“And then she understood the devilish cunning of the enemies’ plan. By mixing a little truth with it they had made their lie far stronger.”
If heresy is to ever successfully infiltrate the church, then it must not only appeal to the desires of our sinful nature but also have a ring of truth to it. False doctrines that are absurd or obviously unbiblical never gain traction among the majority of Bible-believing Christians. On the contrary, Peter says that false teachers bring in their destructive heresies secretly, with the result that “many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed” (2 Pet. 2:1-3). Paul writes that the Devil himself disguises himself as an angel of light (2 Cor. 11:14); and let’s not forget that he can quote Scripture too (see Matt. 4:5-6)!
In other words, the most convincing false doctrines will always include biblical truth. They will sound good and make us feel good. With just the right amount of Scripture, a hint of Christian concepts mixed with the desires of the flesh, and a dash of rhetorical flair, you have all the ingredients you need to create a fresh batch of ear-tickling muffins. Nevertheless, “a half-truth masquerading as the whole truth becomes a complete untruth.” We need to be on guard against false teachers and their subtle attempts to reject and redefine God’s Word.
What the Cross is “Really” About: Our Value
While we could look at many popular heresies in the church today to confirm this, one recent teaching serves as a prime example. The reason for its popularity is because it seeks to shed new light on God’s love, Christ’s redeeming work, and especially our value in God’s eyes. Todd White, a popular proponent of this view, put it this way in an interview on TBN:
The value [that] was placed on my life was determined by the cost that was paid for me. See the cross isn’t just the revelation of my sin; it’s the revealing of my value. Something underneath of that sin must have been of great value for heaven to go bankrupt to get me back. So, Jesus paid such a high price for me on that tree, and when I see that, I see my value.
As you can see, this ticks all the boxes. It affirms several biblical truths: The cross of Christ reveals both our sin and our value to God; the eternal Son of God left the glories of heaven to seek and save the lost; the price of our redemption was the blood of Jesus. It also makes sense to us on a practical level: The price you are willing to pay for something reveals its value to you. So, on the surface, it sounds good and it definitely makes us feel good; it appeals to our desire for significance and worth.
But when we look at the cross of Christ and behold the price of our redemption, should our focus ultimately be on our value to God? Specifically, was there something underneath our sin that made heaven go “bankrupt” just to get us back? Is the reason that Jesus shed his blood for us because we were worth it? The answer to these questions, from the consistent teaching of Scripture and the consensus of church history, is a resounding “No.” While it comes very close to being sound, biblical teaching, this is a false doctrine that only serves to undermine the good news it attempts to proclaim.
A Note on Our Value to God
Before we look at a few objections to this teaching, it’s important to briefly clarify this concept of our value or worth. First, having been made in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27), all humanity has intrinsic value and special dignity. Human life is of inestimable worth in all its dimensions, despite the fall of man and our enslavement to sin. God has crowned man with “glory and honor” (Ps. 8:5), and Jesus himself affirms we are of great value to our Maker (Matt. 6:26).
Second, for all who have received adoption as sons through faith in Christ, we are now loved and treasured as God’s very own children! We are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession” (1 Pet. 2:9; see also Ex. 19:5; Titus 2:14). If God in Christ gave himself for us to redeem us and make us his own, how could we not have value in God’s eyes?! So, in this second sense, the cross indeed is a revealing of our value to God, since he obtained us with his own blood (Acts 20:28); how deep the Father’s love for us indeed!
Objection #1: This Teaching Contradicts the Meaning of Grace
However, our value to God is not the reason why God sent his Son into the world! No worth of ours, buried beneath the dirt and corruption of our sin, compelled the Son of God to come to earth and redeem a sinful people for his possession. Neither our inherent value as image-bearers, nor our “potential” value as new creations in Christ, caused heaven to go bankrupt (which is itself a reckless phrase to use) so God could get us back. No; our salvation is totally unmerited and completely undeserved—that is, it is by grace alone. To say that Jesus shed his blood on the cross to ransom us because we were so valuable to God is to contradict the very meaning of grace!
The Bible makes it very clear why God set his love on an unworthy, sinful, and rebellious people, and it has absolutely nothing to do with any inherent worth that we possess:
The Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the Lord set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the Lord loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt (Deut. 7:6-8).
The eternal God, who is perfectly blessed in himself and in need of nothing, loves us because he loves us! Jesus laid down his life for us not because we were valuable or worth it but quite simply because he loved us. In fact, when Scripture speaks of the death of Christ, it never uses this language of “our value.” Instead, what you will repeatedly find are references to the greatness of our sin and the greatness of God’s love (see Rom. 3:9-26; 5:6-10; Gal. 3:10-14; Eph. 2:1-10; 1 Tim. 1:12-17; Titus 3:3-8). The focus is always God’s unmerited favor towards unworthy sinners. Yet this teaching subtly draws our gaze away from God’s grace to behold our worth.
So, while the cross is the revelation of our value to God—in that he gave “his only Son to make a wretch his treasure”—we only have this value because of the cross! The cross is supremely the demonstration of “the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:7). In Christ, we are no longer glory-stealing sinners and God-hating rebels but new creations, God’s treasured possession. Why? Because our salvation is a gift of God’s grace, due to nothing good in us whatsoever.
Objection #2: This Teaching Confuses Our Value with Our Debt
Another problem with this teaching’s emphasis on our value is that it misunderstands the price that Jesus paid for us on the cross. While it is true that the price of something shows its value, in our case, the price of our redemption isn’t so much a revealing of our worth but of the debt that we owe. It’s a reflection, so to speak, of the “damage” we have caused—as if the servant of a high-ranking government official had stolen one his exotic cars and crashed it into his multi-million dollar estate, which then exploded and set his whole property on fire, destroying billions of dollars’ worth of paintings and sculptures from his private art collection and killing the official’s son.
