Paul's Epistle to the Romans

 (12) The Need of the Whole World.
Romans 3:9–20

Paul has shown that the heathen are lost, because even though they had the witness of both nature and conscience, they suppressed the truth God gave to them. He has shown also that the moral man is lost, because even though he put on an outward show of piousness in order to judge the heathen, inwardly he was guilty of the same sins. Likewise the Jew is lost because he has not kept the law, and his circumcision, ancestry, or arguments can not save him from being condemned for being disobedient. Now Paul wraps up his argument and the summation assumes the terminology of the courtroom. He begins by making a charge against the whole world.

9 What then? Are we better than they? Not at all. For we have previously charged both Jews and Greeks that they are all under sin.

The first step in a judicial procedure is to make an accusation or charge against the offender.  Paul does this when he says they are all under sin. Paul has charged the entire world with being inherently sinful. If the evidence is sufficient and the charge can be proved, the whole world will be judged guilty before God. Notice he does not say “all have sinned” but that all are under sin. This means they are all under the penalty as well as the power of sin. What the apostle has in mind here is a very definite contrast between being “under sin” and being “under grace.” Romans 6:14–15 speaks of being “under grace” with our sins pardoned and ourselves justified. “For sin shall not have dominion over you, for you are not under law but under grace. What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? Certainly not!”

Are we better than they? Essentially, the question is this: “Do the Jews have an excuse? Is there any escape from the final verdict of the universal guilt of all men?” The Jews enjoyed certain privileges as the elect nation of God, but these privileges did not include preferential treatment. To give evidence that the Jews have no preferred position, Paul stated that he had previously accused both Jews and Gentiles of being under sin, that is, they stand under sin’s power, control, and condemnation that results from it.

Not at all. Paul’s answer is Not at all. The Jews were certainly better off than the Gentiles, since they had the oracles of God to teach them better. But, because they were better, that only aggravated their guilt.

For we have previously charged both Jews and Greeks that they are all under sin. The answer in either case is that the Jews are no better and no worse. All are sinners. "We" probably refers to the Christians in Rome who would receive this letter. The sinner has nothing within himself to enable him to deal with sin. He is under sin, that is, under the power, rule, command, and control of sin. He needs help from without, since his own resources cannot set him free. That leads up to the next question in Paul’s presentation. He has shown that the heathen are lost, the Jews are lost, and that the self-righteous moralists, whether Jews or Gentiles, are lost. Now he turns to the question: Are all men lost?

10 As it is written: “There is none righteous, no, not one;

Next in the judicial procedure is an indictment. Webster defines indictment as “a charge; accusation; specifically, a formal written accusation charging one or more persons with the commission of a crime” (Webster’s New World Dictionary). And so, an indictment is a formal, written charge and every indictment must have at least one count, one specific charge to it. The more serious the crime, the more counts to the indictment. Paul immediately follows this indictment by quoting from a series of Old Testament passages which demonstrate, in no less than fourteen counts, the perversity and depravity of the entire world.

As it is written. This phrase is a common introduction to Old Testament questions. It is used to emphasize continuity and permanence, and implies that divine authority is behind it. It is God’s word that proves the sweeping declaration that the whole human race is doomed. Not even one single solitary individual can stand before God on his own merit and hope for God to pardon his sin and accept him into the family of heaven…not one!

There is none righteous, no, not one. This same idea is seen throughout the Old Testament and is summarized in Psalm 14:1–3. “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ They are corrupt, They have done abominable works, There is none who does good. The Lord looks down from heaven upon the children of men, To see if there are any who understand, who seek God. They have all turned aside, They have together become corrupt; There is none who does good, No, not one.”  We might paraphrase the last part of this verse as follows: “There is not a single righteous person.” Righteousness is not only the key word in this epistle; it is also the measure by which sin is judged.

11 There is none who understands; There is none who seeks after God.

There is none who understands. Here understanding is not mental but spiritual. The world is totally lacking in spiritual discernment: “Having their understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart” (Eph 4:18). The natural man may not be mentally deranged, but he is certainly spiritually deranged and incapable of spiritual understanding: “But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned” (I Cor 2:14).

There is none who seeks after God. In Psalm 53:2–3 David remarked that there is no man who naturally seeks after God, because man is sinful—“God looks down from heaven on humankind to see if there are any who are wise, who seek after God. They have all fallen away, they are all alike perverse; there is no one who does good, no, not one.”  When the sinner is drawn by God, he then seeks the Lord Jesus Christ in repentance and confession. “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him…” (Jn 6:44). There is no one who has a right understanding of God. If left to himself, fallen man would never seek God. It is only through the work of the Holy Spirit that anyone ever does. Because he naturally does not seek the Lord, man gives evidence of being guilty of unrighteousness.

