The Power of Sin – Romans 3:9-18

The final part of Paul’s claim that all humans are under the power of sin is a scriptural argument based in a series of verses strung together. The NIV translates the key phrase as “under the power of sin,” although the Greek is simple “under sin” (ESV, ὑφʼ ἁμαρτίαν). Both Jew and Gentiles alike are under controlled by sin and therefore are under the righteous wrath of God. This would be deeply offensive to some Jews who read this letter (Byrne, Romans, 118)!

chainsListing scripture to make a point is a rabbinic style of teaching, sometimes called a catena (see for example, Steve Moyise, “The Catena of Romans 3:10-18,” ET 106 (1995): 367-370). The list has an intentional structure, beginning and ending with similar words (on one), and the internal structure, sins of speech are grouped in vv. 13-15, sins of violence are grouped in vv. 15-17 (Moo, Romans, 202). One problem with this list is that read in their original context, none of these verses actually say there are no righteous people at all. If the words “no one is righteous” come from Eccl 7:20, Kruse argues the comment is on the fate of both the wise and the foolish (Kruse, Romans, 167).

In fact, the rest of the verses are in a context which specifically distinguishes the righteous from the wicked. Psalm 5:9 is specifically talking about the wicked; the verse does not say there are righteous (in contrast to the wicked). In two citations wicked Jewish people are in mind, on two Gentiles are in mind, and in the others the reference is general.

What has Paul done with this list of Old Testament texts? He has selected a series of verses which indicate there were wicked people within Israel. The “wicked” in the texts are other Israelites, not the Gentile nations.

Is Paul out of step with Second Temple Judaism in this condemnation of Jewish sin? There are quite a few pessimistic texts in the Hebrew Bible (Isa 59:12-15; 64:5-12, Ezra 9:6-15; Neh 9:16-38, Dan 9:4-19) as well as other Second Temple writers (Tobit 3:1-6; Jub. 23:16-21; 4 Ezra 7:22-24; 1QH 1:25-27, 29-31, 1 QS 11:9-10).

Jubilees 23:16-17 And in this generation children will reproach their parents and their elders on account of sin, and on account of injustice, and on account of the words of their mouth, and on account of great evil which they will do, and on account of their forsaking the covenant which the LORD made between them and himself so that they might be careful and observe all of his commandments and his ordinances and all of his law without turning aside to the right or left.  For they all did evil and every mouth speaks of sin and all of their deeds (are) polluted and abominable. And all of their ways (are) contamination and pollution and corruption.

1 QHa 1:25-27 (Sukenik Col. I; = 4Q432 2) How will a man count his sin? How will he defend his iniquities? How will an unjust respond to a just judgment? To you, you, God of knowledge, belong all the works of justice and the foundation of truth; but to the sons of Adam belongs the service of iniquity and the deeds of deception.

1QS 11:9-10  However, I belong to evil humankind, to the assembly of unfaithful flesh; my failings, my iniquities, my sins, {…} with the depravities of my heart, belong to the assembly of worms and of those who walk in darkness.

Paul is therefore in good company when he describes all humans, from idol-worshipping Gentiles to Jews who are making an effort to keep God’s law as sinners who have fallen short of the glory of God. Like the Qumran community Paul would agree humans “belong to the assembly of worms and of those who walk in darkness.”

The modern world seems split on the issue. Some books and movies seem to present humans as flawed, but improving. Perhaps humans can grow (evolve) out of the evil that seems so prevalent today (as in Star Trek or Doctor Who). Humans will make the right choice they are given an opportunity and are generally good people. On the other hand, there vivid representations of the darker side of humanity. Humans are twisted and evil (Fargo, Pulp Fiction).

So which is it? Are we flawed but improving? Or are we deeply evil, just one circumstance away from shockingly evil actions?

How can modern Christianity express a biblical view of humanity to a world which does not considered itself flawed?

