Recently Added
to Exposition of Romans:

3:9–20—Conclusion: OT confirms that humanity is under sin’s power
(January 26th 2019)
Romans 3:9–20—Conclusion: OT confirms that humanity is under sin’s power.

9 What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all.
For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin,
10 as it is written:
“None is righteous, no, not one;
11 no one understands; no one seeks for God.
12 All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
no one does good, not even one.”
13 “Their throat is an open grave;
they use their tongues to deceive.”
“The venom of asps is under their lips.”
14 “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.”
15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood;
16 in their paths are ruin and misery,
17 and the way of peace they have not known.”
18 “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
19 Now we know that whatever the law says
it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped,
and the whole world may be held accountable to God.
20 For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight,
since through the law comes knowledge of sin.

We arrive at Paul’s closing statement in his prosecution of all humanity for their sin. He accuses on behalf of God, of course, for it is God, not Paul, to whom everyone is accountable. With OT Scriptures as witnesses, Paul both sums up and concludes the charge against Gentile and Jewish sin he began at 1:18.

These words are akin to God waving a red flag of warning to sinners of their perilous condition, much as a good traffic cop alerts motorists to a bridge out ahead. Motivated by love, God does not want people to face his wrath. But wrath they will get if they forsake the alternative route paved at great cost with his Son’s blood.

“Under sin”
This short phrase packs a deadly punch. It conveys the terrible truth that all humanity is in bondage to the subjugating power of sin. Everyone sins; everyone is guilty. Sin, though, is more than a scattered number of sins. It is a condition from which no one escapes without help of a Savior. And we cannot pay our way out by doing community service. “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight” (verse 20). We are helpless, unable to perform sufficient good and trapped in guilt with no escape from God’s judgment.

R. C. Sproul brings up “John Bunyan’s imagery of the pilgrim, Christian, who goes through life stumbling underneath the dreadful weight of sin that is crushing him. It is only when he comes to the foot of the cross and meets the Saviour that the burden rolls off his back and he is able to stand upright, free, once again.”

Jesus Christ alone has the overwhelming power to free us from sin’s power and justify us in God’s sight. Apart from Christ we are sin’s prisoners. As Paul said elsewhere, “the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe” (Galatians 3:22).

Incriminating testimony
In verse 9 the most likely identity of “we” is the Jews, Paul including himself with them. What Paul says about the Jews being no better off does not contradict the chapter’s opening four verses, which affirm the Jews’ advantages in salvation history. Those advantages do not insulate Jews from God’s judgment for their sin. They did nothing to merit those advantages, for they are God’s gift. Scripture, their cherished advantage, now testifies against them.

Most of the citations come from the Psalms. In several respects David is a fine example for Paul’s case against his contemporary Jews. Israel’s great poet and warrior king extolled God’s omniscience, mercy, and justice while modeling a repentant heart. In the next chapter Paul turns to David again for an example of someone having been reckoned righteous by faith (4:6–8).

Other than their primary source and Paul’s theme, the quotations have little in common. Richard Longenecker points out that the last six verses of the passage (13–18) feature various parts of the human body (“throats,” “tongues,” “lips,” “mouths,” “feet,” and “eyes”). He sees these body references “as a rhetorical means of highlighting the totality of humanity’s lack of understanding, the extent of its unrighteousness, and the nature of its injustice.”

Key expressions are all, conveying the universality of sin, and no one, none, ruling out any exception to Paul’s indictment.

Verses 10–12: Psalm 14:1–3 (echoing Psalm 53:1–3)
Paul’s change from “None is good” in the Psalm to “None is righteous” fits the theme of right standing with God he began in 1:17. Douglas Moo says Paul means “there is not a single person who, apart from God’s justifying grace, can stand as ‘right’ before God. This meaning is not far from David’s intention in the Psalm, as he unfolds the myriad dimensions of human folly.”

Commenting on “None is righteous” and “no one understands,” Sproul says, “Our lack of righteousness affects our understanding, because if we are not righteous, we don’t have the capacity to understand the fullness of what righteousness is. Our very minds are infected by unrighteousness.”

Verses 13–14: Psalms 5:9b, 140:3b, and 10:7a
In all these Psalms David denounces his enemies, who speak to kill, deceive, flatter, and curse. First two lines of verse 13 are from Psalm 5:9b, last line from Psalm 140:3b, and verse 14 from Psalm 10:7a. Paul more closely follows the Septuagint in each case.

Verses 15–17: Isaiah 59:7–8
These lines from Isaiah condemn the injustice and sinfulness of the Jewish people. Isaiah 59 opens with a charge that the people’s iniquities have separated them from God, who has hidden his face from them and does not hear them. Whereas David wrote about sins of people in general, these Isaiah verses imply that Israel is likewise unrighteous.

Verse 18: Psalm 36:1b
The point that people have no fear of God serves to summarize the entire collection, because it “exposes the root error that gives rise to the manifold sins of humanity” (Moo). Charles Cranfield comments that the phrase is a figurative way of saying (1) the fear of God plays no part in directing their lives, (2) God is left out of their decisions, and (3) they practice atheism.

Everyone is accountable to God
Verse 19 concludes the chain of OT quotes above. The first use of “law” thus means the Scriptures, which speak “to those who are under the law,” specifying the Jews. The scene is the courtroom where every human upon being sentenced by the Judge is rendered silent. Paul glides from reference to the Jews to “every mouth” and “the whole world” perhaps because if God’s chosen people are guilty then certainly no Gentile can escape judgment.

Nothing we do can save us
Because in verse 20 Paul links “works of the law” with “no human being,” law in this case is not the Jewish law but rather stands for moral principles in general. This law applies to everyone. Everything good we do cannot spare us from judgment. Everything bad we do earns judgment.

Still, the law is good and our doing of it is good, for both society and ourselves. The problem is that our bondage to sin keeps us from fully complying with the law. In this way the law gives us knowledge of our sin. Paul (God) has trapped us. Shackled by sin, we should perk up our ears for what Paul expounds next. Justification is possible only through faith.