One Standard, One Verdict
Studies In Paul’s Letter to the Romans
by Bob Burridge ©2011
Lesson 14: Romans 3:9-20
There have always been news stories about scandals, accusations, and excuses for doing wrong things. Through it all, it is important that we have a moral sense of direction.
It is dangerous if we set up a false standard, or think that some people should be treated specially. Our fallen nature is easily tempted to classify people either as those who do wrong, or as those who don’t. That’s not what God’s word tells us about the way things really are.
There is a standard that applies equally to everyone. There is a court to which we all answer, God’s court. No tricky wording will get around the moral principles of that court. There is no excuse found in pointing out the wrongs of others who are just as guilty as we are. It is no excuse to say that what we have done is just our own business and shouldn’t concern anyone else. There can be no dismissing of our wrongs as if no real harm has been done. People try to point out their good intentions as if that excuses them from wrong doings. There is no excuse in claiming that the wrong we did was done because we didn’t know where else to turn.
The Jews in the time of Jesus, and at the time Paul’s letter to the Romans was written, had imagined that they were not going to answer to the same judgment as the rest of humanity. They thought they would be exempt because of the special blessings God gave them. They found it easy to take sin lightly and to make up excuses for bending God’s law. Like many today, they saw their own importance, affiliations or goals as being so good that they did not think they would be judged by the same standards as others.
Excuses, excuses — we humans are so quick to come up with excuses! As we saw in Romans 2:15, fallen humanity has two sets of excuses: either people try to excuse what they have done or minimize it as if it was not really all that bad, or they blame others for the whole situation and make themselves out to be the victims.
Does that sound familiar? It is the pattern we see every day, and maybe see in ourselves at times too. Accountability has become a relative thing. Moral principles have been detached from their anchors and now float, bobbling around in the open sea of confusion. Instead of being stationary markers for the channel, they have become dangerous obstacles people try to maneuver around to get where they want to go.
We need to re-attach these markers to the anchor that rests at the bottom of the sea. We need to return the moral principles we live by, to where they mark out the right course. There is no other way to avoid the hidden dangers that threaten to rip us apart as we wander out of the safe channel.
Our wiggling to escape accountability confirms what God’s word says about us. The Bible tells us that we are all Morally Depraved by our fall into sin. Depravity is so extensive that all humans have no hope based upon their own abilities. We are driven by God’s grace to the deliverance that is ours only in Jesus Christ. In the book of Romans, Paul shows us the truth that alone can set us free.
Romans 3:9-20 shows us what is wrong so we can deal with it in the right way.
First, the Apostle reminds us that no one can claim
to be better than any one else.
Romans 3:9, “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.”
This has been Paul’s theme in the first part of this epistle. The Jews had many advantages, but were not superior to others nor exempt from judgment. All are under sin and stand beneath its banner declaring them condemned as guilty before God. Just how depraved is man in his fallen condition? How morally disabled is he?
Paul takes us to the Scriptures to examine what God has said about us.
Romans 3:10-11, “As it is written: ‘There is none righteous, no, not one; There is none who understands; There is none who seeks after God.’ “
We call this the doctrine of “Total Depravity“. It means that when Adam sinned, all of mankind became guilty of sin and were separated from God. This separation left man’s nature corrupted to where it is unable to please God. This corruption even effects man’s understanding of his own nature as it really is.
Sometimes people think of “Calvinism” when they hear about Total Depravity. However, this idea was not an invention of John Calvin. It was not even an invention of St. Augustine long before him. It is a doctrine evident in all of God’s word from beginning to end.
So to support this truth, Paul turned to the books of Scripture they had in their day. Psalm 14:1-2 says, “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.” (see also Psalm 53:1-2)
These passages teach us that no one is righteous in the eyes of God. Paul modified the wording of Psalm 14 not to change the meaning but to fit it into the Greek language his readers spoke. Clearly no one is excluded, neither Gentiles nor Jews. Not one person can say that as God see it, he has lived righteously.
No one understands things as they truly are. This does not mean we cannot understand math formulas or learn definitions of words. It means that we are all alienated from God, and cannot possible see truth truly. We are bound to make ourselves seem better and more in control than we are, and to make God seem less good, less sovereign, and less consistent than he really is.
No one seeks the true God revealed in Scripture. If we struggle to distort the truth about God, the God we seek will not be the true God. Fallen man loves to worship, but not as God prescribes, nor to worship the God who really is. He wants a God who will not judge him fairly for what he deserves, a God who will let him have his forbidden pleasures, and salvation too, a God who will measure up to his mistaken view of all the rest of reality.
This depravity is total and universal. It includes all humans and touches every part of each one. So, how does this depravity effect our behavior?