You see, God in Christ paid such a high price for us not because we were valuable to him and deserved to be redeemed, but because we had rebelled against him and incurred the wages of sin and eternal death! We, who were made in his God’s own image to glorify him like nothing else in all creation, “did not honor him as God or give thanks to him” but “exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever” (Rom. 1:21-25). We have committed cosmic treason and robbed the infinitely glorious God of the honor which he is due. Paul says that, “All have turned aside; together they have become worthless” (Rom. 3:12), that, “The wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). And as the author of Hebrews reminds us: “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Heb. 9:22).
So again, while the cross does in one sense reveal our worth (because those justified by grace through faith in Jesus have received adoptions as sons and become God’s treasured possession), it is ultimately a reflection of God’s abundant grace and generosity and not any value on our part—inherent or potential. The cross of Christ is the revelation that unworthy sinners are “justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness [notice Paul doesn’t mention our value here!] . . . so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:23-26). The cross primarily reveals the righteousness of God in perfect justice and mercy, “having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross” (Col 2:13-14). This is why we sing:
He paid a debt he did not owe; I owed a debt I could not pay
I needed someone to wash my sins away
And now I sing a brand new song, “Amazing grace!”
Christ Jesus paid the debt that I could never pay.
Objection #3: This Teaching Changes the Grounds for Loving God
This final objection is a bit more subtle than the others but is absolutely critical. Here we see even more clearly why this teaching is such a dangerous false doctrine. Drawing on the writing of Jonathan Edwards, John Piper makes the following observation, worth quoting at length:
Perhaps you have heard people say how thankful we should be for the death of Christ because it shows how much value God puts upon us. In other words, they are thankful for the cross as an echo of our worth. What is the foundation of this gratitude?
Jonathan Edwards calls it the gratitude of hypocrites. Why? Because “they first rejoice, and are elevated with the fact that they are made much of by God; and then on that ground, [God] seems in a sort, lovely to them. . . . They are pleased in the highest degree, in hearing how much God and Christ make of them. So that their joy is really a joy in themselves, and not in God.” It is a shocking thing to learn that one of today’s most common descriptions of the cross—namely, how much of our value it celebrates—may well be a description of natural self-love with no spiritual value.
In other words, this teaching only serves to make us love and worship God because of how much he makes of us! In the end, it’s simply another form of self-love and pride—and it doesn’t take a supernatural act of sovereign grace to make a sinner love himself more.
We simply can’t afford to miss this point. This is a gospel that our world would have no trouble hearing and even accepting, since it completely downplays both our sin and the righteousness of God just to reaffirm our worth and increase our self-esteem. It only validates how awesome we are—after all, God bankrupted himself to get us, right?! Piper goes on to explain:
We have absorbed a definition of love that makes us the center. That is, we feel loved when someone makes much of us. Thus the natural, human definition of love is making much of someone. The main reason this feels like love is that it feels so good to be made much of. The problem is that this feels good on wholly natural grounds. There is nothing spiritual about it. No change in us is needed at all to experience this kind of “love.” This love is wholly natural. It operates on the principles that are already present in our fallen, sinful, and spiritually dead souls. We love the praise of man. It feels good.
But the true gospel is preeminently, unequivocally, exclusively, unquestionably God-centered. Even with all of the blessings with which we have been blessed in Christ, it is ultimately “to the praise of his glorious grace” (Eph. 1:6).
God did not send his only Son into the world so that we would be amazed with how much he makes of us. God in Christ did not lay down his life to forgive us, redeem us, and make us his treasured possession so that we would be enamored with how valuable we are. No, God sent his only Son into the world to the end that we would forever enjoy beholding his glory, seeing his worth, and making much of him. This is what we were created to do. This is the good news our world so desperately needs.
It is sadly the case that many Christians fail to live in light of our union with Christ and adoption as sons. Many believers continue to live beneath a burden of guilt and condemnation due to either the temptation of the devil or a misunderstanding of the gospel. And we know that all humanity is longing for acceptance, significance, meaning, and a sense of worth. But the solution is not found by simply increasing our self-esteem or making ourselves the center of God’s universe! The answer is found in beholding the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ and rejoicing in his great love for us.
Yes, the cross is the revelation of our sin and our value to God. Yes, God obtained a people for his own treasured possession with his own blood. Yes, those who are in Christ are loved by God with the very love that he has for his Son. But our worth does not come from any worthiness on our part; our worth is entirely owing to the love of God in Christ. The glory of the cross is not seen in the revealing of our value to God, but the revealing of his glorious grace.
Two wonders here that I confess
My worth and my unworthiness
My value fixed – my ransom paid
At the cross
I rejoice in my Redeemer
Wellspring of my soul
I will trust in Him, no other.
My soul is satisfied in Him alone.
- C. S. Lewis, The Last Battle, The Chronicles of Narnia, book 7 (New York, NY: Harper Trophy, 1994), 116.
- J. I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1990) 126.
- “Todd White | How Much Are You Worth?” posted on December 2, 2016 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X_KKwLTeMjQ&feature=youtu.be).
- For a further look at the emergence of this kind of false teaching in the 21st century, see David Powlison’s excellent article: The Therapeutic Gospel (February, 25, 2010), https://www.9marks.org/article/therapeutic-gospel/.
- Jonathan Edwards, Religious Affections, in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 2, ed. John Smith (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1959), 250-51 in John Piper, God is the Gospel: Meditations on God’s Love as the Gift of Himself (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2005), 137.
- Piper, God is the Gospel, 149.