20 thoughts on “The Power of Sin – Romans 3:9-18

  1. Romans 3:10 specifically says that “there is not one righteous, not even one.” Paul is very point blank when he says this, leaving no wiggle room for the Jewish Christians who believe they are righteous because they follow the law. No one is righteous, period. Every person is flawed, but how flawed are they? Today’s society does not seem to think there is much wrong with humans, many people believe we are generally good. I disagree, because although humans do have the capacity to do good things, and they are a lot of people who seem generally good, that good appearance is marred by the sins they commit. The only person who was ever only good was Jesus Christ. Everyone else has cracks in there goodness because of sin. The best way I can think of to explain to a person who does not consider the world flawed would be me asking them what they feel is right and wrong. They will have examples of things that are wrong, and then I would ask if they themselves have done some of those things or if they knew someone who did those things. No matter how small the wrongdoing is, that was a flaw in someone’s judgment. People do bad things and there is no way around it.

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    • I agree with you and I like your the word “flawed”, because it explains we are not able to be completely free from our sins without Jesus. What about the people God had already predestined for salvation? Are they good already? I understand that all have sinned and no one is righteous without Jesus, but how do we as Christian in modern society today answer this question? At one point, I believed all people are good, because we bear the image and likeness of God, but sin has entered and corrupted our true “goodness” nature.

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  2. The question of the universality of ‘none doing good’ is dependent on a larger impression of the canonical history than a catena of verses, but the catena is an effective summary of the thrust of human self-interest as a first motivation. Paul I expect is thoroughly read in the Hebrew scriptures. His opinion is not second hand with respect to the source texts. How then does the failure of the monarchy, the long prophetic criticism of Israel and Judah, and so on join into his individual expression of the experience as one of the Hebrew people?

    Who is ‘the fool’ in Psalm 14? Senseless said in its heart, God? Nothing. – If God is of no account then there is no power for individual or people to escape from the dominion of sin. Paul’s good news in Romans is that the resurrection of Jesus gives such power through being conformed to the pattern of his death. There’s no magic in knowing this and proclaiming triumph, but there is magic in hearing and doing even silently in faithfulness to this invisible love.

    The lovely word נבל (fool, senseless) also means a musical instrument. We can become sensible. We can even become tuneful.

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  3. The Bible and Paul specifically teaches that as fallen humans we have a “sin nature” (Ecc. 7:20, Rom. 3:23, Rom. 3:10). We are naturally sinful, but i would not say we are “evil” because we were made in God’s image (Gen. 1:26-27, Ps. 8:3-8) and he called his creation “very good” (Gen. 1:31). God has not given up on humanity since the fall. He continues to bless us and redeem us, Matt. 5:48 says we are to be perfect, as our heavenly father is perfect. Eventually, sun will no longer overpower us and that is because of Christ’s sacrifice (Eph. 1:7, Col. 1:13-14, Isa. 65:17).

    The biblical view of the human condition majorly opposes the culture we are in today. We live in an individualistic postmodern culture focused on self-fulfillment and doing what you personally feel is right. There is not universal truth. However Christians believe that what the bible teaches is true, and is ultimately universal truth. All truth is God’s truth. In order to get through to someone with a postmodernist worldview, they must first realize that they are sinful and need a redeemer. Paul takes that approach here in Romans, beginning by listing their many sins.

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  4. The entirety of Romans 3 is incredibly straight forward and blunt when it comes to describing our conditions as human beings. We are all sinners, walking in the opposite direction from Christ and no one is righteous. This is harsh. I cannot imagine how the Jewish people felt when they were told this because they were trying to follow the law and Jesus. No one every wants to hear that they are not doing something right, that they are bad and imperfect. Romans 3:9-20 as stated by Moo, covers the exact situation that all humans are under. Paul concludes his letter by stating that everyone is under the power of sin, he illustrates his indictment from the Old Testament and states that the law cannot save. Moo also states quite bluntly as did Paul that Jews are no better off than Gentiles (Moo, 1422). When looking at humanity today, it is hard to see ourselves as sinners and seriously flawed because society keeps telling us that we are good and seeking what is right. How do we compete with a culture that tells us the opposite of what Christ teaches? As Christians, how do we hold on to our morals and the truth when we are being pulled in so many other directions and we are the minority? Romans puts it simply, we are flawed and evil and we cannot become righteous or be forgiven without Christ. We can continue searching for other ways, people, and possessions to fill us and make us feel better and whole, but we will essentially end up in the very same place we were: broken, alone, guilt-driven, and hopeless. If anything, the book of Romans and especially chapter 3 gives us a blunt glimpse of how sinful we really are and we should take that as a wake up call and get our act together.

