MATTHEW 19:16, 17.—“And behold, one came, and said unto him, Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life? And he said unto him, Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is God.”
THE eternal Son of God knew perfectly what was in every man who came unto him in the days of his flesh. With far more accuracy and certainty than man can read the character in the expression of the eye, or in the features of the face, did the omniscient Redeemer read the character of the very soul itself, in its inward expression and lineaments. Hence his answers to questions always had reference to the disposition and temper of the questioner.
“Our Saviour Christ,” says Lord Bacon, “not being like man, who knows man’s thoughts by his words, but knowing men’s thoughts immediately, he never answered their words, but their thoughts.” Thus, when the chief priests and elders of the people came unto him as he was teaching, and asked by what authority he did so, and who gave him the authority, knowing that this question was not put from any sincere desire to learn the truth respecting himself and his works, but from a wish to work him evil, he answered their question by asking them a question regarding the baptism of John—a question which, however they answered it, would condemn their past treatment of John, and their present refusal to acknowledge himself to be the Messiah of whom John was the forerunner.
Again, when one asked the question, “Are there few to be saved?” our Lord, knowing that an idle curiosity had prompted it, answered by saying, “Strive to enter in at the strait gate; for many, I say unto you, will seek to enter in, and shall not be able.” So, also, in the answer of the Saviour to the young man who had come asking, “What good thing shall I do that I may have eternal life?” reference is had to the state of the young man’s opinions. Our Lord knew that this youth did not look upon the person whom he was addressing as God manifest in the flesh, but as a wise human teacher in the things of the law; and that he applied to him not as the Truth itself, and the Life itself, but only as knowing, perhaps, some portion of infinite truth, and as being able, perhaps, to point out the way to eternal life. Hence our Lord begins his reply by inquiring, “Why callest thou me good?” Instead of first correcting the young man’s erroneous view of the nature and character of the person to whom he was speaking, he proceeds as if it were a true one. “You consider me to be a mere man; why do you call any mere man good? Why do you address a creature as the Holy One? There is none good but one, that is God.”
By this reply the Saviour intended to bring into the light the main error of the young man—the opinion, namely, that any man is good in and of himself. He desired to awaken in him a sense of sin, so that the self-righteous youth might be delivered from his pride and self-satisfaction, and be led to look away from himself and his own works to God, the source and ground of all goodness; and more particularly to that Mediator between God and man who then and there stood before him.
This text, then, invites us to contemplate the pre-eminence of the Divine excellence over that of creatures, and to draw some inferences from the fact. What, then, are the senses in which “there is none good but one, that is God?”
I. In the first place, God is the only necessarily good Being.
We naturally shrink from applying the conception of necessity to a free spirit; but it is because we associate with it the notion of external compulsion. God is not forced to be holy by an agency outside of himself, and other than his own; and it is not in this sense that he is necessarily good.
But there is a necessity that has its foundation in the nature and idea of a thing, as when we say that a triangle necessarily has three sides. We say that God is necessarily existent, not because he is forced to exist by something out of himself, but because the idea of an infinite and absolutely perfect Being implies necessity of being. A being who once did not exist, and who may become extinct, is a finite and imperfect being, and consequently not God. In like manner God is necessarily holy, because the conception of infinite excellence excludes the possibility of apostasy and sin which attaches to finite virtue. Infinite holiness is immutable, and therefore infinite sinfulness is impossible. God’s will is one with his reason in such a mode that the supposition of a schism and conflict between the two contradicts the idea of God. In the case of a finite creature, we can conceive of a conflict between the constitutional and the executive faculties without any alteration in the grade of existence; but if the infinite Creator fall into collision with himself, he is no longer infinite.
Man’s will may come into hostility to his conscience, and he still remain human. Angels may fall, and still be angels. Both continue in the same relative grade of existence as before the change—that of a finite and mutable creature. But if a schism and conflict should be introduced into the Godhead, and he should fall into collision with himself, he would by that single fact prove himself to belong to a changeable and finite grade of being. It could not be said of him: “Thou art the same from everlasting to everlasting. With thee there is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.” At such a catastrophe, hell from beneath would be moved with a more profound amazement than that which greeted the fallen Lucifer, and with a more awful surprise than heart can conceive of there would burst from all the ranks of limited and mutable intelligences the utterance: “Art thou, the Eternal, become like one of us?” The unique and transcendent perfection, then, of an infinite Being precludes the possibility of his becoming finite in any respect—and to become evil is to become finite; nay, more, is to become weak, and miserable, and guilty.
