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8. Study and Exposition of Romans 3:9-20

A. Introduction

Many years ago there was a famous correspondence in The Times under the subject “What is wrong with the world today?” The best letter of all was also the shortest, and read—“Dear Sir, I am. Yours faithfully, G. K. Chesterton.” That devastating declaration showed a profound insight into man’s universal malaise, and I believe that it can teach us a deeply challenging lesson. I am convinced that throughout the Christian church there are problems, difficulties and frustrations that would begin to dissolve immediately if only some Christians would be honest enough to answer the question—“What’s wrong?” with the words “I am!”36

This is precisely Paul’s point in Romans 3:9-20. In this passage we are faced with the reality of our sin against God and other people. In short, we are the problem; I am the problem. I cannot escape; the apostle makes it clear—with a litany of OT citations carrying the full authority of “thus says the Lord.” The passage as a whole stands as a fitting climax to this entire section which began in 1:18. Paul says that men are sinners—all of us—and held accountable to God. Here we stand, guilty and convicted. The somber weight of this passage should not be missed. Do not run to the peace of the gospel too quickly, lest you cheapen its message. First, take a good and prayerful look in the mirror of scripture and see if you are not there. Then, look to God for mercy. Then may he give us the same attitude we see in Copernicus: “I do not ask for the grace thou didst give to St. Paul; nor can I dare ask for the grace which thou didst grant to St. Peter; but, the mercy which thou didst show to the Dying Robber, that mercy, show to me.” Having come to see ourselves against the infinite holiness of God and his immutable law in 1:18-3:20, we may then be eager to welcome the message of grace preached in 3:21-31.

B. Translation of Passage in NET

3:9 What then? Are we better off? Certainly not, for we have already charged that Jews and Greeks alike are all under sin, 3:10 just as it is written: “There is no one righteous, not even one,  3:11 there is no one who understands, there is no one who seeks God. 3:12 All have turned away, together they have become worthless; there is no one who shows kindness, not even one.” 3:13 “Their throats are open graves, they deceive with their tongues, the poison of asps is under their lips.” 3:14 “Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.” 3:15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood, 3:16 ruin and misery are in their paths, 3:17 and the way of peace they have not known.” 3:18 “There is no fear of God before their eyes.” 3:19 Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world may be held accountable to God. 3:20 For no one is declared righteous before him by the works of the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin.  

C. Full Exegetical Outline

Idea: All men, Jew and Gentile alike, are sinners and will not be declared righteous, i.e., attain a right standing with God, through works of the law.

I. The Jews are no better off than the Gentiles because all alike under sin (3:9).

II. There is no one who has any standing before God on their own, for there is no one who is righteous, understands or seeks God, or shows kindness; together all have become worthless (3:10-12).

A. There is no one who is righteous (3:10).

B. There is no one who understands (3:11).

C. There is no one who seeks God (3:11).

D. All have turned away and become useless (3:12).

E. There is no one who shows kindness (3:12).

III. There is no one who has any standing before God on their own, for their sin with the tongue is evident, deceitful, deadly, and brutal (3:13-14).

A. Their throats are open graves (3:13).

B. They deceive with their tongues (3:13).

C. The poison of asps is on their lips (3:13)

D. Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness (3:14).

IV. There is no one who has any standing before God on their own, for violence marks their lives, the way of peace they have not known, and all this because they have no fear of God (3:15-18).

A. Their feet are swift to shed blood (3:15).

B. Ruin and misery are in their paths (3:16).

C. They have not known the way of peace (3:17).

D. They have no fear of God (3:18).

V. No one, not even the Jew, can be declared righteous by works of the law for the law cannot declare righteous, but only bring the knowledge of sin (3:19-20).

A. The law speaks to the Jew (3:19).

B. Every mouth will be silenced (3:19).

C. The whole world will be held accountable to God (3:19).

D. No one is declared righteous by works of the law (3:20).

E. Through the law comes the knowledge of sin (3:20).

D. Simple Point Outline and Homiletical Outline

Idea: We are all sinners, incapable of achieving righteousness on our own.

