Pastor David B. Curtis


Universal Sinfulness

Romans 3:9-20

Delivered 02/27/2011

How often have you heard the words, "They're in a better place now" when someone dies? It seems that the general assumption is that everyone goes to heaven. Have you ever heard someone say, "Well, I guess they're burning in Hell right now" when a relative or friend died? No matter how evil, how anti-God a person is they always seem to go to a "better" place when they physically die. There is a sense of universalism among our culture.

The extreme form of universalism is the belief that all people are going to Heaven. The more subtle, and just as deadly, form of universalism is that anyone who is sincere about whatever religion they choose is going to the same Heaven of which Christ spoke. It is universally true that people like to think of themselves as basically good and deserving of heaven. But that is not the testimony of Scripture.

The strongest and the greatest argument for the sinfulness of man is Scripture. What does God have to say? And that is precisely what you have in Romans 3:9-20. This passage is one of the most forceful in Scripture that deals with the total depravity of man. Total depravity does not mean that every person is as bad as he or she could be. It means that sin has affected every part of his or her being, and consequently, there is nothing anyone can do to commend himself or herself to a holy God.

This teaching on the sinfulness of man is something you will only find in the Word of God. You won't learn this outside the Scripture. This is a fact that is not in any public school curriculum, though it is more important than any other fact they teach.

Paul's language in our text is judicial. It is the language of a courtroom. This is a trial; It has an arraignment, it has an indictment, and it has a verdict.

We said earlier in our study of Romans that 1:18-3:20 is all about God's righteousness. And we also said that the phrase "the righteousness of God" refers to God's own righteousness, or we could say "God's own faithfulness to the covenant."

The covenantal meaning of "the righteousness of God" is first and primary. But secondarily the word "righteousness" is also shaped by the Second Temple Jewish setting of the lawcourt. Jewish law court forms the background for Paul's forensic use of the dikaiosune theme. An accuser and defendant pleaded their case before a judge. When the case has been heard, the judge finds in favor of one party and against the other. Once that has happened, the vindicated party possesses the status "righteous"--a statement of how things stand in terms of the now completed lawsuit.

Let's look at our text:

What then? Are we better than they? Not at all; for we have already charged that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin; Romans 3:9 NASB

You'll remember that in 3:1 Paul asked a rhetorical question about whether or not Jews have any advantages. To which he answered, "Great in every respect." What was their advantage? Paul says, "They were entrusted with the oracles of God" (3:2). They were given the Messianic promises. What an enormous advantage of understanding and responsibility! But having the oracles of God did not equate with righteousness. They needed to act in faith upon those promises.

Now, in our text, he returns to the same question as though answering it with greater clarity: "What then? Are we better? This would be a literal rendering, there is no "than they" in the text.

Scholars debate who the "we" is in Paul's question. It seems that he asks this question on behalf of his Jewish brethren. Were they better than the Gentiles? Did their advantage of having the oracles of God mean that they were better than those that didn't?

Are we better? And Paul answers, "Not at all." These privilege of having the Messianic promises should not in any way give the false hope of special privilege so far as their standing before the judgment bar of God is concerned. Concerning the matter of personal righteousness before God, the Jew is just as lost, just as condemned as the Gentile.

Paul, using language from the courtroom, makes the incriminating accusation, "both Jews and Greeks are all under sin."

The phrase "under sin" is from the Greek hupo hamartia. Hamartia means to miss the mark. It is an archery term for an arrow dropping to the ground before it reaches the target. Men have fallen short of God's mark, which is righteousness.

Hupo hamartia is a military term that means to be under the authority of someone else. It was used for soldiers who were under the authority of a commanding officer. It means to be under the control of someone else or something else. In that case, it means that the human race is under the domination of sin. We are all part of the "Empire of Sin." Man outside of Christ is under the control of sin and is helpless to escape from it.

To be under sin is to be under sin's dominion or reign. Paul describes it as slavery to sin (6:12-17) in which sin is the dictator despotically commanding us. Sin is like a master or a king and reigns over us and in us.

To be under sin is to be under sin's penalty. The charge against sin--its wages--is death (6:23). To be under sin is to be guilty in the eye of justice. It is the opposite of being under grace:

For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law but under grace. Romans 6:14 NASB

Paul is teaching us the universality of sin. It has infected every part of the human race. No group is exempt. The Jews are guilty, the Gentiles are guilty, all are guilty.

