Vol. 8, No. 6, Nov. – Dec. 1979

Poul Madsen

Reading: Matthew 19:16-30

FAITH is not an obvious thing: it is a mystery. The story of the rich young ruler may teach us something of vital importance as to the true nature of faith. His story is found in all of the first three Gospels, and in each case it is associated with an experience of Peter. There was a great difference between the two men. In contrast with the wealthy young man, Peter had left everything to follow Jesus, so Jesus was able to say to him things which He could not say to the young ruler. It is important to bear this in mind as we consider the episode, for otherwise we may become confused about the true nature of faith.

To the rich young man the Lord said: “Sell everything, give it to the poor, follow Me, and you shall have treasure in heaven, whereas to Peter He said: “You shall receive a hundredfold now in this time” (Mark 10:30). We note that He did not say to the young ruler: ‘Sell everything, follow Me and you will receive a hundredfold now in this life and then eternal life in the world to come’. He did not say this; and yet it seems to me that in our preaching this is precisely the sort of promise we make on the Lord’s behalf. We change faith into a good bargain — you give the Lord a penny and you will receive a pound back! In this way faith is made to seem like a[105/106] voyage under a flag of convenience in which a little investment secures an immediate profit. This is a fatal misunderstanding which robs God of His majesty and deprives faith of is vitality.


The young man had kept the commandments from his childhood, but that had not made him good enough for the kingdom of God, as he himself realised. “Sell everything and distribute it to the poor”, was the Lord’s command to him, and as mentioned, no promise was added to the effect that it would be a good bargain, He was, however, promised treasure in heaven.

Did the Lord really mean just that? Of course the Lord meant exactly what He said. He always means what He says. Quite categorically He insisted that if the rich young man was to come into the kingdom of heaven, he must sell everything he possessed and give it away to the needy. He did not do so. He went sadly away, back to his possessions. The Lord did not go after him to try to persuade him. He did not suggest that perhaps it would be enough if he parted with only some of his wealth. And He certainly did not say: ‘You must not take Me too seriously’, as some of us would like to explain. No, the Lord stuck to the condition which He had laid down.

The young ruler could not give up his possessions. Why not? Because he had no living faith. He could not trust the Lord, He had no faith in the almighty God, and therefore he could not believe that it was well worth ridding himself of everything to have a part with Christ and His kingdom. The kingdom of God was not really great to him. Nor was God Himself great in his eyes. It is essential to real faith to see something of the of the glory of the kingdom and the majesty of God. His great mistake was that he went away. He ought to have broken down in sorrow over his inability to let go of earthly possessions; he ought to have kept near to the Lord with the confession: ‘Lord, I am ashamed of myself. I cannot do it. Please have mercy on me’. If he had done this, then the Lord would have shown him mercy, and would have done so by forgiving his sin and love of money. What is more, He would have given him power to do what otherwise was impossible to him, so that he would gladly have left all to follow Jesus. In other words, the Lord would have made him free indeed. Faith involves total loss. This young man shrank back from it, though in his case it only meant a loss of money.


What the Lord demanded of this rich young man was not nearly so hard as what He said to Abraham: “Take your son, your only son, whom you love, even Isaac, and offer him for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell you of” (Genesis 22:2). The rich ruler was bound by money: that was despicable. Abraham was bound to his son: it would have been despicable if he had not been. The young man loved money — an unworthy love. Abraham loved Isaac — a supremely worthy love. What was demanded of the rich young man was as nothing compared with what God demanded of Abraham. In the case of the ruler one can hardly use the word, sacrifice, but in Abraham’s case that word is almost too weak.

We must realise that God did not say to Abraham: ‘Bring your son as an offering and I will give him back to you again’. The patriarch was never told that he would receive his beloved son back from the altar. Faith is a complete loss, in the sense that it means the letting go of everything indicated by God, and letting it go merely because God says so. Faith is therefore the death sentence upon everything that God points to. It is not to be treated as a good bargain but as total capitulation. God does not comfort us by assuring us that it will not be so bad after all.

