Why do you call me good?’ Jesus answered. ‘No-one is good – except God alone.’
I am leading you through a study of the perfections of God, and we will consider today the goodness of God. If I were speaking in west Africa this morning and said to you, “God is good” then you would as a congregation reply with one voice, “All the time!” There was once a man who seemed to have everything that all the world longs to have – youth, wealth, power and even health because he ran along the road to Jesus at some speed. This man had all that the world esteems, and yet when he heard that the Lord Jesus Christ was at a certain place he didn’t shrug his shoulders. He didn’t think that he’d made it on his own, and he’d got everything, and so he wasn’t somebody who was going to get fanatical about Jesus. No, that was not his attitude, quite the reverse. He hurried all the way there to hear our Lord and speak to him, afraid that if he strolled casually to this place he would miss encountering Jesus and that would have been a disaster. So here is a man to be envied; he seems to have possessed everything, and yet he even has a desire to know the Lord Jesus Christ better.
He was not like that other man who came in the night to talk to Jesus. This young man was open and unashamed; he was unafraid that people would point the finger and say, “Look at that Jesus fanatic.” In fact, when he met Christ on the road he even kneeled down in the dust, in his presence, everyone looking on and listening, and he blurted out the great question he’d brought with him that he was longing to be answered. “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life” (Mk. 10.17). He knew that one day he was going to die and his health would have finally failed, his power would then be gone – dead men have only indirect power; he would have bade good-bye to life and youth, and others would possess all his wealth. So here was the question that was uppermost in his mind; was there such a reality as eternal life that he could begin to know in this life and go on experiencing after death? What could he do to inherit this eternal life? He was afraid of being snuffed out in annihilation. He feared the place of woe. If there was nothing before us after we breathed our last breath then let Jesus confirm that fact then and there. He felt he could go to no one better in all the world with his great question. If Jesus Christ couldn’t tell him the way to receive eternal life then no one else would or could know the way to have it.
What was Jesus’ answer? We know that he had told Nicodemus that God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life. That is how anyone or everyone can have eternal life. That is God’s answer to all of you today. Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. Trust in him. Entrust yourself to his life and death. Plead his name as the reason for God to accept you. That is the great answer of the Bible of how men may receive eternal life, and today that message is being preached from many gospel pulpits in the world. It is the good news of Christianity. You may have eternal life if you believe upon the Son of God.
But that was not what Jesus said to this man, the man who had everything, even the public confidence to be surrounded by a crowd of people on a road and fall down on his knees before the leader and ask aloud this question. Here was a man whom many knew, a man who had it all plus the chutzpah to carry off this moment, surrounded by everyone, conscious that all were seeing and hearing him. Then it was that he chose to ask with supreme self-confidence, “What must I do? Is there anything that I can offer, or anything more that I can accomplish in order to guarantee eternal life?” He was a unique young man, influential, wealthy and as fit as a fiddle, surely a man mightily blessed by God, a man who got the answers to his questions one way or another. Surely Jesus would smile and say, “I wish all men were like you. Son, you’ve got it already. There is nothing left for you to do,” and, stretching out a helping hand, would lift him to his feet and put an arm on his shoulder and they would stroll along together, another disciple added to Jesus’ cause.
But this was not Jesus’ response. Not at all. Of course, Christ did not mock the young man. He did not tell him that no one knew the answer to his question. That was untrue. He didn’t tell him that there is no way that anyone can be certain about such an entity as eternal life. Jesus in fact told him in his answer how he could “have treasure in heaven” (v.22). There is a heaven; we are not snuffed out in death, and favoured people will receive the most unimaginably glorious treasure there. This is what the Son of God told him. Isn’t that important? Death is not the terminus of everything. Jesus rejects that theory. Annihilation is not an option. Jesus has told us so. We will all live as long as God. Heaven! There is a heaven that some might gain. Eternal life – a gift from God! The life of eternity some men and women may receive. The Son of God, Jesus Christ, has said it. Then let me know what it is. Please tell me. Maybe some of you have come here today with much in terms of this world’s values. Maybe you still have some wealth, some youth, and some health, and some influence in your business, and your community, and at the university. But you don’t know this how you may have the life of God in your soul. “Let Jesus tell me! How can I learn from this dialogue?” What did Jesus tell him?
