And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.”
I’ve had Christians read this passage and ask a very understandable question. Since Jesus said that no one is good except God alone, should Christians refrain from calling anyone “good,” as in, “So-and-so is a good person?”
The Greek word translated in English as “good” in Jesus’ conversation with the rich young ruler is “agathos,” which is defined by online lexicons 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 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). He also used it 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 of Arimathea as “a good and righteous man” (Luke 23:50). Later, the Holy Spirit inspired Luke to use this same Greek term to describe Barnabas as “a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith” (Acts 11:22-24). The Spirit also inspired the apostle Paul to use this same word when he wrote to the saints in Rome, “…though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die” (Romans 5:7).
Thus, we see that the term “good” is used repeatedly throughout Scripture to describe imperfect human beings. Therefore, it would not be sinful or erroneous to refer to certain people 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, let’s remember that God is the ultimate epitome of goodness due to His sinless perfection and boundless love, patience, grace and compassion. We on the other hand are imperfect human beings. While we in our fallibility 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 Almighty God. This is due to the fact that all of us have sinned and have fallen short of His glory (Romans 3:23).
Secondly, remember that 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). He brought this fact up repeatedly during His preaching and by the miracles He wrought throughout His earthly ministry (cf. Mark 2:5-12). Because of this, when the rich young ruler initially addressed Him as “Good Teacher” Jesus immediately saw another opportunity to proclaim Himself as Deity (Mark 10:17). So He replied, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone” (v. 18). This was a subtle but definite hint to the ruler, anyone else within earshot, and us as readers today that the ruler was addressing Deity when he spoke to Jesus.
Therefore, don’t take His statement, “No one is good except God alone” as an indictment of sin against referring to anyone other than God as “good.” If that was the case, Christ Himself as well as His inspired apostles and prophets would have violated His own edict by referring both generally and specifically to imperfect human beings as “good.” Rather, 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.
In the meantime, don’t ignore the ruler’s question to Jesus: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Read the answer in Mark 16:15-16 and Acts 2:36-39. E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org to study more.