This post is part of a series of essays based on my study of Paul’s epistle to the Romans. They are simply drafts and not intended to be well-polished essays. I would appreciate any constructive feedback.
Click here to read the passage.
In the first two chapters of Romans, Paul condemns both Jews and Gentiles for their sinful practices. Although they knew that how they lived was wrong, the Gentiles suppressed the truth (Rom. 1:18). The Jews—who were once God’s special people—were hypocrites because they passed judgment on those who practiced sin, but yet they also broke God’s law. They believed that simply having knowledge of the law was sufficient; however, God requires that people carry out his law (Rom. 2:13; Jas. 1:22,25), not just know it. The Jews thought they were justified on the basis of circumcision; however, their sin brought them under the judgment of God, thus making circumcision null and avoid. Considering Paul’s stance, they could raise some objections (Rom. 3:1–7): 1) what advantage does a Jew have, or what is the value of circumcision?, 2) if some did not believe, does their unbelief nullify the faithfulness of God?, 3) if our unrighteousness demonstrates the righteousness of God, is God unjust for inflicting wrath?, and 4) if the truth of God has increased through our lie for God’s glory, why are we still judged as sinners?
The Jews did indeed have an advantage in that they were God’s people and had received his law (Deut. 4:5–8). They were the seed of Abraham to whom the promise was made that all nations would be blessed (Gen. 21:16–18). However, because God would punish part of the seed for not believing, they thought that God would be proved to be unfaithful to his promise—they were mistaken. Paul writes, “Let God be true but every man a liar.” That is, God is always faithful, and it is man who breaks his promise. The Jews did not keep the covenant, and therefore, they would suffer the consequences because the promise had conditions. Israel also believed that—because God was shown to be still righteous through their unrighteousness, and his truth increased through their lie—God would be unjust in judging them as sinners and punishing them. Paul explains that God is fair in his judgment because they were the ones who sinned. Their status did not allow them special treatment in spite of their sins, even though God was able to show his glory through their trespasses. Doing evil for the sake of good is not acceptable to God.
The conclusion of the matter, therefore, is that Jews were no better than the Gentiles. They were all under sin. Paul cites passages from the Scriptures to support this charge: 1) no one is righteous and without sin (Psa. 14:1–3,53:1–3; Eccl. 7:20); 2) all men are deceitful—they have nothing good to say (Psa. 5:9,140:3; Psa. 10:7); 3) men run to evil and make their path crooked (Prov. 1:16; Isa. 59:7–8); and 4) there is no fear of God (Psa. 36:1). Although several theologians use these verses to propagate the doctrine of total depravity, this passage does not support such teaching.
Paul says in verse 9, “we have previously charged both Jews and Greeks that they are all under sin.” Leading up to this statement, he showed that no one was righteous according to the law. He accused the Gentiles for breaking the law that was written on their hearts, and the Jews, for breaking the written code received from God. Paul makes his statement in verse 9 because they all transgressed the law; that is, they practiced sin (1 John 3:4). He then expounds on his statement in the following verses by using Scriptures. He does not make the claim that man is totally corrupt or incapable of doing good from birth, but rather, that he is guilty of transgressing the law. Mankind has become corrupt by continually practicing sin. Notice that the characteristics presented in verses 10–18 are those of people who are of an age of accountability. Infants and children are not born with a mouth full of deceit and cursing, nor are they born with their path crooked. The Scriptures say that men make their path crooked (Isa. 59:7–8); that is, there is a process in which they stray away, not that they are born already astray.