Romans 1-3: "All Have Sinned"

James E. Cooper
Murray, Kentucky

The great theme of the book of Romans is briefly laid down in 1:16-17: "For I am not ashamed of the gospel: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth, to the Jew first, and also to the Greek. For therein is revealed the righteousness of God from faith unto faith: as it is written. But the righteous shall live by faith. " The gospel is God's power to save all believers. In it is revealed "a righteousness of God from faith unto faith." God's plan for making men righteous in His sight is contained in the gospel which was delivered "to the Jew first, and afterward to the Greek," just as Jesus had instructed (cf. Luke 24:47-48; Acts 1:8).

Having laid down the fact that the gospel is a universal plan for obtaining a right relationship before God, Paul next developed the theme of the universal need of mankind for the gospel. God's wrath is "revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hinder the truth in unrighteousness" (1:18). The rest of chapter one (1:18-32) is devoted to showing the ungodliness and unrighteousness of the Gentile world, and their need for the provisions of the gospel. Chapters two and three continue the argument, and show that the Jew needed the gospel just as much as the Gentile because he practiced the same ungodliness that condemned the Gentile.

The argument of 1:18-3:8 is summarized in 3:9: "For we have laid to the charge of both Jews and Greeks, that they are all under sin." It is interesting to note in passing that he does not argue that all men need the gospel because they were born totally and hereditarily depraved as the Calvinists maintain, but because they have sinned against God. Thus, briefly stated, the gospel answers a universal need: all men need the gospel because they are all under sin.

Gentiles Need The Gospel

The Gentiles were (and are) desperately in need of the gospel because they hinder the truth by their ungodliness (1:18). The fact that they were not under the law (2:14), or that they have not already heard the gospel, does not excuse their sin: "they are without excuse" (1:20). God's invisible attributes, "His everlasting power and divinity," are (note the present tense, are) clearly seen in the material world. Evidence from the created world is continually available to all men everywhere; therefore, they are without excuse for failing to respond properly.

Deliberately ignoring their knowledge of God from "General Revelation," the Gentile became "vain in their reasonings" (1:21), with the ultimate result being the worse kind of idolatry. They did not set out to become idolaters, but failing to give God the proper reverence and becoming puffed up on their own wisdom they made gods of their own imagination (1:22-23).

Rejecting the true nature of God and substituting gods of their own making, they stooped to the lowest forms of immorality (1:24-32). Forgetting God and allowing lust to have a free reign in their hearts caused them to "dishonor their own bodies between themselves" (1:24), practicing both lesbianism (1:26) and sodomy (1:27). Because they "refused to have God in their knowledge," the Gentiles were abandoned by God, without further effort to restrain them. They had a "reprobate mind," wholly given up to iniquity, and were "filled" with the catalog of sins mentioned in 1:29-31. Their degradation is further seen in that they not only engaged in these vices themselves, but encouraged others to do the same – all the while "knowing the ordinance of God, that they that practice such things are worthy of death" (1:32). A darker picture of human corruption would be difficult to conceive. When man cuts himself loose from God, his spiritual, physical, intellectual and moral degeneration inevitably follows.

Jews Need The Gospel

If the Gentiles need salvation from God because of their ungodliness, and the Jew would readily admit to that fact, then the Jew who practiced the same ungodliness would also need the gospel. by condemning the Gentile for his ungodliness, the Jew condemned himself and he, too, is "without excuse" (2:1). Paul does not directly state that his argument is directed toward the Jew until he comes to 2:17, but the argument is designed to get past the self-righteousness of the Jew and let him see for himself that he stands condemned as well as the Gentile.

The Jew understood that God's wrath would be poured out against those who were engaged in wickedness. The judgment of God would be "according to truth" (2:2) and, "according to (Paul's) gospel, by Jesus Christ" (2:16). If a man admitted that God's judgment is against those who practice such vices as were characteristic of the Gentiles, how could he think he could escape that judgment if he practiced the same vices? Did he think that he would receive preferential treatment from God in judgment because he was a recipient of his "goodness and forbearance and longsuffering" (2:4) as a member of the Hebrew race? If so, he was treasuring up for himself "wrath in the day of wrath" (2:5). God will "render to every man according to his works" (2:6), not according to his ancestry. "There is no respect of persons with God" (2:11). There is no advantage in being a "hearer of the law" if one is not also a "doer of the law" (2:13).


The Jew took pride in his standing as a Jew, and Paul refers to their attitudes in 2:17-20. Because they were Jews and the stewards of the Law which had been revealed by God, they felt that they were possessors of superior knowledge which made them competent to be "a guide of the blind, and a light of them that are in darkness," but they really needed to teach themselves. They did not practice what they preached!

A teacher should "teach himself" (2:21). He that "preaches that a man should not steal" should not steal. He that says "a man should not commit adultery" should not commit adultery. Such would be absurd. It would be inconsistent also for the Jew who professed to abhor idols to "rob temples." But to "glory in the law" and then to "transgress the law" caused the name of God to be blasphemed among the Gentiles because of their inconsistencies.

