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“How Bad are We, Really?”

Romans 3:9-20
Bob DeGray
June 18, 2017

Key Sentence

Are people basically good? The obvious answer is sad but true.


I. All are under sin (Romans 3:9)
II. The Bible tells us so (Romans 3:10-18)
III. The Law doesn’t help (Romans 3:19-20)


I’m not really into pop culture. In fact until a couple of weeks ago I don’t think I had ever sat through a whole comic book movie, except the old Christopher Reeve Superman films. But I saw Wonder Woman, and enjoyed it. Some elements of the plot didn’t work, some of the history was wrong, and they went places I wouldn’t go, but it was a good movie. And theologically intriguing.

This morning we’ll study a foundational doctrine of the Christian church: human depravity, human sinfulness. The Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of depravity is “moral corruption; wickedness.” But they give a theological definition as well, “the innate corruption of human nature, due to original sin.” Why is this doctrine important? Because it determines how you view God, yourself, and others. The extent of human depravity, of innate corruption has often been a debated, and has been an almost constant debate for the last two hundred years. There have been many individuals and whole cultures whose dominant assumption has been that people are inherently good. If you give them the right environment, conditions and upbringing they will be good. The church has been mocked for damaging pessimism about people. Yet it is only a right view of God, ourselves and others that actually offers people hope.

Which brings us to Wonder Woman. I wanted to see it at first because the trailers had a bit of fun dialog, and the setting, World War I and London, interested me. Then I read a review in World Magazine and I wanted to see it because of the theology. The subtitle of Megan Bashan’s review is “In her first full-length film, Wonder Woman faces a lesson in human depravity.” For those who don’t know, Wonder Woman is a comic book character from DC Comics. She appeared in 1941 and has been, maybe, the foremost female superhero in comic books. Until this year she never had a feature movie, only a TV series.

But this new Wonder Woman had a role in the Batman vs. Superman movie and now a feature movie. The World Magazine article highlights the theological lesson. “Somewhere in the bang and crash of what begins as a typical if enjoyable superhero movie, Wonder Woman takes a surprising theological turn.” The story starts on the mythic island of Themyscira where an all female population has been hidden in space and time by Zeus to protect them from the world of men and to ultimately rescue that world from his enemy, Ares, the god of war. Princess Diana, the only child on the island, has been born to win that revenge. As World War 1 rages in the outside world an American pilot and spy, Steve Trevor, crash lands off the island. He tells the women of the cruel war, and Diana decides, against her mother’s wishes, to go with him and defeat Ares.

And, as World says, Gal Gadot, “brings a sparkling virtue to the role. Her earnestness on the battlefield is both touching and thrilling. Sadly, we, like Steve Trevor, realize that an education on total depravity is coming. “Diana is convinced she only needs to vanquish Ares, and order and peace will be restored.” But the choices made on both sides show that reality isn’t so simple. When Ares appears, “he doesn’t need much more of a weapon than truth to knock the confidence out of Diana. He explains that he doesn’t compel humans to evil acts, he simply tempts them to draw on evil already present within. That they succumb, with war and death as the result, proves they aren’t worth saving.”

Diana almost succumbs to this logic, because it’s compelling, “a clear-eyed view of the world in which all, Steve and his gang of good guys included, have sin natures but also moral consciences they must either follow or snuff out.” And the setting, World War I, is a perfect place for that question to come up. In the decades prior to the Great War many had convinced themselves that with the right education and the help of science, war, poverty and man’s inhumanity to man would be eliminated. The Great War, which was as cruel, heartless and bloody as any war in history, destroyed that naïve assessment, and for those with eyes to see, like C. S. Lewis, affirmed the Bible’s teaching of human sin and depravity. Wonder Woman, as the World article says, conquers that realization with a cliché. But God conquers it through Jesus.

We’re looking this week at Romans 3:9-20. A few weeks from now when we talk about the saving work of Christ, we’ll look at verses 21-26. But you can’t process that good news, that true hope, properly until, like Diana, you face the reality of human sin. Paul knows that. He spends two chapters convincing his readers that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. He doesn’t say that until verse 23, but verses 9-20 are the powerful summary of his argument. The answer to our question, “Are people basically good?” is no. Paul teaches that all are under sin. He shows that the Bible teaches this exhaustively, and that attempts to keep the law don’t help. So the first verse of our section, Romans 3:9, says 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.

We’re near the end of the train of thought that began in Romans 1:18 “The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.” Paul details the sad plight of humanity. In chapter 1 he looks at the Gentiles who have seen God’s witness in creation and conscience but have chosen idolatry and sin. In chapter 2 Paul shows that God is the impartial judge of this sin. And in the last part of chapter 2 and the first part of 3 he argues that Jewish people, despite the benefits of God’s calling and care, are as guilty as the pagans.

