Many years ago, The London Times had a correspondent who ended many of his articles with the words, “What is wrong with the world today?” Finally, in response, G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936), the well-known Christian writer and apologist, wrote the following reply to the paper, “Dear Editor, What’s wrong with the world? I am. Faithfully Yours, G. K. Chesterton.” In those few words Chesterton beautifully summed up the Bible’s teaching concerning the central problem of the world. It’s people! More specifically, it’s what lies within us—our inner being or person. As the great theologian Pogo said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but I’m not okay and neither are you. In short, we’re the problem in the world today. We’re our own worst enemy. As sinful as Satan is, our sin problem is so severe and all-encompassing that we’re in deep trouble all on our own. There’s no need to claim, “The Devil made me do it!” We sin quite well without him or anyone else tempting us to sin (cf. Jas 1:14). We’re disgustingly sinful in our own selves. In Romans 3:9-20, we’re faced squarely with the reality of our sin against God and other people. This text is a fitting climax to the entire section (1:18-3:20) and functions like a great baseball relief pitcher. In the eight or ninth inning, “the closer” comes in to replace whoever is pitching and promptly attempts to “put the game away” for his team. Well, Paul closes his argument here with the same kind of determination and authority. This text is the clincher, the closer, in this section of Romans. This passage, like no other, will tell us the truth about humankind. The bottom line is: I’m not okay, you’re not okay. Paul reveals three penetrating truths about humanity.
- We Are Universally Sinful (3:9)
Paul begins with a formal legal charge: All are under sin. He writes, “What then? Are we better than they? Not at all; for we have already charged that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin.” In light of Paul’s previous remarks about the Jews (2:1-3:8), an objector asks whether he and his fellow Jews are better than Gentiles. Paul has affirmed that the Jew has certain “advantages” (3:2; cf. 9:4-5) that permit spiritual growth. However, here, Paul reiterates that there’s no difference between Jews and Gentiles—“all are under sin.” No one is exempt from judgment, not even God’s chosen people. Paul repeats his reason for this conclusion with the phrase, “we have already charged.” This is the ongoing message he has been giving, beginning with 1:18 and continuing up to this point (i.e., that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin).
It’s worth noting that the preposition “under” (hupo) is a military term that means to be under the authority of someone or something else. It was used for soldiers who were under the authority of a commanding officer. In this context, it means that the human race is dominated by sin. We’re under its power. The phrase “under sin” implies that we were born sinful and then began willfully committing sin as early as three to six months! A nursing infant who is told not to bite his mother may look her in the eye and bite even harder. A crawling infant may be told by his father to stop, and she may smile and crawl all the faster away from him. We’re sinful and we’re “under” sin’s power at a very young age.
Furthermore, the phrase “under sin” goes beyond “original sin” and our propensity to commit certain sins. Our problem is that we are enslaved to sin. In other words, we were born in sin, intentionally sinned as quickly as possible, and have exhibited sin during the course of our lives. Again, we’re under sin’s power. It will do no good to claim goodness. We are not good; only God is good (cf. Mark 10:18). As an ancient Chinese proverb observed, “There are two good men—one is dead and the other is not yet born.” Paul’s point is simple: I’m not okay, you’re not okay. On the contrary, we are universally sinful. Thus, if you and I want to overcome the junk in our lives, we must own our sin and recognize that God has provided a solution to our sin problem.
[Not only are we universally sinful, Paul will now demonstrate a second truth about us.]
- We Are Totally Depraved (3:10-18)
In these nine verses, Paul indicts all people as totally depraved. Total depravity means that there’s no spiritual good in humankind that is able to commend us to God. Many people have trouble with this concept. While not denying they are sinners, many people feel that their sin isn’t bad enough to condemn them. What they don’t understand is that any sin is wholly unacceptable to God. In this section it’s as if Paul says, “Are you still not convinced? Let me show you further proof from the Old Testament.” He uses a technique called “pearl stringing,” where he quotes verse after verse to prove his point. Interestingly, Paul carefully chooses a slew of Old Testament verses directly attributed to God. So the expert witness that Paul calls to the stand—God Himself. In 3:10-18, Paul reveals three categories of sin that demonstrate our depravity.
The first category is: Our character is depraved. In 3:10-12 Paul states: “as it is written, ‘There is none righteous, not even one; there is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God; all have turned aside, together they have become useless; there is none who does good, there is not even one.’” Paul uses words like “none,” “all,” and “not even one” no fewer than seven times in the first three verses in order to make his point. Paul summarizes the fate of humanity by stating that “there is none righteous, not even one” (3:10). Verse 10 is a summary statement and the following verses flesh this truth out more fully. Verses 11-12 indicate that our whole inner being is controlled by sin.
(1) Our mind is depraved (“none who understands”). We don’t spend our time trying to understand God’s thoughts or His ways. We’re more interested in football, our favorite TV show, going to a concert, shopping, or hanging out with friends. We wouldn’t choose to spend considerable time attempting to understand God’s purposes or His program. We don’t go away on personal retreats to understand God.
