What then? Are we better than they? Not at all; for we have already charged that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin; 10 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. 13 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; 15 THEIR FEET ARE SWIFT TO SHED BLOOD, 16 DESTRUCTION AND MISERY ARE IN THEIR PATHS, 17 AND THE PATH OF PEACE THEY HAVE NOT KNOWN. 18 THERE IS NO FEAR OF GOD BEFORE THEIR EYES."
All Are "Under Sin"
We are coming to the end of this great indictment of the human race that began back in Romans 1:18. The whole section of the letter up through this text is to show that all people everywhere are under the power of sin, and cannot get right with God apart from the gift of righteousness that God gives through faith in Jesus Christ (Romans 1:16-17). We see it here in the summary statement of Romans 3:9b, "We have already charged that both Jews and Greeks are under sin." "Jews and Greeks" means "everybody" -because "Greeks" stood for what many people considered the best of the non-Jews. All of them - all people - are "under sin." Under the power of sin. Not just sinning occasionally, but enslaved to sin.
This is one of the weightiest truths that Christianity must hold up in the modern world. In 1 Timothy 3:15, Paul calls the church of the living God "the pillar and bulwark of the truth." This is one of those truths that the church must hold up like a pillar holds up a building. There are constant pressures throughout history on persons and institutions and cultures to build life around wrong ideas. God has appointed the church of his Son Jesus to be a mighty advocate for truth in the world.
One of the most important truths to hold up in the world is that all human beings, even though created in God's image (Genesis 1:27), are corrupted by the power of sin. We are not morally good by nature. We are morally bad by nature. In Ephesians 2:3, Paul says we are all "by nature children of wrath." The attitudes and thoughts and actions that deserve the wrath of God come from us by nature. In Colossians 3:6, we are called "sons of disobedience." We are so disposed to disobedience against God that it is as though "disobedience" is our father. We are chips of the old block of disobedience. We don't just do sins, we are sinful. We are "under sin," as verse 9 says. Sin is like a master or a king, and reigns over us and in us. Not that it coerces us to do what we don't want to do, but makes us want to do what we ought not to do. We are not innocent victims of sin. We are co-conspirators with sin against God.
A Deadly Diagnosis with a Remedy
This is not a popular message. Understandably. It is no more popular than the doctor's words: "Your tumor is malignant." But it is vastly more hopeful. "Your tumor is malignant," may or may not be hopeful news, because the doctor may or may not have a cure for your cancer. But "you are under the power of sin and a child of wrath" always has a cure. That is what the book of Romans and what Christianity and the Bible are all about.
I really want this message about sin and about your sinful condition and mine to be hope-giving and life-producing. Isn't there something deeply satisfying about someone who knows your flaws to the deepest level of your being - knows your worst condition - and says, "I love you, and I know a way that you can be set right with God and right with others." Isn't that much more hope-giving than someone who makes small talk and gives you little placebos to make you feel good, when deep down you know things are not good. It may sound more kind and gentle and loving than hearing that you are a sinner and sick unto death, but it is a deadly kindness - the kindness of a doctor who will not tell you the truth about your cancer in its curable stage, because he doesn't want you to be discouraged or scared.
So as we look at Paul's final, summary diagnosis in this section, keep thinking: this is good, this is good. Because for all this bad news about my true condition, there is a remedy. And the only reason for telling me the bad news is so that I will understand the remedy and take it - namely, the righteousness of God, freely given to those who really trust in Christ.
There are two main questions I want to try to answer in verses 9-18. One is: How does Paul support verse 9 and the sinfulness of all men on the basis of the Old Testament in all these quotations in verses 10-18? And the other is: How does he describe the state of being "under sin" in these verses? Or: What can we learn about sin, and about ourselves, and about the Gospel from the way Paul talks about sin in these verses?
Not One Is Righteous
First, then, How does Paul support verse 9 and the sinfulness of all men from the Old Testament in all these quotations in verses 10-18? He says in verse 9 that Jews are not really any better off before God than others, "for we have already charged that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin." So you can see this is a summary statement from things he has said before: "we have already charged." This is what he has been "charging" from 1:18 to 3:8. So the case has been made, as far as he is concerned.
