Dr. Timothy Keller
Preached at Redeemer Presbyterian, Manhattan on March 1, 2009
9 What shall we conclude then? Are we any better? Not at all! For we have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin. 10 As it is written: “There is no one righteous, not even one; 11 there is no one who understands; no one who seeks God. 12 All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.” 13 “Their throats are open graves; their tongues practice deceit.” “The poison of vipers is on their lips.” 14 “Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.” 15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood; 16 ruin and misery mark their ways, 17 and the way of peace they do not know.” 18 “There is no fear of God before their eyes.” 19 Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. 20 Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin. - Romans 3:9-20
The Bible, we say every week, is not so much a series of little disconnected stories, each with a moral. The Bible is actually a single story about what’s wrong with the world and the human race, what God has done to put that right in Jesus Christ, and finally how history then, as a result, is going to turn out in the end. That is the story of the Bible. What we’re looking at in Romans 1–4 is Saint Paul’s version of that entire biblical story, which is also called the gospel.
We are coming here, in this passage, to the very end of his analysis of what’s wrong with the human race, which, though it’s a tiny little word, is fraught with profound meaning. The Bible’s answer to the question “Why? What’s wrong with the human race?” is the word sin. Paul here is giving us a kind of summary statement of the biblical doctrine, you could say, of sin.
When I was a new believer and just trying to work my way around the Bible, I want you to know this particular passage gave me fits. It was a tough passage for me. Some of the statements seemed over the top. It bothered me, and I wrestled with it, but eventually it revolutionized my way of thinking about life and about myself and about the world.
I’ll share a little bit of what I learned back then with you now. This is perhaps the most radical, the strongest of all the statements the Bible gives us about what’s wrong with the human heart. We’re going to learn three things about sin here: the egalitarianism of sin, the trajectory of sin, and the cure for sin.
1. The egalitarianism of sin. We’re going to work pretty much through the passage. In the very beginning, in verses 9 and 10, Paul is making a statement. He’s making a point that I’m going to call the egalitarianism of sin. He says over and over again there’s no one righteous, there is no one who understands, there is no one who seeks for God, but it’s in verse 9 that he says the most amazing thing. He says, “Jew and Gentile alike are under sin. Are we any better? Not at all!”
Now you have to remember Paul is looking back to Romans 1, where he’s talking about the pagan Gentiles rolling in the streets … sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. There’s a long list of sexual practices and evil corruption practices, civil and corporate and individual. Then Paul identifies himself as a God-fearing Jew who is trying to obey the Ten Commandments in chapter 2, and he says, “Are we any better than them? Not at all.”
Moral and immoral, religious and secular, he’s saying there is no difference. In fact, in the beginning he says, “… alike are under sin.” What does that mean? If you want to understand what that means, you can scroll to the bottom of the text, where it says in verse 19, “… the whole world [is] held accountable to God.”
The word accountable means liable. It’s a judicial word. It means liable for punishment. What he’s saying is, no matter who you are, no matter what your record, no matter whether you’ve lived a life of altruism and compassion and service or a life of cruelty and exploitation, we’re all alike. We’re all condemned. We’re all lost. We all deserve to be rejected by God. That’s what he’s saying.
How could that be? That’s actually getting to the next point. Let me remind you of what we even know from last week in looking at Romans 2. Paul is saying a criminal robbing and murdering people and a moral, religious, upright Pharisee who thinks because of his good deeds and his righteousness God owes him blessing and people owe him respect …
Paul is saying as different as those look on the surface, underneath those are both expressions of the same radical self-centeredness, radical self-absorption, that is sin. Now how that can be we’ll get to in a second, but here’s what I want you to see. When Paul says “all alike,” and, “Are they any better than us? Not at all!” this is radical egalitarianism. I want you to see the implications of this. Let me give you two implications.
The first implication is if you’re looking at Christianity, and I know some of you are, if you’re thinking about Christianity like, “Well, what is this about?” if you’re exploring it, if you want to know more about it, almost always you come unconsciously with a preliminary model already determined in your mind for how this is going to work.
