The Letter to the Romans



10. No One Is Righteous


Romans 3:9-20

In this passage Paul is delivering his final declaration of humanity's total depravity. From a total of 16 chapters in the book of Romans, Paul has devoted the first two and a half to a detailed explanation of man's hopelessness. Before discussing the astonishing reality of salvation, he wanted to clearly establish that every human who would ever live on earth was doomed to eternal death if he or she did not have a Savior. Everyone, even the most conscientious and moral, is hopelessly lost without Jesus.

In verses 9 to 12, Paul makes the point that Jews and Gentiles are all alike under sin. In these four verses he states nine times that all are doomed and no one is without sin. He quotes from Psalms and Ecclesiastes to describe humanity's condition.

"There is no one righteous, not even oneall have turned away, they have together become worthless," he writes. (v. 10-11) In Psalms 14 and 53, from which Paul quotes, the psalmist says this unrighteousness accompanies attitudes that deny God. In fact, the psalmist accurately describes the behaviors of people who flaunt an attitude of denying and suppressing the knowledge of God.

"They are corrupt, their deeds are vile; there is no one who does good," David writes in Psalm 14:1-3 and also 53:1-3; "All have turned aside, they have together become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one."

Psalm 10:2-4 further describes the behavior of the wicked. He "hunts down the weak" whom he has caught in his wicked schemes. He boasts of his wicked cravings, and he praises the greedy while reviling the Lord. He is proud and refuses to seek God. He arrogantly boasts that he is happy and unshakeable (v.6), but he crushes his victims who collapse and fall beneath his evil strength (v. 11). He boasts that God will not call him to accountability (v. 13).

Further, natural sinful people do not understand their own ends. Even though the wicked may achieve great success and appear to flourish, they will be destroyed forever while the Lord is forever exalted. (Psalm 92:6-8) They know and understand nothing; they walk in darkness, and they have no respect for God's rule to establish their own foundations for living. Ps. 82:4-5) They are like senseless children and do not know God. They are skilled in doing evil and have no knowledge of how to do good. (Jeremiah 4:22) Even those who are supposed to be God's people have handled his law falsely; they have rejected the word of God and have no wisdom. (Jeremiah 8:8-9) Their great store of philosophy and worldly wisdom is all foolishness; they do not know God. (1 Corinthians 1:20-21)

Paul says in verse 12 that all people have turned away from God and become worthless. In their natural, unregenerate state, people have no intrinsic saving value. They have nothing to recommend them to God or to qualify them for salvation and eternal life. They are thoroughly corrupt; no one "does good, not even one." (Psalm 53:3) In fact, "There is not a righteous man on earth who does what is right and never sins." (Ecclesiastes 7:20)

Mankind, Paul summarizes in verses 9-12, is 100% corrupt and hopeless. On their own they have absolutely no hope of being good, wise, truly helpful, moral, constructive, or God-honoring. No truly good impulse comes from a person's own motivation; a natural human does not have the ability to generate anything good.


Mouths Of Graves

Finally Paul turns to his final metaphors to describe humanity's fully despicable condition. "Their mouths are open graves; their tongues practice deceit." This metaphor had great impact on anyone trained in Jewish law. Numbers 19:16 declared that anyone who touched a dead person or even a human bone or a grave would be unclean for seven days. For Paul to compare the wicked with unmarked graves was a powerful statement of their defilement. Not only was he saying a wicked person was as unclean as a grave, but he was also saying they were as deceptive and lethal as an unmarked grave which would deceive people into touching it. Deception offered no excuse from uncleanness. A person was as defiled from touching an unmarked grave as from a marked one. A wicked person who doesn't know he is wicked is still as condemned as is a person who knows his own sin. Even if a wicked person pretends to be righteous, his influence is still corrupt.

Psalm 5:9 expands on the mouth-as-open-grave theme: "Not a word from their mouth can be trusted; their heart is filled with destruction. Their throat is an open grave; with their tongue they speak deceit."

Jesus also used the tomb metaphor to emphasize their heinousness of the Pharisees evil. He called them hypocrites who were like "whitewashed tombs" which looked beautiful to a passer-by, but inside they were filled with "dead men's bones and everything unclean." He stated that the Pharisees were "fill of hypocrisy and wickedness." (Matthew 23:27-28)

Interestingly, in verses 13-18 Paul uses eight metaphors to describe corrupt humanity. Four of these eight are metaphors involving the mouth. This figure of speech is not accidental. Throughout both testaments of the Bible, the mouth is the part of the body the frequently represents the condition of people's hearts and motives.