1. THIS YOUNG MAN NEEDED TO KNOW GOD ALONE IS GOOD.
The man had a fundamental flaw in his thinking because he had an inadequate view of God. He thought that God’s gift of eternal life could be his by something that he had to do. It all hung on him. He had to know the formula. He had to pull the switch. He had to take some decisive action and then eternal life would be his. “Good Master what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He wanted, say, the three laws of gaining eternal life to be spelled out to him. First . . . second . . . and third, do this and this and this and hey presto, you have eternal life! God explains it, and we do it, and we get it. Here is a letter in the Times from a vicar in Morecambe in Lancashire and he tells all the Times readers what they must do to inherit eternal life. He says, Christianity “is a lifestyle that makes simple demands on its followers; that is, required attendance at church only at Easter, Pentecost and Christmas, with an occasional Christingle thrown in for good measure. You can worship in 17th century English or something more trendy. Above all, as long as the vicar believes something, one can be relaxed about one’s own theology or lack of it – that is its genius.” Well, that’s an answer to what WE have to DO to get eternal life. You see that there is nothing at all about grace, about the gift of God, about his mercy, about the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world and about a new birth. Nothing. That vicar has a flawed view of God, and so he has a flawed view of eternal life, and so he has a flawed view of everything because his understanding of the Creator was wrong and his understanding of himself was wrong too.
What did Jesus do with this rich, young, healthy ruler? He actually interrogated him: “Why do you call me good? No one is good – except God alone.” Why should this young man presume that he knew about morality, that he could speak aloud in public so that anyone could hear him, announcing who or what was good, and so what wasn’t. Jesus was a goodie. The man was kneeling down before him in the road because he knew that the Nazarene was a goodie, and he was identifying himself with goodies. He respected them. And he knew who baddies were too. And he wanted people to see, right there in the street, that he was someone who knew the difference.
He spoke out loud. Jesus was asking why was he so confident in making pronouncements about good and evil? Did he think that he knew? Did he really know? Couldn’t he be wrong? He announced that Jesus was ‘good’ but had he never seen this, that God alone is good? Had that fact gripped him and convicted him and troubled him? Have you seen that there doesn’t exist one wholly good person in all of the world, nor has there ever been one, nor ever will there be a single person who is good through and through, one man who does only good. Not one. There is none good, . . . no . . . not . . . one. Jesus said that. Originally created good, originally tied to the image of God – as your image is tied to you when you look at yourself in the bathroom mirror, man has cracked that divine image. It is now distorted in everyone. Not eradicated in anyone, but warped in all of us without exception. Man has rebelled and he has jettisoned God from his life and so now he lacks any original goodness.
Perhaps you are someone who has been good to your husband through his years of Alzheimers and we are thankful and respectful and appreciative of all the good things you have done for him, but when we say things like that – praising you – then you reply quickly, “Ah, I could have been so much better and more patient and loving than I was.” You confess that you were not wholly good, and that awareness can be repeated for every relationship and every conversation and every action and every word in everybody. We could have been heaps better! There is none good. No, not one man or one woman. That is how Jesus began his exchange with this kneeling young man. He challenges his confidence in making pronouncements about what is good and he is showing this man with all his tremendous assets he’s not good.
Aren’t you a little disappointed to see Jesus handling such a promising disciple so roughly? Why hadn’t Jesus taken a course in personal evangelism? What does he think he’s doing in beginning the relationship with confrontation, challenging this man’s basic assumptions, going further in laying the Ten Commandments on him (!), and then further still, demanding immense sacrifice as a condition of getting eternal life, and finally letting this prize catch get away without his repeating the sinner’s prayer! Hadn’t Jesus learned how to lead a soul to himself? How Jesus responds to this young man goes utterly against the trembling religious ethos of our day. Men insist that we have to put our hearers at their ease and be seeker sensitive!
