Topic: Expository Passage: Romans 3:9–18
(Read Text) There is a tremendous amount of wisdom in the old saying, “Ideas have consequences.” Yes, we’ve all been bored to death at some point by people debating ideas ad nauseum that are ridiculous and irrelevant. It seems like some people’s spiritual gift is talking forever about useless ideas.
But ideas really do have consequences. They shape how you interpret the world, your values, and your priorities. They shape your reactions to good things and bad things and even what you perceive as good and bad. And when there’s a problem, ideas shape what solution you think is best. Ideas shape life and society.
Our text for this morning strongly affirms one of the most consequential ideas in all of Scripture—the doctrine of total depravity. Specifically, the Bible rejects the modern notion that people are born inherently good or even as a blank slate; instead, it teaches that all people are born under the dominion of sin and hostile to God.
It’s not exactly a happy doctrine, but it is very consequential for a Christian worldview. It radically affects how we share the gospel and how we do ministry. It also puts us at odds with secular humanism in how we view parenting, discipline, education, law enforcement, politics, foreign policy, and many other things. Assumptions about depravity shaped our Constitution, and modern denials of depravity are reshaping our country today.
Depravity has consequences, and our text is the most foundational Bible passage on this subject. It is vitally important that we understand what it is saying if we are going to understand Romans, if we are going to understand the gospel, and if we are going to understand people and how to live among them. The passage begins by detailing the…
I. Characteristics of Depravity (vv. 9–12)
Remember where Paul is at in his broader argument. He’s not worried about politics but about something far more important—our need of salvation. Ever since 1:18, Paul has been arguing that all people are sinners who stand under the wrath of God and who cannot save themselves.
But Paul rightly expected religious people, and especially Jews to strongly object to this claim. Therefore, ever since 2:1 Paul has been arguing that the Jews are sinners just like the Gentiles, and that they will face the same condemnation at the final judgment. They won’t receive any favoritism.
3:9–20 conclude Paul’s argument that the Jews cannot be saved through the Law, and neither can anyone else. Verse 10 couldn’t be clearer, “There is none righteous, not even one.” Therefore, the 1st characteristic of depravity is that depravity is…
Universal (v. 9). Notice that the question in v. 9 is similar to the question in v. 1, but this time Paul gives a very different answer. Verses 1–2 say that God gave the Jews a great advantage in giving them the OT. Having the Bible and growing up around Christianity are precious gifts.
But does having the Bible and giving lip service to it make you better than those who don’t? Does it guarantee favoritism at the final judgment? Paul answers, “Not at all…”
We’re all sinners no matter what privileges we have. And notice how he drives home this fact in vv. 10–12. This quotation from Psalm 14 couldn’t be clearer. Everyone is a sinner.
Now, many parents want to believe that little Johnny is the exception. He is perfect and precious in every way. But Proverbs 22:15 offers a vital application of depravity that is true no matter what Disney tells us, “Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child; The rod of discipline will remove it far from him” (Prov 22:15). All of us are rebels at heart.
You won’t parent well if you don’t start with this fact. And what is even more important you will not appreciate your spiritual need and the need of those around you unless you believe that depravity is universal.
Enslaving (v. 9): This one is easy to miss, but v. 9 concludes by saying we “are all under sin.” We often think of sin solely as wrong actions, but when the world translated sin (hamartia) is used in the singular as it is here, it normally refers to the power of sin not to sinful acts. The preposition “under” fits this meaning. The point is we are all under the power of sin.
Romans 6–7 will talk a lot more about this (7:14). Therefore, sin is not just something we do; it is a power which enslaves us. So, unbelievers don’t just make mistakes; they are sinners who are mastered by sin.
This does not mean that the unsaved have no desire for righteousness or that they never do anything good. 2:14–15 say that his conscience restrains his depravity. There are other ways that God graciously prevents people from being as bad as they potentially could be. As such, unbelievers occasionally do some incredibly heroic and good deeds.
But this doesn’t change the fact that we are all born under sin’s power. It dominates the unbeliever, and he cannot overcome it on his own.
On a very practical note, this fact radically changes how we think about spiritual and moral transformation. It is true, for example, that discipline can root out some foolishness in the heart of a child, but no amount of discipline will ever create godliness in someone who is dead in sin. Only the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit can do that.
Because of that, you should build good patterns into children as soon as possible, and we should promote laws and law enforcement that restrain sin. But don’t ever forget that the only hope of genuine transformation is the gospel. That’s crucial to parenting, to every counseling situation, and to how we view society in general.
The world believes the solution is education, a new environment, coping methods, pills, or a hug. If we effectively use these things, we can achieve world peace and solve everything. These things have a place, but God says that regeneration is the only hope of transformation. We don’t just need a new coat of paint on a rusty car; we need a new car.
