Does honor-shame help us understand justification by faith?

Justification by faith — an honor-shame dynamic

The doctrine of justification by faith comes primarily from Apostle Paul’s letters—to the “Romans” and to the “Galatians”.

Over the past several months, I have been reading Romans in my devotional time. I have come to believe that an awareness of honor-shame dynamics may give added clarity to the Bible’s meaning about justification.

So I am finally returning to my blog with a series of posts on justification by faith.

For the purpose of establishing a baseline of understanding about justification by faith, let‘s begin with two quotes from Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology.

A right understanding of justification is absolutely crucial to the whole Christian faith. Once Martin Luther realized the truth of justification by faith alone, he became a Christian and overflowed with the new-found joy of the gospel. The primary issue in the Protestant Reformation was a dispute with the Roman Catholic Church over justification. If we are to safeguard the truth of the gospel for future generations, we must understand the truth of justification. Even today, a true view of justification is the dividing line between the biblical gospel of salvation by faith alone and all false gospels of salvation based on good works. [1]

Just what is justification? We may define it as follows: Justification is an instantaneous legal act of God in which he (1) thinks of our sins as forgiven and Christ’s righteousness as belonging to us, and (2) declares us to be righteous in his sight.[2]

Here is another quote; it’s from Kevin Vanhoozer’s Biblical Authority after Babel: Retrieving the Solas in the Spirit of Mere Protestant Christianity(I am about midway through reading this book.)

Lutheran theologians came to view justification as “the article by which the church stands or falls.” Philip Schaff calls justification by faith the “material principle” of the Reformation and the sum of the gospel. It is essentially the retrieval of Paul’s doctrine that God declares us righteous on the merits of Christ alone through faith alone. … What we can say is that Paul is addressing not a Jewish legalism narrowly conceived but the more radical and widespread tendency of sinners to justify themselves, either morally or intellectually.[3]

Justification by faith is “absolutely crucial to the whole Christian faith” … “the article by which the church stands or falls” … the “material principle” of the Protestant Reformation … “the sum of the gospel”.

What I want to explore it this: Will an awareness of honor-shame dynamics in various Scripture passages concerning justification help us gain even more respect for this great doctrine—and deepen our motivation for love and obedience to our Lord Jesus Christ?

Below is a list of topics I plan write about in the coming weeks. By God’s grace I’ll write one post for each of the twelve topics concerning justification by faith. In each post I will highlight a passage of Scripture that features the word “justification”, “justify”, or “justified”—and then apply the hermeneutical key of honor-shame to hopefully shed some added light on its meaning.

  1. Justification by faith is God’s means of salvation—in part to “exclude boasting” before God on the part of all humanity (Rom 3:23–27).
  2. Justification by faith is central to the honorific mission of God to bless all the peoples of the earth (Rom 3:29–30; Rom 4:16–18).
  3. Justification by faith relativizes the privileged status of “the circumcised”—the Jews (Rom 3:30).
  4. Justification by faith makes possible the elevated honor status of Gentiles by being included in the people of God (Rom 3:30; cf: Eph 2:19).
  5. Justification by faith makes possible the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham—to bless all the peoples of the earth, thus preserving God’s honor and glorious reputation (Gen 12:1–3; John 12:27–28; Rom 4:16).
  6. Justification by faith entitles the sinner to the royal honorific blessing—like King David himself—of having sins and iniquities forgiven (Rom 4:1–8).
  7. Justification by faith places the believer into the honorific family lineage of ancient Abraham, our “father” in the faith—with whom we are co-heirs (Rom 4:9-25, Gal 3:1–29).
  8. Justification by faith glorifies God (Rom 4:20), while exposing all human honor claims as false glory.
  9. Justification by faith places us into the honorific status of peace with God, thus honorific access to God—through the reconciling work of the regal Lord, the Messiah-King, our Savior Jesus (Rom 5:1–2).
  10. Justification by faith gives believers a new source of honor in Christ, and therefore a new present and future glory—for the honorific practice of “boasting” in God (Rom 5:1–11, esp. v. 2, 3, 11).
  11. Justification by faith is the way that grace reigns in eternal life over sin and death (Rom 5:12–21).
  12. Justification by faith is God’s way for believers to have their longing for honor and glory satisfied in Jesus Christ our Lord (Rom 8:12–30)—–“provided we suffer with him” (Rom 8:17).

Justification by faith—indeed, it is a glorious and honorific doctrine.

I look forward to writing about justification by faith in the light of the Bible’s honor-shame dynamics. I anticipate learning much. May healthy conversations arise from our exploration.

1. Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (p. 722). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

2. Ibid., p. 723.

3. Vanhoozer, Kevin J.. Biblical Authority after Babel: Retrieving the Solas in the Spirit of Mere Protestant Christianity (Kindle Locations 2145–2153). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. For the phrase, “the article by which the church stands or falls”, Vanhoozer cites Johann Heinrich Alsted’s Theologia scholastica didacta (Hanover, 1618). Vanhoozer also cites Philip Schaaf’s Principle of Protestantism, 80.

Honor and shame in the book of Genesis––#3: The honor of woman

This is the third in a series about honor and shame in the book of Genesis. You’ll benefit from reading this in your browser. 

honor and shame in the book of genesis3

“One of the greatest causes of poverty in the world is based on a lie—the lie that men are superior to women.” [1] –Darrow Miller

Other than the serpent’s original deception (Gen 3:1–5) that led to the Fall of humanity, what lie has caused more oppression and trauma in the world?

