Thursday, January 3, 2013

You're Worth It: Christ's Atonement, Sexual Slavery and Human Value

Daniel Walker's book, God in a Brothel casts us into hell; we enter into the shame, guilt, despair and horror of the dank basements and sewers on planet Earth inhabited by young boy, girls, and women who are held captive by the insatiable lust and greed of men who are, in Walker's words, "easy to hate."

Walker, a police detective in New Zealand,  rescues girls (and sometimes boys) from the sex-slave trade and from human trafficking (there is a difference).  He writes a candid and sober tome that leave the feathers, once in the quill, plucked out and scattered on the floor.  When girls are rescued, they are left with guilt, shame and ruin.  They feel worthless.  Walker is a Christian, and his motivation for justice is rooted in the cross of Christ and the call of God to rid the world of evil.  He affirms that Christians are called to do something in the world, and questions in his book whether churches really need to quibble over fine points of theology when there is a canker of abuse and evil so strong in the world that it turns the stomach.  His point is well-taken.  While the point of this post is not to argue whether theology is important in the church (see "Philosophy of Ecclesiastical Structures"), it is to ponder the pastoral application of Christ's work on the cross to a girl whose tender body has been used like a toy, left only for the scrap pile.  These girls become zombies, according to Walker,  and they are overflowing with the feeling on unworthiness.  How can such a person be restored?  That will take a lifetime, but is there a proper starting place?  There is.  She has value, and she is worth it, and so are you.  Here's how--and our answer, ironically, is theological.

The late, Presbyterian theologian John Murray writes in his book Redemption, Accomplished and Applied that it is the love of God that is the spring and fountain from which flows the necessity of the atonement of Christ.  "Truly, God is love," writes Murray, citing 1 John 4:16.  In Redemption, Murray discusses the difference between the hypothetical necessity and the consequent absolute necessity of the atonement.  In the hypothetical necessity, God provides atonement through the shedding of blood, not because it is necessarily inherent in the nature of God to do so in order to forgive sin, but because this means of forgiveness--the cross of Christ--will most certainly bring God the most glory.  This is the view of "notable men such as Augustine and Thomas Aquinas," Murray writes.  The other view--consequent absolute necessity--is the Protestant view, which says that due to the inherent nature of God, He must shed the blood of his innocent Son in order to redeem mankind from the guilt and penalty of sin.  The key texts for this are Hebrews 2:10, and 17: "In bringing many sons [and daughters abused by men] to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering...For this reason he [Jesus] had to be made like his brothers [and sisters abused by men] in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of this people."  These texts, says Murray, teach us that the atonement of Christ is more than mere consonance with the divine nature; although the cross of Jesus harmonizes with God's nature and character in showing his love and glory, it is more: the satisfaction of the death of the Son of God flows from something within God's make-up that requires the shedding of blood for the remission of sins.  It is not mere glory that the Lord seeks for himself, in other words.  No, the Lord of heaven and earth loves us, and desires relationship with us.  It is the love of God that forces the atonement of Christ through the conduit of his nature and character.  That means that we are worth something, because truly God loves us.  And he loves us.  

There are echoes from Paul.  When talking about the cross-work of Christ, the Apostle Paul tells the Galatians, "I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.  The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me" (2:20).  Similarly we read in John 3:16 that God loved the world so much that he gave his only begotten Son.  The Greek of this text is in the emphatic position: "So MUCH" did God love the world that he made.  So much!

Now, many Calvinist theologians and pastors might argue with me here, quickly reminding me not to glorify man in his worthiness of the love of God, at risk of sounding Arminian, or worse, semi-Pelagagian.  Man is a sinner and worth nothing, we hear.  Man is totally depraved, and deserves only eternal punishment.  With this latter point, I agree.  And we would no doubt read texts like Ephesians 2 where mankind is described as "dead in trespasses and sins," and as "children of wrath" (vv. 1-3).  Romans 1:18-32, John 8:34, Colossians 1::21 also teach that mankind is a slave to sin and an enemy of God.  Again, we affirm this.  But, are there not two sides to a coin, just as there are two sides to man, both of dignity as an image-bearer, and of depravity as a slave to sin?  If this is the case, how can we say that people have zero worth?  And how does this square with the corpus of Scripture and with pastoring and counseling of women and girls who are set free from sexual slavery but still trapped in the steel teeth of shame?  Do we tell them, in order to garner the base camp of our Reformed confessions, namely total depravity, that these former slaves are actually worth nothing?

