Today I was asked a very good question.
Jesus said, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone” (Mark 10:18). Therefore, should Christians refrain from calling anyone “good,” as in “So-and-so is a good person”?
The Greek word translated in English as “good” in Jesus’ conversation with the rich young ruler is agathos, which is defined as “of good constitution or nature,” “useful, salutary,” “good, pleasant, agreeable, joyful, happy,” “excellent, distinguished,” and “upright, honourable.”
Jesus used this same Greek word when he talked of how his Father made his sun to rise on the evil “and on the good” (Matt. 5:45). He used it when he said, “A good man out of the good treasure of the heart brings forth good things” (Matt. 12:35). He used it in a parable when he talked of servants who “gathered together all as many as they found, both bad and good” (Matt. 22:10), and in another parable when he told of the master who said to his servant, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matt. 25:21, 23).
In like manner, Luke was inspired by the Holy Spirit of God (2 Pet. 1:19-21) to use this same Greek word to describe Joseph and Barnabas (Luke 23:50; Acts 11:24). Paul also was inspired to use this same word when he wrote, “…though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die” (Rom. 5:7).
Therefore, it’s clear from how “good” is used repeatedly throughout Scripture to describe imperfect human beings that it is not sinful or erroneous to refer to certain of our fellow man as “good.” So why did Jesus say to the rich young ruler, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone” (Mark 10:18)?
First, remember that God is the ultimate epitome of goodness due to his sinless perfection and boundless love, patience, grace, and compassion. While we imperfect human beings can justifiably and biblically be called “good” in certain ways and by various degrees as shown above, none of us can ever attain the degree of goodness possessed by Jehovah due to our sin (Rom. 3:23).
Secondly, Jesus IS God (John 1:1, 14; 10:30; 17:11, 22; 14:9; Phil. 2:6; 2 Cor. 4:4; Col. 1:15, 19). This fact was brought up repeatedly by him during his preaching and by the miracles he wrought throughout his earthly ministry (cf. Mark 2:5-12). Because of this, it is clear that when the rich young ruler initially addressed him as “Good Teacher” (Mark 10:17), Jesus immediately saw another opportunity to proclaim himself as Deity. Thus, he replied, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone” (v. 18), a subtle but definite hint to the ruler, anyone else who was listening, and to us as readers today that the ruler was addressing Deity when he spoke to Jesus.
Thus, one should take “No one is good except God alone” not as an indictment of sin by Christ against referring to anyone other than God as “good.” If that was the case, Christ himself as well as his inspired apostles and prophets would have violated his own edict by referring both generally and specifically to imperfect human beings as “good.” Rather, one should interpret Jesus’ statement to the rich young ruler primarily as an implication of his Deity and secondarily as an indication that our own goodness can never compare to the goodness of God.