Articles and book excerpts used in and referred to on Issues, Etc.
What is Your Self-Image?
What is an accurate self-image for Christians?
How should we respond to a culture marked by focus upon self and the pursuit of self-esteem?
by Don Matzat
Is Theology Difficult?
On my radio program we discuss theological issues and concerns. We get into some of the modern manifestations of Arminianism, Pelagianism, Evangelical Revivalism and the like. Some have questioned our choice of the content for Issues, Etc. They feel that lay people cannot understand theology. I do not accept that notion. I think theologians and pastors have to find ways to explain theological issues and concepts in language that the average person is able to understand.
It is true that there are complex theological issues. I am dealing with one of those complexities in the article that follows. I am attempting to practice what I preach and make a complicated issue simple. Read the article and see if I have succeeded.
I have also included some thoughts from a very interesting man - psychologist Dr. Bill Coulson. He is on a personal quest to correct some of his errors of the past. It takes the grace of God to admit that you were wrong!
What is Your Self-Image?
What is your self-image? How should a Christian regard "self?"
How should we respond to a culture marked by the focus upon self and the pursuit of self-esteem?
We are living in a culture marked by an emphasis upon "self" and the pursuit of self-esteem. Many in the church have focused upon self-centered psychology and self-righteous moralism. Thousands of promise-keeping men are defining themselves as "men of integrity." How do we deal with this "self-emphasis?" Is it a proper emphasis or does it distort the basic truths of Christianity?
To begin with, we must note that challenging the self-emphasis is flying in the face of both popular culture and popular "Christianity." Focusing upon "self" and enlarging "self" appeals to our sinful, human nature. We love to esteem self, to boast of the integrity of self, to read "Christian" self-help books, to sing of how much self loves Jesus, to attend a church service that is dedicated to the improvement of self, and to follow Bible teachers and evangelists who make self feel very spiritual. To question the self emphasis is comparable to snatching a bone away from a dog. There is a whole lot of growling going on!
There would be no problem with any of these "self" issues if Christianity entailed striving to attain a level of morality by following a set of rules and laws. Everyday in every way, if we worked real hard at being disciplined and obedient, we could become better and better. If we succeeded in becoming committed, first-class Christians, we would have reason for self-esteem and feeling good about ourselves. We could praise the righteousness of self, and boast of the integrity of self.
But the quest for morality is not the essence of Christianity. Being a Christian does not mean being related to a set of rules or promises whereby we can measure self-improvement. Being a Christian means being related by faith to the person of Christ Jesus. As I have heard it said, "Christianity is not a religion but a personal relationship."
This "person to person" relationship with Jesus Christ, as any other personal relationship, requires definition. What is the nature of the relationship? What do I bring to it, and what does Christ contribute? What belongs to me, and what belongs to him? How do I relate to him, and how does he affect me? The Apostle Paul writes, "So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him, rooted and built up in him (Colossians 2: 6)." How does "living in Christ" affect my conscious perception of self? Does a relationship with the person of Jesus Christ allow for an emphasis upon self?
The problem with providing definitions of the relationship between "I and Christ" is that we are forced to deal with the abstract concepts of "person" and "self." This will require a great deal of thought and contemplation. We must work hard at this issue and ask the Holy Spirit to help us understand the dynamics of our personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Only as we understand this relationship will we be enabled to confront the "self-emphasis" that has invaded the church.
"I and Christ"
In speaking of this relationship between himself as a person and the person of Christ Jesus, the apostle Paul declares in Galatians 2: 20, "I am crucified with Christ,. nevertheless I live, yet not I, but Christ lives in me." (KJV) What does Paul mean when he says, "I live, yet not I." (For those interested, the Greek is: Zo de ouketi ego.) He seems to be expressing two definitions of "I." "I live," he says, but not out from my own life or my own "I." It is the person of Christ that is living in me. In his commentary on Galatians, Luther defines this by saying, "The person does indeed live, but not in itself." 1
This distinction in the definition of "I" is especially important in our understanding of the cardinal doctrine of justification by grace through faith. The essence of the biblical doctrine of justification is that God has imputed to us the righteousness of the person of Jesus Christ. This righteousness that comes from God and is received by faith is not theoretical, but is the actual righteous content of the life of another person, Jesus Christ. The Reformers strongly emphasized that this righteousness is alien. It is not my righteousness or the "righteousness of self." It is not a righteousness that is "infused" into the content of my life, as Rome teaches, causing me to become inherently righteous, but rather a righteousness that belongs to the person of Christ and is "imputed" or given to me.
