Sermon preached on Romans 3:9-26 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 6/10/2012 in Novato, CA.
Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
“No, Not One”
So far in this letter, we’ve focused a lot on what I’ve been calling the bad news! Paul’s been developing the point that both Jew and Gentile are sinners. Chapter 1 especially brought out the depravity of the Gentiles. Chapter 2 especially brought out the depravity of the Jews. Now he turns and brings in the current audience as well. He asks in verse 9, are we better than they? Not at all. And so what we have here in this passage is really the climax of the bad news. He drives home this point with a final strong push. No one is righteous by their own merits. No one. Not one. Not Jews, not Gentiles, not us even who are Christians. His point here is the universality of unrighteousness and its significance. In one sense, this is a very bleak and dramatic development of his argumentation. The result of such unrighteousness in itself is divine judgment. And yet he doesn’t leave us there. As Paul brings us to a climax to this point – of man’s total depravity – he then delivers the good news of grace. Grace through faith in Jesus Christ.
So today we’ll largely focus on the climax of man’s depravity. We will talk about the grace part too. But we’ll hone in on that even more next week as we look at this same text a second time. So, today we’ll begin first by considering the universal unrighteousness presented in this passage. Second, we’ll look at the law and what it has to say about our justification. Third, we’ll briefly consider how we can have a righteousness apart from the law.
So, let’s begin with understanding this universal unrighteousness. The general concept is stated several times in the most explicit terms. Paul won’t let you miss this. In fact he says this is what he’s already been telling us, per verse 9: Jews and Greeks are all under sin. Well, he’s not said this with the explicitness that he does in this passage, but yes, he’s definitely made that point over and over again. Now he explicitly tells us. He tells us that in verse 9. Then in verse 10 he says there is none righteous, no not one. Verse 12, there is none who does good, no not one. The most memorable statement is arguably verse 23. For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Do you see the language of universality here? Jew and Greek. No one. Not one. All. And do you see what’s so universal? Sin. Unrighteousness. This of course is a point that the world doesn’t like to hear. The world doesn’t want to be confronted with sin. They don’t even like the word. In today’s age of tolerance the world wants almost nothing to be a sin, except maybe to believe in sin. But Paul is abundantly clear. Everyone has sinned. Everyone is a sinner.
But Paul says this is not just his point. Paul then gives a series of Old Testament quotes to make his case. These are kind of like proof texts for Paul. This is verses 10-18. It appears that he is working with several passages, either paraphrasing them or quoting them explicitly. Passages like Psalm 14:1, Psalm 53:1, Ecclesiastes 7:20, Psalm 5:9, Psalm 140:3, Psalm 10:7, Isaiah 59:7, and Psalm 36:1. When you look at these many quotes, Paul is quoting numerous examples from the Scriptures of the depravity of man. It’s not just his point, in other words. You see in this list a mix of sinful thinking and sinful actions. Or to look at it another way, there’s a list of general sinfulness, and specific parts of a human that express sin. Verse 11 gets at some of the sinful thinking. Look there with me: “There is none that understandeth.” Here we see that people’s very thoughts have become corrupted. They don’t think right thoughts. A few weeks back we heard a sermon about how in the garden Eve agreed with Satan’s understanding and perspective regarding the forbidden tree, instead of God’s understanding. That was a wrong understanding. Humans have such a darkened understanding. We don’t think in accordance with truth.
Our desires are affected too. Verse 11 again, “There is none that seeketh after God. They have all turned aside, they are together become unprofitable.” Man’s chief desire should be to be in service and worship of their creator. But instead man has turned aside. We’ve put our own sinful desires over God’s will. People don’t seek God and his kingdom and his righteousness first. They seek their own glory and do what is right in their own eyes. This is a chief part of our sin. This is why we learn elsewhere of the need for the Holy Spirit to draw us to Christ. People naturally on their own won’t turn toward God. They don’t seek God on their own initiative.
We see here too various other parts of man affected. Our speech is mentioned in verse 13. It says our throats are open tombs, likely getting at the evil speech that can comes from inside us. Similarly, our tongues sin in lies. And our lips are likened to being full of snake poison. We are full of cursing and bitterness. So, we see a rather wholesale description of how sinful our speech can be. I think this is an interesting one to put here in such detail. It’s a helpful contrast to all the other descriptions of sin we’ve seen so far. If someone reads the extreme form of depravity of the Gentiles in chapter 1, and the religious hypocrisy of the Jews in chapter 2, they could come to the conclusion that they don’t suffer from either of those descriptions of sin. But I think anyone with an honest appraisal of himself should realize that he’s sinned at some point with their tongue. Sometimes this is what we have to do with people. We try to show that everyone is a sinner, including themselves. They may not be a murderer or a thief, but that doesn’t mean they are not a sinner. Sins of speech are one set of common human struggles with sin.
