If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you might have noticed that we’ve already discussed the above passage in a study of soteriology, the theological study of our salvation in Christ. As I mention in that post, ten times he uses a universal term to describe how widespread the problem of sin really is, terms like “all” or “no one” or “not even one.”
But there are couple of points I’d like to make concerning this which I didn’t before. First and foremost, this is Paul’s grand climax of the “bad news” portion of the book of Romans. Gentiles, having only General Revelation to go on, had a very skewed vision of right and wrong, and their societies reflected that. The Jewish world knew something about God’s standards and sin, but most people in that world assumed that most Jews were considered righteous in God’s eyes due to 1) Their possession of the Law, 2) Their physical ancestry from Abraham, and 3) The fact that they were circumcised. Paul completely repudiates and refutes his Jewish brothers who carried this illusion in chapter two.
Now we come to the climax, the main point that he’s trying to make before he gets to the Good News: We’re all in the same boat, and the boat is sinking. All of us have sinned before him: “Jews and Gentiles alike are all under the power of sin.” None of us are righteous before him, none of us have a real understanding of God, none of us (on our own) seek him out.
I think one phrase here might need a little explanation: “No one who does good, not even one.” Is this literally true? Is Paul claiming that no nonbeliever ever does any good? Really? I think what Paul’s talking about is our standing before God. Isaiah said that all our righteous acts before God are like “filthy rags” (literally a menstrual cloth). That’s our righteous acts, not our sins. Even the so-called “good deeds” that you do: helping little old ladies across the street, giving to charity, etc. are still infected by sin at some level. Now, this doesn’t mean that he makes no distinction at all between helping a lady across the street and pushing her in front of a bus, but it does mean that our so-called “righteous acts” aren’t good enough to make up for the bad we do. Also in this context, remember that Paul is talking about our standing before God, as far as our eternal destiny is concerned, not necessarily a bad deed vs. a good deed before men.
I’d like to make another point off his poetic description of our sinfulness before him. The root problem to all of this is actually mentioned in vs. 18: “There is no fear of God before their eyes.” This is the root of every sin, everything from a prideful attitude to mass murder: not having a healthy respect for the Almighty's authority. This might shed light on our question in the last paragraph. A person might be doing “good deeds,” but if he’s not doing it out of a God-centered attitude, then that’s a problem in itself.
What’s the end result of the Law? What’s its real purpose? Well, it has one that’s immediate, and that short-term result leads to much more serious one in the future. Verse 20 says that through the Law we become conscious of sin. God tells us not to steal, we know it, and we do it anyway.
But at the end of human history, when we’re all standing before his Throne of Judgment, his word will stand to condemn us if we’re not covered by the blood of Christ. In the end, whether we’ve had Special Revelation (the Bible) or just General Revelation, “every mouth [will] be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God.” Atheists love to mouth off about how they’ll argue with God and won’t accept his judgment over them. Joss Whedon (whose artistic work I love) calls him the “Sky Bully.” Christopher Hitchens claimed to find intolerable the notion that the Lord would hold him accountable for his behavior. But in the end, his word and authority will shut every mouth. All of us will be stripped naked before his eyes. None of us will have any valid excuses, no rationalizations, nothing to justify us. No reason in the world for him to deliver any verdict but “GUILTY.”
Now that we understand our need for it, we can get to the Good News.
Lord Jesus, you are my Righteousness before the Father, and I claim no other. I’d be a fool to claim any goodness of my own, anything other than your righteousness, and that my sin was laid upon you. The words “thank you” seem so inadequate.