Learning to be Human

by | Aug 23, 2023 | Theology

Those who know me well know I’m a big country music fan. One song that I’ve been enjoying recently is “Human” by Cody Johnson, in which he sings, “…forgive me, I really don’t know what I’m doing. I’m still learning to be human.” Though Johnson himself is presumably not consciously intending to communicate in that phrase all that I’m about to say, that line actually gets to the heart of our battle with sin and the fundamental nature of progressive sanctification.

The Inhumanity of Sin

What is sin? The catechism definition of sin is “…any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God” (Baptist Catechism Q&A #17). Another way to say it, however, is to say that sin is being unlike our first father Adam in the state in which he was created: truly human. When Adam was created in the beginning he was, of course, truly human. When he sinned not long afterward, it was an inhuman act. Though, of course, he remained biologically human after committing his sin, the sin itself was an action unbefitting of a human. It was acting like something other, and something less, than a man made in God’s own image and likeness in true righteousness and holiness (cf. Genesis 1:27, Ephesians 4:24).

Asaph writes many years later in Psalm 73:22 about a period of time in which he himself was entertaining low thoughts of God and the blessedness of belonging to him. At that time, he says to God, “I was brutish and ignorant. I was like a beast toward you.” Asaph recognizes the sinfulness of his heart as sub-human. The apostle Peter picks up on this motif and speaks of some sinful and destructive false teachers in this manner: “these, like irrational animals, creatures of instinct, born to be caught and destroyed, blaspheming about matters of which they are ignorant, will also be destroyed in their destruction, suffering wrong as the wage for their wrongdoing” (2 Peter 2:12-13).

Therefore, while it is entirely correct to say that sin is “any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God,” that’s only one way to say it. Another way to say it is that sin is thinking or acting in less than human ways. After all, what does God intend humans to be but bearers of his image who faithfully fulfill their vocation by being obedient to his law? To be properly and thoroughly human, then, as God intended us to be, is equivalent to obeying God’s law. So sin is failing to be what God intended Adam to be in the beginning: a human made to bear God’s own image and likeness in true righteousness and holiness (cf. Genesis 1:27, Ephesians 4:24). Adam failed to be truly human, and ever since his fall into sin we all fail to live up to the noble office and vocation that God has given us; namely, to be and to act as truly human image-bearers of God.

The True Humanity of Christ

Thankfully, however, in the Biblical storyline there is not just the “first man Adam,” but there is also a “second man,” who is a “last Adam” (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:45-49) and his presence in the metanarrative turns the prospects for the human race from bleak to glorious! Unlike the first Adam, the last Adam did not fail to be truly human. He looked upon the crowds with compassion, and fed the hungry, and healed the sick, and touched the outcast, and controlled his appetites for forbidden fruits of all sorts, resisting the serpent’s temptations (cf. Matthew 4:1-11, Hebrews 4:15).

He dealt in truth, not lies, even religious and pious sounding lies. And so he confronted the inhumanity of religious hypocrisy and legalism which fails to show and tell us who God really is, what he is really like, and what he expects of us, robbing us of the joy of real relationship with him (cf. Matthew 23:13). “When the fulness of time had come,” the apostle Paul tells us, “God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Galatians 4:4-5).

It was imperative that Jesus become truly human and live in a truly human way, as a faithful image bearer, under God’s law, in order to achieve a justifying righteousness for us who are still biologically human but have acted as faulty, sub-human image bearers. And then his death on the cross bore the penalty we deserve for our inhumanity towards God and others. His death on the cross bore the penalty we deserve for failing to be human. So while we were plunged into “sin and misery” (Baptist Catechism Q&A #20) by the first Adam, through this last Adam we may be justified by grace through faith, by his vicarious righteousness and propitiatory death.

The Sanctified Humanity of Christians

And having been justified by grace through faith alone in this last Adam, Jesus, and his work for us, God begins working in us and upon us that we might “be conformed to the image of his Son” (Romans 8:29). In other words, that we might become like Jesus in his faithful image-bearing true humanity, “who was made like his brothers in every respect… yet without sin” (Hebrews 2:17, 4:15). God begins working in us to make us like the last Adam who was “born of woman, born under the law” (Galatians 4:4) and never failed to live as God intended a human to do.

As we are made like Jesus in progressive sanctification, we are not becoming something other than human. What we will be when the process is complete is what God intended humans to be. What we will be is what God tasked Adam to be in the first place, but which he failed to be. What we will be is what Jesus did not and never will fail to be: truly human.

This paradigm for thinking about our battle with sin and the nature of progressive sanctification is helpful to us in that it pulls holiness down, in our perception of it, from an ethereal and hyper-spiritual plane in our minds, and brings it down to earth. This paradigm expands the domain of holiness, as we conceive of it in our imagination, out of grand cathedrals with vaulted ceilings and stained glass (or the typically more modest and, dare I say, bland Protestant-style churches most of us are accustomed to!), and extends it into ordinary places like our living rooms, bed rooms, restaurants, sporting venues, and workplaces…etc.

This paradigm insists that God wants us to be good humans, in a well-rounded, comprehensive way. Rather than making men and women who can attain some success in the church as a sort of parallel world, like a video game while being woefully deficient outside of our Christian subculture, Christianity should produce thoroughly good humans who are as respectable outside the church as inside, and likewise in their families and workplaces and so forth.

True holiness is not merely mastering some technical religious jargon and participating in religious ceremonies. It’s not merely doing Christian subculture “par excellence.” It’s about living a fully-orbed life in God’s world, as God intended, in right relationship with God, and relating in well-adjusted, healthy, God-intended human ways to other humans in our various relationships to them. It starts with being justified by faith in Christ, and then progressively “learning to be human” as we are conformed to the image of Christ.

Perhaps Q&A #38 of the Baptist Catechism will be a fitting summary and conclusion (emphasis mine):

Q. What is sanctification?
A. Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness.

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