January 10, 2019 Steve Sabz
Blue thread going through needle eye (Photo by londondeposit)

Blue thread going through needle eye (Photo by londondeposit)

1. Introduction

How is an individual saved unto eternal life? Is there a ritualistic prayer that one must recite or a set of commandments to keep? And, is it easier for some to receive Christ than it is for others? Soteriology (i.e., the study of salvation) can answer these important questions. This paramount Christian doctrine concerns how a dead-in-trespasses sinner is restored to joyful, holy, and loving communion with their Creator and God.

Soteriology can be quite humbling and awe-inspiring for any Christian, especially when one considers the great breadth of God's compassion whereby he showed his love for the world by sending his only Son to suffer and die on the cross. However, identifying how much, if any credit a mere human can claim for his or her part in securing their salvation may cause intense debate among the body of believers.

The Bible contains a multitude of texts that provide a simple answer and show that those born-again have absolutely nothing to do with their salvation (e.g., John 1:13, 6:63-65, 15:16, 2 Corinthians 3:6, Ephesians 2:8, Acts 11:18, Hebrews 8:10). These passages speak for themselves. Nonetheless, for the purpose of this article, we shall investigate Luke 18:25 (see also, Matthew 19:24 and Mark 10:25) where Jesus seems to suggest that a rich man has greater difficulty when it comes to obtaining eternal life, compared to those without an abundance of worldly possessions. This article will show that Jesus was actually teaching his disciples that it was impossible for anyone to be saved, either rich or poor, unless God makes it possible.

2. Synergism and Monergism

There are two main arguments that attempt to explain how a sinner is saved: synergism and monergism. In the synergistic view, both the sinner and God cooperate with one another in order for the sinner to be saved and inherit eternal life. This view consists of the formula: God + sinner = regeneration.

A prevalent illustration of synergism consists of a swimmer drowning in the middle of the ocean. God looks down from heaven and descends to earth and extends his hand to the drowning swimmer. Immediately before the individual draws their last breath and goes under the water, the swimmer grabs God's extended hand and is saved. A survey of church history shows that synergism is the foundation of Roman Catholicism, Arminianism, Lutheranism, and Semi-Pelagianism. This is also true of first-century AD Judaism's merit theology, which was rejected by the Lord Jesus Christ.

Conversely, the monergistic point of view maintains that the regeneration of the sinner depends entirely on the pro-active effort of God alone. It is only after God's effectual call and regeneration that the sinner is able to respond in faith toward God. This is because God, in his sovereignty, makes the sinner willing and able to embrace Christ. This view consists of the formula: God - sinner = regeneration.

Monergism is represented by a swimmer's body lying dead in the depths of the ocean. God looks down from heaven and dives into the bottom of the ocean, pulls the lifeless swimmer's corpse to shore where he breathes into the swimmer his Holy Spirit. Once revived, the resuscitated and reborn individual immediately recognizes his Savior and exclaims, "My Lord and my God!" (John 20:28).

Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), admired theologian of both Roman Catholics and Protestants, clearly supports monergism in his commentary on Ephesians 2:10.

He [Paul] eliminates two errors concerning the first point. The first of these is that, since he had said we are saved by faith, any one can hold the opinion that faith itself originates within ourselves and that to believe is determined by our own wishes. Therefore to abolish this he states and that not of yourselves. Free will is inadequate for the act of faith since the contents of faith are above human reason.1

Beloved reformer, John Calvin (1509-1564), also supports monergism when he comments on John 1:6-13.

Hence it follows, first, that faith does not proceed from ourselves, but is the fruit of spiritual regeneration; for the Evangelist affirms that no man can believe, unless he be begotten of God; and therefore faith is a heavenly gift.2

Moreover, ancient church father, Saint Augustine (354-430 AD), exalted monergism when he countered Pelagius' heresy and his "unwillingness to confess that human nature is corrupted!" Countering the false idea that humans possess the nature to believe, Augustine writes: "...and that he would not so uphold the possibility of human nature, as to believe that man can be saved by free will without that Name!"3

Consequently, we see how the aforementioned patristic fathers in church history assigned all gratitude to the sovereign will of God, not human free will, in regard to professing faith in Christ. These commentaries by Aquinas, Calvin, and Augustine are excellent examples of biblical exegesis and should be echoed in our own exposition of Scripture.

