For this issue exploring the goodness of humanity, we’ve decided to republish this classic article by Donald Matzat from Modern Reformation’s very first year of publication (the November/December 1992 issue). Here, Matzat addresses the twofold way we must think of our self-worth, whether before God or before others. If we want to affirm both, Matzat argues, then it’s essential for us not to confuse the two. His words from more than thirty years ago are just as relevant and powerful today.
Could Christianity survive without the gospel? In some quarters, including some fairly close to home, the answer seems to be in the affirmative. We still hear the laity using the lingo from the past, but the theological language of Scripture is being increasingly replaced with psychological terminology. Of course, language is not as important as the concepts that language conveys, but those concepts themselves are often little more than biblical glosses on psychological motifs.
In this article, I want to persuade the reader to consider the gospel as the answer to what people are looking for when they say they need “self-esteem,” rather than seeing the gospel as a supplement to the secular illusions. Theology isn’t practical—at least, that’s what people tell you, even Christian people. Nevertheless, I intend to demonstrate just how practical and essential is a recovery of the fundamental teaching of justification by grace alone through faith alone to our deepest psychological, emotional, and spiritual needs.
The Breakthrough of a Tormented Conscience
Like many today who live in anxiety, fear, guilt, and the shame common to our fallen condition, Martin Luther was a confused man whose conscience was tormented until he was able to understand Paul’s explanation of the gospel in the Epistle to the Romans. His superiors in the monastery counseled him to relax and ease up on his conscience, but Luther was driven by an implacable logic: If God is just, holy, and righteous, and demanded exact conformity to his moral character, with failure being met with certain punishment, then “Who may ascend into the hill of the Lord? Or who may stand in His holy place?” The psalmist’s answer was clear: “He who has clean hands and a pure heart” (Ps. 24). If that did not describe the hands and heart of a precise and obedient monk, “Who then can be saved?”
Like many now who are turned off to words like righteousness and holiness because they just remind us of how unrighteous and unholy we really are, Luther was ready to give the whole thing up until the gospel finally made sense:
Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the righteousness of God and the statement that “the just shall live by his faith” (Rom. 1:17). Then I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise. The whole of Scripture took on a different meaning, and whereas before the “justice of God” had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in great love. This passage of Paul became to me a gate to heaven.
Dubbed “the accusative case” by his classmates, John Calvin was another Reformer who was revolutionized by this realization. “You see that our righteousness is not in us but in Christ, that we possess it only because we are partakers in Christ; indeed, in him we possess all its riches.” Thus the Reformation gave renewed focus to the “alien righteousness” of Christ. While the monks were busy trying to find the good within, the Reformers were pointing believers to the Christ outside of them in history who lived, died, and rose again to give freely what none of us has or can create on the inside.
There are those today who, on the one hand, call believers to obey, surrender, and yield their way to God’s righteousness and acceptance, and on the other hand, those who urge us to stop torturing our consciences and simply ignore the realities of our moral condition. An example of the latter is Robert Schuller, television pastor of the Crystal Cathedral in Southern California, who writes, “Reformation theology failed to make clear that the core of sin is a lack of self-esteem. The most serious sin is the one that causes me to say, ‘I am unworthy. I may have no claim to divine sonship if you examine me at my worst.’ For once one believes he is an ‘unworthy sinner’ it is doubtful if he can really honestly accept the saving grace God offers in Jesus Christ.” Further, he says, “I don’t think 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.”
The terror of the law without the gospel is bad news; the denial of total depravity and the sinner’s desperate need of salvation from outside of himself or herself is no news. But the answer of the Reformers, with our Lord and his apostles, was that sinners can have their consciences relieved, not by the false hopes of those who, like the prophets in Jeremiah’s day, are constitutionally incapable of telling the truth when it hurts.
This forms the background, therefore, for our alternative to soul-killing legalism on the one hand and false hopes on the other. I do not intend in this article to survey the complete landscape of Christian psychology and its implications. Rather, I wish to focus on one important issue in the integration of psychology and theology that in our estimation demands immediate attention.