The first part of chapter 2 is especially interesting. Paul says that people with high moral standards, who think they are better than others are not better than others because they do the same sinful things. So God’s judgment is just. People like to try to justify themselves by comparing themselves to others.. How often have you heard the phrase “I’m not perfect, but I’m not as bad as some people. Think about what so-and-so does.” We blame-shift and compare in order to minimize our sin. Often we shift our blame to the culture, to the environment, to our upbringing, to things beyond our control. If someone would just fix those things we wouldn’t do what we know is wrong.

Oddly enough one of the most perceptive insights of this is in the Broadway musical “West Side Story,” by Stephen Sondheim. The street gang, the Jets, pretend to sing to Officer Krupke, the policeman trying to straighten them out. But the song ridicules the blameshifting and lame solutions that culture offers. The Jets assert first that people are basically good “Dear kindly Sergeant Krupke, you gotta understand, it's just our bringin' up-ke that gets us out of hand. Our mothers all are junkies, our fathers all are drunks. Golly Moses, natcherly we're punks! Gee, Officer Krupke, we're very upset; We never had the love that ev'ry child oughta get. We ain't no delinquents, We're misunderstood. Deep down inside us there is good!” The judge agrees. “Officer Krupke, you're really a square; this boy don't need a judge, he needs an analyst's care! It's just his neurosis that oughta be curbed. He's psychologic'ly disturbed!” “In the opinion on this court, this child is depraved on account he ain't had a normal home.” The Jets say “Hey, I'm depraved on account I'm deprived.”

But the psychologist has another theory “Officer Krupke, you're really a slob. This boy don't need a doctor, just a good honest job. Society's played him a terrible trick, And sociologic'ly he's sick!” “Juvenile delinquency is purely a social disease! So take him to a social worker.” “Dear kindly social worker, they say go earn a buck. Like be a soda jerker, which means like be a schumck. It's not I'm anti-social, I'm only anti-work. Gloryosky! That's why I'm a jerk!” “Officer Krupke, you've done it again. This boy don't need a job, he needs a year in the pen. It ain't just a question of misunderstood; Deep down inside him, he's no good!” And so finally the Jets say “We're no good, we're no good! We're no earthly good, deep inside the best is no darn good!”

And that’s the truth. But like the Jets, many of us have to go through every other possible excuse before we get to what our consciences and Scripture tells us. I’ve seen it, in me, but I’ve also seen it in my office. Someone having an affair whose got thirty reasons why it happened and why it’s alright. “I know God understands because I’m so in love with . . . this new person.” No, God does not understand. God does not buy our excuses.

Paul sums up what God thinks by quoting a string of Old Testament scriptures. He teaches us to say, with hope, “I’m a sinner, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” Romans 3:10-18 As it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one; 11no one understands; no one seeks for God. 12All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” 13“Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.” “The venom of asps is under their lips.” 14“Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.” 15“Their feet are swift to shed blood; 16in their paths are ruin and misery, 17and the way of peace they have not known.” 18“There is no fear of God before their eyes.”

In this dense summary, entirely drawn from the Old Testament, Paul proves that we sin against God, we sin against people with our tongues and we sin against people with violence. We may not each do all these things, but these sins pervade the world. They are everywhere and always, in our local, national, worldwide news, and deeply pervading our history books and the best fiction.

We sin against God. Verse 10. “None is righteous, no, not one.” The word righteous is a key word in Romans, and really in all of church history. To be righteous is to live in conformity with God’s character and will. The quote in these first few phrases is from Psalm 14: “The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds, there is none who does good. 2The Lord looks down from heaven on the children of man, to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. 3They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one.”

Now there is a sense in which all are righteous. All of us and all cultures do get some things right. Maybe it’s that we care for the poor. Maybe it’s that we value life. Maybe it’s that we distance ourselves from lying or sexual sin. Maybe it’s that we care for our families. I think of the Godfather, where murder, theft, and violence were tools of the Mafia trade, but man did he care for his family.

But what Paul is saying is none is righteous through and through. For everything we get right, there are many things we do that do not conform to God’s character. We are selfish. We are unloving. We are angry, abusive or violent. Maybe I’m the one who does indulge sexual sin, or studiously avoids putting myself out to love my neighbor. No one is righteous because righteousness is all or nothing. If you sin and are guilty, it doesn’t matter that you’re not guilty of some other things. We are not as evil as it is possible to be, but we are evil.

This is what Paul shows. “No one understands; no one seeks for God.” Sin makes it impossible to even know how to be sinless. No matter what level of spiritual life and understanding we reach, there is always a deficiency. And the more we sin, the less capable of understanding we become.

