Ethan, a podcast listener in the Middle East, sends us this email to ask: “Pastor John, does the Bible say or imply that part of the message of the cross is our innate value? In other words, does the price paid to redeem us mean we were worth it? And if the cross tells believers about our value, what about those for whom Christ did not die. Are they less valuable?” What would you say to Ethan?
This kind of question has been around my entire adult life. I have been responding to this question for over forty years, even during my time at Bethel University. And I have heard people say things like: “If you want to see how much you are worth, look at the price God was willing to pay for you.” Or sometimes it comes in a little more ambiguous form: “God don’t die for trash.”
What We Were Made For
Now the response that is needed for each of those kinds of statements is a little different, but basically the same. The Bible does not portray the cross of Christ as a display of the prior value of what he purchased by it — just the opposite. The cross is a display of the hopeless, undeserving, dirty, sinful, guilty, rebellious, corrupted condition of the people who were purchased. The magnitude of Christ’s sufferings is a measure, not of the magnitude of my worth, but the magnitude of the ugliness of my sin, the outrage of my rebellion, and the infinite value of the glory of God that my sin had defamed.
Did God die for trash? The context of this statement usually signifies a similar misunderstanding of the meaning of the cross, but to respond to it requires more careful nuancing about the nature of man. The short answer is that man is not trash, but an amazing being in the image of God who has prostituted his dignity to such a degree that he is worse than trash. That is the short answer. A trashed glory is worse than trash. A genius turned murderer is worse than an unintelligent person turned murderer. The prostitution of greatness is morally worse than the wasting of weakness.
Man was created in the image of God. This means that he had a unique potential for conscious, God-glorifying worship. This is why he was made. This is precisely what he lost in the fall: his worshiping soul vanished. He may still be able to invent computers and travel to Mars and build skyscrapers, but all of these are prostituted capacities wherever they are not done in reliance upon God and for the glory of God. And that prostitution of worshiping potential is worse than if he were only created with trash-like possibilities.
Before Paul describes the meaning of the cross of Christ, he describes the catastrophic corruption of the greatness of man.
What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, as it is written:
“None is righteous, no, not one;
no one understands;
no one seeks for God. (Romans 3:9–11)
The ultimate evil of human sin is the belittling of the glory of God by exchanging that glory for lesser things, and thus communicating that God is of less value than what he has made. This is what Paul meant in Romans 3:23 when he said, “All have sinned and fall short of [or lack, because we have exchanged it] the glory of God.”
The more you exalt the wonder of human capacities, the more you indict human beings as morally heinous. It is precisely the throwing away of our greatest dignity as people with capacities to know and love God that constitutes our lowest evil. It is the throwing away of the greatness that is the lowness of the evil and our loss of all inborn worth that we were created to use for God’s glory.
What the Cross Says
Therefore, when God sends Jesus to die for us, he is most emphatically not coming to pay a price that signals our prior innate value. Paul says,
While we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person — though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die — but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:6–8).
The logic of those verses is inescapably plain. Everything about us was undeserving of what God paid for us. This is the very meaning of grace. And if someone says, “But he didn’t die for horses,” my response is: Horses would have been easier to die for. The fact that he chose to die for humans instead of animals is not because we were more deserving, but because he meant to create what we had thrown away — namely, worshiping souls.
Therefore, it is right to say that Christ did not die to respond to innate value. He died to create Spirit-wrought value. Ephesians 2:10 says, “We are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” Oh, there is worth! There is value in the new creation, with all of its worshiping bent.
So my answer to Ethan’s question is: No, the message of the cross is not our innate value. No, the price paid does not mean we were worth it. No, therefore, the cross does not testify to the superior innate prior value of the redeemed over the non-redeemed. Rather, the cross (1) testifies to the infinite value of the glory of God, (2) it testifies to the enormity of human sin in belittling that glory, (3) it testifies to the immeasurable greatness of the grace of God, and (4) it testifies to the new creation that God has brought into being, which is a beautiful thing.