The universal sinfulness of man is a truth that Christianity must proclaim to the modern world. God has appointed the Church to be a mighty advocate for truth in the world:

but in case I am delayed, I write so that you will know how one ought to conduct himself in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and support of the truth. 1 Timothy 3:15 NASB

Paul calls the Church of the living God "the pillar and support of the truth." The idea is that the Church's mission is to hold up the truth of God for all men to see. The Church is to support and display the truth of God. We are not the source of truth, the Bible is, but we are to support and display it. The Bible is God's Word, and the Church is to support and display that truth. One of the most important truths that we are to hold up in the world is that all human beings are under sin. Men are sinners, and until they recognize this they will never realize their need for a Savior.

This is a problem in our culture because the largest church in America does not talk about the sinfulness of man. At Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas, Pastor Joel Osteen preaches to some 25,000 people each week, and sin is not on the menu. Osteen says, "I just don't believe in condemning people and being judgmental. Yes, there's a way of condemning people and knocking them down and getting them to feel bad. That maybe can turn some people around, but I believe in just speaking the truth and letting them know they have good things in store." Osteen said his goal is to "give people a boost for the week."

So Osteen's message is to keep people from feeling uncomfortable, bad, or guilty by letting them know what is wrong. Compare this to what Paul writes in the third chapter of Romans, and we find how off-base this is in terms of delivering Gospel content. People must be made aware that all men are under sin.

The other extreme form Osteen is John MacArthur who, commenting on Romans 3:9, writes, "I think 'we' is referring to Paul and believers. He goes on to say, "That is to say, the entire human race is condemned before God. And that even applies to Paul, his companions and Christians." And then he states, "By the way, we don't cease to be guilty sinners either just because we've been saved. We're still guilty sinners."

Are Christians guilty sinners? No! Guilty and Christian don't go together at all. I think there is only one time in the Word of God where a Christian is called a sinner:

My brethren, if any among you strays from the truth and one turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins. James 5:19-20 NASB

This is referring to the believer who has wandered from the truth. Other than this I don't know of another time that a Christian is called "a sinner" in the Scriptures. The most common term used for Christians is "brethren." And the second most common term is "Saint." We are brothers in the family of God, and we are Saints.

Sure Christians sin, so I guess you could say we are sinners. But we are NOT guilty! We have had our sin paid for in full by Christ. We have been made righteous! Look at what Paul says of Christians:

being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; Romans 3:24 NASB

We are NOT guilty, we have been justified! If you think of yourself as "guilty sinner," what do you expect from yourself? Not much. But if you see yourself as a "Saint," then you will seek to live up to who you are. We are Saints, and we are to live like Saints.

Alright, so Paul says that all are under sin, all men, apart from faith in Christ, are guilty before God, and then he gives proof:

as it is written, "THERE IS NONE RIGHTEOUS, NOT EVEN ONE; Romans 3:10 NASB

"As it is written," a very familiar New Testament phrase that makes reference to Israel's Scriptures. Here is the testimony to the doctrine of the universal sinfulness of men and it is the testimony of God Himself.

Paul doesn't philosophize concerning sin, but rather pulls from Scripture verse after verse to show that "it is written," or better, expressing the perfect passive verb, "it stands forever written." If you put it in the perfect tense in the Greek language, it makes it permanent.

Rabbis would take a series of truths from Scripture that they strung together with one verse after another, calling it "a string of pearls." Paul has taken that tactic. So we have here a series of negative statements from Scripture describing the character of all men.

"There is none righteous, not even one"--he means that by nature, apart from saving grace, we are unrighteous. Throughout the Bible, the basic idea conveyed in the word "righteous," "justify," or "justification" is that of a legally right standing with God. No one meets God's standard. In fact, in the pre-flood civilization, God said He was going to drown the whole world because all He ever saw in the heart of man was only evil continually.

Paul is quoting here from Psalm 14; Romans 3:10-12 are all from this Psalm, which is mainly an indictment of the Gentile world, because in verse 5 it says, "God is with the righteous generation," which is a reference to Israel. So Paul is proving in these verses that the Gentiles are sinners.


This is a quote from Psalm 14:2; 53:3. Man has no right apprehension of God. To put it in the language of Paul:

But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised. 1 Corinthians 2:14 NASB

Apart from the work of the Spirit man cannot understand spiritual things.

"No one seeks for God"-- the word for "seek" means: to "seek with determination." While there are many who claim to seek God, there is no one who by nature seeks God with wholehearted determination. Interestingly, many churches refer to non-believers as "seekers"; yet that's a misnomer. Seeking God is antithetical to the human disposition. We seek pleasure or religion or happiness or good times, but not for God, His holiness, His pleasure, His righteousness, and His face.