What lie has caused more tears?

What lie has led to more pain than this? …

“Men are superior to women.”

This was not God’s intent when he created humanity. Observe Genesis 1:26–28:

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”

So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.

And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”

From this text we will examine three truths: 1) Humanity is made in God’s regal image. 2) The regal image of God is both male and female. 3) The Cultural Mandate (Gen 1:28) is a regal function fulfilled by man and woman together.

1) Humanity is made in God’s regal image

First, humanity was made in God’s image—the Latin phrase is imago Dei. This speaks of the inherent regal dignity—the supreme value and honor—of all humanity. Like animals, humans are created by God. But unlike animals, humans bear God’s “image” in ways that mere animals do not—possessing a combination of qualities such as as morality, glory, spirituality, personality, and creativity—in conjunction with an eternal soul.

Keep in mind, God is not merely an impersonal Creator—an abstract “force”. God is the Almighty King of Creation (Ps 93:1; Ps 95:3, 6; Ps 96:10–13; Ps 97:1).

Therefore, to be made in God’s image implies that all humanity is imbued with regal honor. According to the Bible, we all possess royal blood—regardless of our wealth or poverty, family name, social status, racial heritage, ethnic or national origin, level of education, or position in society. But due to the Fall and the effects of sin, we have lost and defiled our original regal identity.

This regal dimension of the image of God—imago Dei—is made even more clear when we consider the context of the Ancient Near East. John Walton writes:

The image of God as an Old Testament concept can be be understood in four categories. It pertains to the role and function that God has given humanity (found for example in “subdue” and “rule,” (Gen 1:28), to the identity that he has bequeathed on us (i.e., it is by definition, who we are as human beings), and to the way that we serve as his substitute. When Assyrian kings made images of themselves to be placed in conquered cities or at important borders, they were communicating that they were, in effect, continually present in that place. Finally, it is indicative of the relationship that God intends to have with us.[2] (bold emphasis mine)

The meaning of humans made in “the image of God”, in its social context, is powerful: Humans are vice-regents with God; we are God’s regal stewards and representatives. “As God’s stewards, we are tasked to do his work in the world; we are to be his assistants in the order-bringing process that has begun.”[3]

2) God’s regal image is male and female

Darrow Miller’s Figure 14 in Nurturing the Nations
Darrow Miller’s Figure 14 in Nurturing the Nations, page 130.

Second, humanity made in God’s image comprises both male and female. We find here the essential equality-in-being of male and female—man and woman. This means that humanity’s image of God is incomplete if it is only male or only female. The Godhead comprises both masculine and feminine qualities. Miller writes: “The masculine and feminine polarities are complementary in marriage and reflect something of the mystery of the eternal unity and diversity in the Trinity.”[4] This is borne out in the Scriptures:

  • Masculine attributes are conveyed in the common use “Father” and “Son” to describe God the Father and Jesus Christ the Son. Moreover, God is “husband” to his people Israel in the Old Testament (Ez 16:32; Hosea 9:1), and Christ is the bridegroom of the church in the New Testament (Eph 5:31–32; Rev 19:7).
  • God’s feminine attributes are conveyed in the Bible’s use of feminine terminology describing God. Whereas the Bible says God is Father, we observe that the Bible says God is like a mother. Miller points out, “The Bible uses simile to state that God is like a mother, but never that God is a mother. God is like … a woman giving birth (Is 42: 14; 46:3) … a nursing mother (Is 49: 13– 15; 66:10–13) … a mother hen (Mat 23: 37; Luke 13:34) … a mother eagle (Ex 19: 4; Deut 32:10–12)”[5]

This takes us back to Genesis 1:27—the image of God is both male and female, masculine and feminine. The origin story of the Bible clearly reveals the essential equality of being—the same regal honor!—of man and woman, husband and wife.

3) The Cultural Mandate is a regal responsibility fulfilled by man and woman together

The message of Genesis 1:28 is often referred to as the Cultural Mandate. It is also known as the Creation Mandate or the Dominion Mandate.

Notice the first two phrases of verse 28: “And God blessed them. And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply …’”. The blessing is given to them. And the command is given to them—male and female, man and woman. The implication is that God’s purpose and plan cannot be carried out by just men alone or by just women alone.

Again, Darrow Miller:

… it is worth reiterating that the Genesis 1: 26–28 creation mandate to procreate and exercise dominion … is given to the imago Dei: male and female. Note that a single human being, or a group of males, or a group of females cannot fulfill either part. It takes a team effort of male and female. The woman is not an object. She is not the property of man. She is equally the imago Dei. In God’s design, the responsibilities of pro-creation and dominion are shared. The mandate is for all.[6]

Equality of being for women across the entire biblical narrative

Much more can be said, of course, about the essential equality of being for women as revealed in the Bible. Scripture gives us the foundational belief in the God-created, regal honor of woman shared with the man. Here are some highlights:

