Whose Soteriology Is Really “Man-Centered” and “Humanistic?”

July 27, 2015

Leighton Flowers | Professor of Theology
Dallas, TX

**This article was previously posted by Leighton Flowers on his website www.soteriology101.com and is used by permission.  Leighton is: teaching pastor in his local church, an adjunct Professor of Theology, and the Youth Evangelism Director for Texas Baptists.

Learn more about Leighton, HERE.
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These are some recent comments sent to me via social media:

  • “Your theology is man-centered…”
  • “You are a humanistic Pelagian…”
  • “You start with man and build your view of God around humanistic reasoning.”
  • “Making God in your own image is not theology, Mr. Flowers!!!”

And those were the nice ones.  (Listen to the Podcast on this subject HERE. Also, the next podcast titled “Is Peter a Calvinist” also covers this topic.)

First, I would like us to try and objectively consider which soteriological perspective is actually more “humanistic.” To do so we need a good working definition. The American Heritage Dictionary defines humanistic as “one who is concerned with the interests and welfare of humans.”

I’ll objectively concede this point: When compared to the claims of Calvinism related to God’s ultimate desire for self-glorification it does appear that our soteriological perspective does put more emphasis on God’s concern with humanity over and above His concern for self-glorification. Notable Calvinists are known to argue that God’s primary concern is not the welfare of man, but for Himself and His own glory. 

In my journey to becoming a Calvinist I was very drawn to the teachings about God’s desire for His own glory. This was especially attractive to me coming out of the more “seeker sensitive” movement that seemed to put way too much focus on pleasing man rather than on glorifying God. And quite honestly, Calvinistic authors introduced me to many texts within scripture which so clearly supported the doctrine of God’s self-glorification that I could not begin to understand how any Bible believing Christian could deny such truth. They would have to be selfish and humanistic to do so, right?

Regardless of what some of my Calvinistic friends may think; in my journey out of Calvinism I did not abandon the truth that God seeks His own Glory. Instead, I realized that God’s Glory is best revealed in His self-sacrificial love for all.  I came to understand that God does not sacrifice creation for the sake of His own glory, but instead He sacrifices Himself for sake of His creation, which in turn reveals Him as the most glorious of all.

By putting the welfare of man above His own self-glorification, God reveals Himself to be so much more abundantly glorious than anything we could imagine.  The Calvinist seems to think that God’s glory is best manifest by putting His own exaltation first, whereas the example of Christ reveals just the opposite.  It is through giving up His glory, by putting the needs of lowly undeserving humans first, that He is most abundantly glorified.

In the flesh I always care more about my own glory than the needs or wants of others.  Don’t you?  Yet, would Calvinists have us believe that God has this same “humanistic” characteristic?  Does God care more about His own glory than the welfare of humanity? Or, does God’s care for all humanity reveal just how glorious He really is?  How can the Calvinist rightly accuse our view of God as being “humanistic” when their view of God looks and sounds just like self-seeking humans who desire all the glory for themselves even if it means the sacrifice and suffering of others?

John Piper is quoted as saying, “God is the one Being in all the universe for whom seeking his own praise is the ultimate loving act. For him self-exaltation is the highest virtue.”  And I would re-word that by saying, “God is the one Being in all the universe who actually deserves to seek His own glory, praise and self-exaltation, but instead chooses to empty Himself for the sake of worthless humanity in the ultimate act of love on Calvary. This act, once accepted by faith, leads us to freely praise, exalt and glorify Him for the self-sacrificial God He is.”

Is God’s genuine care and loving provision for all humanity the true reflection of His glory? Or, is God seeking His own glory at the expense of most humanity?  And which of those views is really more “humanistic?”

It’s only fair to consider the argument directly from a Calvinist. In John Piper’s sermon titled “Is God for us or for Himself?” he lays out the dilemma quite well:

God’s aim and effort to glorify himself is wholly good and without fault of any kind and is very different from human self-exaltation because it is an expression of love… This observation leads us to the biblical reason why it seems offensive for God to seek his own glory. 1 Corinthians 13:5 says, “Love seeks not its own.” Now this, indeed, seems to create a crisis, for if, as I think the Scriptures plainly teach, God makes it his ultimate goal to be glorified and praised, how then can he be loving? For “love seeks not its own.” For three weeks we have seen Scriptures that teach that God is for himself. “For my own sake, for my own sake I do it, my glory I will not give to another” (Isaiah 48:11). But if God is a God of love, he must be for us. Is, then, God for himself or is he for us?

