READ : Romans 3:9-20
The default human position on the question of salvation is that the way to get to heaven is by living a good life, or at least giving it a pretty good shot. The bad news of the Bible, that is, the bad news before we get to the good news, is that no one has the slightest chance of being saved that way.
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 message. 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 isn’t a social 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 that are 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 that the world is in. The question is: How do you explain the way we are? 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? Why aren’t we all 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. 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 it would seem that humanity hasn’t made much 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, not enough money, not enough education, not enough good role models. The hope here is that if we can manage to make society better we will automatically improve people. But if that were true, we should expect that the richest, the best educated and the most privileged individuals would also be the best people, the most moral. We would look for our saints then among the upper classes. But I’m afraid the results of that search wouldn’t be very encouraging either.
The Christian view is that humanity’s problem is essentially a spiritual one. Our only hope of a solution lies in the message of the gospel and the spiritual change that accepting that message brings. Our trouble doesn’t come primarily from either our environment or our upbringing. No, the problem is inside us, in our fallen nature. It stems from humanity’s rejection of God. The problem, as the apostle describes it in the third chapter of Romans, is “that all . . . are 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 wrong things we do. Sin is a force, a principle, which dominates our lives, twists our thinking, and perverts our will. And the point that Paul especially emphasizes in Romans 3 is that everyone, every single human being, Jew and Gentile, religious and non-religious, is the prisoner of this sinful nature. “All are under sin.”
Paul draws evidence for this conclusion from two sources. The first is the observed behavior of people. Romans 1 opens with a catalogue of vice and iniquity drawn from the ancient world, but reading very much like an eyewitness description of modern times. Then in chapter 2 the apostle makes the startling point that no one is free from this. One can imagine Paul’s audience, many of whom were Jews who believed in their moral superiority to Gentiles, listening to his denunciation of pagan immorality with approval. But the apostle stuns them by then asserting that they are essentially the same way: “You have no excuse,” he says, “every one of you who judges. . . . you condemn yourself, because you . . . practice the very 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, whether they know his law or only follow their conscience. All you must do is live a perfect life. But who does that? 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,” as he writes in Romans 3:9. But more importantly, the testimony of Scripture, which for Paul is always conclusive, confirms this truth. And so he goes on in Romans 3, verses 10 and following to weave a series of texts from the Old Testament, all of which testify to the universal sinfulness of the human race. “As it is written”:
No one is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.
But is this not a jaundiced view, someone asks? Doesn’t 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 have to recognize that the Bible’s testimony here is only part of the picture of human nature. Indeed, Paul himself hints at the rest of the story when he speaks of a humanity that has turned away 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 that original endowment remain, like the faded beauty of a stately home that has fallen into decay. In the same way Paul does not mean that every human being is completely bad or that every human act is 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 isn’t that we never do anything at all good but rather 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. So people don’t become sinful when they sin; they sin because they already are sinful in their nature. Just as you don’t have the measles because you break out in spots; you break out because you already have the virus.
So all people are under sin. We may find that offensive to our pride or insulting to our good opinion of ourselves, but we should remember that this is God’s Word. This is God’s testimony. This is what he declares, and he undoubtedly sees us more clearly than we see ourselves. And we should remember how desperate this makes 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 all sinners. We stand condemned, like a prisoner on death row 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 a false hope. 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. It’s the majority view, the natural opinion of fallen humankind. Yes, we’re not perfect, so what we have to do is to follow the teachings of a religion, any religion, and just 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: “No one will be declared righteous in [God’s] sight by observing the law” (3:20, NIV). The first purpose of God’s 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 his 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 with a financial example. You say, “Starting now I’m going to cut up my credit cards and 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 real quality of our good works. They are never perfectly 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 that has salt mixed in it.
So what are we to do when all our best efforts cannot save us? Recognizing our hopeless position is the first step towards 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 our best efforts is offered as a gift through faith in him. That is the good news of God’s gospel that saves us from our sin!