Paul goes on to talk of one more part of human corruption – the feet. Verse 15. Their feet are swift to shed blood. This is again a more extreme form of sin. But surely it’s not just murder in mind here. It’s any way that humans are quick footed to stir up trouble and destruction in their relationships – as it goes on to say in verse 17 – they have not known peace.
All of this sinfulness is summarized and concluded in verse 18 – there is no fear of God before their eyes. Even with the good news of the gospel, fearing God is still a good thing. He’s God. We are not. We are sinners. God is perfect. We have every reason to fear him. Yet, the unregenerate human doesn’t have such fear. So what we have then here is part of the biblical data for we refer to in our systematic theology books as the doctrine of total depravity and total inability. The doctrine of total depravity says that the man who has not been born again is affected by sin and has corruption in all his being. He is dead in his sins. All their faculties are affected by this depravity. Intimately related to this is man’s total inability. Because of their total depravity, the man who is not born again will not be able to do anything truly good. There will be no true righteousness in him. Furthermore, he will not change his fundamental preference for sin. As it says here, he doesn’t seek God. He doesn’t understand. Thus, no one, no one, is righteous. None. Thus, why there is no fear of God, per this passage.
And so this passage shows forth universal unrighteousness. Every naturally born person has shown forth this state. Everyone is a sinner. It’s a universal problem. Now, I mentioned before that people don’t like to admit this. Yet, I’ve found that if you press people hard enough and give enough examples, you can get them to admit that there is some truth to the fact that they are a sinner. Then the conversation turns to something else. Then they tend to turn to explain why that’s not such a bad thing. They try to make their sin not seem so bad. They say things like, we’ll I’ve never murdered anyone. They say things like, we’ll surely God’s not going to send me to hell just because of some white lies. In other words, that even if they concede that they are a sinner, they then try to make up their own standards of punishment and justice. They try to justify their actions as not being that bad. As not enough to warrant any significant divine judgment or condemnation. But that is not biblical either. The concern is not whether a human justifies himself. The concern is whether God justifies that human. God is the judge. And he has a standard for justifying. It’s called the law. And so that is what Paul again turns to; to the law. This leads then to our second point. Let’s consider now what the law of God has to say to sinners, and how that relates to our justification.
Let’s start with some definitions then. Let’s define law and justification. The law, as we are using that word here, has to do with God’s standard. His standard of what is righteousness. That’s the way the word is being used in verses 18-19. And the word justification means to declare someone as righteous. Specifically, God is the one who does the declaring. God either declares someone as righteous, or not righteous. That’s why verse 20 talks about the desire to be justified in God’s sight. God’s the one who justifies. That’s the judgment we have to care about: what God says of us. Well, the standard God uses in that determination is his holy law.
So with the law then, someone can learn how to be justified. At least hypothetically, speaking. The law can be summarized in the words of Leviticus 18:5, if the person keeps God’s laws, then he shall live by them. It’s the concept of “do this and live.” That’s what the law holds out. It’s the concept stated in earlier in Romans 2:13 even – it’s the doers of the law who will be justified. God’s standard of righteousness is expressed in the law, and so if someone perfectly adheres to that standard, then such a person would be declared righteous by God.
So with those definitions, Paul then presents the problem. The problem is stated in verse 20. “Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in his sight.” You see the logic is simple. The law gives the standard of righteousness. No one in deed or thought matches up to that standard. Breaking that standard is what we call “sin,” and that’s been Paul’s point. We are all sinners. We are all lawbreakers. Paul’s point at the end of verse 20 then is that the law effectively makes known to us our sin. We know we are sinners because the law tells us our actions are sinful.
Verse 19 further expresses what the law does for us. As the law comes to us, it says that the result is the every mouth is stopped. That all the world is brought under the judgment of God. You see, this is why I’ve been calling this the bad news. Everyone on their own record is guilty. No one, not one, on their own, can be justified by works. Their mouths are stopped, meaning that they have no excuse. They can make no defense. They can say nothing to explain themselves. Standing before the judgment seat of God, they will be declared unrighteous. That’s Paul’s point. He’s spent practically 3 chapters to drive this point home. If we are going to understand the biblical gospel, we have to realize how bad our situation is without it.
This is where the other religions typically fail. Man’s religion tends to provide some way for man to be justified by their works. Many of them do have some sort of concept of justification and some sort of concept of God’s final judgment. But many of them tend to act like God judges people on a scale. That he weighs your good deeds against your bad deeds. Depending on which wins out, you either face some kind of reward or some kind of punishment. But the Bible doesn’t present things that way. It presents man on his own record in varying degrees of falling short of God’s standard. No one will measure up on his own. That’s the point of Paul saying that no one is righteous, no not one. Could he say it any clearer? This is where the Bible challenges man’s religion. God’s holy law humbles the hearts of men, shuts their mouths, and leaves them guilty before God. No one, no not one, will be justified by God on their own record. Not me, not you, not the greatest humanitarian or the most ethical person that you know. Not your grandmother, nor your young child. No one. No one is truly righteous according to God’s standards. And he sets the standards.
