On Divine Goodness: If God Alone Is Good, How Can Jesus and We Be Good?

On Divine Goodness: If God Alone Is Good, How Can Jesus and We Be Good? September 2, 2017
Chinese depiction of Jesus and the rich young man, Beijing, 1879. Wikipedia.
Chinese depiction of Jesus and the rich young man, Beijing, 1879. Wikipedia.

I have always been fascinated with the story of the rich young ruler (recorded in Mark 10, Matthew 19 and Luke 18) as it bears on divine goodness, Jesus, and us. Among other things, I have been struck by Jesus’ response at the beginning and close of his interaction with the man. Here are the opening and closing statements in context: “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’” (Mark 10:17-18; ESV). After Jesus notes the importance of following the commandments and the man replies that he has obeyed them from his youth (Mark 10:19-20), the story continues: “And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, ‘You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me’” (Mark 10:21; ESV). The account ends with the man walking away disheartened because he had great wealth (Mark 10:22).

Jesus’ instruction is startling. Jesus goes beyond the explicit commands of Scripture and tells the man he still lacks something. He needs to go sell all his possessions, give the proceeds to the poor to obtain treasures in heaven, and then follow him. Only God can rightfully make such demands. I believe that is why Jesus asks the question of the man, “Why do you call me good?”

Only God is good. Either Jesus is telling the man not to call him good because God alone is good, or Jesus is claiming that just as God alone is good, he is truly good and therefore God, thereby inviting the man to look to him as Lord.[1] Now if Jesus is truly good, then he is God. And then, the person had better expect a divine demand on his life. It is not something he can take or leave as mere opinion. Nor will Jesus permit the man to treat him as a good moral teacher who simply gives important ethical instructions.[2] C. S. Lewis puts the latter point this way in Mere Christianity:

I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: “I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God.” That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.[3]

Now, if Jesus is God, as Lewis maintains in view of Jesus’ claims recorded in Scripture, then what does that mean for how we view goodness and God? For starters, it does not mean that we have to separate the God of the Old Testament from the New, limiting the gospel of gracious goodness to the New, as if we were following in Marcion’s footsteps. After all, Jesus claims that he comes not to abolish the Law and the Prophets, but to fulfill them (Matthew 5:17). Or, as John’s Gospel puts it, Jesus is the glory of God in the flesh and the fullness of grace and truth (John 1:14).[4] Grace in fullness in Jesus replaces the grace that foreshadows it in Moses (John 1:16-17).[5] Remember that God discloses to Moses that his glory is his goodness, highlighting first and foremost his mercy and grace, steadfast love and faithfulness, without discounting in any way his holy judgment on sin (See Exodus 33:18-20; 34:6-7).

While accounting for Jesus’ deity in our understanding of divine goodness and conception of God does not involve separating the Old and New Testaments, or discounting the former, it does entail that we highlight Jesus’ significance for disclosing the fullness of God’s glorious goodness in all its facets. After all, according to John 1:18, he alone has been in the presence of God, seeing God face to face, and revealing God to us. He is the supreme exegesis of the Godhead. Although Jesus does not exhaust the Godhead (Christo-monism), he is not one-third God (Partialism), a second of three Gods (Tritheism), a second mode of God (Modalism), or a lesser God (Subordinationism) either. He is fully God with the Father in the Spirit who is also God.

I will save further consideration of the topic of the Trinity and the Spirit for another time, as I wish to focus consideration on Jesus’ significance for our understanding of divine glory and goodness, as well as our own. Jesus is the fullness of God’s mercy and grace and steadfast love and faithfulness in the flesh. He reveals these qualities beyond all measure as he takes God’s judgment on our sin upon himself in his holy life at the cross. As John the Baptist declared, he is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29; cf. 53:5-6).

