Reacting to the Image of God: Wesley and Worth
I try my best not to get drawn into the hot fire of the cultural moment. One of my great fears for our moment is that we will all become reactionary, driven more by emotions than reason (or if we are religious an overarching theological perspective). We react to culture, we react to others, we react to ourselves. Reacting like this often means that we don’t take time to stop, think, pray, and discern. In seminary, a professor named Dr. Knickerbocker said, “always watch what word we use. Do we say ‘I feel’? Or ‘I think’? Or ‘I believe’?” Our feelings may be valid, and reason is just as fallen and faulty as emotion. But in a reactionary moment, I try to stay non-reactive.
As a follower of Jesus, I’ve found that Wesleyan theology animates how and why I interact with people. One of the greatest theological works ever, in my opinion, is John Wesley’s sermon, “The Scripture Way of Salvation.” In this sermon, Wesley lays out a concept you may be familiar with: his understanding of grace – prevenient, the grace that goes before; justifying, the grace of conversion; and sanctifying, the grace of Christian growth.
There are so many takeaways from his theology but primary to me is the understanding that God is the first and primary actor in our salvation. We do not save ourselves by anything that we can do. God is the first actor. He calls us (prevenient), saves us (justifying), and grows us (sanctifying). Our very salvation is the work of God. In fact, in a recent sermon series on the Apostles’ Creed, we looked at how our very salvation is a Trinitarian act. We are brought to the Father, through the Son, by the Spirit. We are saved only through God’s work.
But here is why this matters in a reactionary culture. Why must God be the first actor? Why does salvation rest on God’s action, not on ours? The reason is original sin, sometimes called the doctrine of depravity. When Adam and Eve fell, they took all of humanity with them. (Romans 5: 12, 1 Corinthians 15: 20-21) This doctrine says that when they fell, we as humans fell with them. We are sinful, corrupt, whatever term or adjective you’d like to use. We are sinful. You. Me. All of us. It is part of the human condition.
Now here is the question. What does that mean? We know all humans are made in the image of God. (Genesis 1: 26-27) But sin has entered in. What does that do to the image of God within us? One theological perspective is that the image of God is completely destroyed: nothing good is left within us. From this perspective, we are completely dead in our sins. Sin destroyed that goodness of God. Yes, we are made in God’s image, but we most certainly are not good. That view is a dominant theme within modern American evangelicalism. As I’ve heard it said, a dead man can’t crawl out of a burning house, and the only thing we deserve is hellfire.
That way of thinking is not how Wesley looked at things. Wesley understood the reality of human sin, yes; but he believed that while the fall corrupted the image of God within us, it didn’t destroy it. Ted Runyan has a wonderful book called The New Creation that covers this subject in-depth. His entire point is that the fall corrupted that image of God within us – it is in need of redemption – but is not completely gone. We humans remain of great worth, and there is the hope for salvation for all. (John 3:16, 1 Timothy 2: 3-4)
This is the reason I am so drawn to Wesleyan theology. Without a doubt, we need salvation. And we are sinful. We can’t save ourselves. But that image of God, while corrupted, has not been completely destroyed. Prevenient grace extends to us an awakening of that image that allows us to walk toward God’s offer of grace.
This cultural moment would teach us to see other people as our enemy. To see people only deserving of judgment, especially those who are not Christians or those who we may disagree with. Those who may vote differently, live differently, act differently. We could easily take on the view of sin that casts them out and removes their worth. It is tempting to harden to our sides; they are over the line, they are on the other side.
Of course, I want to be clear. I believe in sin, judgment, and hell. No one comes to the Father but through the Son. (John 14:6) Sin is destructive; it destroys God’s prize creation, humanity. (John 10:10) This is not an apology for sin. It is a call to love all people in the way that God does. Our societal moment can take from us the desire to truly see the worth in others. The worth in those who are wrong. The worth in those we would see as even our enemies. The path of Christ calls us to love even the enemy. (Matthew 5:43-48; Romans 5:10)
As a follower of Christ and as a pastor, I want to speak against racism and also never discount the potential conversion and sanctification of the racist. And if I am their pastor, I want to be able to hopefully, through God’s grace, help them grow. I want to speak against immorality and also never discount the potential conversion and sanctification of the immoral. And if I am their pastor, I want to be able to hopefully, through God’s grace, help them grow. As a fallen human, my guilt is the same as anyone I preach to. In my calling, I want to hold out hope for redemption to those of infinite worth in the same way I respond to it myself. I never want to discount the worth of people, no matter who they are, what they do, or what they believe. Because everyone is truly loved by God who wants to redeem them.
I want as many people as possible to know the love of Jesus. Some would say that because of their sin, those who do not know Jesus are hostile to him and aren’t interested in knowing God at all. Maybe. But when I read Scripture, I see a lot of people who did not know Jesus but who wanted to know him. And today, I see a lot of people who do not know Jesus and who are very hostile to the Church. But there is still a fascination with Jesus and the Church. There is a yearning spiritually. It’s not surprising; Scripture says God has written eternity on the hearts of men. (Ecclesiastes 3:11)
Recently, I read a tweet that caused me to think a lot. By how I love others, do I make hell a more appealing place for folks to want to be than church? I want those who do not know Jesus Christ to be drawn to him and follow him. That is my one true desire for ministry. I want folks of all kinds to know their worth to Jesus. And if I all do is extend a metaphorical middle finger or kick sand in their face, how will know they know Jesus? Because that’s what I want more than anything else: for as many as possible to know Jesus.
I don’t want to get involved in hardening my heart at others, because I want all people, all people, to know Jesus. This world is calling me and you to harden our hearts to others. To write them off. To deem them as enemies. Maybe people in the church are calling us to do that. Maybe even preachers are calling us to do that. But I don’t believe that is right, and it isn’t Wesleyan. In one recent article, the author pointed out that for the first time in history, non-churchgoers make up the majority of the population in America. This is the context we live in now. We can choose to bemoan where we are. We can harden our sides and opinions. We can see our neighbors as our enemy and give up any hope for their redemption. We can harden our opinions, shout the loudest, and condemn the most. But I don’t think that’s the way of Jesus or the way of Wesley. I want as many as possible to know Jesus.
And that starts with each of us knowing our worth in Jesus and seeing others’ worth in Jesus. Even the folks we can’t stand.