Abiding in What We Believe about… Man
The third in a seven part series by Lora A. Copley
When my husband and sons took sledgehammers to our living room wall, I learned about the reality of “load-bearing walls.” (Don’t worry. For this remodel, they put a support beam in with the trusses. No Jericho thrills that day.) I learned there are some supports in a structure that are not optional. You mess with them to your detriment and to your house’s potential collapse.
The doctrine of man—with all the glory of the Imago Dei and all the ghastliness of sin—is one such wall. It’s a load-bearing support in the structure we call Christian doctrine. If we try to replace it or reframe it, remove it or redefine it, we put “God’s household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth” (1) in collapse.
Raising Heads, Bowing Shoulders.
So what is man? I like how Aslan put it: “You come of the Lord Adam and the Lady Eve," said Aslan. "And that is both honor enough to raise the head of the poorest beggar, and shame enough to bow the shoulders of the greatest emperor.” (2)
Honor and shame. That’s our condition.
The Bible gets at the elliptical reality of man-- seen in two places where roughly the same question is asked. While gazing at a sky-full of stars, the Psalmist exclaims to God: “What is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him? You have made him a little lower than heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor.” (3) Imago Dei! Every human being (4)—from moment of conception until natural death, regardless of capacity, regardless of difference —has been crowned with “greater-than-galaxies” dignity and value.
Job also uttered the same question. Rather than gazing up to the heavens, he looked down at his body “clothed with worms,” and cried with the bitter frustration of one who knows his sin: “What is man that you are so concerned about him? Why do you test us from sunrise to sunset? Won’t you look away long enough for me to swallow? Why do you watch us so closely? What’s it to you if I sin? (5)
Job 7 is Psalm 8 in negative. It too shows us who we are. Hopelessly lost sinners, in anguish under His eye, worm-clothed, endlessly justifying ourselves. It’s as painful as it is true.
We need incisive understanding of both Psalm 8 and Job 7 if we are going to rightly untangle the snarl of troubles that have us in knots today. (To be explicit: much of the despair, racism/racial essentialism, state-ism, stuff-ism, tech-ism, abortion, euthanasia, loneliness, pornography -indeed all the issues in the Human Sexuality Report -are tied up in understandings of the Imago Dei and sin.)
I’m not able to even scratch the surface of this topic here. But allow a couple comments:
First, Carl Trueman is absolutely helpful when he describes in The Rise & Triumph of the Modern Self how we’ve replaced the Imago Dei with “Psychological Man” and the “Expressive Individual” as the new normative way we understand the human self.
To summarize, Trueman writes (in another place):
“The specific nature of the revolution of the self, which has placed sexual identity at the center, effects a transformation. Sex ceases to be what human beings do and becomes what they are. …To object to certain sexual practices or proclivities [then] becomes the denial of the selfhood of another, an act of political violence…
Identities grounded in a psychologized self need to be actively affirmed…. And that makes the maintenance of Christian sexual morality an act of social immorality according to the modern moral imagination.” (6)
Trueman’s point underscores the argument of Rev. Aaron Vriesman and Rev. Stacey Midge in their conversation, “An Interview from the Other Side,” viz. this issue is one the CRC cannot “agree to disagree” on. The differences are mutually exclusive. The identity stakes too high.
Trueman’s point also calls us to a humble bravery. We too are shaped by our culture. We too often center the self in something other than what God defines us to be. But we must be clear about God’s definitions, be convicted to repent and share His definition’s goodness, and then courageously face whatever consequences come from this speech-act of, what the culture perceives as, “social immorality.”
Milder, More Dangerous
Second point: we must not redefine sin. We must not newspeak it into non-existence.
Maybe you’ve heard this story? A group from a congregation came to their pastor, saying, “Pastor, preaching on sin isn’t sensitive.” “Pastor, you are turning off our youth.” “Pastor, can’t we just call sin ‘our mess’, and focus on loving ourselves in the mess?”
The old minister went to the cabinet and took down a small bottle. “Beloved, you see that label? It says “Strychnine”—and underneath in bold the word ‘Poison.’ You are asking me to change the label. Suppose I paste over the word “Poison” with the words, ‘Essence of Mint’ or ‘Licorice Extract’? Someone would use it, not knowing the danger, and would certainly die. So it is with this matter of sin. The milder you make your label, the more dangerous you make the poison.” (7)
Third, (and this arises from the two previous observations), if we love the Triune God and if we love people, we will take the doctrine of Man with terrible seriousness. People’s hearts and eternities are in the balance here.
Our belief in the Imago Dei hallows every human interaction; every time we lock eyes on another person (or hear her heartbeat through ultrasound), we are engaging the marvelous and the matchless. Demeaning someone—over disagreements or differences—is verboten to this doctrine. We esteem and argue, we contend and wash feet, according to the Scriptures.
At the same time, the doctrine of sin is so deadly, we dare not lessen it a drop. We must preach it more. We must ruthlessly call ourselves (and our churches) to repentance. With relentless love, we will not dress the wound of God’s people as though it were not serious; we will not say “peace, peace,” when there is no peace. We will run to the balm of Gilead, and proclaim the Great Physician, who alone can save the terminally sin-sick soul. (8)
But that’s our doctrine for next time.
1 I Timothy 3:15
2 Lewis, CS., Prince Caspian, ch 15.
3 Psalm 8:4-5
4 Scripture also declares we image God as two genders—each glorious, each needed, each absolutely noninterchangeable. Regarding the binary-ness of Genesis 1:28, isn’t it remarkable to see all the “different but going together” binaries of Genesis 1 and 2?
Heaven and earth. Evening and morning. Light and dark. Sky and sea.
Land and plants. Greater lights and lesser lights. Male and female. Rest and work.
Dust-matter and “breath”-spirit. Tree of life and Tree of obedience. Man and wife. And right at the end, father and mother.
5 Job 7:17-20. Note: Job knows his sin, even as he also knows he is innocent of the accusations of his friends. It’s interesting because
though Job accuses God for being too harsh in scrutiny of sin, by the end of the book, while vindicated in his blameless, Job still repents “in dust and ashes.”
6 Trueman, Carl. Article on “Public Discourse.” November 10, 2020. https://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2020/11/72190/
7 I’ve heard this illustration many times, but my apologies for not finding its origin. It does seem a commentary on Isaiah 5:20-24.
8 Jeremiah 9:11,22