Romans 3:9-20

Romans 3:9-20

SERIES: The Book of Romans

Sinnerama, or I’m not OK, You’re not OK  

Introduction:  Let’s begin this morning by reading our Scripture text, Romans 3:9-20:

“What shall we conclude then? Are we any better? Not at all! We have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin. {10} As it is written: 

                  “There is no one righteous, not even one; 

                           {11} there is no one who understands, 

                           no one who seeks God. 

                  {12} All have turned away, 

                           they have together become worthless; 

                  there is no one who does good, 

                           not even one.” 

                  {13} “Their throats are open graves; 

                           their tongues practice deceit.” 

                  “The poison of vipers is on their lips.” 

                           {14} “Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.” {15} 

                  “Their feet are swift to shed blood; 

                           {16} ruin and misery mark their ways, 

                  {17} and the way of peace they do not know.” 

                           {18} “There is no fear of God before their eyes.” 

{19} Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. {20} Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.”

What do you think?  Not a very pretty picture of mankind, is it?  Incredibly ugly, as a matter of fact!  How does one explain such a negative view coming from the great Apostle of Hope?  Did he just have a bad hair day when he wrote this?  Perhaps he had been abused by some parishioners who had their noses out of joint, or perhaps his thorn-in-the-flesh (whatever or whoever that may have been) was acting up. 

Or could it be possible that Paul is simply giving us the straight goods here, that this really is an accurate description of species homo sapiens?

First, a word about the context.  Here in Romans 3:9 the Apostle is drawing to a head an argument he began way back in the first chapter.  In quick succession he has taken up the cases of the pagan, the humanistic moralist, and the deeply religious person, and he has shown each of them to be spiritually lost and without excuse before God.  “Pagan,” “humanist,” or “religious” probably describes every member of the human race, but just in case anyone feels he is an exception to the indictment, Paul states clearly in 3:9 that all are under sin.  

Verse 9 opens with a question, which is related to another question in verse 1.  Let’s see if we can follow the argument.  In the latter part of chapter 2, the Apostle has stated categorically that being a Jew physically does not automatically make a person a Jew spiritually.  Having said so, however, he immediately entertains a challenge or an objection to his teaching in 3:1.  “What advantage, then, is there in being a Jew, or what value is there in circumcision?”  

In other words, if being born a Jew, observing the Law, and going through the rites and rituals of the Jewish faith, doesn’t guarantee a person entrance into Heaven, what’s the advantage of being one of God’s chosen people?  The answer is given in verse 2:  “There’s much advantage, and the chief benefit is that the Jew was entrusted with the very words of God.”  Ray Stedman employs the following illustration:

Just imagine an island in darkness, populated with people.  There is only one way to escape the island, a narrow bridge over a deep chasm, but the darkness is so great that only a few find their way over that bridge.  Everyone on that island has been provided with a little penlight that enables them to dimly illuminate a small space around them, barely enough to avoid the obvious obstacles in their path.  But a certain group of people is given a powerful searchlight that can shine thousands of yards into the darkness.  It is given to them not only so that they can find the bridge, but also so they can show others the way out.

Yet these people, who have so much more light than the others, spend their time using this powerful searchlight to look for needles in a haystack.  That, in essence was what the Jews were doing.  The rabbis were arguing constantly over infinitesimal theological differences.  Jesus called this “straining at a gnat but swallowing a camel.”[i]  

Now look at verse 9:  “What shall we conclude then?  Are we Jews any better than the pagans and the humanistic moralists we described in the first two chapters?  Not at all!  We have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin.”  Yes, we have our advantages and benefits, says Paul, and we should not take them lightly, but if we don’t seize those advantages, if we don’t join God’s spiritual family by faith and then live in obedience to Him, then we’re no better off than the pagan or moralist.  

You see, there’s a level playing field when it comes to sin.  Just as every human being has the same blood in his veins, so every human being has the same inherited sin nature.  Some, like the pagan, ride that sin nature to the depths of depravity.  Others, like the humanistic moralist, try their best to keep a lid on it.  The religious person sometimes tries to deny it or hide it.  But, as we are going to discover, the only profitable thing to do with the old sin nature is to renounce it and receive a new nature by faith from God. 

Now the Apostle has three major propositions he wants to convey in the 12 verses before us:

         Man is universally sinful.

