In the third chapter of the book of Romans Paul wrote
as it is written, "there is none righteous, not even one; there is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God; all have turned aside, together they have become useless; there is none who does good, there is not even one. their throat is an open grave, with their tongues they keep deceiving, the poison of asps is under their lips; whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness; their feet are swift to shed blood, destruction and misery are in their paths, and the path of peace they have not known. there is no fear of God before their eyes." (Romans 3:10-18 NASB)
These verses are often quoted to bolster the claims of universal depravity (the belief that every person is born morally corrupt, enslaved to sin and, apart from the grace of God, is unable to choose to follow God or turn to Christ) and that no one ever seeks after God. They are often quoted to 'prove' that there are none righteous.
Every one of these verses come from the book of Isaiah, or selections of various Psalms.
But what is truly interesting is that if one were to take the time to examine the source of Paul's quotes a very different picture emerges. The Psalms in question never once said that no righteous person has ever lived but, much to the contrary, often spoke of God's protection and favor towards the virtuous people of the day.
So let's examine Paul's words in the third chapter of the book of Romans, and the sources they are derived from...
Romans 3:10-12: "as it is written, there is none righteous, not even one. There is none that understandeth, There is none that seeketh after God; all have turned aside, together they have become useless; there is none who does good, there is not even one"
These three verses are derived from Psalm 14:2 and 53:2 (except for with some slight variations in wording, the two Psalms are almost identical).
The LORD has looked down from heaven upon the sons of men to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. They have all turned aside, together they have become corrupt; There is no one who does good, not even one. (Psalms 14:2-3 NASB)
The fool has said in his heart, "There is no God," They are corrupt, and have committed abominable injustice; There is no one who does good. God has looked down from heaven upon the sons of men To see if there is anyone who understands, Who seeks after God. (Psalms 53:1-2 NASB)
However, the problem here is that Psalm 14 depicted the world as consisting of two types of people... the fools or the wicked (Vs. 1-3) and the 'righteous generation' (V.5) who are also called 'my people' in V.4 and 'the afflicted' in V.6. In fact, verse 4 says it is 'the workers of wickedness' who "eat up" the Lord's people and "do not call upon the Lord". The wicked persecute the just, but the psalmist expressed confidence that God would punish the wicked and reward the good.
One cannot read the first three verses of the fourteenth Psalm, and ignore the last three verses, which tell us that the wicked are "in great dread" because "God is with the righteous generation."
Psalm 53 also divided people into two groups .. The workers of iniquity, and the Lord's people. Again it is the evil people who have not called upon God, which certainly implies that the righteous ones have.
Have the workers of wickedness no knowledge, who eat up My people as though they ate bread and have not called upon God? (Psalms 53:4 NASB)
Conclusion: It is the corrupt people who do not do any good. God is the refuge of the righteous.
Romans 3:13: "their throat is an open grave, with their tongues they keep deceiving, the poison of asps is under their lips"
The first part of the verse is taken from Psalm 5:9, while the poison of asps comes from Psalm 140:3. Wicked people in the Bible are often compared to serpents [See Matthew 23:33; Genesis 49:17].
There is nothing reliable in what they say; Their inward part is destruction itself. Their throat is an open grave; They flatter with their tongue. (Psalms 5:9 NASB)
They sharpen their tongues as a serpent; Poison of a viper is under their lips. Selah. (Psalms 140:3 NASB)
Yet again, the entire design of Psalm 5 is to show a contrast between two kinds of people ….
1) The arrogant, the blood-thirsty, the liars and the deceitful that will not stand in God's sight and that He will destroy..
The boastful shall not stand before Your eyes; You hate all who do iniquity. You destroy those who speak falsehood; The LORD abhors the man of bloodshed and deceit. (Psalms 5:5-6 NASB)
2) Those that love the name of the Lord... the righteous ones that God will shield and protect.