12 They have all turned aside; They have together become unprofitable; There is none who does good, no, not one.”

They have all turned aside. Man has not only “missed the mark,” he has also “perverted his path.” In this quote from Psalms 14:3 and 53:4, the picture is of a camel caravan crossing the desert which has strayed from the route and cannot return to the proper path. They are doomed. They left the way they knew was right. Primitive tribes have a tradition that way back at one time their forefathers knew the living and true God. But along the way to the present day, they lost God and took up the worship of idols made to represent animals and birds. If you are honest you know that you are not doing what you ought to do. Furthermore, you are not going to do it, although you know what it is. You have turned aside. Man has lost his way by deviating from God’s prescribed route of righteousness.

They have together become unprofitable. Man is unuseful, of no benefit. Like salt that has lost its savor or fruit that hast become rotten, so all men are viewed as useless, rotten, corrupted when compared to the righteousness of Christ.

There is none who does good, no, not one. Again the written indictment comes from Psalm 14. This means that he can do nothing of spiritual or eternal value. No matter what he does, as far as righteousness is concerned, it is nothing but filthy rags (Isa 64:6). "There is not one who lives a good life, no, not one” (Ps. 14:3).

13 “Their throat is an open tomb; With their tongues they have practiced deceit”; “The poison of asps is under their lips”;

Their throat is an open tomb. Here for the first time Paul gets specific. He talks about the chief outlet through which the sinner can display his sin. He addresses the sinners’ throats, tongues, lips, and mouths. Paul shows his familiarity with the Old Testament by drawing on King David’s prayer for protection in Psalm 5.

1 Give ear to my words, O LORD, consider my meditation. 2 Hearken unto the voice of my cry, my King, and my God: for unto thee will I pray. 3 My voice shalt thou hear in the morning, O LORD; in the morning will I direct my prayer unto thee, and will look up. 4 For thou art not a God that hath pleasure in wickedness: neither shall evil dwell with thee. 5 The foolish shall not stand in thy sight: thou hatest all workers of iniquity. 6 Thou shalt destroy them that speak leasing: the LORD will abhor the bloody and deceitful man.
David prays to God for guidance

7 But as for me, I will come into thy house in the multitude of thy mercy: and in thy fear will I worship toward thy holy temple. 8 Lead me, O LORD, in thy righteousness because of mine enemies; make thy way straight before my face. 9 For there is no faithfulness in their mouth; their inward part is very wickedness; their throat is an open sepulchre; they flatter with their tongue. 10 Destroy thou them, O God; let them fall by their own counsels; cast them out in the multitude of their transgressions; for they have rebelled against thee. 11 But let all those that put their trust in thee rejoice: let them ever shout for joy, because thou defendest them: let them also that love thy name be joyful in thee. 12 For thou, LORD, wilt bless the righteous; with favour wilt thou compass him as with a shield.
--Psalms 5:1-12 (KJv)
Nothing is more offensive than the stench rising from an open tomb. The apostle graphically depicts the conversation of the wicked by likening the filth that arises from their mouths with the stench of the open tomb. As an unsealed tomb allows those who pass by to see and smell what is inside, the unregenerate person’s open throat—that is, the foul words that come from it—reveal the decay of his heart.

With their tongues they have practiced deceit. The sugared tongue, which is used to butter up the boss, is next listed by Paul as characteristic of sinful men. He accuses the world of having the Madison Avenue approach to life which makes something out of nothing and promises what cannot be performed. James talked about the tongue, and he agreed with Paul. He declared: “For we all stumble in many things. If anyone does not stumble in word, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle the whole body. Indeed, we put bits in horses’ mouths that they may obey us, and we turn their whole body. Look also at ships: although they are so large and are driven by fierce winds, they are turned by a very small rudder wherever the pilot desires. Even so the tongue is a little member and boasts great things. See how great a forest a little fire kindles! And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity. The tongue is so set among our members that it defiles the whole body, and sets on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and creature of the sea, is tamed and has been tamed by mankind. But no man can tame the tongue. It is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our God and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the similitude of God. Out of the same mouth proceed blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be so” (James 3:2-10).

The poison of asps is under their lips. This accusation reminds me of the final speech of Zophar, one of Job’s critical friends: "But suddenly the food in their bellies turns sour, a poisonous venom in their stomach. They will vomit the wealth they swallowed. God won’t let them keep it down. They will suck the poison of cobras. The viper will kill them. Job 20:14-16 (NLT) The poison of the asp was stored in a bag under the lips of the serpent. When he spoke of this deadly poison Paul probably had in mind the Egyptian cobra, naja haje, the reptile used by Pharaoh Tutankhamen as his imperial symbol. Of this evil and violent man David says, “They have sharpened their tongues like a serpent; adders’ poison is under their lips” (Ps 140:3). The natural man’s human speech is likened to this poison.

