Luke 18:18-30 (NIV) tells the story of the "rich young ruler" who asked Christ what he must do to inherit eternal life:

18A certain ruler asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” ...

22 ...[Jesus] said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

My understanding of Calvinism is that salvation (from the Calvinist perspective) is entirely a work of God, and no human can do anything, even including "accepting" the gift of salvation, to affect their salvation. These instructions from Jesus appear to contradict this concept. Jesus seems to be offering to the ruler some concrete actions he could take to ensure his salvation.

Granted, based on the ruler's reaction, his heart was in the wrong place, as he was unwilling to do what Christ commanded. So really, Christ's commandment was not about the act of giving away possessions, but about the state of the man's heart. But if the truth is that the man was powerless to affect his salvation, wasn't Christ in effect lying by suggesting the ruler could do these actions (and change his heart) in order to achieve eternal life?

What is the Calvinist interpretation of this (and other similar) stories?

3 Answers 3


On free will, Calvin says:

"Free will does not enable any man to perform good works, unless he is assisted by grace; indeed, the special grace which the elect alone receive through regeneration."

For him, there is such a thing as free will, but it is not necessarily the same thing as what others mean by the term. This quotation says that our theoretical ability to choose is marred by our total depravity, and only through God's prior, irresistible grace do we gain the ability to choose well. Without that, we "cannot conceive, design or desire any thing but what is wicked, distorted, foul, impure and iniquitous."

At the same time, there is the idea of predestination, which for Calvin is primarily a matter of us being unable to frustrate God's will. The idea of "regeneration" here is that God will "guide, turn and govern our heart by his Spirit", and our free will is thereby reoriented without being destroyed. This doctrine is well-matched by the principle that salvation is not brought about by good works, or any human action for that matter: rather, it is something that God wills for us.

In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin examined this passage (and the parallel one in Matthew 19:16-22). In summary, he says that Jesus is trying to warn or reprimand the man, by directing him to his sin under the Law:

We also distinctly declare, that if life is sought in works, the commandments are to be observed. And the knowledge of this doctrine is necessary to Christians; for how should they retake themselves to Christ, unless they perceived that they had fallen from the path of life over the precipice of death? [...]

Wherefore, as a teacher of the law, whom our Lord knew to be puffed up with a vain confidence in works, was here directed by him to the law, that he might learn he was a sinner exposed to the fearful sentence of eternal death; so others, who were already humbled with this knowledge, he elsewhere solaces with the promise of grace, without making any mention of the law.

(Book III, Chapter 18, Section 9)

and by pointing out his attachment to wealth, which indicates his hypocrisy in assuming himself to be following the Law:

To show him how little progress he had made in that righteousness which he too boldly answered that he had fulfilled, it was right to bring before him his besetting sin. Now, while he abounded in riches, he had his heart set upon them. Therefore, because he did not feel this secret wound, it is probed by Christ - "Go," says he, "and sell that thou hast." Had he been as good a keeper of the law as he supposed, he would not have gone away sorrowful on hearing these words. For he who loves God with his whole heart, not only regards everything which wars with his love as dross, but hates it as destruction (Phil. 3:8). Therefore, when Christ orders a rich miser to leave all that he has, it is the same as if he had ordered the ambitious to renounce all his honours, the voluptuous all his luxuries, the unchaste all the instruments of his lust. Thus consciences, which are not reached by any general admonition, are to be recalled to a particular feeling of their particular sin.

(Book IV, Chapter 13, Section 13)

Jesus is therefore trying to prick the man's conscience: he's not saying that salvation automatically follows from giving up material possessions. In addition, he is speaking to a wider audience (including us right now!), regardless of the status of this particular individual.

Quotations are from the 1845 translation by Henry Beveridge of the 1599 Latin edition of the Institutes, available online here

  • I agree with James T, but want to add that, in my opinion, this is a valid concern that many Arminians have with Calvinism. Because of total depravity (man's inability to choose to come to God by himself regardless of his actions) and unconditional election (God chooses people regardless of their actions), the necessary conclusion is that God had already determined to save or not save this man. This isn't a passage that is going to shed light on Calvinist doctrines and I think James T's answer correctly identifies the point of the passage.
    – Screamer
    Commented Oct 14, 2011 at 23:06

Salvation is absolutely of the LORD. In this text we see Christ revealing the true affection of this young ruler. While the ruler is convinced he's kept the law since his youth, Jesus reveals the true object of this man's affection, his possessions.

Calvinism, specifically the depravity of man, states only that man (left to his natural desires) will not favor the things of God above those personal affections of his heart. This is what we see taking place here. If the man were to abandon his idol(s) and follow Christ, he would have been saved that day. However, God did not change that man's heart that particular day, so the man went away sad, loving his possessions more than the Messiah.

It may very well be the case that God opened the man's eyes soon thereafter and the man came to know Christ as Lord and Savior, we aren't told in the text. However, this text (from what I can tell) doesn't offer any particular challenge to the Calvinist. We see God's decree active, and the depravity of man active here.

Man is presented with the light, but flees from it out of fear that his deeds would be exposed.

John 3:19-20, "...the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed."

The important thing to keep in mind here is that men choose according to their nature. Without a changed nature, man will not choose the things of God.


Romans 10:9-10 Because if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.

John 14:6 Jesus said to him, 'I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through Me'

John 10:26-30 "But you do not believe, because you are not of My sheep, as I said to you. My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand. My Father, Who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of My Father's Hand. I and My Father are one."

  • 1
    Hello and welcome to the site. Just quoting verses isn't enough, please edit this to explain how Reformed Theology understands those verses.
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Jun 15, 2023 at 23:29

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