But let all who take refuge in You be glad, Let them ever sing for joy; And may You shelter them, That those who love Your name may exult in You. For it is You who blesses the righteous man, O LORD, You surround him with favor as with a shield. (Psalms 5:11-12 NASB)
Psalm 140, which was, in all likelihood, written by David when he was persecuted by Saul, very clearly has him supplicating the Lord to keep him from wicked and violent men who only wish him harm (Vs. 4-5, 8). He prays that they are cast into the fire .. "into deep pits from which they cannot rise" (Vs. 9-11), and ends with confident words that the Lord will always maintain the cause of the righteous and the upright...
I know that the LORD will maintain the cause of the afflicted and justice for the poor. Surely the righteous will give thanks to Your name; The upright will dwell in Your presence. (Psalms 140:12-13 NASB)
Conclusion: Obviously, there were righteous people who were blessed and favored by the Lord, and who dwelt in His presence.
Romans 3:14: "Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness"
It is very likely that, although it has not been quoted verbatim, the sense of this passage comes from Psalm 10:7...
His mouth is full of curses and deceit and oppression; Under his tongue is mischief and wickedness. (Psalms 10:7 NASB)
Again, as in the previous examples, this Psalm expresses confidence that God will hear the prayer of the humble, and will vindicate the orphan and the oppressed.
O LORD, You have heard the desire of the humble; You will strengthen their heart, You will incline Your ear To vindicate the orphan and the oppressed, So that man who is of the earth will no longer cause terror. (Psalms 10:17-18 NASB)
Conclusion: Again, it is readily apparent that there were humble people who trusted in the Lord.
Romans 3:15-17: "their feet are swift to shed blood, destruction and misery are in their paths, and the path of peace they have not known."
These three verses, are from Isaiah 59:7-8. Paul, did not quote the entire passage but selected a few of Isaiah's words that summarize the entire passage.
Their feet run to evil, and they hasten to shed innocent blood; Their thoughts are thoughts of iniquity, Devastation and destruction are in their highways. They do not know the way of peace, and there is no justice in their tracks; They have made their paths crooked, whoever treads on them does not know peace. (Isaiah 59:7-8 NASB)
However, we need to read these verses in context... that is, under what circumstances Isaiah said what he did.
This chapter is a continuation of the previous one in which the Jews were apparently very disappointed... complaining bitterly that (in their opinion) they had fasted, but the Lord had not seen. They had humbled themselves, but He had not noticed.
However, God very quickly and forcefully set them straight. In a nutshell, He roundly condemned them for their outward obedience to the Law without any inward righteousness whatsoever. For example, they fasted but did not humble themselves (58:3-5). But the Lord did not choose a fast which consisted of bowing their heads and "spreading out sackcloth and ashes as a bed" (58:5), all of which were merely outward show.
Much to the contrary, the fast the Lord had in mind was that they divided their bread with the hungry, covered the naked, and brought the homeless into their homes, none of which was, quite obviously, done. Then, and then only, as the Lord said, they would call and He would answer, and His glory would be their rear guard. He would guide them and satisfy their desires. (58:6-12). As Bible commentator Albert Barnes once wrote
The design of this chapter is to reprove the Jews for a vain dependence on the performance of the outward forms of worship. The nation is represented as diligent in the performance of the external rites of their religion, and as expecting to avert the divine judgments by the performance of those rites. They are represented as filled with amazement, that though they were thus diligent and faithful, they had no tokens of the divine approbation, but were left as if forsaken by God. The main scope of the chapter is to state the reasons why their religious services met with no tokens of the divine acceptance, and the blessings which would follow the proper performance of their duties.
Chapter 59 continued the theme... As the first couple of verses say, it is not that the Lord could not hear, but that their iniquities had separated them from Him. The religious rituals of the nation were not accepted because of their hypocrisy and many other sins. Verse 3 begins a resounding condemnation of their sheer wickedness...
Their hands were defiled with blood, they spoke lies and conceived mischief (Vs. 4). They hatched adders' eggs and wove the spider's web (Vs. 5). Violence was in their hands (Vs. 6). Their feet ran to evil, and they hastened to shed innocent blood; Their thoughts were thoughts of iniquity... devastation and destruction in their paths. (Vs. 7). They did not know the way of peace, and there was no justice in their tracks; They had made their paths crooked (Vs. 8)
Note the verses that Paul paraphrases are from verses 7-8. That these are only a part of the overall message is show by the very next verse (59:9) which returns to the initial complaint the Jews had... they had observed all the rituals but still walked in the dark.