Blinding (v. 11a): The point of this statement is not that unbelievers are dumb. Many unbelievers are incredibly intelligent. Some of them have even done incredible work interpreting the Bible. But there is a huge disconnect for the unbeliever between what the Bible says and its application to them. He can know it up here (the head), but it doesn’t work its way down here (the heart).
Why is that? “And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, in whose case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving so that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Cor 4:3–4). Satan and the darkness of depravity blinds the unbeliever to the light so that he cannot see “the glory of Christ” as it really is.
This is so important to remember when you share the gospel. Jesus and the apostles frequently reasoned with unbelievers and compelled them to believe the gospel. But they also understood that you can’t argue someone into being a Christian apart from the Spirit’s work.
Parents, you should do everything possible to point your kids to Christ but remember that only God can save them. The same is true for everyone else. We must pray that God will open their eyes as only he can. It’s marvelous when he does this miraculous work. 4th…
Hostile to God (vv. 11b –12a): Verse 11b is hard to accept. We want to believe that people are generally good, and they want to know God. As well, we’ve all known some seemingly good people who don’t believe the gospel. Aren’t they seeking after God?
God says they aren’t. “There is none who seeks for God.” Someone may be very religious and moral, but he always seeks God on his terms, and he refuses to repent and cast himself wholly on Christ. He wants a religion that glorifies him for his goodness. That’s apparent in every legalistic religion.
As such, v. 12 says, “All have turned aside.” The idea is that the unbeliever deliberately turns his back on God and on what the gospel demands for salvation. As we saw in 1:21–23, the unbeliever will worship anything but the true God.
As such, v. 12 adds “they have become useless,” meaning spiritually worthless, because he refuses to truly honor the sovereign God.
This hostility is important to remember when we share the gospel. “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:44). The only hope for seeing anyone saved is that God removes the blindness of sin, shows the sinner his true glory, draws him to himself. It is a miracle of God anytime someone gets saved.
This means that we can’t manipulate or reason people into genuine We need to pray that God would do what only he can do, we need to live in the Spirit’s power, and we need to set God’s Word before them, because the Spirit works through the Word.
And when someone displays the genuine fruits of conversion, we just say, “To God be the glory” because we can’t save. The same goes for remembering your conversion. 3:27 says boasting is excluded. God pursued me when I wanted nothing to do with him. Praise God. 5th, depravity is…
Condemning (vv. 10, 12b): This first quotation from Psalm 14 begins and ends with two huge summary statements. First, “There is none righteous, not even one.” Righteous is an important word throughout Romans. Paul will argue that God demands perfect righteousness for anyone to be justified and welcomed into heaven. Therefore, v. 10 is absolutely devastating, “There is none righteous.” No one can earn heaven.
Then v. 12 concludes the quotation by saying, “There is none…” Again, the point is not that unbelievers can’t do anything good. They often do. But no one has a truly good heart that loves the Lord completely and loves his neighbor as himself. Everything is stained with selfishness and pride.
In sum, vv. 9–12 paint a dark picture of the natural man apart from God’s grace. The Bible forcefully denies the old heresy of Pelagianism, that we are born a blank slate that can be shaped either for good or for bad. My biggest problem is not my environment, lack of education, a chemical imbalance, or social injustice. My biggest problem is me.
This doesn’t mean we ignore these other issues and don’t work to address them, but it does mean we are all fundamentally offenders before we are victims. We are sinners.
So, if you are hoping that somehow you can earn a place in heaven by your goodness, please see that there is no hope of salvation in you. The only hope of salvation is the gift of God’s righteousness in Christ that Paul will explain in vv. 21–31. Please be saved today.
Then make sure that the doctrine of total depravity shapes how you see yourself in relation to God, how you serve people, and how you pray for the lost and share the gospel with them. So, those are 5 characteristics of depravity. Then notice that vv. 13–17 reflect on 2 fruits of depravity.
II. Fruits of Depravity (vv. 13–17)
The point of this section is not to say that every unbeliever does all these things or that they are equally bad. Rather, Paul takes a broad look at humanity and points out 2 glaring evidences of human depravity. The 1st is…
Evil Speech (vv. 13–14): These verses consist of 3 powerful quotations from the OT. First, Psalm 5:9 states, “Their throat is…” Of course, an open grave is not a pleasant picture. There were a few times on the farm when a cow died in the back of a pasture and we didn’t find it for a few days. When we did, it wasn’t a pretty sight, and it certainly wasn’t a pleasant smell.
God compares the speech patterns of unbelievers to such an open grave. It’s a fair comparison. I went to public high school, and I spent a lot of time in locker rooms and on school buses listening to teenage boys say all sorts of foul and perverted things. Then I spent my first year of seminary working at a gutter company. Those guys put my high school classmates to shame. I feel for those of you who must listen to that junk daily.
Verse 13 specifically mentions deceit or lying as an expression of this foul grave of speech. It’s amazing how shamelessly many people lie and manipulate to serve their own passions.