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  5. I like how the Romans textbook says that because the Israelites became aware of sin, when they did sin it became worse. In other words, knowledge of a sin makes the action worse than if you did not know it was a sin. Because the Israelites had the law there was no excuse for them to break the law. Wickedness is when someone knows what one should do, and does not do it. In this case both Jews and Gentiles could be wicked based on their circumstances. But then we realize that wickedness is not just about actions, but rather a condition that all humans have. We can have actions that are not wicked but it doesn’t matter because inside everyone there is the element of sin. Because we have the possibility of sin, there is wickedness in us. As humans we can grow in character and even be generally good people. But regardless of what we do we cannot remove sin from us. I think it could be implied that God could not remove the sin from us either, or otherwise it was not in his will to do so. God instead required something to take away his wrath, not humans sin. Jesus asks God that if it is His will then to let the cup pass away. Could God have taken away sin from man instead of Jesus turning away God’s wrath. The latter is the course that God’s will was. I think that wickedness is both evil actions, the opposite would be good actions that are done for God and are not wicked. And then there is a state of being, something which no human can correct. It is how we are, similar to genetics. It is passed down to everyone and nothing can be done except what has been, God’s wrath has been turned away and because of that we can be justified, but through no action of our own.

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  6. Humans, by nature, are flawed, but redeemable. We have tendencies to do wrong, but we also obtained redeemable qualities. God had to see something in us worth saving.

    During the times of Noah, humans were extremely sinful. We were so sinful to the point that God made the decision to perform a mass destruction of humanity. But even during this massacre, God still found hope within the redeemable qualities inside humankind. God did not wipe the slate of humanity clean. He kept one family on the easel of life to repaint from. That, in itself, is mercy. And this mercy wasn’t given out of pity. Mercy was shown because God saw something worth redeeming in us.

    This idea of “flawed but redeemable” is the route I would go when explaining the gospel to a person who doesn’t believe in the biblical view of humanity.

    I would explain that morality in itself cannot lead a person to salvation. Morality is constantly changing. Morality does not hold to an instructions manual or a step by step booklet. Morality can be different from person to person; therefor, a person cannot conclude that being a “good person” will bring them salvation, because everyone’s view of goodness is different. Morality doesn’t hold to any standard, so who’s to know what true morality really is without a religious roadmap to follow?

    Let’s continue to develop this line of reasoning. If morality is dependent on the individual, who’s to say if a person is truly wrong? If a person believes they are doing right, and their morality says that their actions are right, who are we to say that they are wrong? If Adolf Hitler claimed that his genocide of Jews was moral, then how could we say that he is immoral and without salvation? He believed that what he was doing was good, so in this line of logic, he was acting upon his morality, which leads him to being a “good person”, which then leads him into salvation.

    That is why the Bible’s teaching of Human Depravity is so important. We, in ourselves, are flawed. We, in ourselves, are sinful. We, in ourselves, cannot be good or moral enough to bring us salvation. But, we, in ourselves, are redeemable.

    And because of our redeemable qualities, God sent a perfect sacrifice to perfect our imperfectness. And through Christ’s bloodshed on the cross, we can be redeemed. We just have to accept the gracious gift, and rest in the fact that Jesus is God.

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  7. A way that we as Christians can get the point across that we are flawed to a world that thinks “eh, we are doing ok” is by simply telling them! How many people are growing up right next to us that don’t clearly understand the Gospel? I have a cousin who i love dearly that says she doesn’t go to church because “God will strike her with a lightning bolt.” And i am almost convinced she truly believes that. Simply telling her the details of the first part of Genesis and explaining that we come to God from a place of sin and brokenness and then take the step forward in the right direction–telling her that is one easy way to help her understand she doesnt need to keep going on with her life believing that God can’t/won’t love her. This is just one example, but i think Christians find themselves on the wrong end of stereotypes too often and don’t feel the need to properly respond to correct it. Not everyone will respond to this, but the people who are just going on living because why not-these are the people who this will impact. Also, props P. Long for referencing Pulp Fiction. great movie.

