Special Study Articles
Can I Be Good Enough?
Let’s start with the well known account of the ruler in Mark 10:17-22:
“As He was setting out on a journey, a man ran up to Him and knelt before Him, and asked Him, ‘Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments, ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’ And he said to Him, ‘Teacher, I have kept all these things from my youth up.’ Looking at him, Jesus felt a love for him and said to him, ‘One thing you lack: go and sell all you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.’ But at these words he was saddened, and he went away grieving, for he was one who owned much property.” (NASU)
Matthew 19:16 adds that his question was, “What good thing shall I do…?”
Now let’s focus on the word good. The man called Jesus good. He asked about doing a good thing. Jesus responded, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone.” Have you ever wondered about that? Why would Jesus do this? Is He denying being good? Is He denying being God? No, not at all. But to see this, I believe we need to get a little bit into the mind of the man. We might understand him more than we think.
First, the man did come to the right source for the answer to a most important question. He may not have understood exactly why the way he framed this was missing something, but I have little doubt that he was trying to be sincere. Of course, the bigger question for him was, would he be willing to do whatever it took to inherit eternal life? That’s the same question we need to answer. And that answer may include the need to completely renovate the way we think about Jesus.
Second, the man knew he had a need that was yet to be satisfied. Why ask a question like this if you are certain about its current status in your own mind? If you already know you have eternal life, you won’t need to wonder what you need to do have eternal life. So he was fishing for something more, something that he wasn’t satisfied with.
What, then, is the issue? Besides the fact that he loved his wealth, we are considering his concept of “good.”
The Jews believed that God was indeed preeminently good.
1 Chron. 16:34 (and Psalm 118:1) — O give thanks to the Lord, for He is good; for His lovingkindness is everlasting.
Psalm 25:8 — Good and upright is the Lord; therefore He instructs sinners in the way.
Psalm 34:8 — O taste and see that the Lord is good; How blessed is the man who takes refuge in Him!
Psalm 100:5 — For the Lord is good; His lovingkindness is everlasting and His faithfulness to all generations.
Psalm 107:1 — Oh give thanks to the Lord, for He is good, For His lovingkindness is everlasting.
Psalm 145:8-9 — The Lord is gracious and merciful; Slow to anger and great in lovingkindness. The Lord is good to all, and His mercies are over all His works.
Jeremiah 33:11 — “Give thanks to the Lord of hosts, For the Lord is good, For His lovingkindness is everlasting”
Ezra 3:11 — They sang, praising and giving thanks to the Lord, saying, “For He is good, for His lovingkindness is upon Israel forever.”
Because of this view of God, that He is good, they would not typically use this term to describe anyone else. Thus it was rare for a rabbi to be described as “good teacher.” Since God alone is good, one would not risk the potentially blasphemy.
But another thing to notice in all these passages is how God’s goodness seems integrally tied to His lovingkindness, mercy, and faithfulness. We’ll come back to this.
Of course, Jesus does point to God as the ultimate standard in what is good, and it may be that this was not the time to fully reveal Himself. Did this ruler understand Jesus to be God in the flesh, and so call Him God? Possibly, but Jesus’ answer shows that there is more going on that needed to be dealt with first. Rather than discuss who He is, at this time, He points to God and focuses on what this man really needed to hear.
I believe His answer also helps to expose a faulty view of this man. If no one is good but God alone, then something is still missing from the picture. No matter how much the man did, no matter how well he kept the commandments, he was still not good. Not in comparison to God. And he was still, despite doing the commandments, not in fellowship with God. Just doing the commandments wouldn’t do it for him in the end. Eternal life isn’t just about keeping commandments. Eternal life is about knowing God. The man knew about God, but the man didn’t know God. He didn’t know God’s true goodness.
So the man was using “good” in a way that likely betrayed his understanding of it. The man needed to think deeper about who God truly is, and what that would actually mean as he thought further about his question. I wonder if by referring back to God, Jesus was trying to get the man to connect God’s goodness with what all those passages connect to. Surely any Jew who was schooled in the Law would know: “For the Lord is good; His lovingkindness is everlasting and His faithfulness to all generations” (Psa. 100:5).
The fact that God’s goodness in so many passages is tied to mercy, lovingkindness, and faithfulness, we need to try to understand what this means for our conception of what is good. I have to wonder if this ruler, who believed he had kept the law, understood the correlation of God’s mercy and grace to God’s goodness.
Do we understand these?
What do we say when someone says, “how can that good person down the street be lost? How could God actually send a good person to hell?” We need to understand the correlation between God’s goodness and grace.
1. No one is truly good but God.
We need to unpack this a little and put this in the context of the bigger problem of sin. Since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23), we need to think carefully about why we truly need God’s goodness rather than our own.