But not only does the idea of the Deity imply his necessary excellence, it is implied also in his position and relationships. From the very nature of these, the divine will cannot be divorced from the divine reason and come into hostility to it. “God cannot be tempted,” says St. James, and there cannot be sin without temptation. There is nothing greater and better than the Infinite that can be an inducement to apostasy. When man apostatized, there was something above him which he was reaching out after. He desired to become “as gods.” He expected to attain a higher position. But God is already God—infinite, self-sufficing, and blessedly self-satisfied. There is nothing higher than himself to reach after. No motive to sin can assail the Supreme, and therefore sin is impossible to him. In order to be tempted, God was compelled to become incarnate, and assume a finite, temptable nature.
Will and reason, then, in God are one and inseparable, and he is necessarily good in the same sense that he is necessarily existent. There is no compulsion from without, but the necessity is implied in the idea of the Being. God’s pure and perfect nature is the law and principle of God’s pure and perfect character. Should the two become contrary and hostile, the Infinite would become finite, the Creator would become a creature. There is none good, then, but God, in the sense that if he becomes evil he loses his grade of being. The divine excellence, therefore, is as necessary and immutable as the divine existence. Does God cease to be holy, he ceases to be deity.
II. In the second place, God is the only originally good Being.
All rational creatures, if they are good, derive their goodness. They are not good in and of themselves as the ultimate source. They look up to a yet better Being, and confess that they are only reflections of a splendor and glory that is above them. Hence the finite mind adores; but the infinite mind never does or can. Hence the angel lifts up his eye in the beatific vision, that his soul may rest upon a deeper and firmer virtue than his own. Hence the man prays and supplicates for an excellence that is not aboriginal and necessarily connected with his own being. But God is goodness, not merely has it. God is love, not merely has it. God is light, not merely has it. Will and reason are identical in him. He is not excellent because his nature derives excellence from another’s nature, but because it is infinite excellence itself. Righteousness is not so much a particular attribute of God as it is his essential quality; the supporter of his attributes, that which is the substrate of them all, that which penetrates them and makes them fair, lovely, and perfect.
As the earth is at once the bearer and nourisher of all trees and fruits, and by its genial influence and nurture makes them pleasant to the eye and good for food, so righteousness is the underlying ground of all the attributes of God. Righteousness imparts to the divine justice its serene and awful beauty. Righteousness regulates the divine mercy, and prevents it from becoming mere indulgence. Righteousness enters into all the natural attributes of Jehovah, and renders his omnipotence, and omnipresence—his otherwise soulless and characterless traits—worthy of love and reverence. The Platonists speak of an original light that is the source of all the light of the sun and stars—a light that is pureness itself, and gives to the sun its dazzle and to the stars their sparkle. So righteousness is the aboriginal rectitude from which all the qualities of Jehovah derive their worth and perfection, and of which all finite virtue is the faint reflection.
III. In the third place, God is the only self-subsistently good Being.
His excellence does not depend upon the will and power of any other than himself. All created spirits, as we have already hinted, must look to God for the existence and perpetuity of righteousness within themselves; but God looks only to himself that he may be righteous. As he is self-subsistent in his being, so he is in his character. The divine will needs no strengthening in order to its continuing holy, because it is already an infinite force. Its energy is omnipotent, and we have seen that it is so blended and one with the divine reason that a separation and antagonism is conceivable only upon the supposition that God ceases to be infinite. The goings forth of the divine will are without variableness or shadow of turning. From eternity to eternity the decisions and determinations of God are but the efflux of the divine essence, and participate in the immanent and necessary characteristics of the divine constitution.
The triune God, therefore, is independently good. Though the finite creation should all apostatize and become evil, yet God remains the same Holy One forever. Man is affected by the fall of man; angels are seduced from their allegiance by angels; God alone is unmoved and unaffected by all the change and apostasy of creation. In the calm air of his own eternity he exists unchangeably holy, because of a self-sufficient and self-sustaining power; while angels and men fall away from holiness and from him, and introduce sin and death into the universe.
IV. And this leads naturally to the fourth position, that God is the only immutably good Being.
This is a glorious truth for every created mind that is good, and desires to remain so. The Supreme Being is unchangeably excellent. The infinitude of his nature places him beyond all the possibilities, contingencies, and hazards of finite existence. All the created universe may fall from goodness, but God is no part of the universe. He created all the worlds from nothing, and whatever they may be or do does not in the least affect his nature and attributes. God is the Being from whom other beings fall away into sin and misery. As the essence of God would not be affected in the least if the entire substance of the universe should be annihilated, or if it had never been made from nothing, so the moral excellence of God would not be diminished in the slightest manner though all the creatures of his power should plunge into the abyss of evil. Amidst the sin of a world, and in opposition to the kingdom and prince of evil, God remains immutably holy, and by the intrinsic and eternal immaculateness of his character is entitled to deal out an eternal judgment, and a righteous retribution, upon every soul that doeth evil.