         Man is totally depraved.

         Man is helplessly lost.

All human beings are sinful.  (9)

The universality of the sinful human condition is seen in the statement, “We have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin.”  Everyone is either a Jew or a Gentile, for a Gentile is defined as a non-Jew.  But what is sin?  The word used here means literally, “missing the mark.”  Sin is any deviation from the Word of God, the will of God, or the character of God.  This means we cannot limit our definition of sin to violation of the Ten Commandments; it includes the violation of every commandment of God, Old Testament or New Testament.  Nor is sin limited to actions; it also includes thoughts and attitudes.  Nor is sin confined to what we do; it includes what we don’t do (in other words, there are sins of omission as well as sins of commission), and it even includes what we are.  

O.K., someone argues, I agree, we all have our imperfections, our moral flaws, our weaknesses, our deficiencies.  If you want to call those things “sin”, then everyone is a sinner.  But is the situation really that serious?  Everyone also has a lot of good in them, or almost everyone.  Even unbelievers do good things, and some cultists are legendary in their adherence to good morals.  And to that our text responds that mankind is not only universally sinful; he is totally depraved.

All human beings are totally depraved.  (9-18)

Look again at verse 9:  “Jews and Gentiles alike are all under in.”  The preposition “under” is significant here, for it says more than just “all people have sinned” or that “all have a tendency to sin.”  It says that we are dominated by sin, under its power, under its sway, and under its control.

The theological term used for this description is “total depravity.”  It is not a real popular view today; in fact, Dr. Robert Schuler wrote a whole book attacking it, so you can imagine what unbelievers must say about it!  But I believe total depravity to be a thoroughly biblical concept if it is properly understood.  The problem is that it is often misunderstood.

Total depravity does not imply that humans have no innate knowledge of God or of His will.  As we have seen in the first two chapters of Romans, they have both.  It does not imply that everyone is as thoroughly wicked as he can possibly be.  Only a few ever reach that depth.  It does not imply that sinners can’t act in positive ways toward their fellowman or admire virtuous character in others.  We know they can.

What total depravity does mean is that there is no spiritual good in man—absolutely nothing to commend him to God.  And it implies that all natural or civil good has the fatal defect of not being prompted by love of God.  Such righteousness is called “filthy rags” by God’s prophet Isaiah (64:6).  

Now in order to prove that mankind is totally depraved (as that term has just been defined), the Apostle strings together a whole series of quotations and allusions from the Old Testament.  Frankly, he could have proved his point through history.  Human depravity is writ large on the pages of history—whether in the Spanish Inquisition or in the Holocaust or in Bosnia.  He could have proved it by nature.  One doesn’t have to go far to see how mankind in his depravity has polluted his environment—whether with nuclear waste, moral waste, or just plain waste.  

Recently, I pulled into a convenience store on Manchester Road and while I was pumping gas, I saw a woman, whose husband was inside buying beer, throw some trash out her window.  I went over and picked it up, handed it to her through the window, and said in a nice voice, “Ma’am, I think you dropped this.”  “I didn’t drop it,” she retorted with curses, “I threw it.”  Depravity. 

But instead of demonstrating his doctrine through history or nature, Paul proves it through appeal to the Word of God.  And in the course of this appeal, he describes the character of the sinner, the conduct of the sinner, and the cause of the sin.

The character of the sinner.  Sin affects everything about a person’s character—his morality, his intellect, his will, his rebellious spirit, even his value—and all of these are addressed in verses 10-12.  

1.  In regard to his morality.  “There is no one righteous.”  That is, there is no one who consistently does the right things for the right reasons.  That includes Mahatma Gandhi, Arthur Schweitzer, Norman Vincent Peale, and Mother Theresa.  It includes all of us.  Not a single one of us deserves the title God gave to His Son, “Jesus Christ, the Righteous.”  Obviously, God is here using a standard of righteousness which is clearly above the standard we normally employ.  He’s employing a perfect standard.

