Taken from the Psalms and Isaiah, Romans 3:10-18 is often quoted to bolster the claims of universal depravity - until you examine the source of the quotes that clearly show there were righteous people who were blessed and favored by the Lord, and who dwelt in His presence.
The Million Dollar Question
is 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.
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.
Every one of these verses come from selections of various Psalms or the book of Isaiah.
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.
Let's take a closer look
Romans 3:10-12: "as it is written, there is none righteous, not even one. There is none who understands, There is none that seeks for God; all have turned aside, together they have become useless; there is none who does good, there is not even one" (Romans 3:10-12 NASB)
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)
Lets examine the Psalms in context.
Psalm 14. One cannot read the first three verses of the fourteenth Psalm, and ignore the last three verses
(1) The fool has said in his heart, "There is no God." They are corrupt, they have committed abominable deeds; There is no one who does good. (2) The Lord has looked down from heaven upon the sons of men To see if there are any who understand, Who seek after God. (3) They have all turned aside, together they have become corrupt; There is no one who does good, not even one. (4) Do all the workers of wickedness not know, Who eat up my people as they eat bread, And do not call upon the Lord? (5) There they are in great dread, For God is with the righteous generation. (6) You would put to shame the counsel of the afflicted, But the Lord is his refuge. Psalms 14:1-6 NASB
This psalm clearly depicted two types of people - the wicked (Vs. 1-3) and the righteous (V.5) also called 'my people' in V.4. Verse 4 adds that it is 'the workers of wickedness' who "eat up" the Lord's people and "do not call upon the Lord". Verse 5 tells 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)
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. Note: 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. (Psalms 140:3 NASB)
Psalm 5. 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. In all likelihood this Psalm was written by David when he was persecuted by Saul as it 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. It 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)
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)
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)
Again, it is readily apparent that there were humble people who trusted in the Lord.
Conclusion: Since the very Psalms he quoted spoke of God's protection and favor regarding the righteous it is inconceivable that Paul was unaware that the Scripture speaks of numerous righteous people. Perhaps we gloss over these verses that speak of the righteous people who had God's protection because they directly contradict our pre-conceived ideas.
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. And to understand that we need to step back one chapter.
Chapter 58 portrays the Jews complaining bitterly that they had fasted, but the Lord had not seen. They had humbled themselves(in their opinion), but He had not noticed. (58:3)
However, God very quickly and forcefully set them straight. As Bible commentator Albert Barnes once wrote “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”.
In a nutshell, the Lord roundly condemned them for their outward obedience to the Law without any inward righteousness whatsoever. For example, He 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).
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)
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.
So why did Paul quote them at all? As commentator Adam Clark wrote
The sum and force of the apostle's argument is this: All sorts of men, Jews as well as Gentiles, have sinned; therefore, none of them can lay claim to the blessings of his kingdom on the ground of obedience. The Jew, therefore, stands as much in need of God's grace to give him a title to those blessings as the Gentile; See Romans 3:9'
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)
It is difficult to understand the grammatical construction of the Hebrew however, the general sense is plain.
Like all the other Psalms quoted, this one 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)
Yet again, a contrast is made between the ungodly and the righteous.
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 hugely unlikely that when Isaiah made the sweeping generalization that 'no one' calls on God's name he literally meant every single living soul including himself. 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)
In other words, 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.
The Million Dollar Question
is 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. The answer is quite simple, he was quoting very specific verses that strongly illustrated the message he was trying to convey. What one needs to do, as always, is pay close attention to the context, which begins in chapter one.
Basics of Romans
Romans is generally believed to have been written by Paul to the Roman church about 56 or 57 A.D. His primary theme was the basic gospel, God's plan of salvation, and righteousness for all humankind... Jew and Gentile alike.
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]
B. The Unrighteousness Of Hypocrites [2:1-16]
C. The Unrighteousness Of The Jews [2:17-3:8]
After a short semi-diversion in the first eight verses of chapter 3, Paul returns to the main theme of these three chapters... The Jews are no better than the Gentiles. Neither group had an out... the Gentiles couldn't claim ignorance, and the Jews couldn't claim obedience to the Law, because their obedience consisted 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 had the written law, and the Gentile who had the natural law had 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)
Paul 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 didn'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 did. 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)
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.