Well Church, we’ve now come to it. We’ve arrived at the final passage in Paul’s first large section of his letter to the Romans. Today marks 7 weeks that we have followed Paul downward into the depths of our sinful nature, and as we now come to 3:9-20 we finally reach the bottom. Paul began this opening portion of his letter in 1:18ff telling us how the pagans are lost sinners and needs the gospel. He moved on in chapter 2 telling us how the religious people are lost sinners and need the gospel. And here in chapter 3 Paul is eager to summarize, to wrap up this first section by telling us how all people are sinners and need the gospel. How will he do it? With a collection of Old Testament quotations.

While last week’s passage, 3:1-8, is said to be the hardest passage in the Bible to understand, thankfully this week we come to a passage that’s fairly straightforward. But do not sit back all comfortable and cozy, because it has challenges of its own. How so? The challenge of 3:9-20 is not misunderstanding what Paul says here, the challenge is agreeing with him and believing ourselves to be as bad, as depraved, as sinful, as he says we are here. You see, when we come to a text like this one, our trouble is that we naturally think far too highly of ourselves and while we may outwardly show agreement with it, inwardly we may deny it and think we’re really far better than the Bible says we are. Or, we might quickly agree with it but rather than seeing it as applying to ourselves, we quickly believe it applies to everyone else and say ‘This passage is what’s wrong with the world.’ So Church, big questions lie before us today: will we submit, will we believe what God says about us? Will we trust that God knows us better than we know ourselves? Will we agree with this passage and believe that the root of all our problems doesn’t lie outside of us but is rather lies within each of us? Big questions yes, hard questions, also yes. Needed questions, indeed!

We begin in v9, where we see…

All Under Sin (v9)

“What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin…”

This brief opening question in v9 immediately connects with the train of thought in v1-8. In other words, from hearing what Paul said about the advantages of the Jew in v1-8 one might believe that the Jew is truly better off. But Paul’s corrects us, “No, not at all.” Some think Paul is contradicting himself here, that he is taking back what he said earlier. Remember in v1-2 he said Jews have the advantage in every way, but in v9 he says Jews are not at all better off than others. So, is he contradicting himself? I don’t think so, not at all.[1] The Jew does have a great advantage, but remember the point Paul’s making. The Jew isn’t saved simply by their nearness to such religious privileges, and the Gentiles aren’t condemned by their distance from such religious privileges. Instead “…all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin…” So according Paul, according to God who inspired Paul to write this, all mankind throughout all of history is in one of two positions before God: under sin or under grace.[2] Paul will spend the rest of this letter explaining what it means to be ‘under grace’ so for now let’s ask, what does it mean to be ‘under sin’? To be under sin does not mean that all people commit sins on occasion. To be under sin does not mean that all people are in the habit of doing bad things. To be under sin does not even mean that all people are sinners because we do those bad things. No, to be under sin means we’re enslaved to sin, captive to sin, held under sin’s power and under sin’s strength, so much so that we’re unable to escape to freedom on our own. And more so, given the choice between escape to Christ or remaining in sins grip, we’d prefer those chains. Church, we’re not sinners because we sin, we sin because that’s who we are. We are by nature sinners. Apart from the grace of God sinner is our defining identity. This is Paul’s argument. That the lost immoral pagan of chapter 1 and the religiously zealous moral person of chapter 2 are both ‘under sin.’[3] Now be careful, this does not mean we are as bad as we can be, no. Horizontally speaking, comparing one person to another person one might truly do more wickedness than others, absolutely. History and our present day are full of examples of this. But vertically speaking, comparing ourselves to God, Tim Keller is spot on when he says, “We’re all lost and there are no degrees of lostness.”[4] That’s v9.

Pause for a moment. How are you doing? Everyone ok? How are you hearing these words? Is there a fight beginning to rise up within you yearning to say, ‘That’s not true of me!’ If that’s you let me encourage you. Fighting against the truth of our sinfulness is itself proof of how sinful we are. God is aware of this, of our bent toward suppressing this very truth and believing ourselves to be better than what is said of us here. Thankfully, God’s aiming at our hearts, aiming to persuade us of this, so in God’s grace the passage keeps on going with Paul giving a long list of what our sinfulness entails.