  • God created woman as an egalitarian companion for man—“flesh of my flesh, bone of my bones” (Gen 2:18, 20–23)—someone equal in being and complimentarian in function or role.
  • Wisdom is portrayed as a queen—a woman of regal stature in Proverbs (Pr 3:13–18; cf. Pr 8:1; 9:1–4)
  • Proverbs 31:10–31 describes a godly wife fully engaged in family life (Pr 31:10–12, 15, 27–28), fitness (Pr 31:17), marketing and commerce (Pr 31:13–14, 24), helping the poor (Pr 31:20), teaching kindness and wisdom to others (Pr 31:26)—all rooted in healthy fear of God (Pr 31:30). This portrayal describes a woman who is neither hidden at home, nor cowering in weakness, nor stifled to be quiet. She is strong, dignified, confident (Pr 31:25–26).
  • The Song of Solomon speaks of the pleasures of the sexual relationship in the loving union between a husband and wife. It takes place in the social setting of Solomon’s Israel around 950 B.C. One of the primary meanings of this tantalizing book is stunning—in light of the traditional honor-shame standards and patriarchal values of the Ancient Near East. The stunning principle (Song 2:16) is this: The woman is equally entitled as the man to sexual pleasure and fulfillment.[7] 
  • In the Gospels, Jesus is famously egalitarian in his treatment of women. In all of his interactions with women, the woman is dignified and honored in the process. Perhaps the most famous is the account of his counter-cultural interactions with the Samaritan woman (John 4:4–42). Jesus treats women in such a radically honorific manner—while never minimizing their sin—that Miller says, “Jesus was the first feminist”.[8]
  • Apostle Paul writes to the Galatians that in Christ there is no distinction—that is, no inequality of being—between male and female. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28).
  • The fact that the narrative of Scripture begins and ends with “the nuptial”[9]—that is, ceremonial wedding language (Gen 2:23–24; Rev 19:7–9)—speaks of the incredibly high view of marriage, of woman, of male and female, husband and wife.

Men are not superior to women

The Bible teaches that in God’s design, men are not superior to women! The woman is straightforwardly equal—equal in being—to the man. The regal honor of man—and likewise, the regal honor of woman—is plain in numerous Scripture passages from Genesis to Revelation. How vital this is to counter the horrible lie: “Men are superior to women.”

Satan’s lies and humanity’s sin have corrupted God’s glorious design and intentions. Sin is universal. So the Bible’s high, honorific—indeed, regal—view of woman is in glaring contrast to the oppression and shame suffered by women and girls in varying degrees all around the world. This has mammoth implications for family life, for church life, for politics, for education, for believers everywhere.

What are some implications for mission? We will consider this in our next post.


1. Darrow L. Miller: Nurturing the Nations: Reclaiming the Dignity of Women in Building Healthy Cultures (p. 2). InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.

2. John H. Walton: The Lost World of Adam and Eve, (InterVarsity Press, 2015), p. 42.  

3. Ibid., p. 43.  

4. Miller., p. 130.

5. Ibid., p. 142.

6. Ibid., p. 174.

7. See Diane Bergant: “My Beloved is Mine and I am His” (Song 2:16): The Song of Songs and Honor and Shame” in Semeia 68: Honor and Shame in the World of the Bible (The Society of Biblical Literature, 1996), p. 23–35.

8. Miller., p. 3. Comparing the role of the man to that of the woman in family and society, Miller argues throughout his book for equality in being and hierarchy in roles. He bases this on trinitarian theology. The Bible speaks of the Godhead—Father, Son, Holy Spirit—having equality in being and hierarchy in roles. Just as there is loving leadership and submission in the Trinity, there ought also to be loving leadership and submission in the family.

9. Miller., p. 235.

Honor and shame in the book of Genesis––#1: The honor of God as Creator

honor and shame in the book of genesis1

With this blog post I begin a series on what I call the “top ten honor-shame dynamics in the book of Genesis”.

#1. The honor of God as Creator

We begin with the Bible’s first verse.

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. (Genesis 1:1)

What is the honor-shame dynamic contained in this verse? On the surface, there is nothing that seems honorific here.

So I will turn to one of the great evangelical scholars on Genesis—John Walton, Professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College and Graduate School. His book, The Lost World of Genesis One, offers a helpful beginning point. This beginning point is not about honor. This beginning point is about context, that is, the intent of the original author of Genesis to communicate in his context, with his audience.

Lost World of Genesis One John WaltonSome Christians approach the text of Genesis as if it has modern science embedded in it or it dictates what modern science should look like. This approach to the text of Genesis 1 is called “concordism,” as it seeks to give a modern scientific explanation for the details in the text. This represents one attempt to “translate” the culture and text for the modern reader. The problem is, we cannot translate their cosmology to our cosmology, nor should we. If we accept Genesis 1 as ancient cosmology, then we need to interpret it as ancient cosmology rather than translate it into modern cosmology. If we try to turn it into modern cosmology, we are making the text say something that it never said. It is not just a case of adding meaning (as more information has become available); it is a case of changing meaning. Since we view the text as authoritative, it is a dangerous thing to change the meaning of the text into something it never intended to say. …

We gain nothing by bringing God’s revelation into accordance with today’s science. In contrast, it makes perfect sense that God communicated his revelation to his immediate audience in terms they understood.[1]

Walton says much, much more about these context-based truths in his book. Walton argues for a literal interpretation of the Bible in such a way that it also frees us from having to retrofit modern ideas and beliefs—whether “Young Earth” or “Old Earth” science—into the ancient text of Genesis. Yes, we believe the book of Genesis was written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit; we equally affirm it was written to an ancient audience for whom science had not yet been invented. As Walton says, “We therefore recognize that although the Bible was written for us (indeed, for everyone), it is not written to us. In its context, it is not communicated in our language; it is not addressed to our culture; it does not anticipate the questions about the world and its operations that stem from our modern situations and issues.”[2]

The “cognitive environment” of the Ancient Near East

In Walton’s The Lost World of Adam and Eve, he comments on the “cognitive environment” of the Ancient Near East—and how radically different it was from that of our modern world.