Among all these people, in churches and temples all around the world, there is none that seeks for God--no, not one! Isn't that amazing? The natural heart of man is not really looking for God!

The only time the sinner ever seeks for God is when God first seeks the sinner. John 6 says:

"No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day. John 6:44 NASB

Many people--even many Christians--doubt this is true. We secretly think that millions of people are seeking God the best way they can. Paul says, "No." Man left to himself never seeks God. He always turns to idolatry:


This is quoted from Psalm 14:3.

"ALL HAVE TURNED ASIDE"--not only are men not seeking after God, they are running from him. This word is used of fleeing from wild animals. In one use in classical Greek the verb was used by Polybius for a group of soldiers who turned and fled in confusion in the midst of a battle, deserters. The whole human race has deserted the way of God.

Jonathan Edwards termed this, "Moral inability." What Paul explains, and Edwards saw so clearly was that man intentionally turns away from God to pursue sin.

"THEY HAVE BECOME USELESS"--this is a term that describes something that is forever ruined and marred. The Hebrew equivalent of this word is used of milk that's gone sour.

"THERE IS NONE WHO DOES GOOD, THERE IS NOT EVEN ONE"--is he suggesting that there is absolutely no one who does good in any sense at all? No, he's not saying that. Mother Teresa is a far better person than Saddam Hussein. Some people are incredibly evil while others seem almost saintly. It would be pointless to deny that truth. There are some good people in the world doing very wonderful things. They help with natural disasters, they feed the poor, they build homes for the homeless. All of that is commendable. But the basic reason man does even good things is for self-gratification. "Good" really means to do things for the glory of God, and your naturally good man does not do things for the glory of God. He does not think of God.

Sin "levels" the human race so that when we are compared to God's infinite perfection, Paul's conclusion in verse 12 is correct: "There is no one who does good, not even one."

This is quite an anthropology, isn't it? This is biblical anthropology, man is bad, ignorant, rebellious, wayward, useless:


Verses 13 and 14 Paul quotes from Psalm 5:9, Psalm 140:3 and Psalm 10:7. Now Paul shows us that man is rotten and this is evidenced by what he says.

"THEIR THROAT IS AN OPEN GRAVE"--this is what we would call a gross picture. Nothing is more abominable in the ancient world than an open grave and a stinking rotting body putting out its staggering and unbearable stench.

"WITH THEIR TONGUES THEY KEEP DECEIVING"--this is from Psalm 5:9, the tense indicates again a life habit. The word deceiving is dolioo, the root idea is a fishhook, the fishhook is deceptive, it looks like lunch, but it is death.

"THE POISON OF ASPS IS UNDER THEIR LIPS"--this is from Psalm 140:3. This is the analogy of a snake, the fangs of a deadly snake ordinarily lie folded back. They're folded back in the upper jaw. But when it throws open its head, they flip down so that the poison of asps is tucked under their lips until they're ready to strike, and then those hollow fangs flip out, drop down. When the snake bites, the fangs press a sac of deadly poison hidden under their lips, injecting venom through them like a needle into the victim. I think we see here that words can be deadly.

In Numbers 21 we read of the complaining of the Israelites. God sent a plague of serpents upon them to instruct them, I believe, that the tongue can be like the fangs of the serpent spreading deadly poison.


This is from Psalm 10:7. It indicates a heart seething in rebellion against God. Depraved at every point of his being, affected by sin in every relationship and endeavor, there's no righteousness in man.

Paul is saying that man has nothing to commend himself to God. Man is incapable of doing anything to please God and to earn His approval, for man is born an enemy of God.

Do you remember several weeks ago we talked about Paul using "remez"? In Jesus' day the great teachers used a technique which is today called "remez" or hint, in which they used part of a Scripture passage in discussion, assuming their audience's knowledge of the Bible would allow them to deduce for themselves fuller meaning. Well for us to see the fuller meaning from these texts, we must look at their context.

