“Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good!” (Ps 34.8)
The goodness of God is a topic that repays careful contemplation. Vast tracts of biblical teaching are devoted to this theme (Exod 33.19; Pss 34.8; 100.5; etc.), and the singular desire of the saints is to look upon the goodness of God (Ps 27.13). The goodness of God is multifaceted: the rays of divine goodness shine forth in “steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exod 34.6), but also in refusing to “clear the guilty” (Exod 34.7); and the goodness of God is eternal: his steadfast love “endures forever” (Ps 106.1). There is a sense, moreover, in which God alone is good (Mark 10.18) insofar as he is the supreme good, the source of all good, and the good apart from which no other goods are good (Ps 16.2).
God’s goodness can be contemplated under various categories. God is good in relation to his creatures. “The Lord is good to all, and his mercy is over all that he has made” (Ps 145.9). All God’s creatures are good (Gen 1.31). And all God’s works in and towards his creatures–in nature, grace, and glory–are expressions of his goodness (Ps 136; Acts 14.17), flowing as from a fountain of unmixed goodness (James 1.5, 13, 17; 1 John 1.5). God is good in his plans toward his creatures, in his execution of those plans, and in his approval of their results.
God is also good in an absolute, metaphysical sense. According to Turretin, God is “autogathon“–good in and of himself. All the goods of God’s creatures are but derivative and limited expressions of the good that God has (better: is) in underived and unlimited fullness. Bullinger describes God as “the everlasting well of all good things which is never drawn dry.” God’s “blessedness” or “happiness” (1 Tim 1.11; 6.15) accordingly consists in the fact that “he lacks nothing and enjoys in himself the fullness of all good things and abides in himself” (Synopsis Purioris Theologiae 6.43).
We need both “relative” and “absolute” categories of divine goodness in our theology. Leave one out and our theology will be incomplete. Confuse one with the other and our theology will founder. Relate the two categories properly and the rewards multiply. Consider three examples of how contemplating God’s absolute or metaphysical goodness helps us better appreciate the nature of God’s goodness toward his creatures.
(1) Creation. We sometimes think of creation as God’s plan for personal self-realization. God was lonely, so God decided to make human beings in order to experience relational fulfillment. God’s absolute goodness suggests otherwise. Because God is supremely good in and of himself, and because he has always enjoyed his goodness within the perfect life of the Trinity (John 1.1; 17.5), he had no need to create us (Acts 17.25).
If it was not in order to obtain something that he lacked, why did God create us? God created us in order to communicate a share of his supreme goodness to us. God’s motive in creation was wholly altruistic: “The impelling cause of the creation of the world is God’s highest goodness, whereby he was moved to communicate and reveal himself as the highest good to the things he would create” (Synopsis Purioris Theologiae 10.18).
(2) Consummation. As I have said before, we sometimes think and talk as if the greatest blessing of the new creation is . . . the new creation. Given God’s absolute goodness, however, that cannot possibly be true.
As in the doctrine of creation, God’s absolute or metaphysical goodness does important work in eschatology. Augustine summarizes the matter with eloquence: “God himself . . . shall there be its reward; for, as there is nothing greater or better, he has promised himself. What else was meant by his word through the prophet, ‘I will be your God, and ye shall be my people,’ than, I shall be their satisfaction, I shall be all that men honorably desire,–life, and health, and nourishment, and plenty, and glory, and honor, and peace, and all good things?”
(3) Redemption. Adam’s sin unleashed disastrous consequences upon his offspring. Chief among these is the state of bondage in which we are alienated from the alpha of divine goodness and in which we have no hope of inheriting the omega of divine goodness. The problem is compounded by the fact that, according to the scriptures, we are far too poor to buy our way out of this bondage: “Truly no man can ransom another, or give to God the price of his life, for the ransom of their life is costly and can never suffice, that he should live on forever and not see the pit” (Ps 49.7-9).
The only solution to our plight lies in the absolute, metaphysical goodness of God. From within the inexhaustible treasury that is God’s triune life, God has provided the resources to ransom us from our slavery to sin: “you were ransomed . . . not with perishable things such as silver and gold, but with the precious blood of Christ” (1 Pet 1.18-19).
Augustine contemplated this divine economy, whereby “the one who made man from the dust and breathed into him (Gen 2:7), for the sake of this piece of pottery gave up his only Son to death,” only to conclude, “Who can possibly explain how much he loves us, who can even think about it worthily?” The goodness of God transcends all creaturely goodness, unsearchable and unfathomable. We can contemplate the divine goodness, but we cannot explain it. We can however join the chorus of those who “shall pour forth the fame” of his “abundant goodness” and “shall sing aloud” of his “righteousness” (Ps 145.7). And that is a happy chorus indeed.
This article first appeared on Reformation 21