When Job was suffering his attack of boils and the loss of his children and belongings, his friend Eliphaz came to him and said, "Your sin prompts your mouth; you adopt the tongue of the crafty. Your own mouth condemns you, not mine; your own lips testify against you." Whether Eliphaz was right or wrong about Job, he did understand that the mouth testifies to the truth of a man's spirit.

David also referred to the mouth as the revealer of a person's spiritual attitude. In Psalm 5:9 (from where Paul borrowed his "open grave" metaphor) David says of the wicked that not one word from their mouths is trustworthy, and their hearts are full of destruction. In Psalm 10:3 and 7 he says that a wicked man's mouth betrays him by boasting of his wicked cravings and by blessing the greedy and reviling God. A wicked person's mouth is "full of curses and lies and threats; trouble and evil are under his tongue."

Psalm 140: 3 is the passage from which Paul drew his metaphor of a wicked man's mouth being like a viper with poison under his tongue. In verses one an two of this psalm, David makes his comparison clear. The sharp, poisonous bite of a snake represents the violence and evil plans that continually emerge from the hearts of wicked people.

Solomon also had insightful comments about the mouth of the wicked. "Wise men," he said, "store up knowledge, but the mouth of a fool invites ruin." (Proverbs 10:14) In this passage Solomon suggests that not only do wise men and fools differ by the contents of their speech but that wise men may not constantly babble their thoughts. They "store up knowledge"; they ponder and reflect and take in learning, while the fool's mouth deceives and beguiles the vulnerable.

Proverbs 18:21 also contrasts the mouths of the wicked with those of the righteous. "The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit." People have the power to convince others of their points of view. If a person has integrity and loves truth, his speech will deliver truth and reality to his hearers. On the contrary, a wicked person will disseminate deception and will cause people to rationalize their own wickedness and sin.

Jesus issued a solemn warning to the Pharisees. He said that on the day of judgment, everyone will have to account for his or her careless words. "For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned," he declared. (Matthew 12:36-37)

It is what we confess with our mouths that reveals our true loyalty. Either we confess Jesus and speak truth, or we deceive and manipulate and thus deny Jesus and the truth.

James clarified the mouth issue in sobering terms. He warned that not many should "presume to be teachers", because teachers will be judged more strictly than others. They use their words and persuasion to influence people, and if they teach error or disrespect for God, they will be judged for leading their hearers astray. Further, James said that if a person is able to keep his tongue in check and is "never at fault in what he says", that person is perfect. His whole body is in check. (James 3:1-2) The mouth is the open door which releases the true contents of a person's heart. The words and their tones that come from a person confirm or deny his profession (or lack of it) to Jesus. They influence others either to love and respect or to despise and deny God.

The fact that Paul uses the mouth as the subject of four of his eight metaphors describing wicked humanity is not surprising. It is a person's words that influence and persuade others, and they either build or destroy others. Unregenerate people cannot fake righteousness. Even if they say holy-sounding words, they cannot be continuously consistent with themselves if they are not internally healed and sealed by the Holy Spirit.


Silenced by the Law

Paul's last four metaphors describe the lifestyles and relationships of natural humanity. They perpetrate violence; their lives are marked by ruin and misery; they have no peace, and they have no fear of God.

Isaiah described the lives of those who were far from God in Isaiah 59:1-15. Although God is willing and able to save, people's sins have separated them from God, Isaiah says in a statement remarkably similar to Paul's declaration in Romans 1:18-20. He continues by describing their profligate lives: they have guilt and blood on their hands; their mouths are full of lies and wickedness. None of them seeks justice or deals with integrity. They deceive and use "empty arguments"; they think up trouble and produce evil. They seduce and entrap the unwary and destroy them with evil they do not suspect.

The wicked "rush into sin" and are quick "to shed innocent blood". They think evil, and they make life hard for others so those who follow them will not know peace, either.

The wicked are unjust, and although they look for light, all around them is darkness. They realize their evil and wickedness is the reason for their suffering, but they are stuck in it. All who speak truth become their targets. Honesty, righteousness, truth, and justice are unattainable because their hearts are full of revolt, treachery, and rebellion against God.

Natural, unregenerate humanity has no ability to maintain strong, loving relationships because their hearts are darkened and self-centered. They are incapable of treating others justly or compassionately, and they wreak havoc in order to maintain their own illusions of power and control.

Those who do not have the law (the Gentiles) as well as those who do have the law (the Jews) are alike doomed in their sins. The Jews had the added revelation of their sinful condition in the law God gave them. God's special revelation of his expectations and his promises for them was not primarily a call to right living. Rather, God gave the law to Israel to drive them to repentance. He chose them to be his people, but before they could live in the richness of his blessings, they had to acknowledge their essential evilness. They had to repent and allow God to do his work in their lives. The law was primarily given to bring Israel to repentance, not to bring Israel to righteousness.