Paul puts several passages together to make this point in Romans 3:9-18:
What then? Are we better than they? Not at all; for we have already charged that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin; as it is written,
“There is none righteous, not even one;
There is none who understands,
There is none who seeks for God;
All have turned aside, together they have become useless;
There is none who does good,
There is not even one.”
“Their throat is an open grave,
With their tongues they keep deceiving,”
“The poison of asps is under their lips”;
“Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness”;
“Their feet are swift to shed blood,
Destruction and misery are in their paths,
And the path of peace they have not known.”
“There is no fear of God before their eyes.” (NASU)
Remember, biblically, that only God is good in the perfect sense. Here Paul quotes from Psalm 14 and Psalm 53. “There is none who does good.” Psalm 53:2-3 says,
God has looked down from heaven upon the sons of men
To see if there is anyone who understands,
Who seeks after God.
Every one of them has turned aside; together they have become corrupt;
There is no one who does good, not even one.
Thus do several passages teach that only God is good, and there is really none other who does good. We need to appreciate this contrast between the goodness of God over against the failed attempts of men. God’s goodness is inherent in who He is. It is not based upon a standard higher than Himself, but is Himself the epitome of the good. Therefore, we need to think of what is good as being tied ultimately to God.
To say that none are good is not to say that we are totally depraved or that we are unable at all to do good things. It is to say, though, that on our own, we have all sinned, and because we have sinned we have no right to make any claims on being good as a basis for deserving salvation. This, then, means:
2. Since no one does good, then our only hope for eternal life is bound up in God’s goodness, not our own.
This also means we are seeking God’s mercy and grace. But let’s now think about how this works.
We are often concerned about those “good neighbors” down the street. Surely if they are good, that should mean God will gladly take them to heaven one day. Wouldn’t that be the loving thing for God to do? However, when we think this way, we are unwittingly removing God’s grace, for if the basis of God taking a person to heaven is that he is “good,” then this implies that “good” earns a place with God, and God would owe it to every “good” person, regardless of whether or not they came to Jesus.
This gets into the definition of good. If goodness is defined by and through God, and if goodness is correlated with God’s grace and mercy, then we cannot biblically come up with a concept of goodness that ends up negating God’s grace without perverting the Scriptural teaching.
Yet that’s exactly what happens here. If the good person is to be saved on the basis of his goodness, then this means there is no grace. It also means that the shedding of Christ’s blood was pointless, for if “good” action was capable of bringing us to God after we’ve sinned, then “good” outweighs the sin and there would no need for anything else, least of all Christ coming to earth, dying, and rising again. We should only concern ourselves with outdoing our sin by good deeds.
There is irony in this, of course. While we want to appeal to a good God to give a good neighbor a place in heaven, we are actually turning God into a graceless God who must respond to the merit of a person who did some good. We are reminded, then, of Paul’s point to the Galatians:
“I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me. I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly” (Gal. 2:20-21).
Our own goodness cannot be the appeal that we make to God. We can only appeal to God’s goodness, which includes God’s grace, and understand that doing good is bound up in doing God’s will.
Scripture presents the dichotomy of doing good or doing evil. But doing good isn’t the same as saying God owes salvation to us because we ARE good in the same exact way God is good. Paul writes, in Romans 2, that the kindness of God leads us to repentance, and He will render to each one according to their deeds in judgment: “to those who by perseverance in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life; but to those who are selfishly ambitious and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, wrath and indignation. There will be tribulation and distress for every soul of man who does evil, of the Jew first and also of the Greek, but glory and honor and peace to everyone who does good, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 11 For there is no partiality with God.” (vv. 7-11)
John writes, “Beloved, do not imitate what is evil, but what is good. The one who does good is of God; the one who does evil has not seen God” (3 John 11).
We are not at all suggesting that doing good is not important. It is critical to our faith (Titus 2:11-14; Eph. 2:8-10). Yet we need to see this in the context of our relationship with God. Can one who rejects God ever show kindness and goodness in his actions? Yes. But is that ever going to be the basis on which a person is saved? Absolutely not. If a person shuns God, rejects Jesus, ignores the cross, then there is no appeal we can make to say that such a person should be okay because he is good. He has rejected the very One who matters the most, the very One who defines goodness in the first place. We can only seek eternal life within the boundaries of a relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Outside of that, we have no hope. We must seek to do God’s will (Matt. 7:21-23), but just doing some good things can never be a substitute for seeking God’s grace through faith.
Paul writes, “Therefore remember that formerly you, the Gentiles in the flesh, who are called ‘Uncircumcision’ by the so-called ‘Circumcision,’ which is performed in the flesh by human hands—remember that you were at that time separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For He Himself is our peace…” (Eph. 2:11-14a).