3. Exposition and Observations

Our focus text is Luke 18:25, where Jesus tells his disciples "...it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God." His declaration begs the question: Is it easier for some people to be saved than it is for others? Before we answer, let us take the time to observe the background in which this metaphor appears.

The passage begins when a ruler runs up to Jesus, kneels down before him and asks, "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life" (Luke 18:18. Cf. Mark 10:17). Jesus answers by reminding him of the commandments to not commit adultery, murder, steal, or bear false witness, and to honor his mother and father. The ruler claims to have kept all of these commandments from his youth (Luke 18:21).

We must pause here to note that it was impossible for the ruler to have kept all of the aforementioned commandments for three reasons. First, the Jewish legal system instituted by God included a yearly atonement for the sins of his people (Leviticus 16:34). This implies an inability to keep God's commandments perfectly, and hence the need for atonement. Second, Joshua explicitly told the Israelites living in the promised land, "You are not able to serve the Lord, for he is a holy God..." (Joshua 24:19). The ruler who answered thus should have already known this, being a Jew. Third, assuming that the ruler had previously heard some of Jesus' sermons, in particular, his sermon on the Mount, he would have recalled that anyone who is angry with his brother is culpable (Matthew 5:22), and that even a lustful thought constitutes adultery (Matthew 5:28). Instead, the ruler's answer reveals the typical, first-century AD Jewish mindset immersed in self-righteous (Luke 18:19). Jesus could have answered the presumptuous ruler and said, "No you haven't. No one can keep all of the commandments." Instead, Jesus lovingly tells him to sell everything and give to the poor in exchange for treasure in heaven, and to follow him. On hearing this, the rich ruler's initial ebullient encounter turned lachrymose, and he walked away because he was extremely rich (v. 23).

Jesus takes this opportunity to teach his disciples an important truth about how difficult it is for those who have and abundance of worldly possessions to enter heaven. He uses an ancient analogy of a camel and a needle: "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God" (Luke 18:25). This dramatic statement flabbergasted his disciples, since although they were poor, probably desired to be rich. It was for this reason that the bewildered disciples asked Jesus how anyone at all can be saved (v. 26). Calvin explains the disciples' angst upon Jesus' revelation concerning the difficulty of even those who are not rich and their chances of entering heaven by their own effort.

The disciples are astonished, because it ought to awaken in us no little anxiety, that riches obstruct the entrance into the kingdom of God; for, wherever we turn our eyes, a thousand obstacles will present themselves.4

The late Dr. R.C Sproul, in a sermon title "The Rich Young Ruler" further explains why Jesus' statement aroused the disciples' concern to such a degree: "From an earthly perspective, this man [the rich young ruler] has what everybody else wants and seeks to attain to... but he's not satisfied."5 Calvin and Sproul's explanation link the rich man's jealousy for his wealth with the poor man's covetousness for the same. Jesus warned his followers against coveting when he told a parable about the fool who "lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God" (Luke 12:21). The rich ruler should have recalled the Lord's admonition, "...for one's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions" (v. 15).

Jesus' disciples also reveal their presumption of self-righteousness when they claimed that they "left everything" (Matthew 19:27, Mark 10:28) to follow Jesus. This simply was not true either. For we know that after the risen Christ had appeared to his disciples the second time, they went back to their boats and took up fishing again (John 21:3). If the disciples truly had "left everything" according to Matthew and Mark's account, then they would not have had any fishing boats to return to. To be fair, Luke's account records the disciples answering, "we have left our homes and followed you" (Luke 18:28), not everything.

