SERMON FOR JUNE 21, 1998 FROM ROMANS 3:9-18
As we have said many times, Paul spends roughly the first three chapters in Romans making a case for the necessity of the gospel. In the second half of chapter one, he does this by revealing the wrath of God against the sins of the pagans--those without any covenant heritage with God. In chapter two, he spends much of his time showing the gospel is necessary for the Jews. As we come to this final section within Paul’s case for the necessity of the gospel in the first half of chapter three, he draws his argument to a powerful conclusion which we will treat, Lord willing this week and next week. Before we begin, let’s briefly remember the context of this argument.
Last week, we noted that Paul in chapter two had in some ways leveled the differences between the Jews and the Gentiles. As he began chapter three, he felt compelled to show that this leveling in some respects in no way means that the Jews are not special in terms of salvation history. So, shows there is a special role for the Jewish people and he anticipates several objections to that which we look at last week. Now, has he moves into the second section of chapter three, he wants to make clear that even though the Jews have a special place in salvation history, that in no way (as he states in chapter two) means they are ESSENTIALLY better. That is, the Jews are just as in need of the gospel as the Gentiles. That is the context which takes us to chapter three, verse nine. Let’s read this now. “What 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."
In this text, Paul proves he is saturated with Old Testament scripture because he gives at least six Old Testament quotations which he stacks on top of each other to build a powerful case for the necessity of the gospel for the Jew as well as the Greeks. The basic message is simply this: The power of sin within humanity has totally destroyed our ability to know and love God on our own. The key phrase here in verse nine is “Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin.” To be under sin is to be under its power or influence. Paul makes the statement that all are under the power of sin and then he spends the next nine verses explaining the depth of this power of sin on humanity. Although this text has been used (rightly so) as the classic text to prove the theological truth of what is called humanity’s total depravity, we also need to see in this text the raw power of sin within the human race. We must always remember that sin is not only something we commit against God. The Bible repeatedly teaches that sin is a spiritual force, a power sent from Hell and intent on destroying humanity. If all this text tells us is that man is in no way capable of finding God or choosing Christ (as crucial as that is), we reduce its ability to speak to us personally and we limit its application by the Holy Spirit.
In verse ten, Paul makes the over-arching, general charge, “There is no one righteous, not even one:” That is the basic argument he is making. No one has what it takes to be righteous. On their own, no one can stand in God’s presence and be anything but utterly condemned. Then, in verses 11-18 he delineates the extent and depth of the unrighteousness of all humanity. I find three major divisions here as Paul, with the sledge hammer of truth totally destroys with blow after devastating blow any hope we could ever have of being righteous in ourselves. In the first section in verses 11-12 Paul makes the case for the universality of the crushing power of sin in humanity. In verses 10-12, he makes seven references to the fact that NO one is exempt from this wretched plight of the utter bondage to sin. He uses words like “all” and “no one” to drive this point home.
Also, in verse 11-12, Paul exposes a basic symptom of the power of sin. Its as if someone asks Paul, “Paul, what is a basic, fundamental thing which sin has destroyed in the human family?” And Paul’s response in summary is this: The power of sin has totally obscured humanity’s purpose for being rendering us completely useless and worthless before God. The most basic functional question a person can ask is this: Why am I here? Why was I created? What is my purpose for being? Verses 11-12 indicate that the power of sin has totally obscured humanity’s understanding of its purpose for being and if you don’t even know your purpose for being, you are useless to God. Look at the text. “There is no one who understands.”
The theologians have crystallized the God’s purpose for humanity by saying “the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” That was, is and always will be God’s reason for creating humanity--we exist for the lofty and exalted purpose of bringing glory to his name and enjoying an intimate fellowship with Him. That is why we are here. But, when a sinner is born into this world, they have no more sense of that then they do of the color of middle C or the flavor of purple. They have no conception of why they are here. The most basic issue in their existence is a complete mystery to them and they have no capacity within themselves to ever come to that understanding. This is a pathetic picture. Some of you remember the television program “The Beverly Hillbillies.” One of the repeated gimmicks the show used to get laughs with was these transplanted yokels misusing modern conveniences because they didn’t know their true purpose. You may recall one of these was the use they made of what they called the Billiard Room. They mistook a gorgeous pool table for a “fancy eatin’ table.” The assumed the pool cues for “pot passers” and they used the pockets in the table to put their bones in after they had finished their roast possum. They had completely misunderstood the purpose of the room and had horribly abused the equipment.
