The Final Verdict- Romans 3:9-20

What then? Are we better than they? Not at all; for we have already charged that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin; as it is written, “There is none righteous, not even one; there is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God; all have turned aside, together they have become useless; there is none who does good, there is not even one. Their throat is an open grave, with their tongues they keep deceiving, the poison of asps is under their lips; whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness; their feet are swift to shed blood, destruction and misery are in their paths, and the path of peace they have not known. There is no fear of God before their eyes.” Now we know that whatever the Law says, it speaks to those who are under the Law, so that every mouth may be closed and all the world may become accountable to God; because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin (Romans 3:9-20).

 

As we approach Romans 3:9-20, this is Paul's summation for this first major section of the book of Romans. This opening section establishes the condemnation of the entire human race. The apostle began his argument in 1:18, and these verses present the final crescendo of this section. This message of the wrath of God is critically important because there is no good news of our salvation until we first know the bad news of our condemnation. There is no understanding of the salvation that God has for us until we understand from what we have to be saved. That is the airtight case that Paul is laying out for us in this opening section.

 

As we come to this concluding paragraph in Romans 3:9-20, Paul is arguing his case like a skilled lawyer in a courtroom. Those whom he is prosecuting are the entire human race. The supreme judge and the deciding jury is God Himself. Paul is simply the prosecutor who is bringing God’s indictment.

 

This is, in reality, God's prosecution of every member of the human race. The witnesses being called to the stand are the Law and the prophets in the Old Testament. The moral law of God is the standard by which the human race is being measured and found guilty as charged. All humanity is under divine condemnation. No one is excused. There is no court of higher appeal. The verdict rendered is irrevocable and fixed.

 

As we look at these verses, they lay out as a dramatic courtroom scene. In verse 9, Paul makes the charge. In verses 10-18, he presents his case. In verses 19-20, there is the condemnation of all. As Paul makes the charge, he does so on behalf of God. Then he will bring his case with irrefutable evidence. Then, finally, the condemnation is declared, which is the divine verdict of the court. This is as dramatic an ending as there could be to this opening section of the book of Romans.

 

I. The Incriminating Charge (3:9)

 

Paul begins verse 9 with the charge. The actual charge is found at the end of verse 9, but first there is a build up. Paul begins by asking, “What then?” In other words, what more could be said than what has already been presented? The apostle adds, "Are we better than they?" There is a difference of opinion concerning the identity of “we.” Does it refer to the Jews, or is it an editorial “we”? Does this refer to Paul and all the believers in Rome? I prefer, in this context, it refers to the later. In the previous verse, “we” is used twice. "We are slanderously reported” and “as some claim that we say" (verse 8). Then in verse 9, Paul says, "Are we better than they?" The meaning of “we” pulls forward from verse 8 to verse 9. Paul is saying, "Are we Christians any better than those who are not Christians?" Paul emphatically replies, "Not at all" (verse 9). That is, any difference in believers is only by the grace of God. It is not that we are better than anyone else. We are what we are by the grace of God.

 

“All Under Sin” 

Paul continues, "we have already charged that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin" (verse 9). This points back to Romans 1, 2, and the first part of 3. When Paul says “Jews and Greeks,” he is being inclusive by putting his arms around the entire human race. His sweeping charge applies to every person who has ever been born in the history of the world. This indictment goes all the way back to the first man who was formed by the hand of God.  No one escapes this charge.

 

When Paul asserts, "For we have already charged that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin" (verse 9), there is no other line for anyone to stand in. There is no other category of humanity. The entire world population is under sin. To be “under sin” means to be under the just penalty of sin. It means to be held captive under the power of sin. It means to be defiled with the pollution of sin. To be “under sin” is to be enslaved to and dominated by sin. In no uncertain terms, Paul is maintaining that all people are under the tyranny, domination, and condemnation of sin. It is as if they are under the whole pile of sin, and they cannot escape from underneath it by their own efforts. This is where Paul’s charge begins. It will be repeated and reasserted in Romans 3:23, when Paul says, "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” This is a devastating charge to be brought against all.

 

II. The Irrefutable Case (3:10-18)

 

Lest there be anyone who would disagree with this charge, Paul argues his case with irrefutable evidence. In verses 10-18, Paul will present a litany of Old Testament citations. The reason Paul is quoting the Old Testament is twofold. Number one, this shows that this is not Paul's case, but God's case. He is simply quoting the word of God. This is not Paul's opinion or thoughts, but those that belong to God alone. This is not the voice of social conscience or cultural mores. This is God's own prosecution against mankind. This is God's indisputable case against the human race. The second reason that Paul quotes from the Old Testament is to show that this prosecution is nothing new. This case was embedded in Old Testament Scripture all along. What Paul writes is simply an echo, or a repetition, of the case that has already been submitted by the Law and the Prophets.

