“All have turned away, they have together become worthless;
there is no one who does good, not even one.”
I do not know why God should bother to speak to us about something more than once, like a parent trying to correct a naughty child: “Johnny, get out of the mud. Johnny, stop climbing in the tree; you’ll fall. Johnny, don’t speak like that to your sister.” But God does speak to us again and again; and it is good he does, because we need it. Indeed, most of us have trouble hearing him even then.
To my knowledge, nothing in the Bible is repeated as frequently or as forcefully as the words summing up mankind’s sinful nature, which we find in Romans 3:10–12, particularly verse 12. Psalm 14:2 and Psalm 53:2, where a question is posed by the psalmist, form the basis for the apostle’s answer in verses 10 and 11. Verse 12 is a verbatim quotation (from the Septuagint). Psalm 14:3 says, “All have turned aside, they have together become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one.” Psalm 53:3 almost exactly repeats that charge: “Everyone has turned away, they have together become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one.” Now, in Romans 3:12, the words are written out for us one more time: “All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.”
You would think that we might begin to get the message at this point. If God says something once, we should listen to what he says very carefully. If he says the same thing twice, we should give him our most intense and rapt attention. What if he repeats himself a third time? Then surely we should stop all else, focus our minds, seize upon each individual word, memorize what is said, and ponder the meaning of the saying intensely, attempting to apply the truth of God’s revelation to our entire lives.
A More Manageable View
Yet we do not do this, and the reason we do not is that the revelation of God is too intense, too penetrating, too devastating for us to deal with it. What we do, even as Christians, is blandly to admit what God is saying while nevertheless recasting it in less disturbing terms.
I remember as a child being taught a Sunday-school lesson about sin. The teacher used a blackboard, and she began the lesson by drawing a yardstick in a vertical position on the left side of the blackboard. The yardstick was labeled “the divine measure,” and a verse was written beside it: Matthew 5:48 (“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect”). A line was drawn across the top of the blackboard at the point to which the top of the yardstick reached. This was the standard. The teacher then asked, “Has anyone ever lived up to this standard?”
After a few suggestive hints, one of the students answered, “Yes, the Lord Jesus Christ lived up to it.”
“That’s right,” said the teacher. So she drew a line parallel to the yardstick, reaching from the bottom of the blackboard to the line at the top that represented perfection. She labeled this line “Jesus Christ.”
“Has anybody else lived up to this standard?” she continued. We agreed that nobody else had, although, as she pointed out, some people have done better than others. To show that some persons are better than others but that no one had reached perfection she drew a number of vertical lines, all of which fell short of the “perfection” standard. There was a line labeled “98 percent” for very good people, lines labeled “90 percent” and “80 percent” for fairly normal people, and a line labeled “40 percent” for pretty bad people. Then Romans 3:23 was added, the teacher pointing out that although some people are better than others, with God “there is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of [his] glory.”
As I look back on that lesson I do not doubt that it taught some very valuable things, primarily that although some people look quite good to us by our standards, all people nevertheless fail to please God and need a Savior. As a tool for teaching this, the lesson was effective.
But the illustration on which the lesson was based has one great weakness. By putting the lines representing “98 percent” people, “90 percent” people, “80 percent” people, and “40 percent” people parallel to the line representing Jesus Christ, the diagram inevitably suggests that human goodness is essentially the same as divine goodness and that all people really need is that little bit of additional goodness which—added to their own efforts and attainments—will make up the required “100 percent.” That error needs to be repudiated.
Is that what Psalm 14:3, Psalm 53:3, and Romans 3:12 teach us? Not at all! If we are to express the teaching of these verses by our diagram, we must either eliminate the lines representing human beings from the diagram entirely or else represent them not as lines stretching upward in the direction of divine perfection, but downward in varying degrees of opposition to God and his righteousness. God does not merely say that people fail to live up to his standard, although that is also true and is one way of expressing sin’s nature. He says rather that we have all “turned away.” We have “together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.”
All, Like Sheep …
I suggested earlier that when God says something more than once we should pay the most rapt attention to it, memorizing and pondering each word. I would like to do something like that now, taking one phrase of Romans 3:12 at a time. The first is: “All have turned away.”
This phrase is expressed in just two words in Greek: pantes, properly translated “all,” and exeklinan, a past form of a verb meaning “to deviate,” “wander” or “depart” from the right way. That “right way” is outlined in the opening chapter of Romans; it is to recognize God’s eternal power and divine nature and then to glorify, thank, worship, and serve him (vv. 21, 25). But it is precisely from this right way that we have deviated. Instead of seeking God and worshiping him in thankful service, we have suppressed the truth about him and gone our own way, inventing false gods to take the true God’s place and finding our intellect and morals to be increasingly debased as a result.
This indictment includes every human being. At the beginning of the verse the inclusiveness is expressed positively by the strong word all. At the end it is expressed negatively by the words not even one. One commentator writes, “As respects well-doing there is not one; as respects evil-doing there is no exception.”