Notice here the contrast between having no hope and being without God over against being in Christ Jesus and being brought near by the blood of Christ. What brings us near to God is not self-imposed goodness, but rather the blood of our Lord. Aside from that, we have no hope. This gets to the heart of …
3. How We View the Gospel.
I realize that we talk about good people. Paul spoke this way when he wrote, “For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die” (Rom. 5:7). We think of a neighbor, an elder, a friend, a sister, and we think of these as good people. We look around and think about how good these people that we are seeing really are. Yet we still should understand that when we do so, we are using the term accommodatively. We aren’t putting each other on par with God. Our understanding is that goodness, when talking with or about a fellow human being, is not a claim that says the person is perfect or flawless. We understand that goodness for humans transcends mistakes. With God, however, there is perfection. When we talk about God as good, we are entering a whole new level. None of us are good in the very same way God is. So let’s at least understand that.
Assuming, then, that we could rightly call someone good accommodatively, do we then transfer that concept of goodness over to the idea that, therefore, this good person deserves eternal life with God — as if the person is on par with God’s goodness? God is good and with Him is eternal life; Joe is good and therefore he should be with God in eternity? It just doesn’t work that way.
If we think of the gospel just as something that makes us “good,” and because we are good we are saved, then we will be confused about the notion that “good people” will be lost. What about those good, moral friends that we have? Wouldn’t God just save them? I even know of a woman who believed her atheist husband would be saved because he was just a very good man. Wouldn’t God owe that to him? No, this misses the point of the gospel message.
Again, thinking in those terms means that we are essentially making salvation something that is merited based on goodness. If we cannot conceive of good people being lost, even though they don’t believe in Jesus, then we have missed the most significant aspect of what salvation is about. Further, evangelism would just become a way of trying to get people to be good rather than sharing the death and resurrection of Jesus with them so they can humbly come to God for forgiveness—so they, too, can die and rise with Christ, considering themselves dead to sin and alive to God in Jesus (Rom. 6:1-11).
When Jesus came on the scene, He preached a gospel of repentance: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). “Repent and believe in the gospel” is a different message from saying, “be good now.”
Peter preached repentance on Pentecost: “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).
Paul preached repentance: “Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent, because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead.” (Acts 17:30-31)
Again, the concept that God should automatically save a good person misses the point of grace. If people are saved because they are good, then grace isn’t needed, and it has nothing to do with forgiveness or the blood of Christ. Being good would be Savior, not Christ. Spurning the death of Christ and the grace of God would mean nothing if being good itself will take care our eternal destiny.
This, therefore, has everything to do with our conception of the gospel — the gospel of the grace of God (Acts 20:24).
Acceptance of the gospel will make us better people who do good works (Titus 2:11-14), but what saves us is the blood of Christ, by grace through faith (Eph. 2:8-10). Sadly, there are decent people who do spurn the grace of God through Christ, and in doing so they lose any hope of salvation and forgiveness regardless of how good they are otherwise. All have sinned and all are in need of God’s saving grace, which is not accessed by just doing good things, but by faith in Christ (cf. Rom. 5:1-2).
What the Old Testament passages about God’s goodness and grace state, we find completely fulfilled in Jesus. God is good, and His lovingkindness endures forever. God’s goodness and lovingkindness are both manifest fully in Jesus’ own death and resurrection, which provides the only path to forgiveness and eternal life. Rejection of this puts in a place of having no hope.
This critical understanding of God’s goodness and grace, contrasted with the lack of man’s goodness and need for grace, is also what distinguishes Christianity from other religions. Many religions might help people to “be good,” but only Christ can offer the grace that provides forgiveness and salvation (John 14:6; Acts 4:12). We must submit to Christ and His will on His terms, not ours, if we will have that hope only found in Him.
Can we identify with that rich ruler? He was trying to be good, to keep the commandments, but he was still unwilling to do whatever it took. He was willing to make a check list of the rules, but when it came time to act upon what he needed in real time, he wouldn’t do it. “Good Teacher, what good thing do I need to do?” He was willing to do some good things, but he was not willing to deny self and truly follow Jesus.
Understand the goodness of God, and understand that God’s goodness is integrally tied to His mercy, lovingkindness, and faithfulness. The man knew technically that God was good, but he failed to seek after God’s lovingkindness and grace. Lovingkindness is the essence of God’s goodness, and He extends this to us all. The good news of His grace through Christ is available. This cannot be met simply by being good or doing some good things, but by grace through faith, submitting to the goodness of God through Jesus.
Will this have an impact on the good works we do? Absolutely. But let us never think that doing good, while ignoring God’s will in providing a new life in Christ, can ever work.