I. All Are under Sin (3:9)

II. We Sin against God (3:10-12)

A. We Are Unrighteous (3:10)

B. We Do not Understand (3:11)

C. We Do not Seek God (3:11)

D. We Have Turned Away and Become Useless (3:12)

III. We Sin against People with Our Tongues (3:13-14)

A. Our Throats Are Open Graves (3:13)

B. We Deceive with Our Tongues (3:13)

C. The Poison of Asps Is on Our Lips (3:13)

D. We Curse and Are Bitter (3:14)

IV. We Sin against People with Violence (3:15-18)

A. Our Feet Are Swift To Shed Blood (3:15)

B. Ruin and Misery Mark Our Paths (3:16)

C. We Have not Known the Way of Peace (3:17)

D. We Have no Fear of God (3:18)

V. We Cannot Be Declared Righteous by Our Works (3:19-20)

A. We Are Accountable to God (3:19)

B. Our Works of the Law Cannot Declare Us Righteous (3:20)

E. Exposition Proper

The point of this section, made explicit in 3:19-20, is twofold. First, Paul wants to drive home and yet bring to a conclusion his accusations of Gentile (1:18-32) and Jewish (2:1-3:8) sinfulness. His argument is that all men alike are under sin, equally meriting God’s wrath, and that neither has an out of any sort, not even ignorance in the case of the Gentile, or supposed obedience to the Law in the case of the Jew. The use of the many OT quotations is meant to heighten the thesis of the universality of human sinfulness and the repetition of these passages, one on top of the other, in a coherent fashion, is meant to drive the point home with vigor and power. This is a sermon, if you will, not an impassioned comment!

The second purpose Paul wishes to establish with this section, having summarized human sinfulness and guilt, is to introduce his readers to the next specific topic on the agenda, namely, the gospel (3:21-32), as well as to hint generally at other topics to come—topics such as “righteousness,” “works of the law,” and “the knowledge of sin and the law.”

3:9 The punctuation and precise meaning of the first part of this verse is difficult. The introductory question what then (τὶ οὖν, ti oun) is identical with that beginning 3:1. It asks a question in light of the discussion in 3:1-8, and in particular the discussion in 3:1-3. We may understand it as follows: “Since there is value in being a Jew, as far as having received the oracles of God is concerned, “what then” is the benefit in terms of my standing as a Jew before God? This is the point of the next question Paul asks.

Paul follows the question, “what then,” with another question, which, on the surface, appears to be an attempt to clarify what is meant by “what then.” The question, which is simply one word in the Greek text (προεχόμεθα, proechometha), seems to be asking, Are we [Jews] any better off? The answer is, certainly not (οὐ πάντως, ou pantōs). In other words, whatever benefit the Jew obtained through being the recipient of divine oracles, it was not of the sort that placed God in his debt. On the contrary, only the reverse is true. The reason for this, Paul says, is that Jews and Greeks alike are all under sin  (᾿Ιουδαιους τε καὶ ῞Ελληνας πάντας ὑφ ᾿ ἁμαρτίαν εἶναι, Ioudaious te kai Ellēnas pantas huph hamartian).

Paul rarely uses sin (ἁμαρτία, hamartia) in the plural to denote sinful acts (1 Cor 15:3), but rather in the singular to refer to the principle of sin. He uses it approximately 48 times in Romans to describe the human condition as inextricably and helplessly (though not innocently) under the power or ruling force of sin and intentionally personifies it as a “lord” or “master” in 6:14. For Paul, sin is a dominating force which has captured all men and which, apart from the intervention of God in Christ, leads to physical as well as eternal death (Rom 6:23).

