Romans 3:9-20 (NLT)
Well then, should we conclude that we Jews are better than others? No, not at all, for we have already shown that all people, whether Jews or Gentiles, are under the power of sin. As the Scriptures say,
“No one is righteous—
not even one.
No one is truly wise;
no one is seeking God.
All have turned away;
all have become useless.
No one does good,
not a single one.”
“Their talk is foul, like the stench from an open grave.
Their tongues are filled with lies.”
“Snake venom drips from their lips.”
“Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.”
“They rush to commit murder.
Destruction and misery always follow them.
They don’t know where to find peace.”
“They have no fear of God at all.”
Obviously, the law applies to those to whom it was given, for its purpose is to keep people from having excuses, and to show that the entire world is guilty before God. For no one can ever be made right with God by doing what the law commands. The law simply shows us how sinful we are.
One night in college I was awake in bed, staring at the ceiling. For some reason my roommate, Derek, also was awake. Out of the darkness, he asked me, “Chuck, do you think people are basically good or basically evil?”
Remember, I was maybe 20 at the time. My non-pastoral, non-theological answer was, “For crying out loud, Derek, I’m trying to sleep.” Derek has always been persistent, though.
“No, really,” he said. “What do you think? Are we good, or are we bad?”
I drew on the distant memory of a Sunday school lesson and said I suppose people are basically bad—that’s why we need Jesus. Derek seemed unsatisfied, though. He’s always been the kind of guy who looks for good in people.
I don’t remember much of the conversation after that. I guess I fell asleep, leaving my friend troubled and alone in the dark. Again, I was not very pastoral when I was 20.
Judging from our text today, Paul would agree with my answer. Or more accurately, I was in agreement with his, my subconscious vaguely remembering these or similar verses.
“All have turned away,” Paul says. “All have become useless. No one does good, not a single one.”
And it’s not just Paul’s opinion. Most of what he writes is a cobbled-together collection of quotes from the Old Testament, the result of his years of Jewish theological training. He is quoting from six different psalms and the 56th chapter of Isaiah to make his point.
We’re bad. Rock and roll bad, bad to the bone. We’re bad, nationwide.
Every time I hit one of Paul’s discussions of sin, I think of some of the really powerful sermons in history, the kind designed to crush listeners so they would run to the altar, weeping. There is Jonathan Edwards, of course, with that famous sermon many of us were required to read in high school or college, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Remember this part?
The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince; and yet it is nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment. It is to be ascribed to nothing else, that you did not go to hell the last night; that you was suffered to awake again in this world, after you closed your eyes to sleep. And there is no other reason to be given, why you have not dropped into hell since you arose in the morning, but that God’s hand has held you up. There is no other reason to be given why you have not gone to hell, since you have sat here in the house of God, provoking his pure eyes by your sinful wicked manner of attending his solemn worship. Yea, there is nothing else that is to be given as a reason why you do not this very moment drop down into hell.
One man in attendance at this sermon wrote, “The hearers groaned and shrieked convulsively; and their outcries of distress once drowned the preacher’s voice, and compelled him to make a long pause.” I wonder what it would take to get such a reaction today.
Our own John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement, was no slouch when it came to such sermons, either. In “Original Sin,” Wesley takes the account of the total depravity of people in Noah’s day, a topic we touched upon last week, and considers whether modern people are any different.
Looking at stories and prophetic writings beyond the Great Flood, Wesley concludes that we in our natural state are no better than the wicked people of Noah’s day. “And this account of the present state of man is confirmed by daily experience,” he writes. “It is true, the natural man discerns it not: and this is not to be wondered at. So long as a man, born blind, continues so, he is scarce sensible of his want … . In like manner, so long as men remain in their natural blindness of understanding, they are not sensible of their spiritual wants, and of this in particular.”
In 21st century language, we’re not only bad, we are so spiritually broken from birth that we cannot sense how bad we are.
I think this somber message is much more difficult to sell than it was just a few decades ago. As a people, we are becoming much more humanist in our thinking. By that, I mean there is this undercurrent of thought where people assume the best aspects of being human can eventually overcome the worst aspects.
I have trouble seeing how humanism is actually achieving much, though. The modern world seems to be able to collapse into a heap of evil as quickly as ever.
Humanist thinkers also become comfortable with a relative kind of morality, a line of thinking not particularly useful for people seeking a relationship with a perfectly holy God. Relative morality generates thoughts like, “Well, I’m not perfect, but at least I’m better than the low-life creeps I have known and read about.”
Jesus warned against such thinking in a parable, by the way. It’s not been that long since we talked about it in worship at Luminary. At the temple, there is a Pharisee and a hated tax collector. The Pharisee gives thanks for his righteousness, and in particular for not being made like the low-life in his immediate vicinity. The tax collector simply acknowledges he is a sinner. And I’m sure you remember who was justified in his prayers.
Or, to draw on another lesson from Jesus, let’s get the logs out of our own eyes before we go grabbing at the splinters in other people’s eyes. We have to start with our own brokenness before we can help others.
I have the “Seven Deadly Sins” on the sanctuary screens today for a reason. As we enter the season of Lent, we need to meditate on them as we approach our time of communion. There are many other sins, of course, but the church has emphasized these seven for centuries because they seem to trigger so many other ongoing sins and so much separation from God.
Can we study these words, consider these evil acts, and genuinely acknowledge we are broken?
By asking the question, I suppose I am leaving you alone in the dark, the way I did Derek so many years ago. But here is what I did not know to tell him then: When we acknowledge our brokenness, our bad nature, we step toward great and glorious gifts from God, the kind of joy and peace no humanist can ever offer you.
Pay attention to our communion liturgy today, and you will hear what I’m talking about. Come back next week and hear Paul’s continuing message, and I’m sure you’ll find peace and joy as he continues the thought he has started.