Further, there is no one who seeks for God. No one by nature wants to know God. Paul tells the Ephesians “You were dead in your transgressions and sins.” We were just alive enough to suppress the truth and turn to idols. But if the Holy Spirit is working in a heart, that person can authentically seek. But verse 12 goes on, “All have turned aside; together they have become worthless.” Because no one has stayed on the path to God, they have become useless. They cannot fulfill their purpose as creatures made in His image. They are like a bird that cannot fly or fish that cannot swim. “No one does good, not even one.” Obviously men do good things, but not consistently or profoundly. A good work must not only conform to the commandment of God, it must come from a heart committed to honoring him. No one by nature does this.

Now Paul turns to man's conduct. His emphasis is first on human speech, and he paints a disgusting picture, proceeding from throat to tongue to lips to mouth: “Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.” “The venom of asps is under their lips.” He quotes from a verse Psalm 5 and Psalm 140. The Apostle James agrees, saying that “the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness,” and “a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” We don’t have to listen to Hitler to know this truth. “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.” We ourselves have used words as weapons. We ourselves have said things that poison others. We ourselves have deceived, portraying one thing while pursuing another. We ourselves, in our inward speech are often far more profane, far more bitter than the words that reach our lips. Recently I was in the Walmart parking lot, and I saw a lady get out of a truck, lean into the window, and then curse whoever was in the passenger seat long and loud and violently, calling that person pretty much every combination of four letter words that I could imagine. That’s the venom and stench of a bitter tongue.

Paul's next description of the violence of mankind sounds like a condensed history of the world. Verse 15: “Their feet are swift to shed blood; 16in their paths are ruin and misery, 17and the way of peace they have not known.” Paul quotes Isaiah who uses feet as a metaphor for people’s way of life. “Their feet run to evil, and they are swift to shed innocent blood; their thoughts are thoughts of iniquity; desolation and destruction are in their highways. 8The way of peace they do not know, and there is no justice in their paths.” We know sin is pervasive and we know we are sinners because there is violence in the world and in our hearts. The famous historian Will Durant wrote: "In the last 3,421 years of recorded history only 268 have seen no war." The world is full of violence and bloodshed. We saw it this week when James Hodgkingson opened fire on Republican lawmakers playing baseball, critically wounding two. But it starts in the heart and the home, in abuse and neglect, anger and hatred. I’m saving an illustration for the end exposes one good man’s heart.

Verse 18: “There is no fear of God before their eyes.” This final quote is from Psalm 36: “Transgression speaks to the wicked deep in his heart; there is no fear of God before his eyes.” In the teaching of Scripture the fear of God is the key to godliness, and its absence the epitome of foolishness and impiety. How bad are we really? We don’t fear God. Even if by some miracle of human nature our heart were not guilt of actively turning aside from God, and our lips were not guilty of insult and scorn, and our lives were not guilty of pain and violence, still this would be enough – the creature shaking his fist in the face of the creator, having no respect for his infinite knowledge, power and love.

So the argument Paul has made is that everyone is a sinner. His proof is God’s Word. God himself through the prophets and the psalmists has repeatedly and in great detail accused all humankind of these wide ranging sins. Not everything we do is unrighteous, but no one is righteous because we all fall short in many ways. The final nail in this coffin is Paul’s assertion that the Law does not help. 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. 20For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.

Again, this is a summary. Back in chapter 2 Paul confronted his Jewish brothers and sisters with their smugness. He said “So if you, having the law, break the law, does that make you any better? No.” Romans 2:21 “While you preach against stealing, do you steal? 22You who say that one must not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? 23You who boast in the law dishonor God by breaking the law. 24For, as it is written, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.” Paul feels strongly about this. The law does not help. It simply shouts to those that have it that they are accountable to God. The law does not enable people not to sin, but it makes their sin clear, exposes their self-righteousness and hypocrisy.

We in the church, in most ages, have been guilty of thinking we’re good just because we have the truth. “I’m a good person. I go to church every week. I know the Bible. I could even teach.” But have you ever seen your spiritual bankruptcy and cried out for rescue from your heart? Seeing this truth is a huge gift from a loving God. It turns us from self-reliance. Those who don’t see their sin and acknowledge it have no hope of a merciful God. They have no reason to want hope. But when you see your sinfulness you can also see that the only hope of rescue is the sacrifice and victory of Jesus. Remember it was the tax collector who cried out for mercy who went home justified. The culture can try to deceive us into thinking that people are basically good, but the dawn of hope comes when we realized that every heart is infected by sin, and every life.