Let us look again at this the greatest preacher, and soul winner, and pastor that the world has ever seen. The young man was full of self confidence and self achievement who needed only the X factor, eternal life. He called Jesus ‘Good Master’, but our Lord didn’t want and didn’t need flattery from sinners. He had received the praises of an innumerable company of angels worshipping him from the moment they’d been created. If a Hitler or a Jimmy Saville should smile at you and give you a complement, – “I think you’re a really good man” – then you’d feel creepy. “I don’t need praise from him. Why is he praising me? Is he being sincere? Does he want something from me?” This young man didn’t know to whom he was talking. He wasn’t aware of the identity of the Lord Jesus. He thought of him as a mere healer, an interesting rabbi-teacher, and a very decent bloke – “Say what you will, Jesus is a good man.” But Christ is in fact Jehovah Jesus, God veiled in the flesh, the Messiah sent by the Creator of the universe, the Son of the living God, the one who had come into the world to save every one who believes in him from hell by his life and his death. And this Jesus was saying to this rich, young, healthy ruler that stroking the affections of men is an unworthy activity. It sickens us doesn’t it – parading before a man publicly just how wonderful he is thought to be. You know what happens next is that that praised man has to respond in kind and tell everyone what a great bloke you also are. The young man thought Jesus was another man just like him, but the goodness of a mere man isn’t worth bragging about because the goodness of the best of us is flawed goodness, compromised and inconsistent as the best of us will be swift to acknowledge. It is God alone who is essentially and originally good.
Of course I don’t want to be pedantic or petty in this regard. I have just written an essay in a book of essays that is going to be a festschrift to honour a friend. He will be embarrassed that such a presentation has been made in his honour, but even he, a most modest man, will recognize that such actions are not sinful. Our Lord does not expect us to literally interrupt every conversation to correct all plaudits given to our fellow-creatures. Jesus himself in the Sermon on the Mount labeled righteous men as ‘good.’ Jesus loved this young man in a way that he did not love the Pharisees (whom he described as white washed graves), or Herod (whom he described as a fox).
But Jesus took this man’s public posture and praise as an occasion to inform all who were watching and listening about the perfections of God. Above everything else in his life Jesus was motivated by a longing to glorify God. His aim in everything he did was to magnify God before men.
True evangelism always requires preaching on the perfections of God. When Jesus met one woman at a well he was soon speaking to her about the fact that God is a Spirit. Do you know that? When Paul was speaking to the Greeks on Mar’s Hill in Athen most of his time was spent telling them about the nature of God, the Creator of all, the Sustainer of life, the Mighty One who raised Jesus from the dead. Do you know that? The gospel of Christ begins with God and his glory. Its message to men is “Behold your God!” Your only hope is to be found in him.
So Jesus hears a man confidently speaking out in a crowd and asking him, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” and Jesus replies by saying in effect, “Hang on a minute. The God with whom all men have to do is thrice holy. Do you want to spend eternity with him? He alone is good through and through, unapproachable, righteous and also loving righteousness above all else. I will return to your question in a moment, but now take your eyes from your quest for eternal life and think for a moment about the living God, what he is like. Then you will see yourself as you truly are – a sinner in the sight of an infinitely pure God. Have you seen it, that you’re not good? Until you start here, “Who is God? What is his nature? What is he like? What are his perfections?” then you’re not ready to understand who you are and the life of eternity.”
