What shall we conclude then? Are we any better? Not at all! We have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin. As it is written:
“There is no one righteous, not even one;
there is no one who understands,
no one who seeks God.”
In the third chapter of Romans, beginning with verse 9, the apostle summarizes the condition of every human being apart from the grace of God in Jesus Christ. It is not a pretty picture. According to Paul, Jews are not better than Gentiles, and neither are Gentiles better than Jews. Instead, all are alike under sin, and all are thus subject to the wrath and final judgment of Almighty God. Quoting from Psalm 14:1–3, Psalm 53:1–3, and Ecclesiastes 7:20, Paul declares: “As it is written: ‘There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God.’ ”
This is a serious charge, indeed a devastating picture of the race, because it portrays human beings as unable to do even a single thing either to please, understand, or seek after God. It is an expression of what theologians rightly call man’s “total depravity.”
The doctrine of total depravity is hard for the human race to accept, of course, for one of the results of our being sinners is that we tend to treat sin lightly. Most people are willing to admit that they are not perfect. It takes an extraordinary supply of arrogance for any mere human being to pretend that he or she has no flaws. Generally we do not do that. But this is far different from admitting that we are utterly depraved so far as our having any natural ability to please God is concerned. We are willing to admit that we are not perfect, but not that we are not righteous. We are willing to admit that there are things not known to us, but not that we are devoid of all spiritual understanding. We are willing to admit that we wander off the true path at times, but not that we are not even on the right path. Instead of admitting that we are running away from God, we pretend that we are seeking him.
It is vitally important that we come to terms with this bad tendency to run from the truth about ourselves. Without an accurate knowledge of our sin, we will never come to know the meaning of God’s grace. Without an awareness of our pride, we will never appreciate God’s greatness, nor will we come to God for the healing we so desperately need. The situation is a bit like being sick and needing a doctor. As long as we are convinced we are well (or at least almost well), we will not seek medical care. But if we know we are spiritually sick, we will turn to the Great Physician, Jesus Christ, who alone is able to heal us.
How Bad is It?
In making the previous point—that we need to recognize how desperate the situation is so we will turn to God for help—I have used the analogy of being sick and needing a physician. But now I want to say, as I have already suggested, that according to Romans 3:9–11 the situation is even worse than that. As long as someone is merely sick, the situation is not hopeless. He or she may get better and survive. But, according to these verses and others, apart from the grace of God a person is not only spiritually sick but dead. The sinner is moribund.
The uniqueness of the Bible’s teaching can be seen by noting that in the long history of the human race there have been only three basic views of human nature: (1) that man is well; (2) that man is sick; and (3) that man is dead. There are variations in these views, of course. Optimists will say that man is well, but they may disagree on exactly how well he is; perhaps he might not be as well as he possibly could be. Or again, although more pessimistic observers will agree that man is sick—that there is something wrong with him—they will differ over how serious the illness is. Man may be acutely sick, critically sick, mortally sick, and so on. In spite of these variations, there are nevertheless only three basic views.
The first view—that man is essentially well—is the view of Liberalism and, for that matter, of most persons today. If people admit that anything at all is wrong with man, generally it is only that he is not as fully healthy as he could perhaps be. This view holds that, morally and spiritually speaking, all people need is a little exercise, spiritual vitamins, perhaps a psychological checkup once a year, and so on. Many would say that the human race is even getting better and better. This is the view of all optimists.
The second view—that man is sick—is the view of the pessimist, which is to say: anyone who has reflected seriously on the true facts of human nature. Those who believe that man is sick have looked at the general optimism of the last hundred years and have found it wanting. In those earlier days, flushed with the heady success of the industrial revolution, encouraged by technological and medical advances, and goaded by the beguiling doctrine of universal and inevitable evolution, people began to believe that the human race was ascending like a rocket and that within a reasonable time all human problems would be solved. Wars would cease. Starvation would be eliminated. Disease would be conquered. Indeed, people would learn to live and work together in a spirit of universal brotherhood and cooperation. But those who look at this blithe optimism today are rightly critical: If human nature is only “slightly flawed,” as the optimists believe, how come the world has not been perfected by now? Why are there still wars? Why hasn’t starvation or disease been eliminated? Why can’t people get along with one another? The pessimist looks at this and concludes wisely that the situation is not good. In fact, it is terrible. Pessimists believe that man is very sick indeed.
But not dead!
The pessimist believes that man is sick—very sick, even mortally ill—but adds, “As long as there’s life there’s hope.” Sure, man may be ready to blow himself off the face of the earth and even destroy the planet while he is doing it. But the situation is still not hopeless, says the pessimist. We must work hard, tackle our ills and defeat them. There is no need to call the mortician yet.