(2) Our heart is depraved (“none who seeks for God”). If left to our own devices, we would never seek God. While it may appear that there are some who are actually seeking hard after God people are actually running from God. No sinner seeks God; rather, God seeks sinners. If anyone seeks God, it’s only because the Holy Spirit is working in his or her heart.
(3) Our will is depraved (“none who does good”). Consequently, we don’t do good works that honor God. Rather, our works are “filthy rags” (Isa 64:6) before God. Perhaps you’re thinking about a neighbor, a coworker, or a classmate that does seemingly wonderful deeds. I would affirm that this is prevalent from a human perspective. These “good works” are beneficial to your neighborhood, your workplace, and your school. However, from a divine perspective, these works fall short of God’s standard because they haven’t been carried out by the power of the Holy Spirit. Our mind, heart, and will are totally depraved. We’re sinful to the core.
Paul even goes so far as to state that together we have all become “useless.” Ouch! The word translated “useless” (achreioo) means “to corrupt” or “to turn sour” as milk. (Take out a gallon jug with sour milk and invite class members to smell it. Explain that this type of stench is similar to the stench of our sin.) Since the Bible speaks figuratively about God’s nostrils, there’s some precedent to say that the stench of our sin stinks to high heaven and reaches God’s nostrils. Our sin is repulsive and repugnant to Him. Indeed, I’m not okay, you’re not okay.
In 3:13-14, Paul shares another category: Our conversation is depraved. We betray our character by our speech. The heart blazes the way, and the mouth follows. In these two verses it’s as though humanity is given an annual physical exam. As you know when you go to the doctor for some unknown ailment he generally wants to look into your mouth. He puts one of those overgrown Popsicle sticks on your tongue and says, “Say ahhh!” Well, here God looks into the mouth of the sinner, and when we say, “Ahhh,” God says, ‘Yuk!’ Paul writes in 3:13a: “Their throat is an open grave.”
During biblical times embalming wasn’t practiced like it is today. So it goes without saying that an open grave must have reeked! In the same way, Paul is saying that the stench of man’s throat is like a rotting corpse. Interestingly, the phrase “open grave” literally means a yawning grave. I guess that means we should be careful when we yawn so that people don’t see down our throats into our decaying hearts.
In 3:13b-14 Paul goes on to say: “with their tongues they keep deceiving, the poison of asps is under their lips; whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness.” Our tongues are a constant source of deception. Notice the present tense: “they keep on deceiving” (3:13b). Our conversation is so totally depraved that our native language is deception. Paul states that the poison of asps is under our lips. The asp was probably the Egyptian cobra. Under its lips was a sac full of venom. When this snake was provoked pressure was placed on the poison sac, and the venom would surge through the fangs that devoured its victim. One can scarcely think of a more graphic way in which to express the pain and suffering caused by vindictive and unjust words.
How many times have you assassinated someone’s character or reputation?
How many times have you cut someone else down in order to build yourself up? How many times have you cursed or even used the Lord’s name in vain? Gulp. How many times have you expressed bitterness in your speech (3:14)?
We are all guilty.
Even as believers who’ve been given a new nature from God, we still struggle with our conversation, don’t we? I know I do. It’s easy to speak words of deception and bitterness. It’s easy to be critical. All of us are guilty of slander and gossip in some way, shape, or form. James put it well: The tongue is a “restless evil and full of deadly poison” (Jas 3:8b). Our worst enemy is our mouth! This is what makes Jesus’ words in Matt 12:36 so terrifying: “But I tell you that every careless word that people speak, they shall give an accounting for it in the Day of Judgment.” I know when I stand before Jesus Christ, I will have two give an account for my speech. I’m not looking forward to this accounting one bit. It will be a sobering day indeed when I fully come to grips with how I have dishonored God in my conversation. I’m not okay, you’re not okay. I’m totally depraved.
The third and final category of our depravity is found in 3:15-18: Our conduct is depraved. What the mouth utters, the feet usually carry out. Paul writes, “Their feet are swift to shed blood, destruction and misery are in their paths, and the path of peace they have not known” (3:15-17). These verses describe America to a tee. Life is so cheap in our country today, particularly in the major cities. People kill one another over a set of car keys or a verbal insult or even a sinister look.
Today, there is at least one murder every twenty minutes. Furthermore, every year upwards of 50,000 people die as the direct result of someone else’s abuse of alcohol. And all that pales into insignificance when compared to the 1.2 million babies murdered every year under “freedom of choice” laws related to abortion. And if you’re innocent so far, do you still claim innocence when confronted with Jesus’ claim that murder is committed when one hates another person (Matt 5:21-22)?
Rom 3:17 would be an appropriate slogan for the United Nations: “The path of peace have they not known.” Indeed, we’re a warring people who constantly seek evil. Back in 1968, Will Durant wrote a book entitled, Lessons from History. In this book Durant wrote, “In the past 3,421 years of recorded history, only 268 have seen no war.” The search for peace goes on unabated because we don’t know the way of peace. Tragically, we’ve failed to recognize that there will be no peace until we acknowledge our sin and trust in the Prince of Peace.
