Christians don’t intend to insult people when we explain our beliefs about human nature, but sometimes it might sound like we are.
These are verses from the third chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans:
What shall we conclude then? Are we any better? Not at all! We have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin. As it is written:
“There is no one righteous, not even one;
there is no one who understands,
no one who seeks God.
All have turned away,
they have together become worthless;
there is no one who does good,
not even one.”
“Their throats are open graves;
their tongues practice deceit.”
“The poison of vipers is on their lips.”
“Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.”
“Their feet are swift to shed blood;
ruin and misery mark their ways,
and the way of peace they do not know.”
“There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.
Romans 3:9-20, niv
The temptation for the preacher of the gospel is to plunge right in and tell everybody the good news that Jesus saves. But Paul doesn’t do that in the book of Romans, his most comprehensive statement of the gospel. After a greeting and a few introductory remarks he devotes most of his first three chapters to a stinging, highly unflattering indictment of the human race. Not exactly the way to win friends and influence people!
Paul begins by detailing the behavior of human beings, which is consistently selfish, generally harmful, and often violent. His interest, though, is not in sociological commentary but theological analysis. Paul is not a scientist cataloguing human behavior as an academic pursuit, or a cynic who only wants to launch a tirade against a human race that he hates. Paul is a preacher, an evangelist, a communicator of the gospel. He wants to expose the spiritual nature of the problems engulfing humanity so that his listeners will be able to see the relevance of the spiritual solution offered in the gospel.
So Paul is not merely criticizing or complaining, and he doesn’t mean to insult. He is offering a description of the underlying theological cause of the mess the human race is in. The question is: How do you explain the way we are? For example, take the matter of our violence. When Isaac Bashevis Singer, the great contemporary Jewish novelist, was asked what he had learned from observing the 20th century throughout his long lifetime, he replied, “It says to me that man has been a murderer, is a murderer, and will be a murderer.” Why is there such a thing in the world as war? This activity, the organized killing of our fellow human beings, is so obviously wasteful, cruel and evil, and yet throughout human history our greatest ingenuity and largest amounts of treasure have been regularly devoted to it. Why is that? Or bring it to a personal level: Why are individuals, why am I, so prone to anger, cruelty and hatred? Why do we lie and cheat and steal and abuse others? Why isn’t human society the utopia we imagine it should be? Why aren’t we all happy, well-adjusted (as the therapists say)? Why aren’t we good?
Answers come flying at us from secular experts all around. Some say the problem is in the nature which evolution has bequeathed to us. We are inherently aggressive because we evolved that way from our animal past; it was the development of these violent characteristics that enabled the human race to emerge and dominate the rest of the animals. The hope the evolutionists hold out is that humanity will eventually evolve into something nicer, though if we measure ourselves against the descriptions in the Bible we don’t seem to have made any progress for the past three thousand years, so that’s a hope we probably won’t realize anytime soon. Others attribute our basic problems to the social environment in which we have grown up: not enough love, too much poverty, inferior education, poor role models. The hope here is that if we can manage to make society better we will automatically improve people. If that were true, we should expect that the richest, the best educated and the most privileged individuals would also be the most moral. We would look for our saints among the upper classes. But I’m afraid the results of that search won’t be very encouraging either.
The Christian view is that the human race’s essential problem is a spiritual one, and its only hope is the gospel. Our trouble doesn’t come primarily from our environment or upbringing, nor is it the result of an arrested evolutionary development. The problem is inside us, in our fallen nature. It stems from humanity’s rejection of God and the subsequent darkening of the human mind and corruption of the human heart. The problem, in the apostle’s words, is that we “are all under sin” (v. 9). The whole race is under the power of sin – and that’s “sin” in the singular, not “sins” in the plural. The trouble with us involves more than just the specific actions we do that are wrong. Sin is a force, a principle, almost an evil personification, which dominates our lives, twists our thinking, and enslaves our will. And the point that Paul especially emphasizes in Romans 3 is that everyone, every single human being, Jew and Gentile alike, is the prisoner of this sinful nature. “All are under sin.”
Paul draws evidence for this from two sources. The first is the observed behavior of humankind. Romans 1 opens with a catalogue of vice and iniquity taken from the ancient world, but reading very much like an eyewitness description of modern secular society. Then in chapter 2 Paul makes the startling point that no one is free from this. One can imagine Paul’s audience, many of whom were Jews who believed themselves to be far superior morally to all Gentiles, reading his denunciation of pagan immorality with approval. But the apostle stuns them by asserting that they are essentially the same way: “You, therefore,” he says, “have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else . . . you are condemning yourself, because you . . . do the same things” (2:1). God does not show favoritism. He will give eternal life to anyone who lives a perfect life, whether they’re a Jew or a Gentile, whether they follow the Christian religion or another religion or no religion at all, whether they have the Bible or not. But in fact, no one does live a perfect life, no one can because everyone is “under sin.”