Is Self-Esteem an Unbiblical Concept?
First of all, any Christian criticism of this approach must clearly distinguish between what the Reformers called life coram Deo (before God) and coram hominibus (before humans). This means, for instance, that we ought to affirm our child for getting a B on an exam, even when we really were hoping for an A; we ought not to attach destructive labels to our children, as parents or teachers; we should encourage the unemployed and unskilled person to discover and cultivate his or her talents instead of contributing to a defeatist posture that withholds the dignity of being human. James, presumably including non-Christians in his view of those to whom we have a responsibility, complains that with the same tongue “we praise our God and Father, and curse men who have been created in God’s image” (James 3:9). Thus every person possesses dignity and value as an image-bearer of God. From this bedrock evaluation, we derive the dignity of work, the family, and so on. If one does not view oneself as created in God’s image, it will create a defective personality in these other arenas.
If I met my friends at the golf course and muttered to myself “You’re no good at this. You’re a horrible golfer—what are you doing out here with people who really know what they’re doing?” I wouldn’t last the first nine holes! There is nothing unchristian or unscriptural about having a positive view of one’s abilities, talents, personality traits, and so on, so long as we as believers acknowledge God as the giver of all good things. Even a Christian salesperson would never (or should never) introduce himself or herself by saying, “I know that you won’t buy this car from me because I am a poor, miserable salesperson.”
Before the doctrine of self-esteem became a buzzword and point of controversy among Christians, the necessity for self-confidence and a positive self-image in the arena of normal, daily human activity was taken for granted. Many Christian parents have read to their children the story of The Little Engine That Could. When our children took their first steps or attempted to ride their first bicycle, didn’t we bolster their self-confidence? “C’mon, Johnny, you can do it!” parents shout at Little League baseball games. It has never been considered inappropriate for Christians, any more than for non-Christians, to encourage their children or boost their self-esteem in this way. The Bible nowhere expects Christians to tell their children, “Johnny, realize that you are a poor, miserable shortstop.” And yet, we are all poor, miserable sinners.
That brings us to this other matter: our value coram Deo or “before God.” The Scriptures declare that “our righteousness is like filthy rags” (Isa. 64:6), that “there is no one righteous, no not one; there is none who understands; there is none who seeks after God. They have all gone out of the way; they have together become unprofitable; there is none who does good, no, not one” (Rom. 3:10–12). Before God we are regarded as “dead in trespasses and sins, . . . by nature children of wrath” (Eph. 2:1, 5). This is not because God is less forgiving than our friends and family on earth, but because God is holy. Therefore, whatever the basis of our relationship with God is to be, it cannot be in the slightest measure dependent on anything we have to offer in this relationship; all of our righteousness must be found in someone else’s moral perfection.
This, therefore, is where much of the current debate gets confused. On one side, there are those who argue that any inculcation of a positive self-image is idolatry, while others insist that this is the gospel. By creation, we are endowed with God’s image and possess dignity, but the Fall marred that image and we ourselves invent new ways of effacing it. Thus in the matter of redemption, God will tolerate no self-esteem, no self-assertion, but only self-despair as the believer turns to Christ for his or her righteousness and worth before God. It is therefore a legitimate exercise for psychology to observe these obvious behavioral differences that exist among natural human beings, Christians and non-Christians alike, and seek to understand and promote these virtues.
Rejecting the determinism of Freud and the conditioning of behaviorism, humanistic psychology, as the result of extensive research, teaches that our self-image or the manner in which we perceive ourselves to a great extent influences our success. If this assessment is accurate and humanistic psychology is successful in fostering more responsible behavior within society, this would be pleasing to God inasmuch as it serves civil righteousness. God might commend the State of California for wanting employees to be more productive, urging teenagers to be less destructive, and wanting to see fewer crimes and welfare recipients move toward financial self-sufficiency. The apostle Paul, for instance, instructed us to pray for the success of human government so that the church of Jesus Christ could live in peace and security (1 Tim. 2:2). But is self-sufficiency and self-confidence in the workplace the same as self-confidence before God? Does the gospel promise greater self-confidence?
