Despite the fact that we live in a world filled with evil and unimaginable wickedness, and despite the fact that you don’t have to be a person of faith to know this, the fact of the matter is that very few people believe that they are sinners. The well-respected Christian counselor David Powlinson recalls that before he was converted to Christ as an adult, he didn’t think of himself as a sinner. I have a feeling that he is a typical case. The fact of the matter is that our culture is committed to the idea that people are basically good and this is the way we generally think of ourselves. That being the case, however, means that people don’t feel that they have any real need of redemption from sin. And that is a problem for the gospel because the gospel is all about redemption from sin. If there is no need of that, what need is there of the gospel?
In the epilogue to his book, Making Sense of God, Tim Keller recounts the testimony of Langdon Gilkey who was imprisoned in China with Eric Liddell during the second world war. Gilkey was not a Christian, and in fact was thoroughly imbued with the progressive and secular vision of man and the world, educated at Harvard and graduated magna cum laude with a degree in philosophy. He too believed in the basic goodness of human nature and in the power of reason to conquer moral failure and evil in the world.
He was teaching English in China when the Japanese overran the province in which he taught. He was then imprisoned with two thousand other people in a space no more than two and a half acres, surrounded by barbed wire and guarded day and night by armed guards. As a result, there was very little privacy, and very few resources to accommodate everyone. At first, Gilkey thought that human goodness and reason would shine through and everyone would work together for the common good. However, he soon began to see that selfishness was more fundamental than goodness and reason to the human condition. This was true of both religious and irreligious people. It seemed that no one was willing to sacrifice for others. Even when it was obvious to reason that it was for the common good that something be done, if it bumped up against a person’s private concern, they were just not willing to sacrifice their good for the common good. In this very difficult place, the “thin polish of easy morality” wore off.
Gilkey was forced to see that morality is not the product of reason, but rather the reverse. He writes,
It was a rare person indeed in our camp whose mind could rise beyond that involvement of the self in crucial issues to view them dispassionately. Rational behavior in communal action is primarily a moral and not an intellectual achievement, possible only to a person morally capable of self-sacrifice. In a real sense, I came to believe, moral selflessness is a prerequisite for the life of reason – not its consequence, as so many philosophers contend.
There was an exception, however: Eric Liddell. Unlike others, Liddell was selfless and generous. Of him Gilkey wrote, “It is rare indeed when a person has the good fortune to meet a saint, but he came as close to it as anyone I have ever known.” What was the difference? Other religious people were just as selfish as the rest. Gilkey gives a very insightful explanation:
Religion is not the place where the problem of man’s egotism is automatically solved. Rather, it is there that the ultimate battle between human pride and God’s grace takes place. Insofar as human pride may win the battle, religion can and does become one of the instruments of human sin. But insofar as there the self does meet God and so surrender to something beyond its own self-interest, religion may provide the one possibility for a much needed and very rare release from our common self-concern.
The crucial insight here is that religion makes us better people when it is flavored by grace. It was the grace of God that had changed and empowered Liddell’s life. But grace makes absolutely no sense unless we see ourselves as unworthy of God’s favor. But how is that? We are unworthy because we are sinful, because we do not deserve the grace of God. And that is precisely what the apostle is at pains to point out in the text before us. Paul makes the crucial observation that people are not basically rational and moral, but selfish and evil. And until we see this, all the religion in the world will only make us “one of the instruments of human sin.” It isn’t pleasant to dwell on this, but it is absolutely necessary. We need to see our need of grace if we are going to reach out for it. But to see our need of grace we first need to see that we are sinful, that we have fallen short of the mark, that we deserve the judgment and wrath of Almighty God. But more than this, we need to see that we cannot make things right. It is not enough to see that we are sinners, but we need to see that the only one who can truly make us right is God. And that is where his grace and the gospel comes in. Otherwise, we will just end up becoming a bunch of self-deceived and self-righteous sinners who make the world worse rather than better. But Paul does both these things, arguing that we are not only sinful but that we need God to make things right.
