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On Worm Theology

Yesterday at church, the worship team sang How Deep the Father’s Love for Us. The song is labeled a “contemporary hymn.” While written in the 1990s, it employs the vernacular of traditional hymns. Here’s the first few stanzas:

How deep the Father’s love for us,
How vast beyond all measure
That He should give His only Son
To make a wretch His treasurerepent

How great the pain of searing loss,
The Father turns His face away
As wounds which mar the chosen One,
Bring many sons to glory

Behold the Man upon a cross,
My sin upon His shoulders
Ashamed I hear my mocking voice,
Call out among the scoffers

It was my sin that left Him there
Until it was accomplished
His dying breath has brought me life
I know that it is finished

It struck me while singing the song how existentially bleak the human condition is framed. The worshiper declares themselves “a wretch,” a mocker, a scoffer, whose sin was placed “upon [Christ’s] shoulders,” marring the Savior’s glory.

When it comes to Christian theology, this isn’t exactly a unique point of view. Indeed, the most recognized of all hymns, Amazing Grace, positions grace as “amazing” because it “saved a wretch like me.” In other words, were we not such wretches, grace would not be so amazing.

It’s given rise to what some have called “worm theology,” a term that appears taken from Isaac Watts’ hymn, Alas! And Did My Savior Bleed?, which opens this way:

Alas, and did my Savior bleed
And did my Sovereign die?
Would He devote that sacred head
For such a worm as I?

But is viewing ourselves as “worms” really a helpful, or accurate, perspective to have?

Last week, Scot McKnight touched on this subject as it relates to our view of grace. In Grace All The Way, McKnight suggests that Christians often have opposite, erroneous,  views of grace. On one hand are those who frame grace in terms of God’s love. On the other are those who frame grace in terms of God’s wrath. In addressing this latter constituent, McKnight quotes from prominent evangelical sources (emphasis in original):

Here are a few typical definitions of grace that focus on the negative side of grace, don’t press beyond it, and I would also say these represent the common perception of the meaning of grace among evangelicals today:

B.B. Warfield: “Grace is free sovereign favor to the ill-deserving.”

Jerry Bridges: ““[Grace] is God reaching downward to people who are in rebellion against Him.”

Paul Zahl: “Grace is unconditional love toward a person who does not deserve it.”

Wayne Grudem: “God’s ‘grace’ means his ‘unmerited favor’.” Or in another location “God’s grace means God’s goodness toward those who deserve only punishment.”

Notice in each of these definitions the focus on the targets of grace, described in each in almost entirely negative categories: ill-deserving, rebellion, does not deserve, and deserve only punishment. In other words, grace is perceived as the undeserved goodness of God.

As such, worm theology would be “negative.” McKnight’s point, as I see it, is not to suggest that we ARE deserving of God’s grace or that we’re NOT deserving of God’s wrath. But that the healthier mode of Christian living is not one that emphasizes human wretchedness, but one that revels in God’s great love.

I must admit, I’m quite torn by these two positions.

For one, while self-loathing seems antithetical to the joy and abundant life Christ promised, a deep awareness of our sin and unworthiness does not. In fact, it could be said that our appreciation of grace is directly proportional to our awareness of our depravity. As Christ said in reference to the sinful woman’s extravagant display of love,

“Whoever has been forgiven little, loves little” (Lk. 7:47)

Or to flip it: Whoever has been forgiven much, loves much. We love and forgive to the same degree we have been loved and forgiven. The person who sees themselves as simply mixed up or immature, as needing tweaks not a complete overhaul, will view God’s grace completely different than the person who views themselves as a sinful worm deserving of God’s wrath. So in this sense, understanding and acknowledging our wretchedness does indeed help us appreciate God’s amazing grace.

On the other hand, consider that there is a movement afoot, both in Christian and secular circles, to overemphasize Man’s inherent goodness, giftedness, esteem, and worth. This view swaps worm theology for worth theology, defining God’s redemptive actions in terms of our intrinsic goodness and worth. Rather than self-loathing, worth theology affirms our nature, destiny, and latent abilities. Of course, it can also lead to ego-stroking, gauzy positivism, and an inflated sense of self. Not to mention, denial of the concept of “sin.”

