“Why do you call me good? Only God is good.”
This was Jesus’ reply to the rich young man, who’d asked him “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
People have asked why Jesus Christ would answer in this way. Is Jesus disavowing his own goodness? Some seem to think so, but a careful reading shows quite the opposite.
When we’re done reading this, it will be clear that Jesus Christ -the Alpha and the Omega -the beginning and the end- is challenging the rich young ruler’s own assumptions about eternal life – and more.
You will not want to miss this!
Jesus’ Meaning of “Why Do You Call Me Good?”
The popular “why do you call me good” phrase that our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ used is recorded on three occasions in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke:
“And behold, a man came up to him, saying, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.”
“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?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.”
“And a ruler asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.”
Apart from some minor differences, all of these 3 Bible verses share the same core theme – Jesus replying to the rich young man’s question with “Why do you call me good?”.
And this is where many people (including believers) can falsely assume Christ is implying that He isn’t good.
Do you really think this is what this means? Think again.
Jesus did NOT deny His deity i.e. the fact that He is God in the flesh!
Notice that Christ never mentions that He isn’t good or that He isn’t one with the Father and Holy Spirit.
Instead, the Messiah is further establishing his deity by using the “why do you call me good?” response to challenge the man’s view on goodness.
The rich young ruler was clearly referring to Jesus as a mere man, “a good teacher” of human origin. And while Christ is 100% human and 100% God Himself at the same time, He remains infinitely superior to anyone or anything.
For more insight, read my post “The Real Difference Between God and Jesus” to understand how Jesus Christ is fully God and fully man.
So, what does this wealthy young fellow actually know about goodness?
There are no good men, as all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23 ESV).
The rich guy was referring to Jesus as a “good teacher” just prior to asking what he needs to do in order to inherit an eternal life.
This implies that this person either assumed that Jesus is a mere man (i.e. nothing more than a good teacher) or that you need to do something to earn his salvation.
Just no, no and no.
Jesus is God, thus He is good because God is Good.
And salvation through works is nothing but a false teaching found in every other major world religion.
In this sense, it’s easy to see how brilliant Christ’s answer was.
He never denies His deity or that He is good because He’s God. Jesus simply challenges the rich man’s view on salvation, while reaffirming His position as God in the flesh.
The works-related view about salvation and eternal life that this person had also explains his reaction a few verses later.
Let’s use the Gospel according to Matthew as an example, although a very similar version of this verse is also found in Mark and Luke:
“Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.”
Shortly after asking the rich young man “why do you call me good”, Jesus exposed his idol (riches) and showed this person that he is not perfect, even if he thought that he kept all the commandments from youth.
What God Says About Being Good
Being good is something that pleases the Lord as evident by the letter to the Hebrews:
“Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.”
Also, being and doing good is one of the fruits of the Spirit that we receive through the Holy Spirit upon believing in the Lord Jesus Christ, as outlined here:
Clearly, our Heavenly Father is well pleased when we show goodness toward others and when we’re being good people in general.
But, hold on.
Do you notice how being good is one of the things that happen to a believer once they accept Christ as their Lord and Savior?
Indeed, once we believe we’re a new creation, created in Christ Jesus for good works (Ephesians 2:10 ESV).
This is the result of being a born-again, spirit-filled believer in Christ.
Being good isn’t a requirement to be saved and have eternal life.
Let’s go back to the young rich man from Matthew 19, Mark 10 and Luke 18.
This rich fellow was obviously mixing things up when it comes to salvation, which is not obtained through good works or by being a good person.
He either believes that Jesus is God and thus good, or not because there’s no one good but the Lord.
And if Jesus IS good (because He truly is), then He IS God. And here’s where to read about how Jesus is the Only Way to Heaven, complete with Bible verses that back it up.
Remember – we’re sinners, there’s no one righteous. You can’t make it into heaven by being a good person.
You can’t pay the ransom for sin yourself, none of us can.
Salvation is a gift of God that we don’t deserve, yet He’s so loving and longsuffering that by believing that Jesus is God and that God raised Him from the dead, we can be saved (Romans 10:9 ESV).
So don’t be like this rich young ruler – none of us is good but God.
Keep in mind what Apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the church in Ephesus:
What the Bible Says About God Being Good
The Bible explicitly states that God is indeed good and here are a couple of relevant examples from Scripture that support this:
“For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.”
“The Lord is good, a stronghold in the day of trouble; he knows those who take refuge in him.”
“The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,”
And here’s where there are plenty more verses on God’s Goodness.
And here is another major point Jesus made when he replied with “why do you call me good”:
Yes, Jesus is God and yes, He is good!
And if you want to, here’s where to find more about Jesus’ Blatant Claims to be God.
Jesus Christ – the Son – is a member of the Trinity together with the Father and the Holy Spirit.
He pre-existed before the Incarnation. He is the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End, and he created all things.
The Bible is His Living Word and as such it logically highlights His goodness, love and mercy on numerous occasions.
As believers we know that He is good… because He is God in the flesh!
But self-righteous people like that rich young ruler who are focused on works-based salvation are deceived.
Even if you (supposedly) keep all of the commandments, you still won’t be good enough to earn eternal life on your own.
In fact, you never will if you rely on your own self and works. Jesus proved that when he told the ruler to sell everything he owns and give it to the poor.
The rich man was sad and didn’t follow Christ because he loved this world more than God. This is what pure idolatry is and it’s a real abomination in the sight of the Lord, who is a jealous God (Exodus 34:14 ESV).
And what do secular people often like to say? “Believe in yourself” or “I believe in you”.
But why not say “believe in Jesus and enjoy eternity in His presence” instead? We all know the answer to this.
This fallen world is intertwined with false teachings that preach salvation through works and earning your place in eternity by being a good person.
Let’s remind ourselves of what’s written in one of the Psalms:
”Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation.”
In conclusion, when Jesus challenged the Rich Young Ruler about his goodness, our Lord and Savior essentially:
- Affirmed His own goodness, and His blatant claim to be God.
- Showed the errors in the young man’s own ideas about salvation and goodness.
- Exposed the rich ruler’s view or assumption that Jesus was simply a mere man, not God in the flesh.
It’s true that many people misinterpret these words of Jesus (“why do you call me good?”) and some even use this as evidence of Christ claiming that He’s not good.
But this is just not true – this is interpreting Scripture in the wrong way.
Jesus is good and Jesus is God. It’s totally clear.
While none of us is good. We’re all sinners, by default.
“We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.”
We need Jesus Christ, each and every one of us.
Only He can wash us clean from our sins as He already gave His life as ransom for many (1 Timothy 2:6 ESV).