Wednesday, August 30, 2017

The Value of a Soul

O teach me what it meaneth:
  That Cross uplifted high,
With One, the Man of Sorrows,
  Condemned to bleed and die.
O teach me what it cost Thee
  To make a sinner whole;
And teach me, Saviour, teach me
  The value of a soul

(Lucy Anne Bennett (1850-1927)

Upon that cross of Jesus
  Mine eye at times can see
The very dying form of One,
  Who suffered there for me;
And from my smitten heart, with tears,
  Two wonders I confess,
The wonders of His glorious love,
  And my own worthlessness.

(Elizabeth Cecilia Clephane  (1830-1869)
Two Victorian era hymnwriters. Two quite different valuations of the human soul. Lucy Anne Bennett wants Jesus to teach her the 'value of a soul'. While Elizabeth Cecilia Clephane confesses 'my own worthlessness'. Is that the 'value of a soul', worthless? Stephen Hawking has said as much. More or less, "The human race is just a chemical scum on a moderate-sized planet, orbiting around a very average star in the outer suburb of one among a hundred billion galaxies. We are so insignificant that I can't believe the whole universe exists for our benefit." But he's a self-confessed atheist for whom human beings are mere physical entities. Souls and their value don't come into it. We're "chemical scum". Period. 

But hang on a minute. While it is not the case that the whole universe exists for our benefit, the 'anthropic principle' is widely recognised. The universe is fine tuned for human life and is understandable, at least to some extent, to the human mind. That in itself tells us something about the unique status of mankind. Maybe we're not so scummy after all. 

The Christians faith has a high estimation of human beings. We are made in the image of God, who created us as 'living souls'. With that in mind Marilynne Robinson writes, "humankind is the true and appropriate object of [God's] love". She speaks of, "our ontological worthiness to be in a relationship with God" and says, "To properly value this pledge of fervent love, the Incarnation, we must try and see the world as deserving of it" (The Givenness of Thingsp. 155, 272 & 201). 

Jesus asked, "what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?" (Matthew 16:26). His words place a high value on human life. When placed in the balance, a single soul outweighs the whole world. To lose one's soul to gain the all the riches of the world is an eternally bad deal. We can go beyond that when we factor in the gospel. It is not the comparative value of the world that defines the worth of a soul, but that "the Son of God loved me and gave himself for me" (Galatians 2:20). 

In his classic work on the atonement, The Cross of Christ, John Stott devotes a chapter to Self -understanding and self-giving in the light of the Cross. In it the writer notes Dr. Hoekema's criticism of the words of Clephane's hymn cited at the top of this post,
No, no, Dr. Hoekema objects. We cannot sing that. 'And my own unworthiness' would express the truth, but not 'my own worthlessness. Is it 'worthless' be a child of God, a member of Christ and an heir of heaven? So then, a vital part of our self-affirmation, which in reality is an affirmation of the grace of God our Creator and Redeemer, is what we have become in Christ. 'The ultimate basis of our positive self-image must be God's acceptance of us in Christ'. (The Cross of Christ, John Stott, IVP, 1986 p. 283-284).
Stott's emphasis is subtly different to that of Robinson. While she speaks of the 'ontological worthiness' of human beings as objects of God's love, Stott highlights the grace of God. This is appropriate because sin has rendered human beings unworthy of God's love and deserving of his judgement. That certainly does not mean we are worthless. Pace Robinson, however, the measure of human worth is not to be sought in our ontology. It is disclosed at Calvary. Stott once more, "It is only when we look at the cross we see the true worth of human beings. As William Temple expressed it, 'My worth is what I am worth to God; and that us a marvellous great deal, for Christ died for me'" (op cit, p. 282). That is why the first two lines of Bennett's stanza answer so well to the last two, which isn't necessarily the case with the opening and closing lines of Clephane's verse.