Basically, most people come to Christianity saying, “We’re going to explore this,” and you start to say, “Okay, somehow there’s some things, this and that, I must do for God, and if I do this and that for God, then God will be obliged to do this and that for me. That’s how spirituality works. If I do this and that for God, God will do this and that for me.” That’s the model in your head. You kind of assume it. You think you’re exploring, though you’ve already assumed that model. What you’re actually exploring, you think, is what the this and the that are.
Most people think, “Well, spirituality works like this. There is some kind of life that is considered a good life, and I must adopt it. There is a kind of life that is a bad life, and I must reject it. Then if I adopt a good life and reject and abandon the bad life, then God will do this and that. I’m just trying to find out what is a good life, what do I have to stop doing, what do I have to start doing, what will God do.”
That’s what you think of exploring. But I want you to see the model is wrong. Hear me. Whatever Paul is talking about when he calls people to become Christians and receive salvation, whatever Jesus is calling us to do when he calls us to take salvation, they can’t be calling us to simply stop bad living and start good living, because he’s saying here the people who live good are no better than the people who live bad. They’re all spiritually lost. Spiritually speaking, they’re in the very same place.
So if you think what it means to become a Christian is, “There are certain things I have to stop doing and certain things I have to start doing, then God will bless me,” you’re wrong. What is it then? I’m just trying to get you to see that because you come in with a grid, it doesn’t actually understand or accept this, because there’s nobody who believes this except Christians. No other worldview, no other religion, no other philosophy says anything like this.
The fact is that whatever it is Jesus and Paul are calling you to in order to get salvation, it’s nothing like anything you can conceive of. You’re going to have to listen really carefully, because it’s not on your mental map. Whatever it is, it is a category-buster. I just want you to recognize that. It’s unique. It’s different. It’s not what you expect, and you’re going to have to listen carefully.
The gospel doesn’t really fit into other human categories. So first of all, please keep in mind that Paul and Jesus and I … When I call you to become a Christian, I’m not just saying, “Stop living like this and start living like this.” Of course I want you to change your life. A changed life is absolutely important, but it can’t be the main thing. It can’t be the chief thing. It can’t be the central thing. Why? Because people who live good lives and people who live bad lives are all alike, according to God.
Now the other implication is, let’s just say you have embraced Christianity. You say, “I am a Christian.” Do you realize the radical nature of the statement, “Are we any better? Not at all!”? There was nobody who ever lived, probably, who was more dedicated and upright and moral, and dedicated to his God, to his principles, to the Scriptures, than Paul.
It’s just amazing if you read all the way through Romans. Paul goes through the list of sexual practices and various sorts of corruption in chapter 1, and then he gets to chapter 3 and says, “Am I any better than them? Not at all!” For Paul to say, “I have come to the conclusion, through the gospel, that the criminal who is killing people and robbing people and raping people in the street is equal to me. I am no better than that person,” is unbelievable.
I want you to think about this. Paul was a Pharisee, and as a Pharisee he would have considered Gentiles as spiritual dogs and unclean. Yet here he is now, dedicating his life to living with them, to living with these racially other people. Is it possible, before the gospel came to Paul, that he could have looked at heretics and infidels and said, “We’re equal.” Could he have looked at pagans and at libertines and immoral people and said, “We’re equal”? Not on your life!
But now here’s what’s going on. A group of people, big swaths of the human race, that he would have looked down on, that he would have scorned, that he would have written off, that he would have showed no love and respect for … The gospel, the doctrine of sin, has radically re-humanized the human race for Paul.
Do you hear me? Radically re-humanized. There are all kinds of people he would have looked down on, caricatured them, thought, “Who has anything to do with them?” But now, “I’m no better than them.” These people are radically re-humanized in his mind. Now do you think this doctrine of total depravity …
That’s an old theological term for this doctrine, the idea that the world is not filled with good people and bad people, but all people are lost, all people need salvation, all people are sinful. Total depravity … Do you think the doctrine of total depravity will make you look down on people? Not at all. Look what happened to Paul.
If you believe in this doctrine of total depravity, and you think it out, and you take it to the center of your life, it re-humanizes the human race. All kinds of people that you would have never given the time of day to, you now love and respect. Why? Because I’m no better. Wherever you are socially, your social location, makes you prone to look down your nose at people of certain races, certain classes, certain nationalities.