 

In verses 10-18, Paul quotes eight Old Testament verses in rapid-fire succession. Some of these biblical texts are repeated from different texts in the Old Testament. For example, Psalm 14:1-3 is repeated in Psalm 53:1-3. This means that there are more verses being quoted than what initially meets the eye. If you have a reference Bible, you will see the cross references listed in the margin. Paul is bringing witness, after witness, after witness to the stand. What we have in verses 10 through 18 is the signature passage in the entire Bible for the total depravity of the fallen human condition. This is the supreme passage for the doctrine of total depravity.

 

The Depravity of Humanity

Most of you have heard this theological label, total depravity. Some refer to it as radical corruption. It means that the depravity of sin has extended to the totality of the human condition. From the top of our head to the bottom of our feet, every inch and every ounce of us has become poisoned with the deadly venom of sin. Total depravity does teach that every person is as totally depraved in their lifestyle as they could possibly be. Some people, such as Adolf Hitler, the German madman, display a far greater expression of evil than an unconverted grandmother. However, total depravity means that Adam's sin nature has been passed down to the entire human race and has radically corrupted the totality of a person’s being. The mind, heart, and will is plagued by the pollution of original sin. No part of man is left unaffected by sin. Consequently, the mind is unable to think properly about God and self. A person cannot come up with their own understanding of how bad off they are. Likewise, the heart loves what it should hate, and it hates what it should love. Further, the will is held captive by sin. That is the debilitating effect of total depravity.

 

There are some Christians who think the mind and the heart are affected by sin, but the will is still free. That is a naive understanding of the human condition that lacks biblical instruction. The will is simply a handmaiden of the mind and the heart. Wherever the mind thinks and the heart desires, the will chooses. The will never operates independent of the mind and the heart. The will is the tail, and the mind and affections are the dog. The tail is not wagging the dog, but is following the head and the torso. The entire human nature is depraved. It is naïve, if not foolishness, to think the will is unaffected by sin. To presume that the will is untainted by sin and can somehow operate independent of the mind and the affections is sheer emptiness of thought.

 

The Human Condition 

In Romans 3:10-18, we find Paul's masterful use of the Old Testament to build his case against mankind one brick at a time. I want to give you an overview of these verses before we walk through them carefully. In verse 11, Paul addresses the mind and the heart. In verse 12, he speaks to the will. In verse 13, he indicts the throat, the tongue, and the lips. In verse 14, he charges the mouth. In verses 15-17, he condemns the feet. In verse 18, he denounces the eyes. As we proceed through these verses, we can identify the many different parts of the body, testifying to total depravity. They represent every human faculty. They describe the human condition in dreadful terms. They condemn human character with excoriating words. They speak of the human conversation that flows out of the character. They depict human choices as the tragic result of the fallen character.

 

What Paul represents here is a comprehensive autopsy of the spiritually dead sinner. If we were to take a dead corpse and lay it out on a table, and start at the top of the head and work our way down to the soles of the feet, every different body part represents some aspect of the human personality and the human nature. Here, we will see that human depravity is from the top of the head to the bottom of the feet. There is no part of the human psyche that is untouched and untainted by sin. There is not a human body part that is not poisoned by the deadly venom of sin. It is like having a glass of water, taking a syringe, and injecting cyanide into the glass of water. The toxic cyanide will permeate the whole of the glass. There will not be any part of the water that is unpoisoned by the fatal potion. Similarly, when we were conceived in the womb, the sin nature of Adam was injected into us. It was like a snake with its fangs injecting its venom into us as its victim. We came into this world with every faculty of our innermost being poisoned by deadly sin.

 

“There is None Righteous” (3:10)  

Paul begins by quoting the Old Testament. He says, "as it is written, ‘There is none righteous, not even one’" (verse 10). There could not possibly be a more comprehensive statement than this. Not one single person meets the divine standard to gain acceptance with God. As Paul will soon say, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). The word “righteous” means ‘conformity to a standard.’ Paul says, "There is none righteous," that is, none measure up to the divine standard of His perfect holiness. Then, to be even more emphatic, he adds, "not even one." There is no exception to this all-inclusive statement. This is why Jesus had to be born of a virgin so that the deadly fang of sin and its fatal venom would not be injected into Him. In the womb of Mary, He was conceived by the Holy Spirit, not by Joseph (Luke 1:35). God had prepared a body for Him (Hebrews 10:5), and though He had all of the faculties of human nature (Luke 2:52), He was without sin (1 John 3:5).

