Last week, we looked at the first eight verses of Romans 3, most of which has been omitted from the three-year Lectionary.

This is an unfortunate omission, because St Paul explains why we are all under the Law, even those who do not believe in it.  For this reason, these verses from Romans 3 form part of the ongoing Churchmouse Campanologist series, Forbidden Bible Verses — those Essential Bible Verses.

Today’s reading comes from the New International Version.

Romans 3:9-20

No One is Righteous

 9What shall we conclude then? Are we any better? Not at all! We have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin. 10As it is written:
   “There is no one righteous, not even one;
    11there is no one who understands,
      no one who seeks God.
 12All have turned away,
      they have together become worthless;
   there is no one who does good,
      not even one.” 
 13“Their throats are open graves;
      their tongues practice deceit.” 
   “The poison of vipers is on their lips.” 
   14“Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.” 
 15“Their feet are swift to shed blood;
    16ruin and misery mark their ways,
 17and the way of peace they do not know.” 
    18“There is no fear of God before their eyes.”

 19Now 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 held accountable to God. 20Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.

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St Paul continues his letter on justification by faith.  In this passage he tells us that our works cannot save us because we are inherently sinful.  Our greatest works are as nothing in His sight.  We can be saved only through believing in Him and His Son Jesus Christ and by renouncing sin in all its forms.

In verse 9, Paul — having discussed the Jews previously — asks if Gentiles are any better or worse?  He says unequivocally that Jews and Gentiles are both inherently sinful after the Fall and that God shall judge both groups equally.  This reminds me of the time near the end of the last century when the 10 Commandments were pulled down from courthouses in the United States.  Groups of secularists and atheists filed lawsuits saying that they didn’t believe in God, therefore, they were not subject to God’s laws — even though our civil laws derive from them.  Many biblically-illiterate Christians empathised with this request, saying, ‘Fair enough’. Courts ruled in favour of bringing down the plaques of the 10 Commandments. Yet, God our divine Creator will judge every one of us, whether we know Him or not (verse 19). 

Paul then quotes verses from the Old Testament (verse 10), illustrating the historicity of and various examples of sin.  I am always interested to find how much of the Old Testament is quoted in the New Testament.  Romans 3 is no exception.  Paul cites these verses to illustrate that the people committing them were slaves to particular types of sin and that we all have our own particular weakness, whether it be sex, violence, drunkenness, envy or dishonesty.  Also, because we are inherently sinful, we are capable of committing any sin, even ones of which we are not guilty.  Verses 11 and 12 allude to Psalm 14:1-3 (Man cannot do good in God’s eyes), Psalm 53:1-3 (a reiteration of Ps. 14:1-3) and Ecclesiastes 7:20 (there isn’t a man alive who doesn’t sin).      

Paul proceeds to cite specific sins.  Verse 13 refers to Psalm 5:9, which discusses vicious lies and hypocritical flattery as well as the men slandering David in Psalm 140:3. (The word ‘selah’ in Ps. 140:3 means ‘pay attention’ or ‘nota bene’.) In the same vein, verse 14 recalls Psalm 10:7.  So, we must all watch what we say and avoid injurious and duplicitous speech.

In verses 15 through 17, Paul cites Isaiah 59:7-8, wherein God’s Chosen turned away from Him, abandoning good judgment and peaceful living.  They contrived excuses for disputes, sometimes violent.  They became slaves to wickedness.  And when we become slaves to wickedness, we no longer fear God.  To illustrate this (verse 18), Paul employs Psalm 36:1.

Having completed his illustrations of sin from the Old Testament, Paul states that everyone will be silenced and held accountable under God’s Law (verse 19). Furthermore, he says that because we are all guilty of sin, we cannot use the Law in our defence (verse 20).  Only God can use it in judgment, and it will be in our condemnation.  However, what we can do is to use the Law to make us aware of sin and to pray for God’s divine grace to keep us from sinning.  This is why we cannot merit Heaven through our own works.  Salvation can come only through faith.

Of course, some sins are weightier than others.  God will judge them accordingly.  And what of Mosaic Law on diet and hygiene?  Bible commentator Matthew Henry writes:

… there is another way laid open for us, the righteousness of God without the law is manifested now under the gospel. Justification may be obtained without the keeping of Moses’s law: and this is called the righteousness of God, righteousness of his ordaining, and providing, and accepting righteousness which he confers upon us; as the Christian armour is called the armour of God, Eph. 6:11.

The great preacher of the 18th century, Jonathan Edwards, had much to write about Romans 3 and sin.  He lectures everyone in ‘The Justice of God in the Damnation of Sinners’, including churchgoers:

You indeed now make a pretence and show of honouring him in your prayers, and attendance on other external duties, and by sober countenance, and seeming devoutness in your words and behaviour; but it is all mere dissembling. That downcast look and seeming reverence, is not from any honour you have to God in your heart, though you would have God take it so. You who have not believed in Christ, have not the least jot of honour to God; that show of it is merely forced, and what you are driven to by fear, like those mentioned in Psalm 66:3. “Through the greatness of thy power shall thine enemies submit themselves to thee.” In the original it is, “shall lie unto thee;” that is, yield feigned submission, and dissemble respect and honour to thee. There is a rod held over you that makes you seem to pay such respect to God. This religion and devotion, even the very appearance of it, would soon be gone, and all vanish away, if that were removed. Sometimes it may be you weep in your prayers, and in your hearing sermons, and hope God will take notice of it, and take it for some honour; but he sees it to be all hypocrisy. You weep for yourself; you are afraid of hell; and do you think that is worthy of God to take much notice of you, because you can cry when you are in danger of being damned; when at the same time you indeed care nothing for God’s honour.

Seeing you thus disregard so great a God, is it a heinous thing for God to slight you, a little, wretched, despicable creature; a worm, a mere nothing, and less than nothing; a vile insect, that has risen up in contempt against the Majesty of heaven and earth?

This rather extraordinary example may help illustrate Mr Edwards’s point:

For further reading:

Matthew Henry’s Commentary

Jonathan Edwards’s ‘The Justice of God in the Damnation of Sinners’