Love in it's fullest and deepest expression is not based on the inherent worthiness of the loved one. It is a self-generated flow of love from the lover to his beloved. Shakespeare meditated on this in Sonnet 116,

Let me not to the marriage of true minds 
Admit impediments. Love is not love 
Which alters when it alteration finds, 
Or bends with the remover to remove. 
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark 
That looks on tempests and is never shaken; 
It is the star to every wand'ring bark, 
Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken. 
Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks 
Within his bending sickle's compass come; 
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks, 
But bears it out even to the edge of doom. 
If this be error and upon me prov'd, 
I never writ, nor no man ever lov'd.

God saw alteration in us when Adam fell and we in him became a sin-ruined race. Yet God's eternal love for his people did not alter. It looked on the tempest of our sinful rebellion and was never shaken. If Robinson is right and God loves human beings because they in some way deserve it, then the game's up because sin has rendered us undeserving and therefore unloveable. The ontology of the gospel is different. Thankfully, it is rooted in what God is - love, rather than what we have become - sinners. Don Carson reflects,
Doubtless the Father finds the Son lovable; doubtless in the realm of disciplining his covenant people, there is a sense in which his love is conditioned by our moral conformity. But at the end of the day, God loves, whomever the object, because God is love. There are thus two critical points. First, God exercises this love in conjunction with all his other perfections, but his love is no less love for all that. Second, his love emanates from his own character; it is not dependent on the loveliness of the loved, external to himself. (The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God, Crossway, 2000, p. 63). 
The value of a soul is that God loves his people, sinful and unworthy though they are. They are worth something to him. Worth the death of his Son to redeem them. If "God is love", that is his love in action, 1 John 4:10. Our love for one another should be a reflection of God's love for us (1 John 4:11). Those who love the God who first loved us will love his people. We recognise the image of God in our neigbour whom we are called to love as we love ourselves. We must love our enemies as God loved his foes and sent his Son to die for them (Romans 5:8, 10). Carson once more,
John’s point in 1 John 4, “God is love,” is that those who really do know God come to love that way too. Doubtless we do not do it very well, but aren’t Christians supposed to love the unlovable—even our enemies? Because we have been transformed by the Gospel, our love is to be self-originating, not elicited by the loveliness of the loved. For that is the way it is with God. He loves because love is one of his perfections, in perfect harmony with all his other perfections. At our best, we know that that is the way God’s image-bearers should love too. (Op cit, p. 63-64)
The Cross teaches us the true value of a soul; worth the death of the infinite Son of God that we might not perish but have everlasting life. It should be said at this point that when construed biblically, talk of the 'value of a soul' should not be taken to mean that the spiritual side of human nature is of great worth, but the physical is a worthless cask. Christ assumed a human body and soul to redeem us as complete human beings. The Bible never describes the soul as distinct from the body as 'eternal' or 'immortal'. Eternal life is resurrection life, John 6:40. We shall be raised immortal, 1 Corinthians 15:53-54. The value of a soul denotes the worth of a human person to God, body and spirit. 

If we value souls we will treat them with dignity and respect, whoever they may be. Irrespective of race or class. We will endeavour to do people good, serving them in whatever ways we can. We will seek the peace of the community of souls in which we live, be responsible citizens of our nation, and contribute to the common good of the world. Above all, if we value souls, the love of Christ will constrain us to preach the gospel to people that they may be saved. And we will love saved souls, for "if we love one another, God abides in us, and his love has been perfected in us." (1 John 4:12).

And teach me, Saviour, teach me
  The value of a soul


Jonathan Hunt said...

If there is 'rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents'... that tells us what we need to know about the value of a soul. Interesting comments on the Cleophane hymn, I had never taken it to mean a lack of intrinsic value but rather a comment on sinfulness. Surely 'my unworthiness' over 'my own worthlessness' would be a good hymn edit.

Guy Davies said...

Yes, 'my own unworthiness' would be better.

Jonathan Hunt said...

Except it doesn't scan. 'My unworthiness' FTW