 

Verse 10 serves as the topic sentence in this important paragraph on the judgment of God upon the depravity of man. When Paul writes, "There is none righteous, not even one," this is the sweeping indictment of the entire human race. Paul starts with the bottom line and then presents his case, step by step.

 

The Depravity of the Mind (3:11a)

Paul begins with the darkened mind of fallen man, "There is none who understands" (verse 11). There is none who understands how holy God is and how sinful they are. There is none who truly understands how guilty and condemned they are before God. There is none who understands that their only way of escape is by the grace of God. Their mind cannot function regarding spiritual matters. It does not matter how smart they are. It does not matter how high their IQ. They may be a professor at the university writing the textbooks and be the most brilliant person in their office. But they simply do not get it. In earthly matters, they can be a genius, but in spiritual matters, their mind and their brain cannot understand.

 

Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 2:14, "For a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him." The word “foolish” comes from Greek word moria from which we derive the English word ‘moron.’ This means the unconverted man has no spiritual capacity to intellectually process the information of divine revelation that is being put before him. He cannot add up and come up with the right bottom-line conclusion. Paul says, "He cannot understand them" (1 Corinthians 2:14). The difference between ‘may’ and ‘can’ is the difference between permission and ability. The unregenerate man cannot understand spiritual truth and how it relates to him. Explaining the gospel to him is like describing a sunset to a blind man or a symphony to a deaf person. He cannot see it, hear it, or understand it, because biblical truth is spiritually appraised.

 

The Depravity of the Heart (3:11b)

Paul next proceeds to describe the darkened heart of the human race without Christ. "There is none who seeks for God" (verse 11). To seek God represents a true spiritual desire for God. It represents a love and passion for God. When Paul says “there is none who seeks for God,” this includes every person who follows a false religion as well. People sometimes say, "But they are so sincere. They are seeking God in their own way." To the contrary, they are not seeking God, but instead are running away from Him into idolatry. They have succumbed to an idol of their own creation. It is their way of turning away from the one true, living God, who has created all that there is and before whom all the world is accountable.

 

“All Have Turned Aside” (3:12a)

Paul adds in verse 12, “All have turned aside." The verb “turned aside” (ekklino) means ‘to deviate, to shun.’ The idea is that the unconverted person is on the wrong path and going in the wrong direction. This person is on, as Jesus said, the broad path that is headed for destruction (Matthew 7:13). Sin will always take a person in the wrong direction. Sin will always cause him to make the worst decisions, spiritually speaking. He always makes the wrong choice. He always turns away from God. He may know how to pick a good house in which to live. He may know how to match up his tie with his suit. He may know how to do math as a CPA. But in spiritual choices, he will inevitably make the wrong decision, because he is spiritually dead.

 

Paul goes on to say, "Together they have become useless" (verse 12). Here, he gives a summation of the entire human race. “Useless” (achreioo) means ‘to become unprofitable, to render unserviceable.’ This is an intentionally demeaning word that means the unconverted man is of no value in pleasing or serving God. As it relates to the kingdom of God and eternal things, he makes a zero contribution. Jesus, in Luke 14:34, compared such a person to salt that has lost its savor. He is not even useful for the dung pile. He is like milk that has turned sour, that no one could drink.

 

Then Paul adds, "There is none who does good, there is not even one" (verse 12). This is an emphatic declaration. Though the unregenerate person may occasionally do some horizontal good such as do some charitable things, everything he does as it relates to commending himself to God and gaining His approval is not good.

 

This is yet one more proof that the Bible is the word of God, because man would not condemn himself like this. Man will always try to present himself better than what he is. But he will always fall short of God’s glory. He will always fail to meet the divine mark. He will always over-promise with his words and under-deliver with his life. A man without Christ will always buy high, sell low. He will always try to dress himself up better than what he is. This indictment of the entire human race surely shows that these are the words of God, because no man would bring such a unilateral condemnation upon himself in this manner.