The third view, the one the Bible presents, is that we humans are not well, nor even sick. We are dead so far as our being able to do anything to please, understand, or find God is concerned. That is, we are as God declared we would be when he warned Adam and Eve against eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. God said, “… you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die” (Gen. 2:17). Our first parents did eat of it, and they did die. Thus it is true of us, as Paul said in writing to the Ephesians, that we are “dead in [our] transgressions and sins” (Eph. 2:1). Of ourselves we are as unable to respond to God as any corpse would be if someone, believing it alive, told it to do anything.
The Moral Nature: None Righteous
In the first part of his summary of the hopeless condition of man, the apostle speaks of man’s moral nature and concludes that the human race is unrighteous. This does not mean merely that man is a bit less righteous than he needs to be to please God and somehow get to heaven. We cannot have understood the first chapter of Romans and think in those terms. Actually, when Paul says that “there is no one righteous,” he means that from God’s point of view human beings have no righteousness at all.
I emphasize “from God’s point of view,” not to suggest that any view other than God’s is ever ultimately valid but merely to make clear that it is from this viewpoint that we need to assess the situation. This is because, if we assess the human condition from man’s perspective, we will always conclude that at least some people are good—simply because they are better than what we think we observe in others.
Our problem at this point is that we think of the good we do (or can do), our righteousness, as being the same thing as God’s righteousness, when it is actually quite different. We assume that by simply accumulating human goodness we can please God.
Let me give an illustration. Suppose that during the Vietnam War a platoon of American soldiers was captured and interred by the North Vietnamese. Imagine further that at some point in their captivity a Red Cross package arrived at the camp and that it contained, among other things, a game of Monopoly. The donor simply thought the soldiers would like to while away the long hours of their imprisonment playing it. The soldiers were glad to get the Monopoly game, but not for the reason the folks back home sent it to them. They were glad to have it because it gave them “money” with which to do camp business. Before this, if someone wanted to get something from another soldier—a cigarette, for example—he had to beg, borrow, or steal it. Now he could buy it with the Monopoly money. So the soldiers distributed the gold, yellow, blue, green, and white money and went into business.
It seems always the case among a group of Americans that one person is a naturally gifted capitalist, and this platoon was no exception. Because one man was a genius at buying low and selling high, in time he accumulated almost all the money in the camp.
Suppose further that eventually there was a prisoner-of-war exchange, and a group of North Vietnamese were exchanged for this platoon of Americans. A helicopter comes, picks them up, flies them to Da Nang, and from there it is only a matter of hours before they are back in the States on the California coast. Almost immediately the successful capitalist/soldier enters the First National Bank of San Francisco and steps up to the counter. The teller is pleased to open an account for him. “We are glad to help our veterans,” she says. “How much do you want to deposit?”
“About half a million,” the ex-prisoner answers, as he pushes $500,382 in Monopoly money over the counter and through the teller’s window. Of course, the teller reaches down, not for a deposit slip but for the alarm button that will call someone to take this poor deranged man away.
That is the difference between human righteousness, on the one hand, and the righteousness God requires of us, on the other. Human righteousness is like Monopoly money. It has its uses in the game we call life. But it is not real currency, and it does not work in God’s domain. God requires divine righteousness, just as in America only United States dollars are legal tender. We are going to find a little bit further along in Romans that Paul will write of Israel’s failure to find God, using this very distinction: “Since they did not know the righteousness that comes from God and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness” (Rom. 10:3). That is, Israel wanted God to accept their own currency rather than come to Christ for the genuine currency he alone can provide.
So the first thing Paul says about the human race in his summary of its lost condition is that it has no righteousness. Verse 12 adds, “ ‘All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.’ ”
The Sinful Mind: None Understands
The second pronouncement Paul makes about human beings in their sinful condition is that no one understands spiritual things. Again, we need to view this as a lack of spiritual perception and not merely a lack of human knowledge. If we think on the human level, comparing the “understanding” of one person with that of another, we will observe rightly that some people obviously understand a great deal about our world. And since we are impressed by that, we will be misled. We need to see that in spiritual matters the important thing is that no one truly understands God or seeks to know him.
The best commentary upon this phrase is found in the first two chapters of 1 Corinthians. The people in the church at Corinth were mostly Greeks. They prized the wisdom of the Greek philosophers, as virtually all Greeks did. Paul writes that when he was with them he did not attempt to impress them with such wisdom, but rather that he determined to know nothing while among them “except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). Why? He explains his decision in two ways.
First, human wisdom has shown itself bankrupt so far as coming to know God is concerned. Paul says that “the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written: ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.’ Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe” (1 Cor. 1:18–21). In making this indictment, Paul was only echoing what the best of the Greeks had themselves concluded. The philosophers already knew they had been unable to discover God through human reasoning or scholarship.