What is the cause of all this violent and sinful behavior? The answer is found in 3:18: “There is no fear of God before their eyes.” As individuals and as a country, we have failed to fear God. Prov 1:7 states, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge,” yet we have opted for foolishness instead of wisdom. God is left out of our conversations, decisions, and life. He’s ignored. When God is ignored, the consequences of Rom 1 are set into motion: He gives us over (1:24, 26, 28). This leads to the problems that are facing our country and our world today. Once again, we are the problem. We need to point the finger at ourselves. I’m not okay, you’re not okay.
[Paul has indisputably argued that we are universally sinful and totally depraved. Now he decrees a final truth about us.]
- We Are Helplessly Lost (3:19-20)
Paul concludes this passage with a verdict: GUILTY! These two verses also summarize the entire section (1:18-3:20). Paul writes, “Now we know that whatever the Law says, it speaks to those who are under the Law so that every mouth may be closed, and all the world may become accountable to God because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin” (3:19-20). The phrase, “Now we know that” indicates that what follows has already been established as fact. The Law has a message to those under the Law (i.e., Jews), which declares that the whole world is held accountable to God. Implied here is the responsibility of Jews to relay information from the Law to the world largely via their obedience. The Jews are to be an example to the world of how to carry out the standards of the Law.
The Jewish people of Paul’s day didn’t understand that they were condemned under the Law. They knew that they sinned, but they thought they had diplomatic immunity from God’s judgment because they were Jewish. The phrase “whatever the Law says,” refers back to the Old Testament passages that Paul quoted in 3:10-18. The word translated “closed” (phrasso) is literally translated “shut up,” that every mouth may be shut up! The Law brings us up short with God every time. So much so, that when we stand before Him, we’ll be silenced! This verb evokes the image of a defendant in court, who, when given the opportunity to speak in his own defense, remains silent, overwhelmed by the weight of the evidence against him.
Your brain is more incredible than the most vast computer system in the world. Every experience we have and every word we speak is recorded in our brains. Concerning the judgment day I think that in the last day God is going to take our brain out of our head, put it on a table there in his court room, plug in a recorder, and punch rewind. We are going to have to sit there and listen to our brain replay everything we’ve ever done, said, and thought. The prosecuting attorney doesn’t have to say a word. Indeed, when we receive a glorified mind and body and we stand before Christ, we will be shut up.
In 3:20, Paul explains that the Law was given for condemnation, not justification (i.e., “to declare not guilty,” see 3:24). The Jews had distorted the purpose of the Law. It was never intended to commend a man before God, but to condemn him. Like the blood-alcohol test is designed to prove men are drunk, so the Law is designed to prove men are sinners, under the wrath of God. The Law provided a standard of righteousness, not that men could ever attain such human righteousness, but to demonstrate they’re incapable of doing so and must find a source of righteousness outside themselves. That’s the point of all the sacrifices of the Old Testament. When the Law revealed man’s sin, God provided a way of sacrifice so that a man wouldn’t need to bear the condemnation of God. The Law was never given to save us, but to show us that we need a Savior.
The Law has been likened to a mirror. The purpose of a mirror is to reveal what is wrong with my face (e.g., gunk in the eyes, food in the teeth, messy hair, blemishes, etc.) As I carry on the activities of my day, I may somehow get dirt on my face and not even realize it. A mirror serves a wonderful purpose of showing me that I have a dirty face. It shows me that I have a problem. But the mirror cannot wash away the dirt! It makes a very poor washcloth. Likewise, God’s Law can show me that I am a guilty sinner (incapable of keeping God’s holy commandments), but it can never save me. It can only condemn me and show me that I need a Savior.
It is tempting to conclude my lesson on this negative note. However, you would be left with a sense of hopelessness and despair. While this may be Paul’s aim in 1:18-3:20, it is not the end of the story. Hence, I think it’s fitting for me to whet your appetite for the next section in Romans. In 3:21, Paul opens with the conjunction “but” (de). This three letter word that we often overlook may be the most important word in the Bible. The word “but” informs us that sin does not win the day. In a similar passage, Paul exclaims: “But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us…” (Eph 2:4). He utters these words after laying out total depravity (2:1-3). In both of these texts, the word “but” reminds us that God’s grace is greater than all our sin! Now that’s good news.
Like Paul, I have attempted to level you under the weight of your sin. I want you to feel the full brunt of your depravity. I desire for you to sense that you are hopelessly lost. If you’ve arrived at the end of yourself, there will be nowhere to turn but to Jesus Christ. Today, Jesus offers you His righteousness in exchange for your unrighteousness. If you will simply bring your sin to Jesus, He will offer you His perfection. Two thousand years ago, Jesus Christ died on the cross for your sin and the sin of the entire world. He rose from the dead to demonstrate that He is God. He simply asks you to believe in His person and in His work. The decision is yours. Will you be pardoned or punished? I urge you: Believe in Jesus Christ as your Savior and cross over from death to life (John 5:24).