It's impossible for an unbeliever to sacrifice. He can't do it. Jesus talked about that in His parable of the soils back in Luke 8, when speaking of the rocky soil, He said: "They on the rock are they, which, when they hear, receive the word with joy; and these have no root, which for a while believe, and in time of temptation fall away." In time of temptation fall away. In the Matthew account in Matthew 13:6, it reads: "And when the sun was up, they were scorched; and because they had no root, they withered away." This hearer doesn't have genuine faith, a legitimate profession, and so he can't sustain any kind of profession when some kind of sacrifice is called for, as represented by the sun scorching. He has no root. Jesus tested the profession of the "certain ruler," and his profession could not sustain the test of Jesus' commands in Luke 18:22. If he really did believe in Jesus Christ, He could give up his stuff, even as Abraham could offer up Isaac by faith.
Men don't have to give up their money to be saved. No. They have to give up everything, their life, to be saved. That is scriptural faith. The money was the one thing, however, that the young ruler couldn't part with, because he was covetous. He was rebelliously covetous. Only less the number of the commands to "follow me" did Jesus command to give up your life, your self (psuche), in order to have eternal life. You can't hang on to your soul (psuche) and expect Jesus to cleanse it for all eternity. For a soul to be converted (Ps 19), to be restored (Ps 23), it must by offered to God by faith. Those who hang on to their soul won't have it cleansed. The ruler had a certain kind of belief in Jesus to come to Him in the first place, but it was not a saving belief, not a substantive, deep enough faith, to sustain the test of his own possessions.
You can't believe in Jesus, plus material things. You can't serve God and mammon. You have to make that choice. And in that choice, the "certain ruler" chose his money. It's impossible for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. In the same way, it's impossible for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God, when he is trusting in his own riches.
The religious leaders believed that riches were a sign of some kind of good favor with God. To them, someone who was rich was certainly ready for the kingdom. Just the opposite, someone who trusted in his riches couldn't get in. It's actually impossible for anyone to be saved except by the grace of God. It's impossible for a rich man, but it is possible with God (v. 27). "All things are possible with God."
It is worth it to part with riches in order to follow Christ. You are trading something temporal for something eternal, as Jesus makes clear in vv. 29-30. Jesus ends v. 30 with: "and in the world to come life everlasting." This is not talking about some kind of life everlasting. It's life everlasting. You get life everlasting by trading in your life for that life. It is an exchange. That is faith. It is repentance. You leave something for something else. You leave something temporal for something eternal. That's how the exchange comes about.
I have noticed a discomfort that professing Christian leaders have had with the rich young ruler. Because they don't like what it says, they twist it around into something that will conform to what they want it to say. One way they will do this is by making a big deal about the opening question of the young ruler (v. 18): "What shall I do to inherit eternal life?" They point out the "do" and say that is what really manifests the problem of the young ruler. "He must have believed in salvation by works." If that was the major issue there, then why didn't Jesus then say, "What do you mean 'do'? You can't 'do' anything to be saved. It's not by works." Of course, it's not by works, but Jesus didn't deal with "do" because that wasn't the problem with the rich young ruler. Sure, you could explain how that it would be a problem. He didn't see his sinfulness, so he thought he was good, which means he was trusting in his works. In that sense, yes. He wouldn't place his faith in Christ because he couldn't turn from his possessions. He was covetous.
I have no problem saying that salvation comes from obedience. It does. It is the obedience of faith. We obey the command to believe in Jesus Christ. That command to believe in Him is akin to a command to love Him and to serve Him. God is seeking for those who will worship Him. The first act of worship is the offering of someone's soul to God. That is faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. It is also loving Him by obeying that commandment. It is serving Him because it is a sacrifice of yourself to Him. Can a person be saved who will not yield his self to God? No. He doesn't believe in the Lord. He isn't poor in spirit. He is hanging on to his own life. He wants his own way. And more.
Another way that men show their discomfort with the account of the rich young ruler is by saying that what Jesus was doing was simply showing him his sinfulness. The passage doesn't say that, "but that's what Jesus was doing, because if not, then He was requiring him to do good works to be saved, and we know Jesus wouldn't do that." It's true Jesus wasn't requiring Him to do good works to be saved. Good works can't save anyone. However, Jesus did in fact call on him to do something. He had to leave all and follow the Lord. To leave is to repent and to follow is to believe.
But what about the "sell and distribute" part? Jesus was God. If the rich young ruler in fact believed Jesus was God, then He would have no problem leaving behind his possessions for the Lord. That would have been to believe in Him. Turning this into a way for him to see his sinfulness, because he was brought to the realization of covetousness with Jesus' command, doesn't fit context. As you keep reading, it doesn't turn out that way. Jesus doesn't give us a tip that would say that's what He was doing. This man was trusting in his riches, so Jesus told him to give them up. In the next chapter, Zacchaeus had the same kind of response to Jesus (19:1-10).