Even your vocation does. You’re an artist. “Look at the traditional, middle-class bourgeois.” You’re a traditional, middle-class bourgeois. “Look at these freaky, stupid artists.” You’re conservative, or you’re liberal. You really feel about your politics … Do you really look at the other side and say, “I’m no better”? No, you don’t say that. You say, “We’re a lot better.”
It’s true. Any place you are in the world, whatever your racial or your cultural group, your national grouping, you have a history with another kind of person, another kind of grouping, that your social location makes you tend to despise. But if you believe in the doctrine of sin, you’re no better. Do you see the radical egalitarianism of the biblical doctrine of sin?
2. The trajectory of sin
We also learn here about the trajectory of sin. We have to now deal with the fact that a lot of people say, “This is just over the top.” I did as a young Christian. I looked at this and I see Paul saying no one seeks for God. It sure seems to me there’s an awful lot of people spiritually searching and seeking to please God. Then it says no one does good. “Wow, wait a minute. What do you mean, nobody does good?”
But if you look more carefully, you will see what Paul is giving us here is a definition of sin that goes deep. He’s showing us that sin is relational before it ever becomes, if it ever becomes, a behavioral thing like breaking the law. Why? Look at the word turn away. “All have turned away …” Even look at the word seek. “… there is … no one who seeks God.”
These are directional words. What it’s talking about is trajectory. It’s talking about direction. Your aim. Therefore, sin is not so much a matter of whether you’re doing bad things or good things. Sin is mainly a matter of what you’re doing your doing for. We’re being told sin makes you want to get away from God. Not go toward him; get away.
Sin makes you want to get out from under his gaze, get out from under his hands, get out from under his control. You want to be your own savior. You want to be your own lord. You want to keep God at arm’s length. You want to stay in control of your own life. That’s what sin makes you want to do. As we have often said, but we have to say it now again, there are two ways to be your own savior and lord.
There are two ways to keep God at arm’s length. One is to be a law to yourself. Live any way you want. The other is to be very, very, very good, and go to church and obey the Bible and do everything you possibly can and try to be like Jesus, so that God has to bless you, so God has to save you, in which case you’re trying to get control over God. In that case you’re not seeking God. You’re seeking things from God.
The text doesn’t say, “No one seeks blessing from God.” Of course they do. “No one seeks answers to prayer from God.” Of course they do. “No one seeks forgiveness from God.” Of course they do. “No one seeks spiritual …” Of course they do. But no. Paul’s saying no one seeks God. All your so-called serving, and all your so-called doing good, is really for yourself. It’s away from God. It’s away from others. It’s toward self-centeredness. That’s the trajectory.
Let me give you an example of how what looks like selflessness and sacrificial love and service is not. AA can tell you. People who are involved in AA know about this sort of thing. What I’m about to describe to you happens all the time. I’m going to describe to you a married couple in which one spouse is an alcoholic.
By the way, it could be the woman rather than the husband, but I’m just going to make it this way. I’m going to have the husband be the alcoholic and the wife not. Here’s how it often works. Often the husband is an alcoholic. So what does the wife have to do? Over the years, she has to bail him out. She has to make excuses for him. She has to clean up his mess. She has to constantly rescue him.
Then of course, she turns on him and says, “Do you know what I’m doing for you? I’m not leaving you. I’m staying with you. I’m trying to keep this marriage together. I’m trying to keep our family together. I’m trying to keep our family economically afloat, no thanks to you. I have to do this, and I have to do that, and I have to do all these things. Look what you’re doing to me! I suffer so much for you. I give so much to you, and yet you do this over and over and over again.”
So she seems to be the one who’s serving. She seems to be the one who is giving of herself. Yet AA will tell you how often this will happen. If the husband gets into rehabilitation and begins to get better, very often the marriage will fall apart. She won’t like it. She won’t be able to deal with it. Why not? If she really loved him, she’d want the best for the person she loved. If you love a person, you want the best for the person. The best thing for an addict is to go sober. If she really loves him, she should love to have him sober, but she doesn’t.
