Self-Esteem: Who Are We, Really?

God does not inflict upon us the psychological battering of the cross in order to leave us in a tormented condition. It is at the cross where we are offered through the gospel the very righteousness of Jesus Christ. We are granted a new identity in Him. This biblical doctrine of justification by grace through faith is God’s answer to the human identity crisis. God has made us right with Him by imputing to us the very righteousness of Christ Himself. This righteousness we receive from God is neither of our making, nor is it based upon our good works or efforts. It is an “alien” righteousness found in the Person of Christ and imputed to us by God. Luther referred to this righteousness as a “passive” righteousness that is received, rather than an “active” righteousness that is the result of one’s own doing. It is a righteousness that comes from God and is found in Christ, not a righteousness that comes from self. Therefore, the focus of justification is never upon self, but always upon Christ Jesus.

If you study the doctrine of justification by grace through faith as it is found in Scripture and was clearly taught by the Reformers, you will discover that it is not possible to merge that teaching of justification with self-esteem before God. Luther and Calvin would be outspoken opponents of this doctrine in our day, as they were of the human-centered challenges to the gospel in their own.

Remarkably, however, the historic, Reformation, evangelical position toward self is exactly the opposite of much of what is passing for evangelical preaching and teaching today. The Reformers taught that the professed goodness of “self” hinders faith from grasping the righteousness that God has provided in Christ. We begin to feel just good enough about ourselves to conclude that we do not need such a radical gospel remedy, but then we find ourselves trapped in disillusionment, anxiety, shame, and fear all over again shortly thereafter. Luther wrote that faith in Christ demands that you “come out of yourself and away from yourself.” In our age, C.S. Lewis echoed those thoughts. In Mere Christianity he writes, “There must be a real giving up of the self. You must throw it away ‘blindly,’ so to speak.”

It is important to point out that this “throwing away” of “self” is not self-destruction. We ought not to become preoccupied with self-hatred instead of self-esteem. We do not lose our identity when we become Christians. Although we have become “new creation” in Christ, we are nevertheless still the same people in terms of personality and physical, emotion, and psychological characteristics. It is not the obliteration of personal identity to which the gospel calls us but the realization that our worth and merit before God come to us from the outside, not from within, as a gift, a charitable donation. Whereas we can never say, this side of heaven, “God has made me righteous,” we can say, “God has made Christ my righteousness” (see 1 Corinthians 1:30). The apostle Paul, though he had a number of marks in his favor of which to be proud, was more than happy to “count them but rubbish” before God in order to “gain Christ, found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith” (Philippians 3:7-9, NASB).

This turning away from self-righteousness and self-esteem before God toward justification and acceptance before God because of Christ requires that we accept the sentence the law levels against us and recognized that we are indeed unworthy sinners who deserve nothing but God’s eternal wrath and judgment. Apart from that, the cross of Christ is a meaningless distraction from the business of contemporary narcissism.

. . . The secular doctrine of self-esteem is a feeble alternative to the truth of justification. The righteous identity that God provides for us is based upon the objective facts of Christ’s righteous life and sacrificial death. When faced with depression, worry, or fear, we can look to the Word of God and focus our thoughts upon Jesus Christ. We can sing, “Jesus, thy blood and righteousness, my beauty are, my glorious dress,” or, “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.” Even though we know that all our righteousness is as filthy rags, we can trust the perfect righteousness of someone else who attained it for us. The profound manner in which God has made us right with Himself makes the secular alternative look pitifully inadequate by comparison.

The feelings of guilt, shame, fear, and lostness are not merely subjective impulses to which we choose to yield, but real facts about ourselves. We are guilty, shameful, and lost; and the fear we feel is a natural and, in fact, proper anticipation of what our guilt requires in terms of a divine response. To deny this or downplay it is to deny ourselves and those we try to influence any hope of resolving the conflict once and for all and setting the conscience at peace with God. Realistic solutions require realistic appraisals.

In Christ we are already seated in heavenly places. In Him we have a solid, weighty, and positive identity that constantly raises our minds from the passing assurances and positive platitudes of this world to the heavens where we hear the promise of One who has issued us with these “new papers.” Instead of concentrating on our shame, or denying it, we accept it and then exchange it for Christ’s integrity. For God has made Jesus Christ our wisdom, our righteousness, our holiness, and our redemption (1 Corinthians 1:30).

Dan Matzat, “A Better Way: Christ is My Worth,” Power Religion: The Selling Out of the Evangelical Church?, page 257, 259