Though he sees in his universe much iniquity, yet he is of purer eyes than to look upon it with any indulgence. Though sin has been the product of the will of man for six thousand years, yet his moral anger burns with the same steady and dreadful intensity against it now, as when Adam heard the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and was afraid, and hid himself. The same spiritual excellence in God which caused the flood to destroy the old wicked world, and which rained fire and brimstone upon filthy Sodom and Gomorrah, causes him to be displeased with the wicked this day, and every day.
Now, there is something indescribably cheering and strengthening in this truth and fact. As we look abroad over the world and see how full of sin it is; as we reflect upon the limited and feeble nature of all finite spirits, though they be in the highest range of the heavenly hierarchies; as we consider the liability of everything within the sphere of creation to undergo changes and fluctuations; it imparts a serene joy and a calm strength to the soul to lift up the eye to the eternal hills, and to remember that above all this sphere of finiteness and limitation and sin there dwells One Being who is the same from everlasting to everlasting, and who is not under any possibilities or liabilities of change either in his existence or his character.
For the very thought that God might possibly become like his creatures; that he of whom his own word asserts “it is impossible that he should lie,” should yet be false to his own nature and to his word; that he, to whom the seraphim in their Trisagion, their thrice-repeated and intensely emphasized “holy,” ascribe an inherent and necessary perfection, should yet become vile like the worms of his footstool—the thought, we say, that the Supreme Being, the first cause and last end of all other beings and things, might possibly become unholy and unworthy, sends a shrinking and a shudder through the human soul. All sense of safety and security disappears, and the mind feels that there is no difference between finite and Infinite; between the creature and the Creator. Both alike are liable to the contingency of apostasy. Both alike may grovel in the dust.
Nay, rather, let us fall back upon the immutability and intrinsic unchangeableness of the Divine character, and with an upward-looking eye say with one of the loftiest and lowliest of human spirits: “Lord, I have viewed the universe over in which thou hast set me; I have tried how this thing and that thing will fit my spirit, and the design of my creation; and can find nothing in which to rest, for nothing here doth itself rest; but such things as please for awhile, in some degree, vanish and flee as shadows before me. Lo, I come to thee, the Eternal Being, the Spring of Life, the Centre of Rest, the Stay of the Creation; I join myself to thee; with thee I will lead my life and spend my days, with whom I aim to dwell forever, expecting, when my little, finite, fluctuating time is over, to be taken up ere long into thy Eternity.”
Thus is it true, that “there is none good but one, that is God.” There is but one Being in whom righteousness and holiness are necessary, aboriginal, self-subsistent, and immutable.
But who of us worthily apprehends this great truth? Who of us sees with the crystal clearness of a seraph’s vision that God’s excellence is transcendent; that, compared with his immaculateness, angelic purity is not pure, and the stainless heavens are not clean? Did we with open vision behold the infinite excellence of the Creator, we should be awed like the prophet Isaiah when the pillars of the temple moved at the voice of the wing-veiled seraphim, and the house was filled with smoke. And if our minds were pure, we should pass by all the holiness and excellence of the creature, and gaze steadfastly upon the increate and underived excellence of Jehovah, and by thus gazing we should be changed into the same image from glory to glory in an endless succession. But we languish, we perish, from lack of vision.
That we may be moved to seek the vision granted to the pure in heart, let us now attend to some of the conclusions flowing from the truth that “there is none good but one, that is God.”
1. In the first place, then, if God alone is supremely good, he alone is to be glorified and adored.
Goodness is intrinsically worthy to be magnified and extolled. Righteousness is fitted to awaken ascriptions of blessing, and honor, and thanksgiving, and glory, and dominion, and power. This accounts for the hallelujahs of heaven. There is a quality in the increate and transcending excellence of the most high God that dilates the holy mind, and renders it enthusiastic. Hence the saints on high are made vocal and lyrical by the vision of God’s moral perfection, and they give vent to their emotions in “the seven-fold chorus of hallelujahs and harping symphonies.” There is much of this in the experience of the Psalmist. He beholds the divine excellence, and glories in it. It is a species of humble and holy boasting of the greatness and glory of Jehovah. “My soul shall make her boast in the Lord; O magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt his name together. In God we boast all the day long, and praise thy name forever.”