Do you know why? Here’s what usually happens. She needed him to be a mess so she could rescue him, so she could feel good about herself, so she could feel worthwhile, so she could feel in control, so she could demand things of him and other people, so she could feel very noble about herself. She wasn’t seeking him. She wasn’t loving him. She was loving herself. She wasn’t serving him. She was serving herself. She wasn’t seeking him. She was seeking things from him. She was seeking power. She was seeking control.
Underneath all that selflessness, and underneath all that service, she was serving herself, and she was being radically selfish. She was doing all the right things, but she was doing it for herself. Paul is saying that is the case with all of us actually. Unless the Holy Spirit comes in to change your heart, nobody serves God for God.
Nobody is really seeking God. They’re seeking things from God. Nobody even serves others, because you always serve people, you always serve God, as long as it benefits you, so you can feel good about yourself, so you can make demands, so you can feel noble. No one seeks for God. No one does good.
It doesn’t mean nobody formally does good things. Of course it is better to give to the poor, of course it is better to forgive somebody than it is to harm somebody or to spend all the money on yourself. Of course. I’m not saying there aren’t such things as virtuous deeds, but we’re looking at the heart. We’re looking at trajectory.
I want you to know (I’ll just finish the little personal story here), that early on in my Christian life, when I was struggling with Romans 3 and figuring, “This just seems over the top. I feel like I do good. I feel like I sought God before I became a Christian too.” I just thought Paul was just being over-the-top.
But I remember sometime in my early Christian walk, and it would have been in my early 20s, I had a very bad patch. Everything was going wrong in my life. I suppose looking back on it … I don’t even remember the circumstances. For all I know, looking back on it, it might have been pretty weak tea, but at the time it seemed like the end of the world.
I was sitting there and praying, and I actually began to say, “Why should I be praying? What am I getting out of this relationship with God? He doesn’t answer my prayers. There are all these unjust things happening around me. I’ve worked my fingers to the bone for this man. What am I getting out of it?”
I had a thought. I’ll never forget the thought. Because I’m a Presbyterian, I figured it was a hunch. If I was a member of some other denominations I would have said it was God speaking to me. Now in my mature theological position, as I think about it, it was probably God speaking to me through a hunch. The thought was this. “Now, only now that everything is going wrong in your life … now we’ll find out whether you got into this faith to get God to serve you or in order to serve God. Now we’ll know.”
I began to realize, maybe Paul was right that really every single part of my heart either did bad things, or now that I was doing good things I was doing good things for myself. No one seeks for God. No one is righteous. No one is really doing good for goodness’ sake, or for God’s sake, or even for other people’s sake, but for your own sake. That radical self-centeredness is what’s making the world a mess. I came to see that I was running from God even in my good deeds. Do you? I hope you do.
3. The cure for sin
Now lastly, how are we going to cure this? I mean, this is a problem. In fact, this middle part of the passage says, “Their throats are open graves; their tongues practice deceit. The poison of vipers is on their lips. Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness. Their feet are swift to shed blood; ruin and misery mark their ways, and the way of peace they do not know.”
Whenever I look out on a Manhattan crowd, many of you look quite marvelous, but this is what you look like to God. Night of the Living Dead. Look at it. It’s amazing. Spiritually speaking, this is the case. Underneath all of our doing good, underneath all the good deeds and working for charity and trying to do the right thing and trying to honor your parents, all the good deeds … there’s anger. There’s touchiness. There’s turning on people if they harm you.
There’s a great deal of discouragement and unhappiness because, “God is not doing what he ought to be doing in my life.” Inside, it’s all a mess. It’s like a kind of spiritual leprosy. You may look great on the outside, but inside you’re falling apart. It’s like spiritual leprosy. What will cure us? Paul here at the end tells us two things that are the keys to the cure. The first thing is, at the very end, “… every mouth may be silenced …”
When Paul says that, you must remember this is the end of his exposition of why we need salvation. Starting in verse 21, he begins to open us up to salvation. He says, “But now a salvation or righteousness …” But he’s bringing us to this point. This is his way of saying you’ll never be able to receive Christ’s salvation unless you shut up spiritually, unless your mouth is silenced.
