On Turning the Atonement Inside Out

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Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org

I tried not to write this. I failed. I really believe the purity of the gospel of free grace is at stake. So here goes.

In “Tips for Single Adults” Lorraine Eitel wrote in this month’s Standard

We all need to feel lovable.  I deliberately said “lovable” instead of “loved,” because I don’t think anyone in any situation will feel loved all his life. Feeling “loved” depends on circumstances. Feeling “lovable” depends upon what you know of yourself and your worth to God, to society, and to those important to you. I want to make some observations about lovable people so that we can reassure people we know that they are lovable. And so we can remind ourselves if we forget from time to time.

I am against this argument for at least two reasons: 1) it is inconsistent; 2) it diminishes divine grace and turns the atonement inside out. My alternative position would be that our most fundamental need is precisely to be loved by God and to feel it (i.e. trust it), not to be or feel lovable!

1) The quotation above is inconsistent. She does not want to say, “we all need to feel loved” because she doesn’t think anyone in any situation “will feel loved all the time.” But at the end of the paragraph she admits that we “forget from time to time” that we are “lovable.” So no one feels lovable all the time either. Therefore it is inconsistent to emphasize the need to feel lovable over the need to feel loved just because we sometimes don’t feel loved. For sometimes we don’t feel lovable too.

Again she says, “feeling loved depends on circumstances.” But “feeling lovable depends on what you know of yourself, etc.” This is not playing fair. To be fair she would have to say, “Feeling loved depends on what you know of the person who loves you” but “feeling lovable depends on what you know of yourself.” Then we could see that both feeling loved and feeling lovable are equally dependent on circumstances. Why? Because it is circumstances that determine whether the truth of our being loved or being lovable finds its way into our feelings. So it is inconsistent to rank feeling lovable above feeling loved because only one depends on circumstances. Both do. Both the loved and the lovable may not feel like it. The issue is: which need is deeper and which has the firmer basis in truth, being loved or being lovable?

2) Second, Lorraine’s shift of the biblical emphasis diminishes grace and turns the atonement inside out. She argues for our lovability by saying that after the fall “enough remained so that it was worth God’s ultimate sacrifice.” I don’t know of any biblical statement that remotely suggests that the death of Christ was called for by our worth. The pattern of biblical truth goes like this: “while we were yet helpless Christ died for the ungodly. Why one will hardly die for a righteous man—though perhaps for a good man one will even dare to die. But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:6-8). The Bible exalts the love and grace of God by showing how nothing good in us elicited the atonement. It turns the atonement inside out to argue from it that we must have been remarkably expensive and valuable for God to pay such a high price for us. This tears the fabric of grace to shreds. The reason God paid such a high price for us is not because we were so valuable, but because he freely set his love on us and then did what had to be done to repair the infinite defamation done to his glory by our pride and self-exaltation.

I conclude that the very notion she seems to reject is the biblical one: our great need is to be and to feel loved (by God). In Christ God has borne witness that we are. And the beauty of grace is that his love for us is as solid as the rock of Gibraltar. Grace for the unlovable is the gospel! But the contemporary gospel of lovability diminishes grace.

In need of great grace,

Pastor John