4. Challenges and Objections

This text of Luke 18:25 is frequently used by objectors to God's effectual grace in regeneration. They argue that if Jesus were a true Calvinist, he would never suggest to his disciples that it was more difficult for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God. Notably, this grievance is asserted by David L. Allen and Steve W. Lemke, authors of Whosoever Will: A Biblical-Theological Critique of Five-Point Calvinism, (2010). Both are prominent figures in the Baptist community. For example, Dr. Allen is the current dean of the School of Preaching, distinguished professor of preaching, director of the Southwestern Center for Expository Preaching and George W. Truett Chair of Ministry at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. His co-author Dr. Lemke is the Provost Emeritus, Vice President for Institutional Assessment, Professor of Philosophy and Ethics at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. Regarding Luke 18:25, Allen and Lemke contend against monergism.

Of course, if Jesus were a Calvinist, He never would have suggested that it was harder for rich persons to be saved by God's irresistible grace than poor persons. Their wills would be changed immediately and invincibly upon hearing God's effectual call. It would be no harder for a rich person to be saved by God's monergistic irresistible calling than it would be for any other sinner. But the real Jesus was suggesting that their salvation was tied in some measure to their response and commitment to His calling.6

A superficial assessment of Allen and Lemke's challenge to monergism at first seems convincing. However, a closer look at their allegation reveals four false assumptions:

1. The rich ruler's will had been acted upon by God's irresistible grace.

The passage provides no indication of this. Christ said that "All that the Father gives me will come to me" (John 6:37). Surely, if the rich ruler had been acted upon by God's irresistible grace, he would have given away his possessions and followed Jesus. In addition, Jesus called other disciples beside the twelve who no longer walked with him (John 6:66). Furthermore, the gospel record contains instances where an abundance of people heard Christ's external call, but never repented and believed (Matthew 11:23, Luke 10:13). Thus, we must be careful to differentiate between God's external and internal call in the gospel record.

2. The rich ruler received God's effectual call.

The passage makes no indication of this either. If Luke wished to communicate that the ruler had heard God's inward, effectual call to repentance, then he would have said so as he did in Acts 11:18. Furthermore, God's effectual call has the power to raise people from the dead (Mark 5:41-42, Luke 7:14-15, John 11:43-44). Surely, if God had effectually called the rich ruler, he would no doubt have given his possessions to the poor and followed Christ.

3. The reason for the rich person's refusal to follow Christ was his wealth.

Although wealth can serve as an obstacle to becoming a disciple (Matthew 13:22), there are several examples of people in the historical narrative who believed in Christ despite their wealth (Matthew 8:8-10, 27:57, Luke 19:8-9). Still, Jesus would not leave the ruler destitute, for he promised him greater treasure in heaven (v. 22). Therefore, it seems that the rich ruler's hindrance to Christ was not bound up in his earthly treasures, but in his inability to trust Christ for greater and everlasting treasure (Matthew 6:19-20).

4. Salvation is tied to one's response and commitment to Christ's call.

This is easily refuted when one considers the rest of the passage. For Jesus plainly said, "What [faith] is impossible with man is possible with God" (Luke 18:27). The apostle Paul explicitly states that God works in our wills and actions, "for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure" (Philippians 2:13). There are six additional passages where Christ explicitly declares the insufficiency of man's will having any part in their salvation (e.g., Matthew 16:17, John 3:3, 6:44, 6:63-65, 10:26-27, 15:16).

Why is it important to provide an accurate interpretation of Luke 18:25 and discredit Allen and Lemke's seemingly baseless challenge to monergism? Are author's Allen and Lemke alone in their low esteem of Calvinism? A 2011 survey of one thousand pastors of the Southern Baptist Convention show that the majority agree with the aforementioned authors regarding Calvinism. For example, 66% do not consider their church's doctrine to be Calvinistic, while only 30% somewhat or strongly agree with the statement, "My church is theologically Reformed or Calvinist." What is perhaps more alarming, is that 37% are comfortable admitting that their church is Arminian or Wesleyan."7

