Are non-Christians merely “gospel fodder,” or are they valuable in spite of their eternal state?
I want to start out this segment responding to a letter. I receive letters on occasion. Often times there is nothing to respond to because they’re not that kind of letter. Other times there’s a lot to respond to but I’m not capable of making the full response in writing that is required. But there are times when things come up that I think represent a misunderstanding of something I’ve said, and also if it’s delivered in somewhat of a challenging tone which bothers me and I want to respond. I don’t like being misunderstood. I don’t mind when people disagree with me, but if they disagree, I want them to disagree with me for the right reasons—and certainly not disagree because they misunderstand. I’ll say one other thing here and this is on a more personal note. I bet most of you people think I’m a real tough character, but actually I’m quite a softy in a lot of ways and I do take things personally. And sometimes when something strikes a little close to home I like to try to respond to it. I especially take things personally when I feel like I’ve been maligned because I’ve been misunderstood.
There are some things that I’ve said in the past about a theme I’ve played a number of times that have apparently been misunderstood by one listener and she wrote to me. I think my response to this letter goes beyond answering this one particular writer. I think we can all learn something from it as well. I want you to understand my point of view on this issue because I think the point of view is important.
The writer seems to state a point of view that I genuinely and strongly disagree with and it has to do with whether we are inherently valuable and, if we are, then doesn’t that work against God’s unmerited grace? That seems to be part of her objection. Here’s my way of answering that, and I’ll be very careful to be as clear as I possibly can on the idea of goodness and virtue and unsaved people, and on the idea of “gospel fodder,” which is a term I’ve used before, and on the concepts of what makes us humanly valuable.
There is a distinction between innate goodness and innate value. Having worth or value on the one hand and earning forgiveness—in other words, goodness—on the other are two different things. Let me give you an illustration. When we love our own children unconditionally, does it follow that our unconditional love implies that our children are innately worthless? No, of course it doesn’t. We don’t love our children based on what they do, but on who they are. They are our children, and because they have worth as our children we love them regardless of their performance. We love them because they have value, precisely because they have value, not because they are good. See the distinction? This distinction is critical because God loves us in much the same way, as unique beings that He created with transcendent value; and because He loves us that way, He can extend mercy to us even when our actions are rebellious. Thus the distinction between innate value which we have, and innate goodness which we don’t have.
Now the truth is that God is always the full source of our value, but the value that we have is not based on the cross. It’s based in something else. Our value doesn’t come subsequent to the cross because God just chose arbitrarily, as it were, to die for human beings—rather than for rocks or for animals or for birds—and then in dying for us, invested us with value as a result of the cross. No. Our value comes from God, but not from the cross. Our value comes from God through creation. The cross is grounded in man’s intrinsic value, not the other way around. The cross is the result of man’s value, not the cause of it. This is what I mean when I say that people are not valuable because we save them. We save them because they are valuable. Their value is prior to the cross, not a consequence of it. And that’s why—and this is very important and this is where I was deeply misunderstood—we are not to treat human beings merely as opportunities for spiritual conquest. Human beings are not merely valuable because of the end of getting saved. We don’t treat them as means to ends. We treat them as ends in themselves, and as valuable ends at that.
When I say that people are not just gospel fodder I mean that they have more value than being merely the object of our witness so they can get saved. They have value prior to the cross because they were created by God as valuable creatures in His image. I’m glad this woman was witnessed to by others, but I hope she was not simply treated as gospel fodder and as a spiritual conquest. I hope she was treated as a human being who had value in herself in spite of the fact she was not surrendered to God, and may never have surrendered to God. This is what I mean when I say that humans have intrinsic value. They have value in themselves based on creation and on nothing else. The cross is merely an expression of the value that God sees that men have because God has placed the value in there when He created man. Do you see that?
Here’s another way of looking at it. This time I’m going to use a Scriptural argument. The worth of a particular thing to an individual is measured by what that person is willing to pay for it. If you see a car you like and you are willing to pay a million dollars for that car then that implies that the car has a lot of value to you. Well, what price did God pay to redeem us? Peter tells us in First Peter 1:1–19, “Knowing that you are not redeemed, or purchased with perishable things like silver or gold from your futile way of life inherited from your forefathers, but with precious blood as of a lamb unblemished and spotless the blood of Christ.” Folks, our value to God is measured by what God was willing to pay to obtain us. What did He pay? His price was the precious blood of Christ. That tells us that our value was very, very high intrinsically. And this is why such a high price was paid to purchase us. Yes, we have fallen short and yes, we are guilty. But that doesn’t take away the high value that we have by virtue of creation.
Now, more needs to be said about this letter. I hope that part is understood. But I have more to say. That’s the part she misunderstood and I’m trying to clarify, but there’s something else that I think that I would disagree with her on.
The writer seems to suggest that teaching people to be virtuous is without value because their virtue can’t get them to heaven. That was the “niceness” issue in the letter. My point isn’t that virtue gets people to heaven. I have never held that. Those of you who have listened to me more than two or three times know that I am very, very strict on the grace of God. As a matter of fact, I lean towards the reformed position in that regard rather than the Arminian position. I feel strongly about the grace of God and the total depravity of man—the incapability of any human being to earn his way to heaven.
My point isn’t that virtue gets people to heaven. My point is that virtue has intrinsic value and those that manifest virtue partake of the value that virtue has, and that’s a good thing. Now this introduces a new concept—something that maybe you’ve never thought about before. It’s the concept of human flourishing. This concept is rooted in the idea that we were created by God to be certain kinds of creatures. That humans have natures which are nurtured by specific behaviors. In other words, our souls grow and are shaped by our conduct. Yes, of course we have fallen far short of that fullness of humanity that God intended for us which is perfectly exemplified in Jesus of Nazareth. You can see this perfect exemplification and the perfect fulfillment of human nature and all God intended for it in the person of Jesus Christ. And yes, because we’ve fallen short of that we are culpable, we are held to blame for our error, and we will pay dearly at the hand of God’s justice.
