Exegeting Romans 3:10-18

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The apostle Paul, in his letter to the Christians at Rome, made up of both Jews and Gentiles, asks, in chapter three, if there is advantage to being a Jew, or in the practice of circumcision. He answers: “Much in every way!” (Rom. 3:2) He explains that the Jews were entrusted by God with His words and promises, and that just because they were mostly unfaithful, that does not nullify God’s faithfulness or promises (Rom. 3:3).
However, and this is the crucial point for what Paul will write at Romans 3:10-18, the Jewish people had no eternal or salvific advantage over Gentiles. The Jews’ elect status was not one of unconditional election unto faith and salvation. The Jews were elected or chosen by God to be the vehicle through which He would bring forth salvation to the world through His Son Jesus Christ. Paul writes: “We have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under the power of sin” (Rom. 3:9 TNIV). The Jewish individual needs the Savior as much as does the Gentile. This is Paul’s point. Paul, using various Old Testament passages, writes:

“As it is written: ‘There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one’ [Psalm 14:1-3, 53:1-3; Ecclesiastes 7:20]. ‘Their throats are open graves; their tongues practice deceit’ [Psalm 5:9]. ‘The poison of vipers is on their lips’ [Psalm 140:3]. ‘Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness’ [Psalm 10:7]. ‘Their feet are swift to shed blood; ruin and misery mark their ways, and the way of peace they do not know’ [Isa. 59:7-8]. ‘There is no fear of God before their eyes’ [Psalm 36:1]” (Rom. 3:10-18 TNIV).The student of Scripture must look at these passages individually, considering the context of Romans chapter three and the scriptures from which Paul quotes, as opposed to blithely concluding that all human beings actually are as abominate and depraved as they could be. Though all sinners unequivocally are depraved and lack inherent goodness, they are not, by God’s grace, as evil or depraved as they could be, nor are they equally depraved. I have read and heard some Calvinistic interpretations of these passages to the effect that they demonstrate that all people are equally depraved. That interpretation ought not to be.

I have also witnessed some Christians, supposing themselves to be humble, quoting these verses and applying them to themsleves. That interpretation ought not to be as well. We simply cannot ignore Paul’s intent for quoting these particular passages nor his use of the Jewish interpretation known as midrash (explained below). Were we to do so then we would conclude with many theological errors.

CONTEXT

The context of Romans chapter three is that all people, Jews and Gentiles, are under sin and unrighteous in and of themselves — all need the righteousness of God which He offers through faith in Christ Jesus (Rom. 3:21-31). James D. G. Dunn, Emeritus Lightfoot Professor of Divinity at the University of Durham, England, comments: “The opening question is the final spasm of the diatribe which dominated most of 2:1-3:9, but which had already begun to get out of hand in the preceding section. The response sums up Paul’s claim: Jew as well as Greek, possession of the law notwithstanding, is equally ‘under sin.'”1

The Jews thought that they had a salvific monopoly, being God’s elect people through the Law, but they were wrong. And just because some of the Jews were unfaithful, their unfaithfulness did not nullify God’s faithfulness (Rom. 3:3-4). What is Paul’s conclusion? Do Jews have any salvific advantage over the Gentiles? “Not entirely” (Complete Jewish Bible)2. Paul writes: “We have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under the power of sin” (Rom. 3:9 TNIV and henceforth).

AUTHORIAL INTENT

At this point, it is pertinent to understand that Paul uses a Jewish interpretation of the scriptures known as drash, or midrash (though this is contested by some Calvinists, it is my opinion as well as others). Midrash, according to Messianic Jewish believer David H. Stern, is creativity used to search the text in relation to the rest of the Bible, other literature or life in order to develop an allegorical [i.e. figurative] or homiletical [i.e. instructive] application of the text. This involves eisegesis — reading one’s own thoughts into a text — as well as exegesis, which is extracting from a text its actual meaning.3

Paul chooses harsh passages from the Psalms, Ecclesiastes and Isaiah, which magnify the sinfulness and depravity of certain human beings or people groups, in order to expose all people, Jews and Greeks, for their lack of inherent righteousness, which is what everyone needs in order to be declared innocent or guiltless before God. This is true not only for Gentiles but also for Jews — something which Jews did not particularly appreciate, since they considered themselves God’s elect or chosen people.

Their reasoning was that, since God chose them as His special people, then there was nothing for them to do in order to gain His approval. Why should the Jews trust Jesus Christ? The Jews are God’s elect! They will certainly be ushered into His presence at death. Paul informs the Jews that all are under sin and therefore all need the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ.

When we look at the individual passages from which Paul quotes in Romans 3:10-18, however, we understand more clearly the style of midrash that he employs. Dunn comments: “The point becomes clearer when it is recalled that all the Psalm citations presuppose an antithesis between the righteous (the faithful member of the covenant) and the unrighteous.”4 Let us look at each passage individually and contextually.

Psalm 14:1-4 (as well as Psalm 53:1-3): “Fools say in their hearts, ‘There is no God.’ They are corrupt, their deeds are vile; there is no one who does good. The LORD looks down from heaven on the human race to see if there are any who understand, any who seek God. All have turned away, all have become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one. Do all these evildoers know nothing? They devour my people as though eating bread; they never call on the LORD.”