But Paul’s words do not only draw our attention to Romans 1, where the departure of men and women from the right way is spelled out. They also make us think of that well-known verse in Isaiah, where sinners are compared to sheep who cannot find their way: “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way …”(Isa. 53:6). Ah, that is the problem! Not only have we not gone God’s way, we have not even gone in ways marked out by other people. We have each gone our own way. Consequently, each of us is basically set against all others, and we pursue our own well-being and desires to the neglect or hurt of other people.
I like some words that the great Swiss theologian Karl Barth offers at this point in his famous commentary on Romans, for they suggest that Paul’s condemnation of the race is not merely a matter of biblical revelation but is the judgment of history as well. “The whole course of history pronounces this indictment against itself,” Barth begins. So “how can a man be called ‘historically minded’ if he persistently overlooks it?” He continues:
If all the great outstanding figures in history, whose judgments are worthy of serious consideration, if all the prophets, psalmists, philosophers, fathers of the church, reformers, poets, artists, were asked their opinion, would one of them assert that men were good or even capable of good? Is the doctrine of original sin merely one doctrine among many? Is it not rather, according to its fundamental meaning … , the doctrine which emerges from all honest study of history? Is it not the doctrine which, in the last resort, underlies the whole teaching of history? Is it possible for us to adopt a “different point of view” from that of the Bible, Augustine and the Reformers? What then does history teach about the things which men do or do not do?
Does it teach that some men at least are like God? No, but that—There is none righteous, no not one.
Does it teach that men possess a deep perception of the nature of things? or that they have experienced the essence of life? No, but that—There is none that understandeth.
Does it provide a moving picture of quiet piety or of fiery search after God? Do the great witnesses to the truth furnish a splendid picture, for example, of “prayer”? No—There is none that seeketh after God.
Can it describe this or that individual and his actions as natural, healthy, genuine, original, right-minded, ideal, full of character, affectionate, attractive, intelligent, forceful, ingenuous, of sterling worth? No—They have all turned aside, they are together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no, not so much as one.
Commentator Robert Haldane says, “The Prophet here teaches us what is the nature of sin [and] … what are its consequences. For as the man who loses his way cannot have any rest in his mind, nor any security, it is the same with the sinner. And as a wanderer cannot restore himself to the right way without the help of a guide, in the same manner the sinner cannot restore himself, if the Holy Spirit comes not to his aid.”
Corrupt and Useless
The second phrase in Romans 3:12 is also composed of just two Greek words, and the impact is similar. The first word is hama. It means “together.” It is the equivalent of “all” in phrase one. The second word is ēchreōthēsan, the past tense of a verb meaning “useless” or “corrupt.” I say “useless” or “corrupt” because the word in Greek (the language in which Paul is writing) and the word in Hebrew (the language in which the word occurs in Psalms 14 and 53) have these two closely related meanings respectively. Together they say what Jesus meant when he described his followers as “the salt of the earth,” adding, “But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men” (Matt. 5:13).
What do you do if something is corrupt or useless? You throw it away and start again. I remember a scene from the movie on the life of the great renaissance painter Michelangelo, called The Agony and the Ecstasy, which made this point. Michelangelo was unhappy with his first attempt at painting the Sistine Chapel, and he was mulling the problem over in a local bar. The bartender served a flagon of wine drawn from a new barrel, but the wine was sour.
“This wine is sour, bartender,” shouted Michelangelo.
The bartender came to the table, tasted the wine, and then spit it out. Very decisively he went over to the wine barrel, struck the bung from it with a wooden hammer and allowed the many gallons of wine to pour out into the street. “If the wine is sour, throw it out,” he retorted.
Michelangelo mulled this over and then applied the principle to his first inadequate designs. He went back to the Sistine Chapel, destroyed his original frescoes—and began again.
“Useless!” “Corrupt!” We do not like to hear those words applied to ourselves, but they are God’s verdict all the same. We must accept them. However, when we do, we can know that God does not merely pour us out like wine to be trodden on by passers-by. Rather, like Michelangelo, he begins again and produces a brand-new work of art. He begins anew in order to make us entirely new creations, like Jesus Christ.
No One Who Does Good
The last of Paul’s phrases is the most straightforward. Indeed, it is so precise and outspoken that we can hardly miss what he is saying: “There is no one who does good, not even one.” No one at all does good—no one!
This verse always takes my mind back to the Old Testament, to Genesis, where there appears a similar statement of man’s utter inability to please God by any human effort: “The Lord saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time” (Gen. 6:5). That verse says not only that men and women do not do good, as God counts goodness; they do precisely the opposite. They do evil and that continually. I have pointed out, in a detailed exposition of this text in Genesis: An Expositional Commentary, that Genesis 6:5 teaches that sin is internal (rising from the “thoughts” and inclinations of the “heart”), pervasive (affecting our “every inclination” so that our deeds are “only evil”) and continuous (that is, operating “all the time”).
