There are certain things most of us remember our parents saying to us over and over again,
- Keep your promises
- Don’t spend what you don’t have
- Save your money
- Choose your friends carefully
- Keep your room clean
- Always wear clean underwear
- Call if you are going to be late
- Respect people who are older than you
- Make worship a priority in your life
Our parents repeated these things to us not because they were going senile (at least not at the beginning) or because they couldn’t think of anything else to say. Our parents said these things to us because they believed these are foundational truths. They are the kinds of things we need to learn to get along well in life. Our parents believed the message was important so they repeated it often.
In a similar way the apostle Paul has been repeating the same message over and over again at the start of the book of Romans. He has argued that we are all sinful people and in trouble before a Righteous God.
I suspect some of us may feel a little like a teenager listening to their parent saying the same thing over and over. We hear Paul speak and we want to say, “OK, OK, I get it already” or “Here comes the sin talk!” However, I ask you to listen with me as we examine the summary statements of Paul’s discussion on sin. I see three basic conclusions by the Apostle Paul.
WE ARE ALL IN THE SAME BOAT
Whenever we talk about sin we have a tendency to think about the sin of others. We may agree that there are many sinful people in the world. However, we resist the idea that apart from a transformation by God’s Spirit, there are ONLY sinful people in the world. Somehow we think that talk about sin relates to the other guy.
Paul takes away any notion that we are exempt”. Look at the words,
There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.” (vv. 11,12)
Paul is using what is called in logic, “the universal negative and the universal positive”. When you say “all” or “no one” it means that there are no exceptions. It is as if Paul said, “This means you!” He wants us to understand that the sin problem is something we all share together. It is no respecter of persons. Every one of us is in trouble when it comes to our standing before God apart from a relationship with Jesus.
THE STAIN OF SIN AFFECTS EVERY ELEMENT OF OUR LIVES
The key phrase in the passage is verse 9 where Paul says, “Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin.” This is a military term that means to be under the authority of another as of a solider under a commanding officer. In other words we are all under the domination, power, or authority of sin. We don’t just sin occasionally; we are enslaved to sin.
In theology this is called the doctrine of “total depravity”. Some people don’t like the doctrine. They want to believe that we are all basically good people. That sounds nice but it is not what the Bible teaches! Paul teaches that every element of our life has been compromised by sin.
The doctrine of Total Depravity does not mean that man is as bad as he can possibly be. It does not mean that every person is equally as bad. It does means that sin has corrupted or polluted every aspect of my life and yours. No matter what part of our life is referenced, it is tainted by sin. Even the “good things” in our lives fail to measure up to God’s standards because we don’t even do these things for the right reasons. Sin is at the core of our being. Sin is not just a problem we deal have, it is part of our nature, a part of who we are.
Dr. J.I. Packer has written, “no one is as bad as he or she might be while on the other hand no action of ours is as good as it should be.” Our sin nature compromises our relationship with God, with each other, with nature and with our own physical nature. Paul now gets specific and turns to the Old Testament for added authority.
Our Moral Nature is compromised (“no one is righteous”). Paul quotes Psalm 14:1-3 or Psalm 53:1-3 (they both say the same thing) to point out that there is “no one who does good”. Our initial reaction to this statement is to say, “People do lots of good things!” We must keep two things in mind. First, Paul is talking about our actions apart from Christ. It is true that many people do good things after they have been transformed by God’s grace and power. They become agents of good in bringing good to others.
Second, we must remember our definition of good must be as God defines it. We tend to think of good as that which is better than what other people do. God defines “good” as that which is done to obey, honor, and glorify the Lord. In other words, if we do what we call “good things” but we do them for selfish reasons, they are really bad things.
Maybe it would help to think about it this way, if you were thirsty and offered a drink from a body of water that had lots of sewage drained into it and a body of water that had much less sewage drained into it, which would you choose? Since I imagine you would want pure water you would choose to wait to get a drink until you found a better source.
One body of water might seem to be good in comparison to the other body of water, but neither source would meet the standard of purity you required. Likewise, our actions may seem to be good compared to others but they are polluted in God’s eyes.