Nevertheless, he gives one last summary argument from the Old Testament. He begins verse 10 with "As it is written . . ." Then he quotes six different Old Testament sections to support his summary in verse 9 that all Jews and Greeks are under sin. For example, from Psalm 14:1-3 he says (in Romans 3:10-12), "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."
That seems plain enough. But here's a problem that troubles me. In that same Psalm which Paul quotes to say, "There is none righteous, not even one" it says (in Psalm 14:5), "God is with the generation of the righteous." In other words, the first verses of the Psalm are a description of the Gentiles who oppose the true people of God, but those who are the true people of God, David calls "the generation of the righteous" (see also verse 7). So the question is: How does this Psalm support Paul's point in verse 9 that says, "Both Jews and Greeks are all under sin"? The part of the Psalm that he quotes doesn't seem to mean everybody is unrighteous, because verse 5 calls God's people "the generation of the righteous."
I think the answer goes something like this: Paul doesn't mean that every one of the six Old Testament quotes has the whole indictment in it, but that taken all together they have the whole indictment. It seems that the first quote (in verses 10-12), for example, from Psalm 14, is mainly an indictment of the Gentile world, because later it refers to Israel as the righteous generation. In other words, without the special grace of God -without the special revelation of his saving work revealed to Israel - people are not righteous, no not one. Only when God breaks into our lives and gives the special grace of faith and forgiveness through a substitutionary sacrifice can we get right with God, and be called "righteous." Paul knew that happened for the Old Testament saints. We know he knew this, because in Romans 4:3 he quotes Genesis 15:6, "[Abraham] believed in the LORD; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness."
So when Paul quotes the Old Testament that "There is none righteous, no not one," he means that, by nature, apart from saving grace, we are unrighteous. He does not mean that there was no way to get right with God, and have a right standing with God in the Old Testament.
The Jews Also?
But the question still remains: If Psalm 14 (quoted in verses Romans 3:10-12) only, or mainly, refers to the world of the Gentiles over against God's true people, how do all these verses together in Romans 3:10-18 make clear that the Jews too are unrighteous and under sin? One answer is that verses 15-17 are a quote from Isaiah 59:7-8, which refers entirely to the Jewish people. In Isaiah 59:2, God says to Israel, "Your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God." And then Isaiah 59:7-8 is quoted here in Romans 3:15-17, "their feet are swift to shed blood, destruction and misery are in their paths, and the path of peace they have not known." This is a general statement about the Jewish people in Isaiah's day.
And all the other four Old Testament quotes probably refer to the enemies of David among his own Jewish people. But it's not clear. The point is: The message of the Old Testament is that Jewish people are sinners and Gentile people are sinners (2 Chronicles 6:36). And wherever you have someone called "righteous" in the Old Testament it is not because they were not sinners, but because God had mercifully intervened in their lives and given them the grace of faith and forgiveness to overcome their natural sinfulness and set them right with God.
I saw this most clearly in Psalm 5, which Paul quotes in Romans 3:13a, "Their throat is an open grave." This is referring to David's enemies. Yes. But what about himself? Is his throat an open grave? How does it help prove that all Jews and Gentiles are "under sin" if "their throat is an open grave" but not yours? Aren't you part of "everybody"?
The answer is that David does not mean that he is not a sinner, or that there are no redeemed and righteous people in the world. He only means that apart from God's mighty grace, we are hopelessly corrupt, including himself (see Psalm 51:5). He shows this in Psalm 5, for example, by saying in verses 7 and 8 that his own position with God is a gift of mercy, not something he has by nature. He says, "But as for me, by Your abundant lovingkindness (= hesed, mercy) I will enter Your house [O God].. . O LORD, lead me in Your righteousness because of my foes; Make Your way straight before me." So you can see David's thinking here. He has access to God's house only by mercy. Why? Because he is a sinner like others. And, if he is going to walk in any measure of righteousness, he says, God will have to "lead me and make his way straight before me." In other words, by nature, he would not go in the way of righteousness. God alone can deliver from sin and set us right with God and cause us to walk in the way of righteousness.