3:10 In 3:10-18 Paul uses several passages from the OT to demonstrate the thesis that all people are under sin. The expression just as it is written (καθὼς γέγραπται ὅτι, kathōs gegraptai hoti) indicates that what follows involves citations from the OT. It also shows Paul’s deep conviction that the OT scriptures correspond to reality as it is found in human experience. He did not need to mention the latest human sin to demonstrate his point; he need only refer to passages from the OT. The OT, for Paul, had as much authority in defining and explaining human experience as it did in outlining human history (1:2-4; 9:1-11:32; 15:12). We might well take a lesson from Paul on this point.

What follows in 3:10b-18 is a series of passages from the OT. It was common practice in the Judaism of Paul’s day for the rabbis to string together many passages in support of an argument. Often these verses were only joined verbally through the use of a similar word of phrase (cf. Acts 2:25-36). In this case Paul cites five texts from the Psalms, one from Ecclesiastes, and one from Isaiah. What holds them together is, of course, the common theme of human sinfulness, as well as the repetition of the phrase “there is no…” (6x). There is also a logical development within the verses as Paul accuses men of sin against God (10-12), sins of the tongue (13-14) and crimes of violence against other human beings (15-17). The fact that there is a focus on God first (10-12), and then, a focus on man (13-17), may reflect a conscience dependence on the two part division of the decalogue (cf. Exod 20:1-11 with Exod 20:12-17).

But why is man so bent on sinning against God and his fellow man? Answer: there is no fear of God. So, just as the fear of God played an important role in the giving of the law, so here men are accused by the apostle of having no proper fear of God. Thus the final structural marker which holds the passage together and which provides an interpretive framework for the sinfulness described therein is Paul’s reference to men having no fear of God. The apostle begins with God and ends with God.

Now that we understand the structure of the passage, let’s begin to look at the details. Paul’s first citation, with certain modifications, is found in Psalm 14:1 (Ps 13:1 LXX; cf. Eccl 7:20). It establishes the general point of man’s undesirable condition before God. There is no one who is righteous (δίκαιος, dikaios), not even one (οὐδὲ εἷς, oude heis)! Every human being who has ever lived or ever will live has been a slave to sin, under its ruling power, and in no way merits in themselves, either through their good works or the right internal character, a secure standing with God. Jesus Christ is the only exception to this.

3:11-12 In 3:11 and 12 Paul carries on with an excerpt from Psalm 14:2-3. He says that there is no one who understands (οὐκ ἔστιν ὁ συνίων, ouk estin ho suniōn). People do not understand God, neither his character, nor his ways. By willingly suppressing the truth about God they become corrupt and unable to remember anything accurate about him (1:18-21). Thus they downplay the one thing they do know, namely, that they will be held accountable for their sin (1:32; 2:14-15).

Further, there is no one who seeks (ἐκζητῶν, ekzētōn) God. The fact that we have become worthless (ἠχρεώθησαν, ēchreōthēsan) indicates that we have become so morally reprobate by our own doing (and God's judgment) that it is impossible on our own to do anything meriting God’s favor.

Thus with the repetition of “there is no one…” in 3:10-12 the point about the universality of sin is made once again.

3:13-14 The progression from throats (λάρυγξ, larugx), to tongues (γλῶσσαι, glōssai), to lips (χείλη, cheilē), to mouths (στόμα, stoma), probably indicates the natural way in which sounds are uttered by a person (cf. Ps 5:9; 139:4; 140:3). The point is to emphasize that the very process of speaking can be sinful.

The reference to their tongues as open graves (τάφος ἀνεῳγμένος, taphos aneōgmenos) stands first in the clause for greater emphasis and evokes vivid images of the stark reality surrounding death and decay. That the grave is open probably means that through the use of the tongue we are able to see the rot going on beneath the surface (i.e., in the heart)—rot that would otherwise be obscured from our vision (cf. Mark 7:14-15).

