Image of a man sitting in prison cell.

“Are Human’s Worth Saving?” – Failing to Distinguish Human Value and Merit.

I copied the above image from a Facebook post someone put up in a reformed group. People responded to it with various answers. Most said “No” “Nope” “Not at all…”

Here is my response:

The original post seems to conflate two different issues: worth vs merit.
(a) Is there any good reason to save humans? Value/Worth(b) Do we DESERVE saving? Merit/Desert
Human worth versus human merit are two very different things. Furthermore it is just like humanity to reverse these, and treat humans have having no worth, and yet too much merit.

God’s salvation is unmerited favor. We don’t deserve salvation. However, this does not imply that humanity has no intrinsic worth and thus not worth saving. Worth should, therefore, be distinguished from merit. I realize that there is a deep legacy in evangelical preaching to say that humans are “worthless sinners.” I think this is just to confuse two different concepts.

When God created humanity, his purpose for humanity was not to solely have something that was sinless; in other words humanity’s worth was not bound up solely in its lack of sin…. such that when humanity fell… she lost all her worth. Human worth goes beyond merely being sinless or holy. God created humanity as image bearers… to be his vice regents on earth, bear his image, represent him, worship him, enjoy him. Humans have worth because they were created in God’s image. Humans have dignity, purpose, agency, potential to worship and appreciate God, give him glory, enter into relationship with him, etc…. In other words, what is worth saving are things that God himself invested in his creation.
When we look in Genesis 9 and James 3 we see that humans still—post Fall—bear the image of God, and are to be treated as valuable/worth-ful. This is, in fact, a command from God. Humans are the one’s who risk treating each other has lacking worth.

Therefore, YES… there are reasons to save humans. NO humanity does not merit/deserve salvation by their own works. YES God’s willingness to save us—despite our lack of merit—shows his mercy.
What happens when we get these mixed up? If we don’t detach merit from worth, we wind up speaking as those created in the image of God are not worth anything until they trust Christ as savior and their sin is dealt with. I don’t know that this squares with the doctrine of Creation or theological anthropology.

Does this worth/merit distinction not rob God of sovereignty and glory? I don’t think so. This is because our worth ALSO comes originally from God. That we have worth is a result of grace. That he saves us is a result of mercy. Grace in creation and grace in new creation are all from HIM… mercy in salvation is likewise all from him.

2 thoughts on ““Are Human’s Worth Saving?” – Failing to Distinguish Human Value and Merit.”

  1. But what is it that separates our value from our utility? The worthless servant in the parable of the talents was thrown out to be eaten alive by the dogs. Even non-“utilitarian” things like pictures and paint are useful to please the eye. God has expressed regret for ever having made us at all.
    After all, Sola Dei Gloria ultimately means that everything God does is for him, not us.
    How do we know that our utility (that is, potential and future merit) isn’t the only thing God loves us for? Aren’t we just tools to glorify him by either serving him or serving his sense of justice by being subjected to infinite suffering?

  2. I think you make a fair point that merit and utility can be connected, just as utility and value are very much connected. However, they are not equal; they come apart depending on who the utility/merit/value are RELATIVE to. We can’t take utility-merit-value relative to persons and project this on God – because of God’s unique nature. I’ll say more about that below. However, even in human contexts value-merit/utility can be peeled apart.

    A baby merits nothing (does little in a utilitarian sense) but has immense value to parents. You can TRY to argue that somehow the baby offers parents some utility such as the future survival of their genes. I really don’t think most parents think like that, “We wish for our genetic line to be continued in the future.” Often babies are a utilitarian drain on a young couple. They cost thousands of dollars, they rob parents of sleep, they ruin parents capacity to go out with friends, they detract from work performance, they frustrate parents, they create a mess, and so on. Children are utilitarian drains of a high magnitude and yet we love them and value them incredibly. So although value and utility are bound up, they seem to come apart in this widespread instance.

    Sure, I realize in some cultures parents MAY have kids more for utilitarian value (help on the farm, a way to get welfare checks) so the above would apply less. However in my own culture it IS the case that millions of parents value children even though there is no utilitarian value. Therefore even in human contexts we have a counter example to the idea that merit-utility are always linked to value.

    In scripture God uses a parent relationship as a metaphor for himself illustrating how he committed to and CHOSE to value humans even though they were of no utility or merit. God elects Israel commits to covenant faithfulness to them but repeatedly points out constantly how unworthy and to that extent useless they are. This becomes a lesson for us to learn about God’s approach to humanity in a wider sense.

    As far as God is concerned, the ancient doctrine of divine “a seity” is important here, because here God is very different from humans. This should make us stopy before projecting a human value-merit link (common to humans) upon God. That God is “a se” (a latin term) means that God does not derive life or help from anything because God has no needs, God does not need life (he is the source of life) God literally grants existence, continuity and life to everything else; the entire universe (at least on a Christian conception of God). If God is not in NEED of anything then God is not in need of glory. God would not suffer or lack if humanity did not exist to “glorify God and enjoy him forever.” A triune God is not lonely or in need of help or social company to ward off boredom. This needs to guide our understanding of phrases like “All things were created FOR his glory or FOR him.” It seems to me that things run the other way, God created us to share his goodness with us. Creation is an act stemming from the love of God, not an act stemming from need. Certainly, as part of God’s choice to share his goodness with us, he can set up a universe were we are portrayed as providing some value to God (glory, theatre for his justice, etc…) but ultimately God stands in no need from us and his valuation of us seems more to be based on grace and goodness.

    However, the hell problem is difficult here. Some Christians do portray hell as that place where God premeditatively chooses to send some eternally as a way to demonstrate his justice. This would imply that there is value to God in torturing someone eternally. Something seems to have gone wrong here. As a result many Christians have wrestled with different ways to construe hell based so as to avoid conflicts between the above idea and other things that God tells us about himself. Many are convinced that hell is not a premeditated choice of God but in fact a
    result of human rejection of God for some reason or another. Clearly I’m not giving an Biblical-Theological exegetical case for/against hell here. I’m just pointing out that for many Christian thinkers, picture you portray is not a foregone conclusion – at all.

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