There is that in the divine character which, while it abases the creature in reference to his own personal character and merits, exalts and sublimes him in reference to the excellence of his Maker. This is that unearthly vision which visits the soul of the dying, and makes his voice ring like a clarion in his proclamation and heralding of what God is. “Praise him”—said the dying Evarts, one of the coolest, and calmest, and most judicial of minds, in his ordinary mood, and in reference to all finite things—“praise him in a way you know not of.”
This inward glorying in the attributes of God is the great duty and ultimate end of man. Man’s chief end is to glorify God. Obedience itself, or the performance of an outward service, is second in rank to this inward service of worship, when the soul is absorbed and lost in admiration of the divine perfections. All that the creature can do for God is little or nothing; and the Almighty certainly does not need the labor and toil of any of his creatures. But the service is a greater one when the soul acknowledges what God is and does. In this instance, the human agency acquires an added dignity and value from the side of Divinity; even as sin becomes an infinite evil because of its reference to God. The recognition of the divine excellence, and the inward adoration that accompanies it, is the last accomplishment of the Christian life; and it is this which crowns, and completes, and thereby ends, the Christian race and the Christian fight.
Such a feeling as this cannot properly go out toward any being but the Supremely Good. The secondary recipients from the primary source can never be the objects of glory and exaltation. Saint-worship is irrational. For there is none supremely good but one, and none but the Supreme deserves the exaltation. As there is but one life in nature, and the individual tree or plant is alive because it partakes of it, so there is but one Eternal Excellence, and individual spirits are excellent because they participate in it. God alone, therefore, is worthy to receive all the glory, and all the extolling, and all the magnifying that belongs to excellence.
To unfold the illustration—when the naturalist looks upon the tree or the plant, he does not ascribe the beauty of its form and foliage, and the richness of its fruit, to that single isolated individual specimen, but to the great general life in nature which produced it; to that vast vegetative power which God has impressed upon nature. In like manner when we see moral excellence in the creature, we do not ascribe the glory and praise to the individual, but to that Spirit of Good, the Holy Spirit, who produced it in him. Neither men nor angels are worthy to be magnified and extolled, because their virtue is not aboriginal. The really good man or angel refers his character to God, and is filled with abhorrence at the thought of glorifying himself, or of being glorified for it. And there is no sin that so grieves him as his propensity to a detestable self-idolatry.
When Paul and Barnabas, after healing the cripple, heard that the priest of Jupiter had brought oxen and garlands unto the gates, and was about to offer sacrifice with the people unto them as unto gods come down in the likeness of men, they rent their clothes and ran in among the people, crying out, and saying, “Sirs, why do ye these things? We also are men of like passions with you.” In like manner does every finite spirit that really partakes of the Divine excellence recoil at the thought of ascriptions of praise unto himself, and says unto those who would forget the Creator in the excellence of the creature, “Why marvel ye at me? or why look ye so earnestly on me, as though by my own ultimate power or holiness I am holy?” Whatever, then, we may think of man, and however we may regard him, to God alone belong glory, and honor, and thanksgiving, and blessing, and dominion, and power.
2. Secondly, if God alone is supremely good, it is sin, and the very essence of sin, not to glorify him.
The ultimate form of moral evil consists in worshipping the creature, and not exalting and adoring the Creator. We can often reduce one form of transgression into another. Theft is a species of selfishness—an attempt to gratify personal desires at the expense of another’s interest. Ambition is a kind of rebellion—an endeavor to overleap the limits which have been prescribed to the individual by his Maker. And so it is easy to generalize almost every transgression, and find its root in a wider and deeper principle of evil. But what generalization is wider and deeper than the indisposition to worship and magnify God in the heart? Hence the apostle Paul, after particularizing the sins of the heathen, gathers and concentrates the substance of all their sin and guilt in the one fact, “that when they knew God, they glorified him not as God”; that “they worshipped the creature more than the Creator.”
And in another place, when he would exhibit the universal and generic quality in the sin of man, he strengthens his affirmation that “all have sinned,” by the additional clause, “and come short of the glory of God.” This is an indictment to which every man must plead guilty, and which stops the mouth of him who is “willing to justify himself.” For who has worshipped and served the eternal God, in his body and spirit which are His, as that Being is worthy to be worshipped? Who of the sons of men has not come short in this respect? One of the Greek words for sin signifies to fail of hitting the mark by reason of the arrow’s not coming up to the target. If this be the idea and visual image of sin, who of us is not a sinner?