People intentionally deceive (ἐδολιοῦσαν, edoliousan) others with their tongues by obscuring their intentions to do harm, and as Paul says, the poison of asps is under their lips (ἰὸς ἀσπίδων ὑπὸ τὰ χείλη αὐτῶν, ios aspidōn hupo ta cheilē autōn). The asp, which was probably the Egyptian cobra, was found in both the desert and in fields, and was extremely poisonous. One can scarcely think of a more graphic way in which to express the pain and suffering caused by vindictive and unjust words (cf. Matt 12:36-37; Eph 4:29).

Finally, in 3:14 Paul says their mouths are full of cursing (ἀρᾶς, aras) and bitterness (πικρίας, pikrias). Paul uses a phrase from Psalm 9:28 to again express the vile nature of sinful human speech. The “cursing” probably expresses the actual manner of speaking, with hints of violence, while the term “bitterness” reflects the condition of the heart. Out of the bitterness of the heart flows the cursing of the mouth.

3:15-17 Paul moves on in vv. 15-17 with a citation dependent for the most part on Isaiah 59:7-8 (cf. Prov 1:16). He leaves the sins involving the mouth and moves forward to enumerate sins involving the imagery of feet. People are swift (ὀξεῖς, oxeis) to shed blood, to commit acts of violence against others. Indeed, ruin and misery are in their paths (ὁδοῖς, hodois); the landscape behind them is littered with the remains of their violence. Everywhere they go people suffer. They have not known the way of peace (ὁδὸν εἰρήνης, hodon eirēnēs), that is, the way of salvation in which God would lead them if they were willing.

In the Isaianic context, the prophet mourns the covenant unfaithfulness of Israel whose sin was so great that justice was said to stand at a distance and to be driven back (Isa 59:9, 14). Paul’s use of this passage probably implies that the Jews of his day were in the same position as those to whom Isaiah originally spoke; they were also in desperate need of the salvation only YHWH’s arm could work (Isa 59:16).

The repeated references to “bodily parts” in this catena of OT quotations reinforce Paul’s understanding of sin as expressing itself through the bodily members (Rom 6:12-13). It is also interesting to note that in this section the passages that refer to the Gentiles in the OT are being equally applied to the Jews. While the rabbis would have agreed that sin is sin, they would not have taken kindly to the notion that they were guilty in the same way and to the same degree as the Gentiles.

3:18 Paul concludes his practical discussion of the sins of humanity with a citation from Psalm 36:1. A lack of the fear of God is at once the root problem for sin and a great sin itself leading to much folly and corruption. Men commit sins because they hold God in contempt and simply have no fear of his awesomeness. But as Nahum declared to Ninevah and the Assyrians, God is not to be trifled with. He is a divine warrior who exacts punishment on his enemies, and does so without mercy. For Christians, one of the most significant revelations of the New Testament is the fact that God is our personal heavenly father (Matt 6:9; Gal 4:6). This wonderful and comforting truth must not be minimized, but it must not be permitted to denigrate into mere sentimentality for we are also commanded to fear and reverence our Father (1 Peter 1:17-19).

3:19 Paul expresses his great confidence in God’s revealed word in the OT for he says that whatever (ὅσα, hosa) the law says…. In other words, whatever the entire Old Testament says, it is right!

Further, whatever the law says, it says it to those who are under the law (ὅσα ὁ νόμος λέγει τοῖς ἐν τῷ νόμῳ λαλεῖ, hosa ho nomos legei tois en tō nomō lalei). Two things must be mentioned about this translation. First, there are two different Greek words, both of which we have translated, “says.” In actuality there is probably a different nuance intended so that the translation might also be rendered: “whatsoever the law says, it speaks [this] to those under the law.” Paul implies that there are many Jews who know what the law says (legei), but not many who hear it speaking (lalei) directly to them: "he who has ears, let him hear what the law says…."

The second point concerns the translation “under the law.” This is not the same kind of thought we had in 3:9 where Paul refers to the entire world as “under sin.” Literally, 3:19 says, “those in (ἐν, en) the law,” though this English translation is a bit difficult to understand. The point Paul seems to be making is that “those who possess or live in relationship to the OT revelation of God,” are those in the law. In other words, the apostle is referring to Jews as they view themselves in relationship to the Mosaic Law or God's covenant in general (cf. 3:20).