Paul offers more support from the Scriptures.
Romans 3:12, “They have all turned aside; They have together become unprofitable; There is none who does good, no, not one.”
Here Paul quotes Psalm 14:3 and Psalm 53:3 (they both have the same wording), “They have all turned aside, They have together become corrupt; There is none who does good, No, not one.”
Blinded by sin, all turn from the way God prescribes and take a wrong path. As those wandering into forbidden territory they no longer display God’s mercy and truth. They are corrupted to where they avoid the mandates God made them to fulfill. They are not good, not even one single human being.
Romans 3:13, “Their throat is an open tomb; With their tongues they have practiced deceit; The poison of asps is under their lips”
Here Paul combines Psalm 5:9 and Psalm 140:3. Their throat is like an open grave: inviting death and decay. Their tongue is filled with poison like a snake with its lies and deceit. Not just lies to others, but lies to self as well, refusing to speak of things as they really are.
Then he quotes from Psalm 10:7
Romans 3:14, “Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness.”
Instead of blessing God and helping others to find the truth, the fallen heart leads others along in the way of God’s curses which brings life’s bitterness.
The next quote is from Isaiah 59:7 and Proverbs 1:16 (the same wording).
Romans 3:15-16, “Their feet are swift to shed blood; Destruction and misery are in their ways;”
The fallen heart is easily provoked to retaliation. Since self is their god, others are not as important. Those who get in their way are pushed aside leaving a trail of destruction and misery. Fairness and justice are deformed into vengeance and protection for self interests.
Romans 3:17, “And the way of peace they have not known.”
Paul interprets here showing the turmoil that replaces peace in the lives of fallen hearts. They live by revenge, selfish goals, selfish ambition, and self-serving values. This produces arguments, anger, grudges, gossip. In their presence there is no real peace. Their imagined “peace” is only found in the brief moments when they get their way.
Finally, Paul summarizes a great Scriptural truth.
Romans 3:18, “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
Instead of reverencing the Creator and fearing his awesome dominion, they are more afraid of created things. They are afraid of what men might do to them, of what might happen to spoil their plans, to take away their things, or to keep them from a moment of self serving peace.
Their worship is man-centered. It either replaces spiritual reality with mystical visions and moods, or with a party atmosphere. Their values are corrupted because they are more afraid of not being able to sin than of the consequences and offense their sin brings before the one true God.
Isaiah warned with these words from God in Isaiah 51:12-13,”I, even I, am He who comforts you. Who are you that you should be afraid Of a man who will die, And of the son of a man who will be made like grass? And you forget the LORD your Maker, Who stretched out the heavens And laid the foundations of the earth; You have feared continually every day Because of the fury of the oppressor, When he has prepared to destroy. And where is the fury of the oppressor?”
The Psalmist wrote in Psalm 36:1, “An oracle within my heart concerning the transgression of the wicked: There is no fear of God before his eyes.”
People are more afraid of ridicule, of having an older car or a smaller TV set, than they are of facing the Creator they have offended.
The depravity of every human heart is seen in hundreds of Bible verse. One author collected 72 key verses all making this point. Paul quoted just these few which he felt were sufficient to make his case. All men, no one excepted, are lost in sin and totally depraved, without hope, on their own.
So if we are so terribly corrupted, where can we turn to discover the truth?
God has not left us to drift without an anchor.
Romans 3:19-20, “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. Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin.”
As the first part of Roman had shown: God has made his truth known to everyone. He wrote in Romans 2:14-15, “for when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do the things in the law, these, although not having the law, are a law to themselves, who show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and between themselves their thoughts accusing or else excusing them)”
Those who have not heard the written word are still exposed to truth. It comes to them in the wonders of the things created, and in the voice of human conscience. No one is isolated from truth. God’s law convicts us all. There is no one excused.
But the law is not able to make us right with God. That was never its purpose. The law is not to provide a way of salvation, but its purposes are important.
1. The law of God silences our excuses and objections. It closes our mouths. It shows us the standard of God which we cannot and have not kept. It shows us that, though we have suppressed or ignored what God has declared, we are not excused from knowing and from believing the truth.
2. The law of God holds us all accountable. Some insist there is no law over them. They claim to be bound by nothing but themselves. They obey the laws of society only because they want to avoid the consequences. They curb their tongues, and watch their ways only when it i s to their benefit. They proudly and blindly grip to the illusion that they answer to no one. God’s law shows that, like it or not, we all answer to a heavenly King.
3. The law of God exposes our sin. We can fool other people, even the human courts of justice. They only look at outward evidence and listen to our words. So people work to conceal their sin, question the standards, use deceitfully worded testimonies and contracts, and argue against convictions. Self-love stops at nothing to make excuses for what pleases itself.
