Why don’t you call me good? Because you’re not

In the Gospel of Luke Jesus asks the question, “Why do you call me good?” Here is the question in context:

18 “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.’ 20 You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, Do not murder, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother.’” 21 And he said, “All these I have kept from my youth.” 22 When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”(Luke 18:18-22, ESV).

My main topic is not about Jesus asking why someone should call him good, but about many people who maintain that they are basically good. Owing to the possibility that you would really like to know either 1. why a good person such as Jesus would ask why the ruler thought he was good, or 2. if Jesus claimed to be God on other occasions, why does he asked the ruler: “Why do you call me good?” I say a few words on the matter.

Jesus is not saying he is not good, he is asking why the ruler calls him good when only God is good. If the passage stopped at verse 19, I would understand – and I think the ruler would also understand it s0 – Jesus to mean that no human being, even himself is good because only God is good. Even “follow me” in verse 22 “… Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me,” is not enough evidence to indicate that Jesus is God. John Gerstner has an interesting dialogue between “Inquirer” and “Christian” on the issue. I leave the matter here and move on to my main question, “Why don’t you call me good.”

In Fathers and their children, I concluded: “When I say that Jean Jacques and Issy (Yisroel, Israel), my father, said this or did that, I am applying my mind to what they said and did. I am also a moral creature, and therefore make judgments of what is good and bad.” The question is: what is good and what is bad, or rather, who is good and who is bad?

We often make wrong choices, whether in taking the wrong turn in the road or the wrong turn in our lives. When this happens, there is always someone behind to give you a blast. We often feel the rebuke to be undeserved or too severe. We may cry that others do not understand, that we are better than others give us credit for. We’re basically good. Doesn’t the Bible say “the inward heart of a man is deep” (Psalm 64:6), “who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). Don’t we often see bad where there is good? Is that what these Bible verses mean?

(Psalm 64:6 is 64:7 in Hebrew Bibles. In Hebrew Bibles, the description at the beginning of the psalm is the first verse. For example, Psalm 64 in the Hebrew Bible starts with 1. For the leader. A psalm of David. In most English translations, Psalm 64 begins with 1. O God, hear my anguished voice; from the foes I dread protect my life, which is verse 2 in the Hebrew Bible).

Here are the two Bible verses in context:

Psalm 64:5-8

They hold fast to their evil purpose; they talk of laying snares secretly, thinking, “Who can see them?” They search out injustice, saying, “We have accomplished a diligent search.” For the inward mind and heart of a man are deep. But God shoots his arrow at them; they are wounded suddenly. They are brought to ruin, with their own tongues turned against them.

Jeremiah 17:9

The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?

So,  the Bible is really saying that we nurse wicked schemes and conceal them in our hearts. The Bible shatters our self-image on that score. Yet most believing Jews and Christians think they’re basically good. A recent Gallup Poll in the US showed that the majority of modern Christians believe that people are basically good and that we can become better with a few dollops of God’s grace. The majority Jewish view of “sin” seems even more “dis-grace-ful”, not only because God’s grace appears to be at best absent, at worst, non-existent but also because “sin” is not regarded as an offence against a Holy God that deserves punishment – which the Tanakh makes crystal clear does deserve judgment. For example, In Genesis 39, Potiphar’s wife tries to seduce Joseph. He rebukes her with the following words: “He (Potiphar) is not greater in this house than I am, nor has he kept back anything from me except yourself (Potiphar’s wife), because you are his wife. How then can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?” (Genesis 39:9).

וְאֵיךְ אֶֽעֱשֶׂה הָרָעָה הַגְּדֹלָה הַזֹּאת וְחָטָאתִילֵֽאלֹהִֽים׃

sin – khatati (verb) (“kh” is also transliterated as “ch” as in Scots “loch”).

Potiphar has given Joseph full authority over his household except over his wife. For Joseph, to sin against Potiphar is the same as sinning against God. The common Jewish interpretation is that stepping into your boss’s shoes and climbing into bed with his wife is  indeed overstepping the mark, but, as Rabbi Richard Hirsch puts it, “we need only try harder next time, with hope that we’ll hit the target more often”. Make sure though that next time the target is not your boss’s wife. According to Rabbi Hirsch ( his “Can a Reconstructionist Sin?”):

“Open almost any “Introduction to Judaism” book, or consult almost any commentary to the High Holiday mahzor, and one inevitably finds the explanation that the Hebrew word het (sin) means something like “missing the mark” — as if life were no more than a game of darts. Our moral and relational failures receive a soothing bromide of reassurance: We need only try harder next time, with hope that we’ll hit the target more often. The operative concept is that we need to be reassured, rather than reassessed.” (Hirsch transliterates the Hebrew for “sin” as het because the Hebrew “kh” sound is lost on Americans: “Happy Hanuka.” No, no. Happy Khanuka/Chanuka, Pleeeeease!).