14 “Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness.”

Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness. Psalm 10:7 declares: “His mouth is full of cursing and deceit and oppression; Under his tongue is trouble and iniquity” The point is that man’s mouth, which was created to speak the truth of God and praise Him continually, has been perverted to speaking of Satan and praising him through cursing and bitterness. You do not have to teach a man to curse; it is the common expression of the bitterness within him that is rooted in personal sin. If you listen to what is being said today, you know that cursing is in the vocabulary of all men. Whether you are a ditch digger or a college professor, you will on occasion curse or think it to yourself. Some people are better at using profanity than any other language.

15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood;

Their feet are swift to shed blood. Paul now turns his attention, not to man’s words, but to his deeds. Paul is quoting from Isaiah 59:7; “Their feet run to evil, And they make haste to shed innocent blood; Their thoughts are thoughts of iniquity; Wasting and destruction are in their paths.”  The feet which were created to carry the gospel to the ends of the earth have in every era of history readily carried men violently to commit injustice and war with their fellowman {1}(Prov 1:7–19). Their feet are swift denotes the eagerness of men to shed blood—commit a crime. However, one doesn’t need to shed blood to be a murderer, for we read in 1 John 3:15: “Whoever hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.” In the eyes of the world, hatred is not a very wicked thing, but God calls it murder. A moment’s reflection will show that it is murder in embryo. The motive is there, although the act might not be committed. Thus, whoever hates his brother is a murderer. When John says that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him, he does not mean that a murderer cannot be saved. He simply means that a man who habitually hates his fellows is a potential murderer and is not saved.

{1} Prov. 1.7-19(KJV): 7 The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge: but fools despise wisdom and instruction. 8 My son, hear the instruction of thy father, and forsake not the law of thy mother: 9 For they shall be an ornament of grace unto thy head, and chains about thy neck. My son, if sinners entice thee, consent thou not. 11 If they say, Come with us, let us lay wait for blood, let us lurk privily for the innocent without cause: 12 Let us swallow them up alive as the grave; and whole, as those that go down into the pit: 13 We shall find all precious substance, we shall fill our houses with spoil: 14 Cast in thy lot among us; let us all have one purse: 15 My son, walk not thou in the way with them; refrain thy foot from their path: 16 For their feet run to evil, and make haste to shed blood. 17 Surely in vain the net is spread in the sight of any bird. 18 And they lay wait for their own blood; they lurk privily for their own lives. 19 So are the ways of every one that is greedy of gain; which taketh away the life of the owners thereof.

16 Destruction and misery are in their ways;

Destruction and misery are in their ways. They leave a trail of ruin and misery. The same thought is expressed in Isaiah 59:7:  “Their feet run to evil, And they make haste to shed innocent blood; Their thoughts are thoughts of iniquity; Wasting and destruction are in their paths.” Remember, the apostle is talking about religious people. They ruin the happiness and reputation of others, and leave behind destruction and misery. They tend to destroy the peace of all those they come into contact with. The reason that destruction and misery follow them is given in verse 17.

It should also be noted that they not only cause destruction and misery; they will receive the same if they continue in an unrighteous path. Calamity and misery always follow the sinner’s futile search for happiness apart from Jesus Christ.

17 And the way of peace they have not known.”

Unregenerate man can never find peace with his fellowman, until peace has been made with his Creator. Take a good look at the world today. After all these years man is still talking about peace, but he hasn’t found it. Just read your news paper or watch the evening news, my friend; there is no peace in this world. The United Nations and other peace-oriented agencies are doomed to failure because man is a ferocious animal. The most savage of animals does not destroy his own species to appease his hunger, but man destroys his fellowman for much less. The world is filled with animosity, hatred, terrorists, and murderers. Man will never be at peace with himself until he is at peace with God. Isaiah said the same thing long before Paul came on the scene. “The way of peace they have not known, And there is no justice in their ways; They have made themselves crooked paths; Whoever takes that way shall not know peace” (Isa 59:8).

18 “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”

Quoted from Psalm 36:1—“An oracle within my heart concerning the transgression of the wicked: There is no fear of God before his eyes.”  This final charge is the fountain from which all the others spring. All the characteristics of man, his lack of understanding, his unprofitableness, his lack of peace, etc. stem from the fact that man does not fear God. Since man has no spiritual understanding, and the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, man is caught in a vicious circle. Only the external force of the Holy Spirit of God can break the circle of man’s ignorance, arrogance, and guilt. Paul presents these fourteen specific, written counts in his indictment against the whole world.

