But he said, “What is impossible with men is possible with God.” (Luke 18:27 ESV)
There is a popular praise and worship song titled “All Things are Possible,” and it is based on this verse (or more accurately, the parallel in Matthew’s gospel). The bridge of this song goes like this: “When I am weak / You make me strong / When I’m poor, I know I’m rich / For in the power of your name…All things are possible (x4).” The idea behind the song is that God is to be praised by us for to him all things are possible; he strengthens us, he makes us rich, he is our firm foundation. All in all, it’s not a bad song, but it’s not very deep theologically speaking. In fact, it completely misses the point of the passage that serves as its inspiration.
Most of the sermons I’ve heard on this passage and most of the commentary I’ve read on this passage seem to be a little wide of the mark when it comes to this verse. As such, I feel this verse is widely misunderstood. What is impossible with men is possible with God has been understood that IN GENERAL what man cannot do, God CAN do. This is not a false statement, but as always in Biblical interpretation, context is king.
For example, can I apply this verse to my life and say “I can’t fly under my own power, but with God all things are possible?” This is not a blanket verse to say that God can do what we can’t; that kind of goes without saying — God is God, after all, and we are not. Context is king!
What is the context? Jesus’ encounter with the rich young ruler. The man wants to know what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus, knowing the young man’s heart, presents him with the law: Follow the commandments. This is an absolutely true statement; if anyone could keep the law PERFECTLY he would inherit (earn) eternal life. But…what is impossible with men is possible with God! The young man answers that he has kept the law from his youth (thereby breaking the 8th commandment about bearing false witness).
When Jesus perceives this man has a shallow understanding of the law and what it means to keep it perfectly, he tests him with the challenge of selling all his possessions. This is a test to see if he will obey a divine command (recall Jesus’ comment about no one is good except God; he is saying that HE is God). The young man walks away; he cannot part with his wealth. His wealth is an idol that he has placed in his life before God.
Jesus then says that is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God. This prompts the disciples to ask who then can be saved. When Jesus answers what is impossible with men is possible with God, this is in direct response to the question of who can be saved. What, in this context, is impossible with men but possible with God? Salvation! Fallen sinful man cannot keep the commandments perfectly, and therefore cannot inherit eternal life! This is impossible with men! However, what is impossible with men is possible with God; namely, God can save men where man cannot save himself.
Jesus Christ lived the life no man can live; he was perfectly obedient to the law of God in thought, word and deed. He died a substitutionary death for his people on the cross bearing the guilt and shame their sin deserved. Through our faith (which itself is a gracious gift of God given to us through the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit), the perfect righteousness of Christ is imputed to us so that we stand before God holy and blameless in his sight. So if anyone asks you what must I do to inherit eternal life, answer them thusly: there is nothing you can do to inherit eternal life. No matter how righteous you think you are, you will always fall short. Jesus Christ did for you what you could not do. If you repent of your sin and place your faith in him, you WILL be saved. What is impossible with men is possible with God!
Soli Deo Gloria!