A couple of weeks ago, a former Nazi prison guard was convicted of 5,230 counts of murder. This type of case is not new. We have seen similar cases over the past several years, and we will see a few more, but not many. Why? Well, it has been 75 years since WW2 ended and the number of living war criminals who have yet to be prosecuted is small. (1)
Do you think he should have been convicted? I mean he was only charged with 5,230 of the deaths of the estimated 65,000 deaths at Stutthof. And he was only 17. Did he have a choice? As I have said before, when I was 17, I had blond hair and blue eyes. My heritage is German. If I had been born in Germany 1920 instead of in America in 1970, Bruno D. could have been Andy B.
For the record, I think Bruno D did deserve his conviction. He was indicted because he fully supported the “insidious and cruel killing” at the camp. So, despite his age, he was fully complicit. But the reality is that all of us are complicit in some type of sin. Every one of us. We may look down on some sins more than others, but none of us are innocent, particularly before God.
Our passage today makes that point abundantly clear. Romans 3.9-20 concludes a long section of Romans which began at 1.18. We have seen the sins of Gentiles. We have seen the sins of the Jews. And now, Paul provides details of just how corrupt the human race really is. (He has not yet mentioned the solution, but that is coming – with a first mention next week.)
Because of our sinful nature, we need a judge who is above it all. Yes, Bruno D. deserves to be convicted. Andy B. has not done anything similar, so you might let me slide. But compared to a holy and righteous God (cf. Rom 1.17), I have nothing of myself on which to stand. None of us do.
Many of us may claim to talk the talk, but only Jesus can walk the walk.
Andy, is it really that bad? Well, rather than me giving you my opinion, let’s see what God had to say through His messenger Paul.
To begin, let me remind you that this section of Scripture follows immediately after the Jew has tried to suggest that God has not been faithful to His promise (Romans 3.3, 5, 7). The Jew has argued that sinning actually helps God to look good to others, but as I said last week, God does not need help to look good, God is good.
So, before we review how Paul continued his response to this Jew, let us take a moment to define good.
When you think of good, what comes to mind? I think that most people would think of examples over an actual definition. For instance, we might think something like, “She is a good girl.” Or, “this meal is good.” If we try to define it, many would think of it as “not bad.” Because good is descriptive, we know it is an adjective, but what does it really mean? Here is how dictionary.com defined it. Good can be:
- Satisfactory in quality, quantity, or degree. – So good is satisfactory. Well, ok. But let’s go further.
- Of high quality, excellent. – Ok, now we are getting closer. High quality sounds better. But how about…
- Morally excellent; virtuous, righteous, pious? (2)
In Romans 3.9, Paul uses the word righteous. In verse 12, he uses good. So, this last definition is the right one for us. It links the two together. Let us agree that this is our definition. Having defined what good is, or can be, now let us turn to the text to see what Paul said to Rome, and in extension to us.
So, what does Paul say?
None is righteous. No not one. (v. 10)
That is, none are good. No one is morally excellent virtuous, or pious.
No one understands. No one seeks God. (v. 11)
Ouch. Maybe you thought you did. But Paul says nope. Not even Paul himself! And I agree. The reality is that if we truly understood who God is and what He has done for us, we would seek Him continually. We would worship Him constantly. What about worry? We never would because we would be completely focused on the things of God, etc. So, if I am having a conversation with Paul, I might have been prepared to argue initially, but having thought about it, I am ready to agree.
But Paul is just getting started. Why? Because too many people think they are good (remember our working definition). So, let’s continue with Paul’s thoughts.
People turn aside. (v. 12)
People turn from God. Not only do they not choose God, they turn from Him. They choose themselves. They choose their stuff. They choose whatever they think will bring them worth, but instead, they become worthless (v. 12).
Ok, Paul we get it. Uh, no you don’t. Not yet.
Their throats are open graves. Their tongues deceive. Their mouths curse and create bitterness. (vv. 13-14)
The idea of an open grave could have two meanings. It could mean that it is ready to take in a dead body or it could mean that a body is lying in the grave already dead. Considering Paul is comparing an open grave to a throat, I believe he means the second idea. How does the metaphor work?