The second way Paul explains his decision to know nothing while among the Greeks but Christ crucified is the statement that spiritual matters can only be known by God’s Spirit: “The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:14).
This does not mean that a person cannot have a rational understanding of Christianity or what the Bible teaches apart from the illumination of his or her mind by the Holy Spirit. In one sense, a scholar can understand and explain theological principles as well as any other area of human knowledge. An unbelieving philosopher can lecture accurately on the Christian idea of God. An unbelieving historian can analyze to near perfection the nature of the Reformation and describe the meaning of justification by faith. When I was at Harvard University there were non-Christian professors who could present the doctrines of Christianity so brilliantly that Christians would marvel at their lectures and be edified by them. and even unbelieving students would rise to their feet and applaud. But these professors did not believe what they were teaching. If they had been asked their opinion of what they were so accurately presenting, they would have said that it was all utter nonsense. It is in this sense that they, not being “spiritual,” were unable to understand Christianity.
If we return to Romans 1, we are reminded of the cause of this ignorance. It is not that the doctrine of God (or any other doctrine of the Christian faith) is difficult to comprehend. It is rather that we do not want to move in the direction these doctrines lead us. So we suppress the truth about God, refusing to glorify or give thanks to him, and as a result our thinking becomes “futile” and our foolish hearts are “darkened” (v. 21).
The Captive Will: None Seeks God
Having spoken of our moral and intellectual failures, Paul moves at last to the area of the corrupt human will and concludes rightly that no one “seeks God.”
Here again we must not think in merely human terms. If we do, we will conclude, contrary to Paul’s teaching, that “seeking after God” has actually been the history of our race. I have already dealt with the academic expression of this view in our analysis of Romans 1:21–23, referring to Robert Brow’s Religion: Origins and Ideas. Brow maintains that study of primitive peoples suggests, not that the human race has moved from primitive conceptions of God to higher conceptions of him—thus seeking after “God” constantly—but rather that the human race has been consistently running away from ideas of a high and holy God. He argues that primitive peoples generally have a truer picture of God than we do, though they do not worship him. They believe in a great and true God who stands behind their pantheon of animistic deities or lesser gods, but they do not worship this God, because they do not fear him as much as they do the immediate and hostile powers.
F. Godet saw this and wrote, “At the root of all pagan religions and mythologies, there lies an original Monotheism, which is the historical starting-point in religion for all mankind.”
But here I want to focus on the way this negative principle works in our lives and society. Consider a man who believes himself to be the perfect refutation of Paul’s statement that there is no one who seeks God. “But I do seek him,” this man argues. “In fact, I have been seeking him all my life. I was born into a Baptist family; but I could not find God in my Baptist home or church. So, when I grew old enough to select a church on my own, I joined a Presbyterian church. Unfortunately, that was a bad church. No one could find God there. So I joined an Episcopalian church. Over the years I have attended almost every kind of church there is. I have been to Lutheran churches, Pentecostal churches, Methodist churches, Bible churches, independent churches. I have been seeking God all my life, but I haven’t found him.”
The answer to this man’s argument is that he has not been seeking God. He has been running away from him. When God got close to him in his Baptist home and church, he left that church and joined a Presbyterian congregation. And when things got hot for him there—God can work in Presbyterian churches—he joined an Episcopal church. When God got too close to him there, he left it for a succession of other denominations. If he gets to the end of this circle, he will probably look around carefully to see if anyone is looking and then jump back in at the beginning.
This man is not seeking God. He is merely using religious trappings to disguise his intention of running away from the Almighty and everything true commitment and faith would entail.
Pursued by God
I come back to where I was at the beginning of this study and say that according to the Bible no one unaided by the Spirit of God (1) has any righteousness by which to lay a claim upon God; (2) has any true understanding of God; or (3) seeks God. But what we do not have and cannot do and have not done, God has done for those who are being saved.
What exactly has God done? First, God has sought us. We had run from him, but like “The Hound of Heaven” God pursued us relentlessly. Some of us ran from God for a long time and can recall the days of our waywardness well. If God had not pursued us, we would have been lost eternally. We would never have come to God by ourselves. Now we know that no one is ever saved who has not first been pursued by God and been found by him. Second, God has given us understanding. He has done this by making us alive in Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, as a result of which our eyes have been opened to see things spiritually. This does not mean that we perfectly comprehend all things about God and his ways, but we now truly “understand” in the sense that we believe these things and respond accordingly. Last of all, God has given us a righteousness that we did not have in ourselves and, in fact, could never have had—his righteousness, which is the righteousness of Jesus Christ and is the ground of our salvation.
 Boice, J. M. (1991–). Romans: Justification by Faith (Vol. 1, pp. 289–296). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.