Romans 3:1-20; Psalm 14

Two Ways News is a weekly collaboration between Tony Payne, Phillip Jensen and occasionally Talar Khatchoyan – a newsletter and podcast on a topic to encourage gospel thinking for today (subscribe at

In working through the book of Romans, we come to a summary of the argument thus far.

In the passage discussed in this episode (Romans 3:1-20) Paul removes any final objections to the idea of the comprehensive and universal unrighteousness of humanity. In drawing his argument to its conclusion he takes us to the very depths of the human predicament, and to the reality of evil.

An exposition of this passage can be found at 6. Human Addiction.

The next episode in this series is Just Forgive. The previous episode is Why are Moralists Hypocrites?


Phillip Jensen: Reading Romans reminds me of a book by Rutger Bregman called Humankind: A Hopeful History, which argues for the goodness of humanity and says the exact reverse of Romans 1-3. It’s a very popular book, a New York Times bestseller, about the goodness of human nature and the need for allowing good people to just be good and utopia would come soon. 

Tony Payne: Well, that’s been part of the whole modern project since the Enlightenment, hasn’t it, following Rousseau’s side of the Enlightenment? That humanity was good and all we needed was to be liberated from society’s restrictions and achieve our freedom.

PJ: Yes, he’s explicitly pro-Rousseau, in contrast to Hobbes and his Leviathan, because Hobbes takes the view that people are actually fundamentally bad, which has all kinds of consequences, especially political consequences. 

TP: From Hobbes and Rousseau, we get the two great streams of political movement and thought in our day—that is, on the one side, if we’re really bad, you need a strong authoritarian style of government that restrains human wickedness. But on the other hand, if we’re truly good inside, and we just need to free everybody to be good, well, that’s the intellectual basis of socialism and communism, that if you just get rid of the evil capitalists and so on, everyone will be good. There’ll be a brotherhood of man, and it will all work wonderfully. 

PJ: Yes, which hasn’t worked yet.

TP: Interestingly, they both have this view that there’s something essential about humanity, either essentially bad or essentially good. 

PJ: Yes, and the book has been criticized for that. Many people philosophically do not believe in an essential human nature and an essential ethics and morality, and so the book has been criticized because it assumes that Hobbes and Rousseau are correct about there being an essential human nature. They disagree about what that essential nature is, but they both assume the essential nature. And so some modern philosophers have taken the book to task on that, but I found it totally unconvincing a long way before that. I’ve got a digital copy of my book on my computer. But it’s very hard to get into computers; you don’t remember all your passwords.

TP: Why would you need a password on your computer? 

PJ: Good question. I’m a perfectly good person, as you are. Everybody’s good. I don’t need passwords anymore on my phone or computer or anywhere. It’s wonderful. 

TP: Well, that’s strange, isn’t it? The idea that Rousseau thinks humanity is basically good and that if only we can be educated better, if only we can liberate ourselves from structural and systemic evil that’s holding us back, we will all be fine. It is denied in practice by the fact that we can’t imagine not having a lock on our phone, and just leaving our phone to anybody to open. Who knows what would happen if someone got into it and stole our identity? We lock our cars, we lock our houses, we lock our computers, we lock everything.

PJ: Yes, no one actually has faith in human nature, or rather, everybody has faith that human nature is bad. It is faith shown in our works. 

So the reality of life left me unpersuaded of Mr Bregman’s argument, and so did the illustration that he uses. One of his chief illustrations is contrasting The Lord of the Flies with the Tongan castaways. The Lord of the Flies is the novel by William Golding about some English school boys whose plane crashes and who are stranded on an island and turn into savages. “Kill the pig, spill his blood”, and so on. But the alternative is the true story of a group of Tongan boys who, playing truant, stole a boat, got washed away and wound up on an island. It took them 15 months to be found. They were considered dead; they had funerals for the boys. And then they were found. And so here’s the real life experience of the fictional story. And the real life story: the Tongan boys lived harmoniously and happily and helpfully.

TP: And so people are good after all!

PJ: Yes, just look at what the Tongan boys did! It was nothing like the English school boys.

TP: It was a paradise of mutual cooperation. 

