The Evangelical Universalist Forum

JRP's Exegetical Compilation: Rom 3:12

This post is part of my Exegetical Compilation series, which I am (verrrrrrry slowly) posting up here.

Rom 3:12 – Sometimes this verse is quoted as though universal salvation from sin means people aren’t sinners after all in need of God’s salvation (quite literally in need of “Jesus”), which Christian universalism certainly doesn’t mean!

Other times, this verse is quoted in a rather more subtle way to suggest that sinners have no worth to God, not even that God gives worth to sinners; or if not going that far (because such proponents have to admit God gives worth to at least some sinners by saving them from sin), at least the point is to rebut an idea that sinners are not worthy of being saved.

In the sense that no creature can have worth apart from the worth God gives the creature, that’s true, but a Christian universalist can easily agree with that. And in the sense that God does not seek salvation of sinners in order to cooperate with the valuation of sinners by some moral authority higher than God, that’s also true, and Christian universalists can easily agree with that, too. Strictly speaking, a Christian universalist could even agree that God only regards sinners as worthless, outside of Christ anyway, and yet chooses to bring all sinners into Christ for salvation from their sins, and so grant them worth in Christ after all.

My basic problem with that latter notion, is that it involves a schism in the evaluation of God. But since this is an exegetical compilation I’ll skip the metaphysics until later. Besides, someone might reply that Paul here testifies, against a metaphysical argument (even especially from trinitarian theism) in favor of God valuing rational creatures even when they are sinners, that God fundamentally regards sinners as worthless. Or the might reply that Paul quotes David testifying to such.

But Psalm 14 and Psalm 53, which are slight variations of each other, don’t specifically say God regards sinners as utterly worthless. They do say sinners are not “good”, using the broadest Hebrew term for good, and so of course they imply that God correctly judges ungood people as not good (duh). But specifically the sinners in view are not good by oppressing instead of helping other people.

The problem isn’t that they are intrinsically worthless to God, but that they misuse their God-given authority and abilities. In fact, an even more specific complaint (in either Psalm) is that the evil-doers are oppressing sinners already being punished by God! – namely rebel Israel.

These Psalms are regarded as prophecies by David that Israel will rebel one day; shall be thrown down and imprisoned by God; shall be oppressed by the evil authorities while imprisoned for their own evil; shall repent of their own evil at least partly thanks to having to live under the oppression of evildoers as punishment for their own oppression of other people; and then shall be saved by God Who inflicted this punishment on them for being evil – Who in the process of that salvation shall strike down and imprison (and kill, as He shall do with rebel Israel) those who are taking the opportunity of God’s punishment of Israel to mistreat Israel!

Now admittedly, David demonstrably elsewhere seems to have trouble sometimes recognizing that, in (apparently?) calling for the hopeless punishment of those who are trying to hopelessly punish those being punished by God for their sins, he is putting himself in the place of (or revealing himself to be) the same sort of person as the people he hopes and expects and prays God to save God-punished people from (especially when the person to be thus saved is David himself). And he might be doing the same thing in these two Psalms, and not realizing (yet) that he is only continuing to set himself into God’s condemnation and continuing punishment by doing so. (It may not be a coincidence that David tacitly condemns himself for not having mercy on those to be punished by God for not having mercy on David being punished by God, as a consequence of David’s murderous adultery with Bathsheba. “YOU ARE THE MAN!” took him by surprise on exactly the same principle after all.)

But does Paul show any sign that he understands the inspired critique (whether or not David did yet)?

Yes he does! – for instead of using a broadly generic term for “good” in Greek, he translates the Hebrew more specifically as {chrêstês} (in various grammatic forms)!

This term has several connotations, such as ‘useful’, ‘golden’, and by a couple of metaphorical derivatives ‘healthy’ or ‘good for health’ or ‘medicinal’. By the 2nd century, apologists were taking advantage of the pun in Greek to compare the related terms Christos (anointed and so shiny with oil, literally speaking) and Chrestos, especially in the sense of Christ being medicine for healing infection (of sin) like a mustard plaster. Suetonius reports that Claudius briefly expelled Jews from Rome (not many years after the first Easter) due to instigations concerning someone named Chrestos; and Tacitus when speaking more clearly of Christ tacitly corrects the common tendency to call Him Chrestos instead of Christ (though this isn’t obvious in English translations.)

