In Luke 18:18-29 (and the parallel account in Mark 10:17-31), we read the narrative of the rich young ruler coming to Jesus and asking, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus responds by saying “Why do you call me good? No one is good — except God alone.”
Jesus continues, “You know the commandments: ‘You shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, honour your father and mother.” The young man replies, “All these I have kept since I was a boy.” Jesus, however, knowing that he valued his wealth and riches more than God, instructs the man to sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor, and then to come and follow Jesus. At this, the man walks away greatly saddened because he has no interest in giving up his wealth.
Many of those who seek to deny the deity of Christ (such as Muslims) will often appeal to this passage as an example of Jesus allegedly renouncing his deity. Is this the case, however? Was Jesus really denying that He is God in stating, “Why do you call me good? No one is good — except God alone.”The first important thing to notice is that Jesus Himself claims not only to be “good” but also to be perfect and completely without sin. Consider, for example, John 10:11 (“I am the good shepherd”) or John 8:46 (“Can any of you prove me guilty of sin?”). We are also told by Paul that Jesus was without sin, for example in 2 Corinthians 5:21 (“God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God”). Thus, this situation with the rich young ruler is actually an affirmation of Jesus’ deity. The argument may be summarised in syllogistic form as follows:
Premise 1: According to Jesus, God alone is good.
Premise 2: According to Jesus, Jesus is good.
Conclusion: Therefore, according to Jesus, Jesus is God.
So what is going on in this incident with the rich young ruler? Jesus, I believe, is teasing out the implications of the young man’s statement. It is a rhetorical question designed to make the man think long and hard about Jesus’ true identity.
Those who use this example as a proof text for justifying their denial of the deity of Jesus need to allow all of Scripture speak, and read the passages they quote in the context within which they appear. When one handles the text of Scripture honestly and responsibly in this regard, the true identity of Jesus becomes very clear: He is the eternal Son of God, and the second person of the Trinity.