PJ: Yes, it was wonderful. However, it’s nuts. One’s fiction, the other’s fact, of course. And in the fictional story, the boys didn’t know each other, and they were primary school boys from England on an island. Whereas the Tongan boys were teenagers, thirteen to nineteen-year-olds, who already knew each other well because they lived in the same boarding school. And they knew how to structure their life with each other because the boarding school had already given them structures, including daily prayer. They had a Christianized background, and furthermore, Tongans are really good at being able to catch fish, and to know how to live on an island.  

It just beggars belief that someone would take that seriously as a fair comparison. The book was full of these unconvincing arguments. Yes, it showed some science behind the view, but some experiments were badly done. But that doesn’t actually equate with the problems that you see, like universal slavery, universal polygamy, like domestic violence which is also universal. All cultures from all of history have these problems. It’s only ever been this way. Frankly, the book is not very good at all.

TP: And it’s interesting, isn’t it, that it’s one of the intellectual elite in this case? 

PJ: Yes, and there are all these articles talking about how great this book is. Stephen Fry says it’s one of the great books, but that’s because it reinforces their prejudice. 

TP: Yes, it’s confirmation bias that has made the book into a bestseller. And it’s interesting that in Romans so far, as Paul is talking about the Greeks, he’s making the point that they are the cream of the crop. They’re the intellectuals of the Graeco-Roman world. And so Paul is saying that it’s not just the Jews who are under sin, it’s also the Greeks–the intellectuals who might think they’re righteous and try and pretend they’re righteous, but in fact, are just as unrighteous as everybody else.

PJ: And it’s in contrast to the barbarians and the Gentiles in general. The barbarians, by definition, are sinful, wicked, evil, nasty people.

TP: Yes, whereas the Greeks, ah, they have pretensions, just like the intellectuals of today.

So Romans 3 is saying it’s not just the barbarians who it goes without saying are sinful, but it’s everybody. It’s the barbarians and the Greeks and the Jews. 

PJ: And towards the end of Romans 2 where we finished last time, it’s the Jews in particular that he’s attacking. And he’s saying a true Jew is not one who is circumcised and belongs to the Jewish nation; a true Jew is one who is circumcised in the heart, who could be a Gentile, who could even be a barbarian, but who’s been converted and whose heart has moved towards God. And so Romans 3 then starts off with a Jew complaining about this judgment, saying,

Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision? Much in every way. To begin with, the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God. What if some were unfaithful? Does their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God? By no means! Let God be true though every one were a liar, as it is written,

“That you may be justified in your words, and prevail when you are judged.”

But if our unrighteousness serves to show the righteousness of God, what shall we say? That God is unrighteous to inflict wrath on us? (I speak in a human way.) By no means! For then how could God judge the world? But if through my lie God’s truth abounds to his glory, why am I still being condemned as a sinner? And why not do evil that good may come?—as some people slanderously charge us with saying. Their condemnation is just.

What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin

It’s just a squirming passage. The Jews try to squirm out from the accusation for which they have no answer, and they come up with a series of silly arguments which Paul knocks down one after another. And excuses are what people make when they’ve got no answer. And yet the excuses of the Jews are matched by the excuses of the intelligentsia here in Australia today. They are just silly, but people keep running them out.

TP: We’ve outlined one kind of approach, which is Bregman’s approach to it. But what other excuses do people make for why my immorality is, in fact, not really immoral?

PJ: Well we say, “I could change if I wanted to. Yes, I have told lies, but if I wanted to, I could stop.” But of course, they don’t. 

And they can also try marking on the curve. “Yes, I’ve done some things badly, but not as bad as those people over there”, as if somehow my morality and moral standing is only as good as the company I keep. So I deny my sense of responsibility for being immoral. That’s the Enlightenment way of dealing with it. But the postmodernists are dealing with it much more crassly. They say, well, actually, there’s no such thing as good and evil. 

TP: If there’s no such thing as evil, then I’m not evil. 

PJ: There are no moral judgments. There’s a professor of psychology in New York, Jesse Prinz, who says, “No amount of reasoning can engender a moral value, because all values are, at bottom, emotional attitudes. The judgment that something is morally wrong is an emotional response.” So it’s not right, it’s not wrong. It’s just: I don’t like it. But the way I say “I don’t like it” is by saying it’s wrong.

TP: It’s the language I give to my feeling. 