Lost world of adam and eve john waltonAs an example of the foreign aspects of the cognitive environment, people in the ancient world had no category for what we call natural laws. When they thought of cause and effect … they were more inclined to see the world’s operations in terms of divine cause. Everything worked the way it worked because God set it up that way and God maintained the system. They would have viewed the cosmos not as a machine but as a kingdom, and God communicated to them about the world in those terms. His revelation to them was not focused on giving them a more sophisticated understanding of the mechanics of the world. (bold emphasis mine)[3]

Not a machine, but a kingdom and a temple

Here’s a key statement. “They would have viewed the cosmos not as a machine but as a kingdom.” Of course there is no kingdom without a king—the regal Person enthroned and ruling over that kingdom. And this is the beginning place for us to observe the regal honor of God as Creator.

Before we turn back to Scripture, here is one more quote from Walton; this builds on the idea of creation as a kingdom, and elaborates on the sacred, honorific purpose of creation.

It would not have been difficult for a reader from anywhere in the ancient Near East to take one quick look at the seven-day account and draw the conclusion that it was a temple story. … the temple was the center of God’s rule. In the ancient world, the temple was the command center of the cosmos—it was the control room from where the god maintained order, made decrees and exercised sovereignty. Temple building accounts often accompanied cosmologies because after the god had established order (the focus of cosmologies in the ancient world), he took control of that ordered system. This is the element that we are sadly missing when we read the Genesis account. God has ordered the cosmos with the purpose of taking up his residence in it and ruling over it. (bold emphasis mine)[4]

This idea of all creation as a temple for God was a jolt to my thinking. I’m not used to thinking that all nature is sacred space. But this is the assumption often made by the authors of Scripture—as you will see below. The heavens and the earth are sacred space—a royal temple for the Creator-King who is dwelling in and ruling over all he has made.

The Psalms give witness

In particular, the Psalms give witness to this honorific nature of the LORD as Creator-King. In the selection of verses from the Psalms below, take note of two things. First, observe the frequent occurrence of the words earth and heavens—clearly echoing Gen. 1:1. Secondly, observe the frequent use of honorific words: glory, name, majesty, worship, praise, exalted, King, reign, throne, etc.

O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens. (Ps. 8:1)

The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. (Ps. 19:1)

All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord, and all the families of the nations shall worship before you. (Ps. 22:27)

The earth is the LORD’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein, for he has founded it upon the seas and established it upon the rivers. (Ps. 24:1–2)

Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth! (Ps. 46:10)

Sing praises to God, sing praises! Sing praises to our King, sing praises! For God is the King of all the earth; sing praises with a psalm! God reigns over the nations; God sits on his holy throne. (Ps. 47:6–8)

God has not merely created a material universe. No, God has created the heavens and the earth as sacred space—a temple for worship of the one true God, King of creation!

Let heaven and earth praise him, the seas and everything that moves in them. (Ps. 69:34)

Blessed be his glorious name forever; may the whole earth be filled with his glory! Amen and Amen! (Ps. 72:19)

Let them be put to shame and dismayed forever; let them perish in disgrace, that they may know that you alone, whose name is the LORD, are the Most High over all the earth. (Ps. 83:17–18)

Say among the nations, “The LORD reigns! Yes, the world is established; it shall never be moved; he will judge the peoples with equity.” Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice; let the sea roar, and all that fills it; let the field exult, and everything in it! Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy. (Ps. 96:10–12)

To you I lift up my eyes, O you who are enthroned in the heavens! (Ps. 123:1)

God is Creator-King, and creation is his temple

For a more extensive proof-text, consider Psalms 96–100. You’ll see for yourself a continuous revelation about the Creator-King.

  • God is King—enthroned, majestic, glorious, infinitely honorable (Ps. 95:3–6; Ps. 96:6–10; Ps. 97:1–2; Ps. 98:6; Ps. 99:1–5; Ps. 100:4).
  • God is Creator of the earth—and thus deserving of worship from all the earth: (Ps. 95:4–5; Ps. 96:1, 9, 11–13; Ps. 97:1, 4–5, 9; Ps. 98:3–4, 7–9; Ps. 99:1; Ps. 100:1).
  • The heavens and the earth are a templesacred space in which all peoples, nations—even all nature—rejoice together in worship of the Creator-King (Ps. 95:1–7; Ps. 96:1–13; Ps. 97:1–9; Ps. 98:1–9; Ps. 99:1–5; Ps. 100:1–5)

It is unmistakable—the heavens and the earth do not comprise a “machine” devoid of sacred honor; no, the heavens and the earth comprise an honorific temple of the Most High God, the Creator-King!