We’ve seen how we’re all under sin in v9, now see…

All Totally Depraved (v10-18)

Before I read these verses there is something that needs to be said about them. Remember back in chapter 2 how the Jew boasted on having the Law, and remember in 3:1-2 Paul clearly said the great and chief advantage of the Jew is that they were entrusted with the very “oracles of God”? Well, Paul is about to use those very ‘oracles of God’ the Jews boasted of to prove his case. There’s a thick and sad irony to this.[5] How tragic for the Jew, with an open Old Testament before them, with all the promises, previews, and prophecies about Christ to end up missing Christ altogether! To read it so carefully and mistake its message so blindly! How tragic that this is so often the problem within churches today. Where with an open Bible, both Old and New Testaments, is so often before us, sung to us, prayed to us, preached to us, and yet we can miss the message as well. We too can rest and rely on our nearness to God’s truth rather than the God of truth. Only in a fallen world could one so near the Scriptures remain so ignorant of the God of the Scriptures. May this sad irony not be true of us.

Let’s move ahead to this middle portion. At first v10-18 might seem like a pile of Old Testament quotations simply intended to prove Paul’s point. While it is that, it’s also more than that. A closer look reveals these quotations follow a kind of order or a kind of pattern. Let’s take it a step at a time…

In v10 it begins with a summary statement. “None is righteous, no, not one.” With the mention of the word righteous we’re taken back to 1:16-17 where we find Paul unashamed of the gospel. Why? Because in it the righteousness of God is revealed and received by faith alone. But then we enter into this first section all about our sin and we’re told of one grand indictment against us, we’re not righteous, no one is righteous, no one acts rightly, and no one is right before God. 

Next Paul begins a description of how our whole person is fallen and unrighteous. In v11 our mind is in view, “…no one understands; no one seeks for God…” A quick survey through world history shows how we have prided ourselves on our knowledge. When the dark ages gave birth to the renaissance man boasted of having achieved a new level of wisdom. When the renaissance gave birth to the industrial revolution man boasted of having achieved a new level of wisdom. And when all the shiny new inventions of our modern age, from the model-t to the iPhone, with each new piece of technology we sat back in wonder thinking this will take man to a new level of wisdom. Yet in it all, the verdict stands. Man in our wisdom falls short of being truly wise, of truly understanding God and understanding ourselves. Because we have such a fallen mind in us, look what Paul also says, “…no one seeks for God…” This is clear, there are not seekers of God. Seeking God is the business of the believer, that’s when our great journey begins of grabbing hold of the God whose grabbed hold of us! Before we were converted we didn’t seek God we ran from God.[6] If anyone then can rightly be called a seeker it’s God, who seeks us out! Perhaps though, one might ask, ‘But why, why do many lost people seem to be seeking after ultimate truth, or seeking after God Himself?’ Well, it might seem like the world is full of seekers, but if we’re to answer this question from the Bible’s point of view, especially from this text, we must conclude that no one seeks for God. What then of their seeking? What do we make of that? Well, many say they seek God but I don’t think God is truly the One they’re seeking. One might feel empty or hollow so they seek after purpose and or identity and call it ‘God.’ One might feel lonely or sad and so they seek after joy or happiness and call it ‘God.’ And one might feel lost in a world where opinions abound so they seek after something solid or stable and call it ‘God.’ When it comes down to it, ‘seekers’ may say they’re seeking after God but what they’re really after is the gifts of God. They don’t want God, they want the blessings of God without God Himself. Such is the mind of lost man.

Now, since we’re not righteous (v10), and since our minds are so fallen (v11), we see next how our will is fallen in v12. “All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” What does this mean? This verse begins saying all have turned aside. So ask the question: in order to turn away from something we must have been told or encouraged or even commanded to turn toward something. And this is just what we find. In John 14:6 Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” We also hear Jesus say in Matthew 7:13-14, “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” Fallen man hears such commands to go a certain way and what is their response? ‘No thanks, I’ll go my own way.’ Or as Paul puts it here, “All have turned aside…” We think we know what is best for us, and we make decisions to do certain things and not do other things because we think those decisions will lead us to being happy and whole. But what happens when we turning aside to go our own way? Paul says it, we become worthless, or corrupted (in the original Greek), and from being worthless what is the result? “…no one does good, not even one.” But wait, don’t we know of non-Christians who seem to do much good? Haven’t many labored to make this world a better and healthier place to be? Of course they have. But again, such ‘goodness’ isn’t what it appears to be. Paul will later say in Romans 14 that everything done apart from faith in Christ is sin. Meaning, one can build homes for the poor, help a neighbor in need, or give great sums of money to a cause. But God’s looks within. At the heart level, if that good deed was not motivated by faith in Christ, it’s sin. Perhaps we should remember what we’ve already said. Horizontally, on our human level one can do much good in this world. But vertically, there is no good deed able to make us right with God. Why? Because everything we do in this life, even things others may call ‘good’ things, everything is tainted by sin.