In order to understand what it means that we are related in faith to the person of Jesus Christ and that we receive his righteous content, we have to distinguish our personhood from the content of our lives. You, for example, are a unique person with individuality. The person of Jesus Christ does not replace you - that would be nihilism or the rejection of your personhood and individuality. On the other hand, the righteousness and holiness of the person of Jesus Christ is not spiritually infused into the content of your life causing you to become righteous and holy so that the person of Christ is lost. That would be Catholicism. You remain you, and Christ remains Christ.
In 1 Corinthians 1:30, the Apostle speaks of Christ "becoming for us" wisdom from God, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption. The person of Jesus Christ is our righteousness. As Paul says, "I live, yet not I, Christ lives in me."
In his book The Structure of Lutheranism, Dr. Werner Elert grappled with this issue of the twofold definition of "I.". He says, "The Lutheran doctrine of justification distinguishes a twofold subjectivity of man." He speaks of the "transcendental I" that is merely a mathematical point devoid of content and beyond human comprehension, and the "psychic I" that is saturated with the content of life. He points out that making such a distinction "is the formal presupposition of the doctrine of justification." 2
Elert's concept of the "transcendental I" is another way of defining "personhood." What does it mean to be a "person?" The concept is "transcendental" because it transcends definition. In debating the Roe vs. Wade issue, the Supreme Court was unable to define a "person." Yet, as Christians, we recognize that even the unborn have personhood and are created in the image of God.
The "psychic I," on the other hand, according to Elert, "is saturated with content." It is the conscious content of my life - my personality, talents and abilities, attitudes and emotions, strengths and weaknesses. It is "self" as a total package.
Therefore, when I speak about "self," I am not speaking about some mysterious, essence hidden deep within the vague parameters of my alleged unconscious mind, nor am I referring to my eternal soul. These are some of the definitions of "self" used in segments of modern psychology. I use the term "self" to define the content of my human life, or as Elert put it, the "psychic I." That content includes everything about me that is able to be revealed and evaluated: my will, desires, intentions and goals; my intellect, words and thoughts; my emotions, feelings, attitudes, and reactions. Let me give you a concrete illustration that might prove helpful.
The office where my wife works recently invested in new computers. The employees were given the option of purchasing the old computers. Since my son in college needed a computer, we decided to buy one. When my wife brought the computer home, I discovered that all of the content of the computer, for ethical reasons, had been removed. There was no DOS, Windows, or anything else. Yet, it was still a computer with all of its memory, electrical connections, and capabilities in place, but it did nothing. We can even say that it had "a nature." It was an IBM compatible computer rather than an "Apple."
This empty computer corresponds to you as a "person." You have a will, a mind, emotions and a human nature. You are a person, a unique individual. If we take all the content out of you, you are still a person, yet, as Elert states, merely a "mathematical point" with neither content nor extension. You simply "are." There is no "self" for you to contemplate and consider.
My daughter who lives in Florida recently had a baby. We went down for the Baptism of our granddaughter.
There is something strange and mysterious about an infant. We are accustomed to dealing with people on the basis of their appearance, personalities, attitudes, ideas, and the like. When I picked up my little granddaughter, I was confronted with pure personhood. While women are driven by their maternal instinct, men are often intimidated by an infant. How do I evaluate or relate to a baby? When we asked our daughter if our granddaughter was a "good" baby, all she could say was that she slept, ate, burped, and did the other things that babies do. How else can you assess a baby devoid of any other content? Even though the little baby is devoid of the content of life, she does have a nature, and it is a sinful nature, but none of the conscious elements of life have been added to demonstrate the reality of that nature. The miracle is that God applied the full righteousness of Jesus Christ to this "empty" baby in her Baptism.
In The Structure of Lutheranism, Werner Elert, using the terminology of Luther, defines this empty personhood or the "transcendental I" as a mathematical point, merely the intersection of two lines without content or extension. It just "is." A little baby has no self-image. There is no content to consider or assess.
Remember, at one time you were also an "empty baby." While you had a sinful nature, there was no content that could be evaluated. You were neither self-aware nor self-conscious. You had no self-image. I believe that this is what Jesus meant when he said that we must become like "little babies" in order to enter the Kingdom of God. We must empty ourselves of all content and become pure receivers of God's grace in Christ Jesus.