This position isn’t entirely without foundation. After all, original sin was preceded by original goodness. The image of God has not been removed from us, but defaced. So even the worst of sinners, the most depraved of humans, can be valued for the precious image of God inside them. Furthermore, as the apostle Paul put it, “the goodness of God leads us to repentance” (Rom. 2:4). Despite the apparent effectiveness of some hellfire and brimstone approaches, it is a focus on God, not us or our wretchedness, that ultimately draws us to Christ.

All that to say, I’m pretty conflicted about these opposing positions and tend to believe they must be held in tension. While there is little talk in Scripture about the intrinsic worth and dignity of human beings, there is a great deal of talk about sin and the horrific breach it creates between God and His creation. It’s not our worth, good deeds, qualities, or lack thereof that seem to motivate God’s actions toward us. It is Himself. Furthermore, He is portrayed as alternatively grieved, angry and sometimes vengeful, as well as compassionate, infinitely forgiving, and relentless in His pursuit of us.

I love how Pascal put it in Pensees:

What a chimera then is man! What a novelty! What a monster, what a chaos, what a contradiction, what a prodigy! Judge of all things, imbecile worm of the earth; depositary of truth, a sink of uncertainty and error; the pride and refuse of the universe!

And if we are such contradictions, both “the pride and refuse of the universe,” then it seems worm theology and worth theology are inextricably bound. Were we not such wretches, grace would not be so amazing. But a life inordinately focused on our wretchedness is rarely grace-full.

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{ 9 comments… add one }
  • Dennis June 17, 2013, 9:26 AM

    Excellent job Mike! For me, the key is my identity in Christ and what/who He say’s I am. I can’t help but read Ephesians and think that because I am “in Christ” and Christ is “in me” that His redemptive act turned the table on my identity. And though at one time I was a sinner saved by grace (my conversion), now I am a saint that occasionally sins (my sanctification). It is only as we see ourselves as being “in Christ” in the present, yet understand where we came from (I Corinthians 6:9-11) that this healthy tension you mentioned can keep in balance what we are capable of, whether it be in the weakness of our flesh or the power of His Spirit.

  • sally apokedak June 17, 2013, 9:28 AM

    Good post. I love that song. And I think it’s theologically sound. We were the mockers. It was our sin that held him there.

    We are sinners. But we are also saved by grace.

    Worms. But also wonders.

    And the fact that it cost God so much to save us, speaks to our huge value to him. He paid a fortune for us, because he values us. Even though our righteousness is as filthy rags. Even though we are worms. God values us.

    I sometimes think that the danger in constantly seeing ourselves as worms is that we see others as worms, too. Paul said he was the chief of sinners, but sometimes we who like to claim that title for ourselves, really believe that our neighbors are the chiefs and we are just minor sinners by comparison.

    The truth is that we are no longer worms. We are new creatures. We have been reborn. Re-created. We are adopted into God’s family. We are beloved sons.

    We need to view ourselves and other Christians this way.

    And even those who are outside the fold…Loved and valued by God. Bearing his image.

  • Melissa Ortega June 17, 2013, 10:25 AM

    An excellent post, and very much the echoes of my own heart.

    The thing is, once I understood the depth of my need for Christ because of my lack, I didn’t build a house there. God’s Grace won’t allow that. The Joy of the Good News is that you WERE lost but now you are FOUND and we may live in His Grace. I think too often we, as Christ’s body, would still keep Him on the cross, lashing him again and again, when he’s ready to take us walking on water and share breakfast by the sea of Galilee. The Good News isn’t how terrible we are, the good news is that it no longer matters how terrible we are. We can be with Him, the source of all true Joy and Pleasure – and just imagine how that rubs off and those who En-Joy Him!

    They would be the last people on earth with Eeyore coming out of their mouths all the time. “I spose’ God gave me Grace, not that it really matters. I’ll just sit here in my house of sticks and say ‘thanks for noticin’ me.’ “

  • C.L. Dyck June 17, 2013, 12:33 PM

    Mike wrote: “It’s not our worth, good deeds, qualities, or lack thereof that seem to motivate God’s actions toward us. It is Himself. Furthermore, He is portrayed as alternatively grieved, angry and sometimes vengeful, as well as compassionate, infinitely forgiving, and relentless in His pursuit of us.”

    Yes. This.