Therefore justice is far from us, and righteousness does not overtake us; We hope for light, but behold, darkness, For brightness, but we walk in gloom. (Isaiah 59:9 NASB)
In fact Isaiah continued on in the same vein for a little while yet (59:10-13). It is wise to read chapters 58 and 59 together to get a better understanding of the prophet's overall message.
Conclusion: The point being that the verses Paul loosely quoted came from the prophet Isaiah who was not describing the universal condition of man, but the flaws of the nation at a particular period in their history.
Romans 3:18: "There is no fear of God before their eyes."
This verse comes from Psalm 36:1.
Transgression speaks to the ungodly within his heart; There is no fear of God before his eyes. (Psalms 36:1 NASB)
However, like all the other Psalms quoted, this one also does not tell us that there were no righteous people on earth. Much to the contrary, verse 7 talks about those that take refuge under the shadow of His wings, whom God will give to drink the river of His delights.
How precious is Your loving kindness, O God! And the children of men take refuge in the shadow of Your wings. They drink their fill of the abundance of Your house; And You give them to drink of the river of Your delights. (Psalms 36:7-8 NASB)
Verse 10 entreats the Lord to continue His kindness to the righteous.
O continue Your loving kindness to those who know You, And Your righteousness to the upright in heart. (Psalms 36:10 NASB)
Conclusion: Yet once again, a contrast is made between the ungodly and the righteous.
This section of Romans 3 has led many to believe that no righteous individual has ever lived. That there is absolutely nothing a man can do that is considered 'good'. That all his righteousness is as filthy rags. [See Filthy Rags]
But let us look at these verses another way. It should be patently obvious to anyone that not everyone's mouth is, as Paul wrote, "full of cursing and bitterness". Nor are there that many people's feet that are "swift to shed blood". Many people endeavor to live "the path of peace", and there are even those who do fear God.
So if these verses do not apply to everyone, why should the passages "there is none righteous" and there are "none who seek God" apply to everyone? Even in our day and age there are people who seek God.
Besides which, we seem to have glossed over the verses that speak of the righteous people who had God's protection... possibly because they directly contradict our pre-conceived ideas.
Since the very Psalms Paul quoted spoke of God's protection and favor regarding the righteous, it is inconceivable that he was unaware that the Scripture speaks of numerous righteous people. Therefore it is impossible that Paul could have meant that no righteous person had ever lived.
If examined closely, a similar situation exists when Isaiah said.. [All Emphasis Added]
There is no one who calls on Your name, who arouses himself to take hold of You; For You have hidden Your face from us and have delivered us into the power of our iniquities. (Isaiah 64:7 NASB)
It is impossible that Isaiah was including himself when he made the sweeping generalization that 'no one' calls on God's name. The prophet's words can be compared to someone in our day who says something like "there is no decency or honesty left in Washington DC"... a statement that certainly does not mean there isn't a single decent honest person left in the entire government.
Like Paul, the prophet Isaiah had to have been aware of the OT Scriptural references to people that did call on the Lord and were even answered by Him...
To Seth, to him also a son was born; and he called his name Enosh. Then men began to call upon the name of the LORD. (Genesis 4:26 NASB)
For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as is the LORD our God whenever we call on Him? (Deuteronomy 4:7 NASB)
I call upon the LORD, who is worthy to be praised, And I am saved from my enemies. (2 Samuel 22:4 NASB)
As for me, I shall call upon God, And the LORD will save me. (Psalms 55:16 NASB)
Because he has loved Me, therefore I will deliver him; I will set him securely on high, because he has known My name. "He will call upon Me, and I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble; I will rescue him and honor him. (Psalms 91:14-15 NASB)
Moses and Aaron were among His priests, And Samuel was among those who called on His name; They called upon the LORD and He answered them. (Psalms 99:6 NASB)
... therefore verse 64:7 could not have been referring to all men of all time, but had to be referring to very specific people in very specific circumstances.
