Around the middle of the twentieth century, J. I. Packer took note, as he looked at a large segment of preaching over the past hundred plus years, that gospel preaching itself had fallen on hard times. He noted that crucial elements were being omitted in the preaching of the gospel so that “part of the biblical gospel is now preached as if it were the whole of that gospel; and a half-truth masquerading as the whole truth becomes a complete untruth.” He then added, “It is undeniable that this is how we preach; perhaps this is what we really believe. But it needs to be said with emphasis that this set of twisted half-truths is something other than the biblical gospel.”
What was it, then, that was being omitted that made Packer note that men were preaching something other than the biblical gospel? Well, the first theme he mentions is “man’s natural inability to believe.” That is to say, there had been a shift from understanding man as dead in his sins and unable to place one’s faith in Christ apart from a supernatural work of the Spirit to open one’s eyes to a view where man merely needs to be moved in his mind and emotions to come to Christ.
And, if you think about it, you can see why Packer saw this denial of man’s natural inability to believe at the core of this shift in gospel preaching. For example, imagine that you’re trying to get someone to go buy a new car. Only the first man you’re dealing with is unsure whether he needs a new car or not. So, you set him in a room with a giant theater-sized screen where you show people driving and enjoying their nice new cars, others clunking around miserably in their old cars, and perhaps even old cars breaking down and endangering the lives of those driving them. In essence, you bring out whatever measures you think will move this man to buy a new car. And then there’s another man, a second man, you want to buy a new car. The only problem with this second man is that he’s dead. Now, you need something more powerful than measures that can move a man emotionally, don’t you?
That’s what Packer was saying. If you see man as so enslaved to his sin in his nature that he is morally unable to seek God and trust in the Lord, then you need something more than whatever measures can move his emotions. You need the power of God to salvation that comes through the proclamation of the gospel. So, if you lose sight of man’s sinful, helpless condition, you may well lose sight for the necessity of the gospel message itself.
But, we might ask, is Packer right to speak of man’s condition as naturally unable to believe? Perhaps he’s speaking too strongly about the impact of sin upon man outside of Christ. I hope to show you in our text that what Packer is noting isn’t simply some category of thinking about humanity that he came up with but is in line with the very teaching of the Scripture, and it is no more clearly seen in the Bible than it is in Romans 3:9-20.
So, as we work through this text this morning, I want to show you what the Scripture teaches us about the state and situation of every single person apart from Christ and his saving work. First, we can note that:
Apart from Christ, every person is under the enslaving power of sin
Paul begins this section writing, “What then? Are we Jews any better off?” (v. 9). And if you misunderstand his question, then his answer will make no sense to you. After all, he has just noted that the unbelieving Jew has been given all kinds of advantages over the unbelieving Gentile, the most crucial being the Old Testament Scripture. So, you would expect him then to answer, “Of course Jews are better off. They are exposed to Scripture and can see Christ.”
But the question he’s asking in verse 9 isn’t the same category of question he was asking in verse 1. Here’s he’s asking, “Is the unbelieving Jew any better off in terms of his standing before the Lord?” And, despite the advantages the unbelieving Jew has over the unbelieving Gentile, the answer is clearly no because it is not enough to be exposed to the Word of God; you must believe and have your heart transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, Paul answers, “No, not at all. For we have already charged that both Jews and Greeks are under sin” (v. 9).
Now, this is helpful for us because Paul is noting that he’s already taught the point he’s making right now. In other words, just in case we missed Paul’s message, he’s telling us again what he’s been teaching in the prior verses, namely, that all men, outside of Christ, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin.
And when Paul writes, “Under sin,” he’s not merely saying that all men apart from Christ sin. That’s true. But that’s not all he’s saying. When Paul speaks of sin in the book of Romans, he’ll speak of sin as a power. So, he’ll talk about sin reigning (5:21; 6:12), enslaving (6:6), and exercising dominion (6:14), and when he does so it’s not because he’s trying to be flowery or poetic in his language. It’s because sin is presented in the Bible as an enslaving power over men that men can only be freed from through the saving power of God through the gospel. That’s what Paul means by “under sin.” He means that every person who is not trusting in Christ is under the reigning, ruling, dominating, enslaving power of sin.
Paul will write of this very clearly in Ephesians 2, as he notes that all of us prior to faith in Christ were “dead in the trespasses and sins in which [we] once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience . . . and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind” (vv. 1-3).
