Volume Thirty-Eight — Article 4 Volume 38 | Home

Man (Part 1)

CHAPTER 3 — Man As Creature and Person

The Bible teaches that man is a creature. He is made by God and preserved by God (Neh. 9:6; Acts 17:25, 28; Matt. 10:29-30). Creaturehood means absolute dependence on God. Man lives solely because God lives. If God should stay His hand for a moment, human life would cease. God is no absentee landlord who made the world as a clock, able to run of itself when wound up. Life is derivative— constantly derivative— and all talk of man's natural immortality is out of place. The creation account in Genesis teaches that, in himself, man is only dust. Unless he eats from the tree of life,1 he cannot continue to live.

Creaturehood also means that man, along with everything else in the created order, is under the jurisdiction of law (Rom. 3:19). God is a God of law, and He rules His created domain by law. Everything from the stars in their courses to the smallest mote floating in the summer breeze operates within the boundaries of law. Law governs the movement of planetary bodies, the growth of plants and the habits of animals. There are laws of motion, sound and temperature, laws of chemical action and reaction, laws of mathematics, physics and heredity. Man is subject to these laws too. He has nothing to do with arranging them, because the laws of life are givens.

Law was not ordained to restrict human happiness but to guarantee man's freedom (Ps. 119:45; James 2:12). Without law, existence would not only be precarious and unpredictable, but impossible. We would have no freedom to take one foot off the ground or to plan an hour ahead unless we could be sure that all objects are subject to gravity and that each hour measures sixty minutes. We can plan and act because we live in a structured universe governed by law.

Like everything else, man must live within the given boundaries of existence or perish. We must live within a small temperature range. The body must function within a fine acid-alkaline boundary. There is a limited atmospheric zone around the earth. Just as there are obvious physical boundaries, so there are social and spiritual boundaries. We are not "free" to grasp whatever we want or to violate the rights of others. We are not left to determine for ourselves what is morally right and wrong any more than we are left to determine the laws of gravity or genetics. The existence of boundaries means that we are finite and have definite limits. Freedom is not found in defying our finitude but in accepting it and living gratefully within the boundaries of law.

The Bible also teaches that man is a person. While creaturehood means that man is absolutely dependent on God, personhood means he is at the same time relatively independent. God is a person, and since man has been made in God's image, man is also a person. In his creation he was endowed with power akin to the Creator—individuality, creativity, power to think, chose and do.

To be a person means not only to be conscious but self-conscious. To be a person means to be able to transcend the environment and be a creature of option, a being of choice. A person is not a robot whose course is thoroughly predetermined. He has the power of self-determination.

We said that man, along with the rest of the created order, is governed by law. But in one important respect man is different. The heavenly bodies are governed by physical laws. Animals are governed by laws of instinct. Only man can make a self-conscious decision to say "Yes" or "No." Man alone knows moral law. He is a creature morally responsible for his decisions. At his creation man was given the choice of serving God in the free service of love or of working at cross purposes with his Creator.

Recent years have seen the rise of philosophies which regard man as wholly environmentally determined (Marx, Freud, Skinner). All human behavior is said to be the predictable and inevitable consequence of factors outside a person 5 control. Some behaviorists claim that crime is entirely the result of unfavorable environment and that criminals should not be punished as if responsible for their actions. But while environment and heredity are important factors in influencing human behavior, man is also a creature of option. He is responsible for his choices. A philosophy which ignores this reduces man to an IL It dehumanizes him. Reforms in the environment have failed to reduce aberrant human behavior. As long as people place the sole blame on external factors, they will continue endless protest marches and blame everyone but themselves. "If favor is shown to the wicked, he does not learn righteousness, in the land of uprightness he deals perversely and does not see the majesty of the Lord" (Isa. 26:10, RSV). Because man is a person, he is culpable for his wrong behavior. There is never any excuse for sin.

Maintaining the Tension between Creaturehood and Personhood

In addressing man the Bible sometimes reminds him of his creaturehood. At other times it addresses him as a person and reminds him of his responsibility. These two aspects —creaturehood and personhood — must be held together. Focusing on one to the exclusion of the other gives a distorted picture of man in his relationship to God.