Before we answer that, there is another marble in the Chinese checkers of the self-worth/total depravity mix
that needs to be understood, and that is the idea of God's self-glorification.  The popular notion in Calvinist circles is that God does whatever he does in order to secure and/or display his own glory.  Indeed, Jesus, in his high priestly prayer in John 17, petitions the Father to "glorify the Son, that your Son may glorify you" (v.1; see also John 8:54).  Also, in Revelation 4:11 we read,  "You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being."  Moreover, Romans 9:22-23 says, "What if God, choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath--prepared for destruction?  What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory?"  Paul even ends Romans 11 with a doxology exulting in the majesty of the mystery of God's wisdom and plan for humankind, "For from him and through him and to him are all things.  To him be the glory for ever and ever! Amen."

Amen to that God deserves all glory honor and power, and that we should praise him name because of his power and love (Psalm 145).  God desires to glorify himself, and he is certainly worthy of praise, honor and glory.  But does that mean that the only reason why God does anything is for self-glorification?  We've seen from the discussion on the atonement of Jesus that the answer is no.  It is the love of God that constrains Jesus to the cross, not self-glory alone.  Another question we must ask is, "Does the glory of God preclude the  dignity, honor and worth of humankind?"  And, "Does God really do things with the sole purpose of glorifying himself?"  The answer to the first question is a loud "No."  We ask, "What is it that God loved?"  That answer is nothing less than the world, his creation (John 3:16).  "Are you not much more valuable," Jesus says, than the birds of the air who are fed by your Heavenly Father?  Yes, people are of great value.  Methinks the problem here is that many of my Calvinist brothers and sisters enjoy the sweet taste of the glory of God as the main theme in Scripture, when the main theme of Scripture is rather God's gracious covenant with Abraham fulfilled in Christ, and given to the nations.  But there's an additional problem at the root of the line of thinking that teaches God only does things to glorify himself, and that humans are of no value.

The issue here is one that will take the Church a long time to dismiss, and that is the teaching concerning personal salvation, popularized by the Puritans.  Personal salvation is not the main reason for our existence either.  It is beyond dispute that we need to be saved, yes.  However, God calls us not just away from something (the guilt and penalty of sin) but he calls us to something.  The Great Commission of Matthew 28:19-20 calls us to preach the gospel to all nations.  God calls us to plead the cause of the widow and the orphan (Isaiah 1:18; Matthew 25's Parable of the Sheep and the Goats; Galatians 2:10; James 1:27).  Jesus came to preach good news to the poor (Luke 4:18) and he offers not rejoicing at riches but say "woe" to the rich (Luke 6:24) on the lesser-known Sermon on the Plain.

God calls us to join him in the restoration of the created order because sin is an insult to God, and God is in the business of ridding the world of evil.  "I have come that they might have life, and have it to the full," Jesus says, reminding us that the devil is a thief, a liar, and a murderer (John 10:10).  "The reason why the Son of God came was to destroy the works of the devil," says the Apostle John in his first letter (3:8).  The works of the devil are the marring of creation, including mankind, and the works of Christ and his Holy Spirit as commissioned by the Father are to "make all things new" (Rev.21:4-6).  (Note that even though this latter text is in the Apocalypse of St. John, it is a saying of the Lord in terms of the present tense: Jesus is making, even now, all things new).

I wonder how all of the language of God's supremacy and his working for the sake of his own glory and doing things only so that his glory is displayed hashes itself out in the lives of people.  How does this fair pastoral sense?   If a girl has been rescued from the seething, interminable evil of the sexual slave trade, do we tell her that in fact it is true that she is worthless?  "Nevertheless," we offer her, "God loves you anyway."  How can God love something that has no worth?  While I commend my brothers and sisters in the Reformed tradition to exalt the majesty of God and hold man in his rightful place as a sinner deserving judgment, I think this step errs.  So much did God love the world, that we are worth more than many sparrows, that whosoever rescues the widow and the orphan should not perish but create something new.  To this end Jesus died because he loved us before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4) and gave his life for us, because truly God is love.

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