[For more about these verses in Isaiah, see article on Filthy Rags]
The million dollar question as to why Paul presented one side of the coin, and ignored the verses that speak of God's support and favor for those who feared Him, has has a very simple answer. He was quoting very specific verses that strongly illustrated the message he was trying to convey.
Basics of Romans
Romans is generally believed to have been written by Paul from Corinth to the Roman church about 56 or 57 A.D. Paul's primary theme being the basic gospel, God's plan of salvation, and righteousness for all humankind... Jew and Gentile alike.
What one needs to do, as always, is pay close attention to the context, which begins in chapter one.
The very purpose of the first three chapters (after the long introduction) is to show that no one, neither the Jew with the law, nor the Gentile without the law, can be justified in God's sight. Paul surveys the spiritual condition of all people and shows that mankind comes up short. He systematically demonstrates that all of mankind, including the Jews, are sinners facing the wrath of God, and in need of salvation.
In summary, Paul makes the case that...
The Wrath Of God Is Revealed Against
A. The Unrighteousness Of The Gentiles [1:18-32]
It is entirely possible for the Gentiles to know about God and his invisible qualities from his creation, so they have no excuse for not knowing about him. But their foolish hearts were darkened and they turned to idols (1:18- 23). And because they did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer, God gave them over to a depraved mind and they were filled with unrighteousness, wickedness, greed and evil. They were "slanderers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, without understanding, untrustworthy, unloving, unmerciful" (1:28-31). Not only were those who practiced such things worthy of death, but so too were those who approved (1:32).
B. The Unrighteousness Of Hypocrites [2:1-16]
Those who judge the sins of others, yet commit the same sins will not escape the judgment of God. (2:1-3) They are storing up wrath against the day of wrath when He will render to every man according to his deeds. Paul goes on to tell them that because of their stubbornness and unrepentant hearts, they are storing up wrath for themselves in the day of judgment (2:5). Glory, honor and peace will go to both Jew and Gentile that does good, for "there is no partiality with God" (2:11). It is the doers of the law, not the hearers only who will be justified (2:13), which holds true even for Gentiles who do not have the written law that was given by Moses, but who have only the natural law that is written in their hearts (2:14-16).
C. The Unrighteousness Of The Jews [2:17-3:8]
The apostle shows that the Jews, who were instructed by the law and boasted in God (2:17-18) were confident that they were a guide of the blind, a light to those in darkness. However, although they taught others, they did not teach themselves. Paul went on to elaborate on their hypocrisy since they taught that one should not steal, commit adultery etc. yet did so themselves (2:19-23). They dishonored God by breaking the very law they relied on. Paul went on to tell them that their physical circumcision was of little value to them unless they kept the law (2:25), since a Jew is not measured by physical rituals, but by their hearts. (2:28-29).
The bottom line being that although the Jews considered the Gentiles utterly unworthy of the blessings of God, their attitude was without justification since they were guilty of the same crimes, and therefore would not escape the righteous judgment of God. While they might have had the advantage of the law, they would be judged by the law which they had obviously not kept.
After a short semi-diversion in the first eight verses of chapter 3 (See Footnote), Paul returns to the main theme of these three chapters... The Jews are no better than the Gentiles. Neither does either group have an out... the Gentiles cannot claim ignorance, and the Jews cannot claim obedience to the Law, when that obedience consists of merely going through the motions.
It is in this context of both the Jews and the Gentiles being under sin that Paul begins the verses we are concerned with here. He picks out verses from the Old Testament that emphasize what he has been saying all along. Both the Jew, who has the written law, and the Gentile who has the natural law have gone terribly astray.
as it is written, "there is none righteous, not even one; there is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God; all have turned aside, together they have become useless; there is none who does good, there is not even one. their throat is an open grave, with their tongues they keep deceiving, the poison of asps is under their lips; whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness; their feet are swift to shed blood, destruction and misery are in their paths, and the path of peace they have not known. There is no fear of God before their eyes." (Romans 3:10-18 NASB)
That these words are spoken in the context of salvation is made apparent, not only by the overall sin/salvation theme of Romans, but also by the fact that Paul immediately and effortlessly glides from quoting verses that emphasize the corrupt state of all mankind, to the topic of salvation.