The concept can be narrowed down, of course – wine mellowed with age is declared {chrêstos} (by people who ought to appreciate new wine better) in Luke’s translation of Christ’s parable (5:39). But the full concept would be useful kindness, active charity.

This connects squarely to the verses from those two Psalms being quoted by Paul (or rather midrashed together): the sinners aren’t just passively evil, nor even merely passively useless (or worthless), but actively do hurtful things to other people. The problem is that sinners (which we all are) are {achreios}, anti-useful, unprofitable, they don’t do what is morally right {achrê}; and what is morally right is to help and to save other people, up to and including those whom God Himself has punished.

This is also why Christians, not only non-Christians, and Jews, not only pagans, are warned by God that He regards their (our) sin as worse than that of unbelievers – a point certainly not foreign to Paul’s argument nearby!

Those who try to argue that only Christians as Christians are ‘worth’ anything to God, anyone else being worthless until they become Christians, aren’t only stuck trying to explain why God would punish worthy Christians (even into the outer darkness of the fire prepared for the devil and his angels, where the weeping is and the gnashing of the teeth). The whole idea of trying to regard people, rational creatures (whether human or otherwise!) as worthless to God, runs directly against the principle that to despise other persons even those punished by God for despising other persons, is to put ourselves under God’s condemnation – not because we are worthless, but because we have insisted on regarding those as worthless for whose sake the Son gives His own life even unto death, being reckoned with sinners.

And that’s the same as despising the sacrifice of Christ, regarding that as worthless.

As always, members are invited to discuss interpretations of these verses below, and to link to discussions either here on the forum or elsewhere.

If you find my compilations helpful, feel free to tip me $5 here at Amazon, near or at the top of the list. You can tip me for multiple articles of course. (I get $2.50 of each single $5 tip.)

And now for my metaphysical objection to the idea that God regards any rational creature as being simply worthless.

To recap my agreement (as far as it goes) with people who take this line, since they’re probably trying to affirm and protect these ideas, too: in the sense that no creature can have worth apart from the worth God gives the creature, that’s true, I entirely agree with that.

And in the sense that God does not seek salvation of sinners in order to cooperate with the valuation of sinners by some moral authority higher than God, that’s also true, and I entirely agree with that, too.

What I disagree with is the idea that God only regards sinners as worthless, or when they’re outside faith in Christ anyway. My theological problem with that notion, is that it involves a schism in the evaluation of God.

Does the Son regard sinners as worth saving and must convince the Father otherwise? Paul says throughout Romans (especially chapter 5) that the Son acts always in agreement with the Father, including in saving sinners; and at best this idea simply contradicts trinitarian theism, so no trinitarian Christian ought to hold it.

Do the Father and the Son (and the Spirit), the Persons of the one and only God Most High, all agree that sinners are utterly of no value to them, but then agree to change their minds about that by making sinners of value? – and do they do this before or after acting to save the sinners from sin?! Either way, even a non-trinitarian theist (alt-Christian or otherwise) ought to pause before the idea of the ground of all reality fundamentally changing His own mind and attitude on a topic like that; though at least this notion avoids such a schism between the Persons themselves.

In any case, God creates what is good, even if created persons then abuse their God-given capabilities; and so long as anything exists, God actively keeps it in existence; so at least to that extent God actively values what exists: God would not create and sustain, even temporarily, what God regarded (before or after creation) as utterly worthless to Himself. And God’s own self-existence as the ground of all reality, if trinitarian theism is true, quite literally involves all three Persons of God actively valuing other Persons! Just as we would be acting against God in principle, and so sinning, to disavow the value of persons created by God, so God would be acting against His own active principle of self-existence to not-value any created persons whom He creates and gives a spirit in His own image. God even actively keeps sinning persons in existence, despite them acting against their ground of self-existence, and so to at least that extent actively values even sinners as persons.

Even annihilationists cannot consistently deny this, since no annihilationist thinks God instantly annihilates all or any persons acting against their ground of existence (sinning against God): at least some sinners continue to exist by God’s grace, and the greatest sinner has by God’s active grace kept on existing (and abusing God’s grace) for a very long time!