How does apostle do this? That brings us to the text.
Everyone needs to be made right
There are two main points that the apostle wants to make in these verses. First, he sums up the argument that all men are sinners: “What then? Are the Jews better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Gentiles, are under sin” (3:9). This is the summary of the first two chapters, for in chapter 1 the apostle had argued that Gentile society was thoroughly corrupt and in chapter 2 he had argued that the Jewish people did not keep the law they were given. His point in this verse is that even though the Jews do have these tremendous external advantages, like the law, they are no better off than the Gentiles when it comes to sin.
Paul supports this assertion now from Scripture in verses 10-18. This is a new thing. You might have noticed that up till now the apostle has not made direct reference to specific OT Scripture passages. However, now he is at pains to show that what he is teaching is no different from the teaching of the OT, which was acknowledged by both Paul and his fellow Jews as being the undisputed word of God. There is no disharmony between OT and NT here: both teach the universal sinfulness of mankind. So to establish his point, the apostle quotes several passages from the Psalms (14,5, 10, and 36, in that order) and one from Isaiah 59.
Now I want to pause here and consider what appears to be a problem with Paul’s use of the OT. It is obvious that his main purpose in adducing these OT texts was to support his statement, made in verse 9, that all men are sinners. Then we jump into verses 10-12, “as it is written, ‘None is righteous, no, not one . . .’.” That makes sense: all are sinners, just as the Scriptures say.
But there is a problem. If you read the text in Psalm 14, it becomes obvious that David did not consider everyone to be unrighteous, because just a few verses down in the psalm, David describes the people of God as the righteous. In the psalm, David looks out at the enemies of God and says of them, “There is none righteous.” Then he contrasts their condition with the condition of the people of God, and says, “God is in the generation of the righteous” (Ps. 14:5). So the unrighteousness in Psalm 14 is not universal, whereas in Romans 3, that is the verdict which the apostle Paul brings upon the human race. How do we deal with this problem?
To begin with, we can say that the apostle Paul did not intend for his entire argument to hinge upon this text. As we have already pointed out, Paul refers to several OT Scriptures. And when we look at the various texts, it is not always possible to determine whether the writer had the people of God in mind or their enemies. But one text is crystal clear: in Isaiah 59, God is addressing the people of Israel through the prophet, and this is what he says: “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 way of peace they know not” (7,8). So, when these various texts are taken together, it is clear that the apostle’s case is soundly built, and that both the enemies of God’s people and the OT people of God themselves – the Jews – are sinners before God.
Then from the Psalms we also know that even though there are righteous people as well as unrighteous people, the righteous only get that way through the mercy of God. In other words, we are all sinners by nature and it is only the grace of God that puts us in the category of the righteous. So, for example, in Psalm 5 (which Paul also quotes in the words “their throat is an open sepulcher”), David contrasts himself with the wicked by calling attention to God’s mercy: “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” (Ps. 5:7). If it is true that is it only the mercy of God which makes a difference in our lives, then it is a fact that we all start out as sinners. David recognizes this fact elsewhere when he says, “Behold, I was shapen in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Ps. 51:5). And so Paul’s point is still made.
As we look over verses 10-18, we see that there are at least four debilitating realities about sin that we need to consider.
First, these verses teach us that sin pervades human nature and that we are its slaves. The apostle says in verse 9 that all men are “under sin.” We are under sin as a slave is under his master. Sin exercises dominion over us. Jesus said, “everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin” (Jn. 8:34). This domination of sin pervades every aspect of our lives: our thoughts, our affections, and our actions. And this domination continues until, by God’s grace, the power of sin is broken in our lives.
It is important to understand how deep sin has penetrated into the very depths of our being. Sin is not like a disease which we catch, like a cold. It is not an occasional mishap or thing that we do. Rather, sin is a part of the warp and woof of human nature, so that nothing less than the power of God can free man from its bondage.
