Salvation by Works?

good works

Q. Does Mt 19:16-26 teach salvation by works?

A. No it does not. In fact, the story of the Rich Young Ruler teaches exactly the opposite. What threw some people off is the part b of v 17: “but if you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments” which seemed to teach that the “good thing” he should do “to obtain eternal life” is to “keep the commandments.” But actually Jesus was correcting the ruler’s misunderstanding. V 17 b is governed by 17 a, “Why are you asking Me about what is good? There is only One who is good”. By saying that only One i.e. God, is good Jesus was telling him that none of the things he does or could do are really any good at all. They are not meritorious.

When the ruler did not realize how far short he was off the mark, Jesus continued by listing the commandments in v 18-19:

That is, Jesus listed 5-9 of the 10 commandments about loving your neighbor, but purposely left out the 10th on “You shall not covet” (Ex 20:17). When the ruler still did not catch on, Jesus probed one last time by asking him to “go and sell your possessions and give to the poor” (v 21). At that he finally realized his shortfall and went away grieving, because he coveted and could not let go of his properties.

In other words, Jesus was showing him that no one can keep the commandments by his own effort, and that’s why no one can enter into life or be saved by works. Asking him to keep the commandments is simply to let him discover for himself the impossibility of doing so (v 26), and that he should commit himself to God’s grace and mercy instead. Using a negative object lesson to drive home the positive point is one of our Lord’s powerful teaching methods.


gambling addiction 2

Another challenge short-term mission teams encountered a lot when working with Chinese in Panama and Costa Rica is gambling. Not just playing mahjong or buying lotteries, but losing their business, home, and wrecking families at the casino. Some lost not only all they have, but borrowed huge amounts from loan sharks who threatened family members to repay.

When we tried to help them wake up, some refused to talk to us and walked away. Some brushed it off as only entertainment, and that they know what they’re doing. They felt that they have control and know when to walk away. They don’t; they’re only fooling themselves. Others blamed it on the lack of alternative entertainment. They keep their convenience store open from 6 am to 10 pm, so by the time they close and clean up it’s already near 11 pm, and most forms of entertainment are closed, except casinos. So, hoping to find some stress relief, that’s where they go, and are hooked.

But keeping their store open from 6 am-10 pm is their choice. They choose such long hours 7 days a week, 364 days a year to maximize their income. It is not a necessity to compete like this as they claimed. And casinos are not harmless fun. Many families have been broken over one spouse’s gambling addiction, with severe consequences for the children. Although the Bible does not mention gambling directly, there are several principles that address the subject indirectly.

The first is that of love of money or covetousness (greed):
1 Tim 6:10 For the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil, and some by longing for it have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.
• Ex 20:17 “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife or his male servant or his female servant or his ox or his donkey or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” (also Deut 5:21)
• 1 Co 6:10 nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God. (also Eph 5:5)
• Lk 12:15 Then He said to them, “Beware, and be on your guard against every form of greed; for not even when one has an abundance does his life consist of his possessions.”
• Col 3:5 Therefore consider the members of your earthly body as dead to immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed, which amounts to idolatry.

The goal of gambling, whether one is playing with the “house”, or other players in a poker game, is to win as much of the opponent’s money as possible. It is love of money, which leads to all kinds of evil, like lying to get money to gamble, not providing for his own household (1 Tim 5:8), even stealing, swindling etc. It is coveting that which belongs to your neighbor, a direct violation of the tenth commandment, and disqualifies a person from inheriting the kingdom.

At the core, a gambler is greedy, and greed is idolatry. This is because “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” (Mt 6:24) Instead of serving and trusting God, the gambler serves and trusts money. Money becomes his god, hence his idolatry.

The second principle is that of our work ethics:
2 Thes 3:10 For even when we were with you, we used to give you this order: if anyone is not willing to work, then he is not to eat, either.
Not only does a gambler want to get rich, he wants to get rich quickly, without working (不勞而獲). He thinks he is smart and can beat the system, and employs different means, including illegal ones such as cheating, to accomplish his goal. But the biblical norm is that rewards are proportional to effort, using legitimate means. As such, gambling is contrary to our Christian work ethics.

There are other principles, but the important thing is how do you help a gambler? First, It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick. (Mt 9:12; Mk 2:17) I’ve said some rejected our offer to help and did not want to talk to us. Jesus told the Pharisees in Jn 9:41 “If you were blind, you would have no sin; but since you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.” Only those who realize they are addicted to gambling and can’t help themselves would want to seek help. Those who don’t recognize they have a problem can’t be helped, not because they are beyond help, but because they refuse it. In such cases we can only counsel the victims, the family, and advise them how to cope.

Secondly, I believe the gambler is like the prodigal son, who will come to his senses only when he hits rock bottom:
Lk 15:16-17 And he would have gladly filled his stomach with the pods that the swine were eating, and no one was giving anything to him. But when he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have more than enough bread, but I am dying here with hunger!
I think the gambler will repent only after he has suffered. The tough thing to do is to let him bear the consequences of his own folly. Do not cover his debts for him. Do not bail him out each time, or else he will never learn. Tough love is tough, and some family members do not have the heart to see the culprit suffer for his own sins, but that is the way to wholeness, as those who have gone through this path can testify time after time.

This trip we came across two gambler cases during our two weeks. They are still ongoing. If we just look at the developing trend, we are not optimistic. With people this is impossible, but with God all things are possible. (Mt 19:26; Mk 10:27; Lk 18:27) So we pray that both will come to know Jesus as their Lord and Savior, and that the families will be whole again. Missionaries deal with a lot of things. This is just one of them.