Lou Martuneac in his In Defense of the Gospel, writes:
The error in the Lordship proponents' interpretation of the passage is this: they come to the passage requiring a costly salvation because they confuse the cost of discipleship with the free gift of salvation through the finished work on the cross.
So much is wrong with this sentence. First, I don't come to this passage with that kind of predisposition. I don't go to any passage with a requirement for the passage before I get there. The passage itself provides whatever the requirement is. Second, the passage reads a cost in salvation. In fact, it is no cost, even as Jesus explains in vv. 29-30, because what you give up isn't worth anything -- it's worthless. This is how faith operates. We give up the temporal for the eternal. You can't believe in Christ plus all the idols on your shelf. You can't both continue in some kind of rebellion against Christ and believe in Him. You're either rebellious or you believe -- not both. The rebellion is described as "hold[ing] the truth in unrighteousness" in Romans 1 In Philippians 3, Paul said he counted everything in the past as loss, even as dung, that he might win Christ. Paul couldn't keep his old life plus believe in Jesus. What kind of cost is it, when you give up this world's goods for eternal life? It is in fact no cost. It is faith, however. This is one of the paradoxes of faith. It costs you nothing, but it costs you everything. Everything outside of Christ just happens to be nothing. Third, the rich young ruler passage is not about the "cost of discipleship," unless you believe that discipleship is the same as salvation (which is a discussion Thomas Ross had here beginning with this post). It is a salvation passage. To make it something other than about salvation is totally to twist it from its context, or, in other words, to come to the passage requiring that it be talking about some after conversion dedication experience (second blessing theology). This is a perversion of the passage. We should be taking an example of evangelism from the life of Jesus.
Here is another sentence from the exegesis of Martuneac (p. 184):
Jesus never conditioned the gift of eternal life on this man's willingness or promise to give away his riches.
Ask yourself the question. If the man said, "Yes, I will leave all to follow Christ," would he have had the gift of eternal life? Is that how the passage reads? Of course it does. Martuneac creates a straw man. Is giving up your riches the means of eternal life? No. However, his riches were what were keeping him from eternal life, so by giving them up, he would receive eternal life. The riches were an idol to him. He needed to turn from that idol to serve the living God (1 Thess 1:9). So Lou's statement is false. Jesus did condition the gift of eternal life on this man's willingness to give away his riches. That's exactly how the passage reads. Lou might call this salvation by works, but it just isn't so. If repentance is a work, then faith is a work, and salvation is by works. But it isn't. Neither repentance (Acts 11:18) or faith (Philippians 1:29) are works. Turning from your idol of money, turning from your way to Jesus' way (John 14:6), is repentance. "Except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish" (Luke 13:3, 5).
Martuneac goes on to say later in that paragraph:
The Lord brought him to realize that he was a sinner who needed a sacrifice that not even all his riches and good works could buy.
What?!?! Where does it say that anywhere in that passage? Nowhere. This is total fabrication out of sheer cloth. Lou contradicts himself. Was it a sin for the rich young ruler not to sell all that he had and distribute it to the poor? You've got to make up your mind here. Is Lou saying that according to his definition of covetousness, that you have to sell all that you have and give it away, or you're covetous? Then we're all living covetous lives, and 1 Corinthians 6:10 says that no one who is covetous "shall inherit the kingdom of God." How could the man be only "realizing he's a sinner," when not selling everything and distributing it is not a sin?
The rich young ruler loved his money more than Christ. He was devoted to his money and not to Jesus. If he had to give up his money, then he wouldn't want to follow Jesus. In other words, he didn't believe in Jesus. If he believed in Jesus, he would give up his money. This is not what Lou is saying. Lou is saying that Jesus was employing a strategy, a technique, by telling this man to do something that Jesus really didn't intend for him to do, then he would find out that he really was a sinner who had not kept the law from his youth up. Covetousness was this man's sin, but in light of his disloyalty to Jesus.
At the end of Jesus' commandments in Luke 18, He didn't say, "I really didn't mean it when I commanded those things. I was just trying to get you to see your sin of covetousness." In other words, Jesus wasn't lying. He did in fact want the man to give up everything in order to follow Him, just like He did with Peter, James, and John, when He called on all them to follow Him. It wasn't just a clever way to get the man to see his sin of covetousness.
These two very different understandings of Luke 18 or the parallel passages on the rich young ruler could not both be true. One of them is perverting the teaching of the passage. This is what makes Jesus' story of the rich young ruler tell-tale for someone's doctrine of salvation.