God's call on a life is first of all a call to repentance. We can't bypass repentance and go straight to belonging to God. Christians who hold onto the law as a standard for righteous behavior have missed the point. The law was NEVER a standard of righteousness for people to emulate. It was always an in-your-face call for people to humble themselves and repent. God chose Israel, and God chooses us, but his choice of us does not equal a call to right living. It is first a call to surrender and repentance. It is a call to humble ourselves before his sovereignty and to relinquish our egos, our imagined power and prowess, and our "goodness". It is a call to acknowledge our complete inability to live the righteousness God requires.

God's call to us is not a call to service or to charitable deeds or generosity. It is a call to let all our dreams of righteousness and service go and instead to own our wickedness and to believe Jesus' sacrifice was for our salvation. If we bypass repentance and aim for righteousness, we will end up deceived and treacherous, vulnerable to evil and self-protection. Our supposed motives for service and good deeds will replace honoring Jesus, and our lives will be hollow.

God gave the law to lead people to the despair of seeing their deep wickedness. Its promises of blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience were designed to convict Israel's hearts. All those who know the law live under its promises of condemnation or cursing. As long as people attempt to overlay the law's requirements onto their sinful hearts, they live under the law's curse. They cannot appeal to God for justice or mercy, because they stand clearly condemned by the law they acknowledge.

No one will be able to argue with God when he comes to judge the earth, including those to whom God revealed his desires and standards. The law people claim as a badge of righteousness will condemn all those in its shadow. It was never intended to be the focus of people's hearts; it was always intended to lead people to despair that would surrender to the sovereign love of Christ.

Those who refuse to acknowledge the sovereignty of God and to surrender to him will be silenced at his judgment. Psalm 63:11 says that those who swear by God will praise him, but "the mouths of liars will be silenced." Psalm 107:42 is similar; the psalmist says that the upright see and rejoice in God, but the wicked shut their mouths. Ezekiel also prophesied to Israel that when God would atone for all of their persistent rebellion, they would remember God's words to them and be ashamed; they would never again open their mouths because their humiliation would be so great. In other words, God's law and the prophets had been clear about their hard hearts and their need for humbling and repentance. Ultimately, though, the reality of Jesus' atonement and judgment would silence them, and their arrogance would be replaced by humiliation.

Jesus delivered the clearest statement of all clarifying the condemnation of the law. He said to the arrogant Pharisees, "Don't think I'll accuse you." Moses, he said, the one in whom you place your hopes, will be your accuser. If you really believed Moses, you would believe me because he wrote about me.

Ultimately the law will silence the mouths of those who claim to live by it. Those who clearly knew God's call to repentance and holiness through his law will be silenced for not submitting to the sovereignty of their Law-giver. Not only the law-keepers will be silenced, however. In the presence of God, no one will be able to speak. Those who suppressed the knowledge of God will be silenced by the reality of God's majesty;

Only those who have surrendered their inherently wicked hearts to the sovereign love and mercy of God and accepted the grace of Jesus' salvation will bow before God in worship and praise instead of in fear and regret.



God is calling you to admit the desperate hopelessness of your life. Whether you have been a punctilious law-keeper, whether you have felt entitled and privileged, or whether you have ignored God and lived in despair or disbelief, you are called to admit your desperate condition.

Jesus' is not asking you to clean up your life and come to him. He is asking you to release your grip on your life and to surrender yourself to him. Paul's message is not just for the church in Rome; it is for you. You are, in your natural condition, condemned to death. You were born under a death sentence, and you have no power to divert that certain end. No matter how privileged you are or how eagerly you have embraced the law, you are doomed to eternal death.

God's revelation of himself is for the purpose of drawing us to him so we will trust and love him more than we love the drama of our lives. He reveals himself to us so we will see something better than we have. He shows us his sovereign, consummate love so we will be wooed away from the petty falseness of our daily pretending and struggling.

Ask God to convict you of the hopeless condition of your life. Ask him to give you his grace to open your tightly clenched fist and to release your control of your life to him. Ask him to reveal himself to you; ask him to take your life and to be your Savior.

Praise Jesus for taking your sins upon himself and for dying instead of you. Thank him for rising from the grave and for giving you his eternal life. Praise God for counting you righteous in Christ. Praise the Holy Spirit for filling you with the power and life of Jesus.

Praise Father, Son, and Holy Spirit for calling you to repent from your brokenness and to embrace eternity.

"May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all." (2 Corinthians 13:14)

Copyright (c) 2003 Graphics Studio, Redlands, CA USA. All rights reserved. Posted August 14, 2003.
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