Our Mental Ability is Compromised (No one understands.) Because of the sin in our heart we are unable to understand the things of God. To the Corinthians, Paul said,
14 The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned. [1 Cor 2:14]
Because of our sin, we ”cannot” understand the things of God. The Greek here says we don’t “have the power to know”. Our spiritual perception is compromised. Without the aid of God’s Spirit we will never understand spiritual truth.
Before we are made new by Jesus we begin all our thinking with, “What’s in it for me?” It’s not always a conscious thought but it’s there. We define right and wrong by personal preference rather than God’s Word. We make choices based on what we think will benefit us the most. We choose our friends based on who brings the most joy to our life or who can help advance our position or career. Even worship becomes something that is measured by what “meets my needs” rather than whether it bends our heart to God. Sinful people think differently.
For the non-believer the notion that we should “seek first the Kingdom of God” is a foreign concept. As we share it with non-Christian people it doesn’t make any sense to them at all. The idea of living now to lay up treasures in Heaven sounds absurd. The idea of walking even through difficult times trusting that God is in control seems like foolish naiveté. Sin compromises our ability to understand spiritual truth.
Our Will is Compromised (No One Who Seeks God) This is a controversial statement by Paul. Today we often hear people say, “that person is not a Christian but they are a seeker, they are seeking to find God”. Paul says no one seeks God. Theologian R.C. Sproul helps us,
When we see people search for such things as truth, peace of mind, eternal life, or happiness, they really are searching for relief from guilt. We know that only God can give these things, and so we leap to the conclusion that they are searching for God. But it is precisely in this that sinfulness consists: People seek the benefits of God while fleeing the Person of God. God does not hide. Rather, men and women hide from God (Gen. 3:10) [BEFORE THE FACE OF GOD VOL. 1]
Since no one truly seeks God, we can understand why Jesus said, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day.” [John 6:44] We aren’t looking for God, we’re just looking for help to get what we want!
Our Religious Desires are Compromise (all have turned away) All throughout the Old Testament there is a common refrain: the people have left the true worship of the Living God and turned to idols of their own creation. Rather than honor and submit to the Lord who has authority over us, we choose to create and serve gods that we can control. Those gods may come in the form of distorted religious beliefs or they may be worldly gods such as success, power, and enjoyment. Anything that has a greater hold on our life than God does, is an idol. When we follow idols we turn away from God.
Our Status Before God is Compromised (all have become worthless). These are harsh words. In this day when we are so sensitive to the idea of self-esteem or self-regard Paul’s words are offensive. Paul is not saying that we don’t have any value to God. He is not saying that God does not love us (obviously he loves us since he sent us Jesus). He is saying that we have nothing of value to offer toward our own salvation.
Concrete Examples of Theological Truth The doctrine of Total Depravity is the one doctrine that can be verified by simple observation. If you want to know the truthfulness of what Paul is saying, look around you. Paul illustrates this lack of goodness with additional quotes from the Psalms and Isaiah that draw attention to some illustrations of our depraved state.
“Their throats are open graves; their tongues practice deceit.” “The poison of vipers is on their lips.” “Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.” “Their feet are swift to shed blood; ruin and misery mark their ways, and the way of peace they do not know.” “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
You might have thought that Paul would turn to some heinous sin to illustrate the sinfulness of men. However, Paul chooses the “tongue” as the first example of our sinful nature. What a brilliant choice! Who can say that they have never sinned with their with their tongue? Jesus said, “What goes into a man’s mouth does not make him ‘unclean,’ but what comes out of his mouth, that is what makes him ‘unclean.’” [Mt. 15:11]
Paul says our throats are like an “open grave”. The rotting smell and decay is open for all to witness. He says our speech is characterized by lying, cursing and bitterness. A person’s vocabulary and tone tells us about their heart.
Have you noticed how vile speech seems to have become today? Watch any sporting event on television and I will guarantee that somewhere in the game there will be a disagreement between a player and an official or with another player. If you can read body language and lips you can tell that there aren’t many occasions when a player will say, “I’m sorry but I disagree with you on this matter. Can we talk about this and reach a mutual understanding?” Instead there are curses, name-calling and tantrums. If you want a good test of your heart, observe how you respond when someone cuts you off in traffic.