This twofold definition of "I" is clearly seen in the practice of self-assessment or self-evaluation. Werner Elert states that the "separation of I and I is carried through as 'self-accusation,' because I am compelled to look at the concrete aspects of my life through the eyes of God." 3
The ability to consciously assess yourself is a human characteristic. My dog, for example, does not think about herself, at least, I don't think she does. When she looks in the mirror, she barks because she thinks she sees another dog. I doubt whether she worries about how the other dogs in neighborhood regard her or whether or not she is getting a fair shake in life. Dogs are not self-aware. Humans are. Because we are self-aware, we are able to assess ourselves.
As you think about yourself, you can distinguish "you," the one doing the thinking, from "self," the object of your thinking. These are not one-and-the-same-thing. You are the person (the transcendental I) who is engaged in the thought process. Self, the object of your thinking, is the content of your life - your appearance, your relationships, your vocation, your attitudes, your abilities, etc. (the psychic I). How we assess ourselves is called our self-image. Modern psychology tells us that we should develop a positive self-image, or to put it another way, we should have self-esteem so that "I" as a person positively assess the content of my life.
The biblical doctrine of justification does not concur with the theories of modern psychology. As a prelude to receiving the righteousness of Christ offered in the Gospel, self-assessment must result in self-accusation, not self-esteem. This is the purpose for the preaching of the Law. As I (the transcendental I) look at myself (the psychic I) under the preaching of the Law, I must accuse myself because I have sinned and fallen short of God's glory. This is not merely a thinking technique but rather an act of judgment against the content of my life. As I view that content through the eyes of God, I discover that it does not measure up to his righteous demands. Read the self-assessment of the Apostle Paul:
But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ. (Philippians 3: 7-9)
The attitude that we take under the Law to the content of our lives is not an attitude of renunciation nor an attempt to obliterate that content by removing it from consciousness. When the Apostle Paul spoke of the content of his life as rubbish (Phil. 3: 9), he did not renounce that content, forsake the world, and retreat into the security of a monastery, nor did he empty his mind of all thoughts of that content and seek to experience Christ in empty-headed meditation. The attitude we take is that of judgment. We declare that every element that has been added to us since the time we were "empty infants" has been tainted by our sinful nature and falls short of the perfection, righteousness, and holiness of God. We exchange that content for the righteousness of Christ and in so doing we move from Law to Gospel and from judgment to faith.
A Reciprocal Relationship
The relationship between self-judgment and the righteousness of God is, as Elert puts it, exactly reciprocal. 4 In other words, the degree to which we are willing to pass judgment upon the content of "self," is the degree to which the righteousness of Christ abounds in us. Martin Luther put it this way: "the less righteousness we judge that we have, the more we condemn, abominate, and detest ourselves, the more abundantly does the grace of God flow into us." 5
I am sure that many Christians who are enthralled with the findings of modern psychology would recoil from such a statement. Self-deprecation is seen as a psychologically damaging attitude. Dr. Robert Schuller, an advocate of modern psychology, explains his anti-sin attitude:
I don't think that anything has been done in the name of Christ and under the banner of Christianity that has proven more destructive to human personality, and hence counterproductive to the evangelistic enterprise, than the unchristian, uncouth strategy of attempting to make people aware of their lost and sinful condition. 6
Dr. Ray Anderson, a professor at Fuller Theological Seminary writes:
If our sin is viewed as causing the death of Jesus on the cross, then we ourselves become victims of a 'psychological battering' produced by the cross. When I am led to feel that the pain and torment of Jesus death is due to my sin, I inflict upon myself spiritual and psychological torment. 7
But on the other hand, those who with the Apostle Paul recognize that passing judgment upon "self" is for the purpose of gaining Christ and experiencing the surpassing greatness of living in Christ rather than in "self" clearly acknowledge the reciprocal relationship between sin and grace. Dr. Paul Tournier points out:
Believers who are the most desperate about themselves are the ones who express most forcefully their confidence in grace....By degrees, the awareness of our guilt and of God's love increase side by side. 8
If you read of the experiences of other Christians who progressed in their knowledge of God's grace and forgiveness you will note the combination of a deep sense of sin and failure together with a deep appreciation for God. Men such as St. Paul, John Calvin, John Wesley, and Martin Luther were not afraid to speak of their sinful nature and even boast of their weaknesses, because they knew of the grace and forgiveness of God. The writings of such men reflect a profound level of spiritual depth and insight.
