“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, as it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” “Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.” “The venom of asps is under their lips.” “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.” “Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way 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 stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.” (Romans 3:9-20 ESV)
Welcome back everyone. I was out of town on vacation last week, but I’m very happy to be back. Let me begin by quickly summarizing from two weeks ago where Paul anticipates several questions from the Roman church. After stating that being a Jew and having gone through the rite of circumcision does not give them an advantage, Paul anticipates several questions (Q) and then answers (A) them. Q1) So, you’re saying there’s no advantage to Biblical religion? A1) Of course not, there’s great value in knowing God’s Word. Q2) Ok, but God’s efforts seem to have failed since the Jews rejected Jesus and are unfaithful to the covenant. A2) Not exactly, God remains faithful to His promises of salvation just not in the way we expected. We might have been unfaithful, but that just illustrates how He remains faithful and committed to His plan of salvation. Q3) Well, if our unfaithfulness highlights God’s faithfulness then how is it fair for Him to judge us for something that benefits Him? A3) On that basis, nobody would be judged but we all agree that God should judge evil. Q4) Ok, let me put it another way. If my sin makes God look good then shouldn’t I just sin more so God receives more glory and attention? A4) I may have been accused of saying that, but that’s not accurate and anyone who says such is certainly worthy of God’s judgment on sin. This week, I want us to think along the lines of where Paul’s answers to these questions leaves us – you and me. Let’s take a look…
I’ve mentioned before that I grew up with three brothers, four of us boys – Jerry, Gary (me), Len and David. We were all about 3 1/2 years apart in age. We were just close enough in age to get in each other’s way and on each other’s nerves while still being far enough apart to learn from each other and look up to the older one(s). One of the things I learned from watching my older brother, Jerry, was what not to do. Since he is the oldest, there was a lot of uncharted territory he mapped out and parental disciplinary boundaries he discovered that I learned to avoid. Like a mine field, when he stepped on something that “blew up” and resulted in some form of discipline, I would learn – or at least, should have learned but not always did – what I could do and not get in trouble and what I shouldn’t do if I wanted to avoid my parent’s discipline.
That logic and personal growth process should result in each successive brother doing a bit better and getting into a little less trouble, right? Not necessarily. As I said, I didn’t learn some of those lessons very well and neither did my brothers. We all made our share of mistakes and missteps. If this process worked, my youngest brother – David – should have turned out much better, right? Well, not so much. (What’s funny and a bit ironic is that all three of my brothers are probably reading this – and, at least two of them are agreeing with me. Right, Jerry and Len? So, just kidding David. Sort of. 😬😉😂 I do love you.)
Ok, so what does my rambling and reminiscing about my brothers have to do with what Paul is teaching us? Looking back at Israel’s history you could reason that each successive generation should learn and improve on their ability to know, understand and follow God’s Word and commandments. It simply didn’t happen. In fact, Jesus calls the religious leaders of His own generation “a brood of vipers” and “whitewashed tombs full of dead men’s bones.” Please understand, these very same religious leaders claimed insight into God’s Word and understanding of God’s will and ways. Yet, they completely missed the fact that God Himself was standing among them in human flesh. As Jesus said, they were the blind leading the blind (see Matt. 15:14) and, when that happens, they will both fall into the very pit they are seeking to avoid.
Now, Paul begins his response to the previous section by asking: “What then?” Or “What shall we conclude from this?” Are the Jews any better off from having these advantages? Circumcision. The Covenant. The Law, oracles or Word of God. Even the very Son or Incarnation of God – Jesus. Or, to use the idea from my story about my brothers, didn’t these Jews learn ANYTHING from the preceding generations? Paul’s response… No, because we are all “under sin” or unrighteous. What does that mean, exactly? It means that no matter how much we learn, no matter how religious we are, no matter how hard we try, we are still plagued by the problem of sin. We were then and we are now. It still plagues us…
But what about ______? (You fill in that blank.)
We always want to qualify our failures, don’t we? We think that by qualifying why we failed we can somehow justify our failure or we can achieve a “default” victory. For example, “Well, I did better than he/she did!” If you didn’t catch it, that’s what I was saying about my comparison with my brothers. I did it with my parents, I’m sure you did too – if you had siblings. By the way, we do this with God, too. We try and make our success over sin like a track or sports event – I just have to be in front when we cross the finish line or have more points when the whistle blows or the game ends. To put it in spiritual terms, I’m just trying to do more good than bad, but that’s not really how it works. Are some people nicer than others? Of course. Absolutely! (I’m nicer than my brother. Which one, you ask? You’d have to ask each of them. <grin>) But we are all still “under sin.” Instead of being like a long jump event in a track and field competition, it is more like leaping across an abyss. It really doesn’t matter whether you jumped farther than the last guy, you simply didn’t make it across… uh, oh. In this situation, a 19 foot jump is no better than a 2 foot jump if the other side of the abyss is 20 feet away.