What does it mean to be shut up, to shut up spiritually? To have your mouth silenced means no excuses, and no Plan B. See, if you say, “Oh, I know I did wrong, God, but I can do better next time. I know I’ve done these things wrong, but I can turn it around. I see my motives are bad, but I can change my motives …” Shut up.
As long as you’re still saying, “I know I can do … I know I can do …” Paul says you haven’t shut up and you’re not ready for salvation. You can’t receive the cure for this sin unless you realize you can’t fix yourself, you realize that even trying to fix yourself makes yourself worse, because every effort to somehow put it together and be a better person and really try harder is really just another effort in self-justification, self-salvation, self-sufficiency. You’re just making yourself worse.
This condition of spiritually shutting up and just being quiet so you can receive the cure doesn’t mean, by the way, beating yourself up. “Oh, I’ve done so wrong.” Shut up. You’re still centered on yourself. You have to get to the end of yourself. The only way to begin to get pulled out of the radical self-centeredness of sin is to get to the end of yourself.
That means not just saying, “Oh, I’m so sorry for my sin. I’ll try to do better.” You have to not only be sorry for your sin but even sorry for the reason you did anything right in your whole life, which means you have nothing to do but receive. There is nothing you can do now. You just have to wait and listen.
John Gerstner puts it like this. Because of the gospel, “… the way to God is wide open. […] No sin can hold him back, because God has offered justification to the ungodly. Nothing now stands between the sinner and God but the sinner’s ‘good works.’ ” Now listen carefully. “All they need is need. All they must have is nothing.” But most people don’t have it. They have, “Well, look at the good things I’ve done.” Shut up. “But look at how bad these are. I can …” Shut up.
See, what he’s saying here is all you need is need. All you need is nothing. But most people don’t have it. He’s saying the way you open yourself to salvation, in fact the only way you can receive God’s salvation is not just simply to repent of your sins. Pharisees repent of their sins. When they do something wrong, they say, “Oh, I did wrong, and now I’m going to do better.”
They repent of their sins, and they’re still Pharisees. If you want to become a Christian, you don’t just repent of your sins, but you also begin to repent of the reason you did anything right. Now you’re in a position to say, “I need something completely different than just help to live the right way.” So first of all, shut up. Spiritual silence.
The second thing you need for the cure is the fear of the Lord. Actually, the cure is there. I never realized it until I started studying this passage and getting ready to teach it to you. Look at this. “Their throats are open graves; their tongues practice deceit. The poison of vipers is on their lips. […] Their feet are swift to shed blood; ruin and misery …” Why? “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
Do you see? If they had fear, they wouldn’t have all those things. The fear of God is the antidote. It’s the cure. The fear of God is the opposite. The reason they do all those things is there’s no fear, so if you put in the fear, you have the cure. What is that? See, here it is. What is the fear of the Lord? All through the Bible, fear of the Lord is a major concept. It sure is.
Do you know how often it says the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom? It says it in Job. It says it in Psalms. It says it in Proverbs. What does that mean? Wisdom means until you fear God, you can’t even begin to think straight about reality. “Well then, what is this fear of the Lord if it’s so important, if it’s the cure for my sin?”
The trouble is, for us, the fear of the Lord sounds like being scared of the Lord. It doesn’t. Do you know why? First of all, if you actually start to look at the way the texts use the words fear of the Lord in the Bible, you hear things like this. Deuteronomy 10 says, “What does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear the Lord your God, love him, and serve him with all your heart and soul?” To fear God is to love him with all your heart and soul.
Well then, why do they call it fear? Let me go on further. Psalm 119 says, “Because you fulfill your promise to me, I fear you.” What? “Because you’ve been so good to me, I’m filled with fear.” Then Psalm 130:4, which is maybe the classic text. “But because you have forgiven me, therefore, I fear you.” Whatever the fear of the Lord is, it is increased when you see and experience God’s salvation, his grace, his goodness, his love. It increases.
“Well,” you say, “why would you call it fear? It sounds like you should call it joy. Why fear?” The fear of God is joyful, humbling awe and wonder before the salvation of God. It’s called fear because it’s not just happiness. When you really see the salvation of God and what it is, on the one hand it affirms you to the sky, but at the same time it humbles you into the dust. That’s why it’s called fear. Let’s call it the joyful fear, awe and wonder before the greatness of God’s salvation.