PJ: Yes. And there are many philosophers and intellectuals who are pushing that kind of line. They deny that there is such a thing as rebellion against God, that there’s such a thing as sin, because sin requires God. You see, it’s not just morality on a horizontal level; it’s vertical. It’s the rejection of God. So Prinz says, “If you want to have objective morality, you need three things: a benevolent God, human nature, and rational principles.” By human nature he is referring to a kind of innate sense of moral values, and by rational principles he means things like logic and mathematics by which you can argue a moral code. But without God, well, you don’t have objective morals.

TP: So you either deny the reality of what we all experience, which is morality and the existence of good and evil in the world, which every human has repeatedly experienced across all cultures at all times, or you have to accept that the reason there is something out there that I can experience as good or evil is the fact that Somebody put it there. It’s the only way that it could be there. 

PJ: Yes, I completely agree with what you’re saying, Tony. But to come back to Romans—it’s not so much arguing that morality is there, but that it’s there and we’re guilty. 

TP: Yes. We all fundamentally fail. That’s what Paul says in Romans 3:9. It doesn’t matter if you’re Jews or Greeks, it doesn’t matter what your pretensions are. Everybody, including all Jews and Greeks, are alike under sin. And then he goes on with his famous selection of quotations from the Old Testament. 

“None is righteous, no, not one;

no one understands;

no one seeks for God.

All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;

no one does good,

not even one.”

“Their throat is an open grave;

they use their tongues to deceive.”

“The venom of asps is under their lips.”

“Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.”

“Their feet are swift to shed blood;

in their paths are ruin and misery,

and the way of peace they have not known.”

“There is no fear of God before their eyes.”

PJ: It’s a powerful collection of mainly Psalms, but it’s all proving that the Scriptures across the board are teaching that everybody, all of us, are under sin. ‘Sin’, you’ll notice, is singular. It’s not ‘sins’ because it is something we’re under. It’s a power. Paul writes about sin in the singular more commonly than the plural ‘sins’, because he personifies sin. In Romans 5:21, he talks about how sin reigns in death, or in Romans 6:23 he talks about the wages that sin pays, or in Galatians he talks about how the Scripture imprisoned us all under sin. That is, we’re all under this thing which is a power over us, that controls us and condemns us. It’s the disease he’s talking about, not the symptoms of the disease. It’s the very nature that gives rise to our sinful, immoral ways.

TP: And we’re all under it in the sense that it’s universal. I mean, that’s the first quote, which I think is Psalm 14, isn’t it? 

PJ: Yes. Psalm 14:11. It’s very powerful, in that it’s about no-one being righteous. 

TP: No one is righteous, no, not one. It keeps being repeated: no one, no one, no one, not even one. There’s a universality to that that’s really unavoidable. And that is then illustrated in the following verses in the awful things that people do and in the nature of humans. And at this point it’s about the nature of Israel, isn’t it, because it’s the law? 

PJ: It’s the fool who says in his heart, there is no God, which is from Psalm 14. It’s not necessarily just Israel, although it will be Israel. And the last one from Psalm 18 that says “There is no fear of God before their eyes.” That is referring to the Gentiles as well. But the negative “no one, no one” shows that there’s no escape clause. No one is excepted. That’s what is being emphasized. 

TP: And what does it mean when we say that being “under sin” is a personification of an evil power that has us in its grip? What does it mean to be under that power?

PJ: In one sense, the easiest way to understand this is using the illustration of addiction. When you have alcohol addiction, for example, the very first step in the 12 steps to break free is to acknowledge that you are not in control anymore. If you can’t get past the first step, you’ll never be free of alcohol. You’ve got to acknowledge upfront that you’re beaten. 

Well, sin is like that addiction. Jesus says, “Anyone who sins is a slave to sin.” It brings you into a slavery, into an addictive relationship with sin itself. It’s like that old phrase, “Oh, what a tangled web we weave when first we practise to deceive.” You think that telling a lie is independent of everything else that’s happening in your life. But in fact, it just brings you into a tangled web. 

TP: It connects; it begets another lie, which begets another lie, and all of a sudden you’re in this terrible web of deceit and dysfunction.

PJ: And if the fundamental lie that you believe is that there is no God, then everything I do from that lie onwards is going to be in service of that lie.