The above statistics show that the preponderance of the Baptist denomination's leadership support a synergistic view of salvation. But what does the average lay Christian believe? Ligonier Ministries' State of Theology (2018) polled evangelicals living in the United States. The results show that the majority (53%) of those polled somewhat or strongly agree that "Everyone sins a little, but most people are good by nature."8 Perhaps this misunderstanding of Scripture's didactic concerning man's total depravity (Psalm 14:3, 53:3, Romans 3:9, Ephesians 2:1-5, Colossians 2:13) on the part of lay Christians is due in part to the overwhelming majority of Baptist pastors who espouse synergism rather than the Reformer's view of regeneration before faith in the ordo salutis. Hence, the purpose of this article in showing how Jesus taught that it was impossible for anyone to be saved, either rich or poor, unless God makes it possible, becomes all the more vital to the health of the church.

5. Answering the Critics

Now that we understand where the proponents of the synergistic view of Luke 18:25 err, let us consider the monergistic angle of the passage, and in so doing, discover the true interpretation of Jesus' declaration. First, we need to read the complete dialogue between Jesus and his disciples following the rich ruler's obstinance.

In response to the Lord's declaration in Luke 18:25, the disciples replied, "Then who can be saved" (v. 26)? Jesus responds, "What is impossible with man is possible with God" (v. 27). Consequently, according to Jesus' own words, it is inconceivable for anyone to be saved, unless God intervenes and makes the impossible, possible. The is evident by Luke's use of the Greek word adynatos [αδυνατος] for "impossible." This is the same Greek word that is used in Hebrews 6:18 "it is impossible for God to lie"; Hebrews 10:4, "it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins"; and Hebrews 11:6, "without faith it is impossible to please him [God]." These examples of the same use of the Greek word adynatos for "impossible" show that the passage must be understood in the strictest sense (i.e., no-way, no-how). This is in direct contrast to Allen and Lemke's assertion of salvation being difficult-but-maybe, depending on "some measure to their response and commitment to His calling."9

Calvin points out that what Jesus initially admitted was difficult, is in all actuality utterly impossible, "for though formerly he said only that it was difficult, he now affirms it to be impossible... For Christ plainly declares, that it is not possible for men to keep the way of salvation, except so far as the grace of God assists them."10

The metaphor that Jesus used in Luke 18:25 further illustrates this point. Historically, the hole, or eye of the needle (Es Summ el Kayut) referred to a gate in Hebron where sojourners traveling by foot entered. According to George Nugent Grenville Baron Nugent in his book, Lands, Classical and Sacred, Volume 1, (1846), this was a small gate with a lower arch, compared to the larger gate with the higher arch used by camels carrying goods and supplies. Just like the rich man who Jesus commanded to sell his worldly possessions in order to enter into heaven's gate, Jesus is describing how the camel too, could barely pass through such a narrow opening, unless the animal underwent a substantial change:

...whereas that of the entrance gate, low and narrow, through which the sumpter camel cannot be made to pass unless with great difficulty, and stripped of all the incumbrance of his load, his trappings, and his merchandise, may seem to illustrate more clearly the foregoing verse: "How hardly shall they the have riches enter into the kingdom of God."11

This understanding of the camel and the gate is in harmony with Jesus' statement regarding the road to life, who's "gate is narrow and the way is hard..." (Matthew 7:14). Jesus makes clear that the sinner is obliged to be stripped bear of their worldly obstacles, which also included the disciples' inward desires for material possessions. However, some theologians challenge the background of Nugent's interpretation of the metaphor.

Dr. John MacArthur, known for his progressive dispensationalism, argues that Nugent's interpretation is fallacious because he adds the word gate to the passage (i.e., needle gate), "You see, the problem with that view is it doesn't say needle gate, it says needle."12 Moreover, MacArthur informs us in a sermon he preached in 2007, that since Nugent's writing 161 years earlier, "...no one's ever found a needle gate anywhere in the history of the walls of Jerusalem."13

A champion of the reformed view, Dr. R.C. Sproul, says that "he [Jesus] was taking the largest animal that he knew that the people knew in the area and one of the smallest apertures that he can think of, a tiny opening of the eye of a needle."14 Calvin also eschews Nugent's historical explanation and instead compares the difficulty of salvation to a camel passing through the eye of a needle.