In the remainder of chapter 3, he goes on to say that a way out has been provided by God. Because of what Jesus did, and only because of this, there is hope of salvation. Although all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, there is, by God's grace, salvation through Jesus Christ, for all who believe (Vs. 21-28). Jew and Gentile alike can be (if they so choose) justified by Jesus Christ and his redemptive work on the cross... A gift of God which must be received by faith.
God is not only God of the Jews, but God of the Gentiles as well. He will justify the circumcised and the uncircumcised by faith.
Like the Pharisees, people cling to the idea that self-effort and self-righteousness can save them, but Paul's emphasis is on our complete inability to save ourselves. He did not refer to the fact that the Bible speaks of righteous people because, like Isaiah whom he quotes, he is dealing with a specific situation, quoting the Psalms in the context of sin and salvation. Paul was not saying is that no righteous individual has ever lived, but was using extremely strong language to emphasize to his readers that, when it comes to salvation, all the world is guilty before God.
But doesn't the righteousness of the people spoken about in the other verses of the quoted psalms count? That is, the people who called upon the name of the Lord, and who trusted in Him.
Yes, it does. Inasmuch as God looked very favorably on them, fought their battles, protected them etc. In fact, they were even said to dwell in His presence. However, in the context of salvation, no one comes anywhere near the mark... not even the righteous ones often spoken of. This simply because when it comes to salvation, God does not demand goodness... He demands perfection! Even their righteousness was not good enough to save them.
The example of the Roman centurion, Cornelius, is enough to prove that, even among the Gentiles, there were men righteous enough to catch God's attention. The Bible says Cornelius was "a righteous and God-fearing man well spoken of by the entire nation of the Jews", which is high praise indeed. However, as good as he was, his righteousness was not enough to save him.
So what did God do? He dispatched an angel to direct Cornelius to send for Peter and hear the message of salvation from him. (Acts 10:22)
The Theme of Faith and Salvation Continues
In Romans 4 Paul talks about the all-importance of faith and gives the example of Abraham who believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness..
In Romans 5 he states the manifold results of our being declared righteous by faith... We have been saved from the wrath of God, saved by Jesus' death, have peace with Him, and can be confident of God's love for us.
In Romans 6 Paul emphasizes that we have been freed from sin and will not allow sin to reign in our body nor to rule over us. God's grace does not give us the freedom to sin.
Romans 7 tells us how God's gift of righteousness frees us from the law.
In summary, we simply cannot use Romans 3:10-18 to support the belief in universal depravity... that there are none righteous and no one ever seeks after God, especially since there are numerous verses that clearly state the opposite. If read in context, it is clear that, as said earlier, Paul used some really strong language of the Old Testament to emphasize to his readers that all the world is guilty before God and in need of a Savior.
Chapter 3 opens with the question.. what advantage does the Jew have and what benefit is there in circumcision. Much, according to Paul. It is them who were entrusted with the oracles of God (3:1-2).
The "what then" of verse 3 seems to imply that since if the Jews sinned, they would be treated just like the pagan; therefore what value was the promise of God? Paul goes on to say that the fact that they were unfaithful to their trust did not nullify the faithfulness of God. In fact, their unrighteousness actually serves to demonstrate the righteousness of God who will not fail to keep the promises He made to the forefathers of the nation (3:5). He adds that unless God is totally just, He cannot judge the world (3:6).
(Apparently some were making rather a ridiculous argument which went something like this... If the unrighteousness of people exemplified the righteousness of God then why were they being judged as sinners... why were they being blamed for that which demonstrated God's honour? Additionally, it appears that some falsely reported that the apostles were teaching that they should do evil so that good may come (3:8). In which case their condemnation was justified.)
It is in verse nine that Paul returns to the main topic, which is that both Jews and Greeks are under sin. [PLACE IN TEXT]