If you go on to read or listen to the rest of this message you will learn that Piper teaches God is for Himself because that is what is best for us. As Piper explains, “To be supremely loving, God must give us what will be best for us and delight us most; he must give us himself.”

Of course I agree with that statement, but you must keep in mind that in the Calvinistic worldview God only “gives himself” to a select few while leaving the rest to perish in their innate depraved corpse-like condition (an unchangeable condition from birth as decreed by God).  Many of those “passed over” are people we dearly love and would sacrifice ourselves for if we were able.

Did Christ not teach us to stop and help our enemies rather than “pass them by on the other side?” (Luke 10:25-37) Yet, are we to believe God passes over most of his own enemies from the time they are born until the time they die? How can one reconcile this with the God revealed in Christ?

Dr. James White called my soteriology “man-centered,” and I have to agree. I have centered my soteriology on the man Jesus Christ. In Christ we find someone who emptied Himself of glory so as to serve the needs of His enemies and then He called us to do the same. God, as revealed in Christ, is not a hypocrite. He practices what He preaches.

Philippians 2:1-9 states:

Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion,then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature Goddid not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name.

Jesus, being the very nature God, is said to have “emptied Himself,” which is not His way of ceasing to be divine, but rather His way of revealing what it really means to be divine.  To be like God we mustn’t seek our own glory, but we must humble ourselves and seek to love even our greatest enemies. In doing so, we will find true glory because we find what it really means to be in the image of our Maker.

Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time.” 1 Peter 5:6

Several years ago I was riding in the car with a friend when the Michael W. Smith song, “Above All,” came on the radio.  Smitty sang, with his typical rasp, the well known lyrics, “Like a rose, trampled on the ground, You thought of me, Above All.”

My friend let out an annoyed grunt, prompting me to ask, “What’s wrong?”

“That song is just so theologically inept,” my John Piper loving friend exclaimed in disgust.

“How so?” I naively inquired.

“He thought of me, above all?  Really, Leighton? You think Jesus thought of us above all?  He thought of Himself!  He thought of HIS OWN GLORY,” he passionately proclaimed like only a fellow preacher could.  “God does what he does for his own glory, not for us. It is all about Him and His glory. That song was probably written by Joel Osteen or something!”

“What do you really think about it,” I quipped?  About that time we arrived at our destination (a very good mexican restaurant) and the topic quickly changed to chips and salsa…also created for God’s glory, no doubt!

Since then I have thought about that conversation every time I hear those emotionally charged lyrics of the Smitster on the radio.  And I get the point my friend was making.  I’ve read the book Desiring God by John Piper and I know the reasoning behind such comments, but is that the right approach?  Did God really think of Himself above all?  Was it really about God getting all the glory and man getting none of it?

Sometimes I wonder if in our desire to express a truth about God we tend toward overstating a point to the neglect of another valid point.  In other words, does this have to be an ‘either/or’ premise?  Could it be that God’s glory is best made known through his sharing of glory with those He chose to create in His own image?  Is His Glory diminished in any way by giving us some of it?  After all, Jesus himself said, “I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one.” (John 17:22)

This appears to be a ‘both/and’ principle.  God is BOTH loving us above all AND being glorified above all.  In fact, one might say he humbled himself so as to be most glorified. And then he tells us to go and do likewise (Matt. 5:43-48).

We are being crowned with glory (Ps. 8:5), but we in turn lay our crowns at His feet.  There is not a contradiction here, not when we accept the upside down reality of God’s Kingdom, where the last really are the first and those putting others above themselves are the ones ultimately exalted above the rest…an eternal truth best reflected in the nature of our God Himself.

Listen, I get just as disgusted with the doctrinal illiteracy of our modern society as the next self-righteous blogger, but we must be careful not the ride the pendulum to the other extreme by downplaying the biblical teachings of God’s incarnational humility and genuine love lavished on the world.  Those expressions do not in any way diminish His glory, in fact they demonstrate it.  Moreover, these expressions of divine humility and love teach us the narrow path that leads to our own exaltation (1 Peter 5:6; James 4:10; Matt. 23:12).

What do you think? Is God really all about Himself? Do some people go overboard on this subject?  What is the right balance?

Which of these approaches is really more like humanity? The one where God, like sinful humanity, seeks His own glory at the expense of others?  Or, the approach where God sacrifices Himself for the sake of others and reveals Himself as truly glorious?

Listen to the Podcast on this subject HERE.