God addresses man as a creature. He is said to be clay in the hand of the Potter. God is sovereign. He has the right to deal with a creature as He pleases. Romans 9 is an example of this. The Bible often tells us that man is only dust, animated by the breath of God. If God takes that life principle away, man returns to dust. Assyria is likened to an axe in the hand of God. What presumption for the axe to challenge the One who uses it! (Isa. 10:15).

Yet for all this, a one-sided emphasis on man's creaturehood is a distortion of the biblical picture. For God also addresses man as a person. When God speaks to man—and in God's very act of speaking to man—man becomes a creature of option. If God does not speak to man, he ceases to be a creature of option. Outside fellowship with God, man is not truly human.

We suggest that this is an answer to the age-old controversy over free will. Man is a creature of option solely because God speaks to him. When he refused to listen to God speak, man became a sinner. And if the matter were left there, all talk about free will in the religious sense2 would be out of place. In himself the only "freedom" the sinner has in isolation from God is the "freedom" to sin. This is the "freedom" of the prison and the "freedom" of one taken captive by the devil at his will (2 Tim. 2:26). But God did not leave the matter there. He has taken the initiative, and in Jesus Christ He has opened communication with fallen man. He speaks to man once again in the gospel of Christ. In the hearing of the gospel, the fallen sinner once again becomes a creature of option in the religious sense. Apart from the gospel's coming to the sinner in the power of the Holy Spirit, man has no option to obey God.

The Bible addresses man as a person: "Choose you this day whom you will serve," "Return unto Me," "Refuse the evil," "Follow Me." Here God does not deal with man as if he were a stone without a voice in his ultimate destiny. God addresses him as one who shall decide his ultimate destiny.

The creaturehood and the personhood of man must be held both together and in tension. When theology stresses creaturehood and subordinates personhood, a hard-faced determinism surfaces and man is dehumanized. All history is then subsumed under "supralapsarian decrees" which, we might add, were not made in heaven but in Holland. God Himself is forced to fit the rigid canons of human logic—a system of rational theology regarded as necessary to protect the sovereignty of God! When personhood is stressed to the exclusion of creaturehood, man is deified and God's sovereignty is compromised. The Lord is left standing helplessly in the wings as if man had the power to veto the plans and purposes of God.

Let us take specific examples of how both creaturehood and personhood must be kept in proper tension:

1. If creaturehood alone is stressed in the matter of sin, God appears as if He planned that man should sin. This thought is intolerable—even though Luther may have once suggested it. Sin is sin because man is a person. He is solely responsible for it. Yet because man is a creature, he is dependent upon God even for the power to sin. We have to say, therefore, that sin is included in God's permissive will.3 Sin proves that man, as God created him, is a creature of genuine option.

2. Because man is a creature, salvation must be wholly of God. He alone takes the initiative in human salvation. But because man is also a person, he is called to choose the free salvation, to repent and believe.

3. The biblical doctrine of election is closely linked to the concept of divine initiative in salvation. But a doctrine of election which eliminates a meaningful choice on man's part is false. Those who hold a one-sided view of election may confidently ask, "Who has the final say in whether a person is saved—God or man?" But like many either/or questions, this is really a nonquestion. Man is a creature. He is therefore saved through God's gracious election in Christ. Man is also a person. He is thereby saved by faith and by making his calling and election sure (2 Peter 1:10). Says Reformed scholar Leonard Verduin:

    It is unfortunate that the adjective unconditional has been used with the concept of election. If by unconditional election is meant divine behavior not induced by merit in the object, then the adjective may be allowed to stand; but it remains a fact that it is theologically inadvisable to describe the process whereby men arrive at the modality of savedness as' in any of its aspects without condition. All God's promises come with conditions that must be met, and this is true also of the thing known as election. Israel enjoyed the benefit of election; but there was a condition stipulated. As a matter of fact, Israel failed in regard to the condition and as a result lost its election. The same may be said of Judas, whose election as a disciple was canceled because of mal-performance.

    In any event, the theological concept of election, or of predestination, must not be allowed to cancel out man's peculiar endowment as a creature geared to option.4

4. The same principle holds true in the matter of the biblical doctrine of covenant. Man is a creature. The covenant, therefore, must be unilaterally issued. This is why the covenant can be called a command, a promise or even a will and testament. Whether made with Adam or Israel, the covenant relationship with God is pure gift. The human party, however, has a say in whether the covenant will be gratefully accepted or rejected. Since man is a person, the covenant is bilateral in operation.