Why this difference between teaching directed "toward the other fellow" and their own practices? It appears that the Jews felt that their circumcision gave them the edge. God would not use the same standard in judging them as he would with others. But they were mistaken about that. Those today who, like the Jews, feel they are under the covenant and, therefore, have a special edge with God should give some serious thought here. Paul does not deny that it was an advantage to be a Jew and to be circumcised, but this advantage becomes no ad if one becomes a "transgressor of the law" (2:25). The real "Jew" (meaning a true servant of God? is not one who is physically descended from Abraham, and one who has been circumcised in the flesh. Nor is he a real "Jew" who observes the formalities of the Jewish religion, but fails to keep its precepts from the heart. The real "Jew" is one who serves God from the heart. His circumcision is not that of the flesh, but of the heart (cf. Col. 2:11-12; Phil. 3:3).

Twice in the second chapter, Paul refers to the Gentiles as "doers of the law." In 2:14-15, they are depicted as not having the law (of Moses), but doing "by nature the things of the law." Evidencing that they have a concept of right and wrong in their own consciences, they are "the law unto themselves." When they do right, their conscience approves them; when they do wrong, their conscience condemns them. This universal concept of right and wrong will be the standard by which they will be judged and "as many as have sinned without the law shall also perish without the law" (2:12). In 2:26-27, Paul raises two questions for the Jew to ponder. First, if the uncircumcised (Gentile) keeps the ordinances of the law, "shall not his uncircumcision be reckoned for circumcision?" Will he not be treated by God as if he were circumcised? Second, if the physically uncircumcised person fulfills (keeps) the law, shall he not "judge" (condemn) the Jew who transgresses the law?

The Jew would likely respond to this line of reasoning with the idea that Paul's argument did not seem to give the Jew any advantage at all. If his position as a Jew did not give him favor in the judgment, where is the advantage in being a Jew? Paul's response is this: "Much in every way; first of all, that they were intrusted with the oracles of God" (3:2). Other advantages are not discussed until he comes to 9:4. Having been the possessors of the oracles of God was a supreme advantage for the Jew. These scriptures contain God's special revelation to the nation of Israel, teaching them precepts and statutes by which they could serve Him.

A second question that the Jew might ask is, "What if some were without faith; shall their want of faith make of none effect the faithfulness of God?" Paul's answer: "Absolutely not!" If every Jew on earth were a liar it would not affect the truthfulness of God. Your righteousness, or lack of righteousness, does not affect the character of God. This conclusion is in perfect harmony with the scriptures, which the Jews so jealously guarded. David acknowledged that God was righteous and he was the sinner, justly condemned in His sight (3:4; cf. Psa. 51:4).

A third question arises out of Paul's answer to the second. If our unrighteousness only serves to commend the righteousness of God, is He not unrighteous when he "visiteth with wrath"? Paul's response: "God forbid: for then how shall God judge the world?" Paul then turns the question on the questioner, using the Jew's attitude toward Paul as the subject. They judged Paul a liar when he preached that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah. If their argument removed the problem of sin, as they imagined, why did they still call Paul a liar? In fact, why do they not do the very thing they have been accusing him of saying: "Let us do evil that good may come"? The Jew would feel the force of this argument.

What is the conclusion? Are we (Jews) better than they (Gentiles)? Are the Gentiles guilty and justly condemned before God, while we stand in a privileged position? Do we feel no need for repentance, and at the same time feel that the Gentiles are lost and undone? Not at all. Paul had proven from their own experiences that they were just as guilty of sin and justly condemned of God as were the Gentiles (3:9). He now confirms this affirmation by an appeal to the scriptures to show it was true (3:10-18; cf. Psa. 14:1-3; Psa. 5:9; Psa. 10:7; Psa. 36:1; Isa. 59:7-8). Of these scriptural references he observes that the law "speaketh to them that are under the law" (3:19). The Jews are under the law, and having failed to keep the requirements of the law perfectly, they are also guilty before God. Any honest man reviewing his own life would admit that.

Hence, every mouth was stopped from its boasting. There was nothing that anyone could say in his own defense; the whole world is brought under the judgment of God. The Jew needs the gospel just as desperately as does the Gentile. The Jew could not be justified through the law. It formed the basis of judgment, but not of justification. To be justified through the law, absolute obedience would be required, and no Jew (except the Lord Jesus Christ) ever accomplished that. And, no Gentile ever kept the "law written in their hearts" perfectly. Both Jew and Gentile are, therefore, admitted to be sinners, guilty before God, and in need of the saving grace of God which is through Jesus Christ. "All have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God" (3:23).

None could be saved on the basis of perfect law-keeping. Hence, the "righteousness of God from faith unto faith" (1:17) is "a righteousness of God" which is "apart from the law" (3:21). It comes to us by faith as a condition, and is revealed in order to produce faith. It is "a righteousness through faith in Jesus Christ unto all them that believe" (3:22).

Justification is brought about through the grace of God which provided that the redemption price should be paid by Jesus Christ (3:24). His blood is the ransom price, and we receive the benefit of it "through faith" (3:25), not perfect law-keeping, but a faith that "works by love" (cf. Gal. 5:6). The "law of faith" (3:27) excludes all boasting. Justification is not a matter of merit, a matter of earning one's salvation. No man can boast that he deserves to be saved on his own merit. Only the gospel gives us hope to be justified before God. This hope is shared by both Jew and Gentile and gives all the praise to God.

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Author: jfm

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