Hirsch continues:

“But without first engaging seriously in a deep moral inventory, how can we honestly move forward in life? Without the courage to descend into the depths of our failures, how can we presume to ascend in pursuit of our better self? As the Reconstructionist mahzor states, “reducing sin to the status of an almost inadvertent error hardly seems tenable in the light of our awareness of the horrors of which humans, individually as well as collectively, have proved capable. The concept of sin, in fact, seems more, rather than less, important as we move into the 21st century — not for what it tells us about God, but for what it suggests to us about ourselves.” (My italics).

I italicised the phrase: “the horrors of which humans, individually as well as collectively, have proved capable.”  I suggest that Hirsch has not got to the heart of sin. The horrors of which we humans are capable – horrifying as they are – are only the symptoms; the products of our sin nature, our original sin nature that we inherited from the father of the human race, Adam. Most Christians and Jews deny that Adam was a single man  and many Christians and all Jews reject the doctrine of “original sin”, namely, that we are all born with a sin nature that we inherited, whether from a single rotter or a whole gang of them.

What does sin “nature” mean? Lewis Johnson explains (I have transcribed this from one of his mp3 messages):

“One of the reasons why people have such a shallow view of sin is because they have not been taught to think rightly about sin. If you ask a man whether he is a sinner, he understands you to mean that he is a great flagrant outbreaking transgressor against the principles of morality that are found in the Bible. If you tell him that he is a great sinner in the sight of God, he thinks you are accusing him of being a blasphemer or a perjurer or a thief, an adulterer or a murderer. But without any of these forms of outbreaking forms of sin there may be a deep and damning hatred of the word of God in that man’s heart.”

But we must go deeper. Why do we hate the word of God? Because of unbelief. Every sin is a failure to respond to the word of God. This is clear in the Tanakh (Older Testament) as it is clear in the Newer Testament, where God’s word is manifested through another (single) man, the second (and last Adam), Jesus the Christ, or if you prefer the Hebrew,  Yeshua HaMashiach.

As I said, Christians  are often not any closer than Jews to the mark when it comes to the seriousness of sin; for example, Helmut Thielicke (and Philip Yancey, who quotes Thielicke approvingly in his “What is so amazing about Grace,”( Zondervan, 1997, p. 175):

“When Jesus loved a guilt-laden person and helped him, he saw in him an erring child of God. He saw in him a human being whom his Father loved and grieved over because he was going wrong. He saw him as God originally designed and meant him to be, and therefore he saw through the surface layer of grime and dirt to the real man underneath” (Helmut Thielicke, “Christ and the meaning of life,” Grand Rapids, Baker, 1975, p. 41).

An important question to address in the above paragraph is: “What is the attitude of a “guilt-laden” person toward God. Does it follow that if you feel guilt that you feel more than mere remorse, that you feel repentance? I don’t think so. “Guilt” is the human condition; but, so is pride. Guilt – except in rare conditions such as psychopathy – begets remorse: “I feel (really and honestly bad about this or that”. But  repentance is a different mental state altogether, namely, its about longing for forgiveness and falling on your knees before a holy God and pleading for forgiveness. “Woe is me, for I am undone” (Isaiah, 6:5).

When Thielicke speaks of a “person”, and the “man underneath”, he seems to be talking about anybody who feels guilt, which is the whole human race (except possibly psychopaths, and even there we are not sure what they feel); and there lies the problem with Thielicke’s portrait of sinful man.

Thielicke’s Jesus and Thielicke’s human being are not the Jesus and human being described in the Bible. The Bible says the opposite: Jesus did not see “through the surface layer of grime and dirt to the real man underneath,” because the real man underneath was not only superficially grimy, he was filthy. The “real man” of the Bible is totally depraved in his very nature.  Everything in the Bible glorifies God and abases man. God saves men and women not because deep down they are good, but in spite of the fact that deep down they are evil. He chooses to save them – for one reason only: because He wants to. The natural man despises such a God. Many professing Christians do so as well. But that is the God of the Bible. God floods the whole Bible – but not everyone – with mercy, and “I will show mercy to whom I will” (Romans 9:15), and its got nothing to do with you or me.

It’s understandable that Romans 9:15  revolts people’s moral conscience; but so does the Blood Atonement where many only see a tyrannical cruel God who not only punishes the innocent in place of the wicked but punishes his own Son, through whom he made the world – and does it in one of the cruelest ways known to man. For what? For sin. My sin. If there is good in me, it  comes from God. You may protest with John Stuart Mill that this can’t be true: “I will call no being good, who is not what I mean when I apply that epithet to my fellow-creatures, and if such a being can sentence me to hell for not so calling him [good], to hell I will go.” But in hell will he find rest? (Hebrews 3:11, 18). “A Man (Adam) who wanders from the way  understanding will rest in the assembly of the dead” (Proverbs 21:6). But will he find rest?

