After some good conversation, I have edited this post for greater theological clarity and precision. I hope you enjoy it:
Good theology takes time. It takes the time required to not only learn it, but to see it... to experience it. Often times we as Christians latch on to a cliche, a one liner, or a bumper sticker doctrine. Then, because it has proven very useful to us, we find ourselves latching onto it even when the word of God begins to prove it questionable. Meanwhile, God has a much more profound and satisfying truth to reveal to us once our pet doctrine has been laid down.
I would like to talk about one of these very popular doctrines and attempt to replace it with one that, while wildly offensive at first, has far more to offer the sinner's soul.
What more popular doctrine could there be in our culture than the doctrine of self-esteem? Outside of the Christian faith, it is well established that a person must first come to a deep love for self before they can truly express love to others.
However, this post is not primarily directed toward the non-Christian. It is directed toward believers and teachers of believers. Many of us have already decided that the secular dogma of self-esteem is not exactly a good thing. We understand that scripture teaches the sinful nature of man and the supremacy of God. Nevertheless, there is a subtle way in which I have begun to see this popular doctrine creep in.
While many of us may well point out our unworthiness before God, our deep depravity, and our need for a savior, we will then pause and draw out inferences based on the fact that God chose to save us. The danger is certainly not in pointing to God's saving work, but in what we infer from God's saving work. We say something like, "it is certainly true that we are not worthy of salvation because of our sin, but that does not mean we have lost our value. If we had no value, God would not have reached out to save us. There is a difference between being worthy and valuable."
This seems reasonable on the surface, doesn't it? However, definitions are everything. This statement assumes that being worthy (full of worth) and having value are foundationally different. But what truly is the difference between worth and value?
Here's a thought, let's look in a dictionary.
Some definitions of worth include, "Usefulness or importance, as to the world, to a person, or for a purpose." Or how about this one, "Value, as in money." Wait... What?
And what about the word value? Well, you find definitions like, "Relative worth, merit, or importance" or "estimated or assigned worth; valuation." In short, for all intents and purposes, worth is value and value is worth. To be worthy is to be valuable.
With definitions like this in place, certain texts of scripture become even more devastating,
"None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless" (Romans 3:10-12).
Excuse me? Worthless? As in without worth? As in without (gulp) value? How is this good news? How does this help? How does this even make sense? If this is true, then why DID God reach out to save me?
And there it is. THERE is the right question. So long as we continue to look to ourselves in ANY sense when seeking the reason for our salvation, we will come up disappointed. God is the reason for our salvation. we are not. God was not compelled by anything but himself in the moving of himself. He is what many have called the "unmoved mover." God's affections are commanded by God.
Before I continue, I should clarify the kind of value and worth I am talking about. In scripture there is a difference between what we might call our worth and value as creatures who bare the image of God, as opposed to our legal value before God as sinners. As image bearers, we have immeasurable value that must be recognized as we relate to our fellow human beings. Otherwise there is no basis for a just society. There would be no reason to obey scripture when it says to do good and treat others with honor, even those outside the church. Scripture is clear that God pours out blessings on all, whether they are in relationship to him or not.
However, legal value and worth before God is completely different. Because of the depravity of our hearts and the sins we commit as a result of our fallenness in Adam, neither our value as image bearers, nor our fallen legal standing are enough to cause us to attract the saving work of God. I will expand on this even more when I talk about the doctrine of election.
This complete lack of worth or value before God may be devastating news to some, but it shouldn't be.
Ask yourself, has anyone let you down more than you have? Has anyone lied to you more than you have? Has anyone broken more promises to you than you have? If indeed we are the motivators of God's saving work, whether by our false righteous deeds or by some remnant of the image of God within us apart from our works, then there is no telling how motivated God should be. But if God's saving work cannot be provoked by us, then it cannot be hindered by us either.
To say that our value caused God to save us is to say that there is a power that exists outside of God that is not dependent upon him. On the contrary, we are never meant to see a value existing within ourselves without simultaneously seeing ourselves in relationship to Christ. We were chosen in HIM. We were crucified with HIM. We were raised with HIM. The cross did not happen because God was drawn to us. God is drawn to us because of the cross, in Christ.
As creatures, our value is created by God and we are owned by him. As fallen creatures who have lost any value that would draw God to us. God's saving work makes us doubly owned and doubly dependent on him for value.
Let me talk to my fellow Calvinists for a moment because I've heard some of these subtle errors in our circles as well. As believers in the glorious doctrine of unconditional election, this false distinction of worth and value in explaining the cross should be far from our minds. We believe the words of Paul that God "chose us in [Christ] before the foundation of the world" (Ephesians 1:4). We believe him when he reminds us of God's insistence that, "I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and will have compassion on whom I have compassion" (Romans 9:15). We believe scripture's insistence that faith is not a quality produced by man in order to impress God, but is a supernatural gift of God to his elect people (Ephesians 2:8, 6:23, Romans 12:3). Therefore, we reject any idea that God was drawn to his chosen people by a faith that he foresaw. Rather, he was the one who infallibly decided to bring faith about.
However, if all human beings contain a value that inherently draws God to extend saving mercy, even if it is the remnants of the image of God, then Paul must be mistaken in communicating that God has an electing love that is unconditional. It is most certainly conditional and most certainly not extended to a specific and covenant people. It is merely offered to all with no guarantee of results since human will can so simply thwart the saving work of God.
Since the image of God is universal to all humans and election is specific, then even our value that comes from bearing God's image did not draw God's saving love. Not only that, but since we are at odd's with God's law by nature, it is certainly not our legal standing that has saved us.
Arthur Pink did an incredible job putting this truth into words, so I will close with a quote from him,
"If then there is nothing in any member of the human race to attract God’s love, and if, notwithstanding, He does love some, then it necessarily follows that the cause of His love must be found in Himself, which is only another way of saying that the exercise of God’s love towards the fallen sons of men is according to His own good pleasure.
In the final analysis, the exercise of God’s love must be traced back to His sovereignty or, otherwise, He would love by rule; and if He loved by rule, then is He under a law of love, and if He is under a law of love then is He not supreme, but is Himself ruled by law."
If God's love is built upon his people, it will fail. If it is built upon himself, it is indestructible. Our preaching and teaching is foundationally meant to center the people of God on God. To turn that backwards and to cause them to turn inward yet again will only lead to an unstable faith.
"Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” “Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?” For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen" (Romans 11:33-36).