Apart from Christ, People Are Sinners (vv. 3:9-20)
Having established the sinfulness of all people, Paul now turns to Old Testament scripture to prove his conclusions. Gentiles were considered “uncircumcised dogs” by the Jews. Many Jews thought themselves privileged because of advantages they possessed. All people, however, are guilty before God.
Until we realize how deep our sin takes us and how far away from God it removes us, we cannot appreciate Christ’s work or our need for him. We must understand the bad news before we can adequately appreciate the good news. Verses 10 through 12 are taken from Psalm 14 and 53. The first reminds us no one is good. A better translation might be “no one is innocent.” Saying humanity is not upright is not identical with saying we are devoid of all value. Value is inherent in our nature because God created us and entered into a relationship with us. If we were of no value, there would have been no reason for God to create us in the first place.
While we possess goodness by virtue of being created in God’s image, our decency doesn’t make us acceptable to God. We may have goodness, but we are still guilty because of our sin. These verses are simply reminders of what Paul has already taught: all are guilty before God and have gone down the wrong road—the broad path Jesus referred to (Matthew 7:13).
Verse 11 concludes that no one is seeking God. A further mistaken tendency of humanity is to think we can come to God on our terms and at our initiative. Nothing is further from the truth. Unless God works in our life by his Spirit, we will not come to him. Jesus says no one can come unless drawn by the Father (John 6:44). Our sinful bent leads us away from Christ, not toward him. When we witness someone coming to faith, God has visited them by his Spirit. They are simply responding.
The picture darkens. We can’t approach God on our own nor do we have understanding apart from a relationship with Christ. We cannot put life together, nor can we understand where we came from, why we are here, or where we are going. Our understanding of life in general is skewed because we have forsaken the one from which true wisdom ensues.
When considering our sinfulness, we tend to think of the “big” sins we have not committed while overlooking the “small” things that are equally as sinful: lying, ill-chosen words, bitterness, anger, and gossip. Verses 13 through 18 continue the same line of thought. Verse 13 reminds us sin not only corrupts our relationship with God but with others also. Our tongues contain deadly poison like an asp or cobra. Verse 14 attests to the fact that what comes out of a person reveals what is on the inside. Our actions manifest the state of our heart.
Verse 17 speaks of an absence of peace experienced by unbelievers. A familiar sign reads the same: “Know God, know peace. No God, no peace.” The peace that surpasses understanding in spite of our circumstances is given only to believers (Philippians 4:7). The unbeliever experiences civil war of the soul and in turn takes that war to others he forms relationships with.
Verse 18 shows the ultimate foolishness of rejecting God. Those who do refuse even to fear him. But fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 9:10). Believers fear the Lord by reverencing him while also realizing he possesses life and death power over us. Unbelievers recognize neither. They may acknowledge the existence of God, but it makes no difference in their lives. While believers are classified friends of Christ and have been accepted into his family, we cannot allow this close association to breed contempt, leading us to lose our reverence for him.
While God’s law was never designed to save anyone, it did have purpose. Paul has already discussed how God and some of his attributes can be experienced through nature, so what was the further need for a document to turn our attention to him? While the natural revelation makes people responsible—as well as the fact that God created us—it doesn’t drive most people to God. God gave the law to further demonstrate that it is impossible to live up to God’s standards. It would be an even more convincing force in their lives.
God’s law kept people from having excuses for their immoral and criminal behavior. No one could say, “I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to murder,” because the law stated this act was forbidden. The law would bring the entire world into judgment before God.
It is typical for us to use what psychologists have termed “defense mechanisms” to excuse our bad behavior or maintain our self-image. Some of the more common are: denial, suppression, reaction formation (turning the feeling into its opposite), projection (attributing to others unpleasant qualities we possess), displacement (expressing anger at a neutral object), rationalization, regression (reverting to old patterns of behavior), and sublimation (channeling behavior into socially acceptable activity). What has been named by those who study human behavior is simply a restatement of what God already said.
The law stated God’s expectations and we use mechanisms to try and excuse our guilt, but we still stand condemned before God. Our responsibility is to hang up our defenses and admit the truth: we are sinners in need of a Savior. God’s law is designed to prevent the excuses we often offer for disobedience. The purpose of the law is not to justify us before God but to show and confirm our guilt. Because of his grace, God desired to show us where we go wrong and to compare that with his moral standard.
With Christ, We Are Righteous (vv. 21-22)
God never anticipated his law would actually change our nature or make us right with him. That was not its purpose. Paul now moves from the bad news about humanity to the good news of what God has done for us. There is actually a way we can be pronounced “not guilty.”
Every person who stands before a judge—guilty or not—wants to hear the jury read a verdict of “not guilty.” The thought of serving time in prison is not palatable. The thought of spending eternity in hell should be an even more reprehensible idea and a course of action to be avoided at all costs.
Paul emphasizes in verse 21 that the law was not given to make us acceptable to God. Nor was obedience to it a way to gain God’s acceptance. Rather, it was the means promised in Scripture long ago. The course of action was faith as evidenced in the life of Abraham and others who lived long before God dictated the law.
These verses make several references to righteousness, which entails several meanings. It certainly refers to God’s character. But it also denotes man’s character: a lack of righteousness. Yet it refers to what we can once again become in Christ. The way of salvation is identical for all classes, cultures, and races of people. The Gentile must come the same way as the Jew. The reason is the sinful nature possessed by every single person. God doesn’t deal with one set of people any differently than he does another. All are guilty.
God’s designed way for us to experience righteousness is by trust in God to forgive our sins based on what Jesus accomplished on Calvary. He paid for our sins, so therefore God can forgive based on that payment which represented a substitution. When we request God’s assistance in this matter, he declares us righteous, but the righteousness is based on what Christ has done and does not inherently belong to us. This eliminates any grounds for boasting.
The wonderful message of grace and forgiveness is available to all no matter who we are or what we’ve done. Murderers and child molesters can receive it just as easily as those who have been morally good their entire life. And all who come receive the same results: forgiveness, abundant life, and eternal life in heaven.