Jesus said, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.”
I was recently asked whether Christians should refrain from calling anyone good based on Jesus’ statement above to the rich young ruler that no one is good but God alone. Because of His statement here, would it be wrong to say something like, “So-and-so is a good person”?
The writers of the New Testament were inspired by God to write in the Greek language of their day. Keeping that in mind, the Greek word translated in English as “good” in Jesus’ conversation with the rich young ruler is “agathos,” which is defined at blb.com as “of good constitution or nature,” “useful, salutary,” “good, pleasant, agreeable, joyful, happy,” “excellent, distinguished,” and “upright, honourable.”
Jesus used this same Greek word when He talked of how His Father made His sun to rise on the evil “and on the good” (Matthew 5:45). He used it when He said, “A good man out of the good treasure of the heart brings forth good things” (Matthew 12:35). He also used it in a parable when He talked of servants who “gathered together all as many as they found, both bad and good” (Matthew 22:10), and in another parable when He told of the master who said to his servant, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:21, 23).
In like manner, Luke was inspired by the Holy Spirit of God (2 Peter 1:19-21) to use this same Greek word to describe Joseph and Barnabas (Luke 23:50; Acts 11:24). Paul also was inspired to use this same word when he wrote, “…though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die” (Romans 5:7).
Therefore, it’s clear from how “good” is used repeatedly throughout Scripture to describe imperfect human beings that it is not sinful or erroneous to refer to certain people among us as “good.” So why did Jesus say to the rich young ruler, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone” (Mark 10:18)?
First, remember that God is the ultimate epitome of goodness due to His sinless perfection and boundless love, patience, grace and compassion. While we imperfect human beings can justifiably and biblically be called “good” in certain ways and by various degrees as shown above, none of us can ever attain the degree of goodness possessed by Jehovah due to our sin (Romans 3:23).
Secondly, Jesus IS God (John 1:1, 14; 10:30; 17:11, 22; 14:9; Philippians 2:6; 2 Corinthians 4:4; Colossians 1:15, 19). This fact was brought up repeatedly by Him during His preaching and by the miracles He wrought throughout His earthly ministry (cf. Mark 2:5-12). Because of this, it is clear that when the rich young ruler initially addressed Him as “Good Teacher” (Mark 10:17), Jesus immediately saw another opportunity to proclaim Himself as Deity. Thus, He replied, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone” (v. 18), a subtle but definite hint to the ruler, anyone else there who was listening, and to us as readers today that the ruler was addressing Deity when he spoke to Jesus.
Therefore, we should not take “No one is good except God alone” as the proof that one sins against Christ by referring to anyone other than God as “good.” If that was the case, Jesus Himself as well as His inspired apostles and prophets would have violated that same edict by referring both generally and specifically to imperfect human beings as “good.” Rather, we should interpret Jesus’ statement to the rich young ruler primarily as an implication of His Deity and secondarily as an indication that our own goodness can never compare to the goodness of God.
If you have any questions of a biblical nature you would like addressed in this column or privately, or if you would like to have a one-on-one Bible study, e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.