The Bad News and the Good News Romans 3:1-21


Romans 3:1-21

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Remember now, Paul is in an imaginary argument with a self-righteous Jew. He began the previous paragraph, in v. 17 of chapter 2 saying, “Now you, if you call yourself a Jew…” And now he imagines this person breaking into his argument and saying something like this:

“Well then, if it is being a Jew inwardly that counts, if it is the ‘circumcision’ of the heart that matters, and if a Gentile can be as righteous as a Jew, what good is it being a Jew? What does it matter if one belongs to God’s ancient people?

And we might have expected Paul to say, “Well, not much!” But Paul replies instead “Much in every way.”

Text Comment

v.1       No writer of Holy Scripture impresses upon his texts his personality so much as does the apostle Paul. I know you have had the experience, I certainly have, of thinking as you have read the text of Paul’s letters, “You know, he could have made this easier to understand. Surely if he had looked over his first draft he would have thought to himself, ‘You know that is not entirely clear.’” But that is not the apostle Paul. His thoughts rush out of his mind and rush onto the page. In fact, “First of all they have been entrusted with the very words of God,” but you will look in vain in the verses that follow for a second or a third. We have a first but nothing else. Paul seems to suggest that he is going to give us a list. But he gives us but one thing. He says circumcision is valuable in all sorts of ways but he doesn’t tell us what those ways are. Paul does not want anyone to conclude from what he has said that circumcision is without value. It has value – he doesn’t pause to explain what that value is – but it is no automatic passport to heaven which is the point he was making in the previous paragraph. [Barrett]

v.2       Paul is speaking of Holy Scripture, which he describes here as the very words or utterances of God. Here is one of the Bible’s definitions of itself: it is the record of what God has said. To have God reveal his will to you and to know the mind of God is high privilege indeed! [Bruce, 95] But, of course, that raises the question: what if the Jews knew God’s will, but didn’t do it?

v.4       Paul’s line of thought is this: if Israel proved unfaithful to the privileges God bestowed on her, as obviously she did when she rejected the Messiah, if she proved herself an unbelieving people even though chosen by God and bestowed with many privileges, as she did when she crucified the Lord of glory, does that mean that God made a mistake or that his purposes and promises have come to nothing? Did God fail? No; God’s plan and God’s faithfulness never fail. Indeed, the unfaithfulness of men simply sets the truth and faithfulness of God in bolder relief. [Bruce, 95] If there has been a failure it is safe to assume it was man’s not God’s.

v.5       Paul now anticipates a further objection, almost certainly because people were actually raising this objection against the Christian doctrine of salvation by grace. If man’s unrighteousness serves to demonstrate God’s righteousness, if some good comes from man’s unrighteousness in other words, then why does he find fault with us. He is getting some benefit from our sin, is he not? The objection is so preposterous that Paul virtually apologizes for mentioning it.

v.6       God would cease to be God if he did not judge the sins of mankind. God would have to abdicate his entire office as the judge of mankind. Impossible! Paul is, of course, speaking to a Jew and can assume that he shares such a view of God as the judge of all the earth.

v.7       Obviously this objection – preposterous or not – was being made in Paul’s day and so he goes over it again. God may be glorified in the judgment of sin, his truthfulness and justice may be made manifest for all to see, but that does not mean that the sinner should be excused.

v.8       Some of Paul’s opponents, no doubt other Jews, were arguing that the logic of his gospel was that the end justifies the means. The Christians, they said, were asserting that one could sin and the result be the glory of God. It is not hard to see how someone could argue that way, since people have been making the same argument against Paul’s gospel ever since. This is the standard Roman Catholic objection to the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith. If, as Paul is going to say, my being good and my doing good are not what put me right with God, then why bother being good or doing good. If my obedience to the commandments of God doesn’t matter, then not only can I live as I please, but actually the worse a sinner I become, the greater glory redounds to God when he forgives me. He seems only more gracious and more merciful because he forgives more sin. Paul will deal with this objection in detail in chapters 6-8; he is anticipating it here. For now he simply says that the argument is preposterous and that should be obvious to all.