While the Scriptures commend civil righteousness, they also clearly affirm that the virtues produced by human nature can contribute nothing to our righteousness before God. Calvin points out that such human virtues are motivated by “ambition, or self-love, or some other sinister affection.” Luther states that civil righteousness “contributes no more to a Christian’s righteousness than do eating, drinking, sleeping, etc.” He compares civil righteousness to hay and straw required by cattle:
A cow must have hay and straw. This is a law for her, a rule without which she cannot exist. But through this law she does not become a child, a daughter, or an heiress in the house; she remains a cow.
Even though a sense of self-worth and a positive self-image might be helpful if we are to successfully interact in society, before God, such success is nothing but hay and straw. Luther commended human civil righteousness and applauded the virtue often found among the heathen, but when it came to one’s standing before God, his words were rather different:
You hear your God speaking to you how all your life and deeds are nothing before God, but that you, together with everything in you, must perish eternally. If you believe this aright—that you are guilty—you must despair of yourself. . . . But in order to come out of and away from yourself, that is, out of your doom, he puts before you his dear Son, Jesus Christ, and has him speak to you his living, comforting Word: You should surrender yourself to him in firm faith and trust him boldly.
The Real Problem
The controversy in the church today over the issue of self-esteem has not been created by secular psychologists, many of whom have no intention of having their theories underwritten by Christianity. The problem has been created out of the tension Christian psychologists discover between the secular theories of their profession and the biblical revelation. However, when psychology is the professional’s first and primary interest, theology can often be used to justify rather than to critique one’s professional conclusions. One should not doubt the honesty or integrity of Christians who wrestle with the integration between the two disciplines, but distinctions such as the one we have made in this chapter between “civil righteousness” (before man) and “divine righteousness” (before God) are absent from such discussions. Hence, it is impossible to entirely affirm civil righteousness as sufficient, but we feel compelled to affirm the basic human value of individuals. So what often happens is a blending of civil and divine righteousness. We feel uneasy giving unequivocal support to the idea of self-esteem (even before man), but we cannot believe that “worm theology” any longer, so we steer a middle course. What I am suggesting is that we resist that temptation, affirming the full dignity, self-worth, and grandeur of humans as created in the image of God, encouraging our children in their self-image, and at the same time pointing out the fact that before God we are worthy only of condemnation apart from Christ’s worth.
Therefore, to take the position that we ought to not only remove destructive labels from children in the classroom, but that we ought to remove the biblical references such as “sinner,” “wretch,” “miserable,” and “unworthy” from our hymnody and from Christian discussion seriously misunderstands and in fact undermines the biblical gospel. Thus the doctrine of creation (all humans bearing the divine image) may be used as the basis for self-esteem before man (civil righteousness), but the gospel may not. The gospel comes to those who feel miserable about themselves, not to those who think of themselves as “basically good” (Mark 2:17).
Even within secular psychology, there is opposition to the confusion of psychology and theology. Witness Dr. Karl Menninger’s famous diatribe asking the church, “Whatever Became of Sin?” Then there is Jewish psychiatrist Dr. Viktor Frankl’s insistence that “any fusion of the respective goals of religion and psychotherapy must result in confusion.” He correctly states that while the effects of psychotherapy and religion might seem to overlap at points, the intentions are different. One must ask those who are engaged in Christian psychology where integration ends and this confusion begins. And they cannot answer this without an abundant appeal to theology.
A Controversial Intruder
Here is where the church is afraid of making waves. Services are often created to minimize discomfort for the unbeliever so that he or she begins to accept Christianity as an affirming influence. People ought to leave church feeling good about themselves, instead of being called to self-examination, sincere repentance, and faith toward God.