TP: Yes, and of protecting that lie. But what if someone were to say, “If I’m addicted in slavery, if I’m under the power of this thing, then are we really to blame?” Aren’t we saying that we can’t help it? And if we can’t help it, are we at fault?

PJ: I have sympathy for the drug addict and the alcoholic because the power is so great. But at another level, no one actually is forcing them to have another drink. And the 12 step program shows that people can be in recovery. They don’t have to drink; it’s a choice that they’ve got to make and keep making, and of course it needs an enormous amount of support to reverse the addictive behaviour. But think of Ephesians 2:1-3:

And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience–among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind. 

I have desires, I have passions, and I follow them. But there are also the spirits, the prince of the power of the air, who is at work in me. See, the great dream of our autonomy is that we would be totally free from any influence other than ourselves. Well, it’s nonsense. For example, you’re never free from the influence of your home upbringing, but that doesn’t mean we are totally puppet-like and cannot make any decisions for ourselves, or that we’re not choosing to do things. So no one ever forces me to do the wrong thing. In fact, if I’m coerced into doing the wrong thing, coercion means that I’m not guilty. But no one forces me. I’m never pushed. I always, in the end, jump. 

I like what you said a couple of weeks ago, Tony, where you brought up the word we’ve translated as ‘suppression’. You were saying it’s holding on to this truth by unrighteousness. We hold it, but our unrighteousness distorts what we hold. 

TP: And we hold it down in such a way that our possession of it ends up becoming our judgment. It becomes public condemnation that we have this knowledge but have suppressed it. And it’s led us to the judgment of being given over to a manner of life that’s destructive. And when we come to Romans 3 here, Paul is bringing that argument to a conclusion. He’s saying that everybody, Jew, Greek, and by extension, of course, everybody else as well, all flesh, as he comes to say in the following verses, are alike under this power.

PJ: Yes, but it’s not just under the power of immorality or of wickedness, it’s under the power of sin. 

TP: What’s the significance? 

PJ: Well, in the end, it’s the fear of God that we do not have. And so morality can be given in a godless fashion, as if they were rules and rites of behaviour, but there’s no rational basis for it. In fact, that’s the problem the moralists have–they can’t come up with a rational reason why you should or shouldn’t do anything. 

But this is rational when it’s about God. They’ve left God out of the equation, which is the point of Romans 1. The vertical dimension of sin is critical to understanding it. As you leave out the vertical dimension that sin is rebellion against God, is the rejection of God, then you can’t really explain the horizontal outcome–the way in which we abuse the world, each other and ourselves. You’ve got no rationale as to why that is happening and why it is wrong. We know it’s wrong. We know it’s happening. But we have no coherent, cogent explanation for it. But once you understand it’s against God we’re rebelling, then that explains why it’s so wrong, and why we’re hurting God’s creation, and why God has given us over to further damage ourselves.

TP: Now, in these final couple of verses, he turns to the subject of the law to summarize and sum up what he’s been saying, because he’s just been quoting from the Old Testament. And he says in Romans 3:19-20:

Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.

PJ: It’s still got that Jewish background to it though. It’s saying that if those under the law are all condemned, what chance do those who are lawless have? The outlaws, well of course they are condemned. But the ones under the law, well the law itself condemns them. The very law that makes them think they’re superior is the law that points out that they are just the same as everybody else.

TP: It’s a fairly depressing picture, Philip, that we leave ourselves with at the end of Romans 3:20, isn’t it? 

PJ: Well, the law is good. It identifies our sin and educates us about sin. But it doesn’t cure our sin. Its task is to bring us to be accountable before God, and therefore it condemns us. But you see, that’s why people have to listen next week. Because the whole of what we’ve been discussing in Romans up to this point is to give us the fantastic news that we will talk about next week. Don’t miss the next episode of our walk through Romans together. 

TP: We’ve been talking about diseases and symptoms, and this passage just summarizes what the disease is. Next week, there’s a cure. 

PJ: Oh, no, you’ve given away too much. Spoiler alert!

TP: Well, you’ll never know what next week might be, dear listener! Make sure you tune in. Phillip, thanks for walking us through this part of Romans 3. It’s a sobering but wonderful passage in the sense that it humbles us and brings us to a clearer understanding of where we all stand, whether Jew, Greek, barbarian, any of us.

PJ: It’s true egalitarianism, true inclusiveness.

TP: All alike under sin. 

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