Have you ever smelled a body that has been dead for a while? Imagine that body undergoing decay in an open grave. The stench would be horrifying. Now, consider someone who is constantly vulgar, who has nothing good to say about anyone, or something similar. I believe that is the comparison Paul is making.
Then, Paul links the tongue and mouth itself. So, not only do people talk badly about others (ever done that?), but they also lie, they create strife, they cause others to be bitter – in part because they are bitter themselves. Jesus says this clearly when talking to the religious leaders of the day. Yes, those religious leaders who thought that they were good (remember our definition). Jesus said, “out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12.34). James also writes about the fickle nature of the tongue in James 3.
For Paul, he equates the speech of many to the deadly poison of a snake. In other words, not good. And yet, Paul is not done. He has covered our speech, but now he turns to our actions. And you guessed it, he doesn’t give us credit for being good there either.
Their feet are swift to shed blood. Ruin and misery are in their paths. Peace is unknown to them. (vv. 15-17)
In other words, the people Paul is describing are destructive. They destroy people with their mouths, and when that isn’t enough, they turn to action. Let me remind you that Paul is writing to 1st Century Rome, not 21st Century America. But we see the same thing today. Why? Because no one is righteous, no not one (v. 10).
Paul is simply describing human nature. Sure, most people can be reasonable much of the time. Until they are wronged. Until they do not get their way. But remember, the definition of “good” is not being morally excellent most of the time, or when it is convenient. Being good is being morally excellent. Period. Exclamation point.
And only God is that kind of excellent – always.
And that fact should lead us into a deep reverence for God. But it doesn’t. Why? Because, as Paul has already said, “all have turned away.” We simply do not follow God perfectly. And because of that, for all of us (although certainly some more than others)…
People do not fear God. (v. 18)
You probably know that fear here is meant as reverence, meaning we are to be in awe of God. But Paul has stated at the beginning of this long section, all the way back in Romans 1 that people suppress the truth (1.18), do not honor God (v. 21), nor thank Him (v. 21). People do not fear God.
Paul’s point is made clear in the final two verses of this passage and section. We all try to justify ourselves – by what we think, by what we do, by where we live, by who we know, etc. But Paul again lumps all of humanity together to say that “no flesh will be justified” by the “works of the law” before God (Romans 3.19).
Because God is good. God is morally excellent. You and I are not. And no matter what we try to do, we cannot be. As Paul wrote, it is through our knowledge of what is right and wrong, that we ultimately discover what our true sin is (Romans 3.20).
I began this message talking about a man who at 93 years of age was convicted for doing something that was deemed “not good.” It took 75 years for that conviction to happen. But it did. But has justice been served? He led most of his life knowing what he did, whether or not he considered them atrocities. Maybe he lived with regret. Maybe he was even fearful that he would one day be discovered. But is this man’s conviction now really justice?
Regardless of your thoughts on whether or not justice as, or even can be served in that case, the fact is that the case against Bruno D (and others) show us that one day all of us have a court date in front of us. It may be a few years or even a few decades, but we will face our time before the Judge in the proper time. And that Judge not only knows what “good” is, He epitomizes every aspect of goodness.
That judge has not been fully introduced in Romans yet. Paul did mention His name in the first sentence of His letter and again in Romans 1.8. But the time has come, as we will see next week, for Paul to share the answer to our problem of not being righteous. Thus, our JOURNEY letter for this week is:
Our JOURNEY letter for today is J – JESUS.
We are not good. We are not righteous. We never can be. We can talk all we want about our desire to be good and faithful to God, but it is only through Jesus that we have that chance. As I said above, many of us may claim to talk the talk, but only Jesus can walk the walk.
LEARN. Romans 3.12-17 may not incorporate every type of sin, but these verses are representative of our behavior over time when we give in to our personal desires. Take time to reflect on each of the verses in order to determine where you may be most vulnerable – neglecting God, with your mouth, in your actions, etc. so that you can ask Jesus to help you overcome these traps because of your righteousness in Him (if, and only if, you are a Christian). Otherwise, confess this sin to Him and give your life to Him in order to become a Christian.