While the church must affirm human dignity before man, it must equally report the biblical facts concerning human depravity before God. When Robert Schuller writes that “the most serious sin is the one that causes me to say ‘I am unworthy,’” he confuses self-worth before man and self-worth before God. Did Jesus not affirm the very opposite in his illustration of the tax-collector and the Pharisee? “And the tax-collector, standing far off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God be merciful to me a sinner!’” While the Pharisee was affirming and nurturing himself with positive, uplifting “self-talk,” the tax-collector was committing Schuller’s cardinal sin: calling himself “unworthy.” “I tell you the truth,” Jesus concluded, “this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be abased, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:14).
The intrusion of the secular concept of self-esteem, therefore, faces us with the temptation to create new gospels that offer solutions to whatever the world has decided is humanity’s fundamental problem this week, while the timeless revelation of human despair and hope waits to be reappropriated and reapplied in each new generation.
Christians are urged to draw from knowledge, whatever its source. Following Augustine’s famous dictum “All truth is God’s truth,” we can expect to learn things from the social sciences that the Bible is not concerned to tell us. But what we see today in so much of the literature and preaching of Christian pop psychology is not integration of biblical-theological and natural-scientific knowledge, but a replacement of biblical views of humans, God, and salvation with purely secular notions, baptized with noncontextual verses from the Bible.
If “all truth is God’s truth” and God has seen fit to lead humanistic psychologists to discover something about God, man, and salvation that Christians have overlooked, underemphasized, or ignored altogether, we should expect such insights to fit nicely with biblical revelation. The Holy Spirit would not provide us with conflicting truths; therefore, where the Bible clearly addresses any issue or concept, it is the final authority regardless of how impressive rival theories might appear.
The Cross: Grace or Merit?
The central focus of Christianity is the grace of God bestowed upon sinful human beings through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is the gospel, and its proclamation justifies the existence of the church as an institution. In order to preach God’s grace, one must also clearly explain the hopeless condition of sinful humanity. To believe in grace, one must be convinced that there is nothing in oneself that merits or deserves God’s favor or makes the person worthy of God’s fatherly care. “If it is by grace, it is not of works; otherwise grace is no longer grace” (Rom. 11:6).
However, the self-esteem craze has popularized a theory within Christian circles that claims the very opposite. One popular speaker, for instance, tells people, “You are ‘worth Jesus’ to God because that is what he paid for you.” I have heard more than one pastor declare in a sermon that Christ’s death proves our self-worth. The impression is given that if we had absolutely nothing to offer and no merit, God would not have wasted his time and energy on us. Christ died for us, we are told, because we were worth it. One writer argues, “It is as if Christ had said, ‘You are of such worth to me that I am going to die; even experience hell so that you might be adopted as my brothers and sisters.” But is this what we find in Scripture? “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” (John 3:16). It was something in God, not something in us, that moved him to compassion. We are worthy before God after Christ’s sacrifice, but not apart from it. He died not because we are worthy, but in order to give us worth before him.
Another popular writer states, “Of course, the greatest demonstration of a person’s worth to God was shown in giving us his Son.” Again, this confuses the issue. The cross is a demonstration of God’s love, mercy, compassion, justice, and goodness—not ours. The Bible clearly defines the death of Christ as a vicarious act. He died in our place. He took the punishment that was rightfully ours. We were worthy, to be sure—worthy of eternal death, but he took our unworthiness upon himself and gave us his worth, his merit in our place. He did not give his life for us because we were worthy, but in order to render us worthy before the Father. The cross reveals the depth of our sin, not the height of our worth before God. The apostle Paul declared, “If one died for all, then were all dead” (2 Cor. 5:14). In other words, the cross is a demonstration of the spiritual bankruptcy of humanity before God: “They have all gone out of the way; they have together become worthless” (Rom. 3:12).
In addition, the death of Christ was a judicial act. It was a divine sentence leveled against sinful humanity and carried out against the Son of God. How, therefore, can one suggest that the severity of the judicial sentence against us for our sins and assumed by another reminds us of our self-worth? If it were possible for the death of Jesus Christ to have been even more cruel and horrible, would we be thereby granted even greater self-worth?
