Q. What will happen to a person who worships Jesus as his God but fails to recognize the principle of salvation?
A. Your question applies to many Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians, who worship Jesus as God, but have not placed their trust in Him alone as their Lord and Savior. There are also cults (e.g. Mormons) and religions (e.g. Hinduism) who worship Jesus as one god amongst many, not the one true God. Neither group believes in salvation by grace through faith.
What happens to them? They will present their case before God on the basis of their good works, which are never enough:
• Rom 3:20 because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight;
• Rom 3:28 For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.
• Gal 2:16 nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified.
They will be judged and found wanting:
• Mt 7:22-23 Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; DEPART FROM ME, YOU WHO PRACTICE LAWLESSNESS.’
• Mt 25:41 “Then He will also say to those on His left, ‘Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels;
• Lk 13:27 and He will say, ‘I tell you, I do not know where you are from; DEPART FROM ME, ALL YOU EVILDOERS.’
These folks are especially pitiable because they think they are already saved when they are not. That’s why we have an urgency to share the gospel with all willing to listen.
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:
• YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT MURDER (6TH COMMANDMENT);
• YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT ADULTERY (7TH COMMANDMENT);
• YOU SHALL NOT STEAL (8TH COMMANDMENT);
• YOU SHALL NOT BEAR FALSE WITNESS (9TH COMMANDMENT);
• HONOR YOUR FATHER AND MOTHER (5TH COMMANDMENT); and
• YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.” (2ND GREATEST COMMANDMENT).
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.