarnate.
The rich young ruler obviously did not know his Bible. He had failed to understand the meaning of Psalm 14: “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ They are corrupt, their deeds are vile; there is no one who does good. The LORD looks down from heaven on the sons of men to see if there are any who understand, any who seek God. All have turned aside, they have together become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one” (Ps. 14:1-3).
This psalm is quoted and amplified in the New Testament by the apostle Paul. The message is unmistakable. No one does good, not even one. The “not even one” erases all possibility for misunderstanding. The indictment allows for no exception save for the Son of God, who alone achieves goodness.
The human spirit recoils from such a universal indictment. Surely the Scriptures exaggerate. We know several people who do good. We see people perform good deeds frequently. We grant that no one is perfect. We all slip up from time to time. But we do perform a few good deeds now and then, don’t we? No! This is precisely the way the rich young ruler was thinking. He was measuring goodness by the wrong standard. He was evaluating good deeds from an outward vantage point.
God commands that we do certain good things. He commands us to give to the poor. We give to the poor. That is a good deed, isn’t it? Yes and no. It is good in the sense that our outward act conforms to what God commands. In that sense we do good often. But God also looks at the heart. He is concerned about our deepest motivations. For a good deed to pass the standard of God’s goodness, it must flow out of a heart that loves God perfectly and loves our neighbor perfectly as well. Since none of us achieves that perfect love for God and our neighbor, all of our outwardly good deeds are tarnished. They carry the blemish of the imperfections of our inner motivations. The logic of the Bible is this: Since no one has a perfect heart, no one does a perfect deed.
The law of God is the mirror of true righteousness. When we set our works before this mirror, the reflection in it tells us of our imperfections. Jesus held this mirror up before the eyes of the rich young ruler: “You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, do no murder, do not steal….'” (Luke 18:20). It is important to note here that the commandments Jesus listed for the young ruler were those included in the so-called table of the law, the commandments that deal with our responsibilities toward fellow human beings. These are the commandments that concern adultery, murder, stealing, and so on. Noticeably absent in Jesus’ summary were the first few commandments that deal explicitly with our direct obligations to God.
How did the rich man answer? He was not bothered. He looked calmly in the mirror and saw no imperfections. He replied: “All these I have kept since I was a boy” (Luke 18:21).
Imagine the arrogance or the ignorance of the man. I find it difficult to understand Jesus’ patience. I could not have contained myself. I would have instantly expressed my indignation by saying something like, “What! You have kept the Ten Commandments since you were a boy! You haven’t kept any of the Ten Commandments for the last five minutes. Didn’t you hear the Sermon on the Mount? Don’t you realize that if you are unjustly angry with someone, you have violated the deeper meaning of the law against murder? Don’t you know that if you lust after a woman, you break the deeper law of adultery? Don’t you ever covet? Do you always honor your parents? You are mad or blind. Your obedience has been superficial at best. You obey only on the surface.”
That is how I would have handled it. But it is not the way Jesus handled it. Jesus was more subtle, and more effective: “When Jesus heard this, he said to him, ‘You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me'” (Luke 18:22).
If ever Jesus spoke with tongue in cheek, it was here. If we take Jesus’ words literally, we would be forced to conclude that the conversation took place between the two most righteous men in history, that it was a dialogue between the Lamb without blemish and a lamb with only one blemish. I would be delighted to hear from Jesus that my moral perfection lacked only one thing.
We know better. If we speculate and try to get into the secret recesses of Jesus’ mind, we can imagine a thought process that went something like this: Oh, you have kept all the commandments since you were a child. Well let’s see. What is the first commandment? Oh, yes, “You shall have no other gods before me.” Let’s see how you do with that one.
Jesus put him to the test. If anything in the rich man’s life came before God, it was his money. Jesus set the challenge precisely at this point, at the point of the man’s obedience to commandment number one: “Go, sell all that you have. . . .”
What did the man do? How did he handle his only blemish? He walked away sorrowfully, for he had great possessions. The man was put to the test of the Ten Commandments, and he was flunked out after the first question.
The point of this narrative is not to lay down a law that a Christian must get rid of all private property. The point is for us to understand what obedience is and what goodness actually requires. Jesus called the man’s bluff, and the man folded.
When Jesus met another young man centuries later, He did not have to go through an elaborate object lesson to help the man understand his sin. He never said to Luther, “One thing you lack.” Luther already knew that he lacked a multitude of things. He was a lawyer; he had studied the Old Testament Law; he knew the demands of a pure and holy God, and it was driving him crazy.
The genius of Luther ran up against a legal dilemma that he could not solve. There seemed to be no solution possible. The question that nagged him day and night was how a just God could accept an unjust man. (124-131)
…he (Luther) knew who God was. Second, he understood the demands of God’s law. He had mastered the law. Unless he came to understand the Gospel, he would die in torment.
Then it happened: Luther’s ultimate religious experience. There were no lightning bolts, no flying inkwells. It took place in quietness, in the solitude of his study. Luther’s so called “tower experience” changed the course of world history. It was an experience that involved a new understanding of God, a new understanding of His divine justice. It was a new understanding of how God can be merciful without compromising His justice. It was a new understanding of how a holy God expresses a holy love:
I greatly longed to understand Paul’s Epistle to the Romans and nothing stood in the way but that one expression, “the justice of God,” because I took it to mean that justice whereby God is just and deals justly in punishing the unjust. My situation was that, although an impeccable monk, I stood before God as a sinner troubled in conscience, and I had no confidence that my merit would assuage him. Therefore I did not love a just and angry God, but rather hated and murmured against him. Yet I cling to the dear Paul and had a great yearning to know what he meant.
Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the justice of God and the statement that “the just shall live by faith.” Then I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise. The whole of Scripture took on a new meaning, and whereas before the “justice of God” had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in greater love. This passage of Paul became to me a gate of heaven. . . .
If you have a true faith that Christ is your Saviour, then at once you have a gracious God, for faith leads you in and opens up God’s heart and will, that you should see pure grace and overflowing love. This it is to behold God in faith that you should look upon his fatherly, friendly heart, which there is no anger nor ungraciousness. He who sees God as angry does not see him rightly but looks only on a curtain as if a dark cloud had been drawn across his face. (132-134)