2. ALL OTHERS NEED TO KNOW THAT GOD ALONE IS GOOD.
So the rich, young, healthy ruler needed to know that God alone is good, but all of us also, just as much, at this very moment, need to be gripped by this truth. A student once came to me during a summer term. She came very quietly she was not her wonderful bubbly self. Her father and brother had both died of a genetic illness before she had come to university. Then her mother had died of cancer the previous month. She was all alone, and spiritually she was wobbling. She had known mighty devastations in her life, and fiery darts were being thrown at her those weeks telling her that God was not good, that a cosmic malice was reigning from heaven over her life. I was filled with compassion for her, but I was not the answer to her needs, and giving her a hug, and telling her that I loved her is always a very, very unhelpful thing to do, and I never do that. What she needed wasn’t the assurance of my affection but the assurance that God is good and good all the time. When your father dies, and your brother dies and your mother dies, and you are all alone then you must be able to live by faith, not by sight, and to respond by believing the teaching of the Lord Jesus, that though bad things happen to us all in this fallen world God is good. Though your father and mother, your husband or your wife forsake you God will never forsake you. In fact he will work all things together for your good. It is cosmic goodness who reigns over our lives; he even numbers the hairs of our heads.
So, she was restored to that peace of God that passes all understanding. She was restored because greater was he that lived in her than the enemy who throws his darts of unbelief at us. She eventually married a preacher, and her three children have now all flown the nest and the kids are all serving the Lord too. There is a little verse in Psalm 119. It is verse 68 and the psalmist throughout the psalm is talking to God. Then there is this little sentence. It has just nine words. Every word is just one syllable in length and what the psalmist says to God sums up this perfection of the goodness of God. He does so very simply so that the youngest child here can understand it. He is speaking to God and this is what he says to the Lord; “You are good, and what you do is good.” You children remember that, maybe someone steals your bike or your mobile phone, or when your puppy is killed, or when you fail an exam, or there is some disappointment that you experience like not passing your driving test first time, or not getting the grades to go to the college of your choice, then you can say to God when times are bad what the psalmist says to God, “You are good and what you do is good.”
If it’s possible for you to say that from your heart, that you are trusting in God, then you will find lots of experiences on many different days when you can say it and say it again and again, “you are good and what you do is good” because the goodness of God is all around us. Another psalmist in Psalm 33 and verse 5 says, “The earth is full of the goodness of God.” We sometimes get a sight of this; there is a joy that seeks us through pain. Our hearts almost burst with the wonder of it. I was reading in the Banner of Truth this week the last words of +++++++ whom I knew. He had sent one of his six children here to college and he became Christian Union president. When his father was a student at Glasgow University in 1966 he went to a pre-terminal conference by Loch Lomond where he believes he was born again. He says, “I had an impression on my spirit that I had not had before of the spiritual world and the nearness of God. As I walked outside with others in the evening, the starry sky seemed like a thin shell behind which was the reality of God.” The world we see in Aberystwyth is full of the goodness of God even as it groans in its fallenness. Sometimes we want to dance with joy when we see a good God has the whole world in his hands .
i] God is good in his being. In the very beginning there was only a God of absolute and infinite goodness. He was never anything less than good. His was an un-derived and an un-originated goodness. This is how God has always been. He couldn’t choose to be bad. He can only be absolute goodness; all other goodness is derived from God. He is not stingy with his goodness. He gives it to his people day after day. He is more willing to give us his goodness than the sun is to shine upon us. His pleasure in pouring on us his goodness is greater than our pleasure in receiving his goodness. He doesn’t hoard his treasures to himself. He rejoices to impart every one of his graces to us. He delights to be asked, “Please give me more and more of your goodness, and please make me a good person.” So any good things that I do, the good attitude I show, the good words I say, they all have their origin in God. Without him I can do nothing. They are the result of being made in God’s image and likeness. When I am patient and loving and merciful and kind then such actions are the fruit of the Holy Spirit in a regenerate believer’s life. We have no goodness naturally in ourselves. What goodness we do have is the result of God’s divine influence upon us and in us. You think of a light shining on a mirror. The brightness of the beam of its reflection can’t be separated from the brightness of the beam shining on the mirror. A candle will reflect a pale flickering light. A powerful torch with new batteries will reflect back a powerful beam of light. So the light we reflect back of God’s goodness and love and praise will depend on how well we know God and how he has shed his light on us. Goodness is not merely words and actions but it comes from the life of our inner being.