A prayer: Lord God Most High, we join the chorus of saints from across the earth and across the ages—“Oh come, let us worship and bow down; let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker!” (Ps. 95:6) It is you who has made us and not we ourselves (Ps. 100:3). We submit ourselves to you in love and obedience—returning blessing, honor and praise to you—Creator-King of the heavens and the earth!

1. John H. Walton: The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (InterVarsity Press, 2010), p. 16–17. Kindle Edition.

2. John H. Walton: The Lost World of Adam and Eve: Genesis 2–3 and the Human Origins Debate (InterVarsity Press, 2015), p. 19.

3. Ibid., p. 18.

4. Ibid., p. 49.

Spanish version of The Father’s Love Gospel Booklet now available


 “Amor Del Padre” — the Spanish edition of The Father’s Love Gospel Booklet is now available. You can explore the pages of this resource at the Spanish page on the website for The Father’s Love Gospel Booklet. You may also click here to purchase.
Debi Clifton
I want to recognize Debi Clifton, Director of Global Outreach at Grace Community Church in Tempe, Arizona … Debi was responsible for the fine Spanish translation of The Father’s Love Gospel Booklet. I am grateful for her vital role in this project.
Debi has been a great encouragement to me in my journey of learning and sharing about the pivotal cultural value of honor and shame. Thank you, Debi!
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Spanish version of “The Father’s Love Gospel Booklet” coming soon


The Spanish version of The Father’s Love Gospel Booklet has gone to print. They will be available for sale in early March.

Many people believe that the Latin American culture has honor and shame as a primary value. Any yet, most Latin American Christians are not familiar with how to share the Gospel of Christ in “the language of honor and shame”. Learn more about this resource at the website for The Father’s Love Gospel Booklet.


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New free resource: Quick reference guide—how to read the Bible in the language of honor and shame

Read Bible honor and shame graphic
This free resource is a quick-guide to reading the Bible in the language of honor and shame. Developed by Werner Mischke, Director of Training Ministries, Mission ONE.

As part of the seminar I am leading tomorrow, I am making available this free resource. It’s an 8.5 x 11-inch document in black and white that can be easily reproduced and shared. This little resource is a reflection of what I have learned about the pivotal cultural value of honor and shame in the Bible. It also reflects what I do when I read the Bible to reveal the honor/shame dynamics present in the text.

The resource features:

  • Primary honor/shame dynamics in the Bible
  • How to read the Bible through the lens of honor and shame
  • Recognizing the broad spectrum of words related to honor and shame
  • Basic cross-cultural ministry skills related to honor and shame


  • Easily reproducible, print it out in black and white
  • Graphically rich, easy to read
  • Easy to share—cut it in half and give one to a friend, or send it as an email attachment
  • Convenient size, fits in your average-size Bible for quick reference

Download here.

The “honor-status reversal” motif in Scripture, part 1

Honor-status reversal is a major motif in the Bible
Honor-status reversal is a major motif in the Bible

According to the dictionary on my computer, a motif is “a distinctive feature or dominant idea in an artistic or literary composition.” I contend in this post that “honor-status reversal” is a major motif in Scripture.

One classic example in Scripture of honor-status reversal is found in the Apostle Paul’s description of our Lord Jesus Christ in Philippians 2:

“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:5–11 ESV)

Jesus Christ was with the Father in the honor and glory of heaven in eternity past. His honor status was infinitely high. Christ was in His “pre-incarnate glory.”

But Jesus willingly allowed for his honor status to be reversed. He “emptied himself” … descending through the Incarnation … born fully human to the virgin Mary … “taking the form of a servant”.

He humbled himself further by dying, “even death on a cross”—the most shameful and ignominious destiny a man could endure. This was his humiliation.

But his destiny on earth was not the end of the story. The pre-incarnate glory and honor he once had in heaven, then willingly lost, was to be regained and then magnified as he rose from the dead and sat down at the right hand of the Father. Again, this is an example of honor-status reversal—also known as Christ’s exaltation.

It bears repeating:

Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.  (Philippians 2:9–11 ESV)

The significance of these verses cannot be overstated. As Christians, we believe that the incarnation of Jesus Christ is the crux of human history. That it constitutes the most dramatic account of honor-status reversal has wonderful implications for cross-cultural Christian ministry.

Here’s another example of honor-status reversal from the words of Jesus:

“Whoever receives this child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me. For he who is least among you all is the one who is great.” (Luke 9:48 ESV)

Karl Reich, author of Figuring Jesus: The Power of Rhetorical Figures of Speech in the Gospel of Luke, explains honor-status reversal this way:

The very words “least” and “greatest” would automatically call up the thought of the Greco-Roman honor-shame system which was ultimately concerned with greatness. Malina and Rohr argue that this verse cuts at the very heart of of the honor-shame system. They write, “A squabble over honor status would be typical within any ancient Mediterranean grouping … Jesus’ reversal of the expected order challenges the usual assumptions about what is honorable in a very fundamental way.”

Referring to this verse, “And behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last” (Luke 13:30 ESV), the author continues:

… The pithy comment stays with the audience because of its compact and forceful nature and its enigmatic message. The transformation of polar opposites into their antithesis is unthinkable. The saying of the Lukan Jesus undermines the honor-shame system by proclaiming a reversal of roles.”