When a fictitious family of Hollywood hillbillies totally miss the proper use of a pool table, its funny. But when it is beings created in the image of God totally miss their most basic reason for being, its not funny, its the ultimate tragic. Yet this is what the power of sin does. Paul continues the downward progression in 11b-12, “no one seeks after God. All have turned away,” The power of sin not only destroy the capacity of humanity to seek after God, it also destroys any desire or inclination for it. These pathetic creatures walk around empty and meandering in a spiritual fog of meaninglessness. They have a God shaped vacuum in them, but they are NOT seeking after God. They are not in the least bit inquisitive of Him. They aren’t sniffing around to see if maybe God might be the answer. They are dead to Him.
When He, in His faithfulness seeks after them and manifests Himself to them, they turn away. They are like oil and water, like two positively charged poles of a magnet. They are repelled by God and the things of God. What is most beautiful about God is most repulsive to them. In chapter one, Paul puts it this way, “they suppress the truth by their wickedness.” In spite of undeniable and unrelenting evidence of God and his pursuit of them, they ALWAYS, EVERY TIME, WITHOUT EXCEPTION run away from Him. There is NOTHING within Him which is appealing to them and there is nothing within them which will in any way attract them to God. The sad verdict of this total lack or understanding is in verse 12b, “they have become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.” They do not reflect God’s goodness--their primary responsibility in glorifying Him. The power of sin has made the human race on a spiritual level like a colander with no holes, a saw with no blade, a rake with no teeth. On a spiritual level, unredeemed humans are good for NOTHING. The power of sin has totally destroyed the very heart of our moral compass, the understanding of why we are here.
The power of sin has totally obscured unredeemed humanity’s purpose rendering them useless. A second awesome expression of the power of sin in humanity is found in verses 13-14. Paul writes, “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.” One is tempted to wonder after reading this verse why Paul, who is clearly painting with very broad strokes as he depicts the sinfulness of man, why he spends two entire verses on this one particular sin of unrighteous speech. The throat, the tongue, the lips and the mouth all have to do with what we say. You may have wondered the same thing about that wonderful call narrative of Isaiah in Isaiah chapter six. There is Isaiah. He sees the Lord, high and lifted up, and in the presence of God’s holiness he is so repulsed by his sin he calls a curse down on himself, “Woe is me for I am undone.” After he has expressed the horror of seeing his awful sinfulness up close for the first time, he then says something exceedingly curious. “For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips.”
Isaiah sees the horrendous, vile, blackness of his heart and he singles out the sin of his lips, what he says. Again, as with Paul we ask, why? The reason is the same for both. That is, the Scripture teaches that the mouth is the mirror of the heart. Jesus says in response to the Pharisees in Matthew 12:34, “You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks. The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and the vile man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him.” Jesus says our heart is like our spiritual root cellar where we have all our spiritual substance stored and our mouth is like the door at the top of the root cellar. What ever you have in your heart, you bring up over your lips in your speech and the only thing you can bring out over the mouth is what you have in your heart. Jesus indicates what a person says is a very accurate barometer of what is in their hearts.
Do you see what Paul and Isaiah are saying in light of this truth? When they reference the vileness of speech, what they are really concerned with is the vileness of their heart. Paul’s reference to unredeemed humanity’s throats, tongues, lips and mouths are really references to the quality of the heart because the “out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks.” With that in mind, the second truth about the power of sin is this: The power of sin has rendered humanity totally corrupt in heart. Paul says, “their throats are open graves.” This is so graphic. Paul likens the speech (and we know that means the heart) to a grave that has been opened. That doesn’t have the impact in our highly sanitized society that it did 2000 years ago, but an open grave, with a bloated, rotting corpse in it smells bad enough to make you sick unless you have a strong stomach.
The picture here is a heart that is dead and rotting and which is intensely malodorous to God. It raises a spiritual stench that reaches to the throne. That is the condition of the heart of a sinner. It gets worse. He says, “their tongues practice deceit.” These hearts are full of lies and we know lies are of the devil. There is a satanic malevolence within these hearts. If you think I am over-reaching here, remember that James supports this point when he says, “the tongue is set on fire by hell.” Satan is the “father of lies” and the unredeemed heart seen in the tongue is a product of the father of lies.
We see this serpent imagery continued with, “the poison of vipers is on their lips.” These hearts spew out toxic venom to those around them. There is a destructive force which proceeds from this heart under sin’s power. Paul elaborates with, “Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.” The heart of the sinner is rotten, malodorous, and destructive. All in all, it would be hard to be more negative about the level and depth of the corruptness of the human heart than Paul is here. He, though the Holy Spirit chooses his Old Testament texts very carefully to produce an intensely condemning description he can produce. The power of sin has rendered humanity totally corrupt.