It turns you out of yourself. It turns you away from the being curved in, the self-centeredness, because on the one hand you’re too humbled to just be self-centered, and you’re too affirmed to need to be. Therefore this joyful fear is the cure, and it happens when you see his salvation. You say, “Well, what does that mean? See his salvation? What does that mean?” I’ll tell you what it means. Just think like this, and let’s conclude like this. Because you don’t seek for God, because I don’t seek for God, because nobody seeks for God, God’s salvation has to be God seeking for us.
There are a lot of religions that say human beings can seek for God. If you just try hard, you can find him. So God sits there and says, “Here are the rules, and here are all the things you need to do. If you pick them up and you do them, I’m sure you can find me.” In other words, in most religions, salvation is you finding God. But in the Christian religion, in Christian faith, it’s the opposite. Salvation is God seeking and finding you. If you know what he did to do that, it will fill you with this joyful, humbling, sin-curing fear.
Let me just give you one story to tell you about it. In the Old Testament, God goes to one prophet named Hosea, and he says, “Hosea, you see this woman over here named Gomer? Marry her.” So Hosea says, “Sure. I’m a prophet. You’re God. You spoke to me. I’ll marry her.” It’s not long after he’s married to her he begins to realize she has wayward feet, she is not being faithful to him, she is being sexually unfaithful to him. As she begins to have children, he realizes they’re not his children. In fact, he names one of them “Not Mine.”
Finally her unfaithfulness gets worse and worse and worse, and eventually she leaves him. She just leaves him and leaves the kids and goes off to one man, then goes off to another man, then goes off to another man. She gets what she deserves, because she’s so faithless. She’s breaking every promise, and she’s lying. Finally the last man sells her into slavery.
Hosea turns to God and says, “Remind me why you asked me to marry her.” God basically says, “So you will know something about my relationship to you. Now you’ll know what it’s like for me. Now you know what it’s like to be me.” “Here’s what I want you to do, Hosea,” he says. “I want you to go where she is being bid on, and I want you to purchase her freedom. I want you to take her back. Then you’ll know what it’s like to be me.”
So there’s poor Gomer. From what we can tell, she’s being bid on as a slave. She’s probably stripped naked, because they were, so the buyers could see what they were buying. She’s standing there, and suddenly to her shock she hears her husband’s voice bidding. He purchases her freedom.
He walks up to her, and instead of berating her, he takes his cloak off and covers her nakedness and says, “Now you will come home and be my wife.” Wow, how moving that is! It’s nothing compared to what God has done for you. Do you know what God is saying to you through Hosea? Poor Hosea. He had to do it so I could use this sermon illustration. It ruined his whole life.
But guess what? It was worth it, because God is trying to say, “Hosea just had to go to the next city, but I had to come from heaven to earth to find you. You weren’t seeking me. I had to seek you. I had to find you. I didn’t just have to reach and dig down in my pockets to get the money out to purchase your freedom. I had to go to the cross. There I had to suffer and die. I had to pay the penalty for your sins. Look at this sin. Somebody has to pay for it. I was stripped naked on the cross so I could clothe you with a robe of righteousness and say, ‘You come home with me.’ ”
When you see, not that “Oh, we all have the ability, if we really try hard enough, to go find God,” but that the salvation of the gospel is God seeking us, finding us, coming to us at infinite cost to himself, that will fill you with a holy fear, a joyful fear. You will find the cure has begun. Let’s pray.
Our Father, we thank you that now as we take up the bread and the cup and take the Lord’s Supper, we’re in a position where you can drive even closer into the center of our being the cure for sin. We see you sought us because we didn’t seek you. You had to do it, because if you had sat and waited for us to come find you, we never would have. We thank you, therefore, that it’s such a moving story, what you have done for us.
But most importantly is the objective work of Jesus Christ on the cross that opened a way for us, so now the only thing standing between us and you is this belief that we still have control of our lives, that we can earn our salvation. Help us now to set aside our sin and even set aside our righteousness and receive your free salvation. Cure our sin. Cure our hearts. Begin the cure now. We pray in Jesus’ name, amen.