“But,” you say, “some people are certainly more righteous than others.  They don’t all deserve to be lumped together, do they?”  Well, think of it this way:  Mt. Everest rises five miles above sea level with its jagged peaks.  But the earth is 8,000 miles in diameter.  If the earth were reduced to the size of a billiard ball, Mt. Everest would be less than 1/600th of an inch high.  Human fingers are not sensitive enough to feel such a ridge.  By the same token, all the mountains of human righteousness are seen by God as completely insignificant.[ii]  

2.  In regard to his intellect.  Human intellect is also affected by sin, for “there is no one who understands.”  That includes Aristotle, Plato, Thomas Aquinas, Da Vinci, Einstein, Von Braun, and even Marilyn Vos Savant.  None of them understands God’s truth, at least not without God’s help.  1 Cor. 2:14 says, “The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned.”  

And sin impacts not only spiritual truth; every area of academia is affected negatively by sin.  How else can one explain the absurd solutions the political scientist comes up with to solve society’s problems?  How else can one explain how a physician who has been trained to heal and subscribes to the Hippocratic Oath can become a doctor of death by performing abortions or euthanasia?  

3.  In regard to his will.  “No one seeks God.”  Now this seems like a strange assertion indeed. Think of the millions and millions of people who regularly flock to churches, synagogues, mosques, temples and shrines all over the world.  Yet “no one seeks God”?!?  I believe Paul would say that the religious person is actually trying to fill that God-shaped vacuum that is in every human heart, and whatever fills it temporarily, he accepts.  In other words, he is looking for a god, not the God of Scripture.  The true God tells a person the truth about himself and demands total surrender to Hiswill.  But mankind resists that with every fiber of his being. 

4.  In regard to his rebellious spirit.  Not only do people not seek after the true God; they specifically “have turned away from Him.”  The term “turned away” is one that is used in Greek of a troop of soldiers who have turned and fled before the enemy.  It reminds us of what Jesus said of His own people, the Jews, in Matt. 23:37:  “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.”  In John 1:11 it says, “He came to His own but His own did not receive Him.”  Mankind has an inherent rebellious spirit.  

5.  In regard to his value.  Verse 12:  “They have together become worthless.”  That’s very strong language, and it seems to fly in the face of other biblical statements, like, for example, the assertion that we were created in the image and likeness of God.  How can a person be in the image of God and worthless at the same time?  The answer is that mankind has lost his reason-for-being, which is to glorify Almighty God.  Just as salt that has lost its savor is worthless, so is the person who has lost his direction.   

And finally, to wrap up his evaluation of mankind’s character and make sure there is no misunderstanding, the Apostle flatly states, “There is no one who does good, not even one.”  Undoubtedly there are some here this morning who react very negatively to this categorical castigation of the human race.  Perhaps you are saying, “I just don’t accept the fact that we are so hopeless and helpless.  I accept instead the view of modern sociology, psychology, philosophy, and many other disciplines that people are essentially good, and that it is their environment that is the problem.”

If you think mankind is essentially good, I could invite you to work for a month in the toddler nursery.  But instead, I invite you to imagine that in this advanced scientific age of ours someone has invented a camera that can read thoughts and feelings(not that far off, I fear).  Further, imagine that since you walked into church today this hidden camera has been recording all your thoughts—what you thought when you arrived and discovered that the only parking spot was a quarter mile from the front door, what you thought when someone you know ignored you in the foyer, what you thought when your favorite seat was taken, what you thought when you discovered that one of the songs was unfamiliar and difficult to sing, what you thought when a particularly beautiful woman walked down the aisle (jealousy counts, too, ladies).  The camera would further record whether you have engaged in any true worship of God or instead have spent your time scheming about business or planning your next vacation.  

Now suppose one thing further.  Suppose it were announced that a screening of the film from that camera would be shown next Sunday.  Talk about a dilemma!  The intense desire most of us would have to see what others were thinking would be counteracted, I suspect, by considerable chagrin that all of our own thoughts would also be projected.  And even if you had nothing but lovely thoughts this morning, would you like to see the film from last week, or last month, or last year?

The stark reality, friends, is that God sees it all, and when He looks at the entire human race, His evaluation is this:  without a single exception, there is not a human being of any shape, size, or form from any culture, environment, or age who has habitually produced a life characterized by undeviating commitment to righteousness.  Not even one.[iii]

So much for the character of the sinner.  Beginning in verse 13 the Apostle turns his attention to how the sinner behaves.