Who is David talking about? He is talking about the “fools” of verse one. He says that “they are corrupt” and that “their deeds are vile,” etc. After commenting on the universal sinfulness of all people, in verses two and three, he returns to the “evildoers” in verse four. Certainly, even within the context of verses two and three, David “understood” the Lord, and David did “seek” after God as did others, and as others were commanded to do.

Ecclesiastes 7:20: “Indeed, there is no one on earth who is righteous, no one who does what is right and never sins.” Both Calvinists and Arminians agree on this point — there is no controversy here. However, I would like to add that Paul did not quote the verse as it is stated in the Ecclesiastes passage, which adds “and never sins.” Once again, however, we all agree with this statement.

Psalm 5:8-10: “Lead me, LORD, in your righteousness because of my enemies — make your way straight before me. Not a word from their mouth can be trusted; their heart is filled with malice. Their throat is an open grave; with their tongues they tell lies. Declare them guilty, O God!”

Who is David writing about? Is it all people in general or is it his enemies? We are correct to admit that he is speaking about his enemies and not all people in general.

Psalm 140:1-3 reads: “Rescue me, LORD, from evildoers; protect me from the violent, who devise evil plans in their hearts and stir up war every day. They make their tongues as sharp as a serpent’s; the poison of vipers is on their lips.”

Once again, the Psalmist is speaking not of all people in general, but about evildoers and the violent. He is making a clear distinction between those who follow the LORD and those who do not — but he is not making a broad statement about all of humanity.

Psalm 10:7: “Their mouths are full of lies and threats; trouble and evil are under their tongues.”

Of whom is the Psalmist writing? He is writing about “the wicked” (Psalm 10:2, 3, 4, 5, 6).

Are you seeing a pattern here? The apostle Paul would be charged with taking these scriptures out of context today by the standards of interpretation of many ministers and scholars, but this is what the practice of drash or midrash represents: exaggeration to make a point. Let us continue.

Isaiah 59:7-8: “Their feet rush into sin; they are swift to shed innocent blood. They pursue evil schemes; acts of violence mark their ways. The way of peace they do not know; there is no justice in their paths. They have turned them into crooked roads; no one who walks along them will know peace.”

About whom is Isaiah writing? Answer: those within Israel who were murderers and slanderers (Isaiah 59:3, 5, 6) and the unjust (Isaiah 59:4). Was this a statement including every individual on earth, equally? No. Frédéric Louis Godet (1812-1900), Swiss Protestant Theologian and Professor of Theology at Neuchâtel, concurs:

      The apostle in drawing [these pictures], which [are] only a grouping together of strokes of the pencil, made by the hands of psalmists and prophets, does not certainly mean that each of those characteristics is found equally developed in every man. Some, even the most of them, may remain latent in many men; but they all exist in germ in the selfishness and natural pride of the ego, and the least circumstance may cause them to pass into the active state, when the fear of God does not govern the heart.

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Finally, Psalm 36:1 states: “I have a message from God in my heart concerning the sinfulness of the wicked: There is no fear of God before their eyes.”

It is clear that all of these passages of Scripture address the wicked, a particular group of wicked people, and not all of humanity in general. But Paul’s point at Romans 3:10-18 was to demonstrate to the Jews that all people are under sin, in order to bring them to the understanding that “no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by observing the law” (Rom. 3:20), because all sinned “and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). But praise be to God, He “presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood — to be received by faith” (Rom. 3:25).

We do not believe that the unregenerate have the capability to seek the Lord on their own. Yet, seeking God is something which God Himself desires. The apostle Peter writes: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts those from every nation who fear him and do what is right” (Acts 10:34). We believe that it is the grace of God which aids a person to seek Him: “And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him” (Heb. 11:6; cf. 2 Chronicles 12:14; 19:3; 30:19; Psalm 34:10; Zechariah 8:21-22); and, “God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us” (Acts 17:27).

But we must reject as inaccurate any notion of a born again believer using any portion of Romans 3:10-18 as an epithet for him- or herself. You, believer, are a new creation, made in the image and likeness of Christ. Your throat is not an open grave (Rom. 3:13). Your tongue does not practice deceit (Rom. 3:13). The poison of vipers is not on your lips (Rom. 3:13). We must also reject any notion suggesting that all human beings are equally guilty of committing every one of the sins mentioned at Romans 3:10-18. Scripture and practice demonstrates the contrary.

1 James D. G. Dunn, Word Biblical Commentary, Romans 1-8, ed. Bruce M. Metzger (Nashville: Word, Inc., 1988), 145.

2 David H. Stern, Jewish New Testament Commentary (Clarksville, MD: Jewish New Testament Publications, Inc., 1999), 342. Stern comments: “Why, then, are Jews not entirely advantaged? Becase, as Sha’ul [Paul] has already said, all people, Jews and Gentiles alike, are controlled by sin. True, having God’s very words is an advantage Jews do have (vv. 1-2); and the infallibility of God’s promises, even if no one believes them (vv. 3-4), is another. But the same Word of God, the Tanakh, reminds us of the Bad News that everyone sins, Jews included (see also vv. 22-23); in this regard Jews have no advantage.”

3 David H. Stern, Messianic Jewish Manfiesto (Clarksville, MD: Jewish New Testament Publications, Inc., 1991), 106.

4 Dunn, 145.

5 Frédéric Louis Godet, Commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, trans. and ed. Rev. A. Cusin and Talbot W. Chambers (New York: Funk & Wagnalls Publishers, 1889), 142.