v.9       Paul is still in conversation with his imaginary debating partner. Well, if the Jews have privileges, at least one of which you have mentioned, are they morally superior to the Gentiles as, in fact, almost every first century Jew thought he was. Not in any way that matters because what we are talking about is man’s position before God and if the Gentiles are great sinners as they are, so are the Jews. This is, by the way, the first use of the word “sin” in Romans.

v.10     What follows is what is called a “catena,” [the Latin word for chain] a chain of citations of Scripture strung together to prove and emphasize a point. And what the Bible says, again and again, is that human beings are morally corrupt, rebels against God, and violators of all the commandments of God. Taken together the texts demonstrate that “sin has hold not only of every man without exception but also of every part of the human personality…” [Cranfield, i, 194]

v.11     I suppose the statement in v. 11, a reworking of statements in the Psalms, is the most difficult for most readers. We talk about seekers; we create so-called “seeker-friendly” church services. Surely there are some who are seeking for God. And, of course, by God’s grace many are brought to seek for God. But Paul is talking about man in sin, as he is in himself and as he will continue to be if left to himself. To be sure, many pretend to seek God, of course; but what in fact they are seeking is any god other than the living and true God. Even many unbelievers have been willing to admit that man often masks his true interests behind a religious pose. It was Talleyrand who observed that “Speech was given to man to disguise his thoughts!” When the Bible says that it is only the fool who says that there is no God, it is effectively asserting what Paul has asserted in chapter 1, viz. that the evidence for the existence of God is so overwhelming that the denial of his existence is therefore a positive act of rebellion, as is the substitution of imitation gods for the real God who made the world and each one of us. The God most people pretend to search for is that God who does very little and demands almost nothing. He remains passive, even immobile, like a book on a shelf. He is there if you want him but he will not pursue you. Man desires such a god who will leave him his independence, provide for him only those things he desires, and permit him to continue to practice his pleasures. That is not the true and living God who made us and gave us our conscience. As C.S. Lewis put it, to imagine sinful man seeking the living and true God, the Almighty, is akin to imagining the mouse searching for the cat!

“An impersonal God – well and good. A subjective God of beauty, truth, and goodness inside our own heads – better still. A formless life-force surging through us, a vast power which we can tap – best of all. But God himself, alive, pulling at the other end of the cord, perhaps approaching at an infinite speed, the hunter, king, husband – that is quite another matter…. There comes a moment when people who have been dabbling in religion (‘man’s search for God’!) suddenly draw back. Supposing we really found him? We never meant it to come to that! Worse still, supposing He had found us?” [Miracles, 97-98]

v.14     So much of human sin comes out of the mouth: whether cruelty or disrespect, deceit or hypocrisy, anger or indifference.

v.19     The term “law” in its biblical usage can refer to the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, to the commandments per se, or to the Bible as a whole, as it does here. The reference is obviously to the texts that have just been cited and all of them, save one, are from the Psalms, the other from the prophet Isaiah, none from the first five books of the Bible. Paul’s point is, as he earlier said, Holy Scripture was given to the Jews and in its condemnation of man it obviously condemns the Jews first and foremost. Since, therefore, the Jews are no exception to the moral failure of mankind, Paul’s proof that all men lie under judgment is complete.

v.20     The inevitable conclusion: man is not nearly good enough; he is not nearly righteousness enough for God to declare him righteous. The moral condition of men and women is such that the law of God that shows men what they ought to be and do, in fact, becomes the demonstration of their moral failure. As one old writer quaintly put it, “the law is the light that shows the dirt in the room, not the broom to sweep it clean.”