The dynamic of honor-status reversal occurs in Paul’s description of the incarnation in his letter to the Philippians. We have seen it briefly in the teachings of Jesus in Luke’s Gospel. But it must be noted that honor-status reversal is present throughout Scripture. Otherwise it cannot be considered a motif. Consider:

  • Adam and Even were “sent out from the Garden of Eden”—they left the glory and honor of perfect fellowship with God and were shamed by their rebellion to live apart from the honorable presence with God. The honor of their fellowship with God was reversed to a permanent condition of guilt, fear and shame.
  • The story of Abraham is a story of a wealthy man who is called by God to leave the very source of honor—his father, his kinship, his homeland: “…Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you” (Gen 12:1). But consider the immense honor he is promised by God: And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:2-3 ESV). It is an honor-status reversal which is foundational to the revelation of Scripture—and the global purpose of God. See more on this at my blog post here.
  • The story of Joseph takes up a large portion of Scripture—Genesis 37–50—fully 14 chapters. Joseph was the favorite, most honored son of Jacob, and was sold into slavery, from which he rose to become the prime minister of Egypt. It’s a classic story of honor-status reversal.
  • The story of Moses in Exodus is also an account of honor-status reversal. A baby born into the oppressed minority society of the Hebrews is found by Pharaoh’s daughter—and then raised to eventually lead the Hebrews out of Egypt to the Promised Land.
  • The stories of Saul and David remind us that, on the one hand, a man of human-derived honor, stature and might like King Saul can be judged by God and lose his honor status—while on the other hand, God takes a lowly shepherd boy who had faith in the living God and raises him to become a mighty king whose honor in the eyes of the people greatly exceeded that of the prior king.
  • The story of Esther is another classic. A beautiful woman (Esther) from the minority culture of the Jews ends up rising in honor as she is chosen to be the wife of the king of Persia. When a plot to kill the Jews is hatched by the evil Haman, Esther’s uncle Mordecai asks Esther to courageously intervene with the king on behalf of her people, the Jews . The ESV Study Bible says, “The reader is clearly meant to laugh at the way [Haman’s] vanity traps him into having to publicly honor the very man he intended to kill (6:6–11), and his death on the gallows he had prepared for Mordecai (7:8–10) is a classic case of a villain falling into his own pit.” We see here again—multiple examples of honor-status reversal!
  • The Beatitudes begin with “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3 ESV). It worth rereading these verses. In every verse in this most beautiful series, Jesus is teaching that in his kingdom, there is a new way of living. This new way of living is not a dismissal of the need for honor—or a total rejection of the dynamics of honor and shame which permeated Greco-Roman culture. It is, rather, a proclamation that a new honor, a higher and permanent honor is now available to all as they live in God’s kingdom in loving submission to the most honorable King of Kings.
  • The parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11–32) is considered by many as the most famous story ever told by the master story teller, Jesus. The younger of two sons has turned away from his family and his father. He ends up in the most degrading and shameful condition conceivable. He comes to his senses, decides to return home to his father. Rather than being rejected and scorned, the father greets him with kisses and weeping. He gives the lost son his prized robe. He provides sandals for his feet and gives him a ring for his finger, signifying the honor and authority of the family. Then the father calls for a huge village celebration to welcome home the lost son. (See more about this story at The Father’s Love Gospel Booklet.) Is there a more powerful example of honor-status reversal in Scripture?
  • In Revelation, the judgement of God constitues an honor-status reversal for the great and mighty city of Babylon. “And he called out with a mighty voice, ‘Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great! She has become a dwelling place for demons, a haunt for every unclean spirit, a haunt for every unclean bird, a haunt for every unclean and detestable beast” (Revelation 18:2). Numerous other examples of honor-status reversal also appear in Revelation. The Lamb that was slain is revealed as the conquering Lion of Judah (5:5–6) … the saints who were martyred are honorably clothed in white (6:11) … the once glorious, evil serpent, the devil, in finally conquered (20:1–10) … even the once-inglorious unredeemed peoples of the earth—represented by their kings—bring their glory into the new city (21:22–26). Again and again, we see honor-status reversal.

Have I made the case that honor-status reversal is a motif in the Bible? Even though I have not mentioned the many examples of honor-status reversal in the Psalms, the Gospels and the various New Testament epistles,  I hope you agree that it is plain from the examples noted above.

What is perhaps less plain and more difficult for many Christians to embrace, is that honor-status reversal is for believers, too. As followers of Christ and members of his body, the church, Scripture teaches that we are called to identify with our Lord to such an extent that our relationship with him leads to a magnificent increase in our own honor status.

This has a few key application points which I’ll be exploring in future posts:

  1. The increase in honor status for believers is embedded exclusively and totally in relation to Jesus Christ.
  2. When believers understand and experience an increase to their honor status through Christ, it enables them to resist the shaming techniques of people who are trying to coerce them to leave the faith.
  3. The increase in honor status for believers exists both in community (the church)—and in one’s individual relationship with Christ.
  4. The increase in honor status for believers is a strong catalyst for setting people free from the struggles of sin and shame.
  5. Understanding the dynamics of honor and shame and honor-status reversal can be a key for more effective cross-cultural ministry.
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Free presentation on honor and shame (and other resources)

“Big Shame or Big Honor? Exploring the Dynamics of Honor and Shame in Cross-Cultural Partnership” — digital slide presentation

Note: Since this was first posted, a fuller list of resources is available on the HONOR-SHAME RESOURCES page for this blog. Click here.