Then v. 14 quotes Psalm 10:7 (read). So many people love to be miserable and to complain about their misery. They are angry at the world, and they express it with foul cursing of God and of people.
We’ve even reached a point where we glory in cursing as authentic self-expression. Stuff that professional journalists used to never say or would cut out of quotations now pops up everywhere. People’s mouths are truly “full of cursing and bitterness.” It reflects the darkness in their hearts.
Therefore, I must add that a Christian’s mouth should never smell like an open grave. Maybe your morning breath smells like an open grave, but your words better not. Christians must value truth and consistently speak the truth even when it is costly. Psalm 15:4 says that God is pleased by the one, “Whoswears to his own hurt and does not change.”
As well, Philippians 2:14 states that complaining is sin, and Philippians 4:4 commands us to “Rejoice in the Lord always.” 1 Thessalonians 5:18 commands us, “In everything give thanks.” We must choose joy and thanksgiving over bitterness and cursing. And if you make those choices with your speech, your heart will follow close behind. The 2nd fruit is…
Violence and Destruction (vv. 15–17): These verses quote Isaiah 59:7–8, and they also highlight the darkness of human civilization. Again, verse 15 is not saying that every unbeliever is a murderer. Thankfully, most are not. However, murder happens in every culture, and human history is filled with bloody, violent wars.
Consider as well how much “destruction and misery” is all around us. Think about how common physical and sexual abuse are, how common child abuse and neglect are, and how nasty people can be. The evidence of depravity is everywhere.
Therefore, the quote concludes, “The path of peace they have not known.” Take a look at many families and workplaces. They’re a crazy mess of strife, backbiting, and bitterness. Or think about the declaration over 100 years ago that WWI was the “war to end all wars.” It didn’t happen that way, and wars will not cease until Christ fully eliminates sin.
This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pursue peace or use diplomacy, but we must be realistic about the human condition. It’s also why we will always need law enforcement, not just a peace keeping force. The Bible is not optimistic but pessimistic about the human condition. The gospel is the only hope for genuine change, and the return of Christ is the only hope for world peace.
This also means that the fellowship of God’s people should not be plagued with destruction, misery, and strife. We’re still sinners, so conflicts will arise. But we are also new creatures in Christ. We must be different, and we must not shrink to the petty strife of unbelievers. Rise above it in your marriage and family. Let’s always be careful to do the same as a church. Again, our love for one another should make us stand out as disciples of Jesus who have been transformed by his Spirit.
So, vv. 13–17 present two compelling fruits or evidences of total depravity. People are sinners, and the evidence is overwhelming. Finally, v. 18 describes…
III. Center of Depravity (v. 18)
Proverbs 1:7 states, “The fear of the Lordis the beginning of knowledge,” and the Bible everywhere assumes that the fear of the Lord is the most basic foundation for all of life. That’s why Romans 1 begins this section by condemning mankind first and foremost for refusing to honor and worship God as he deserves.
So, once again, Paul denies the common notion that unbelievers are seeking after God and want to know him as he truly is. Instead, they reject the knowledge of God that they have and they refuse to fear him, honor him, repent before him, and obey him.
And while we tend to notice all the stuff in vv. 13–17 much more, let’s remember that there is no greater condemnation Paul could give than v. 18, which is why it is last. “I am the Lord, that is My name; I will not give My glory to another, nor My praise to graven images” (Isa 42:8). Refusing to honor the Lord is a serious act of rebellion.
On the positive side, there is nothing that pleases the Lord more than a sincere heart of reverence, love, humility, and submission. And there are no greater gifts that you can give to the Lord than to worship him with your words and your life.
Lord willing, next Sunday, we will close out Paul’s argument for universal depravity and condemnation with vv. 19–20, and then we will make one of the most glorious, significant transitions in all the Bible with vv. 21–23. But for today, notice that vv. 9–18 provide quite the capstone to Paul’s argument. Paul demonstrates from the OT that God condemns the Jew alongside everyone else as a depraved sinner who is hopelessly condemned in himself. “There is none righteous, not even one.”
Maybe your response to my sermon is, “Wow, what a hopeless, negative message. I don’t like the negativity. Tell me something positive.” Lord willing, we’ll get there next Sunday and for many weeks afterwards. The good news of Romans 3:21–8:39 is the best news in all the world. But you will never truly appreciate and receive the good news unless you first embrace the bad news. You must come to the end of yourself before you will fully rest on the mercy of Jesus.
So, please do that today. Admit that you are a broken, helpless sinner. This passage describes you. And you don’t have to wait until next Sunday to know that Jesus is the answer. He is perfectly righteous, and he dealt with your sin on the cross. You can be saved from your sin and the judgment you deserve if you simply repent and believe. I hope you will do so today.
If you are saved, please don’t ever stray far from remembering what you were in your natural state. Verse 9–18 are you but for the mercy of God. Stay humble, stay dependent, give thanks for God’s mercy, rely on God’s mercy, and boldly share it with others.