The conduct of the sinner (13-17)

1.  His speech.  It’s as though the sinner is here being given his annual physical.  As you well know when you go to the doctor for some unknown ailment, he generally wants to look in your mouth.  He puts one of those overgrown popsickle sticks on your tongue and says, “Say ahhh!”  Well, God here looks into the mouth of the sinner and when he responds, “ahhh,” God says “Yuk!”  “Their throats are open graves.”  In a day when embalming wasn’t practiced, an open grave was a sure source of trouble when it comes to the sense of smell.

Jesus talked often about the fact that we give far more attention to what goes into our mouths than what comes out of them, when the opposite should be the case.  The Jews, for example, ate only kosher food, which, they thought, would prevent them from defiling themselves.  But listen to how defilement really takes place, according to Mark 7:18-23:

“Are you so dull?” Jesus asked.  “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a man from the outside can make him “unclean”?  For it doesn’t go into this heart but into his stomach, and then out of his body …. What comes out of a man is what makes him “unclean.”  For from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly.  All these evils come from inside and make a man “unclean.”  

Is it any wonder that Paul speaks of our throats as open graves?

After examining the throat, the physician often looks at the tongue.  I am told that there are an amazing number of things a doctor can perceive about an individual’s health just by looking at his tongue.  Well, God’s examination in verse 10 shows that human tongues practice deceit.  Sometimes the instrument of deception is a bald-faced lie.  More often it is a subtle half-truth, a white lie, an innuendo, an impression we try to leave without really saying something we know is untrue.  

Not only do people use words in deceit to gain their own ends; they also use words to injure others, for “the poison of vipers is on their lips.”  Every person is born with a poison sac and is able to use that deadly arsenal of words to strike at out at others.  James agrees:  “No man can tame the tongue.  It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” 

Furthermore, “Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.”  One no longer needs to visit a boot-camp or the back room of a pool-hall to get a quick education in the latest four-letter vocabulary.  The average fourth-grade class will do, or the typical family-hour television program.  Some people rarely ever speak a sentence without profanity.  And others, who would never speak even slang, nevertheless have bitterness oozing out of their pores, as well as written all over their faces.

By the way, have you ever heard the derivation of the term “profanity?”  An old Latin term for a church or cathedral is the term “fane.”  You’ll find it in your Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary.  “Pro” means “in front of.”  So “profane” language was language for use “out in front of the church,” not in it.  Just as people put out their cigars and cigarettes in front of the church, so they leave their cursing and profanity there, because it is deemed by everyone to be inappropriate in the house of God.  But friends, the real house of God is our body; the Holy Spirit dwells in the lives of believers, and it’s incredibly rude for us to allow our mouths to be full of cursing and bitterness in His house!

I want to speak to our young people for a moment about this matter of cursing and profanity.  There is an incredible amount of peer pressure in society in this regard.  Somehow kids seem to think it’s cool to talk as though they grew up in a barnyard or in the Marines.  But it’s not cool, it’s not intelligent, it only shows how insecure you are that you have to imitate the worst around you in order to feel important and accepted.  The wise young person will clear his or her vocabulary of any language they would be ashamed to use if Jesus were present.  The fact is, He is present.  I would further urge you to challenge your friends who use profanity.  Sometimes just one little statement like, “That kind of language turns me off,” is all that is needed for them to change their habits, at least when around you.

So much for the sinner’s speech.  What about his actions?

2.  His actions (15-17).  First, in verse 15 it says, “Their feet are swift to shed blood.”  Life is so cheap in our country today, particularly in the major cities.  People kill one another over a set of car keys or a verbal insult or even a sinister look, to say nothing of the thousands who are killed while a crime is being committed.  Furthermore, upwards of 50,000 innocent people die as the direct result of someone else’s overuse of alcohol.  And all that pales into insignificance when compared to the million and a half babies whose lives are snuffed out every year under “freedom of choice” laws relative to abortion.  And if you’re innocent so far, do you still claim innocence when confronted with Jesus’ claim that murder is committed when one hates another person?

Secondly, “ruin and misery mark their ways.”  Everywhere humans go, ruin follows.  Do we really need documentation?  Why do cities always develop ghettos and slums?  Why do our beautiful mountain streams and national parks become polluted?  Why do major industrial companies dispose of their hazardous waste in ways that they know will eventually endanger people in the area? 