This digital slide presentation is now available for viewing and free downloads. The corresponding video of the full presentation is available here. Presented at the 2012 COSIM conference, this teaching:

  1. Examines the key dynamics of 
honor and shame from a 
social-science perspective—
with examples from Scripture.
  2. Explores honor and shame 
as the pivotal cultural value of the Bible, and of most of the Majority World / 
unreached peoples.
  3. Examines applications 
to cross-cultural ministries 
and partnerships through understanding the dynamics of honor and shame.

You can use this slide presentation to:

  • Learn about the pivotal cultural value of honor and shame—both in the Bible and in many Majority World cultures.
  • Present the material yourself to your own friends and colleagues engaged in cross-cultural relationship-building.
  • Begin a conversation to explore the implications of honor and shame in your own cross-cultural relationships and partnerships.

Other resources on honor and shame:

  • Free 30-page article: Honor & Shame in Cross-Cultural Relationships: Understanding Five Basic Culture Scales Through the Cultural Lens of Honor and Shame—with Application to Cross-Cultural Relationships and Partnerships
  • 4lessons honor and shameFour 10-minute lessons on honor and shame. Click here to learn more. Here are four short lessons—10 to 15 minutes each—to introduce to you some of the
    principles of the pivotal cultural value of honor and shame in the Bible—and how it relates to building relationships—with God and across cultures.
  • Skit about honor and shame in refugee ministry. Give this to your friends who are dramatically inclined. And let them introduce the subject of honor and shame in building cross-cultural relationships—especially with refugees. Two skits compare relational skills. Funny and warm. Click here to download.
  • Gospel tract: Present the life-transforming message of Jesus Christ in the language of honor and shame—through the story of The Prodigal Son. Here is a gospel tract in development which may radically change how you share the gospel. Check it out here.

Three reasons to read the Bible through the “lens of honor and shame”

#1: When we understand that the ancient world of the Bible is characterized by the pivotal cultural value of honor and shame—we can better understand God’s Word. 

  • The Greek philosopher Aristotle (384–322 BC) said: “Now the greatest external good we should assume to be the thing which we offer as a tribute to the gods and which is most coveted by men of high station, and is the prize awarded for the noblest deeds; and such a thing is honour, for honour is clearly the greatest of external goods … it is honour above all else that great men claim and deserve.” [1]
  • “Athenians excel all others not so much in singing or in stature or in strength, as in love of honour” –Xenophon [2] (c. 430–354 BC)
  • “For the glory that the Romans burned to possess, be it known, is the favourable judgment of men who think well of other men.” [3]–Augustine of Hippo (354–430)
  • “The ancients name love of honor and praise as their premier value.” –Jerome Neyrey[4]

So to be a faithful interpreter of the ancient texts of the Holy Bible, we benefit from being familiar with the cultural values of the world in which the Bible authors wrote—namely, the pivotal cultural value of honor and shame.

#2: As we read the Bible through the lens of honor and shame, we’ll see more readily that, through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God is not only remedying the guilt of persons—God is also covering the shame and restoring the honor of persons.

Notice these verses which address the covering of shame and restoration and even the elevation of honor of those wo follow Christ:

But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name,he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. –John 1:12–13 ESV

How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God? –John 5:44

“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, –John 17:20-22 ESV

 …if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. For the Scripture says, Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.  –Romans 10:9–11 ESV

To this end we always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling and may fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.  –2 Thessalonians 1:11–12 ESV

But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth. To this he called you through our gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. –2 Thessalonians 2:13–14 ESV

For it stands in Scripture: “Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious, and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.So the honor is for you who believe, but for those who do not believe, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone,” and “A stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense.” They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do. –1 Peter 2:6-8 ESV

To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. –Colossians 1:27 ESV

#3: As we read the Bible through the lens of honor and shame, we recognize that these same cultural values are vitally important to many Majority World peoples today. This helps people from the West and Majority World understand each other better—and build meaningful friendships more easily.

  • We (Westerners) become aware of the powerful motivation of “saving face”—protecting oneself (and the other person!) from embarrassment. We learn the art and the value of indirect communication.
  • We recognize that job title, age, and “position of authority” is just as significant as effectiveness or job performance.
  • We learn that kinship and family “name” can be much more important than it is to people living in highly individualistic societies. We learn to honor the family more deeply.
  • We develop the ability to value relationships as much as tasks, and that just being together is honoring of the people with whom we gather, and is as valuable as any accomplishment.
  • We learn to put team or group ahead of the individual—requiring us to submit our own desires to those of the community. This can encourage us to be more patient. When everything inside says, Stand up and speak and make your ideas known!—we instead exercise patience and calmness in honor of the larger group.

Since early 2009, I’ve been reading my Bible through the lens of honor and shame. I say this plainly:

As I journey in life as a follower of Christ—I have gained a better sense of my own honor before God as my Father, and have become more comfortable in relating to people from non-Western cultures. A big reason why is that I’ve been reading the Bible through the lens of honor and shame.

