Some Seventh-Day Adventist’s will appeal to Jesus’s interaction with the Rich Young Ruler to try and claim that Jesus told him he would be saved by law keeping. This is because it’s what Ellen G. White claimed that passage is teaching us. Since the SDA Church upholds her as divinely inspired and correcting of inaccurate interpretations of scripture, SDAs are beholden to her interpretation.
However, upon closer examination, it becomes clear this passage isn’t a lesson in soteriology (doctrine of salvation), but rather is Jesus teaching this Young Ruler a lesson about himself and where he falls short. Subsequently, it’s also a lesson for us.
The first indicator that this encounter isn’t about how an individual is made right with God and saved is the fact that Jesus doesn’t mention faith. Yet, faith is necessary for salvation (Ephesians 2:8-10; Romans 4:3, 5:1; 10:9). Paul explicitly says that man is justified (made righteous) apart from works of the law, but by faith (Romans 3:28-30). Since faith is not something Jesus mentions to the man, something else is in view here.
This story is found in all three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew 19:16–23; Mark 10:17–22; Luke 18:18–23). The man is described as a “ruler,” which would mean he was an individual with some level of authority and power. Jesus later used this rich young man to teach the detrimental effect money can have on one’s desire for eternal life (Matthew 19:23–24). What we learn is a lesson about the potential snares and dangers of money and wealth, not that salvation is by law keeping.
Jesus begins by responding to the Ruler calling him, “Good Teacher,” by reminding him that no one but God is good (Matthew 19:17). Because the man addressed Jesus as “teacher” it is wise to think he would have been some sort of authoritative figure in the local synagogue. A Roman ruler would not have addressed Jesus that way. But Jesus’s response would have prompted him to think about the standard of goodness if only God is good.
He begins walking the Ruler through a number of commands after he asks Jesus which commandments he should keep. After Jesus says a number of commands including “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 19:19), the man claims to have kept all of those and wants to know what he still lacks (Matthew 19:20). This is indicative that he was clearly a religious man as he considered himself to be perfectly in line with the law of God, sincerely seeking righteousness. So Jesus challenges him regarding that.
The response Jesus gives points out the man’s weak spot. He tells him that if he wants to be truly perfect, then go sell all of your possessions and give it to the poor so that he can have treasure in Heaven (Matthew 19:21). We are then told the man heard this and walked away sad because he had a large amount of wealth (Matthew 19:22). Instead of obeying Christ, the man turned and walked away from eternal life—which is knowing God (John 17:3).
Jesus was not explaining to the man that He would be saved by keeping the commandments, but was explaining to the man how high the standard is, informed by the beginning of their documented discussion. Only through perfection can one truly escape sins penalty. After the man claimed he had reached that standard, Jesus shows him that isn’t the case by pointing out that the man was not good, he didn’t measure up to the standard of God’s holiness.
His response showed he wasn’t actually loving God and loving his neighbor with all his heart, but himself. The Law simply demonstrated to the man that he wasn’t as perfect as he thought he was. He made his wealth an idol before God.
This was not an interaction about Jesus giving a universal lesson that all people must give up their wealth and give it to the poor in order to be saved. Nor was he teaching that law keeping is the formula that will make one right before God. The key indicator is that he doesn’t even mention faith. Jesus was simply using the man’s own circumstances and love of money to show him (and us) how high God’s standard is, that the man fell short (like we all do), and was in need of a Savior who was there standing in his midst.