THE CONCLUSION: UNIVERSAL CORRUPTION LEAVES ALL MEN WITHOUT EXCUSE BEFORE GOD’S CONDEMNATION
The situation is worse than you think so stop trying to earn your salvation because you will never be good enough.
Frank Thielman: So far, however, Paul has demonstrated only that all social groups are under sin, taking both Jews and Greeks as representative of them all. He has not yet shown that every individual is unrighteous. He has described sin’s deep entrenchment among Jews as well as gentiles, but he has not yet shown that no one is exempt from the charge that he or she is a sinner. It might even be possible to misunderstand certain sections of the argument in 1:18 – 3:8 to mean that some people would be justified on the final day by their faithful adherence to the law’s commands (2:6–10; cf. 2:14–16, 26–27). Probably to avoid this misunderstanding, in 3:9–20 Paul both summarizes his previous argument—that Jews are as unrighteous as gentiles—and takes the argument a step further to say that no one has kept God’s requirements faithfully enough to merit justification before him on the final day.
With this concluding summary and intensification of his case in 1:18 – 3:8, Paul brings the first major part of his argument to a close. He has shown that God’s righteousness means the fair distribution of his wrath across social boundaries and, apart from the gospel briefly explained in 1:16–17, the punishment of every individual for his or her sin. This prepares the way for his detailed explanation in 3:21 – 4:25 of how God’s righteousness also means his saving power, distributed equally across social boundaries and to every individual on the basis of his or her faith. . .
Romans 3:9–20 can be divided into three sections.
- The first section introduces Paul’s main point that no social group can claim any special privilege on the day of judgment because all are under sin (3:9).
- The second section proves this from Scripture, but takes the point even further by stating that no individual is free from the power of sin (3:10–12) and that sin pervades the existence of every individual (3:13–18). Sin wells up from within (3:13a), affecting one’s speech (3:13b–14) and the direction of one’s life (3:15–18).
- The third section draws the inevitable conclusion from the Scripture quotations in 3:10–18—it is not possible to be declared just on the day of judgment by means of living morally, not even for a Jew who possesses the Mosaic law, since that law can only show one to be a sinner (3:19–20).
Douglas Moo: Paul now draws from his extended discussion of sin and God’s wrath in 1:18 – 3:8 a conclusion and an implication from that conclusion, both of which are foundational to his argument in the letter as a whole. The conclusion comes in verse 9: All people, including both Jews and Gentiles, are “under sin.” Paul states the implication at the end of the passage: “No one will be declared righteous in his [God’s] sight by observing the law.” Supporting the conclusion of verse 9 is a series of Old Testament quotations—the longest such series in the New Testament (vv. 10–18).
I. (:9) EVERYONE (BOTH JEW AND GENTILE AND BELIEVER) IS IN THE SAME BOAT = “UNDER SIN” (AND THE BOAT IS DEFINITELY SINKING)
“What then? Are we better than they?
Not at all; for we have already charged that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin;”
John MacArthur: Now immediately you’re faced with one question. What is it? Who is the “we“? Of whom is he speaking? Many commentators feel he’s speaking about the Jews. I tend to think not because he has just finished their section. And he has just answered the questions the Jews would ask in verses 1 through 8. He has already showed the Jews that they do have an advantage over the Gentiles in having the law of God. So why would he ask the same question again? Why would he be saying are we Jews any better, when he has just answered in verse 1 what advantage then has a Jew? And he’s just shown that the Jew is really no better off even though he has the law of God. He’s under a greater condemnation if he doesn’t believe. Whether you’re an immoral man, or a moral man or a religious Jew, you’re under the same condemnation. They’re all sinners. One is no better than the other. One may have the law of God written, one may have the law of God in conscience, but when it comes to guilt before God, they’re all the same and they all need salvation.
I would also add that never in the rest of the epistle to the Romans does Paul identify himself with the Jew with a rhetorical “we.” Why would he do that here? I think the “we” here is the “we” that gathers up the only remaining people that he hasn’t discussed and that would be himself and the Romans to whom he writes, which would be representative of the believers. And he’s simply asking this question: Are we any better than these people? Are we any better than the immoral pagan, the moral religious man, and the religious Jew, who are condemned before God? Are we some kind of elite who are intrinsically better than everybody else? I think this fits with verse 8 where you have a “we,” as “we are slanderously reported and as some affirmed that we say.” And there the “we” definitely refers to Paul and his companions in ministry. And so the question is very simple. Are we believers — now mark this very carefully — by nature? Are we who are Christians, by nature in ourselves any better than the rest of the condemned world? What’s the answer? No. And that’s what he says: No, in no way.
R. Kent Hughes: The force of the language here leaves no doubt about what is meant. The word is “sin”—not “sins”—and means “the dynamic of sin,” and “under” means “under the power or dominion of.” Everyone in the world is under the power of the dynamic of sin!