This, then, is God’s X-ray of the human race. It reveals universal unrighteousness (3:10); ignorance and independence toward God (3:11); waywardness, unprofitableness, and lack of any goodness (3:12). Man’s throat is full of rottenness, his tongue is deceitful, his lips are venomous (3:13); his mouth is full of swearing (3:14); his feet are bent on murder (3:15); he leaves behind trouble and destruction (3:16); he doesn’t know how to make peace (3:17); and he has no regard for God (3:18). Here we see the total depravity of man, by which we mean that sin has affected all of mankind and that it has affected every part of his being. Obviously every man has not committed every sin, but he has a nature which is capable of committing them all.

If Paul had wanted to give a more complete catalog of sins, he could have mentioned the sins of sex: adultery, homosexuality, lesbianism, perversion, bestiality, prostitution, rape, lewdness, pornography, and smut. He could have mentioned the sins associated with war: destruction of innocents, atrocities, gas chambers, ovens, concentration camps, torture devices, sadism. He could have mentioned sins of the home: unfaithfulness, divorce, wifebeating, mental cruelty, child abuse. Add to these the crimes of murder, mutilation, theft, burglary, embezzlement, vandalism, graft, corruption. Also the sins of speech: profanity, suggestive jokes, sensual language, cursing, blasphemy, lies, backbiting, gossip, character assassination, grumbling, and complaining. Other personal sins are: drunkenness, drug addiction, pride, envy, covetousness, ingratitude, filthy thought-life, hatred, and bitterness. The list is seemingly endless—pollution, littering, racism, exploitation, deceit, betrayal, broken promises, and on and on. What further proof of human depravity is needed?

19 Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God.

When God gave the law to Israel, He was using Israel as a sample of the human race. He found that Israel was a failure, and He correctly applied this finding to all of humanity. It is the same as when a health inspector takes a test-tube of water from a well, tests the sample, finds it polluted, and then pronounces the entire well polluted. Having charged the whole world with being under sin, and having listed fourteen counts to His indictment, Paul now moves in the judicial procedure to the defense on behalf of the world. He quickly anticipates the line of argument the Jew will use in his defense. The Jew will say that Paul’s description of mankind in the preceding verses does not describe him, but it does describe the heathen. So Paul makes it clear: Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law. By the law, he means the entire Old Testament Scriptures. The apostle makes it clear that he was in fact speaking of Jews as well as the heathen for they had received the oracles of God and were bound by them.

Ordinarily, in a civil court, the time spent by the defense is usually used up making flowery speeches, insinuations, discrediting witnesses, muddling of the issues, etc. But this will not be the case at the judgment bar of God. When the evidence against the universal sinfulness and guilt of man is presented and the opportunity for defense comes, there will be no defense. That every mouth may be stopped. The mouth of the heathen will be stopped. The mouth of the moral man and religious man will be stopped. Even the mouth of the cursing and bitter man will be stopped. A silent world will stand in judgment before the bar of God and neither clever lawyers, plea bargaining, bribing the judge, nor an impassioned appeal will get the sinner off. The famous French infidel, Jean Jacques Rousseau, who refused to marry and sent his illegitimate children to an orphanage, exclaimed: “I will stand before God and defend my conduct!” Bad news for Rousseau. No one will utter a word in his defense, for no one will have a defense before the Righteous Judge—the Lord Jesus Christ.

All that remains in the judicial procedure is the verdict. The charge has been made. The indictment has been read. No defense can be made for there is no supporting case for mankind. The verdict is now ready to be heard. All the world may become guilty before God. The verdict is guilty, the only thing it can be. In the New Testament, “guilt” is a judicial concept affirming criminal responsibility. This is true whether the court is human or divine.

20 Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin.

Therefore. Anytime we see the word “therefore” we ought to ask ourselves what is “therefore” there for; a better translation is “because.” Paul is now coming to the summation of his argument and is about to make an application and draw the conclusion. He began back in chapter 1, verse 18, by proposing that the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men. He has shown that the righteousness of God is sadly needed in the world. It is needed by the heathen, the moralist, the Jew. The righteousness of God is needed by the whole world. Having given his proposition and the facts assembled from the Old Testament and present experience, Paul is now ready to draw a conclusion. He begins with therefore or “because.”

By the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight. Paul concludes that there is no law anywhere that can justify any man. The law of the heathen, the law of nature, the law of morality, the law of conscience, the Law of Moses, none can justify a man and make him righteous in the sight of God. Even the law of Christ, laid down in the Sermon on the Mount, cannot justify a man. It is by the law that the knowledge of sin comes, but no law can save a man. The law can convict men of sin, it can define sin, but it cannot liberate man from sin. Only the grace of God can do that. The whole world is sinful and desperately in need of the righteousness of God. But if that righteousness is to come to the individual, it must come through God’s grace, sovereign grace, and not human works.

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