Thursday, May 30, 2024

Inbox: Was Christ Actually ‘Good’?

I’m going to share with you a short exchange I had with a couple of philosophers, because it was interesting to me, and helped me think through a few things more carefully. The issue it raises might be something you’ve thought about as well.

A short aside: for the most part, I have reproduced my partners’ conversation mostly verbatim. I’ve only altered a couple of punctuation glitches, and made a couple of small line changes in my response. I’ve also inserted a few lines after-the-fact to help you track and to make it work as an article. But the substance is pretty much exactly as it really happened.

Here’s how the conversation began. Brenda (name changed) had been puzzling about the story of the rich young ruler, found in Luke 18 and elsewhere. She wrote:

“When Jesus said ‘No one is good except God alone,’ he surely referred to God as synonymous with good — i.e., absolutely good — whereas all earthly creatures including Jesus himself are contingently good.”

“Contingently” means not necessarily so, but I think that she meant to suggest that Christ could have been saying, “I, like other human beings, am not always good, because God alone can be that.” I could tell she didn’t just mean that Jesus happened to be good all the time, but didn’t need to be; I was pretty sure she meant to imply that he was saying, “Even I am not good totally”, or perhaps “all the time”.

Well, is that what he was saying?

My response was as follows:

“Let me suggest something else, if I may. The question, ‘Why are you calling me good?’ can be understood two ways: as it seems you are thinking of it, it looks like a denial by Christ that he was genuinely good. But what if we view it not as that, but as a probing question, intended to bring out of the rich young ruler a declaration of why he was calling Christ ‘good’?

Did you also notice that Christ promises the rich young ruler treasure in heaven? If Christ were really saying, ‘You shouldn’t call me good, because only God is good, and I am not God,’ then how does he manage to offer that? Who else but God can say what a person gets in heaven?

But the whole context supports the second reading, namely that Christ was actually probing the rich young ruler’s motives, not denying his own goodness. You see, the rich young ruler had just called Christ ‘good teacher’, if you remember. So Christ turns to him, and essentially says, ‘I see; you are calling me good (and I am). But what motive in your heart made you choose to describe me this way?’

And this makes sense of the Lord’s follow-up comment as well: ‘There is none good save God alone.’ In other words, he’s asking the rich young ruler, ‘Are you implying that you agree that I am God?’

And this further makes sense of Christ’s answer to him: ‘One thing you lack (in order to make your declaration of faith in me real); go, sell all that you have, and give to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven. And follow me.’

So the whole incident comes together in a clear, coherent way if we understand Christ’s question not as calling into doubt his own goodness, but as asking the rich young ruler why he, in particular, was choosing to call Christ ‘good’, especially when up to this point the rich young ruler evidently hadn’t been interested in Christ at all!

The summary, then, is that it was the speaker’s sincerity, not Christ’s goodness, which was really the subject of doubt here.”

A third party watching, C.T., chimed in and said, “Thank you; that’s helpful.”

Brenda apparently was ready to concede there was something to it; but she wasn’t quite satisfied yet. We had already talked in earlier conversations about the importance of faith, and this raised a further question for her.

So she wrote back:

“That is useful info. However, your interpretation (which I accept) of the story is inconsistent with the injunction that to believe is sufficient to be saved.”

Now, let’s pause and consider her objection. Doesn’t it seem reasonable, at first? After all, Christ does point the rich young ruler to the Law, doesn’t he? Are we to think, then, that Christ was saying, “If you had kept the Law better, you would already be saved”?

But if that’s what Christ was saying, then it would really conflict with the idea that it is by faith in Christ that one is saved, not by the works of the Law. We should admit that Brenda has a point, and that would be a problem, if it were right.

But is it right? I responded:

“I don’t think it is.

After all, when Jesus says, ‘You know what the scripture says’, he’s repeating to the rich young ruler what the rich young ruler has, up to this point believed, and thinks he also fully practiced: keeping the Law.

The rich young ruler isn’t happy with that answer, though he thinks he’s ‘done it since my youth’, as he says, meaning, ‘Since I was a kid, I was always a good guy. But I’m still anxious that I don’t have eternal life.’

‘Not good enough,’ responds Jesus. ‘Give up all the stuff you’re trusting in, and follow me.’

And that he cannot do. So he goes away.

Jesus Christ has always been the only way to salvation, and the Law never got the rich young ruler heaven ... or even any peace of heart. And that’s the message: real belief in Christ (that is, real, heartfelt, self-invested belief) guarantees heaven and brings peace, whereas just working hard to keep the Law never does.

If there’s any inconsistency there, I’m not seeing it.”

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