A third expression regarding the power of sin is seen in verses 15-17. “Their feet are swift to shed blood; ruin and misery mark their ways, and the way of peace they do not know.” The truth represented here is this: The power of sin has destined unredeemed humanity for violent, self destruction.” This, in a sense tells us what the end result of the power of sin is within the individual and the human family at large. The end result is self destruction. You don’t have to study this text to see this, just reading the newspaper gives ample evidence of the self-destructive bent of humanity. The unredeemed heart is violent-- “their feet are swift to shed blood.” There is no hesitancy toward violence--whether its the violence of hatred as Jesus points out when he equates it with murder, or the violence of actual blood letting--there is a swift willingness to do it. “Ruin and misery mark their ways.”
If you want to know where they have been look for ruin and misery--its in their wake. The word translated “ruin” comes from a word that is translated elsewhere as “broken to pieces.” The word misery means “that which happens as a consequence of sin.” The record of human history is soaked with human blood. There is a wake of human wreckage along the path of history because the destiny of humanity under the power of sin is self destruction. Paul says, “The way of peace they do not know.” The forty geo-political wars which are waging every day would be enough to prove this, but we could also look to the millions of domestic wars which are fought every day in homes for proof of the self-destructiveness of our race. All the talk you hear from secular folks about hope for the future is utter fantasy apart from Christ. Anyone with an ounce of discernment can see that even with all the advances in technology, we are sliding ever more rapidly into the ash heap as a civilization. Our advances will not ultimately make our lives better, they will be used to more effectively destroy ourselves. And the reason for this is the power of sin and the tremendously destructive influence it has on the human heart. The power of sin destines humanity for violent self destruction.
In verse 18, Paul wraps this account of terrible wickedness up with a summary statement as to the cause of this. He says, “there is no fear of God before their eyes.” The power of sin’s most glorious accomplishment and the one which makes the room for all others is that it dulls people to the fact that every sin they commit is done before a holy God who at any moment can and eventually will bring unspeakable, unending torment on their souls in punishment for their sin. The power of sin has stolen their sense of accountability to God. It robs people of their sense of cosmic purpose, leaving them to live in the emptiness of self-centeredness. The power of sin corrupts hearts so that they stink with the decay of death. It ensures their destruction by manifesting itself in violence and self destruction and finally, it removes the only motivation powerful enough to stop this insanity, the fear of a holy God who will without exception repay them for every evil inclination of their heart.
That, ladies and gentlemen is the “glory” of humanity under the power of sin. I have two brief applications. The first is the one Paul is making in this argument and it is this: the only escape for sinners is the gospel of Jesus Christ. That is Paul’s point here. He aims to provide such a hopeless picture of humanity under the power of sin that people will abandon every other hope, save Jesus Christ. Only Jesus Christ can forgive the depth of this sin. Only the blood of Jesus can wash these garments clean. Only Jesus Christ and his work on the cross can create a new, holy heart to replace the rotten, stinking heart under sin’s power. Only Jesus Christ can break the power of sin and set us free to live in fulfillment of the law. And in the succeeding chapters, Paul explains how Jesus does that as he highlights this glorious gospel. The only escape for sinners is the gospel of Jesus Christ. If you haven’t placed your hope in Christ and his atoning death, repented of your sins and seen the fruit of a new heart--His heart, don’t leave this place without trusting in Christ to make you a new person.
A second point of application is this: this same power of sin is resident in the flesh of every born again believer and should be dealt with accordingly. We know that every truly redeemed person has been given a new heart which is very different and not under the power of sin. But within every believer is something Paul calls “the flesh” and this flesh is totally under the power of sin. When we read this text we need to remember that this same vileness lurks, not in our heart, but in our flesh. This same purposeless, self-centered, putrid, smelly, violent, self-destructive quality is pulsatingly alive in our flesh and Paul says there is only one thing to do with it--crucify it. This flesh will never get one whit better--you cannot reform it. It will be as evil 50 years from now as it is today. The only thing to do with it is to kill it by exposing yourselves to God and denying yourself anything which feeds this insatiable monster. Let me ask you Christian, do you think of your flesh in these terms? This is the quality of your flesh.
Given that, why would we ever presume to play around with sin? This same power of sin, if we give in to the desires of our flesh, will be unleashed in our lives to wreck havoc. This power, if we allow it to, can devastate our lives and leave us and those we love as human wreckage in our wake. We need a healthy dose of the fear of God and we also need a healthy dose of the fear of the power of sin. If we are trifling with it, allowing it to hang around unchallenged, we are as vulnerable as a baby in a lion’s cage. Peter speaks of the author of sin’s power and soberly warns CHRISTIANS, “Be self controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone for someone to devour.” Beloved, don’t allow the power of sin to dominate you through your flesh. Repent, grieve mourn and wail and by God’s grace expel this destroyer from your life.
Page last modified on 12/31/2001
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