For example, Luther's discovery of the great doctrine of justification by grace was not an isolated incident. There was a great deal that took place leading up to the day when his eyes were opened and he was able to clearly understand that God had forgiven him and actually declared him to be righteous through Jesus Christ. It was Luther's very keen sense of sin and failure that was the driving force behind that discovery. In fact, he stated that when he was at the point of despair over his sin that he was actually the closest to grace. 9
The great reformer John Calvin, for example, was referred to by his friends as "the accusative case" because he was always down on himself.
C.S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity:
But there must be a real giving up of the self. You must throw it away "blindly" so to speak. Christ will indeed give you a real personality, but you must not go to him for the sake of that. As long as your own personality is what you are bothering about, you are not going to Him at all. The very first step is to try to forget about the self altogether. 10
As we discuss the proper attitude toward "self," I hope you see how important it is to understand the significance of this "twofold subjectivity." The personal faith relationship between you and Christ does not eliminate you, nor does it eliminate Christ. The judgment that you pass is upon the content of your life. The Apostle Paul speaks of this as "death." You lose your life so that you might gain his life. As Paul put it, "I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live, yet not I, but Christ lives in me, and the life I live now in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God." I LIVE, but by faith in the Son of God.
The question is, how does this affect my daily experience?
There is much confusion in the church today over the issue of sanctification or the subject of living the Christian life. In the thinking of many, sanctification equals self-improvement as expressed in the motto: "Everyday in every way I am getting better and better." The Promise Keepers' movement, for example, seeks to motivate men through the large, emotional rally-type gathering to make a commitment to keep seven promises. This commitment is reinforced in ongoing, small-group gatherings. The men who make the commitment to keep the promises refer to themselves as "men of integrity."
This approach to sanctification is nothing new. It is the same dynamic that fueled the revivalism of the latter half of the nineteenth century. The problem is that eventually the quest for self-improvement obliterates the truth of justification. In fact, the leader of the revivalism of the last century, Charles Finney, rejected the doctrine of the imputation of the righteousness of Christ to the sinner, claiming that it hindered moral reform.
This may be true for a moralist attempting to produce popular revivals for the purpose of renewing the culture. While revivalism motivates the self to embrace a higher standard of morality, the truth of justification requires judgment against the self and the losing of the self. Obviously, more people will participate in a movement promoting self-improvement than self-accusation. We should not be surprised by the popularity of the Promise Keepers' movement. There is something very appealing about being a part of a group dedicated to living at a higher standard of morality and thereby becoming "men of integrity." Such widespread popularity is not indicative of the blessings of God upon a movement but rather the natural appeal of the movement to the proud self.
The deception is compounded because revivalism, as evidenced in the Promise Keepers, encourages the dependency upon the Holy Spirit to help in becoming better people. While Charles Finney rejected the doctrine of justification, he strongly emphasized the work of the Holy Spirit in the quest for holiness. In fact, his teaching on the second work of grace or the baptism of the Holy Spirit was the precursor to Pentecostalism and the modern Charismatic movement. But the Holy Spirit will not confirm error. He is the Spirit of Truth, and the truth is, the Holy Spirit does not help in the task of self-improvement!
It is the work of the Holy Spirit to convict of sin so that forsaking self we cling to Christ. Neither the Apostle Paul nor Martin Luther separated justification and sanctification. The dynamic of "not I, but Christ," of self-accusation and faith, of losing self and gaining Christ remained constant. Perceiving self through the eyes of God causes the daily passing of judgment upon self, not the speaking of positive affirmations. Martin Luther wrote, "the less righteousness we judge that we have, the more we condemn, abominate, and detest ourselves, the more abundantly does the grace of God flow into us."
A major question arose among the theologians of the Reformation as to how the application of the righteousness of Christ to the person affected the content of the person's life. While the righteousness of Christ was applied to the person, or to the "transcendental I," what was the impact upon the conscious content of the person's life, or the "psychic I?"
Scripture clearly teaches that turning away from self and embracing Christ will adjust the daily experience of living. The one who receives the righteousness of Christ will bring forth good works and be perceived as a better person. He is born-again. He is a new man. The Apostle Paul writes that if anyone is in Christ he is a new creation (2 Corinthians 5: 17). The question is, how does this sanctification take place? What is the dynamic?