Second, these verses teach us that sin is universal. “All . . . are under sin. . . . None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God.” It is obvious that the apostle wants us to understand that none are exempt from the guilt of sin. Do you know what this means practically? It means that I am a sinner. Yes, the person next to you is a sinner too, but don’t forget that the universal statements that the apostle is making mean that you are a sinner also. As Paul says just a few verses later, “All have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (3:23, KJV). And that means you and I have sinned and in doing so have robbed God of the glory he deserves. We are all traitors against heaven.
It is so easy to breeze past verses like this without realizing how they apply to us. It is so easy to look at Romans 3:10-12 and see how they teach the doctrine of total depravity, memorize them, and yet never see how they speak to us personally. Let these verses hit you between the eyes, as they were meant to do! If I am a sinner, then the gospel is a weighty and wonderful thing. It is a terrible thing to reject it and a wonderful thing to receive it with all our heart.
The third thing these verses teach us about sin is what it does. It turns men against God. Note how Paul begins and ends this string of quotations: “no one seeks for God . . . . There is no fear of God before their eyes” (11, 18). This is really the defining mark of sin. Sin is not mainly what we do to other people. Sin is mainly what we do to God. This is why it is so tragic that so many people are able to convince themselves that they are pretty good people while all the time they neglect God and leave him out of their lives, preferring instead their vacations and their houses and their cars and their work. Whatever you may think of a failure to seek God, to God it is incredibly offensive to say to him, in effect, “God, I like my things and my hobbies and my accomplishments more than your fellowship, so stay out of my life.” It should sober those of us who treat God so to reflect on the fact that God is the one who will be the final arbiter of what sin is and what it is not.
Fourth, sin turns men against each other. In verses 13-17, Paul draws attention to our mouth and to our actions, and the sins that are associated with both. In verses 13 and 14, we have the sins of the mouth. Note the progression from the throat to the tongue to the lips to the mouth. It seems that the apostle is wanting to show how that the sins of the mouth emanate from our heart, for the progression is from that part of the faculty of speech that is nearest our heart (the throat) proceeding upward to the lips. For “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh” so that “by thy words thou shalt be justified and by thy words thou shalt be condemned” (Mt. 12:34, 37, KJV). See also Prov. 10:11; Eph. 4:29-32.
The next three verses deal primarily with our actions (15-17), concentrating on the violence that men do to each other. Thus the apostle is claiming that men by nature are murderers, at least in the heart. Jesus said that if you are angry with your brother without a (just) cause, you have broken the commandment, “You shall not kill.”
A friend of mine once read Dostoevsky’s book, Crime and Punishment. It is about a student who murders someone but then can’t live with the guilt. The actual murder comes close to the beginning of the story, and the rest is spent describing the way the young man tried to rationalize his crime. My friend said that what was so terribly enlightening to him was that as he read these various self-justifications, he came to realize that he had made many of them himself in different contexts.
We may not realize it, but except by the grace of God we have the same pent up venom in our own hearts. Our hearts are so deceitful that we fail to realize that the only reason we don’t kill our neighbor is because of the police or societal expectations or what would happen to us if we got caught. But God knows our hearts, even if we do not: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it? I the LORD search the heart and test the mind, to give to every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his deeds” (Jer. 17:9-10).
Why we cannot make things right
The second point the apostle wants to make is that universal sinfulness leads to universal guilt and the fact that we are ourselves unable to deal with it: “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” (19). This again is a summary of what he has been stating all along. All men are sinners and therefore we all stand before the judgment seat of the Almighty God with nothing to say in our defense. We are not only sinners, but we are sinners without hope if left to ourselves.
Verses 19 and 20 are the crux of Paul’s argument here, so let’s pause to consider them in a little more detail. Here is, I think, the overall argument: the passages that Paul has quoted in the previous verses (10-18) do not only apply to the heathen enemies of God’s people but to the Jews as well. That is the reason he begins by saying, “Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law.” Again, recall what a difficult thing it was to convince the kind of Jew that Paul himself had been that he was not safe simply for being a Jew. Paul is saying that what applies to Gentiles also applies to Jews as well. They cannot escape the verdict of sinfulness and the guilt consequent upon it.