Remember, now, Paul is expounding his “gospel.” He gave us a thesis statement in chapter 1 verse 17: “for in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written, “the righteous will live by faith.” But to understand that statement and still more to embrace it as the wonderful news that it is, we must first understand man’s moral condition, his need for righteousness, and his unrighteousness in itself. To that end, in the paragraphs that followed 1:17, Paul explained and described the human predicament. Man is sinful and he lacks the ability either to undo the past – to deal with his guilt for sins already committed – or to break free from the power of sin in the present. He must be righteous for God will approve only the righteous on the Day of Judgment, but man is not righteous. This is what Paul has taken such great pains to demonstrate from Holy Scripture and from the facts of human experience. Now he is ready to return to his thesis statement as he does in v. 21 to speak of the righteousness which is from God. That is the good news. There is righteousness from God. Now he is going to tell us about that righteousness from God and we are ready to hear it because we have learned that man, all of us, every human being, is unrighteous before God. As a result we are unable to avert the righteous judgment of God that looms above us and before us, at least we are unable in ourselves. That is the great problem that the gospel addresses, the problem that is solved by the righteousness that comes from God. Our terrible problem is before us and Paul is now ready to explain God’s solution to that problem.

Now, to be sure, most people are not convinced that they are as bad as Paul here says they are. Most unbelievers, indeed some of the professing Christians you know, have a much more benign view of themselves. They would never use the texts Paul has assembled in vv. 10-18 to describe their own moral condition. They think of themselves as pretty good people. They will often say it straight out without embarrassment: “I’m a good person.” I don’t know how many times over the past 31 years of my ministry someone has sat in my office and told me, “I am a good person,” to which I usually reply, “No, you are not.” And then, all too often, the conversation goes downhill from there. Oh, every now and then, people will beat themselves up for something they said or did, but the shame soon passes and they think of their moral lapses as, by and large, the exception rather than the rule.

And there can be no doubt that a failure to agree with Paul at this point renders his gospel finally irrelevant, uninteresting and unimportant. If you want to know why so many people are uninterested in the Christian message, you will find the answer here. They don’t accept Paul’s description of the moral failure of the human race. If people are not conscious of the greatness of their sin, as Paul here says they should be, then he has laid a foundation for the good news to no purpose. He is ready to propose a solution to a problem that people don’t think they have. When a helpless, desperate man, out of the distress of his soul looks to the gospel for deliverance, the news that there is a righteousness from God for him is life itself to that man. Glad tidings indeed! But if a man thinks himself in control of his life and destiny, if he is satisfied with his moral situation, if his view of God and himself is such that he does not fear the judgment, then the gospel, this great message that Paul is taking such pains to explain and proclaim, must remain something genuinely irrelevant. You don’t need a cure if you’re not sick!

It is this great divide that separates Christians from non-Christians. Isaiah says that our sins have made a separation between ourselves and God. But there are a great many people who don’t think it is so. James Boswell once asked Samuel Johnson for his opinion about original sin. Did he think that every man was morally corrupt? Johnson replied,

“With respect to original sin, the inquiry is not necessary, for whatever is the cause of human corruption, men are evidently and confessedly so corrupt, that all the laws of heaven and earth are insufficient to restrain them from crimes.”

But that is not Christopher Hitchens’ view, one of the new atheist writers whose jaundiced view of Christianity is expressed in his book, God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. In Hitchens’ view, Paul’s view of man as a sinner, as hopelessly morally corrupt, is both untrue and unhealthy. How much self-respect, he asks, “must be sacrificed in order that one may squirm continually in an awareness of one’s own sin?” Man is better than Paul describes him and he needn’t grovel before God. The psychologist Steven Pinker goes still further. Man is actually getting better and better. Modern man is nobler than any generation of man before him. The data about human life in the world paints what he calls “a shockingly happy picture.” We stand agape before a statement like that; we wonder what world Steven Pinker is living in. Is he utterly unaware of the universe of human misery that is churned up in modern life all over the world? Has he read human history? But take the point. Hitchens and Pinker have no interest in the Christian message because they do not accept Paul’s account of the human predicament. They are not interested in Paul’s solution to man’s problem because they don’t believe in the problem.