But, if Paul is referring primarily to the Jews in 3:19 (even though the citations in 3:10-18 indict all humanity), how can the whole world be said to be held accountable? The answer seems to be that if the best of humanity (i.e., the Jew) is indicted by God’s words and unable to be saved by works of the law (cf. 3:20), then certainly the rest of humanity doesn’t stand a chance. In an a fortiori argument, it is a foregone conclusion that if the Jew fails, so does everyone else. After all, they had the most opportunity.

3:20 The emphasis on no one (οὐπᾶσα σάρξ, ou...pasa sarx) picks up the Jewish element inherent in “those under the law” in 3:19 and broadens it to include all men. “No one” will be declared righteous (δικαιωθήσεται, dikaiōthēsetai), that is, absolutely no one will achieve a right standing with God on the basis of their own works.

The prepositional phrase by works of the law (ἐξ ἔργων νόμου, ex ergōn nomou) stands first in its clause for added emphasis (cf. Rom 3:28; 4:2; Gal 2:16). What are these “works of the law” to which Paul refers? While they undoubtedly include any works done in obedience to the Mosaic law, it seems that Paul primarily intends circumcision because of what it represents to the Jewish mind, i.e., covenantal faithfulness and inclusion (3:28-30; 4:2, 6, 9-10). Some commentators have suggested that ergōn nomou refers to dietary laws, but this is highly unlikely. Paul is not referring to dietary laws, but to the moral law of God which brings knowledge of sin (3:20). Also, it is almost impossible to see how Paul—if he were referring to dietary laws—could ever have made the point that all men are guilty of sin, both Jew and Gentile. Gentiles were never responsible to keep Israel's dietary laws.

The reason (γάρ, gar) works of the law cannot not justify a person is because the function of the law is not to justify and our works, no matter what their apparent merit, can never measure up to the standard set out in the law. The law was never intended to justifiy a person; indeed, it is powerless to aid a person in such a feat. On the contrary, it condemns the entire race, for it reveals both the fact of our sin as well as its heinous and condemnatory character (5:20-21; 7:7-9). In short, it is when we juxtapose our lives and the holy law of God that we gain personal, first-hand, and meaningful knowledge of our sin (ἐπίγνωσις ἁμαρτίας, epignōsis hamartias). To use "obedience to the law" as a catapult into fellowship with God is to fail to grasp our complete fallenness in God's eyes. This is, in large measure, Paul's point in 1:18-3:20.

F. Contribution of Passage to Systematic Theology

This passage contributes to the doctrine of the depravity concerning the entire human race and that no person has escaped the grip of sin. Further, no amount of good works, done in accordance with the highest ethical norms, can result in our being declared righteous. The situation is hopeless as far as we are concerned. Our entire heart, mind, and will is enslaved to the power of sin and we stand under the just wrath of God.

G. Contribution of Passage to Discipleship and Church Mission

When we preach the gospel we must help people understand that our first and ultimate problem as fallen human beings is not that we do not have what we need or want, but that we are in rebellion against God and are in need of forgiveness, righteousness, and reconciliation. We are under condemnation without Christ. Make no mistake about it and do not allow His profound patience to make a practical atheist out of you. Also, be wary of those who suggest that God will solve all your problems in the here-and-now or that He wants to make you a financial success. This is not the gospel, but a cheap substitute, which is really no gospel at all. To be sure, our Father does provide for his children, and there is coming a day when he will glorify his name by doing away with all our pain, grief, and struggles. But that day is not now. Our present experience is "life between the times." We live in the period of the inauguration of his kingdom, but we must wait patiently for the consummation to come at his return. Thus our present experience, while rooted in deep joy, is not without sorrow, pain, and suffering. We must take up the cross as our master taught us (Luke 9:23).


36 John Blanchard, The Truth for Life (West Sussex, England: H. E. Walter, 1982), 263.