These quotes say sinful people are also “swift to shed blood”. The value of life is diminished. The inherent value of a person is replaced with the value of expediency (or based on what practical value you have to me). Look around, violent crime is more blatant than ever. People seem ready to fight at the drop of a hat. Add to this the fact that over 30 million babies have been killed through abortion since 1973. This is better than 10 times more people than have been killed in every war in American history put together! Television is filled with violence. Some are campaigning to make it legal to kill the elderly and the infirmed and to produce offspring for their body parts! Is Scripture overstating the case?
We are told that “ruin and misery mark their ways and the way of peace they do not know”. Look at the world around us. Is there a better description of the non-christian life?
THE APPROPRIATE RESPONSE
Paul says that all these quotes from the Law of God should be words that we take personally. He tells us how best to respond.
Silence the first response. Have you ever caught your children doing something wrong? Perhaps on one of those occasions you said, “Be quiet and listen!” or “I don’t want to hear it!” as they begin to make their excuses. When you are caught in a crime you have the right to remain silent and you ought to exercise that right or you will make matters worse.
When we hear God’s indictment of our sinful way we can debate them, resist them, and rebel against them, but that only proves the point of the words. The wise person is quiet knowing that God has spoken the truth and we have nothing with which to commend ourselves before the Lord.
Second, we must accept the fact that we are accountable. Our sin is not the fault of someone else; it is our responsibility. We alone must stand before God for the choices we have made in life. We are accountable. We must recognize that we will not be declared righteous by observing the law.
Let’s take a couple of lessons away from this text.
First, obviously, if no one is righteous that means you and I are not righteous. We must understand that our religious actions, our kind deeds to our neighbor, the money we’ve donated and the good reputation we have garnered with others, means nothing before a holy God. God calls us to love Him with ALL of our heart, ALL of our soul, and ALL of our mind. Even on our best days, we don’t measure up to God’s standard.
Someone has said, if sin were blue we would all be blue. If sin made us turn blue we would all look like Smurfs! Some might be darker blue than others but we would ALL be blue. We must stop making excuses and admit the truth about our lives.
For some of you, this is not a difficult thing to admit. You are well aware that you do not measure up to the Lord’s standards. You have committed serious sin and you may even have reached the point that you have stopped trying to change because you are “too far gone”. For you, admitting you sin is easy. It’s the next step that is hard for you to accept!
But others find this very difficult to take. All your life people have told you that you are a good person. The notion that God sees you as stained, sinful, and rebellious person is something hard to accept. You believe God loves you because, heck, you are just so darn lovable! What’s not to love? However, until you recognize your true condition before God, you will never be able to discover the new life that is found through Jesus.
Second, If we are totally depraved the answer is not better programs but a new heart. We live at a time when everyone seems to believe that we can solve the moral problems of our day through education. If we would just teach a better sex-education class, then teenage promiscuity would stop. If we could do a better job of drug education, people would “just say no.” If we could just learn about and appreciate other religions, holy wars would stop.
This is naïve thinking. The problem is not a lack of information, it is a hardened and sinful heart. The only true and lasting solution to any of these things is the transformation that comes through faith in Jesus alone. Because we do not seek Him, He must seek us. Because we do not understand that which is spiritual, His Spirit must bring understanding to our minds. Since we turn away rather than turn toward Him, He must be the one to draw us to Him. Since we have no righteousness of our own, we need to have a righteousness provided by another. Since we do not desire Him, He must change our appetite. Most of you are here today because has done that in your life of is doing that in your life.
Who of us would put such effort into redeeming another? Who of us would bother? The incredible news of the gospel is that God understands our condition. He sees our sin and has taken the necessary action to set us free from that sin by the wonderful sacrifice of our Lord. Though we deserve nothing, His arms are open to us.
As I said, some of you will struggle with the first application. But some of you struggle with this application. The idea that God loves you and sent His son to die for your sin is something you find difficult to digest. You know you don’t deserve this love. No one does. Grace is a gift that is given to someone who doesn’t deserve and could never merit that gift on their own. God offers to make you new. He offers to transform you by His Spirit. He promises to take the broken pieces of your life and make them into a work of art that would stagger your imagination. Before this work can begin you have to stop running from Him and turn to Him. In an act of simple faith you must say, Lord, I receive the gift of forgiveness and new life. Make me new by your Spirit and help me to trust and follow you. If you haven’t done so, why not take that step today?