Romans 3:9-20 contains a simple formula to remember: God is salvation; the rest of us are in need of salvation. In these verses, Paul lays out a solid foundation for his teaching of salvation by grace through faith. He implies that since we all wander, we all need a shepherd.
I remember hearing years ago of a well-known and respected pastor who was approached by a member of his church after one of his sermons. She said, “Sir, you are the godliest man I know!” He replied, “Ma’am, if you could see what is inside of me, you would run from this church.” He was not confessing some secret sin — just where he stood if it were not for grace.
There is a vast difference between what we are legally in God’s eyes and what we are relationally. Legally, we are, as Paul says in verse 9, “proved” to be “under sin” (KJV).
Our son has never been much trouble for his parents, but like all of us, he still fails. When he was about twelve, one incident stands out. My wife and I were in the living room, and he was involved with something in his room. Mom yelled for him, but he did not come or respond. She called again, even louder. When our son came in the room, she asked, “Did you hear me calling you?”
“I didn’t the first time,” he said, “but I did the second.” Then his face fell. “Oops!” My wife had not mentioned she had called him twice.
Paul gives a list of Old Testament proofs in verses 10-18 that are like counts in a court of law proving each of us guilty. Of these, William Barclay points out that in verse 12, the phrase “have [together] become unprofitable” [KJV] comes from a word the Greeks also used for sour milk (The Daily Study Bible Series: The Letter to the Romans). That about sums it up: We have become useless, soured. However, because of the grace extended to us, we are now in a new position — not only in relation to our past but also in relation to the failure of other Christians, and to those who have not come to Christ at all.
To illustrate this, we can imagine three relationships. How would you relate as a free person to prisoners? Surely there would be a barrier to true fellowship; it would be you and them. Then imagine that you became a prisoner. Would you see prisoners differently? Finally, consider having been a prisoner. What would happen if you were freed? Your understanding of those still in prison would certainly be different, and your actions toward them would change.
This is true of all of us who call Jesus Lord. We have been given freedom; how could we not care for the prisoner? We understand their guilt because it is ours as well.
That is what Paul is saying in verse 10. Legally, we are all unrighteous. We may try to point to our “small” sins (like pettiness, greed, impatience, coldness) and then look at the sins of the embezzler, the rapist, and the murderer, and say, “See, I am not like other people!” We should remember in the story of the Pharisee and the publican that Jesus justified only one who could barely lift his eyes to heaven (Luke 18:13, 14).
Our son, as exceptional as he is, was condemned in that one simple sin (and others like it). The Bible tells us that if we fail in one part, we have completely failed (Galatians 3:10; James 2:10). In light of this, Paul says that one day every mouth will be stopped (Romans 3:19). When we all stand before God’s judgment, no one can object or dissent.
We should see it that way today: We are without excuse.
Nonetheless, even though my son was immediately a prisoner, and realized that, he does not live as if he is condemned, because he is free. Legally we are like everyone else: sinners all. Relationally, however, we can be something else entirely. When we come to Jesus, He changes our legal status from condemned to acquitted. By the application of His grace, we are His friends and have unbroken communion.
By analyzing verses 10 and 20 together, we come to an important understanding. Although no one is declared righteous in verse 10, verse 20 clears the air: This is according to the law. The law is good at pointing sin out, but it is no good in helping us out.
All other religions teach some kind of works-based salvation because they live outside of grace. They feverishly try to conform, whether it is through a prescribed austerity, secret knowledge, copious evangelism, or even aggressive attacks against others who do not agree. Christianity alone announces there is no salvation apart from grace.
When we accept Jesus’ offer of a relationship, we have the potential to live differently. Even though the Bible says on one hand that there is no one righteous (v. 10), it also says there are some who are righteous (Luke 1:6; 1 John 3:7). The difference is whether a person is under law or grace. Under law — adding in the sum total of all of our works — we are unrighteous. However, since we are saved by grace, it is also by grace that we can live according to God’s desires (Romans 6:14). Certainly, perfection will never be ours in this life, but a life pleasing to God is not just possible; it is expected.
Thankfully, Paul did not finish at the end of verse 20 of Romans 3, or we might have reason to despair. The verses following clarify that our hope is in the One who justifies when we believe in Him. Paul says that “the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed” and that “through faith in Jesus Christ . . . [we are] justified freely by His grace . . .” (vv. 21, 22, 24).
Today these two thoughts — our clear position of unrighteousness and our being made righteous — should remind us that we are prisoners who have been freed. And so we have a message of grace to share with those who are still under spiritual lock and key.