In our first point, we talked about the universal unrighteousness. This second point then is also a universal truth. Universally, no one will be justified according to the law. Universally, our deeds serve to condemn us. This is the universal problem we face.
As bleak as all this may sound, there is good news. It is the good news that there is an alternative. It’s the alternative that there can be a righteousness apart from the law. That’s the point of verses 21-26. Verse 21, “But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe.” We’ll focus on this more next week, but I couldn’t preach so much about sin and judgment without having us look at least some on the solution – on the good news. We couldn’t be declared righteous from the law. But there is a way to be declared righteous apart from the law. That’s what’s been revealed to us. Amazingly, Paul says that the Law and the Prophets already bore witness to this. In other words, the Old Testament foretold the plan of salvation by grace through faith in a Messiah. Now in the light of the New Testament it’s been all the more clearly revealed to us.
So here then is the good news. The gospel says that the bad news can be overcome by this good news. That we can be justified. We can be declared righteous. Verse 26 uses that specific language of our justification. That God can justify someone apart from the law. He can justify, declare righteous, someone who his record against the law says he’s a sinner. God can justify sinners. Paul tells us the people who will be justified like this. He will justify those who believe in Jesus. Who put their faith in Christ.
We must understand that faith is the opposite of works here. Faith in Christ means that you seek to be right with God by looking away from your deeds. You acknowledge that your deeds are not deserving of justification. You trust not in the deeds of the law but in your faith in Christ, in order to be justified. You put your trust in Jesus as the offered salvation. Well, how can Jesus save us? How can believing in him save you? How is that possible when the law condemns you? Because of verses 24 and 25. Jesus redeems us through his sacrifice of himself. He’s been made a propitiation. That’s an atoning sacrifice that turns away God’s wrath. God’s wrath was poured out upon Jesus in our place. He bore our punishment. He satisfied the laws demands in our place. The result is that we can then be justified by faith, apart from the works of the law.
This is what we call grace. Verse 24, we are justified freely by his grace. In other words, this justification is not something we’ve earned. It’s a gift to us. To us it is freely received. Received by faith. And yet if we are going to say it’s free, we know that it was earned by one. By Jesus Christ. That’s the beauty in all of this. That’s how again Christ is exalted in this passage. You see, Christ is able to be the perfect sacrifice because he is the one thing that no one else is. Righteous. No one, no not one, is righteous. But Christ, born of the Virgin Mary by the Holy Spirit, he was the one human truly righteous. He never sinned. He never spoke evil with his mouth. He never lived in hypocrisy. He kept the law perfectly. And so when he suffered on the cross, he didn’t have to suffer for his own sins. No, he suffered for our sins. And so our faith in Christ unites us with that sacrifice. A sacrifice with no blemish of sin. But it also unites us with his righteousness. That we can be declared as fully satisfying all the law’s demands. He paid the punishment. And he lived out the obedience; his deeds of the law were perfect. In faith, by grace, we receive all this.
Today we have talked of several universals. We’ve talked of how universal unrighteousness is. We’ve also talked about how universally no one will be justified according to the law. In this last point, we’ve seen another sort of universal thing. The universal way of salvation. The only way of salvation is in this gospel of Jesus Christ. No other name has been given under heaven and earth to be saved, except the name of Jesus. But note that we are not saying there is universal salvation. No, there is not. Not everyone will be saved. As we’ve said here – this salvation is only for those who believe. Whoever would trust in Christ, they can be justified apart from the works of the law.
This is the call that comes to each of us today. Believe in Jesus. Trust in him for your salvation. If you have never done this before, then today you can be saved. Today you can be justified. Call out to Jesus today and be saved.
Brothers and sisters, as we conclude our message for today, let us be on guard against works righteousness. We’ve already mentioned that so many world religions essentially default to this. But even as Christians, we can find ourselves thinking this way. We must not think we can be justified by our own works. Even if we wouldn’t ever say that we are justified by our works, we have to be on guard of thinking that way nonetheless. How quickly we can revert to that thinking, without really even realizing it. We must keep stamping that futile thinking out of our minds. This of course doesn’t give us license to sin. It doesn’t mean we can just look to live wickedly because we know our salvation doesn’t hinge on our own works. God knows our heart. We are to truly grieve over our sins. We are to confess them and with his help look to turn from them. The Christian life is one that actively pursues godly living. And yet, that’s not the basis of our justification. This is a fine distinction, but it is an ever important one.
How great our God is. He has found a way to justify the unjustifiable! And he now is at work in our lives to grow us in godliness. Let us keep these truths in our forefront as we live. And let us seek to all the more give glory to God. Amen.
Copyright © 2012 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.