Ancient philosophers often spoke of the concept of being as comprising goodness, truth, and beauty. To them, this trilogy represents only the ideals of this world but not this world itself. Thus, they are sometimes referred to as the transcendentals—virtues and concepts that transcend anything we could ever really experience in this life. So, for example, according to Plato, the good cannot be found here; our world is a shadow of the good. The good is ultimate reality, even God—at least “God” in the sense that Plato could not conceive of any being greater than the good.

There is a famous scene in the Gospels where Jesus makes a statement that seems to confirm Plato’s position. He is having a conversation with a wealthy up-and-comer in the local synagogue who asks what appears to be a polite and earnest question: “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Luke 18:18). I have always been fascinated by the reply. Do you remember what Jesus says? He does not immediately answer the question. Instead, He says, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone” (Luke 18:19). Is Jesus following the line of thinking of Plato, denying goodness in this world and even in Himself? Actually, He is doing the exact opposite.

Goodness in Perspective

We need to first understand that Jesus is putting the concept of goodness into perspective for this young man. The title “good teacher” at that time was not in use by the Jewish people, and never attributed to even the best of rabbis, because they believed goodness to be an attribute belonging only to God. And so, far from denying His goodness, and thereby His deity, Jesus was inviting the ruler to reflect on the meaning of his own words. The great Puritan theologian Stephen Charnock wrote that Jesus “does not here deny his Deity, but reproves [the rich young ruler] for calling him good, when he had not yet confessed him to be more than a man. . . . He disowns not his own Deity, but allures the young man to a confession of it.”

When we put our faith in Jesus Christ, He takes us out of this broken and fallen world, as it were, and places us into the pure, eternal realm of God’s goodness.

By asking “Why do you call Me good?” Jesus is forcing the young man to reflect on his own perception of who Jesus is. Unintentionally, this ruler had made an audacious—though entirely accurate—claim about Jesus. All the goodness that is God is in Jesus Christ as well. Thomas Brooks said, “Christ is the greatest good, the choicest good, the chief good, the most suitable good, the most necessary good. He is a pure good, a real good, a total good, an eternal good, and a soul-satisfying good.”

Goodness in Christ

In what ways do we see that supreme goodness in Jesus? It is an important question. In a sense, it is the question Jesus was asking back to the rich young ruler: “What about Me is good? What makes you say that I am good?” If Jesus put the question to you, how would you answer? One important answer—the important answer—is that Jesus is good because He obeys, submits to, serves, and fulfills God’s law, which is by nature good. “Your rules are good,” says the psalmist (Ps. 119:39, emphasis added). Paul writes in Romans 7:12, “So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.” Notice the close comparison between the ideas of righteousness and goodness: the law is good because it is right, it is proper, it is just. Jesus is good for these very same reasons, too.

He was born “under the law” (Gal. 4:4), and His life’s ministry was not to abolish or break the law but to fulfill it (Matt. 5:17). Jesus points the rich young ruler to the same answer. What does the Good Teacher have to say about what will make for a good life? Look to the law of God, Jesus says. “You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, Do not murder, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother’” (Luke 18:20). Elsewhere, Jesus will summarize the whole law as loving God and loving neighbor (Mark 12:29–31).

Our salvation hinges on the fact that Jesus Christ, in perfect goodness, fulfilled these two great commandments. He always did the right thing. With Him there was always completeness and wholeness in His actions before God and others, such that Peter could simply say of Him to Cornelius, “He went about doing good(Acts 10:38, emphasis added).

Goodness in Me

These two great commandments lay before all of us. We are called to this life as well. “Now wait a minute,” you may be thinking. “That’s not fair! Hasn’t Jesus already established that none is good besides God?” He has. And it is true: ever since the fall, none of us share in that pure goodness with which God made the world. It is broken, ruptured. As Paul says, quoting the Psalms: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one” (Rom. 3:10–12, emphasis added). But conversion changes all that.

When we put our faith in Jesus Christ, He takes us out of this broken and fallen world, as it were, and places us into the pure, eternal realm of God’s goodness (Col. 1:13–14). Our natures change. The Apostle John tells us, “Whoever does good is from God; whoever does evil has not seen God,” and because of this new Spirit-birthed reality in our hearts we are to “not imitate evil, but imitate good” (3 John 11). Knowing Jesus and being united to Him transforms us and gives us a capacity for goodness. Being made right with God will make our hearts right. We will be able to live and love in ways that are good, wholesome, and true.

Of course, conversion won’t make us perfectly good. Glorification does that. We are not completely in the realm of God: we have one foot there, and one foot here. We will all have weak moments where it appears that evil is triumphing over the good in our own hearts. But the way to overcome those moments is to endeavor seriously after those foundational Christian rhythms of faith and repentance. We must rest more in Christ, trusting in the finished work of the cross and “good work” of sanctification that He is bringing to completion (Phil. 1:6). With Paul, we must find hope outside ourselves: “Who will deliver me from this body of death?” Jesus is the answer: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Rom. 7:24–25).

When Philip first encountered Jesus, it was life changing. He knew that there was something different about this man. He was so excited about his new Master that he went and told his friend Nathanael to come and follow. But Nathanael mocked the idea by saying, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46). We could in a sense share that ancient disdain and skepticism: Could Jesus really be the solution? Could He be the One who takes my wicked heart and makes it produce something that’s truly good?

To that, dear reader, I give you the answer and invitation that Philip gave Nathanael: “Come and see” (John 1:46).

Editor’s Note: This post is adapted from The Character of Christ (Edinburgh, Scotland: Banner of Truth, 2023).

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