5. When considering the divine miracle of regeneration, we must hold creaturehood and personhood together. Since man is a creature—and a sinful creature at that— regeneration must be God's act. The regenerate are "born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God" (John 1:13). Yet since man is also a person, God will not violate man's individuality by treating him like a stone, with absolutely no say in what is done to him. Hodge represents regeneration as a work which God does secretly and unconsciously in the elect sinner. But this grace is outside of and apart from the means of grace in the Word of God. It smacks of a divine "zapping," with God "irresistibly" whisking sinners into the kingdom by the scruff of the neck.

6. The old controversy about whether man is regenerated to faith or regenerated by faith is probably futile. Both sides are partly right and partly wrong. Because man is a creature, he must be quickened to believe. Because he is a person, he must be born again by5 his own responsible act of believing (1 Peter 1:22-23; 1 John 5:1). In the same way, it is true to say that faith comes by the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit comes by faith.

7. The whole matter of sanctification must be considered in the light of the creature/person paradox. Since man is a creature, God must sanctify him (Ezek. 20:12). Holiness is guaranteed to man in God's covenant promise (Heb. 8:10-12; Ezek. 37:26-28). God works in the believer both to will and to do of His good pleasure (Phil. 2:13). Without Christ the Christian can do nothing (John 15:5). Whatever good a Christian does, he humbly confesses that it is all due to grace at work in him (1 Cor. 15:10). "Not I, but Christ liveth in me" (Gal. 2:20) is the modest testimony of the believer. Yet we must guard against a one-sided, exaggerated view of sanctification. Since man is a person, he is called upon to work out his own salvation with fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12). He is exhorted to pursue holiness (Heb. 12:14), to purify himself (1 John 3:3) and to perfect holiness in the fear of God (2 Cor. 7:1). He is called to strive, endure, wrestle and fight. Believing, obeying, loving and godly acts are often said to be his own. We should not try to be more spiritual than the Bible. There is no such thing as sanctification by faith alone or by faith "without the deeds of the law." Sanctification without a living, active walking in the way of God's commandments is as empty as a flour barrel with both ends out.

It is not correct to say that Christ or the Spirit within me believes and obeys for me in the same way as Christ lived for me. That work 2,000 years ago was substitutionary. It was His work alone, and therefore it has infinite value with God. But the work of the indwelling Spirit is not substitutionary. He does not come to make human activity unnecessary. The idea that the Holy Spirit uses the believer like a glove or wears him as a suit does not do justice to the believer as a person. Union with Christ does not rob the believer of his individuality and meaningful activity. The Spirit does not come to negate humanity but to restore it and to call all the human faculties into active exercise. In union with Christ, the human partner is truly free. Although empowered and motivated by Christ, the life of holiness is really his own.

Sanctification can easily slip into a refined pantheism when the personhood of the believer is lost. The act of the creature becomes indistinguishable from the act of the Creator. Deity is said to do everything the believer appears to do. Some teach that the deeds of surrendered lives are really the deeds of God Himself. The distinction between Creator and creature is lost. This happens in most kinds of perfectionism. It becomes a refined form of "Christian" pantheism.

God does not propose to use us as one would use a thing. To be a person means to be free. God is as much interested in our freedom as in our salvation. In fact, they are one. He gives us freedom to exercise our individuality. Those who seek guidance by signs, promise boxes or inner voices are denying their personhood.

8. The biblical doctrine of perseverance must also be viewed from the twofold perspective of creaturehood and personhood. Because we are creatures, God must keep us from falling (Jude 24). But the perseverance of the saints is reduced to the preservation of the saints unless we look at the other side of the paradox. There is preservation, of course. But since believers are persons, God calls upon them to keep the faith and endure to the end. Reaching the "celestial city" is not a matter of God's preservation or of our perseverance. Neither does it depend partly on God's preservation and partly on our perseverance. It all depends on God's preservation. And it will not be without man's total perseverance.



1 Evidently a sacrament of Christ.
2 We do not deny that the unbeliever has a certain free will in a psychological and civil sense. He may decide what he has for breakfast or whether or not he obeys the law of the land. But he cannot choose when he will be converted to God.
3 God permitted man to sin.
4 Leonard Verduin, Somewhat Less Than God: The Biblical View of Man (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. 1970), pp. 98-9.
5 We use the word "by" instrumentally and not meritoriously, just as the New Testamant talks about justification by faith.