In contrast, the judgment bench of God sees the heart, the truth, the secrets. No one is innocent since in Adam all sinned and are truly guilty for their offenses. Tricky words and hidden evidence ca not fool our heavenly Judge. There can be no missing details or convincing perjury. The law of God makes the standard clear and leaves no one excusable.
4. But the law of God does not justify the guilty sinner. They are wrong who teach that we are justified by rituals or ceremonies, or by good works and nice deeds, or by our works of personal decisions, choices, or commitments. These deeds fail to honor this biblical truth. Nothing we do can save us.
This is not because the law is unable to show us what God requires. It shows us quite well, so much so that according to Romans 2:13, “… the doers of the law will be justified;”
The problem is not in the law. It is in the person’s inability to meet its demands. There is none righteous, no not one. No one understands or seeks after God.
There are also positive things God’s law accomplishes as it brings knowledge of sin.
1. The law of God prepares us for, and directs us to, the wonders of God’s Grace. When we come to know our hopeless condition we have no where else to turn but to Christ.
If the law is not used to teach persons that they are unable to right themselves with God, then the gospel has no real meaning for them, then grace is not seen as the unmerited favor of God. The work of the Savior is reduced to a stirring example instead of a triumphant atonement.
The law must be the first part of evangelism. It presents the lost with a holy God and with the reason why they need a Savior.
2. The law of God shows us how to be grateful to our Savior by obedience once we are made alive again by the application of the work of Jesus Christ. If there was no law of God then we would not recognize the perversions of our sin darkened hearts.
God’s law is a wonderful guide to the believer. By it he can know what he can do to show proper gratitude to his Lord. The redeemed need to know what our Creator says pleases him, not what we assume will honor him.
Humanly invented moral rules can lead us in the wrong path. When detached from the anchor of God’s truth, his gracious law, the rules we live by float about aimlessly and fail to mark out the channel.
I remember my dad teaching me when I was very young about guiding a boat through a channel. He told me to watch the red markers. I still remember the little phrase that helped remind me of where to pilot the boat, “Keep red on you right when returning from sea.”
The markers were anchored to the bottom and were unmovable indicators. If you wandered out of the dredged out channel you might go aground, hit rocks that could tear out the bottom of your boat, or you might get in the path of another boat and cause a serious accident.
If the markers were detached and just floated aimlessly around they would be useless. Boaters would have no guidance from the dangers of the waters.
Our modern culture has cut the cord that holds our moral rules in their proper place. Without the law of God as the anchor, our depraved hearts wander into dangerous waters.
We who love our Lord, and have by his grace come to know him have an important duty. We need to reattach our moral markers in life to the anchor God has given us in his word. The principles we live by must be fixed to God’s law which he has graciously provided, not as a means of salvation, but as markers of the right way for his redeemed children to live. God’s law teaches us how much we need the Savior, and shows us the way to express our love for the God who made us and who saves us from our guilt and condemnation.
It is tragic that in our age of relativism even some who claim to be Christians hate God’s law. They fail to see that the fulfilling of the prefigurings of Christ still point to him today. We are not to engage in the sacrifices, ceremonies of the Tabernacle, the dietary laws and such which were only temporary. However the moral principles were not given to Israel. From the beginning it was wrong to have or to worship other gods, to dishonor his name, to violate the Creation Sabbath, to dishonor those God puts in authority over us, to murder, to commit adultery, to steal, to lie, and to covet. God’s law lays out the attitude of humble worship where creatures fallen and redeemed by grace alone come to praise their Creator and Redeemer.
The Apostle Paul and the other writers of the New Testament certainly didn’t dismiss God’s previous words to his children in that way. Later in this letter to the Romans Paul commends God’s law as still very important as his guide in living to honor his Lord. In Romans 7 he wrote in verse 7, “… I would not have known sin except through the law. For I would not have known covetousness unless the law had said, ‘You shall not covet.’ ” Then in verse 12 he said, “Therefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy and just and good.” There are many places in the New Testament where we are shown the right us of God’s law.
The moral relativism we see nauseatingly repeated in the daily news and entertainment media reminds us that we all are morally corrupt to the core. God’s word as brought to our hearts by the Holy Spirit stirs us to confess our total unworthiness and dependance upon God’s redeeming grace alone for our strength and obedience. When we learn to love the law of God, that ability is also ours by grace alone, not by anything in our depraved hearts. We must strive to know and to obey the ways of God. We look to the firm foundation in Christ which is the anchor for our souls.
We learn to pray with the writer of Psalm 119:97, “Oh, how I love Your law! It is my meditation all the day.”
(The Bible quotations in this article are from the New King James Version of the Bible unless otherwise noted.)