So, we are ALL under sin… what does that mean and what are the implications. I want to spend the rest of our time together considering those things.
First, to say we are all under sin means that we are all guilty of sin and in need of God’s mercy, grace, love and forgiveness. Be careful here. Remember, our tendency is still to qualify our sin and justify our failures and I’m not talking about a sporting event where you just have to do better than your opponent. This is about a relationship with God – one in which the goal is to love God more than we love anyone or anything else, including ourselves. When that aspect comes into focus then you begin to understand the gravity of the situation. I used to think that it was obvious to everyone that sin was universal and we were all guilty but I’ve come to realize that is simply not true.
We now live in a culture that dismisses the idea of or the extent of our sinful tendencies. I find and talk to people, all the time, who completely dismiss the concept of sin altogether or really downplay the extent or seriousness of personal sin. They might recognize that sin exists in others, especially the fringe of society – like the sociopath or psychopath – but those people are the exception. That doesn’t represent them or their social network or circle of friends – “The people I know are all basically good people.” So, when scripture says that we are all “under sin” then that seems like a really broad generalization that just doesn’t reflect our perception of the world. So, let me explain what is meant by the idea that we are “all under sin” and I’ll go back to my sports illustration to help explain.
Sports competitions are designed in a way to measure and compare the athletic abilities and achievements of the athletes. So, a long jump competition or a high jump competition measures the athletes ability to run and jump either vertically or horizontally and then is compared to other athletes at the event to determine the winner of that event and compared to past events to determine if the athlete has set a new regional, national or even world record. Now, just imagine if an extraordinary athlete from the past had set a world record of a 100 foot long jump and a 60 foot high jump but modern athletes were only reaching 35 feet in the long jump and 22 feet in the high jump. I suspect we would have several questions: 1) What could possibly have made this athlete so extraordinary? 2) Are you certain the historical measurement is equal to one foot today (do we have the same standard of measurement)? 3) Are we certain this historical athlete’s abilities aren’t just a legend and the stories all exaggerated?
In a very real sense, this is what we find with this issue of sin and the questions we see applied to Jesus’ identity, life and righteousness. We tend to compare ourselves with one another (family, friends, and even celebrities) to evaluate our success in life disregarding the standard that has been established and we question the truth and accuracy of Jesus’ righteousness and sinless life. As a result, we often discard these religious and spiritual goals as mythical, unrealistic or we simply change/lower the goal and begin to question or doubt the historical truth and accuracy of scripture, Jesus’ identity and sinless life.
There’s a theological term for this condition that is often discarded by many modern Christians because, I think, they find it personally offensive – total depravity. The concept of total depravity is not so much about the depth of our sin, as so many think, but is really about the breadth of sin. Total depravity doesn’t mean that EVERYTHING we do is sinful but rather that sin impacts EVERY area of our lives. So, it isn’t really about how much or how often we sin – though I do believe our sin is more pervasive than we realize – but it is really about how sin infects and impacts every part of our life, actions, thinking, desires, emotions, relationships and decisions. For example, I believe that every human has the capacity to do things that are good, kind, selfless, loving and consistent with God’s desire and will. I believe this is possible because every human has the “image of God” (Latin: imago Dei) upon their heart and life or within them (see Gen. 1:26). But sin has infected the “image of God” within us and is having an impact upon every part of our lives.
Perhaps a definition of sin is needed, at this stage in our discussion. In essence, sin is anything that is in opposition to God’s will and desire. That’s why I said it can and does infect and impact every area of our lives. Any action, word, thought, feeling, emotion, decision or relationship that is against God’s will is sin. That’s why I said it is as much or more about the breadth of our sin as it is about the depth of our sin. Over the past several weeks we’ve talked about how our sin calls God a liar by saying we know what we need better than He does or that His desire is not best for us and that leads us into this next part of our focal passage.
Paul says that no one is righteous, nobody understands and no one seeks God. First, no one is righteous. This means that nobody is guiltless before God and our good deeds, kind words and right actions can’t change that. Why? Because the standard measure of righteousness isn’t the guy next door or your co-worker, it is Jesus Christ. So, we stand guilty and condemned before God. Next, nobody understands. Our minds and our ability to think correctly and consistently in accordance with God’s will have been impacted. We think we understand, we think we know, perceive and understand the truth but we really don’t. We get glimpses of it, but we simply don’t know or understand as much as we think we do. We don’t even realize this until we catch a glimpse of the truth and of God’s glory and righteousness. Then, no one seeks God. To seek God is more than just a surface knowledge or desire to know about Him. To seek God is to desire, pursue and long for intimate relationship with Him. To do so is to know the one, true God and to love and enjoy Him. Even Christians are guilty of only seeking God for the blessings and benefits, but to truly seek God is to push those things aside and just love and enjoy His presence and not what He gives.