Douglas Moo: The problem with people is not just that they commit sins; their problem is that they are enslaved to sin.
Morris: He is regarding sin as a tyrant ruler, so that sinners are ‘under’ it (Jerusalem Bible, ‘under sin’s dominion’); they cannot break free.
II. (:10-18) HOW BAD IS IT? DESCRIPTION OF UNIVERSAL CORRUPTION
R. Kent Hughes: Paul substantiates his charge by stringing a series of Old Testament texts together. This is called a charaz, which literally means “stringing pearls.” He quotes six Old Testament sources in fourteen sweeping statements with devastating artistry.
David Guzik: These quotations from the Psalms (Psalms 14:1-3; 5:9, 140:3, 10:7 and 36:1) and from Isaiah 59:7-8 all support this opening statement.
A. (:10-12) Corrupt in Nature
“as it is written, ‘There is none righteous, not even one;
11 There is none who understands,
There is none who seeks for God;
12 All have turned aside, together they have become useless;
There is none who does good, There is not even one.’”
Thomas Schreiner: Verses 10–12 hammer home the universality of sin five times with “there is no one” (οὐκ ἔστιν). The one line that lacks οὐκ ἔστιν contains “all” (πάντες), stressing again the pervasiveness of sin. The universal dimensions of the indictment are underlined in verses 10 and 12 with the words οὐδὲ εἷς (there is not even one), and ἕως ἑνός (not even one), respectively. The all-encompassing reality of sin could hardly be put in stronger terms.
R. Kent Hughes: “‘. . . no one seeks for God’” (v. 11). That is, no one by nature wants to know God. This is a verse that many Christians simply do not believe. Often we speak of someone we know who is “really seeking after God.” That just is not so! The word translated “seek” means “to seek out,” implying a determined search. Mankind does not search for God or the truth. Rather, he suppresses it and ﬁnally turns to idolatry (1:18–23). There is one exception: if the Holy Spirit is truly working in one’s heart, there is an authentic seeking.
“‘All have turned aside; together they have become worthless.’” This describes the logical outcome of the preceding statements. Because no one has stayed on the path to God, they have become useless. They cannot fulﬁll their purpose as creatures made in the image of God. They are like ﬁsh that cannot swim or birds that cannot ﬂy.
David Guzik: The word unprofitable has the idea of rotten fruit. It speaks of something that was permanently bad and therefore useless.
Steven Cole: Paul hammers the lid with so many nails that you cannot pry it open: none righteous; not even one; none who understands, 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 does not let anyone slip under the radar! We all have sinned.
John MacArthur: Not only is he bad but he is hopelessly stupid. When it comes to divine truth, men have a natural, innate inability to understand the things of God. In fact, we learned back in chapter 1, didn’t we, that even in man’s history, when he knows God, verse 21, and that’s a very limited knowledge, when he knows there is a God and that God is powerful and supernatural, as we saw in verse 20, even when he knows that he refuses to glorify Him as God, is not thankful and immediately becomes empty in his thinking and his foolish heart is (What?) darkened. And what that is saying is that you can look at it two ways. You can look at it historically or you can look at it individually. Historically, originally man was given the knowledge of God and man by an act of his will turned out the lights. Individually, I believe people come into this world born with a sense of God in their conscience, with a sense of God visible through creation, and if they reject that then the last little flicker of God’s revelation that exists even in conscience and creation is gone and the lights go out. But men in the midst of that stand up and announce that they’re wise. Remember that? Which is the ultimate stupidity; as a blind man who goes around telling everyone that he can see when everyone knows he can’t see at all. It’s like the emperor’s new suit, remember? Everybody knew he was stark naked but him. Darkened. Man is in blackness, he does not know the truth. He is blind.
B. (:13-14) Corrupt in Speech
“Their throat is an open grave,
With their tongues they keep deceiving,
The poison of asps is under their lips;
14 Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness;”
Frank Thielman: It is perhaps not accidental that Paul takes up so much space describing verbal sins in this part of his argument. He speaks of the throat, the tongue, the lips, and the mouth and how people often use them to wish harm on others and actually to do them harm (3:13–14). If we think about our own speech over the past day or week, it is likely that we will be less optimistic about our own basic decency and fairness. The image of the throat as an open grave implies that the harmful words we often use against others arise from hearts with a tendency toward sinfulness. “How can you speak good,” Jesus asked his opponents, “when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matt 12:34).