But, as Paul notes in our text, he’s already been arguing that in the book of Romans itself. That is, when he spoke in 1:18-32 of the unbelieving Gentile naturally suppressing the truth of God in his unrighteousness and turning to all kinds of unrighteous thinking and living, he was showing us that the unbelieving Gentile is under the enslaving power of sin. And when he argued in 2:1-3:8 that the unbelieving Jew does not keep the law, is unrepentant, and is condemning others for doing the very things he practices, he was showing us that the unbelieving Jew is under the enslaving power of sin.
Paul, however, is not content to note that he has been arguing this. He continues on by stringing together several Old Testament references about man’s wickedness apart from the saving work of God, mainly from the Psalms (with one reference from Isaiah) wherein he shows just how dark the portrait of humanity apart from Christ is.
He begins, “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’” (vv. 10-12). Now, it doesn’t take amazing observation skills to see Paul’s emphasis. He wants us to know that there are no exceptions to what he is saying. He writes, “None . . . no, not one; no one . . . no one . . . All . . . no one . . . not even one.” That is, every single person outside of Christ is under the enslaving power of sin so that he isn’t righteous, he doesn’t understand naturally, he doesn’t seek for God on his own, he doesn’t do good, and he has turned aside in rebellion against God. That is all of mankind apart from the saving work of Christ.
And there is a reason why Paul begins these verses (as he will end in verse 18) about man in relation to God. He’s going to note all kinds of sin done against their fellow man in verses 13-17, but he wants us to see that our sin against our fellow man is rooted in our denial of and rebellion against God.
So, he continues in verses 13-14, “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.” He notes that our enslavement to sin and rebellion against the Lord manifests itself in the way we speak. We deceive, wound, and cause all kinds of pain toward others with our words. I don’t have to describe this to you. We’ve all seen it, and, more sadly, been on the giving end of hurtful words.
Also, our enslavement to sin is manifested in violence. Paul adds in verses 15-17, “Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known.” Again, merely reading the headlines or watching the opening of the news shows us this, doesn’t it? And finally, he concludes as he began, “There is no fear of God before their eyes” (v. 18).
This is Paul teaching a doctrine that has historically been termed “total depravity” but what might be better termed “pervasive depravity.” That is, Paul is arguing that man is under the power of sin, sinful in our beings, and commit acts of sin. This doesn’t mean that every man is as sinful as he could be. Clearly some human beings stand out as committing particularly heinous acts. But what it means is that sin has affected every part of us. D. A. Carson has said that if sin were represented with the color blue and you could cut a person apart, you’d find that every cell in our body was colored blue. Sin has infected and affected us totally and taints everything we do. Even our “good” works are not done in love for and to the glory of God.
This is the state of man outside of Christ. He is under the power of sin, in rebellion against God, and manifesting his enslavement and sinful rebellion through all kinds of particular sins. But that’s not all. Paul also notes:
Apart from Christ, every person is guilty and condemned before God
After his long list of Old Testament quotations of man’s enslavement to sin, Paul continues in verses 19-20, “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.”
Let’s take each of that a part at a time. First, when Paul speaks of the law speaking of those who are under the law, he means the Jews. The Jews were given the written law of God, and the law condemned them because it revealed their sin.
We might compare it to someone who thinks that he is a fast runner because he can run a mile in five minutes, and then a standard is exposed that shows that the only way one can claim to be fast is if he runs a mile in three minutes. The revelation of this standard reveals his shortcoming. In the same way, the law reveals our sin. That’s what Paul means when he says “since through the law comes knowledge of sin.”
But the law reveals our sin in a different way. It says, “Don’t steal,” for example, and that very command itself might cause to rise to the surface your desire to steal. You weren’t thinking about it, but once the command was given, you want to steal so badly. In that case, the law produce your desire to steal. That was already in you. But it revealed it. It exposed it.
And the reason Paul focuses on Jews who have the law is because if even Jews, who have God’s law, are shown to be guilty, then everyone else is well. After all, they had more advantages than their Gentile neighbors. This is why Paul can say that the Jews were given the law “so that every mouth may be stopped and the whole world may be held accountable to God.” The law condemns everyone. If Jews are condemned, so are Gentiles. And Gentiles are condemned even by the law on their hearts. Therefore, every man is guilty and condemned before God. Every mouth is stopped.