What do we learn about God’s glorious goodness by gazing upon Jesus? And how does this discussion bear upon our goodness and salvation? There is no depth to which God won’t go—no suffering or shame he won’t endure—to destroy sin and shame’s hold on us and draw us to himself? We cannot make ourselves good and save ourselves. We cannot pay our way to heaven by riches or religious merit, wisdom or power. We have to surrender all of it and throw ourselves upon God’s mercy and follow Jesus, just like Jesus’ disciples (Mark 10:23-31). Salvation is only possible with God, as Jesus tells his disciples following his exchange with the rich young ruler (Mark 10:27).

In a Moralistic Therapeutic Deistic Age, people often assume that if they are good, God will bless them with happiness and give them eternal life. We would do well to ponder what Timothy Keller asserted in his assessment of the rich young ruler. It applies in an MTD age as well: “Jesus smashed two of the rich young ruler’s assumptions: Christianity is something you can ADD and something you can DO.” As I see it, Christianity is Jesus who summons us to a new way of being in the world as we follow him.

We cannot add Jesus to our lives and attain salvation on our own. Jesus must become our life. Salvation, goodness and the truly good life is only possible with God who makes it actual by doing the unimaginable in Jesus. Jesus died in our place, hanging between two thieves and being buried in a rich man’s grave, though he had done no wrong: “And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth” (Isaiah 53:9; ESV). Jesus’ merciful and gracious goodness is radical, self-sacrificial and severe, as God grants spiritual criminals and paupers the riches of his eternal goodness and life. Salvation is only possible through him.

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[1]Here I differ with William T. Lane who writes that “Jesus’ intention is not to pose the question of his own sinlessness or oneness with the Father, but to set in correct perspective the honor of God.” William L. Lane, The Gospel According to Mark, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, 2nd revised edition (Grand Rapids; Eerdmans, 1974), page 366. In my estimation, it is not an either/or. I believe Jesus poses both his own deity in an indirect, inviting manner, and sets in correct perspective the honor of God. For various commentaries engaging this text, refer here.

[2]Immanuel Kant provides us with an interesting example of one who proves ambiguous on Jesus’ identity as a moral archetype. Wayne P. Pomerleau’s article at the Internet Encyclopedia of Philisophy on Kant’s philosophy of religion provides the following statement: “In the second book [in Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone], Jesus of Nazareth is presented as an archetype symbolizing our ability to resist our propensity to evil and to approach the virtuous ideal of moral perfection. What Kant does not say is whether or not, in addition to being a moral model whose example we should try to follow, Jesus is also of divine origin in some unique manner attested to by miracles. Just as he neither denies nor affirms the divinity of Christ, so Kant avoids committing himself regarding belief in miracles, which can lead us into superstition (Religion, pp. 51, 54, 57, 74, 77, and 79-82; for more on the mystery of the Incarnation, see Theology, pp. 264-265).”

[3]C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: HarperCollins, 1952), page 52.

[4]A. T. Hanson believes the expression “full of grace and truth” refers to the revelation of God in Exodus 33–34. See Hanson, Grace and Truth: A Study in the Doctrine of the Incarnation (London: SPCK, 1975), page 5.

[5]The NIV translates the Greek word anti in charin anti charitos in John 1:16 as conveying “one blessing after another.” A footnote in the ESV indicates that it can be read “grace in place of grace.” The comparison and contrast involve Jesus and Moses (John 1:17). D.A. Carson translates the entire phrase of charin anti charitos in verse 16 to be “grace instead of grace” in keeping with one of the most frequent renderings of the preposition anti as “instead of.” Certainly, the Law of Moses is gracious. However, it is replaced by the surpassing grace revealed in Jesus Christ. See Carson’s analysis of this phrase in Gospel According to John, pages 131-34. A form of the word plerōma is used here in verse 16, conveying that Jesus’ grace exceeds limits. F. F. Bruce unpacks the significance of the word in this context: “This plenitude of divine glory and goodness which resides in Christ (cf. Col 1:19; 2:9) is an ocean from which all his people may draw without ever diminishing its content.” F. F. Bruce, The Gospel of John: Introduction, Exposition and Notes (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983), page 43.

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