Paul quotes at length from Psalm 14:

The fool has said in his heart, "There is no God." They are corrupt, they have committed abominable deeds; There is no one who does good. The LORD has looked down from heaven upon the sons of men To see if there are any who understand, Who seek after God. They have all turned aside, together they have become corrupt; There is no one who does good, not even one. Do all the workers of wickedness not know, Who eat up my people as they eat bread, And do not call upon the Lord? There they are in great dread, For God is with the righteous generation. You would put to shame the counsel of the afflicted, But the LORD is his refuge. Oh, that the salvation of Israel would come out of Zion! When the LORD restores His captive people, Jacob will rejoice, Israel will be glad. Psalms 14:1-7 NASB

Notice how this Psalm ends with a prayer that God would deliver Israel. And when Israel is delivered, then the Gentiles also come to this salvation. So it starts out with a condemnation of the Gentiles, but then moves to a time when salvation will come out of Zion.

Psalm 5:9 talks about the throat as an open grave, and verse 8 is a prayer for righteousness. In Psalm 140:3 and 10:7 God is called upon to judge the wicked and establish the kingdom. So in the midst of these dark descriptions of the Gentiles is the promise of a coming Redeemer.


Verses 15-17 quote from Isaiah 59:7-8, which refers entirely to the Jewish people. In Isaiah 59:2 God says to Israel, "Your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God." And then Isaiah 59:7-8 is quoted here in Romans 3:15-17. This is a general statement about the Jewish people in Isaiah's day.

Robert Haldane wrote, "The most savage animals do not destroy so many of their own species to appease their hunger as man destroys his fellow man to satiate his ambition, his revenge, his greed."

In America today killing the innocent is perfectly legal. We call it, "Abortion." Since 1973 over 40 million unborn babies have been legally murdered. That's over 10 times more than the total war dead from every war in American history, from the Revolutionary War right through Operation Desert Storm.

Every day the papers are filled with stories of brutal murder. Man's feet are swift to shed blood:


Sin has infected and affected every part of our being. But to say that is to say nothing more than the historic Protestant doctrine of Total Depravity. To say that man is totally depraved is not to say that he is as bad as he can be. It means that sin has affected every part of his being--his mind, his emotions, his will, his intellect, his moral reasoning, his decision making, his words and his deeds. No part of man's being is exempt from the debilitating effects of sin.

Sin has so invaded your life that any attempt to please God on your own is doomed to failure. He will not accept your life when sin is mixed in with your good works.

Again in the context of these verses we see that God will bring salvation to Israel:

And He saw that there was no man, And was astonished that there was no one to intercede; Then His own arm brought salvation to Him, And His righteousness upheld Him. Isaiah 59:16 NASB
"A Redeemer will come to Zion, And to those who turn from transgression in Jacob," declares the LORD. Isaiah 59:20 NASB

All Jews and Greeks are sinners, but God has provided salvation. The context of these verses are not as dark as the quotations that Paul uses. God will provide salvation.


Paul is quoting here from Psalm 36:1. This is a key point. The transgression of the wicked says within his heart there is no fear of God before his eyes. What does the phrase "fear of God" refer to? In our modern vernacular, the "fear of God" is often defined as "reverence" or "awe," which is fine as far as it goes. But I wonder if this definition truly goes far enough. According to Paul, the "fear of God" should include a place for "trembling"!

So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; Philippians 2:12 NASB

Paul combined "fear and trembling." The Greek word for "trembling" is tromos, and means: "a trembling or quaking with fear." Just as one would likely tremble in the presence of one who could take our life, so Jesus taught us to fear the Lord:

"Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. Matthew 10:28 NASB

What, then, does it mean to fear the Lord? Within this whole larger context of fearing God, there is definitely a negative element. Look, God wanted people to be afraid of Him, that's why He turned Lot's wife to a pillar of salt. That's why He threw Adam and Eve out of the Garden, drowned the world; sent snakes to bite the Israelites; swallowed Korah, Dathan, and Abiram; killed Nadab and Abihu; sent fire down from heaven; at the call of Elijah consumed a hundred soldiers. God wanted to be feared as a judge. He drowned the Egyptian army, took the life of Eli and his useless sons, Hophni and Phinehas. He killed Absalom, David's rebellious son and powered Samson to slaughter the thousands of Philistines. God demanded death for sins. There is to be a healthy fear of the righteous power of God and of His judgment.

When we truly fear the Lord, we will recognize that He is the Creator, and we are the creatures. He is the Master, and we are the servants. He is the Father, and we are the children. This attitude will manifest itself in our having a respect for God, and in our having a desire to live in obedience to His commands.