But even so, it is also good for our natures to continue to be nurtured by conduct that is fitting to our humanness even if we eventually will face God’s judgment for our human shortcomings. In other words, it is still a good thing that we be the best humans we can be even though the best of humans are deeply in need of God’s mercy.
It is good for man to fulfill the nature God gave him. It is kind of an expectation God has of a creature. God made man in a certain way to be a certain kind of being. We have fallen short of that. Jesus exemplified it perfectly. The classical idea of living the good life meant not working less and enjoying it more, or getting paid more, or sex, drugs and rock and roll, that kind of thing. That’s not the classical understanding of the good life. The classical understanding of the good life is to fulfill our natures, to live virtuous lives that are in keeping with what we are intended to be.
Now, can one really argue that it makes no difference whatever whether men are as bad as they can be or whether they are as good as they can be? We are setting the issue of salvation aside right now. Given men that are ultimately going to go to hell, do we really want to argue that it doesn’t make any difference whatsoever, in any sense, how these people live or how they act? Well, I think your answer depends in some degree on your view of human nature. If humans have no value in themselves and they have no nature to fulfill, then it does seem hard to argue for the value of virtue because it could contribute neither to goodness nor to the fulfillment of a man’s nature. But listen, if man is made in the image of God and because of creation has intrinsic value, then it seems that his conduct matters in a valuable temporal sense, even if it doesn’t ultimately change things eternally.
Let me put it another way. Man has a physical body. The body can be healthy or unhealthy, but even the healthiest body dies. Now, does it follow that since we’re all going to die eventually that there is no value in being physically healthy while we live? It doesn’t follow at all. It seems like a silly argument. It’s like saying, “Well, why wash the dishes, I’m just going get them dirty tomorrow. Why wash the clothes, I’m just going to live in them tomorrow.” Of course not. Even though we are all going to die eventually it still seems to be valuable for us to live a healthy life while we are here.
Well, in a parallel way we all have soulish bodies, so to speak. We all have souls that can be healthy or unhealthy. Many of those soulish bodies are destined to perish eventually, to die eternally in the destruction of God’s judgment. That’s a given. But does it follow from that that there is no value to having a healthier soul while people live? No, it doesn’t. It does follow that we ought to be healthier if we are made in the image of God because we ought to pursue soulish health—precisely because we are made in the image of God—even if we eventually face God’s judgment. And this is why I argue for the value of niceness, as the writer of the letter put it, not to commend us to God, but to fulfill our natures. When we fulfill our natures—natures that God has given us—we do something that has intrinsic value. This is why it is good for people to be as good as they can be—they remain valuable creatures in the image of God even though they are fallen, and as image-bearers they have a nature that is appropriate to nurture through virtue and goodness.
By the way, this understanding also helps to explain why it’s right for Christians to treat others as valuable souls, to care for them, to feed them, to protect them and to see that they are treated justly even though they may be destined for eternal death. If a human being’s value is merely in the fact that he gets saved, and he has no value as an image-bearer, there is no justification for saving unborn children or for feeding the poor who are of a different faith. There is no justification for arguing for justice for humans because justice is good because these people are all going to hell anyway and it doesn’t matter. Well, it matters immensely because even people who are going to hell are valuable individuals made in the image of God. They are the object of God’s love and therefore should be the appropriate object of our love as well, and part of our love is to help them to be more fully human, even in the midst of their rejection of the truth of salvation. Why? Because they are made in the image of God and it’s a good thing for them to experience that to the fullest as God intended.
A caller said that science has demonstrated that if you feel good about yourself, or feel good inside, you have a healthier physical body. I want to clarify so you don’t misunderstand that when I talk about soulish health I am not talking about merely feeling good inside because it is possible to feel good inside about bad things—things that are destructive to your health. I’m not talking about a good self-image or a good feeling inside that makes you more healthy. I am talking about those things that genuinely and objectively cause your spirit to grow. I should say your soul to grow.
By the way, oftentimes those things that cause your soul to grow are painful. God lets us go through painful circumstances, and even engineers them for us, so that our souls will grow. What I’d like you to start doing is thinking about yourselves not merely as physical beings but as soulish beings also. Beings that have a soul and the soul as a kind of body, not physical. But it’s a substantial thing that can grow. We talk about giving each other a piece of our mind. When we give our minds away we don’t lose part of our mind, but other people’s minds grow. We get a piece of another’s mind and we grow that way. Our souls are nurtured by ideas. They grow by behavior and they grow by virtuous living. I want you to be thinking about helping your soul to grow.
Seek after soulish health and this will put the question of suffering and hardship in an entirely different context for you because the Bible clearly teaches, Paul says, “Though my outer body is wasting away, my inner man is growing.” He says, “Physical exercise profits little, but godliness is a means of great gain because it holds the promise not only of the present life, but also for the life to come.” Your body as it is right now, in the physical condition it is in right now, is not going to continue on in the life to come. It will be resurrected as a glorified body. But whether you’re healthy or unhealthy physically in this life is not going to influence the quality of your body in the next. But the soulish health you obtain while you are here will influence the level of soulish maturity that you have in the life to come. I would suggest that there are good arguments that there are types of soulish growth that you are capable of in this life, that because of the nature of the other life to come you will not be capable of experiencing. Certain types of growth you can have right here, right now in this life and you won’t be capable of growing through suffering in the life to come or growing through exercising faith.
Think about growing your soul.