Next, Paul says we have turned aside and no one does good. This is a willful decision to leave God’s path and to follow our own. Sin isn’t just a spiritual issue, it is an issue of the human will, personal desires and self-expression. We see this exhibited today in our desire to define our own identity instead of discovering our identity in the heart, mind and will of our creator. Some might counter this by saying, but God made me like this and I’m just pursuing the identity He has given me. If that’s what you think then I’d like to invite you to go back and reread the section above regarding the breadth of sin in our lives. Sin impacts our thinking and our our understanding, not just about God but most especially about ourselves. We don’t really know our true selves until we discover and know them in the truth and light of God’s Word and God’s will. Like Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden, we think God is holding out on us and His will is just intended to deprive us of our true nature (see Genesis 3). However, if God made us then He knows and desires what is best for us. Don’t turn aside, turn towards Him.
Now Paul addresses our mouths, tongues and words. He says our mouths are open graves, our tongues are full of deceit, our lips spew venom and our mouths utter curses and are full of bitterness. Wow! That’s harsh, but often more accurate than we care to admit and is especially true today across the various social media platforms. Jesus says that it isn’t what goes into a man that defiles him, but what comes out. We have become a culture of criticism, insult, deception, half-truths, bullying, bragging, and bitterness. Instead of being capable of having a civil discussion and debate, we degrade into name calling and accusations. We always justify our words by pointing out the failures of others, but we rarely stop to pray for our enemy or consider the harshness of our response towards the sins of others.
I want to close this week by taking a look at Paul’s response to our relationships, with others and with God. First, he quotes a passage from Isaiah 57 that says “their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known.” There’s little doubt that sin impacts our relationships, both intimate and casual relationships. Right now, our world is experiencing a real increase in relational turmoil. We have been confined or isolated for health reasons and our relationships are suffering. Let me be very clear here, in most instances our relationships are NOT suffering because of the isolation but the isolation has simply put a spotlight on the underlying issues in them. While I am not suggesting that all of your relationships are so bad that you are “swift to shed blood,” I am saying that there’s little doubt that sin impacts our marriages, our relationships with our children, neighbors, co-workers and, most especially, our relationship with God.
While we may not “shed blood” in a literal sense, we certainly leave a wake of destruction in our path. We fight, kick, push and shove as we do everything within our power to get to the top. While our professional success is often the most important aspect of who we are and defines our purpose in life, I can promise that work will not be on your mind in those final moments of life. What will be on your mind? All of those personal relationships that suffered because you spent too much time thinking about work. We don’t know peace in our lives because we aren’t focused on the one who brings peace, Jesus.
Finally, the one relationship that is most often neglected is the one that deserves but receives the least attention… your relationship with your Heavenly Father. Paul quotes Psalms 36, “there is no fear of God before their eyes.” We seldom talk about having a healthy fear, today, but the Proverbs (1:7, 9:10) tell us that “the beginning of wisdom is the fear of God.” True wisdom begins on the path of having a proper relationship with God. You might wonder how “fear” can possibly be the path to a good, healthy and proper relationship with God, so let me explain. We tend to associate the idea of fear with things that we should avoid, at all costs. However, a healthy fear of power gives us a proper respect for that power. But remember, the beginning of wisdom is the fear of God. In other words, when we properly understand, fear and respect the incredible, infinite power of God we begin the journey down the path of true knowledge, wisdom and understanding… not only of Him, but also of ourselves and of life.
Remember, I started out talking about how we are all under sin and I pointed out that every aspect of life is impacted by sin. That means that our knowledge, understanding and even our desire to know and relate to God is impacted by our sin. Nobody is immune to the impact sin has on their desire to know, obey and relate to God and we are often blind to breadth of its reach. Our world doesn’t see it, doesn’t understand it and they certainly don’t recognize their loss of desire for God due to sin. Sin is a bit like a good computer hacker who has infiltrated a corporate network but covers his tracks and sits undetected as he gets ready to wreak havoc and leave everything broken and destroyed in his wake. You don’t even realize he’s there, until it is too late to do anything about it.
What do you do? Start with a prayer asking God to reveal to you the sin in your own life. Next, begin desiring to know and seeking to find and relate to God in a proper Father/child, Creator/creature, God/man, fear/respect/love/worship relationship. Finally, don’t stop learning, seeking and growing in love, respect, fear, and obedience to Him. He blesses and honors those who humbly seek Him and obey Him.
You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. (Jeremiah 29:13)