There are some advantages, and there are also some disadvantages, in looking upon sin as consisting in disobeying particular commandments; in not keeping this or that separate precept; in swearing, or lying, or stealing. We must begin with this, but we must not end with it. If we stop at this point, we run the hazard of becoming self-righteous. We are in danger of presuming that because we do not lie, or swear, or steal, we are morally perfect. In the beginning of the Christian life, the eye is naturally and properly fixed upon those separate acts of transgression upon which we can put our finger—that more external part of our sinfulness which it is our first and easiest duty to put away.
But we soon learn, if we are progressive, that all these particular transgressions are but different modes in which the great and primitive sin of human nature manifests itself; are only varied exhibitions of that disinclination and aversion to glorify God, and extol him in the heart, which is the ultimate and original sin of man. He, therefore, who does not, after putting away swearing, lying, and stealing, look down a little lower into his heart, and detect the yet subtler ramifications of his corruption, will be likely to degenerate into a mere moralist, instead of becoming one of those spiritually-minded Christians who become more lowly, and humble, and broken-hearted, as they become more and more upright and obedient in their external conduct.
The biographies of men like Leighton and Edwards must ever be a mystery, and a self-contradiction, to those who do not see that the very essence and inmost quality of sin consists in the lack of a heart to magnify the Lord, and to exalt his holy name. Read the diaries of such men, and witness their moaning in secret over the vileness of their hearts; hear the outbursting expression that “the sin is infinite upon infinite;” and then think of the pure and saintly course of their lives, when those lives are tried by the tests of external and single commandments, and does it not seem strange and paradoxical? These men were not hypocrites. No one can suspect them of this. But were they not self-deceived and mistaken? So some critics say, who judge of human character by the more superficial and outward criteria.
The key to the difficulty is found in the fact, that for such men as Leighton and Edwards the substance and inmost quality of sin had come to be this continual failure to glorify God in the heart, in a manner worthy of God’s infinite excellence. Their character in this particular they felt to be imperfect. They were sinners in this respect. When they prayed, their prayers were defective from a lack of full faith in God’s being and readiness to bless; and this was coming short of God’s glory. When they praised and worshipped, their emotions and utterances were far below God’s worthiness and desert; and this was coming short of God’s glory. When they obeyed the statutes and commandments of God, it was not with that totality and completeness of service which is due to such a perfect and excellent Being; and this was to come short of the Divine glory. They could not say, as did the only perfect man that ever lived upon earth: “I have glorified thee on the earth: I have finished the work thou gavest me to do.”
And their apprehension of the sinfulness of this falling short of the chief end of man’s creation was as painful as that which accompanies an ordinary Christian’s sense of guilt when he violates some particular commandment of the decalogue. They had passed beyond the more common forms of sin, because they had, in a great measure, overcome and subdued them. A class of temptations which assail us, on our low position and with our low degree of spirituality, had little or no influence with them; and hence we wonder that their expressions of contrition and self-loathing should be so intense. We think that if our lives could but reach the pitch of excellence to which they attained, there would be but little cause for the shame and lamentation which now accompanies our review of our daily walk and conversation. But with them we should discover that in respect to sin, as in respect to hell itself, “in every deep there is a lower deep.”
The supreme excellence of God, and the spirituality of his law, would dawn more and more upon our minds; the sense of our obligation, as his creatures, to magnify and glorify him in every act and every element of our existence, would grow stronger and stronger; our consciousness of failure to render this perfect homage and fealty would become deeper and deeper; and thus, while our obedience of particular and single commandments was becoming more and more punctilious and uniform, our feeling of defect at the fountain-head of character would become more and more poignant and self-abasing. We should see, as we had not before, that the very core and essence of moral evil consists in “worshipping and serving the creature more than the Creator.” We should understand that there is no sin so wearing and wearisome as human egotism—as man’s inveterate unwillingness to sink self, and renounce all idolatry, in the humble and adoring recognition of God’s infinite perfection. We should understand, and sympathize with, that low and penitential refrain which mingles with the jubilant music of all the saintly spirits in the history of the Church.
Endeavor, then, to get into this mood and frame of mind. Be impressed with the greatness, goodness, and glory of God. Let the Divine attributes encompass you like an atmosphere. Then you will put away all pride and vain-glory, and can say in the language of that exquisite psalm: “Lord, my heart is not haughty, nor mine eyes lofty; neither do I exercise myself in great matters, or in things too high for me. Surely I have behaved and quieted myself as a child that is weaned of his mother; my soul is even as a weaned child.”
William G. T. Shedd, Sermons to the Spiritual Man, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1884), 34–49.