Why do you call me good?

Why do you call me good?

Question
"And Jesus said to him, 'Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.'" (Mark 10:18) Does this mean that humans are not good? What about angels? Does this mean that angels are not good?
Answer
Thank you for your question.

First, I’ll address angels and the greater context surrounding this verse. We can see that Mark 10:17-22 is dealing with mankind and not angels. And in the text itself we see that angels aren't even a topic in the conversation. So Jesus is isn’t saying elect angels are not good (1 Tim. 5:21). Nor is he saying that evil fallen angels are good (Luke 10:18; Rev. 12:3-9). Jesus' words have nothing to do with angels at all. Even with this said, though, anything good that angels possess flows from God alone.

With the Fall, mankind’s nature became evil. We are spiritually dead in trespasses and sin (Eph. 2:1-3). Matthew 15:18-19 spells it out: "But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these things defile a man. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, and slander." As Jeremiah says, "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?" (Jer. 17:9). All of us humans are totally depraved. We are born in sin (Psa. 51:5).

Our rebellion against God is total. In our total rebellion, everything we do is sin because it doesn't and can't glorify God. In man's fallen state, the very best he has to offer is a gift from his personal pig trough — dirty, filthy, rotten, and fully corrupt (2 Pet. 2:22; cf. Isa. 64:6). Even if we appear to do good things, an honest look at our hearts reveals evil. Within fallen man there is no godly good (Rom. 3:23; 6:23) and we’re totally unable to submit to God and do good (cf. Rom. 8:7-8). Such rebellion is totally deserving of eternal punishment (Matt. 25:46).

However, the doctrine of total depravity doesn't mean that we are as evil as we could be. Everyone is not a Hitler or a Bin Laden per se. In his providence, God restricts much evil. As the Psalmist writes, "The Lord brings the counsel of the nations to nothing; he frustrates the plans of the peoples. The counsel of the Lord stands forever, the plans of his heart to all generations" (Psa. 33:10-11; cf. 2 Thess. 2:7).

In this text, Jesus is merely asking the rich young ruler to face the radical implications of calling him good, not only with regard to Jesus' goodness, but also with respect to his own. The rich young ruler had shown himself to be good by almost every human standard, but when Jesus asked him to renounce his wealth and follow him (Mark 10:21 – i.e. another evidence that Jesus is good) he revealed that his human standards of goodness weren't up to God's. In other words, Jesus revealed to the rich young ruler how depraved his heart actually was. This was evidence that demanded a verdict! And the young ruler walked away (Mark 10:22), thereby acknowledging his level of depravity but not asking for forgiveness and grace.

In the end, Jesus' message is that actual goodness flows not from men's works, but rather from God himself. Only “in Christ” alone can man do God’s good. The rich young ruler was placing the proverbial cart before the horse — every good work follows salvation, not the other way around (Tit. 3:5-6). As Paul wrote, "For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them" (Eph. 2:8-10). How might you compare to the rich young ruler?

Of note, there is a another difficulty in the verse that you referred to that is not addressed by your questions. Some, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, have suggested that by Jesus’ words here he is denying that he is good and therefore he can't be God incarnate (John 1:1, 14; cf. John 14:11; 1 John 4:2; 2 John 1:7). But looking again at Mark 10:18 — "And Jesus said to him, "Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone" — notice that Jesus is not saying he is not good. He simply is asking a question and is not denying anything. He's actually saying that he is good, in fact, absolutely sinless. (cf. 2 Cor. 5:21; 1 Pet. 2:22; John 10:11, 14; Rom. 3:25; Heb. 4:15; 9:14; 1 Pet. 1:19). Jesus is God.

Related Topics

Angels: Are There Angels Around Us?
Overview of the Book of Mark

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill).