Goodness is a strong word; good is too, though shorter and simpler. We toss it around without thinking, barely noticing how we use it or where it lands.
For example, the waitress returns to your table with are question, “Are we having any dessert today?” “No thanks, I’m good.”
I’m good? What does that mean? Maybe, I’m full or I’m counting calories. It could be I’m out of time or out of money. Or both. At the very least “I’m good” acts as a conversation closer. The waiter can move on to another customer.
But Jesus reacted differently to the word “good” when the wealthy young man stopped him in his tracks (Mark 10:17-31). He took it seriously. Though he was setting out on a journey when this man intercepted him, he paused.
“Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Mark 10:17b
We can imagine that Jesus had just put on sandals and was possibly reaching for his walking stick. What could be so urgent? Will Jesus quickly answer the man’s question so he can continue his journey? Hand him off to one of his disciples after checking his watch?
No. He stops and asks his own question,
“Why do you call me good?” Mark 10:18a
The Highest Good Defines Goodness
Out of 42 definitions of “good” given on dictionary.com, the first definition is the one that fits this scene. Good means “morally excellent, virtuous, righteous, pious.”
Perhaps this wealthy young man was simply showing respect, having heard about Jesus and wanting to confirm that he was on the correct path.
Whatever the man’s motive, Jesus set him straight,
“No one is good except God alone.” Mark 10:18b
That is a perfectly fine theological definition. Perhaps the rich man nodded in agreement. Of course. The Only God is the highest Good—morally excellent, perfectly virtuous, utterly righteous. He would have stood corrected in his use of the term.
But Jesus, the Son of God in the flesh, didn’t stop there. He went on to show the rich man what true goodness looks like. Probing the man’s conscience with God’s commandments, Jesus receives a “correct” answer. The man knew all 10 and diligently kept them.
You and I might have ended the interview at that point. Goodness pressed on:
“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, my emphasis
This was both a test and an offer. Would the young man see how much he loved his money and recognize this as a breach of God’s commandments? Would he then turn and follow?
Sadly, no, the man turns away in sorrow. The price is too high. Confronted by the searchlight of Goodness Incarnate, his greed is exposed and he leaves goodness for mere money.
No One Does Good
Was Jesus being pessimistic when he said, “No one is good?”
No, he was quoting Scripture. As a boy he would have learned the Psalms, and probably noticed that this truth, written by David, occurred not just once, but twice. Almost word for word.
The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.”
They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds;
There is none who does good.
The LORD looks down from heaven on the children of man,
To see if there are any who understand,
Who seek after God.
They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt;
There is none who does good,
Not even one.
Psalm 14:1-3, Psalm 53:1-3
None? Yes, not even one. The apostle Paul himself quotes this text in his letter to the church at Rome.
Why does he harp on this bad news? Like Jesus with the rich young man, Paul knows that every false hope of being accepted by God on our own merits must be kicked out of the way, so that we will turn from our goodness to his.
The opposite of good is evil, it’s not just “I’m a little off” or “not so good today.” Unfortunately, evil is not just out there either, it’s in here.
Take road rage, for instance. Why is it that we shake our heads or gesture with our hands when a car zips past us to beat the light? It’s easy to get ticked off at another driver and turn aggressive ourselves. Busted.
In our clearest moments of self-awareness, we know we don’t measure up. Harsh words, forgotten promises, envy—these are just a few foibles that are meant to show us how far we’ve fallen from goodness.
Evil isn’t God’s fault, it’s ours. But God woos us with good.
The God of Indiscriminate Goodness
The opening chapters of Genesis ring with the word “good.” Every new element of our world was pronounced Good! Nine times in a row with only one exception, the man living alone was not good. With the creation of woman, God pronounced his work “very good!”
After creating, he continued to provide every good thing, by giving us meaningful work to do, from the very beginning. Linguistic and agricultural tasks, learning and working in partnership, generating and enjoying the fruit of our labor.
Fast forward to Moses, leading God’s people through the wilderness of Sinai. Initially, the LORD had revealed himself to Moses as “I am who I am,” the One who always was and always will be. But after the people rebelled, taking advantage of Moses’ absence to make an idol out of gold, Moses needed to know more.
“Moses said, ‘Please show me your glory.’” Exodus 33:18
But instead of his full glory, including his righteous anger against sin, the LORD provided a partial answer to Moses’ request:
“And he said, I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The LORD.’ And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.’” Exodus 33:19
Why did God hold back? By restricting his revelation to his goodness, God protected Moses from the blast of his holy wrath, showing only his holy mercy and grace.
In like manner, King David’s familiar words from Psalm 23 give us a lively picture of God’s goodness, trotting after us like a pair of lambs:
“Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life,
And I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.” Psalm 23:6
God’s indiscriminate goodness came near in David’s greatest son, Jesus Christ.
Good Seed, Good Fruit
Paul says it most clearly,
“But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy (Titus 3:4-5a).
Not only didn’t we earn it, we weren’t even looking for it. Christ appeared to take all our evil upon himself on the cross. That means our evil was crucified with Christ. It has already happened. It is finished.
Now, just as God has been good to us, so we are to be good to each other. Much like with kindness, it’s not as if we were obeying some kind of law that says “Be Good!” but as those in whom goodness has been planted and taken root.
Our goodness is the fruit of God’s Spirit, who is actively at work in us to stir goodness in our words and actions.
Goodness With No Strings Attached
What might that look like? Freedom. We’re finally free to show goodness. Here are three of many ways:
First, we are free to show goodness to all people. That means all kinds of people, especially people who aren’t like you or me. Reaching across barriers of race, politics, socioeconomic differences, and other divisions, we can do good to all. Why? Because as the Westminster Confession reminds us, God does good to all.
“The light of nature showeth that there is a God, who hath lordship and sovereignty over all, is good, and doth good unto all (WCF, 21.1)”
Second, we are free to be generous, not stingy, with our goodness. Because we are abundantly supplied by the Spirit, we don’t need to keep accounts, measuring out goodness by the teaspoon. Instead, like the church at Rome we can be “full of goodness,” giving it away with no strings attached: “I myself am satisfied about you, my brothers and sisters, that you yourselves are full of goodness (Romans 15:14a).”
Third, we are free to show goodness without nagging. We don’t need to be coerced. Paul gave his friend Philemon space, so that he could voluntarily do good by freeing his runaway, returning slave, instead of punishing him. Paul writes, “I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord (Philemon 1:14, my emphasis).”
In Christ we’re free to show God’s goodness, not like puppets on a string, but as his Spirit filled agents of good.