I suppose there are people who might recognize the truth of these statements, at least in the sense that they accurately express the opinions of Paul and of Moses (who wrote Genesis). But they might dismiss them as merely the harsh and gloomy thoughts of these men. Paul had been a Pharisee—and Pharisees thought poorly of everyone, didn’t they? And Moses? Well, he was the great lawgiver, so he might be inclined to pessimism. What about Jesus? What did he think? Wouldn’t the gentle, loving, and compassionate Jesus have a more uplifting outlook?
I think here of a section of an address given at one of the Philadelphia Conferences on Reformed Theology by Professor Roger R. Nicole of Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary. It was called “The Doctrines of Grace in Jesus’ Teaching,” and the pertinent section stressed Christ’s view of human evil. Nicole wrote:
Our Lord Jesus Christ, with all the concern, compassion and love which he showed to mankind, made some very vivid portrayals of man’s condition. He did not mince words about the gravity of human sin. He talked of man as salt that has lost its savor (Matt. 5:13). He talked of man as a corrupt tree which is bound to produce corrupt fruit (Matt. 7:7). He talked of man as being evil: “You, being evil, know how to give good things to your children” (Luke 11:13). On one occasion he lifted up his eyes toward heaven and talked about an “evil and adulterous generation” (Matt. 12:39), or again, “this wicked generation” (v. 45). In a great passage dealing with what constitutes true impurity and true purity he made the startling statement that out of the heart proceed murders, adulteries, evil thoughts and things of that kind (Mark 7:21–23). He spoke about Moses having to give special permissive commandments to men because of the hardness of their hearts (Matt. 19:8). When the rich young ruler approached him, saying, “Good Master,” Jesus said, “There is none good but God” (Mark 10:18).…
Jesus compared men, even the leaders of his country, to wicked servants in a vineyard (Matt. 21:33–41). He exploded in condemnation of the scribes and Pharisees, who were considered to be among the best men, men who were in the upper ranges of virtue and in the upper classes of society (Matt. 23:2–39).
The Lord Jesus made a fundamental statement about man’s depravity in John 3:6: “That which is born of the flesh is flesh.” He saw in man an unwillingness to respond to grace—“You will not come to God” (John 5:40), “You have not the love of God” (v. 42), “You receive me not” (v. 43), “You believe not” (v. 47). Such sayings occur repeatedly in the Gospel of John. “The world’s works are evil” (John 7:7); “None of you keeps the law” (v. 19). “You shall die in your sins,” he says (John 8:21). “You are from beneath” (v. 23); “Your father is the devil, who is a murderer and a liar” (vv. 38, 44); “You are not of God” (v. 47); “You are not of my sheep” (John 10:26); “He that hates me hates my Father” (John 15:23–25). This is the way in which our Lord spoke to the leaders of the Jews. He brought to the fore their utter inability to please God.
Following another line of approach he showed also the blindness of man, that is, his utter inability to know God and understand him. Here again we have a whole series of passages showing that no man knows the Father but him to whom the Son has revealed him (Matt. 11:27). He compared men to the blind leading the blind (Matt. 15:14). He mentioned that Jerusalem itself did not know or understand the purpose of God and, as a result, disregarded the things that concern salvation (Luke 19:42). The Gospel of John records him as saying that he that believed not was condemned already because he had not believed on the Son of God (John 3:18). “This is the condemnation, that … men loved the darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil” (v. 19). He said that only the one who has been reached by grace can walk not in darkness but have the light of life (John 8:12). The Lord Jesus emphasized that it is essential for man to be saved by a mighty act of God if he is to be rescued from his condition of misery (John 3:3, 5, 7–16). Even in the Lord’s Prayer the Lord teaches us to say, “Forgive us our debts” (Matt. 6:12). And this is a prayer that we need to repeat again and again. He said, “The sick are the people who need a physician” (Matt. 9:12). We are those sick people who need a physician to help us and redeem us. He said that we are people who are burdened and heavy-laden (Matt. 11:28).…
The people who were most readily received by the Lord were those who had this sense of need and who therefore did not come to him with a sense of the sufficiency of their performance. The people he received were those who came broken-hearted and bruised with the sense of their inadequacy.
After such a review of Jesus’ teaching, Paul’s words in Romans seem almost mild by comparison.
Grace that is Greater Than Sin
But they are not mild, of course! They are devastating, as I indicated at the beginning of this study. Why? Why does God speak to us in these terms? The answer is obvious. It is so we might see our true condition, stop trying to excuse ourselves or whittle down the scope of God’s judgment, and instead open ourselves up to God’s grace. For that is what we need: grace!
Grace, grace, God’s grace,
Grace that will pardon and cleanse within;
Grace, grace, God’s grace,
Grace that is greater than all our sin.
We have this grace in Jesus Christ. He alone can save us from our depravity.
Boice, J. M. (1991–). Romans: Justification by Faith (Vol. 1, pp. 305–312). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.