    “Worm” theology and Watts’s lyric arise from Ps. 22:6, “For I am a worm and not a man,/a reproach of men and despised by the people.” Interesting context…the psalm from which Christ expressed His agony upon the cross in becoming our substitute, and the verses which were fulfilled by the mockery heaped on Him as He died for us.

    In “The Attributes of God,” A.W. Tozer (rightly, I believe) declares God to be triune in personhood, but unitary in *character.* He says this:

    “The Church will come out of her doldrums when we find out that salvation is not a light bulb only, that it is not an insurance policy against hell only, but that it is a gateway into God and that God is all that we would have and can desire.”

    The wealth of Christ is infinite. This, not our wormhood or worth-hood, is what matters. It naturally leads us to see ourselves as small and of no regard by comparison, because we’re no longer measuring ourselves by the size of this world and our place in it. Tozer appeals to God as the metaphysical and moral ultimate in how we should think about sin, mercy and justice:

    “External justice stands there as a law and says, ‘that man shall die,’ but mercy says, ‘please, please spare him!’ But to think thus of God is to think wrongly of God….God’s mercy and justice do not quarrel with each other.”

    Later in the book, he then writes,

    “God does not change! Jesus Christ did not die to change God; Jesus Christ died to change a moral situation…The man who throws himself upon the mercy of God has had the moral situation changed…We are that moral situation.”

    If I am a worm and not a (wo)man, it’s not because of the scale of sin–a human invention–it’s because the Infinite stooped for infinitesimal me.

    • Suzanne October 3, 2013, 7:17 AM

      Most intelligent response on this page. Thank you.

  • Robert H. Woodman June 17, 2013, 6:29 PM

    Mike,

    Excellent and thoughtful post! Thank you. For the record, this past Sunday (Father’s Day), we also sang “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us”. I lead music at our church, and I almost had to stop, I was so near to tears while singing that song.

    You see, Mike, for me, the more I become aware of the infinite goodness, holiness, and perfection of the one, true, infinite God, who sent His only begotten Son to die in my place for my redemption the more I also become aware of my sinfulness (saved by grace though I am), my infinitesimally meager importance in the universe, and my complete unworthiness of the grace that God has bestowed upon me to effect my salvation. Having grasped that grace through faith in Jesus Christ, I now rejoice (tearfully at times) in the worth to which He has raised me, not through any merit of mine, but again, through His grace. I don’t dwell in the land of self-loathing because I enjoy depression. Rather, I loathe what I was and rejoice that He has made me worthy. There is a tension between worm theology and worth theology that must be maintained in balance for us to have a healthy view of God and our salvation through Jesus Christ.

    Thank you for the post. I really enjoyed reading it and pondering it.

  • Jill June 17, 2013, 7:57 PM

    I have a difficult time with the worm theology. Why would we be worth God’s love if we were completely black through and through? But all I have to do is look around me to see that people aren’t worthy, wonderful paragons of loveliness, talent, and beauty. We are awful. Yet we’re capable of loving each other. And, somehow, God loves us. We are, indeed, truly living paradoxes.

  • Bob Avey June 18, 2013, 3:39 PM

    It amazes me how God talks to us through different mediums. I was having a rather “down” type of day today, quite emotional, and for the first time in a long time, I was obsessed with how wretched I am. It became nearly unbearable. Later I talked myself up again. And then here comes Mike’s post, talking about the very thing that was troubling me.

  • Teddi Deppner June 19, 2013, 8:07 PM

    Mike wrote: “All that to say, I’m pretty conflicted about these opposing positions and tend to believe they must be held in tension. While there is little talk in Scripture about the intrinsic worth and dignity of human beings, there is a great deal of talk about sin and the horrific breach it creates between God and His creation. ”

    It’s a blessing to find others who understand this concept of paradox and of holding two things in tension at the same time. This isn’t the only pair of concepts in Christianity that must exist thus for healthy growth and life in Christ, either.

    As for seeing “little talk in Scripture about the intrinsic worth and dignity of human beings”… I suspect if you look again with that specific thought in mind, there’s far more than you think. It’s just not what most sermons focus on, not usually what we’re looking for. And thus easily overlooked.

    I’m always amazed at what I find when I take walk through the Word to see what it says on a specific topic, when I set my mind to forget all I think I know and to see it fresh with His help.

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