The Bible’s Answer
Overview and Context
The Bible quote in question comes from Mark 10:17–22, and is part of Jesus’ dialogue with a rich young man about how to receive eternal life. The rich man was not a believer in Jesus and thought that it was possible to get to Heaven by doing good works. To correct this belief, Jesus told him that no one is good but God alone in order to change his focus from him and his own goodness, which leads to death and condemnation, to God and his goodness, which leads to grace and eternal life. To properly understand what Jesus said, let’s read the passage in its 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?” 18 And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. 19 You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honour your father and mother.’” 20 And he said to him, “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.” 21 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.” 22 Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions. (Mark 10:17–22, ESVUK) (For parallels in Matthew and Luke, see Matthew 19:16–30 and Luke 18:18–30)
“Why Do You Call Me Good?”—A Response to the Man’s Disbelief
The rich man had just asked Jesus “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life”? What we see here is that he was focused on himself and trusting in his own works for eternal life. His idea of salvation was that it had to be merited by his own righteousness, as opposed to it being a free gift of God received by grace (Romans 6:23). It was this works-based righteousness of his, this idea that we can somehow be “good” enough for God, that Jesus wanted to correct.
In response, Jesus said to him: “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.” As evidenced by the rich man turning down Jesus’ invitation to follow him in verse 22, it is clear that the rich man was not a believer in him in the first place. When Jesus asked him “Why do you call me good?” he was asking him in the context of his unbelief. In other words, he was essentially saying “Why do you call me good if you do not believe in me?” Of course, if Jesus were not who he claimed to be, then he couldn’t have been good, because not only would he have been a sinner like us, but he’d also have been a liar for claiming to be the Christ.
Shifting the Focus from Self-righteousness to God’s Righteousness
The very next part of Jesus’ quote here is the key to understanding the text as a whole. “No one is good except God alone.” By saying this, Jesus was shifting the rich man’s focus from his own righteousness, his own goodness, to God’s righteousness and goodness. It is not enough to try and uphold God’s Law as best as possible, because as the ultimate good being, God’s standards are perfection (Matthew 5:48), and if we fall short of that standard by any amount, then we are sinful law-breakers worthy of eternal punishment (James 2:10). Because all people have sinned, there is indeed no one who is truly good except God alone (See also Matthew 7:11; Romans 3:10–12, 23). Because of this, relying on our own goodness will always fail us; instead, we have to rely entirely on God’s goodness, who freely provides grace to the repentant heart.
But because the rich man had asked Jesus how he could get to heaven by what he did, Jesus answered honestly: “You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honour your father and mother.’” The simple answer is that you can indeed get to heaven by works of the Law, but only if you uphold the Law perfectly, that is to say, only if you’re truly good.
Jesus’ Invitation to the Rich Man Rejected
But the rich man was still self-righteous. He said “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.” Now, when we take into account the fact that you can actually commit sins like murder and adultery in your heart, according to Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:21–22, 27–28), then it’s obvious that this rich man had not truly kept the Law. But notice Jesus’ response to him: “And Jesus, looking at him, loved him”. Jesus did not sharply rebuke him for this, or get angry at him, but rather he treated him with love and compassion. Then Jesus answered: “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.”
By saying this, Jesus had targeted the rich man’s greatest weakness, his wealth, to show him that he had not actually kept the Law and that it was far more demanding than he realised. In fact, he had failed to keep the most important commandment of them all: to love God with all your heart (Mark 12:28–31), because he valued his wealth more than God. After convicting the rich man of his sins, Jesus then invited him to follow him. Sadly, however, “Disheartened by the saying, [the rich man] went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.” He chose his riches over Jesus.
Jesus Proved That He Is Good, and Therefore, He Is God
The essence of what Jesus was saying here is that to have eternal life we must be his followers, that is, his disciples, and trust in him alone. Jesus is the only way to salvation and all other ways, including the love of money and our own good works, lead to destruction (Proverbs 14:12; Matthew 7:13–14; John 14:6). He is the only good person who perfectly fulfilled God’s Law on our behalf (Hebrews 4:15), and who paid our ultimate punishment for sinning in our place (1 Peter 2:24), so there is nothing that we can do to earn eternal life, because Jesus has already done it all for us (Galatians 2:21). It is by God’s grace alone, through faith alone in Jesus’ perfect righteousness alone that we are saved (1 Corinthians 1:30–31; Ephesians 2:8–9). Christians do good works in response to Jesus’ love, out of gratitude towards him, not to earn or merit salvation (1 John 4:19; John 14:15).
Jesus said “follow me” not only because he is the only way to salvation, but also because he is the perfect standard of teaching and practice for us to follow. What we see from this is that following Jesus is true goodness, because he perfectly upheld the Law, and if anyone were to follow him perfectly (impossible though it may be), they too would be truly good like he is. In this way, Jesus himself claimed to be good, the only good human to have ever lived. When we come to terms with the fundamental truth that Jesus is good and that God alone is good, then we realise that this passage doesn’t deny Jesus’ deity, but rather points to it. Jesus is God because he is good. And because Jesus is good, we will be saved if we believe in him.