The result of this (“so that” – ver. 19) is that every mouth, Jew and Gentile, yours and mine, will be stopped on the day of judgment and all the world become guilty before God (19). The next verse tells us why this is so: “For by the works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight” (20). The Jews believed that having the law would save them. But no one keeps the law and so everyone stands liable to the wrath of God.
The last part of verse 20 tells us why the law cannot save: “since through the law comes knowledge of sin.” The “knowledge of sin” is not an understanding of what is right and wrong based on the law. Otherwise, that would mean that it is our knowing what is right and wrong that deprives the law of its ability to save. But that doesn’t make a lot of sense. Rather, what Paul means by this is that the law shows us that we are corrupt and sinful before God. This is what the law does: it shows us what holiness is and by this shows us that we are not holy. This being the case, the law cannot save, since it can only show us how we fail. It certainly cannot justify us before God.
To see how this works, let’s look at some parallel verses later in this epistle. In chapter 7, Paul writes, “What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet if it had not been or the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’ But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. For apart from the law, sin lies dead” (7:7-8).
Here the apostle says that the law gave him the knowledge of sin. How did it do this? In this way: Paul thought that at one point in his life he was a good person. But then one day he realized that the law not only governs our outward actions but also our inward motivations. Evidently, Paul hadn’t thought of the law in this way, but he began at once to make a concerted effort to avoid coveting at any cost. The only problem was that Paul began to realize that he couldn’t do it. The more he strived against sin the more ingrained it became. The more he thought about the law, the more it stirred up the corruption within.
That’s what the law does. When holy law meets a dead and depraved heart, you get sin. That is the way human nature is: if you tell children not to touch something, they immediately want to touch it, even though they may not have cared about it before. And we are not much different from children. Before the law comes to us, sin is dead, dormant, so to speak. That doesn’t mean that apart from the law we are sinless, obviously. But it does mean that when we notice the authority of the law in a particular instance, immediately all the sin within rises up to meet the authority with rebellion. Thus Paul goes on to say, “I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died” (7:9). That is, he was alive before God in his own estimation, but then the commandment came in force, stirred up the sin within his heart, and he died to any hope of achieving the favor of God through law-keeping.
Now let’s recapitulate the apostle’s argument in these verses by working through their logic. First, the law brings the knowledge of sin – the realization that I am a sinner. Then we realize that we cannot justify ourselves by our own attempts at law-keeping. And because we are not able to justify ourselves, Jews who have the law in Scripture and Gentiles who have the law in their hearts by nature, we are all guilty before God. For all are sinners, at the Scriptures attest.
That’s the overall argument. Paul wants us to see the implications of universal sin. But it is not only that we need redemption, as important as that is. It is that our need is so great that we cannot undo the damage on our own. That is what he is trying to get across here. There is this cancer called sin. You cannot plant a Band-Aid over it; you need someone else to come in an operate on you and take the cancer out. You cannot do it yourself; if you try you will only make things worse. And that’s what religion apart from Christ really is: it is man’s attempt to operate on himself. But instead of taking out the cancer, we tend only to make it spread. We need God’s grace and God’s hand to save us. We cannot save ourselves: God must do it.
The good news is that in Jesus Christ, God has done it, and that is what the apostle will go on to say in the coming verses. Through the redemptive work of Jesus Christ, the sin that we cannot conquer and atone for has been conquered and atoned for. And by God’s eternal purpose, it is simply by trusting in Christ that we become connected to his saving work and are embraced in the grace of God forever. Once you understand the desperate nature of our condition, that is good news indeed and suddenly the gospel makes perfect sense.
 Quoted in Timothy Keller, Making Sense of God (Viking, 2016), p. 251. The material on Gilkey is found in the epilogue, pages 247-254. Keller, in turn, is recounting Gilkey’s own story found in the book, Shangtung Compound.
 Ibid, p. 252.
 Ibid, p. 253.
 Ibid, p. 254.
 I am indebted to John Piper’s exposition of this passage for these insights.