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Responding the Right Way to Bad News

by Stephen Davey Scripture Reference: Romans 3:9–12

The Bible is clear in declaring the truth about humanity: we are all sinners and held under the dominion of sin. There is nothing righteous in us to commend us to God. Yet it is only when we acknowledge this honest, divine assessment of us that we can find the ultimate solution.


Nobody likes to deliver bad news to somebody else. I imagine it is difficult for a doctor to inform a patient that he or she has cancer. But those who receive this bad news need to hear it. Those who have cancer need to know about it as soon as possible, so they can respond and plan their cancer treatment.

Well, the apostle Paul is about to deliver some bad news to us here in Romans 3. Frankly, we need to hear it, and we need to respond the right way to what we are about to learn.

Paul has laid out the truth concerning the guilt of pagan unbelievers, so-called moral people, and even the self-righteous Jewish people. Now Paul delivers two sweeping declarations concerning all of humanity. He writes here at the end of Romans 3:9, “For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin.”

First of all, this is a declaration of universal depravity. Paul writes that all are under sin. You know what the literal meaning of that little Greek word “all” means? It means “all”—absolutely everyone, without exception, is guilty of being a sinner. This is universal sinfulness—universal depravity. Everyone is in deep trouble with a holy and righteous God.

Second, this is also a declaration of universal domination. Paul says, “All … are under sin.” By the way, this is the first time in the book of Romans the noun “sin” appears. Paul has certainly talked about sin, and he has graphically described sinful behavior and sinful thinking. But this is the first time the word sin actually appears in his letter.

The Greek word for sin, hamartia, means “to miss the mark”—to miss the target of holiness. Everybody is a bad shot, so to speak—we all miss the mark.

Now when Paul writes here that we are “under” sin, that word translated “under” (hupo) means, “under the power of,” or “under the authority of.” The apostle is saying that all mankind is under the controlling domination of sin. We are all, without exception, under the irresistible undertow of sin.

I can remember as a young teenager swimming in the ocean there at Virginia Beach, where I was raised. I began to be pulled out by an undercurrent and immediately knew I was in danger. I started swimming as hard as I could, but it seemed like I was swimming in place. But then a set of waves rescued me—literally pushed me back in toward the shore.

What Paul does here is describe our sinful condition and the grip of sin over our hearts and lives. It might sound like bad news, but he is warning us of the danger we are in.

Starting in verse 10, Paul begins to describe mankind with one indictment after another. At the end of the indictments—the bad news, so to speak—Paul will describe the waves of God’s mercy and grace that will bring us to safety.

Here in verses 10 to 12, Paul gives us the six biblical indictments. Here is the first one: mankind is degenerate. He writes in verse 10, “As it is written: ‘None is righteous, no, not one.’”

This word translated “righteous,” dikaios in the Greek language, along with its related words, appears frequently throughout the book of Romans. It basically means “right before God.”[1]

Paul says nobody is naturally right with God. We are unrighteous, and we prove it by our covetous and lustful thought lives, our self-centered relationships, our sinful actions.

Here is the bad news about humanity: we are not good people who do something sinful every so often; we are sinful, and we interrupt our sinfulness every so often by doing something good.

Apart from Christ, we need to admit, as the apostle Paul does later in this letter, “I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh” (Romans 7:18). There is not anything good about Paul. Let me tell you, there is not anything good about Stephen Davey, for that matter. The only good is Christ living in me and through me.

Now the second thing Paul says about humanity is that it is spiritually dense. He says here in verse 11, “No one understands.” The context is referring to spiritual issues and spiritual truths. The apostle is saying that no one in the world grasps spiritual truth.

This does not mean an unbeliever cannot have a rational understanding of Christianity or what the Bible teaches. Unbelievers can understand the facts of Scripture, but they cannot understand the spiritual implications of Scripture. They can get the facts about God, but they do not exercise faith in God. Frankly, they cannot connect the dots. Paul writes this to the Corinthians:

The natural person [the unbeliever] does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. (1 Corinthians 2:14)

Paul’s third descriptive indictment is that all humanity is spiritually disconnected. He writes in verse 11, “No one seeks for God.”

Apart from the grace of God, humanity does not seek God; they run from God. Just like Adam and Eve, once people are convicted of sin, they are going to go hide behind a tree. They are going to want to turn out the lights; they do not want to be exposed by the truth of their sin.

Paul’s fourth indictment is that mankind is defiant. In verse 12, he writes, “All have turned aside.” That sounds like the prophet Isaiah, who said that we are all like sheep who have gone astray (Isaiah 53:6).

All have turned aside! That literally means to lean in the wrong direction—to turn away from what is right, or righteous. Alva J. McClain wrote that this phrase pictures a caravan that has gotten off the route [gotten lost] while crossing the desert.[2]

Jesus Christ declared, in John 14:6, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” And what does Paul say about mankind? They want to choose another way.

The next indictment Paul gives against mankind is that they are increasingly decadent. He goes on to say in verse 12, “Together they have become worthless.” The Greek word for “worthless” is the translation of a Hebrew word that was used to refer to sour milk. Milk that has turned sour cannot fulfill its function. You can’t drink it, so it can’t provide nourishment. Sinful humanity is like spoiled milk—worthless.

Finally, as Paul concludes this first section of indictments—there are more to come, by the way—he says that mankind is entirely disobedient. At the end of verse 12, he writes, “No one does good, not even one.”

Now you might be saying to yourself, “But I know unbelievers who do good things. They give money to charity, they feed the poor, they help little old ladies across the street.” Well, remember, Paul isn’t talking about certain actions but about the internal condition of the human heart.

Some people behave better than other people. That is not Paul’s point. No human being has the desire or capacity for righteous living, unless the Spirit of God takes control of his life and leads him to repent of his sins and put his faith in Jesus Christ.

These indictments might sound like bad news, but they are the truth about you and me. You need to see yourself in this passage and admit your sin and your need of the Savior. When you do, Jesus Christ will forgive you. His grace will be like those waves of the ocean that roll in and rescue you. The Bible says in John 8:32, “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

[1] Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Baker Books, 1998), 165.

[2] Alva J. McClain, Romans: The Gospel of God’s Grace (BMH Books, 1973), 94.

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