In dealing with this issue, the Lutheran theologians of the Reformation sought careful, precise definitions, unlike the sloppy sanctification theology that often exists in the same Lutheran Church today. They attempted to avoid three errors. First, they sought to avoid the notion that the righteousness of Christ was infused into the content of the person's life. The infusion of righteousness was the position of Rome. Secondly, they did not want to put the Christian back under the Law. This is the position of much of Evangelicalism today. After a person is "saved" or "born-again," they are instructed to obey the Law with the alleged assistance of the Holy Spirit. This position had to be avoided since the new man in Christ is not under the Law. The Law is for Adam. It produces self-accusation, not good works. Thirdly, the German mystics also taught the emptying of self but not as judgment. The purpose of the mystic was to find God deep within the inner self. This mystical "innerness" was destructive of the objective nature of justification. Sanctification, therefore, could not be defined as looking within to find the inner Christ.
The correct biblical understanding of sanctification is based upon the understanding of repentance as the daily dynamic of contrition and faith. While justification was a completed work, sanctification was the process of living in justification. The application of the Law and the Gospel was not only a singular dynamic that led to conversion, but was a dynamic that caused the person to daily forsake self and embrace Christ. Luther correctly perceived the "not I, but Christ" of Galatians 2: 20 as defining both justification and sanctification. He wrote:
Because he lives in me, whatever grace, righteousness, life, peace, and salvation there is in me is all Christ's; nevertheless, it is mine as well, by the cementing and attachment that are through faith... In this way, Paul seeks to withdraw us completely from ourselves, from the Law, and from works, and to transplant us into Christ. 11
Faith for Luther was not the mere assent to the historical reality of Christianity but was a powerful entity since it embraced Christ, brought the Holy Spirit, and produced good works. While the Christian by virtue of his birth in Adam remains a sinner, by faith he is cemented to Christ. Whatever obedience, holiness, love, joy, peace, or good works that are produced belong to Christ, but they also belong to the Christian as well because the Christian has Christ. The life of the Christian is a mixture. He is, at the same time, both a sinner and a saint. In himself, he is a sinner. In Christ, he is a saint.
Against the error of mysticism Luther demanded in the strongest terms that faith should never look into self. The holiness of the Christian was never perceived by looking within, neither at self nor at the "inner Christ." Elert writes, "Without this basic demand, every doctrine of the indwelling. . . would necessarily not only endanger but would actually destroy justification." 12 While there is no doubt that the content of the Christian life was found in the inner Christ, faith always reached to the Christ on the cross, to the Christ outside of us.
The true biblical understanding of sanctification is the daily process of turning away from self and embracing in faith Christ Jesus. This is the significance of our Baptism - old Adam is daily drowned via contrition and repentance and the new man daily comes forth and arises. This is not mere theory or doctrine removed from life. If you honestly assess your life you will arrive at the conclusion that you are the problem and Christ is the solution. Your moral failures, broken relationships, lusts, worries, and fears are the result of your sinful self seeking its own way and living for itself. The Apostle Paul writes, "He died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again (2 Corinthians 5: 15)." In the hearing of the Law which condemns you and in the Gospel and Sacraments which offer Christ Jesus to you the true biblical understanding of sanctification is to be found.
What is Your Self-Image?
Your self-image is always that of a sinner. While the Gospel defines you as a redeemed, justified, righteous, heaven-bound saint and a new creation in Christ Jesus, one who is more than a conqueror and can do all things through Christ, it does not cause you to look within to see if these things are true. The Law causes the inner assessment and always accuses you. The Gospel calls you away from self and offers the person of Christ Jesus - the person you are not. While the Law produces accusation and causes you to confess, "I have no righteousness. I have no integrity. I have no goodness." The Gospel produces faith and causes you to declare with great joy - "I have Christ!"
Table of References
1. Luther's Works, (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1963), Vol. 26, p. 167.
2. Werner, Elert, The Structure of Lutheranism, (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1962), pp. 140-1.
4. ibid., p 81.
5. ibid., note.
6. Schuller, Robert, Self-Esteem: The New Reformation, (Waco: Word, 1983), pp. 159-160.
7. Anderson, Ray S., The Gospel According to Judas, (Colorado Springs: Helmer and Howard, 1991), p. 99.
8. Tournier, Paul, Guilt and Grace, (New York: Harper and Row, 1959), pp.159-160.
9. Elert, p. 18.
10. Lewis, C.S., Mere Christianity, p. 188.
11. Lectures on Galatians, 1535, pp. 167-168.
12. Elert, p. 167.
1 Corinthians 1: 30
It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God--that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption.
2 Corinthians 5: 17
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!
Management Techniques Incorporated
has provided this article archive expressly for Issues, Etc. The articles in
this archive have been formatted & converted for internet use, by
Management Techniques, Inc.
Contact MTI webmaster