God’s goodness is like himself, without beginning and without end, infinite and perfect and self-sustained. His goodness is unchangeable. In the beginning he made the heavens and the earth in goodness, not in mercy. Mercy is an expression of his goodness. Creation was an act of the divine goodness. Don’t we read at every step of creation in Genesis chapter 1 “ . . . and God saw that it was good . . . it was good . . . it was good . . . it was good.” And he who created it good sustains the world with the same goodness. Do you see the consequences of that? This globe on which gravity holds us firm and safe, and the sights we have of earth, sky and sea in all their beauty and glory is gripped by the goodness of God. Only man is vile.
I was in Sidmouth and I went into a little electronics shop to buy a small keyboard that I could use with my Apple i-pad. It has been a useful purchase and I talked for a few minutes to the young woman at the counter because the shop was empty and she had given me a discount because the keyboard came out of the window and the box had been opened already. I asked her whether she was from Devon, and then she asked me where I was from. I said to her, “Aberystwyth.” “Ooh,” she said, “The starlings!” She had visited a friend at the university and they had watched the aerial acrobatics of a murmuring of a thousand starlings around the pier. How good is God in making such a fascinating and glorious world! And aren’t there times when you’ve seen it? You have thought in your heart, “This is my Father’s world.” He is so good he cannot be bad; he cannot do what is bad. All that comes from him to me and to this world flows from his infinite goodness. It would be utterly inconsistent with what God is to create anything that is inconsistent with his goodness. Look at the order in which God made everything, the light, the sky, the sea, the dry land, the sun and moon, the birds and fishes, the animals, and finally man, last of all man and woman, provided with all things necessary for glorifying and enjoying God from the things already created. When God spoke to Moses he introduced himself to Moses with these words, “The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness” (Ex. 34:6). What an introduction to the one who is the true and living God.
ii] In his goodness God made us. How did God make man at the beginning? With freedom to hear God’s encouragements and see all the gifts being offered to him, but also his one prohibition, and to permit man to choose, to select, to act in obedience or not to do so, and to permit the man he had created in his image to obey or to defy. That is the true and good freedom with which God made man. He gave Adam the freedom of will to be happy in doing God’s will. God was his loving Benefactor before man turned into a rebel against God. Yes, man took the forbidden fruit. He bit it off and swallowed it down and did it his way. He abused his free will. It was man who fell, not God. That fall of Adam was no blemish on the goodness of God was it? If man sins against the goodness of God does that make God’s goodness evil? God forbid. If God pardoned many rebels should he also have pardoned every rebel? You speak to your children when they first go off on a holiday by themselves. You provide everything for them and you tell them to remember that you want them to behave responsibly, but alas one does not. He even gets arrested for drunkenness and disorderliness. Does that mean that your goodness is to be blamed? I believe not. Not at all! You must not beat yourself up because of the follies of one to whom you have given freedom. But God was so good that immediately following the rebellion of man against his goodness God took occasion to turn things in a redeeming way, to save depraved sinners and destroy the temporary cosmic rule of sin.
God is good though the devil is active. Could God still have been good if he had refused to hate the devil? Would God be good if he would not condemn cruelty and rape and murder and theft and deceit? God would be no friend to goodness if he were not an enemy of evil. Again is God’s goodness to be questioned because he chose to save countless billions of rebels but chose not to save every single rebel? If, on the other hand, God had chosen not to save a single one but rather to treat them all as they deserved, justly and totally fairly, then that decision would not have proved him to be a bad God. He chose not to save a single rebel angel. Rather he had treated them righteously. That did not make him a bad God. If God had left every single person without exception to be treated righteously, and so condemning all sinners for their sins, then that decision of God would have shown to us God is good, and God is just, and God is fair. The Lord gave many warnings. Christ told his disciples, “Remember Lot’s wife.” The existence of hell does not cast any aspersions on the goodness of God. Who made those people? Who sustained them? Who blessed them with every good thing? Who is the one who showed them patience and mercy through many long years of their defiant ungodliness? Didn’t our Lord say, “Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with my own? Is your eye evil because I am good?” (Matt. 20:15). God has the right to make his goodness known according to his sovereign pleasure. God is free to act according to his wise will, not according to man’s faulty whims.