C.S. Lewis was only working out the inevitable logic of Paul’s position when he wrote:

“A recovery of the old sense of sin is essential to Christianity. Christ takes it for granted that men are bad. Until we really feel this assumption of his to be true, though we are part of the world he came to save, we are not part of the audience to whom his words are addressed.” [The Problem of Pain, 57]

But if Paul is right, if the Bible is right about the comprehensive and profound sinfulness of human beings, why don’t people see it? How can they fail to realize the truth of what Paul says here? There are various reasons. First, most people almost always think of sin in anthropological terms not theological ones. That is, they think of sin almost exclusively as transgressions against other people, not as transgressions against God himself. And sins against other people usually don’t strike people as all that serious. The other people aren’t that good either. It isn’t as though they deserve our best behavior all the time. They behave badly; so do we from time to time; big deal, it evens out. But Paul ends his chain of biblical citations in v. 18 with the citation of Psalm 36:1: “There is no fear of God before their eyes.” That is the essential problem. Man is not reckoning with God or with God’s will or God’s justice or the offense that God takes when his creatures rebel. They have no idea of the mess they are making of this pure and wonderful creation that God has made and of this life that God has given us. To see sin as being committed against God himself makes for a completely different picture. If God is offended and God is the judge, man’s situation is suddenly much more serious.

Second, people invariably think of sins in terms of commissions rather than omissions. They almost always primarily think of sin as doing something they shouldn’t do. And surely we are guilty of many commissions. Lying and hateful words are such commissions and Paul mentions them in vv. 13-14. But a man or woman understates altogether his or her moral status if he or she considers only commissions. It is interesting that when the Lord summarizes the whole duty of man he puts that duty positively, in terms of what is to be done, not what is not to be done. “Love God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind and love your neighbor as much as you love yourself.” But if that is our duty, if that is the purpose for which we have been given life, then who can deny that our moral failure is nearly complete? How many could say with a straight face that they have loved God with all their heart and soul? How many could say that they have loved God at all, much less with such passion? I hear all the time about people who are angry with God. I hardly ever hear of somebody who is in love with God. And what of our neighbors? Who is the neighbor that we love as much as we love ourselves? Name that neighbor in your own case. Not your children, when you love them you love yourself. Who is the neighbor you love as self-sacrificially as you love yourself? Now, suddenly, our sinfulness takes on an entirely new character. We have done virtually nothing of what we were supposed to do. The fact that we think so well of ourselves so clearly amounts to a willful refusal to face facts.

And, third, there is the penchant, so clearly on display in the Judaism of Paul’s day, but just as clearly on display in human life in every age and in every place, to treat God’s commandments superficially and to imagine that we are keepers of the sixth commandment if we have not murdered another human being, of the seventh if we have not slept with another man’s wife or husband, of the eighth if we have not broken into another’s home to steal his property, of the ninth if we have not lied on the witness stand. But the whole burden of the Bible’s teaching about true righteousness is that it originates and takes its character from the motives and the attitudes of the heart; that real goodness reaches into every part and parcel of our behavior from the bottom up, and that the true burden of God’s law is not met until it is the heartfelt expression of a man or woman’s selfless love. Let a man try to live that way seeking always and in every way the good of others and the glory of the God who gave him life, let him try to be good in the thoughts and the attitudes of his heart – which God knows better than the man himself – and he will discover what multitudes have discovered before: “No man knows how bad he is till he has tried very hard to be good.” [Lewis, Mere Christianity, 124] If you simply float with the current you have little idea of how strong it is. But if you attempt to row upstream you learn very quickly what you are up against!

Understand the demand of the Word of God, the Law of God as we come to understand it in Holy Scripture and it is perfectly obvious that there is no one righteous, not even one. And a second proof of this fact is that throughout the ages a great many people have come face to face with this fact about themselves and have been forced, as it were against their will, to admit the truth that Paul has taught us here. Such people have been among the very best people in the world but they have acknowledged that Paul did not describe the half of their sin. The folk who have seen so clearly what human beings ought to be have been the very ones who have admitted that they are not such people.

That is what the law does. It holds our noses in our moral failure, in the full measure of our badness and refuses to let us squirm away, until we are so disgusted with ourselves and so afraid of the consequences and so despairing of any effort to better ourselves that finally we do what we should have done in the first place: cry out to God for help. That is why it is so important that the law continue to be preached, that God’s demands for human life continue to be set before human beings, to root them out of their complacency and make them face the fact that they are unrighteous before God and exposed to his judgment. Let a man or woman realize that and suddenly the gospel is a power and a glory and a wonder with the ability to transform his or her life. Or as a Puritan put it long ago: “The sharp needle of the law as it pricks the conscience [is] found to be attached to the scarlet thread of the gospel.”