So that's my answer to the first question: How does Paul support the universal claim of sinfulness in verse 9 by quoting these six Old Testament passages which speak of righteous people as well as wicked people? He shows that both Jews and Gentiles are characterized as deeply corrupt and that the only way out of that corruption is by God's gracious gift of faith and forgiveness that sets a person right with God (which, we know now, is) on the basis of the substitutionary sacrifice that would one day come in Jesus Christ.
Now the other question: How does he describe the state of being "under sin" in these verses? Or: What can we learn about sin, and about ourselves, and about the Gospel from the way Paul talks about sin in these verses?
Here are three observations.
1. Ruined Relationship with God
Being "under sin" is first and foremost a ruined relation with God. Not, first, a ruined relation with other people. Verses 10-18 begin and end with this point. Verse 10-11: "There is none righteous, not even one; there is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God." And verse 18: "There is no fear of God before their eyes." Everything in between these verses has to do with the meaning of sin in human relations. But at the beginning and the end being "under sin" means that we have no fear of God and we don't understand him and we don't seek him. Verse 11: "There is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God."
Fix this firmly in your mind, sin is mainly a condition of rebellion against God, not mainly a condition of doing bad things to other people. This is why it is so sad and so pointless when people argue that they are pretty good people, and so don't need the Gospel. What they mean is that they treat other people decently: they don't steal, kill, lie much, or swear much, and they give to some charities. But that is not the main question. The main question is: Do you love God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength? Do you love his Son, Jesus Christ? God is the most important person in the universe. It is not a mark of virtue to do nice things for people while having no love or reverence or passion for God.
Sin is, first and foremost, a resistance to finding joy in God. And that resistance results in a darkened mind that then suppresses the truth and does not understand God. So the mind that is "under sin" does not seek God and does not know God and does not fear God. And it doesn't matter what we do for people; if we treat the King of the universe with such disdain, we may know that we are profoundly "under sin."
2. Ruined Relationships with People
Being "under sin" means that our relations with people are ruined, even though God's common grace may restrain us from treating people as badly as we might. In verses 13-14, Paul describes the way sin ruins our words, and in verses 13-14, he describes the way sin ruins our actions - "throat . . . tongue .. . lips . . . mouth." Verses 13-14: "Their throat is an open grave, with their tongues they keep deceiving, the poison of asps is under their lips; whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness." Graves have to do with death and venom is poison that has to do with death, and that is what deception and cursing produce: death. The mouth was meant to give life. But sin turns it into a place of poison and death. O, may this diagnosis of our lives "under sin" make us want to be saved! O, may we long for redeemed tongues and mouths that give life and not death!
Then, in verses 15-17, being "under sin" is not a way of speaking, but a way of acting: "Their feet are swift to shed blood, destruction and misery are in their paths, and the path of peace they have not known." This is what happens when God is not sought or known or reverenced. If God were to slacken his restraining bands in this world, it would descend into anarchy. That's why there are governments and police and armies. By nature we would take vengeance on every offense, and our feet would run to shed blood, if we were not restrained. We see it, for example, in the looting of societies where the infrastructure collapses. And we would see it here. Because this is what it means to be "under sin." Human relationships are ruined.
3. Good News for Those "Under Sin"
Finally, if this is who we really are by nature - people who are "under sin" and therefore, as Romans 1:18 says, under the wrath of God - then is it not the best news in the world that the entire point of the book of Romans and the whole Bible and of Christianity is that God, in his great mercy, has made a way of salvation from sin - the power of sin and the penalty of sin? We are just centimeters away from it. Romans 3:21-22 - "But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe."
If today you will believe in Jesus Christ, and turn from your sin, and renounce all forms of self-salvation, the very righteousness of God will be yours as a gift, and replace your unrighteousness for which Christ suffered and died on the cross. I beg you, on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. Trust him for his great salvation.