So the evidence of human behavior points to the truth of Paul’s conclusion that “Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin,” but more importantly, the testimony of Scripture, which for Paul is always conclusive, confirms this truth. The second source of evidence for the fallenness of human beings is the Bible’s explicit teaching. Romans 3 has a lengthy section that consists of a weaving together of quotations from the Old Testament, all of which testify to the sinfulness of the whole human race. “As it is written,” Paul quotes, and then he launches into a string of verses taken from the Psalms and other books:
There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away . . . there is no one who does good, not even one (vv. 10-12).
This is shown both in the way people talk (“Their throats are open graves; their tongues practice deceit . . . Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness,” vv. 13-14) and in their violent and cruel actions (“Their feet are swift to shed blood; ruin and misery mark their ways, and the way of peace they do not know,” vv. 15-17). The final quotation brings us back to the heart of the matter: “There is no fear of God before their eyes” (v. 18). People refuse to direct their steps by the fear of God; in the living of their lives, they leave God out. Rejecting God is the first, the basic sin, that leads to all the others, and all of us are guilty of it.
Is this not a jaundiced view, someone asks? Does Paul present too harsh a verdict? Must we believe that everyone, everywhere is sinful all the time? Are lying, slander, blasphemy, cruelty, godlessness, the only legacy of the human race? We must recognize that the Bible’s testimony here is only part of the picture. Indeed, Paul himself hints at the rest of the story when he speaks of humanity as having “turned away” (v. 12) from God. Once humans knew, loved and served God. We were created by God in his own image, good and righteous and possessing great gifts. Some traces of our original endowment remain, like the worn-out clothes of a wealthy man who has fallen on hard times. They were obviously expensive and beautiful once, but now they are tattered and frayed. In the same way Paul does not mean that every human being is completely bad and every human act thoroughly evil. As he points out earlier in chapter 2, even people who don’t know God’s law can sometimes do what it teaches by following the leading of their conscience (2:14-15). The point is not that we never do anything at all good but that everyone is affected by the same thing. We all suffer from the same spiritual disease, called sin, of which particular sins are the symptoms. People don’t become sinful because they sin; they sin because they are sinful, just as you don’t develop measles because you break out in spots; you break out because you have the virus in your system.
All people, including ourselves, are under sin. We are not righteous, not a single one of us. No one, not even one, does good in the absolute sense, good as measured by God’s standard of perfection. Now we may not like that assessment. We may find it offensive to our pride and insulting to our good opinion of ourselves, but we should remember that this is God’s view. This is what his Word declares, and he undoubtedly sees us more clearly than we see ourselves.
We should also remember how desperate is our situation. For the wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the unrighteousness of men (1:18), and we are not righteous. The wages of sin is death (6:23) – not just physical death, but the eternal death of hell – and we are sinful. We stand condemned, like a prisoner in the death cell waiting for the clock to run out. What hope is there for us in this terrible condition?
A FALSE SOLUTION
Before he turns to the good news that the gospel offers, Paul spends one last moment taking away all hope by exposing a false solution to the problem of human sin. The standard human belief is that the solution for sin is to keep the law as best you can. This is the thinking that underlies human religion the world over, in every culture and every period of history. It’s the majority view, the natural opinion of fallen humanity. Yes, we’re not perfect, we admit. What we have to do is to follow the teachings of a religion, any religion, and try to do our best. If you do good, God will approve of you; if you do enough good, God will accept you. That’s what everyone believes.
But everyone is wrong. This is what God’s Word says: “Therefore no one will be declared righteous in [God’s] sight by observing the law” (v. 20). The first purpose of the law is not to save but to condemn.
There are at least two problems with trying to be justified in God’s sight by keeping the law or doing good works. First, this approach ignores our past misdeeds. Even if I could do nothing but good from today onward, what about all my yesterdays? Think of it in financial terms. You say, “Starting now I’m going to pay every single bill on time.” But you’re already $10 million in debt. Is the bank going to declare you financially righteous? The second problem is that seeking righteousness with God through the law overlooks the true quality of our good works. They are never purely good, as God is good. There’s always at least a little pride and selfishness mixed in them. Trying to earn righteousness with works that are less than perfect is like trying to sweeten your tea with a spoon of sugar mixed with salt.
So what are we to do? We are caught in a condition in which all of our best efforts can not help us. But do you know that it is recognizing our hopelessness which first opens the door to the hope the gospel offers. What we can’t do for ourselves God has done for us in Jesus Christ. And the righteousness that eludes all of our best efforts is offered as a gift in him. Just as every human being needs it, so any human being can have it simply by putting their trust in Christ. That’s the good news!