The comparison of the camel., which is soon after added, is intended to amplify the difficulty; for it means that the rich are so swelled with pride and presumption, that they cannot endure to be reduced to the straits through which God makes his people to pass.15

Whether we side with Nugent, MacArthur, Sproul, or Calvin, all four interpretations essentially yield the same conclusion: It's impossible to be saved apart from God making it possible. Sproul agrees and elaborates, "But what's impossible with us is possible with God. That's one of the greatest definitions of grace that Jesus gives us."16

6. Conclusion

As we have learned in this article, an analysis of Jesus' metaphor in Luke 18:25, along with an observation of his follow-up statement to his disciples, does not lend any credence to Allen and Lemke's interpretation that salvation is somehow linked to our response and commitment to Christ's call. Jesus' use of the camel and the eye of a needle metaphor was simply a parallel statement to the response to his disciple's concluding question, "Then who can be saved" (v. 26)?

Even more, the Lord informing his disciples that, although it is indeed difficult for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven on account of his material encumbrances, his entrance is not contingent upon his willingness to discard them, but where and upon whom his trust rests. For instance, R.C. Sproul explains that the rich ruler, who naively believed was in compliance with commandments six, five, seven, eight, and four from his youth (Luke 18:20-21), failed to keep the very first one, "You shall have no other gods before me" (Exodus 20:3).

Jesus does not set down a rule that everybody has to embrace poverty to be a follower of his... so why does Jesus give this commandment to this man? I think it's this: the man had just said, 'all these things I had done from my youth.' So Jesus starts the checklist: commandment number one, "thou shalt have no other gods before me." 'I think I'll put this man to the test about his other god that was before me, his riches.'17

Sproul's speculative addition to the narrative is corroborated by Jesus teaching of the greatest commandment in the Law, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind" (Matthew 22:36-40). Furthermore, Jesus said it is the honoring of this first commandment of the decalogue, that entitles one to eternal life (Luke 10:26-28). In the case of the rich ruler, his heart, soul, and mind loved his possessions, not the God-man, Christ. Therefore, it is only by the sovereign work of God upon the depraved heart, that man is able to assent to the will of God. To prove this, the "beloved physician" (Colossians 4:14) provides in his Gospel account the story of a rich man who, contrary to the one who preferred his riches over Christ, was converted and saved.

In Luke 19 we are introduced to Zacchaeus, a chief tax collector with plenty of wealth (v. 2). Jesus requested shelter in his home to which Zacchaeus happily complied (v. 6). We are not told the number of days Jesus resided in his house, not withstanding, as a consequence of his stay, Zacchaeus promised to give half of his money to the poor and restore what he defrauded fourfold. It is interesting to note that the Law of Moses only required a twofold restoration of stolen property (Exodus 22:4).

It is critical to note that Zaccheus' conversion was not the result of his freewill. Jesus said he was saved because he was "a son of Abraham" (Luke 19:9, see also Luke 13:16 "a daughter of Abraham"). The apostle Paul declares that the true children of Abraham are those who are counted righteous by faith in Christ, just as Abraham was counted righteous by faith, "who is the father of us all" (Romans 4:16). Thus, the conversion of Zacchaeus provides an example of God's irresistible grace and monergistic effectual call. For it was Jesus who sought him out and requested he open the door of his home to the Savior of his soul, and it was the Holy Spirit of God who made the impossible saving faith of a sinner, such as Zacchaeus, possible.