[1] See Jerome H. Neyrey: Honor and Shame in the Gospel of Matthew (Louisville: Westminster Press, 1998) p.5
[2] ibid, p. 17
[3] ibid, p. 17
[4] ibid, p. 17

Seven bestowals of honor—when God called Abraham

Seven bestowals of honor

The Call of Abraham is found in Genesis 12:1–3. If we understand that blessing is an important way of bestowing honor in an honor-shame culture, then I contend that inside of this Call are seven bestowals of honor promised by God to Abraham.

First, let’s look at the verses:

1  Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.

2  And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.

3  I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

What Abram did in response to God’s call was a tremendous risk, and constituted a huge counter-cultural act of boldness. Why? Because it violated the traditional way that men accrued and preserved their honor: kinship, land, and livestock. Despite this great risk, consider these seven honor-laden rewards that Abram (who became “Abraham”) would receive by believing God’s promise and acting in obedience:

  1. “to the land that I will show you”—God was promising Abraham that, although he was to leave the honor of his father’s land, Abraham would gain the honor of another land. This was made plain in later revelations from God that this “promised land” was to be the land of Canaan (Gen. 15:18–21, Gen. 17:8).
  2. “I will make of you a great nation”—this was God’s promise that, although Abraham had no son, had no heir, and therefore had none of the highly-prized honor that comes by having a son to carry on his name—Abraham would nevertheless, according to God’s promise, be the father of a great nation. Further promises from God revealed that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars of heaven (Gen. 15:5). God also said, “I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you” (Gen. 17:6). God’s promise to honor Abraham in this way is of inestimable value.
  3. “I will bless you”—this is God’s bestowal of divine favor on the man Abraham. In the economy of honor and shame, to be blessed by God Almighty (Gen. 17:1) constituted an enormous accrual of ascribed honor.
  4. “I will make your name great”—this was God’s promise that Abraham would gain a public reputation of great honor. Abraham would become a man of renown and glory in the “public square.”
  5. “so that you will be a blessing”—this is God’s promise that Abraham would become a benefactor. A man can only be a benefactor of blessing if he himself is a man of means; he must first himself be a person of wealth and honor if he is to be a means of blessing to others. God’s promise that Abram would “be a blessing” is another promise of honor.
  6. “I will bless those who bless you and him who dishonors you I will curse”—this is God’s promise to pay close attention to the social, public dimension of Abraham’s relations. As blessing is to honor, so also is cursing to dishonor; this is a vivid acknowledgment by God of the public nature of honor and shame. God is guaranteeing that He will not allow Abraham to be shamed by his enemies. Again, this is an extremely valuable bestowal of honor from God to Abram.
  7. “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed”—this is God’s way of explaining the extent of the honor which is to accrue to Abram’s account. God promises that Abram’s honor will not be limited to his own family, local community or region. God promises that Abraham will ultimately have the weighty influence that extends to all the families of the earth—a global significance, global renown.

Again, from the cultural perspective of honor and shame, God told Abram to abandon the traditional source of honor (in that culture it was a truly unthinkable act; this was a huge risk) … in exchange for the honor that God himself was able to give.

God is establishing a prototype in Abraham. He is demonstrating that people who follow God exchange their traditional source of honor for honor that comes from one eternal source—God himself. This honor cannot be revoked or lost; the honor is embedded in God Himself, and revealed in His blessings.

Consider the binding of Isaac in Genesis 22—in which Abraham is asked to sacrifice his son. This represents the climax of a lifestyle of risk which Abraham lives out by faith in covenantal relationship with God—and which, in the end, is commensurate with the immense honor, inexpressible in value, granted him by God.

Would Abraham have taken such enormous risks had it not been for the utterly astounding set of promises made by God that Abraham would gain immeasurable honor from both God Himself and from the nations?

“Top-line, bottom-line” or “Glorious honor from top to bottom”?

The Call of Abraham in Genesis 12:1–3 is sometimes seen through the lens known as “top-line, bottom-line.” Proponents of this “top-line, bottom-line” view say that God gives to us his blessings (top-line); therefore, believers have an obligation, a responsibility, a duty—to share those blessings with the nations (bottom-line). We are blessed to be a blessing, as the popular missions song goes.

While the Call of Abraham covenant may be seen in this light (for, indeed, we do have an awesome responsibility!) I wonder whether this may be primarily a Western cultural reading of the passage. Could it be that the seven-fold bestowal of honor to Abraham suggests that there is no “top-line, bottom line” separation in the way that Abraham would have received and understood the promise? Could it be that every aspect of the covenant, including the responsibility to bless others—was an expression of great honor bestowed by God upon Abraham, and therefore an enormous, glorious delight?

I contend that from top to bottom, from beginning to end of the passage of Genesis 12:1–3, for Abraham to be included in God’s global purpose was an astounding honor. God’s promise/command that Abram would “be a blessing” is not just a delegation of duty; it is another facet of the magnificent diamond of honor by which Abraham would himself (through his descendants) become a most-honored benefactor to the nations. This is an extension of the divine patronage that originates in Almighty God himself—the ultimate Patron—for whose glory the universe was made.

The Apostle Paul wrote, “And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” (Galatians 3:29 ESV). We are Abraham’s offspring as followers of Christ! It follows that, in the spirit of God’s promise to Abraham, we as Great Commission Christians should embrace the sacrificial responsibility—as well as the eternal magnificent honor—of declaring his glory to the nations.