A couple of years ago I was teaching a class when a student handed in a paper that showed a much better product from this student than her previous work had shown. So, I decided to do a google search, and sure enough, her full paper had come up. It had been copied, pasted, and handed in, as if it were her own, for a grade in a Master’s level class. So, I called her in, asked her if her paper had been written by her. She told me it had. I asked her if she utilized any sources that she’d forgot or neglected to include. She said there weren’t. I pointed out that one of the arguments she made was very complex. She told me that it was her original argument. Then, finally, I pulled out the paper I’d found, printed off from the internet, written by someone else and copied by her, and I laid it on the table in front of her. And all of the sudden she had nothing to say. In fact, she didn’t open her mouth for several seconds, and I let the silence linger. The Lord actually ended up exposing some other struggles she had, we spoke about the gospel, forgiveness, and restoration as well as honesty, integrity, and the need for the local church. The Lord used it for good. But there was that one moment where her guilt was exposed and there was nothing to say.
Paul says that that’s where all men outside of Christ stand. The law exposes them. There’s no defense to be offered. There’s nothing to say. You just have to stand before the Lord exposed, condemned, guilty, and caught in your sin. That’s every human being before God outside of Christ.
And let me note one other element of Paul’s argument that is really just a complement to what we have just said, namely,
Apart from Christ, every person is incapable of standing justified before God
Paul writes, “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight” (v. 20a). In other words, the reason Paul knows that the law condemns every single person before God, exposing their sin and guilt is because he knows that no one on the face of the planet can be justified by obeying the works of the law.
You might imagine me saying, “The only person who will be justified is the one who can jump from the floor and touch the highest point of our ceiling in this room,” and then instantly following it up saying, “You’re all condemned, for no one will be justified by touching the ceiling.” One might say, “Well, wait a second, how can you note that every man is condemned and that no one will be justified by touching the ceiling when you’ve just held out that someone could be justified by jumping from the floor and touching the ceiling?” The answer, of course, is that I know that no one is capable of meeting the demands.
That’s why Paul can say “by works of the law no human being will be justified.” He knows that we’re incapable of perfect obedience. And the reason we’re incapable is because all men are enslaved to sin so that no one is righteous, no one seeks for God, no one does good, not even one. And the law isn’t given to us as a tool to powerfully produce life where there is death, awaken our hearts, and cause us to become new creations. The law is given to reveal and even increase sin so that we might see our helplessness. It was a tutor to lead us to Christ, as Paul will note in Galatians.
So, Paul wants us to see that all of humanity is enslaved to the power of sin, guilty and condemned before God, and incapable of standing justified before God on their own merits. But why? Why would Paul want us to see that? Does he just want us to feel bad about ourselves? Does he just want us to feel hopeless and give up?
No. Remember where this started. Paul has been showing the sinfulness, guilt, condemnation, and helpless enslavement to sin all the way from 1:18 to this point. He had charged, as he noted, that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin. But why? Well, let’s look back and remember what he said in the three verses just prior to this section. He wrote, “So I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome. For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith’” (1:15-17). Then, he’d said, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against . . .”
You see, the gospel, the good news that God the Son took on flesh, lived a perfect life that we couldn’t live, died on the cross to pay for our sins, and rose from the dead so that he might intercede for us forever and save us forever is not just a message we proclaim. It is the very power of God for salvation. It is as we proclaim this message that the Spirit powerfully works to free men from their enslavement to sin, open their eyes to see the glory of Christ, and transform their hearts from loving darkness to loving the light.
This powerful gospel work is why Paul will later say to the Roman believers in 6:17-18, “But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and having been set free from sin have become slaves of righteousness.” It’s why he can say in Ephesians 2, after noting that we were all dead in our sins and by our very nature objects of God’s wrath, “But God . . . made us alive together with Christ.”
That is, Paul shares this dark picture of humanity so that we might understand that
Man’s only hope is hearing and being transformed by the gospel
Therefore, brothers and sisters, don’t elevate anything to the importance of the gospel. Don’t think that anything else is sufficient to bring men to faith in Christ. And don’t think that you’re hopeless when you go speak to someone in another nation or to your neighbor who is enslaved in sin. For the gospel is the power of God for salvation. It opens our eyes to see our need for Christ so that we might look to the crucified and risen Lord in faith and have his perfect righteousness credited to us. Praise be to God for this glorious gospel! Now, let’s give him thanks once more for his redeeming work as we come to the table. Amen.