Paul quoted Psalm 36:1, but look at it's context:

Your lovingkindness, O LORD, extends to the heavens, Your faithfulness reaches to the skies. Psalms 36:5 NASB

N.T. Write says, "This is too much for coincidence. What looked at first like a repetitious list of biblical quotations, apparently laboring the point that all are deeply wicked, turns out to be a subtle sequence of thought, linking in at virtually ever point with the themes from Paul's surrounding argument. The surface meaning of the text is clear, that all who are "under the law" are condemned as sinners; but the sub-text is saying all the time, 'Yes, and in precisely this situation God will act, because of the divine righteousness, to judge the world, to rescue the helpless, to establish the covenant.'"

Now we know that whatever the Law says, it speaks to those who are under the Law, so that every mouth may be closed and all the world may become accountable to God; Romans 3:19 NASB

Paul has spoken previously about being "under sin" (v.9), but here he speaks about being "under the law." For Paul, the two terms "sin" and "law" were synonymous. Being "under the law" refers to being under its sentence, which is alienation from God.

Notice the purpose clause in the second half of verse 19: "so that [Greek, hina] every mouth may be closed and all the world may become accountable to God." "Every mouth may be closed"--the placing of the hand over the mouth was a conventional sign to indicate that a person had no more to say in his own defense. And also the court may order someone to keep his mouth shut.

In the book of Job we find Job vigorously defending himself before God and his friends. He thought that he could lay out a clear rationale that would exonerate him from the hand of God against him. Yet as the Lord illustrated His infinite glory, majesty, righteousness, and power, while also showing Job his littleness before the might of God, Job grew silent:

"Behold, I am insignificant; what can I reply to You? I lay my hand on my mouth. Job 40:4 NASB

Job had no more to say in his own defense so he put his hand on his mouth:

"I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear; But now my eye sees You; Therefore I retract, And I repent in dust and ashes." Job 42:5-6 NASB

Job says, I shut my mouth! I retract my foolish defense and I repent!

"All the world may become accountable to God"--the noun "accountable" is a legal term borrowed right out of the ancient courtroom meaning: "to answer to" or "to bring under cognizance of" or to be liable to judgment or liable to punishment.

So the lesson of Israel's response to the Law of God is that every mouth is stopped and all the world is guilty before God. If Israel can't be justified by the works of the Law, nobody can:

because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin. Romans 3:20 NASB

That term "justified" is another legal term drawn from the ancient courtroom. It means to be declared "not guilty" or to be acquitted of the charges against you. The Greek for "justified" is also a relational word referring to being brought into a right relationship with God. The root of the word means: "righteousness." So it certainly has something to do with our "right standing before God." Justification is the exact opposite of condemnation.

"Through the Law comes the knowledge of sin"--the preposition "through" (Greek, dia) implies that the Law is the instrument of knowing or realizing or recognition of our sin. "Knowledge" is a Greek word that adds the prefix "upon" (epi) to the root word "to know" in order to intensify the reality of this knowledge.

J.B. Phillips says, "It is the straightedge of the law that shows us how crooked we are." The law of God is like a mirror. It shows us how dirty we really are. The purpose of a mirror is not to wash your face. You don't take the mirror off the wall and rub it on your face. The purpose of the mirror is to direct us to the water! The Law is like that. It doesn't save us. It is meant to drive us to the only place where we can be saved--the cross of Jesus Christ

The Law tells us what sin is, it spells it out:

What shall we say then? Is the Law sin? May it never be! On the contrary, I would not have come to know sin except through the Law; for I would not have known about coveting if the Law had not said, "YOU SHALL NOT COVET." Romans 7:7 NASB

Once the Law was given, each act or attitude could then be labeled as a transgression of this or that commandment of the Law.

So Paul has come to the end of this section in Romans. He has proven that all men, Jews and Greeks, are under sin. Sin brings judgment and eternal destruction. Sin against God must be judged by God. It is basic to His righteous nature to deal appropriately with all unrighteousness.

This is the sad state of man, and it must be understood before we can receive the Gospel. Listen to these words by Charles Hodge:

To be prepared for the reception of the Gospel, we must be convinced of sin, humbled under a sense of its turpitude, silenced under a conviction of its condemning power, and prostrated at the foot-stool of mercy, under a feeling that we cannot satisfy the demands of the law, that if ever saved, it must be by other merit and other power than our own. (Romans, p. 87)

So we must understand the bad news before we hear the good news. So Paul brings all men into God's court and all are judged guilty. All are under the condemnation of God. And now that that is understood, Paul says:

But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, Romans 3:21 NASB

And he goes on to explain the glorious Gospel of the blessed God. And we'll begin to look at that next time.

Continue the Series

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