A  television newscast reported the arraignment of a serial killer who admitted responsibility for at least nine murders. The judge set his bail at five million dollars. Would we use the same sort of reasoning to conclude that this man should feel good about himself and regard himself as a very valuable human being, since the judge set his bail so high? After all, he is worth five million dollars to society! The five-million-dollar bail obviously does not reflect the value of the murderer, but the severity of his crime. Similarly, the death of our Lord Jesus Christ on the cross is not a statement of our worth but indicates the depth of our sin and guilt before God. Again, if Jesus died for us because he saw something in us worth dying for, then there was something in us that merited his death somehow. But we are saved because of something good in God, not because of something good in us.
I have often heard it said, “If I had been the only person on the earth, Jesus would still have died for me.” While our Lord may have given his life for just one person, it is most certainly not because this person is so valuable, but because God is so gracious. It is hardly, therefore, a source of pride or self-esteem. For me to argue that Jesus would have died for me if I were the only person on the earth simply indicates that my sins alone, without the rest of you contributing your share, were sufficient to demand the severe punishment Jesus Christ vicariously assumed in my place. When faced with that reality, we ought to weep for the selfless sacrifice of our Lord instead of finding in it one more opportunity for feeling good about ourselves.
And yet, this very approach I am suggesting, which has been characteristic of evangelical preaching and teaching for centuries and lies at the heart of the biblical revelation, is anathema in many evangelical circles today. Dr. Ray Anderson, who taught a course on the integration of self-esteem and theology at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, complained about the psychological battering of the cross:
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 on the cross is due to my sin, I inflict upon myself spiritual and psychological torment.
There is no doubt that the cross of Jesus Christ does inflict upon us a “psychological battering.” Theologically, we have considered this as part of the process leading to repentance. The law reads like a series of algebra problems we have failed, and the failing grade is read aloud: “For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). It is a measure of just how these secular concepts have revolutionized our daily discourse as Christians when evangelical seminary professors can look at the cross of Christ and his suffering, his physical and spiritual battering, and then warn Christians about the danger of being psychologically battered by the event. Consider rather Luther’s attitude toward the cross:
The main benefit of Christ’s passion is that man sees into his own true self and that he is terrified and crushed by this. Unless we seek that knowledge, we do not derive much benefit from Christ’s passion. . . . He who is so hard-hearted and callous as not to be terrified by Christ’s passion and led to a knowledge of self has reason to fear.
Those who seek a righteousness (whether it goes by the name “self-esteem,” “merit,” “self-confidence,” “self-worth”) in themselves before God are refusing a gift that makes the self-flattery they have embraced pale by comparison. God has promised to clothe the believer with the perfect righteousness and worth of Christ himself. Who would want to settle for anything less?
Donald G. Matzat is a retired Lutheran minister and former host of the radio show Issues, Etc.
2. John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983), 3:11:23.
3. Robert Schuller, Self-Esteem: The New Reformation (Waco: Word, 1982), 98.
4. Schuller, Self-Esteem.
5. Calvin, Institutes, 2:75.
6. Ewald M. Plass, What Luther Says (St. Louis: Concordia, 1957), op. cit.
7. Plass, What Luther Says, op. cit.
8. Werner Elert, The Structure of Lutheranism (St. Louis: Concordia, 1962), 80.
9. Viktor Frankl, The Unconscious God (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1975), 75.
10. Josh McDowell, Building Your Self-Esteem (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 1986), 42–43.
11. William Kirwin, Biblical Concepts for Christian Counseling (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984), 107.
12. Donna Foster, Building a Child’s Self-Esteem (Glendale: Regal, 1977), 6.
13. Ray S. Anderson, The Gospel According to Judas (Colorado Springs: Helmer and Howard, 1991), 99.
14. Timothy Lull, Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1989), 168.