What is goodness?
As humans, we are inclined to seek the answer to this question, hoping that when we find it we can become it.
Our society has led us to define goodness by action and character. If we do and act a certain way, we are good.
Yet, as believers, we must come to know a staggering truth about goodness: it is something that we are not.
There is a story in the Gospels, one where Jesus brings the issue of man’s inability to be good in contact with the absolute goodness of God to show us a truth our souls desperately need: God’s delight is not in our strength or ability to be good. No, God’s delight is in the understanding that His goodness alone is our strength.
“A certain ruler asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, honor your father and mother.’” “All these I have kept since I was a boy,” he said. When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was very wealthy. Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” Those who heard this asked, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus replied, “What is impossible with man is possible with God.”Luke 8:18-27
There is much we can learn from this interaction between Jesus and the ruler. This Gospel account reaches directly into the hearts of man to show us who we are, who God is, and how meets us there.
No One Is Good Except God Alone
Jesus’s response to the ruler addressing Him as “good teacher” is shocking. Right away, He is reaching the depths of this man’s question of how he can be good with a simple response. Jesus, the Son of God, challenges the man calling Him good.
We know that Jesus is perfect, without sin. Yet, in His response, He desired to show the man the truth we must grasp if we receive the salvation of Christ. No human is good, because no human is without sin. We have been born into a depraved nature because of the rule sin has over the world. Only God is good, holy, and right.
Therefore, without the work of God in man, man cannot be good. No matter how great their actions, nor how insignificant their sin may seem, every human is unrighteous, unholy, and broken.
The ruler failed to understand this. When he approached Jesus, he asked what actions he could do to inherit the kingdom. He was placing himself in the position of being able to save himself by his strength and goodness, rather than understanding that no matter how great his strength may have seemed, it would never be enough to achieve salvation without the work of Christ.
Like the ruler, none of us can achieve goodness in our strength. He thought that he had lived a righteous life that upheld the commandments Jesus listed. So often, we do too. We base our idea of how good we are on the actions we have done, yet Jesus was peering into the heart.
God’s Goodness Says “You Still Lack One Thing”
Imagine being face to face with Jesus, desperate to hear His approval of the life you have lived, and He says this: you still lack.
Those words are certainly not what anyone would want to hear, especially one who believes they have achieved that which God desires.
But, these words from Jesus are not condemning. They are encouraging. He calls the ruler to do the one thing he knows will challenge the man’s heart. The emphasis on the ruler’s works is diminished as Jesus brings forth the truth: God desires our hearts. He does not want all that we think we can do, but He wants us to understand that on our own we cannot do anything besides surrender ourselves to Him.
Jesus knew what would reach beyond the ruler’s ability. He asked him to give up the riches he clung to, not because that act in itself would achieve the man’s salvation, but because the act would strip the ruler of all that he believed made him strong so that he could come to realize that the only true strength is the Lord’s.
As we see Jesus’s desire for the ruler, we understand that God’s delight is in our surrender. This is often counter to our delight, which is placed not in the surrender of our weakness but the evidence of our perceived strength.
What Jesus was holding out to the ruler, and what he is holding out to all of us now, is something so freeing.
No matter how great our works may seem, without Him, we will always lack what we need for salvation. We are weak, and we are pursued by a God who delights in becoming our sufficiency.
God’s Goodness Makes All Things Possible
If it was left up to us, salvation would be impossible. Romans 3.23 tells us, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”.
All have sinned, all have fallen short of the glory. We still do, daily. The ruler did not understand this. He believed that he had done all he needed to uphold righteousness in the eyes of God. “All these things I kept since I was a boy,” he said. By believing that he had kept the standard that God had set for holiness, the ruler was deceived. No one could uphold the standards of perfection except for God, which is why Jesus went to the cross. The purpose of the laws Jesus spoke to the ruler are to reveal the inability of mankind to achieve their righteousness, to point to the truth “what is impossible with man is possible with God”.
What we cannot do, Christ has done. What we cannot be, Christ has been and has allowed us to identify with Him. Like the ruler, we have a responsibility. We must acknowledge and embrace how little we can do to rejoice in how much He can do and has done for us.
JJ Packer says, “we have nothing and have never had anything that we have not received, nor have we done anything good apart from God who did it through us.”
The delight of the Lord is not in our ability to be good and to save ourselves but is in our humble understanding that we have not done one good thing apart from God that does it through us. We have been freed from our insufficiency by The Lord’s gracious choice to allow His goodness to consume us.
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