Regarding Jesus’s conversation with the rich young man (Matt 19:16:22), Philip writes:
Here we have what may superficially be deemed “works salvation.” However, the Lord goes on to say, upon the laments of the disciples that such perfection is exceedingly difficult, “With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26). Without the grace of God, the kingdom of heaven is inaccessible.
You have to step back here and look at what’s really going on. Here’s an approach, which shows the fundamental difference in approach to the Scriptures. It is what Roman Catholics do not do. And what the Protestant Reformers did.
You have to start with God. Ask, “What is God doing in the world?”
Rome, through the centuries, was fascinated by, enamored with, its own history. It’s as if they’re saying, “God has made us great … He has given us authority, and by golly, we deserve it. We are the See of Peter, we go back into the 300’s with this authority”, etc. It has a pile of doctrines and dogmas that it accreted. And it has to account for and justify these. This is how Rome primarily uses the Scriptures.
On the other hand, if you are to be able to really understand who God is, what He’s doing in the world, you have to start with the beginning of God’s revelation to us: His written Word. The Old Testament is very explicit about who God is, and what he’s doing in the world.
The Reformers were among the first who were able to do this – they were able to take the broad sweep of the Hebrew OT and the Greek New Testament, to look at the broad sweep of what is called “salvation history” – think of Stephen’s speech in Acts 7; think of Irenaeus “The Preaching of the Apostles”.
You need the Old Testament as an anchor for the New. And in this regard, the Reformers were able to go back and look at this, and build their theologies upon an understanding of the Character of God, and not on Rome’s infatuation with its own authority.
Quoting from George Eldon Ladd, “A Theology of the New Testament”:
Although Matthew contains some texts that seem to suggest a rigorous advocacy of law-keeping on the part of Christians, other texts give a different impression, notably 11:28-30 and 17:24-27. In the first of these texts Jesus invites people to take on his easy and light yoke. In the second, the curious story of the temple tax, Jesus speaks of the “sons of the kingdom” being “free”; the language used here is quite Pauline with its references to “freedom” and “not causing offense.” Given such Matthean texts, it is not at all obvious that Matthew is a legal rigorist….”
Ladd notes here, “Paul and Matthew have much in common”.
Here is the difference: Rome looks at a verse of Scripture and says, “how can we use this as a proof-text for our system of doctrine?” And they say, “Oh, well, we are all of grace up to Baptism, then the Catholic must be on the “sacramental treadmill” all his life. The Catholic has gotta get the sacraments, gotta get to confession” and all the “gotta-do’s” fit nicely with a “works-righteousness” interpretation of a verse like this. The Protestant looks at the Scripture and says, “how does this fit into God’s overall Revelation?”
In a way, this passage about this wealthy young man is an extension of the Sermon on the Mount material – it is not at all a kind of “works righteousness”. It is saying, “you can’t be righteous enough. You need your righteousness from another source.”
R.T. France notes the concept of “perfect” in Matthew (5:48): it s “a righteousness greater than that of the scribes and Pharisees (5:20). But perfection is, according to that verse, the characteristic of God, who has just been declared in v. 17 to be the only one who is truly “good.” The young man’s request for some “good thing” to do has brought him face to face with goodness at a level which will prove too high for him. The “goodness” of keeping commandments is, as v. 17 has reminded us, always relative; Jesus now replaces it with a demand which is absolute, the demand of the kingdom of heaven” (The Gospel of Matthew”, pg 734).
Here we are back at Paul and Romans 3:9: “There is no one righteous, not even one.”