Human Nature and the Purpose of Existence

In Protestant thought, as in most traditional Christian teaching, humans were created in the image of God. That is, they are stamped with certain characteristics of God—rationality, moral integrity, freedom, and spiritual life—and are made to glorify God and live in a joyful and loving relationship with God and with others. Adam and Eve had this relationship in the Garden of Eden and lost it through sin. The image of God was irretreviably (from a human perspective) shattered. The entire drama of redemption through the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection was God's way of restoring this right relationship.

Protestants teach that in rejecting God's way, humans put their own desires above God's, and thus this has been the mark of human nature since the fall; humans place themselves rather than God in the center of creation and in the center of their own existence. This self-centeredness is what the reformers meant by original sin. Because of the unity of the human race, including unity with Adam, human beings are born as sinners, not as innocents.

The issue for humans then is not simply to obey God (which, since the fall, they cannot do without God's help). The issue is to love God and others, which love will be expressed in obedience to and proper relationship with God. This love, according to most Protestant thought, is both modeled by Jesus and infused in the lives of believers through faith in Christ. By believing in Jesus, trusting his divine work of forgiveness, and following him, Protestants submit themselves to God's will above their own, placing God in the center of the universe rather than themselves. The first question of the Westminster Catechism (a 17th-century summary of Reformed belief intended to instruct newcomers) asks: "What is the chief end of man?" The answer is: "Man's chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever." The same idea is expressed in the first sentence of prominent evangelical Rick Warren's contemporary bestseller, A Purpose Driven Life: "It's not about you." For Warren, and for many other Protestants, it is all about God.

While all Protestants agree that human beings, made in God's image, were created good, they also recognize that human beings are now in a fallen and sinful state. Yet,  despite this fallenness, human beings are precious to God, who desires to redeem them. Beyond this fundamental agreement, there is diversity among Protestants with respect to the nature and extent of the impact of the fall, the nature and extent of humans' participation in their salvation, and the nature and extent of the renewal that can be realized in human nature in this life, prior to entering eternity.

Some Protestants (e.g., Lutherans and Calvinists of various types) believe that human nature is corrupted in all its parts (mind, will, emotion, body) and in the relationships of these parts to one another. And, as a result of this, human beings cannot by themselves do anything to earn or merit salvation. It is not that they cannot do anything good—they can do various forms of good—but they can do nothing that would contribute to their salvation. Those traditions that hold to some form of Arminian theology (e.g., conservative Methodists, Wesleyans, and many Anabaptists and Pentecostals) believe that though human beings are now sinful and fallen, God has bestowed grace on everyone (sometimes called prevenient or enabling grace) such that all people are freely able to accept or reject God's offer of salvation in Christ.

More liberal versions of Protestant traditions, holding to a more positive or optimistic view of human persons, often do not believe that the human race ever did fall into a profoundly corrupted, and certainly not a damnable, condition. Thus salvation involves a reordering of life and a renewal of thought and understanding so that humans choose what is good and right, not a supernatural atonement. Humans are not helpless, merely willful and ignorant.

Nearly all Protestants recognize the critical role of faith in recovering a renewed relationship with God. Faith is, in large part, an openness to and reliance upon God's forgiveness. Without faith, it is impossible to receive forgiveness, and without forgiveness a loving relationship with God is impossible in this life and in the next. Life without God in this world is darkness and death; life without God in eternity is hell.

All believe that salvation is marked by gratitude to God for the gift of forgiveness. All Protestants expect a change in behavior after conversion, improved moral behavior marked not by a fear of hell but by a genuine desire to do God's will. They disagree, however, on the extent to which godly behavior is possible. Some tend to emphasize that humans will never in this life achieve a state of pure holiness, though they are enabled by God's grace to live lives of love and service, however imperfectly, to God and others. Others teach that the Holy Spirit can empower them to live without any willful sin.

Study Questions:
1.     What is the purpose of human existence?
2.     How did Adam and Eve model the perfect relationship with God? How did they destroy it?
3.     What has sin done to the purpose of existence?
4.     What is Christ’s role in salvation?

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