 

Depravity of the Throat (3:13a)

In verses 13-14, the focus shifts to the depravity of the mouth. Paul declares, "Their throat is an open grave" (verse 13). He is talking about everyone's throat, who is outside of the kingdom of God. Graves that contain corpses are not left open, but are sealed up. If it is not sealed up, but remains open, the stench, decay, and wretchedness would be so odious and foul that no one would come anywhere near the burial plot. For it to be open would be similar to an open sewer line with its filth that is being pumped out. The throat is lower than the lips or the tongue, showing that what is said comes up out of the wickedness of the heart. This is a devastating picture that Paul is assembling here.

 

The mouth is simply a window into the heart. There is an old saying, "What is down in the well comes up in the bucket." That means, what is down in the heart comes out of the mouth. Sometimes a person will say something they should not and exclaim, "I cannot believe I said that." In reality, he should be amazed that he does not say more. Knowing what is down in the heart, it is quite remarkable he shows the restraint that he does, given what else is in his heart. The more he talks, the worse it is. The more he speaks, the more he slanders. The more he pontificates, the more arrogant he sounds. The more he converses, the more he corrupts others. The unregenerate mouth is like an open grave.

 

Depravity of the Tongue (3:13b)

Then Paul asserts, “with their tongues they keep deceiving” (verse 13). “Deceiving” (dolioo) means ‘to use trickery.’ It was used to bait a hook so as to lure a fish to bite it. It is luring a prey by deception. This deception that comes from their mouth is nonstop. It began as soon as they were born. They came out of their mother's womb lying and deceiving.

 

Depravity of the Lips (3:13c)

Then the apostle explains, "The poison of asps is under their lips" (verse 13). An asp is a snake, and its poison is its venom. Once the fangs are ejected and bite into a person, they release a poison, which spreads and can lead to death. Their lips are injecting death into others. Their words bring others down, destroy their reputation, ruin their credibility, and harm their prosperity. This imagery that Paul uses reminds us of Satan, when he first slithered onto the page of Scripture with his lies (Genesis 3:1-6). The imagery of the snake and the serpent is picked up here. Again, this is a part of the total depravity that is all being pumped out of the heart.

 

Depravity of the Mouth (3:14)

Paul continues in verse 14, "Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness." “Cursing” refers to intense hatred. To curse someone is to desire to bring judgment down upon them. “Bitterness” is open hostility against an enemy. Their mouth is not partially full of such filth, but is “full” of it. That is, it is filled to overflowing.

 

Depravity of the Feet (3:15-17)

In verse 15, Paul moves on to describe their feet. "Their feet are swift to shed blood" (verse 15). He has proceeded downward, from the mouth, throat, lips, and tongue to the feet. Do you see how this is all connected? Sin cannot be compartmentalized to only one part of a person’s life. Sin in one area, like a deadly cancer, spreads to the whole body. When Paul says "their feet are swift to shed blood," the idea is that they are sprinting to cause harm to others. The feet indicate the course of a person’s life. It represents the direction of their life, the path that they have chosen to take in life. They are not slow or hesitant to wreck havoc to others. They are not dragging their feet or shuffling to do harm to those they encounter.  They are not walking or crawling to inflict their damage. They are “swift,” because their heart is driving them to “shed blood.” This pictures them killing another person. Jesus said that hatred in the heart is murder (Matthew 5:21-22). The animosity found in the heart is propelling the feet. There is no disconnect among their vile body parts.

 

In verse 16, Paul continues with this imagery of the feet with the path they travel. He says, "Destruction and misery are in their paths" (verse 16). There could not be a more devastating description of their path they travel. “Destruction” speaks of the harm that they cause other people. They bring destruction to their business partners, spouse, children, friends, and enemies. The highway of their life is filled with the destruction they bring to others. Their sin always affects someone else. Children are left to deal with the decisions of their unsaved father or mother. The result of the destruction they cause is “misery.” No one is immune to it. They only wish they could be numb to it. They feel the pain of it as this unsaved person is causing people to suffer “misery.”

 

Verse 17 continues the imagery of the feet as Paul says, “The path of peace they have not known." They have no peace within themselves. They are internally restless and, therefore, cause trouble for everyone else. They have not known peace with anyone else. They are trouble looking for someplace to happen. They create stress and suffering for everyone else. This is why a believer needs to marry another believer. What fool would marry a destructive person like this? No one would want to be tied up with this for the rest of their life. You better marry someone who has been born again by the Spirit of God, whose life is dominated by the peace of God. Otherwise you have bought into major trouble for the rest of your life.