This is hard to explain because it is all too seldom preached and may sound quite strange to present-day Christians. The great majority would perhaps not understand that faith is not a bargain that we make with God, and that is why what goes by the name of faith is often weak and unreal. Faith has no back door by which a man can believe and then slip away with his money or his Isaac intact. There is no ‘escape clause’ from the uncompromising demand of Christ. Faith means carrying out the death sentence upon your possessions, if God says so, and even upon your God-given Isaac when God tells you to do so. This is inexpressibly hard. I know, because in certain situations I have not been able to do it. But Abraham could and did — and he is the father of all them that believe.

Abraham’s is an example of the true faith. When he heard God ask him to bring his son as a sacrifice, it naturally hurt him very deeply. He loved Isaac with a special intensity of father love. He believed God, though, and this meant that he did not argue nor attempt to bargain with God, nor did he go away sorrowful like the rich young[106/107] man, but he brought the sacrifice. He decided in his heart to offer Isaac without any ulterior motive or half measures. He did not think of keeping open a back door of escape. He took the fire and the knife as evidence that he was prepared to sacrifice Isaac and give him up entirely to God. It was an infinite renunciation, as anyone can imagine, but it was the way of faith. By faith he obeyed God’s direction, pronounced the death sentence on his dear son and prepared himself to carry it out.

In principle, the sacrifice was completed by this decision. In his heart Abraham had lost Isaac and he did not expect God to alter His instructions. But when the sacrifice had thus been decided upon, without any kind of discussion with God or attempt to bargain with Him, then faith was born in Abraham that God was able to raise Isaac from the dead. He did not expect to escape making the sacrifice, but now he did expect what had never happened before, that God could raise up the dead son.

Let us note that this faith was not created in him when God commanded him to sacrifice his son, but only when Abraham had said ‘Yes’ to that command, having a steadfast will fully and entirely committed to the act of sacrifice. So Abraham’s faith first contains the acceptance of irrevocable loss and thereafter the conviction that God can raise the dead. The constituents of faith can therefore be called (1) death and (2) subsequent resurrection.

Up on that mountain he lifted the knife. It is obvious that he did not expect God to let him avoid offering Isaac. He genuinely brought to God the ‘sacrifice which had been demanded of him. For him there was no back door. He knew that faith has no escape route, no bargain to be struck with God. It was then — and not until then — that God intervened. No promise was made beforehand and no mutual arrangement agreed upon. Abraham did not sail under a flag of convenience. He believed God. He believed that God meant what He said, and so obeyed. Then, when the sacrifice was as good as made, God gave His answer of life.


Jesus had said to Peter: “Follow me, and I will make you a fisher of men”! Nothing else was promised. In faith Peter left all and followed the Lord. He was not told that it would be a paying proposition, that he would receive a hundredfold here in this life. Nothing of the kind was even hinted at. Peter followed the Lord, not for the advantage that he could get out of it, but simply because to him the Lord was Lord.

When, however, he saw the rich young man go away sorrowful because he did not want to part with his possessions, Peter said: “Lord, we have left everything, what then shall we have?” It was then — but not till then — that he was promised any return in this life. When Peter had already left home and family, never expecting to get anything in return in this life, he was given the surprising promise: “You, and everyone who has left all , shall receive it back a hundredfold in this time …”. So again we find in Peter’s faith the two constituents: (1) the irrevocable sacrifice, and (2) a present experience of ‘resurrection’, which means that in this present life all that he has sacrificed is given back to him in greater abundance. Those two sides of faith are not simultaneous. The irretrievable loss must come first, and then it is followed by a glorious experience of resurrection.

The obedience of faith is always experienced in this way. It is never an astute calculation of giving in order to get back more, but a matter of paying a painful price and then enjoying a marvellous and inexplicable aftermath of blessing. There is a sense in which we begin the life of faith by losing our life, for we begin by standing as condemned sinners before God, with no other claim than to be judged and rejected. God’s grace is not a matter of course nor of some bargain that we strike with Him: it is rather more like resurrection from the dead. Faith always involves a new letting-go of what is ours, a losing of our life. And it must go on in the same way.