And finally, “the way of peace they do not know.”  That would be a good epitaph for the United Nations or even the State Department.  Oh, they try.  They try hard, but the human heart is so desperately wicked.  Without God peace is impossible.  The way of peace is not pacifism.  Nor is the way of peace militarism.  In fact, there is no peace ahead for the nations of this world.  The way of peace is the way of surrender to the claims of the Lord Jesus Christ.  How can God be at peace with people who refuse the gift of His Son?  It is impossible.

If you’ve been tracking with me so far, you have probably wondered to yourself, how did we ever get into such a terrible state of affairs?  Well, the cause is clearly stated in verse 18. 

The cause of the sin (18).  “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”  The atheist seeks to argue God out of existence.  These people seek to ignore Him out of existence.  They are neither constrained by reverential awe nor restrained by fear of future retribution.  Remember the thief on the cross who spoke in amazement to his fellow felon:  “Don’t you fear God?  We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve.  But this man, (speaking of Jesus) has done nothing wrong.”  There is no fear of God in them.  

All human beings are universally sinful.  All of them are totally depraved.  Therefore,…

All human beings are helplessly lost.   (19-20)

Look at verse 19:  “Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God.  Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.”  In chapter 2 we learned that every person, Jew, Gentile, moralist or pagan, lives under law.  If he doesn’t have the Law written on scrolls, he has the law written in his heart.  This moral law which God makes known to everyone accomplishes two things.

First, it silences our excuses.  Phillips translates it this way, “We know what the message of the law is, for those who live under it—that every excuse may die on the lips of him who makes it.”  It’s time to listen.  There must be silence because God has some wonderful news, but He cannot tell us about it if we keep on insisting on showing the ribbons we have won in moral competition with others.  

Secondly, the law clearly reveals our sin.  The law has been likened to a mirror.  The purpose of a mirror is to reveal to you that your face is dirty.  But a mirror makes a very poor wash cloth.  It’s only good to drive you to the washcloth, water, and soap.  

Conclusion:  In the November 14 issue of CT Cornelius Plantinga writes:

         “At one time the accusation, ‘You have sinned,’ had the power to jolt people.  Catholics lined up to confess their sins; Protestant preachers rose up to confess our sins.  And they did it regularly.  Their view was that confessing our sin is like taking out the garbage; once is not enough.  As a child growing up in the fifties among Western Michigan Calvinists, I think I heard as many sermons about sin as I did about grace.  The assumption in those days seemed to be that you could not understand either without understanding both.  

But today’s confessionals are different.  “Let us confess our problem with human relational adjustment dynamics, and especially our feebleness in networking,”  Or, “I’d just like to share that we just need to target holiness as a growth area.”  The sinner’s prayer has become, “God Be Merciful to Me, A Miscalculator.”[iv]  

Friends, there’s a better solution than ignoring sin or calling it something else.  I want to ask you this morning:  How do you spell relief from the worst possible description of spiritual indigestion one could imagine, which we have found here in Romans 3?  Try B-u-t n-o-w.  See it at the beginning of verse 21? “But now.”  Immediately the tension that has been building up for three chapters begins to dissipate.  “But now, a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify.  This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.”  

It has been said that the sharpest dart in the devil’s quiver is delay.  He will not try to convince you there is no hell.  He will not try to convince you there is no heaven.  The vast majority of Americans believe in both.  What he will try to convince you of is that there is no hurry.  If you were suffering from symptoms that were life-threatening, you would not hesitate to go see a physician.  God says today that you are suffering from symptoms that are eternal-life threatening.  Come to the Great Physician and be healed.

DATE: January 15, 1995



Total depravity


[i] Ray Stedman, Expository Studies in Romans 1-8, From Guilt to Glory, Vol. 1, 58.

[ii] James Boice offers a great illustration to explain the difference between human righteousness and the kind God requires.  It’s like the difference between Monopoly money and real money.  See James Montgomery Boice, Romans, Vol. 1, Justification by Faith, Romans 1-4, 292-293.  

[iii] Stuart Briscoe, The Communicator’s Commentary, Romans, 80.

[iv] Cornelius Plantinga, “Earthquake in the Mainline,” Christianity Today, November 14, 1994.