  1. Aquinas, Thomas. Commentary on Saint Paul's Epistle to the Ephesians, chap. 2, lecture 3, translated by Matthew L. Lamb. New York: Magi Books, 1966. Retrieved from https://dhspriory.org/thomas/english/SSEph.htm
  2. Calvin, John. Commentary on the Gospel according to John, Vol. 1, p. 27, translated by Rev. William Pringle. Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Retrieved from https://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom34.html
  3. Saint Augustine. On Nature and Grace, chap. 46, edited by Philip Schaff, 1887. Retrieved from http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1503.htm
  4. Calvin, John. "Commentary on the Gospel according to Luke." Access November 17, 2018. Retrieved from https://biblehub.com/commentaries/calvin/luke/18.htm
  5. Sproul, R.C. "The Rich Young Ruler." time 4:57. A sermon from Dr. R.C. Sproul. Ligonier Ministries. Accessed November 22, 2018. Retrieved from https://www.ligonier.org/learn/sermons/rich-young-ruler-luke18/
  6. Allen, David L. and Lemke, Steve W. Whosoever Will: A Biblical-Theological Critique of Five-Point Calvinism, p. 121. Tennessee: B&H Publishing Group, 2010. Retrieved from https://books.google.com/books?id=hlAmZlssEoYC
  7. Rankin, Russ. "SBC Pastors Polled on Calvinism and Its Effect." LifeWay Research, June 19, 2012. Retrieved from https://www.lifeway.com/en/articles/research-sbc-pastors-polled-on-calvinism-affect-on-convention
  8. Ligonier Ministries. "The State of Theology." 2018. Access November 22, 2018. Retrieved from https://thestateoftheology.com
  9. Allen and Lemke, Whosoever Will: A Biblical-Theological Critique of Five-Point Calvinism, p. 121.
  10. Calvin, John. "Commentary on the Gospel according to Luke." Access November 17, 2018. Retrieved from https://biblehub.com/commentaries/calvin/luke/18.htm
  11. Nugent Grenville Baron Nugent, George. Lands, Classical and Sacred, Volume 1, p. 188. London: Charles Knight & Co., 1846. Retrieved from https://books.google.com/books?id=QHsBAAAAQAAJ
  12. MacArthur, John. (1983). "The Poverty of Riches/ The Riches of Poverty." para. 19. A sermon from Dr. John MacArthur. Grace to You. Accessed December 6, 2018. Retrieved from https://www.gty.org/library/sermons-library/2344/the-poverty-of-riches-the-riches-of-poverty
  13. MacArthur, John. (2007). "The Impossibility of Salvation, Part 3." para. 25. A sermon from Dr. John MacArthur. Grace to You. Accessed December 6, 2018. Retrieved from https://www.gty.org/library/sermons-library/42-234/the-impossibility-of-salvation-part-3
  14. Sproul, R.C. "The Rich Young Ruler." time 21:32. A sermon from Dr. R.C. Sproul. Ligonier Ministries. Accessed November 22, 2018. Retrieved from https://www.ligonier.org/learn/sermons/rich-young-ruler-luke18/
  15. Calvin, John. "Commentary on the Gospel according to Luke." Access November 17, 2018. Retrieved from https://biblehub.com/commentaries/calvin/luke/18.htm
  16. Sproul, R.C. "The Rich Young Ruler." time 22:55. A sermon from Dr. R.C. Sproul. Ligonier Ministries. Accessed November 22, 2018. Retrieved from https://www.ligonier.org/learn/sermons/rich-young-ruler-luke18/
  17. ibid. time 16:35

Sabz, S. (2019, January 10). The Eye of a Needle. Retrieved from https://scienceandbibleresearch.com/eye-of-a-needle.html

Steve Sabz

Steve Sabz

Steve Sabz is the author and founder of Science and Bible Research. He is a professional educator with a Bachelor of Science degree in Exercise Physiology from William Paterson University, where he also completed graduate level courses in Human Physiology and Endocrinology. Steve has been studying theology since 2015 and has successfully completed seminary level courses in Textual Criticism, Biblical Hermeneutics, Eschatology, Puritan Theology, Ancient Church History, Soteriology, Biblical Theology, Prolegomena, and Biblical Greek from Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Dallas Theological Seminary. Steve is also the author of Evolution's Complexity Problem: See How Evolution Falls Apart At Its Beginning and End Time Rewind: An Exploration In Bible Prophecy And The Fate Of The World.