So, since we’re not righteous (v10), since our minds are fallen (v11), and since our will is corrupt (v12), we see next what this does to our speech. v13-14, “Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.” “The venom of asps is under their lips.” “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.” From throat to tongue to lip, what flows out of fallen man is deceitful, poisonous, and bitter. It’s as if a doctor asks us to open up and ‘Say ahhh’ and they look within and jump back aghast at the foul vileness within. And Paul’s not done yet, all of this leads to a description of our feet. v15-17, “Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known.” Later on in Romans 10 Paul will quote the Old Testament and speak of the feet of the redeemed that are beautiful because they spread the good news from the mountain tops. What a contrast to the feet on fallen man, that spreads misery, ruin, and death. And then he goes on further to mention our eyes in v18 and speaks in such a manner as to almost summarize the whole of our fallenness saying, “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”

v10-18 has now come to us. Taking it all together the argument here is that the entirety of man is fallen. Or we could say it like this: there is no part of us that is unaffected by the fall. All of us is under sin. This is what total depravity means, the totality of us is depraved, corrupt, fallen. After hearing Paul, do you agree? Or do you still deny it? 

Well, he’s not done. You almost wish he was. We’ve seen how we’re all under sin in v9, how we’re all totally depraved in v10-18, now he concludes in v19-20 by showing how we’re…

All Silenced (v19-20)

“Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.”

Here is the end of the matter. The Law the Jews were given on Sinai, and the Law the Gentiles know from creation all around them and from the conscience God planted within them, that Law, isn’t given by God to show us how to be saved, no. It’s given by God to show why we must be saved. It reveals our sin. And when our sin is revealed to us, our mouths close.

Conclusion:

Some might even wonder why Paul goes to such great length to say what he says in these first three chapters, after all he could’ve just said, ‘Mankind if sinful.’ Why then does he spend three whole chapters on it? Because God inspired the apostle Paul to impress these things on us, not just to inform us. Perhaps it might be helpful to illustrate. So, I’d like you to imagine something. Picture before you a lion in a cage. Before this lion there are two bowls, a bowl of meat and a bowl of wheat. Tell me, which one do you think the lion will choose to eat? Right, the lion will always choose the meat, he would never choose the wheat, because lions don’t eat wheat, they’re carnivores. Consider a deeper question now: what would have to happen to the lion for it to desire the bowl of wheat? Or to ask it in another way: what would have to happen to the lion so that it desired something it has no natural taste for? Answer: its nature would have to change, and that is something it cannot do itself.

This is how similar to how the Paul describes our sinful nature. Just as the lion only eats meat and would repeatedly choose the meat over the wheat because of its nature, so too man the sinner when put to a choice between Jesus Christ and sin will choose sin every time because of our nature. So, naturally a question comes: what would have to happen to us so that we desire Jesus Christ, One whose character and commands we have no natural taste for? Answer: our nature would have to change. Yet, we’re unable to do so. We can as quickly change our nature as a leopard could remove its own spots. Does this leave us despairing? It could, if Romans ended in v20. 

But it doesn’t end there. No indeed. Having seen our sin for what it is, we’re now humbled and needy, looking only to God to rescue. And rescue He did!

But Church, our deepest problem isn’t a lack of knowledge, or else God in grace would’ve sent a teacher. Our deepest problem is political, or else God in grace would’ve sent a politician. No, our deepest problem is our own sin, and praise God, He has sent us a Savior!

So, only Christ, only the Lord Jesus Christ can resurrect us from the dead and make us completely new. Having been so primed with the bad news, it’s now time for the gospel. Which is exactly what we’ll examine next.[7]


[1] Douglas Moo, Romans, NICNT (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2018), 209.

[2] Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Romans, vol. 2 (Carlisle, Pennsylvania: Banner of Truth, 1985), 189.

[3] Timothy Keller, Romans 1-7 For You, God’s Word For You (The Good Book Company, 2014), 66.

[4] Keller, 67.

[5] Lloyd-Jones, Romans, 193.

[6] R.C. Sproul, Romans, St. Andrew’s Expositional Commentary (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2009), 89.

[7] Sproul, 95.

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