Love Them Anyways

Even Scumbag Steve is made in the Image of God.

Even Scumbag Steve is made in the Image of God.

Every once in a while you have one of those encounters when you’re reminded of the fact that people are corrupt. I mean, it could be anything from turning on the news and watching widespread violence, to 5 minutes of watching the way people treat the baristas at Starbucks and you remember that there is something deeply perverse in the human heart. In those moments it’s tempting to look at people think, “You’re not worth it. You don’t deserve my respect, my kindness, my courtesy, and certainly not my love. God, I just can’t do it. Not that guy.”

John Calvin knew a little something about that. Not known for having the sunniest anthropology in the world, he offers those who stumble in the face of human corruption a scriptural exhortation to love:

Furthermore, not to grow weary in well-doing {Galatians 6:9], which otherwise must happen immediately, we ought to add that other idea which the apostle mentions: “Love is patient… and is not irritable” [1 Corinthians 13:4-5]. The Lord commands all men without exception “to do good” [Hebrews 13:16]. Yet the great part of them are most unworthy if they be judged by their own merit. But here Scripture helps in the best way when it teaches that we are not to consider that men merit of themselves but to look upon the image of God in all men, to which we owe all honor and love. However, it is among members of the household of faith that this same image is more carefully to be noted [Galatians 6:10], in so far as it has been renewed and restored through the Spirit of Christ. Therefore, whatever man you meet who needs your aid, you have no reason to refuse to help him.

–Institutes of the Christian Religion, III.7.6

While Calvin was not an optimist but a biblical realist about the human person, he strongly championed the worth of the individual, not according to their own merit, but because of the distorted, but still-present, Image of God in every person. There is no one who is beyond our responsibility to aid because they are made in the image of our Maker; to despise the former is to reject the latter.

Anticipating objections on the order of, “But you don’t know this guy…” Calvin lists various situations in which we, like the lawyer who asked “who is my neighbor”, might try to escape God’s command to love him and answers them in turn:

Say, “He is a stranger”; but the Lord has given him a mark that ought to be familiar to you, by virtue of the fact that he forbids you to despise your own flesh [Isaiah 58:7, Vg.].
Say, “He is contemptible and worthless”; but the Lord shows him to be one to whom he has deigned to give the beauty of his image.
Say that you owe nothing for any service of his; but God, as it were, has put him in his own place in order that you may recognize toward him the many and great benefits with which God has bound you to himself.
Say that he does not deserve even your least effort for his sake; but the image of God, which recommends him to you, is worthy of your giving yourself and all your possessions.
-ibid. III.7.6

He finally turns to the last situation, that of an enemy–one who has done us active wrong and probably deserves some sort of vengeance:

Now if he has not only deserved no good at your hand, but has also provoked you by unjust acts and curses, not even this is just reason why you should cease to embrace him in love and to perform the duties of love on his behalf [Matthew 6:14; 18:35; Luke 17:3]. You will say, “He has deserved something far different of me.” Yet what has the Lord deserved? While he bids you forgive this man for all sins he has committed against you, he would truly have them charged against himself. Assuredly there is but one way in which to achieve what is not merely difficult but utterly against human nature: to love those who hate us, to repay their evil deeds with benefits, to return blessings for reproaches [Matthew 5:44]. It is that we remember not to consider men’s evil intention but to look upon the image of God in them, which cancels and effaces their transgressions, and with its beauty and dignity allures us to love and embrace them.

-ibid. III.7.6

Calvin points us here, as he always does, to the Gospel. In it we see a God who tells us, “Forgive what is to his account, but charge it to me, for I have already paid it. Look to the deep ransom I have bled in order to regain that beautiful Image and reconsider.” Calvin wants us to take the time to look at people, not according to their merit, but according the lovely Image, as damaged and broken as it is, of the Beautiful One who deserves all of our love and devotion.

Soli Deo Gloria

5 thoughts on “Love Them Anyways

  1. Gee, and I was so hoping to continue my dislike for the high maintenance relationship I’m having with my boss. I think when we’re in the midst of a difficult relationship it’s sometimes easy to fail to see the image of God in them. So much easier to see it in the people I like and admire. This is very timely for me and an appropriate thing to pray for. I was actually dreading going to work this morning before reading this and having to deal with this person. I will pray that God shows me His own image in this person, and gives me the grace to love him for that reason alone.

    • Man, I’m glad this was helpful for you. It is such a challenge for me personally to stop and consider that the Image of God is in everyone, not just the people I like. It’s wonderfully humbling, though. I mean, I have to realize that to someone, I am “that guy” they struggle with.

  2. It’s common for people to know all about Calvin’s view of depravity. More rare is an awareness of his deep appreciation for God’s image in everyone and therefore people’s inherent dignity. When I started reading Calvin, I was amazed at the high value he places on common grace as well. When you actually read him, his ‘less than sunny’ anthropology turns out to be quite balanced (and accurate IMO).

    Also, why does it always have to be Scumbag ‘Steve’?

    • Dude, sorry about Steve. He just happens to be the internet face of toolishness. 🙂

      And yes, I think Calvin is very balanced. People get a distorted view because all they ever hear about are the 5 points which he didn’t even write!

  3. Pingback: That Time C.S. Lewis Got ‘Total Depravity’ Wrong (Like Everybody Else) | Reformedish

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