“There is no one who does good, no, not one… Destruction and misery are in their ways; and the way of peace they have not known. There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
Romans 3:12b, 16-18
This post is part one in a series of three that will look holistically at God’s gospel of grace. You can see the pre-series summary here. If this is your first time, you may like to read the ‘start here’ section first, which you can do by clicking here. The structure of this post comes from the outline given in the John MacArthur study bible, and is explained more in depth in one of his sermons on this passage, which you can view by clicking here – I highly recommend it as a must-watch!
A right understanding of forgiveness cannot be achieved without a right understanding of sin. Why? Because forgiveness doesn’t make sense if there’s no sin. If there’s no sin, there’s nothing to forgive. But as Christians we know that in Christ we have forgiveness – this implies that something needed forgiving – sin.
To understand this crucial starting point on which the gospel is built, we must turn our eyes to the Word of God to see what He has to say about it. The book of Romans is one of my absolute favourites, it very accurately details the wonder and glory of God’s goodness in light of our depravity and futility. The general theme of Romans is Righteousness; that is, being right/good/perfect, in thought, word and deed, in the sight of God. Paul explains throughout the book that man is not righteous, that only God is righteous, and that the gospel is the only way a person can become righteous in God’s sight. To go a bit deeper, let’s look at chapter 3:9-20 in detail.
The Courtroom, the Judge, the Accused
The language Paul uses as he writes throughout this passage is judicial; complete with an arraignment, an indictment, a motive and a verdict. A judge’s responsibility in the court of law is singular: uphold the law. When a law has been broken, the judge must cast a decision that will enforce a right punishment against the accused. Paul has set up a courtroom, if you will; with God as the holy judge, and humankind as the accused.
“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.” Romans 3:9
Whenever the New Testament text refers to Greeks/Gentiles, they are referring to anyone who is not Jewish. In Romans 2 Paul had already discussed and confirmed the different ‘spiritual advantages’ of the Jews over the Gentiles. Gentiles have the moral law written in their heart, and also a conscience that acts as a mechanism by which God warns us when we are living in sin. The Jews’ advantage is this – that the law of God has been written down and taught to them. But even this, Paul says in verse 9, is to no avail – we are all under sin.
Sin is any nature that produces works, words, thoughts and attitudes that do not accord with God’s holy nature. This sinful nature is the human nature – when we are born, we are not holy and have a nature that contrasts God’s holiness; this nature then is evil. This is true of all people (Romans 3:23). There are a few arguments/evidences that attest to this: the fact that the wages of sin, or the result of sin, is death, and everybody dies, therefore all people sin (Romans 6:23); the evidence of past judgements – the flooding of the world, destruction of cities/nations, plagues, famines and other catastrophes – all a result of the sinfulness of humankind; but the best argument of all for sin, has been written by God Himself in His Word. This leads to verse 10, “As it is written…”
Paul makes 13 accusations by taking verses from the Old Testament as proof of the sinfulness of humankind. This form of Hebrew writing is called a Cheruz – “string of pearls”. It was a commonly used technique in rabbinic culture, where a Rabbi would string together “pearls of truth” from Scripture in order to make a point in his teaching. Since Paul was formerly a Pharisee, it makes sense that he would be familiar with such a technique. The indictment Paul gives in verses 10-18 comprises a description of the character, conversation, and conduct of people who are sinful.
Character: There is none righteous, no, not one (Psalm 53:3); There is none who understands; There is none who seeks after God. They have all turned aside; They have together become useless; There is none who does good, no, not one (Psalm 14:2,3 & Psalm 53:2). Since the fall of man in Genesis 3 (the story of how sin entered existence, which you can read here) every person is born with a sinful nature; that is to say, that their basic instinct is to not worship, honour or glorify God as God. We are completely and utterly devoted to the fulfillment and exaltation of ourselves in all that we do. And this isn’t news to us – a glance at man’s history, and the current state we are in as a species, sheds a lot of light on our nature. We are not basically good – we are evil. Only God is good, and since our nature opposes His, that makes us evil.
Conversation: Their throat is an open tomb; With their tongues they have practised deceit (Psalm 5:9); The poison of asps is under their lips (Psalm 140:3); Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness (Psalm 10:7). Jesus said in Matthew 12:34, “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks”. What you think about and care about in your heart will be made evident in how you speak. James 3:1-12 describes the dangerous impact the tongue can have; that with the same mouth we praise the Lord, and also curse others and lie. The sinfulness of our nature impacts our speech, making it imperfect and unholy.
Conduct: Their feet are swift to shed blood; Destruction and misery are in their ways; And the way of peace they have not known (Isaiah 59:7-8); There is no fear of God before their eyes (Psalm 36:1). It follows logically that who you are and what you say leads to how you act. A life lived in rejection of God will result in no true peace, joy or fulfillment – and this is a universal struggle that all people are aware of. No matter what you own, achieve, or possess, if God’s glory is not the end goal of everything you do, you will never know peace (Isaiah 59:7-8). In this passage Paul addresses the root problem of humankind’s sinful conduct: There is no fear of God before their eyes.
There is no crime without a motive, and the root motive behind sin is a lack of a fear or understanding of God. It is written in Psalm 36 that the wicked do no have the fear of God before their eyes, and then in contrast in Proverbs 16:6, that by the fear of the Lord men will depart from evil. So we have the problem (no fear of God), and a solution (the fear of God leads to righteousness). Fearing God refers not only to a fear of judgement; but to a reverential respect toward Him, a sense of awe at just how vast and how great and how holy He is. True fear of God does not inspire panic, a desire to flee or a sense of dread; it causes us to be so amazed by all of who He is, that we can’t help but respond with worship and love. What drives your life is determined by your attitude toward God: do you reject Him, flee from Him? Or do you desire to worship, love and delight in Him?
We find the ultimate verdict in Romans 3:19, “Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law (everyone), that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God”. God is the perfect judge, and His perfect law is the standard by which we are measured. But we do not measure up – we are not perfect. We have not lived a life that is completely righteous. Therefore, our mouths are stopped – we have no defense, since the evidence against us (that is, our imperfection measured against God’s perfection ) is substantial enough for the judge to make a summary verdict: guilty. But, have hope – for God’s work as Judge did not end there!
In the light of sin, and how futile and desperate a position it places humankind, does the gospel now seem more or less glorious? So much more! Because even though under the law we deserve death as punishment for sin, God provides sufficient redemption, as seen in verses 21-24: “But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed” – we cannot prove ourselves perfect under the law, so redemption must come apart from the law – “The righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory (perfection) of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”
Sin requires just punishment from God, and the punishment is hell. The value of the punishment must always fit the value of the crime (this is true in our own legal system). Because God is infinitely holy and great, any sin committed is infinitely offensive, resulting in an infinite punishment (hell). And we cannot rescue ourselves from this, because we cannot be perfect or righteous; we need to be able to claim someone else’s perfection, someone else’s righteousness, if we are to be saved from punishment. So when Jesus offered up His life on the cross, He wasn’t just dying for us – He was dying so that God’s justice would be satisfied, His blood being the payment that clears our guilt – so that God as the holy judge would be able to look at Christ’s suffering and death in place of our own! So that in God’s sight, we might have the righteousness of Christ apart from the law, and so be saved from an eternal punishment – freely given by His grace! How amazing!
I’m excited to write the next post, which will be part 2 – the Saviour. Knowing Christ and His work on the cross is the foundation of our salvation, and is a constant joy for me to learn more about! I hope this post was helpful and enlightening to you. God bless!