Naturally we do not like the idea of losing our life: we want to keep it. Even though we seek God’s blessing, we are so often looking for a back door by which to escape the need for handing over everything completely to God. Desiring to trust God, we still want to have some additional ground for confidence in ourselves, and for this reason we keep alive many things which God has condemned to death. It is impossible to say how greatly such a half-hearted attitude hinders true faith. We need to remember that faith is a great mystery, and that even to us who are believers this element of mystery persists. [107/108]


Faith’s objective is God Himself. I have observed that many enticing means are used in an endeavour to get people to believe. They are told that it pays, that they will become happy, that life will have a meaning, and that one has the chance of becoming glad and happy. They are also told that they will get some lovely friends if they are converted, that they will never be lonely any more and that in addition God has promised to give them all they ask for. Scripture can even be quoted in support of all this. The argument is that it just does not pay to refrain from trusting God on the spot. You are simply a bad business man if you do not jump at once at the chance and reap the advantages. From such speakers you seldom hear anything about no-one being able to become a disciple of Jesus without renouncing everything he has; nor that you must lose your life if you would keep it. What is worse, you hardly ever hear about God being God, to whom men should bow unreservedly without stipulating a single condition. Rather is faith presented as a marvellous bargain, with no mention of the death sentence upon the natural man.

As a consequence we find ‘Christians’ who do not tremble before the Holy One — why should they? If faith is a good bargain and no mystery, they can make their own decisions according to what seems desirable. In this way, God is reduced to an absurdity. He is made a god according to the wishes and tastes of men, with sentimental use of such words as ‘love’ and ‘wisdom’. The Bible, however, does not present the gospel as a special bargain, and the men of the Bible never experienced God in that way. On the contrary, they capitulated to God as God, the One who is the great I am. It needs no argument to demonstrate that they were quite different from many who now make use of the name ‘Christian’. If God is really God to me, then I am content to be in His hands and to let Him decide everything great or small in my life.

*    *    *    *    *

It made an indelible impression on me once when an old servant of the Lord broke down one evening in our midst, saying: ‘I have cheated over paying taxes — do with me what you will’. It turned out later that he was mistaken, and had not been guilty of cheating, but to me the unforgettable thing was that he was prepared to submit to our judgment, whatever that might be, and to relinquish all rights to be treated as a servant of the Lord if it were so decided. If the Lord would deprive him of his ministry, then he would not strive to keep it. I need hardly say that the incident gave us such a sense of the Lord’s holiness and of His servant’s humbling before it, that it has marked us for life. The elderly brother burst into tears in accepting that his ministry as a preacher of the Word was over. It was a death sentence. For that very reason, the complete resurrection-rehabilitation which was given to him gave him new spiritual power. The renewal of his ministry did not come as something he had expected, much less demanded, but as a wonderful surprise of unmerited grace.

But I have met others of the Lord’s servants who fought for their position as a minister, demanding to be given a place and refusing to submit to the judgment of others. They experienced neither death nor resurrection in the realm of their ministry, and as a consequence it withered and became ineffective. It is possible to imagine that the claiming of our rights is part of the good fight of faith, but this is a serious misunderstanding. It rather resembles an Abraham refusing to let go of his Isaac or a ruler not being willing to let go of his wealth. In fact we are mostly masters at saving our own lives, and slow to learn more of the Lord by losing them.

This has everything to do with a knowledge of God, Who should be the sole objective of our faith. The Church of our day is suffering from determined Christians, strong in self-will, and from disappointed Christians who resent any infringement of their rights, blame others instead of accepting God’s death sentence, and become bitter about His right but strange ways. The way of faith is narrow. The Lord never hid that fact. The needle’s eye is not to be expanded especially for our benefit. Faith is not child’s play. There is no back door of an easy alternative to the sweeping claims of Christ. Let us not look for one, but rather enter through the door, which is Christ, and keep going through that door, for if we wish to know the power and glory of His resurrection we must first be united with Him in His death. In practice, the experience of death must always come first, but we may be certain that our God is the God of resurrection, so enlargement will always follow. [108/109]




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