iii] In his goodness God blesses us. Think of all he considerable great and precious promises that God has made to us, and all of them God will keep to all his children without fail. I, alas, hve failed to keep every one of my promises to my children, but God, never What of our sufferings? They’re no proof that God isn’t good! God’s goodness and God’s rod – they are both in the hands of a loving Father. Aren’t we told this, that our sufferings work for our good? They don’t work against the Christian. This is what one inspired Christian said, “It is good for me that I have been afflicted, that I might learn thy statues (Ps. 119:71) and again, “Before I was afflicted I went astray. But now I have kept thy word” (Psa. 119:67). That was his experience, wandering further and further from the Lord, and then a time of trial came, and he was sobered and sought help in the good God and began to keep his word. He found his way home. He found that lovely narrow path that leads to life!
How wonderfully he blesses us. Let me give you one extraordinary example of this, one reason for making me love the goodness of God very, very much. Are you aware of this, as I am aware of it now as I look at you all, that God requires every one of you to love me as you love yourselves? Have you seen that? The good God is calling out to each one of you today and he saying to you, “You love Geoff Thomas as much as you love yourself.” Isn’t God good to me that he should tell all of you to do that? And of course then he turns to me and he tells me, “Now you love each one of them as you love yourself.”
What has God done for me since he brought me to himself over sixty years ago and joined me to all his children? He has fed me in both body and soul; he has refreshed me in flesh and spirit. He has led me first into one truth and then into another. He has been my outrider and my wagon master and my bodyguard and shepherd as I go on my journey to my eternal home. He has kept me from my enemies in the pathway of experience. He has taught me every day by his Spirit, and he has surrounded me by the best of friends. Oh, what goodness of God to me! If what I say is not what you feel I shall be sad for you and yet I shall continue to be overwhelmed with thankfulness at the thought of his goodness to such an inconsistent man, such a foolish man, such a hypocrite, someone so prone to forget lessons taught by God himself, lessons so slowly understood.
Talking of such things I am speaking of the small dust on the balance of God’s goodness, like God giving someone a parking place in town – small dust! God’s goodness means vastly more than that. It means complete forgiveness for all our sins, past, present and future. God’s goodness means he’s clothed us with the garments of righteousness. God’s goodness means we have an inheritance reserved in heaven. God’s goodness means when we see Jesus Christ we shall be changed in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye into his likeness. What peaks of goodness, what ranges of glorious goodness he has prepared for them on whom his favour rests! What more could God do than he has done?
Here was a rich, young, healthy ruler who told the incarnate Son of God that he considered him to be a good man and asked him if could tell him what he had to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus told him that his basic problem was his inadequate view of God. He was not lost in wonder love and praise at the goodness of God. He had not grasped the incomparable perfection of God, that God was absolutely and infinitely good, and compared to God there is no one who is good. What did Jesus do to show him how to get eternal life? He preached the law of God because that showed him how far he had come short of God’s glory and how he needed salvation. Finally he told the man that his wealth was a huge barrier to him ever getting eternal life. He was dominated by his possessions. He had to unload that weight – the poor would benefit much from it – in order to receive the good God’s gift of eternal life.
A man once came to Jesus and went away empty handed. This man came to Jesus in need and he went away sad. I didn’t think that that happened to people who came to Jesus, that they all went away full of eternal life, but this man didn’t. He came without eternal life and he left without eternal life. He had never grasped the goodness of God, that to receive this God on his terms was to have the life of eternity in your heart for ever. But one thing, that young man went away sad. And if you are going to go from here today without the good God as your Saviour then go away sad, but better still, don’t go away. Destroy your idols, whate’er those idols be, and worship him alone.
27th July 2014 GEOFF THOMAS