Exposition of Romans 3:9-12: Take note: humanity is not okay!

Grant Osborne captures the spirit of these times when he says, “Virtually all non-Christian religions assume that there is good in everyone and that everyone will be all right if he or she does more good than bad.”[1]

The viewpoint of those religions about balancing good and bad is like saying, “My body is 95% cancer-free.” Is that a cause for celebration? No, it is a cause for death!

(ESV) Romans 3:9-12

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, 10 as it is written:

None is righteous, no, not one;
11 no one understands; no one seeks for God.
12 All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
no one does good, not even one.

To be sure, Romans 3:9 is one of the more difficult verses in the New Testament. Perhaps that explains the rare deviation by the ESV from its policy of translating the biblical text without injecting interpretation. The word Jews does not appear in the underlying Greek text, although most authorities believe that identification is an accurate interpretation of the first-person-plural (we) verbal form.

Fortunately, the difficulties with the first half of 3:9 do not affect the highly significant second half of 3:9: “For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin.” We have seen that Paul began in chapter one with an indictment of humanity, largely if not exclusively focused on the Gentiles. Then, in chapter two, Paul turned to the harder case, the Jews. That combination (“Jews and Greeks”) is known as merism, a figure of speech that means all-inclusive. When we say someone was covered with mud from head to toe, we are using merism.

The NET Bible does a good job of retaining the original word order in Romans 3:9b: “we have already charged that Jews and Greeks alike are all under sin.” The italicized words could serve as a caption for Romans 1:18-3:20. All have come under the rule of sin and have committed acts of sin. The only exception is the man from heaven: Jesus, the virgin-born, fully-obedient, crucified and resurrected Son of God.

Amazingly, when you consider the dark picture Paul has been painting, this is the first mention of sin (Greek hamartia) in the letter to the Romans. With 48 uses in Romans, sin appears more frequently than any other theological word except God. C.E.B. Cranfield analyzes the significance of Paul’s usage: “Very seldom does he use hamartia [sin] in the plural to denote actual sins committed (e.g. 1 Cor. 15:3), whereas in other parts of the NT the plural use is predominant. Paul, when he uses hamartia [sin], thinks rather of sin as a power controlling man than of the individual sins man commits.”[2] This Age is dominated by sin resulting in death.

Cranfield is influenced not merely by the mention of sin but also the fact that all are under sin, a phrase in which Paul uses a preposition (hupo) which here means: “under, under the control of, under obligation in reference to power, rule, sovereignty, command.”[3] Looking at all of Romans 1-8, Douglas Moo adds his insight by saying:

All people who have not experienced the righteousness of God by faith are under sin: That is, they are helpless captives to its power. . . . For the problem with people is not just that they commit sins; their problem is that they are enslaved to sin. What is needed, therefore, is a new power to break in and set people free from sin a power found in, and only in, the gospel of Jesus Christ.[4]

Paul has certainly described the condition of all humanity prior to conversion.

Having given his summary indictment all under sin Paul turns to a traditional method of proving his point by citation of numerous OT quotations (3:10-18). For those who belong to God, the phrase as it is written (3:10) has conclusive power. With slight adaptations, Paul cites Psalm 14:1-3:

None is righteous, no, not one;
no one understands; no one seeks for God.
All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
no one does good, not even one.
(Romans 3:10-12)

Plead guilty!

All who have not been declared righteous by faith — and every human since Adam started out that way — are guilty of specific sins and guilty of being dominated by sin. But, as sure as rain falls, that fact is not something any of us want to embrace!

1. How would you describe the sin-dominated phase of your life? What behavior characterized you at that time? How did you regard God?

2. What forms of self-defense do people employ to deflect this charge of universal unrighteousness? In what respects do you find these methods persuasive? Why do these methods fail with God?

As you can see, we have to understand the human problem before we can fully grasp how complete and decisive the solution is through faith in Jesus Christ.

Copyright 2012 Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from materials created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.


[1] Grant R. Osborne, Romans, The IVP New Testament Commentary Series (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004) 85.

[2] C.E.B. Cranfield, The Epistle to the Romans, The International Critical Commentary (Edinburgh: T.&T. Clark Limited, 1975) 191.

[3] BDAG-3, hupo, under the control of, q.v.

[4] Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1996) 201.