Thomas Schreiner: The universal dimension of sin is nowhere more evident than in human speech (cf. James 3:1–12). In Rom. 3:13–14 Paul employs colorful images from the OT to portray the destructive character of the tongue. The clause “their throat is an open grave” (τάφος ἀνεῳγμένος ὁ λάρυγξ αὐτῶν, taphos aneōgmenos ho larynx autōn, v. 13) denotes either the inner corruption from which hurtful speech flows or the deadly effects of speech (Cranfield 1975: 193). The words “they deceive” (ἐδολιοῦσαν, edoliousan) concentrate on the falseness and flattery that permeate much of human speech. Even kind words may hide insidious purposes. We may flatter and praise others to advance ourselves. The destructive nature of communication is highlighted in “poison of snakes” (ἰὸς ἀσπίδων, ios aspidōn). Our speech toward others is deadly, cruel, and demonic. That the sins of the tongue are not occasional is conveyed in verse 14. Their mouths are “full” (γέμει, gemei) of cursing (ἀρᾶς, aras) and bitterness (πικρίας, pikrias). Resentment, malice, and words that cut down others are typical of human conversation.
C. (:15-17) Corrupt in Conduct
“Their feet are swift to shed blood,
16 Destruction and misery are in their paths,
17 And the path of peace have they not known.”
Thomas Constable: A sixth quotation, from Isaiah 59:7-8 (cf. Prov. 1:16), appears in verses 15-17.
This passage is one of the most forceful in Scripture that deals with the total depravity of man. Total depravity does not mean that every person is as bad as he or she could be. It means that sin has affected every part of his or her being, and consequently there is nothing anyone can do to commend himself or herself to a holy God.
“Depravity means that man fails the test of pleasing God. He [sic It] denotes his unmeritoriousness in God’s sight. This failure is total in that
- (a) it affects all aspects of man’s being, and
- (b) it affects all people.” [Charles Ryrie]
D. (:18) Fundamental Problem = No Fear of God
“There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
Mickelsen: This collection of OT quotations illustrates the various forms of sin, the undesirable characteristics of sinners, the effect of their action, and their attitude toward God. This is the same picture that Paul himself has been painting.
John Calvin: In short, as it [the fear of God] is a bridle to restrain our wickedness, so when it is wanting, we feel at liberty to indulge every kind of licentiousness.
Thomas Schreiner: The purpose of life is to fear and reverence God so that he is esteemed as holy and majestic and mighty. Sin at its heart decenters God; it degods God; it rejects his rule over our lives. The ferocity and brutality of human sin as described in verses 13–17 might cause one to understand it primarily in sociological terms. Thus Paul reminds the reader that the root and basis of all sin is the failure to fear and reverence God. Sin is fundamentally theological in nature, but it has terrible social consequences. The barbarity of human beings to one another is ultimately explicable by a rejection of God and the failure to fear and honor him. . .
The OT texts that distinguished between the righteous and wicked are now applied to Jews who believed they were righteous, to prosecute the theme that all are guilty before God. By abolishing the distinction between the righteous and the wicked, Paul overturns the Jewish concept of covenant protection. The sin of the Jews places them in the same situation as the gentiles: guilty before God. The indictment of “all” as sinners is confirmed by the remarkable emphasis on universality noted earlier. Saying that “all” are under sin, both Jews and gentiles (v. 9), and excluding everyone from being righteous in such emphatic terms indicates that Paul speaks universally. Indeed, we shall see that the all-pervasiveness of sin continues to be prominent in verses 19–20. Thus we can be assured that Paul intends to say that all, without exception, including the so-called righteous, are sinners and guilty before God.
III. (:19-20) THE LAW CAN NEVER SAVE – IT ONLY CONVICTS MEN AND LEAVES THEM WITHOUT EXCUSE BEFORE GOD’S CONDEMNATIO
A. (:19) How is the Knowledge of the Law an Aid to Salvation?
- Gets People’s Attention
“Now we know that whatever the Law says,
it speaks to those who are under the Law,”
- Eliminates All Excuses
“that every mouth may be closed,
and all the world may become accountable to God;”
Frank Thielman: A day will come when all the world, Jews as well as gentiles, will give account to God for their evil and unjust actions. On that day no one will be able to defend themselves as innocent, and on that day God will bring injustice to an end.
B. (:20) How Is the Limitation of the Law Actually an Aid to Salvation?
- Human Attempts to Keep God’s Righteous Standards Cannot Justify
“because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight;”
Michael Bird: I prefer to describe the “works of the law” as referring to the Jewish way of life as codified in the Torah.
- God’s Righteous Standards Increase Awareness of Sin and Create Sense of Need
“for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin.”
Douglas Moo: Having told us what the law cannot do—bring one into relationship with God—Paul concludes by telling us what the law does accomplish: Through it “we become conscious of sin.” “Become conscious” in the NIV translates the Greek noun epignosis, “knowledge.” But since “knowledge” in the Bible often refers to intimate acquaintance or understanding, the NIV rendering is on target here. By setting before people a detailed record of God’s will, the law makes people vividly aware of how short of God’s requirements they fall. It therefore brings awareness of sinfulness.
David Guzik: J.B. Phillip’s paraphrase of this phrase is striking. He writes, “it is the straight-edge of the Law that shows us how crooked we are.”