Mormons like to point to the story of the rich young man (Luke 18:18–25 or Matthew 19:16–22) as proof that God wants people to add their works to Jesus’ work of salvation. But that’s not what Jesus told the young man! As your read the following, look carefully at Jesus’ words. He doesn’t mention faith at all. The story is not about doing something to be saved. It’s about doing everything to be saved.
What makes the story even more pointed is the way Jesus begins his reply in v.21. “If thou wilt be perfect.” This is relevant because Mormons are regularly urged to become perfect. If Mormons want to point to these words as a template for becoming perfect or gaining eternal life, then they had better not mention grace at all—because Jesus doesn’t. Here Jesus says it’s 100%—not 50%, not 25%, not 1%—but 100% about keeping the commandments.
This is God’s consistent answer to the question: “what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?” If the question is about what a person needs to do, then God’s answer is you have to do everything. You have to keep all the commandments perfectly. Paul makes this very point when he says, “Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them” (Galatians 3:10, emphasis added).
Paul argues that if a person relies on being right with God by keeping the law, they need to continue doing it all. Otherwise, they are under a curse. If the question is about what a person must do, then grace is not part of the answer.
This is sobering and can easily lead to despair. That is God’s exact intent! He wants people to despair—of their own goodness and efforts. This is what Jesus wanted to accomplish with the young man. He wanted him to throw up his hands in despair at the impossibility of doing everything. Only when he realized he couldn’t do it would he look to Jesus for rescue.
Suppose, for a moment, there was a person who had to get across the ocean but didn’t realize how big it was. He was a good swimmer, so he thought he could swim across. He was convinced he could do it, even after many told him he couldn’t. They finally urge him to get into the water and start swimming as they follow him in a boat. They do this to prove to him that he will fail—so he won’t try it when no one is around to save him.
Jesus does a similar thing with the young man. He wanted to impress upon him the impossibility of his keeping all the commandments. So, he doesn’t mention grace. Contrary to what Mormonism teaches, this story shows that salvation is not a both/and proposition. It is not both by grace and works. It is an either/or proposition. Either it is by grace or by works. It’s one or the other, but not both. This is the lesson of the story of the rich young man.
If you get into an extended discussion, it might be helpful to point out the significance of its placement in Luke’s Gospel. It immediately follows the story of Jesus’ blessing the little children. The two stories stand in sharp contrast with each other. Look especially at what Jesus says in verse 17. “Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child shall in no wise enter therein” (Luke 18:17).
Children are not like adults who often, in their pride, don’t want anything given to them. Instead, children eagerly and unashamedly receive gifts. The point that children receive and don’t do is all the more striking when we see that Luke reports the little children brought to Jesus were infants (v.15). Little children, especially infants, don’t do anything. They receive things. Receiving, not doing, is the way to get to heaven. Jesus explains, “Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall not enter therein” (Luke 18:15).
What a striking contrast to the rich young man! The topic is the same: entering the kingdom of heaven. (Compare verse 17 with verses 24–25.) The approach, however, is so different. The young man wants to know what to do to inherit eternal life. Children eagerly receive what is given to them. Regarding eternal life in God’s kingdom, little children, not hard-working adults, are the correct role models. This is the clear lesson Luke teaches by contrasting the two stories.