No One is Good

rich young ruler 9

Q. Why did Jesus say that no one is good except God in response to the man calling him a good teacher if Jesus and God are one in the same?

A. By saying that only God is good, Jesus was not denying that He is good. He was simply using the rabbinic method common in His days, to answer a question with a question, to provoke the inquirer to understand the issue at stake.
Mk 10:18 And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone.

The rich young ruler had at least two problems:
1. He did not understand who Jesus is, the One and Only Son of God, not just a good teacher as many thought today. As a result he did not follow Him.
2. He did not understand that goodness is measured by God’s absolute standard of perfection, not man’s relative standard in comparing themselves to others. As a corollary, he thought he had done very well already, when in fact he was way off the mark.

By saying “No one is good except God alone”, there are two possibilities, either “I am not good”, or “I AM God”. He could not have meant the former, because He challenged the Pharisees:
Jn 8:46 Which one of you convicts Me of sin? If I speak truth, why do you not believe Me?
• Jn 10:11, 14 I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep. … I am the good shepherd, and I know My own and My own know Me,

He acknowledged His sinlessness (negative) and goodness (positive).

He must have meant the latter, because:
Jn 5:18b … but also was calling God His own Father, making Himself equal with God.
• Jn 10:30 I and the Father are one.
• Php 2:6 who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped,

So by answering the rich young ruler with His question, He was in fact probing him to reexamine his presupposition.

First he did not understand Jesus is God, then he did not understand himself. He thought salvation was by works, and that he had fulfilled God’s requirements:
What shall I do to inherit eternal life? (v 17)
I have kept all these things from my youth up. (v 20)

By quoting him the 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th and 5th commandments, Jesus was not teaching him to earn his salvation by keeping the law; He was asking him to seriously consider the spirit of the law e.g.

• 6th commandment – You shall not commit murder Mt 5:22 But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, You good-for-nothing,’ shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell.
• 7th commandment – You shall not commit adultery Mt 5:28 but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
• 9th commandment – You shall not make false vows Mt 5:34a, 37 But I say to you, make no oath at all, … But let your statement be, ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no’; anything beyond these is of evil.

The young man had kept the letter of the law, but probably not the spirit, even though he did not realize that himself. Jesus already knew this, so to get through to him, reserved the 10th commandment You shall not covet till last. This struck him like a bolt of lightning, and he went away grieving. He was unwilling to sell all he possess and give to the poor, because he coveted. Some scholars felt he broke the 1st commandment You shall have no other gods before Me (Ex 20:3) as well, because possessions had become his god. Either way, he kept the commandments by setting the bar at a very low human standard. Once we reset the standard to God’s perfect requirements, he failed miserably. Jesus was not making it hard for him; He just showed him what God really required.

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Salvation by Works?

good works

Q. Does Mt 19:16-26 teach salvation by works?

A. No it does not. In fact, the story of the Rich Young Ruler teaches exactly the opposite. What threw some people off is the part b of v 17: “but if you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments” which seemed to teach that the “good thing” he should do “to obtain eternal life” is to “keep the commandments.” But actually Jesus was correcting the ruler’s misunderstanding. V 17 b is governed by 17 a, “Why are you asking Me about what is good? There is only One who is good”. By saying that only One i.e. God, is good Jesus was telling him that none of the things he does or could do are really any good at all. They are not meritorious.

When the ruler did not realize how far short he was off the mark, Jesus continued by listing the commandments in v 18-19:
• YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT MURDER (6TH COMMANDMENT);
• YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT ADULTERY (7TH COMMANDMENT);
• YOU SHALL NOT STEAL (8TH COMMANDMENT);
• YOU SHALL NOT BEAR FALSE WITNESS (9TH COMMANDMENT);
• HONOR YOUR FATHER AND MOTHER (5TH COMMANDMENT); and
• YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.” (2ND GREATEST COMMANDMENT).

That is, Jesus listed 5-9 of the 10 commandments about loving your neighbor, but purposely left out the 10th on “You shall not covet” (Ex 20:17). When the ruler still did not catch on, Jesus probed one last time by asking him to “go and sell your possessions and give to the poor” (v 21). At that he finally realized his shortfall and went away grieving, because he coveted and could not let go of his properties.

In other words, Jesus was showing him that no one can keep the commandments by his own effort, and that’s why no one can enter into life or be saved by works. Asking him to keep the commandments is simply to let him discover for himself the impossibility of doing so (v 26), and that he should commit himself to God’s grace and mercy instead. Using a negative object lesson to drive home the positive point is one of our Lord’s powerful teaching methods.