Now, it is very easy to take all of this morbidly, no matter how true it may be. Perhaps particularly in our day it seems and sounds so depressing to describe human beings as such abject and comprehensive moral failures. And it certainly is not a particularly popular message however important it may be for people to hear.

But think again. There is wonderful news hidden in this bad news that Paul has given us at the end of his preliminary argument about man’s need. There is some wonderfully liberating news in this dark portrait Paul paints of human life.

First, it puts us all in the same boat. We are, you and I, forever comparing ourselves to others. We wish we were as others are or had what others have or could do what others do. But what Paul tells us here is that in everything that matters absolutely and ultimately, in everything that matters for time and eternity, we are all in the same situation. No one stands above anyone else. We are all moral failures and all in need of a righteousness that we do not have and cannot produce by our own effort. We share this terrible predicament. We are all in it together. The Bible’s condemnation of man has a leveling effect. It humbles us not only before God but before one another and it lifts us up before one another in a strange sort of way. The poorest, the most discouraged of human beings is not below the most prosperous and happy-go-lucky. Surely there is some consolation in that. When the Puritan, Nathaniel Ward, said that he had two comforts in life: the perfections of Christ and the imperfections of everyone else, he was acknowledging what a burden it is always to be looking at others, comparing yourself to everybody else, in the fear that they are better than you are. Paul’s removes that burden. He obliterates it indeed. We are all the same in the one respect that really matters. We are all unrighteous, utterly and completely, before God.

But, more important still is the fact that this description of man as hopeless in himself before the judgment of God is full of hope! When a person begins to face the facts about himself or herself, the tendency is almost invariably to think that he or she is not and can never be good enough for God. The devil, of course, is happy to convince you of that fact. Indeed, is that not precisely what Paul has just said? We are not good enough for God, but Paul said that to explain how it is that sinners are saved. The reason salvation takes the form it does – the accomplishment of Jesus Christ and the free gift of God – is because man is incapable of meeting God’s requirements. God must meet them on his behalf or they will never be met. But what that means is that everyone is qualified for salvation by his or her own moral failure. We bring nothing to our salvation but the sins from which we must be saved. God does everything; he gives everything. We are done for; we do not do.

Any view that retains any idea that man must somehow, in some way, perform to an acceptable level to please God and to gain acceptance with him leaves us with the fear that we will not measure up. Others may, but we will not. We fear failure because we know ourselves to be failures, especially in all that is most important to God. So common is this fear that even experienced Christians struggle to be rid of it in their own thinking. But Paul has nothing to say about some men and women being more righteous than others; about some being more worthy of God’s gift than others; about some being better candidates for salvation than others. No, his entire point is that there is no one righteous; not even one; no one who seeks God; no one who does good; not even one. There is no comparison of one with another.

Thanks be to God that Paul is so unrelenting in exposing our total and utter failure to be and do what is right. He leaves us right where we need to be: in abject hopelessness. Many people, to be sure, will not care, but to the one who does care, who feels the weight of his moral failure or hers, who sees the truth of what Paul has said and feels the force of it in his or her heart, Paul’s uncompromising condemnation of all men means, whatever else it means, it means that there is hope for me and for you. God’s provision of salvation is based on the assumption that man is in a hopeless condition, every man is. When we know that to be true of ourselves, we are not further  from salvation but nearer to it; so far from being unworthy to be saved, we are ready to be saved. Jesus Christ, Paul so much as says here, is the Savior of the helpless. It is the helpless that he puts right with God. The worse you know yourself to be, the worse your situation is to yourself, the more helpless you feel, the better and the safer you are.

Paul’s argument here, after all, is simply an explanation of what the Lord Jesus himself was always saying to his congregation:

“I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” [Matt. 9:13]

And now with Paul’s argument we can all say, “Well, I’m a sinner, so he must be calling me!”