I want to close with what I consider a remarkable account, mostly because it shows this truth unintentionally. It’s from a book by Peter Hessler called River Town, the account of his two years as a Peace Corps volunteer teaching English in a small Chinese city, Fuling. This was in 1997, so he and another teacher were the first foreigners many of these Chinese had ever seen. They had always been told how evil foreigners were. So for two years the crowds that gathered every time Peter Hessler went out were partly curious, partly antagonistic. But Hessler didn’t realize that this could be mirrored by his own heart.

Hessler was gifted at learning Chinese. In addition to his tutors, he studied by going into town every day and waiting for people to talk to him. He describes one place he often ate, where he had gotten to know some of the sidewalk vendors. “Zhang Longhua was my main friend; he sold kebabs from a barbecue stand. He was a friendly, even-tempered man, and the regulars tended to defer to him. One night near the end of the holiday I ordered five kebabs from Mr. Zhang. A few of the other vendors came over to chat, as well as a number of passersby who stopped to stare at the waiguoren – the word for foreigner. When the attention died down, I sat, reading the Chongqing Times.

I felt someone come close, and then he leaned forward and shouted "Hahh-lloooo!" in my face. He shouted as loudly as he could, and he laughed. I didn't look up. There was no reason to acknowledge people like that. I felt him move away and assumed that he had left. But a moment later he returned, grabbing one of the sausages from Mr. Zhang's barbecue stand. He shoved the sausage into my face. "Chi! Chi! Chi!" he shouted. "Eat! Eat! Eat!" There were two things in particular that could anger me quickly in Fuling. One was any sort of physical violation – somebody shoving, or grabbing at me, or pushing past rudely. The other was when people treated me like an animal, grunting or gesturing bluntly because they assumed that the waiguoren was very slow and couldn't speak Chinese. The man with the sausage had successfully touched both of these sensitivities at once, and my customary passivity disappeared immediately.

I stood up quickly and knocked the sausage out of his hand. He was a small man in his late thirties, who scraped by shining shoes. "Why are you bothering me?" I asked. He stuttered, fumbling for words. I took my hand and placed it even with the top of his head, and then I drew it back, level. It came to my chin. "You are much smaller than me," I said. "You should not bother people who are bigger. Next time I'll fix you." They argued, the shoeshine man threatening to get his big friends, and Hessler using his knowledge of the dialect to throw insults. In his book Hessler reflects on what was happening, and here is where we begin to see that we are as bad as the Scriptures say we are.

“I should not have been baiting him further but for some reason I couldn't stop. . . . I sensed that to both of us this was more than a simple exchange of insults. The man was poor, and in my leisure he undoubtedly saw money and the scorn that comes with it. For a year and a half I had been different, and in his small-mindedness I saw the worst of the hatred and fear I had dealt with in Yuling.”

Hessler’s friend, the leader of this little street community told the shoeshine man to leave, but he refused and spoke again, to the crowd. “We Chinese don't need this kind of waiguoren," he said, loudly. “Look at how rude he is, insulting me like that. We don't need this kind of waiguoren in our home." Hessler says “I knew then that I was capable of matching almost any hatred that he could find. Part of what Sichuan had [shown me] was that I had neither tolerance nor patience for abuse of this sort. I said to the crowd. "You Chinese don't need this kind of Chinese. This kind of person gives you a bad reputation. When I go home I'll tell people that nearly all Chinese are very friendly, like all of you here, but I'll say that sometimes there is a man like this who hates waiguoren. He's the one who is rude, and he bothered me for no reason at all.”

And there would have been trouble, except that the other Chinese intervened again and made the man leave. Hessler says “I was ashamed of what I had done. I had been needlessly cruel and petty. The incident left me embarrassed; I had been educated at Princeton and Oxford, and yet for some reason I felt the need to face off with a Sichuanese shoeshine man. . . I knew his harassment had nothing to do with me personally, and I knew that I should have sympathy for him. But after a year and a half in Fuling I couldn't push away the wave of hatred I felt. I could remind myself of who I was, and I could think about the advantages I had received in my life but on the street all of that slipped away.”

Do you see what he’s saying. I’m sure in Princeton and Oxford he would have said that people are basically good. But on the streets he discovered parts of his heart that had been hidden, waves of hatred, capable of matching any hatred.

Are people basically good? The obvious answer is sad but true. No one is righteous, no not one. My heart, my lips, my life are proof to me. If Peter Hessler could hear it, his heart and his lips would be proof to him. And I suspect your heart and your lips and your life are proof to you. This is the bad news of the Gospel. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. But praise God, there is good news. In the next two weeks we’re going to look at the person and work of Jesus. Jesus is the good news, He rescues us from this sin, from it’s penalty, from its death sentence. He shows his great love by dying on the cross for us, even while we were still trapped in our sin and selfishness, our bitterness and lies, our anger and violence. And by faith in Him, we are rescued.