For John Stuart Mill what matters is who is in charge – Mill.  “If My people who are called by My name will humble themselves, and pray and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land (2 Chronicles 7:14). Repentance involves falling on your knees before a holy God. There is more – or is it less. In this case, less is more. I must become less and God must become more; I must be emptied of my pride as Jesus emptied himself of his glory:

“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,but s made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore y God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians, 2:11).”

God’s nature is power, love, holiness, and humility. Andrew Murray (who brings back memories of my boarding school days in Wellington – see the “Pastor, the penseur and the infidel”) has written many wonderful books. One of these is “Humility” in which he says:

“Believer! study the humility of Jesus. This is the secret, the hidden root of thy redemption. Sink down into it deeper day by day. Believe with your whole heart that this Christ, whom God has given you, even as His divine humility wrought the work for you, will enter in to dwell and work within you too, and make you what the Father would have you be.” (Emphasis added).

Compare Yancey’s (above) “He saw him as God originally designed and meant him to be, and therefore he saw through the surface layer of grime and dirt to the real man underneath” with Murrays “what the Father would have thee be.” Yancey is describing – it seems clear – a person before Christ has drawn him and reconciled him to his Father, whereas Murray is describing someone who is already reconciled to the Father. This is a crucial distinction on which the whole meaning of the Cross hangs. Only those whose eyes God has opened and subsequently changed – I would add, consequently changed  (the Reformed Christianity position) – are enabled to become the people Christ meant them to be.  In his Religious Affections, Jonathan Edwards says:

“There are very many of the most important things declared in the gospel that are hid from the eyes of natural men.” …but…”as soon as ever the eyes are opened to behold the holy beauty and amiableness that is in divine things, a multitude of most important doctrines of the gospel, that depend on it (which all appear strange and dark to natural men), are at once seen to be true.” Edwards “Religious affections.”

The term “total depravity” (“utter depravity”) may mislead because it implies that a person is as base as he can possibly be. We need only to look at Hitler or in the mirror to realise that there is hardly a human who is utterly wicked. Hitler may indeed have loved his mother and been a good provider for her old age. Two virtues held in great esteem are 1. being a “good provider” (one of my saving “graces” I hear) and 2. washing up the dishes at one another’s homes (mea culpa).

So then, are we totally depraved or not? Yes in the sense that sin pervades our whole being, root and branch – the body, the mind and the will. A better term than “total depravity” is “radical corruption” (radical = root). Sin lies at the core (Latin “heart”) of our being. We are born in sin, with a sin nature. Thus, it is totally unbiblical to say that the “real man underneath” (Yancey) is another Adam before the fall and that he is therefore basically good. Most of the professing Christians I know are with Yancey on that one. The heart of sin is a refusal to obey and worship God; which is to hate God – the God of the Bible. That is why deep down, no one is good. “And Jesus said to him, “No one is good except God alone (Mark 10:18). I omittted the first part of the verse; Jesus is asking a question: “Why do you call me good?” In the context, I understand Jesus to mean not that he is not good, but that if he is good, it is because he is God. It is our sin and unexamined life that blinds us to this truth. Herbert Butterfield explains:

“It must be emphasized that we create tragedy after tragedy for ourselves by a lazy unexamined doctrine of man which is current among amongst us and which the study of history does not support. And now, as in Old Testament days, there are false prophets who flourish by flattering and bribing human nature, telling it to be comfortable about itself in general, and playing up to its self-righteousness in times of crisis” (Christianity and history. 1949, Fontana, p. 65).

“I have not sent these prophets, yet they ran: I have not spoken to them, yet they prophesied. But if they had stood in my council, and had caused my people to hear my words, then they should have turned them from their evil way, and from the evil of their doings”  (Jeremiah 23:21-22).



3 thoughts on “Why don’t you call me good? Because you’re not

  1. Good job.

    The Christian life really is a supernatural one where the fruits of the Spirit are displayed. True mortification is joyous, loving, peaceful since only Jesus is shining through us. A Christian disciple’s life is one of death to self unlike most nominal Christians’ practice of an autonomous self.

    On another note, for some reason your posts are not appearing in my WordPress Reader. I had to manually click on your blog to read the post. I pared down my follower list, so now hopefully yours and some others will display in the Reader section.

      • “Mortification” actually means “dying” (to self) – Latin ‘mortus.’ In Modern English we speak of being “mortified” (shocked, very put out), which is an entirely different meaning. In Shakespeare’s time “nice” meant “not nice.”

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