Meditation – God is good.
by Isaac Overton
Q. What is the goodness of God?
A. The goodness of God is the total infinite perfection of his person and being, whereby he alone is rendered truly and rightly desirable above all other things
In the increasingly collapsing ruins of western civilization today, there is much confusion over the word “good.” It is a word frequently used, yet seldom defined. One of the real problems with this state of affairs is that the idea behind this illdefined word constantly mutates while no one is paying attention. In many countries, for example, in a very short space of time, mere decades, marriage between a man and a woman ceased being “good”, and all manner of sexual perversions apparently then became “good” in place of this. This is but one of many examples.
What then does it mean to call a thing “good?” Even in a clear thinking mind, there is some diversity in the way that we may use this word. Noah Webster’s 1828 dictionary has 40 entries for ways in which we use it! It doesn’t get too much clearer when you turn to the theologians either. Let me give you a few examples. In his oftstandard text of theology, Berkhof speaks of God’s goodness in terms of his “perfection” (Berkhof, ST, Loc 1388 of 20781). My problem with this kind of definition is that if you’re speaking about God’s perfection, why not just use the term perfection instead? Why call it good? Goodness as an idea remains indistinct if you use it as a synonym for his perfection.1 Frame favours using God’s goodness as referring to God’s ethical perfection (Frame, Systematic Theology, p.233). This was my first thought too, but as I considered the issue, I think “righteousness” is a more helpful way of approaching God’s ethical perfection (Romans 5:7 recognises this distinction). Certainly we often use the term “good” in reference to something that is ethically upright, but – again – if goodness is a mere synonym for righteousness, why bother keeping it as a word? I think there is more to it.
So what then is the goodness of God?
The real problem for us in understanding God’s goodness is that we have been sundered from God by our sin. The reason this is a problem is because sin has rendered the true concept of goodness so alien to us, that we simply don’t know where to start.
So then, in the interests of trying to accommodate our small and oft sin-twisted minds to the magnitude and fullness of God’s goodness, let’s begin simply by exploring the concept of goodness in itself.
Goodness in general terms relates to the idea of desirability. Bavinck, as he often does, spotted this. Citing Aristotle, Bavinck relates that “Good is that which all things desire” (Bavinck, RD II, Loc 4392 of 24505). As I pondered this in my own experience, I think this idea holds true. As I consider that which I desire, I commonly think of it as being “good.” When I’m hungry I think: “Wouldn’t it be good to eat a steak?” When I’m thirsty I think: “A drink of water would be so good right now.” When my weary body has been well rested: “That sleep was so good – just what I needed.”
Psalm 4:6 picks up on this thought as the psalmist recounts: “There are many who say, “Who will show us some good?” These people of whom the psalmist speaks, as they speak of “the good,” it is clear that they would have someone give to them that which is desirable to them. In an inversed sinful sense, Genesis 3:6 captures this idea as Eve notices that the forbidden fruit is “good for food”, a “delight”, and “to be desired.” Bavinck’s observation holds true: “Good is that which all things desire.”
Now there are certainly variations on how we may use the term, and I’m not excluding the use of those variations, but in the interests of precision, this is how I will define essential goodness: Goodness is any quality of a thing that renders it rightly desirable. In fairness to John Frame, whom I consider to be a very good theologian, he picked up on this too. That which is good is anything that “evokes from us a favourable response” (Frame, p.233)
Now, in my definition there I was a bit sneaky. I included the word “rightly.” I did that because sin has a way of warping our judgment. The natural effect of sin upon us is that we desire and call good that which in fact is not good at all, because it is not rightly desirous. One might desire to commit adultery, for example, and they even reason in their hearts with lies that this thing will be good, and yet it is clearly not good. As the book of Proverbs warns, it will ultimately bring a man “down to the chambers of death” (Pr 7:27). Even a man gripped by lust can see by reason that the ultimate end of adultery renders it in fact undesirable. He may yet give in to the madness of his sin, but the case is irrefutable: adultery is not desirable because it is a means of suicide. See the pernicious nature of sin! It seeks to invert reality and make that which is abominable and destructive appear good and desirable, so it began in Eden, and so it continues today. This dynamic of sin also answers the question I raised in my first paragraph. Society at large deems certain things to be “good,” and yet these things are not truly desirable at all. What has happened is that sin has perverted and twisted the judgment of the unregenerate. For this reason, then, we must include the term “rightly” in our definition. To be truly good, a thing must be rightly desirable (we will deal with that concept some more under the topic of God’s righteousness).
What then is the goodness of God? The goodness of God is the total infinite perfection of his person and being, whereby he alone is rendered truly and rightly desirable above all other things. In other words, as we consider all the other defining attributes of God in “total”, as we consider him in the completeness of his manifold perfections, the sum total of those perfections renders him alltogether desirable. “God’s goodness is the sum total of all His perfections” (Morecraft, Authentic Christianity, p.285). As his goodness naturally arises from his perfection, we see then that it is one of his defining, essential attributes (Beeke & Jones, Puritan Theology, p.78). Augustine was correct then in saying that “He is the supreme good” (Augustine in Bavinck Loc 4426 of 24505).
In addition, we ought to note that God’s infinite goodness is also manifested in all his works. In Genesis 1 we see that imbued his creation with the reflective quality of his own innate goodness. Thus when Jesus says “God alone is good” (Mk 10:18), he doesn’t mean that nothing else is good. If such were the case, then God himself would not have declared his creation to be good (Gen 1:31). What the Lord’s statement truly implies is that any other goodness that we see in life is only good because it flows out of God’s goodness. For this reason the Belgic Confession calls God “the overflowing source of all good.” In the words of Charnock: “All good meets in his essence, as all water meets in the ocean” (Charnock, Existence & Attributes of God, Loc 17906 of 24771).