 

Depravity of the Eyes (3:18)

In verse 18, Paul moves on to the eyes. He says, "There is no fear of God before their eyes" (verse 18). This is categorically true. There is not one drop of the fear of God within them. There is no reverencing of God. There is no taking God serious. There is no humility before God. There is no dread of the final judgment. There is no cringing at the thought of hell. If there was such a healthy fear of God within them, they would be running to Christ. They may be losing sleep at night. If they truly feared God, they would flee to the Savior and believe in Him. They would be quick to place their trust in Him. The mere fact that they remain in unbelief is proof positive that there is no concern for God within them. They do not take God or His word seriously.

 

When Paul writes, “before their eyes,” this carries the idea of how they see themselves and the world around them. This is their worldview, or their whole life perspective. No matter where they look or at what they are observing, there is no fear of God before their eyes. Whether they are at the office, at home, or at recreation, there is no fear of God that governs how they see what is around them. They are irreverent when it comes to God. Given how Paul paints this picture of human depravity, how could anyone argue against the doctrine of total depravity?

 

III. The Indicting Condemnation (3:19-20)

 

At last, Paul comes to the condemnation of the entire human race outside of Jesus Christ. This is the divine verdict as heaven’s gavel comes down hard.

 

Every Person Accountable (3:19a)

Paul says, "Now we know that whatever the Law says, it speaks to those who are under the Law” (verse 19). Please note the function of the Law continues, even in the New Testament. Every commandment in the Law is a revelation of the holiness of God and the sinfulness of man. The Law testifies in the divine courtroom that we have disobeyed and fallen short of the glory of God. The Law is also intended to be used evangelistically, to point people to Jesus Christ. When the rich young ruler asked, "What must I do to inherit eternal life?," Jesus answered with the Law. When on another occasion, a lawyer asked, "Who is my neighbor?," Jesus used the Law. Paul is doing the same in this passage. The Law cannot save, but it does bring a person to the point where they know they need to be saved. The Law is a tutor that takes us to Christ.

 

“Those who are under the Law” speaks of every person who has ever lived. Even Jesus was “born under the Law” (Galatians 4:4). To be “under the Law” means to be in direct accountability to the Law. Jesus was the only one to obey the Law perfectly. This He did on our behalf. We will address the obedience of Christ in future studies. But at this point, what Paul stresses is that everyone is under the Law, accountable to the Law, and judged by the Law.

 

Every Mouth Closed (3:19b)

Paul explains why the Law is so important, "so that every mouth may be closed" (verse 19). There can be no excuses before God on the last day. There can be no self-justification, self-vindication or cry of mistrial. Every mouth will be closed because of the irrefutable indictment that the Law brings. Everyone will be speechless. “All the world will become accountable to God” (verse 19) and must answer to God in the final judgment.

 

Every Life Condemned (3:20) 

Paul concludes this section in verse 20, "Because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight." Of the texts in the Bible that clearly state that you cannot earn your salvation, this may be the most clear. This text teaches that no one can work their way to heaven. The cross is not a ladder by which you pull yourself up to God through your own morality. When Paul says, "no flesh will be justified in His sight," he means just that. To be justified is to be declared righteous by God and find perfect acceptance with Him. He concludes verse 20 by saying, "For through the Law comes the knowledge of sin." There is no sin that will not be exposed by the Law in the final judgment.

 

Conclusion

This case is closed before the Supreme Court of heaven. All humanity is found guilty as charged and condemned to eternal death. This is why everyone needs the Lord. This is why you must be born again, or you will not even see the kingdom of heaven. This is why you and I must tell others about Christ. This is why we have got to reach the world for Christ. To be delivered from this death sentence should bring a deep sense of humility and gratitude to every one of our hearts. That we would be out from under this indictment is the greatest offer ever extended to us.

 

The noose of the Law was around our neck. We were at the gallows. They were ready to put the hood over our head and face. They were ready to remove the trap door beneath us, and we were about to be hung. Then God intervened. He sent His Son to die in our place, that we would be set free. If the son shall set you free, you shall be free indeed.

Dr. Steven J. Lawson

Dr. Steven J. Lawson is President and founder of OnePassion Ministries, a ministry designed to equip biblical expositors to bring about a new reformation in the church. Dr. Lawson hosts The Institute for Expository Preaching in cities around the world. Dr. Lawson is also a Teaching Fellow for Ligonier Ministries, where he serves on its board. Moreover, he is Professor of Preaching and oversees the Doctor of Ministry program at The Master’s Seminary, where he also serves on its board. Dr. Lawson is also Professor in Residence for Truth Remains, a work designed to promote and proclaim God’s written Word. Further, Dr. Lawson serves as the Executive Editor for Expositor Magazine published by OnePassion Ministries.