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  8. We are definitely flawed and without the help of the Holy Spirit we can not change ourselves on our own, yet we still have the ability to do good. However, that good does not and will not change our eternal destiny. Because we are made in God’s image, we have been given attributes of God and most of all we are his image bares. God has given quality to us, but because of sin those quality get buried deep down inside and every now and then they surface. God see his creation and seems to think they have something in them worth saving. God has a strong love for his creation. I find it hard to believe the world does not view itself as flawed when I look around and see bombings, murder, hate, rape, and all kinds of sin. Look back on history, WW1 and WW2, that was evil. The holocaust, something inside says that is wrong and depraved. They may view themselves as not flawed. But they will never find salvation if they never realize the state of brokenness they are in.

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  9. I am a person who really tries hard to make it a priority of mine to see the good in others no matter how annoying or evil someone may be. One could say that by doing so, I agree with the notion that humanity is messed up but is changing for the better. However, that is not so.

    I see the good in others in order that I can build relationships with them in spite of certain things they have done that bother me. As soon as humanity sinned, the world started growing colder and darker drastically. In Genesis 11, the tower of Babel is written about. This was seen as an abomination to God because humans were disobeying the command given to Noah to populate the Earth. After this, God decided to confuse everyone participating in the tower, thus spreading humanity all over the Earth. God had to intervene so that humanity could progress the way He wanted it to. The world, without the guidance of God, is spiraling perpetually downward. Christians are not exempt of this either.

    Christians can sin just as easily as the rest of the world does. However, the difference is that Christians have hope in their Savior returning to make everything perfect as He originally intended it to be. If we believe the scriptures as written, then humanity is unrighteous and has no hope in changing for the better. (Romans 3:11-18) A turn off to Christianity for many non-Christians is their observations of Christians behaving as though they are perfect human beings. To express a Christian worldview on this subject matter and not be ignored, then, Christians have to admit that they are just as screwed up as the rest of the world. (Romans 3:23)

    I would not necessarily say that the majority of the world believes that the way they are is not messed up. By turning on the news, a non-Christian can view injustices going on throughout the world and feel something tugging at their heart strings. This is most likely due to “natural revelation”. (Moo, Romans, 39) This would not only be a good starting point to begin sharing the Christian understanding of this evil they are seeing. It would be a great spot to begin proclaiming the hope Christians have regardless of how the world behaves and acts.

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  10. I think many people think that we start out as innocent and pure, and that over time we become corrupted, or we overcome the temptations to be corrupted. It is a dangerous mindset, and I believe it is becoming harder to approach people about the sinful side of humanity. People these days do not want to be told they are sinners, people want to turn a blind eye to the dark-side of humanity. Even Christians such as myself occasionally joke about “joining the dark side,” or being on the “dark side,” which is an example of how infectious the idea that darkness is not as big of a deal as it once was. In seriousness, a real Christian understands that all are sinners, and all of us are unworthy of the grace of God. We Christians know that it is only thanks to Jesus that we are able to be redeemed for the sins we commit in our lives. Although everyone can see that people do bad things, many would prefer to believe in the lie that humanity is improving, that we are better than we used to be. Despite the increasing difficulty to convince secular people that they need saving, and that they are not as righteous as they think they are, it is important that we try and explain the necessity of God’s grace, and Jesus Christ. We need to be active in expressing justification and redemption to our fellow man, because if we continue to become more reserved, continue to step-back then there are a lot of people we will be partially responsible for on that day of judgement. However as I just said, we are able to be justified. As Moo mentions in chapter seven,”The Greeks used the word to refer to memorials or sacrifices that were intended to placate the wrath of gods, and Paul’s focus on God’s wrath in his description of the human dilemma…makes it likely that he references Christ as a means of propitiation,” (Moo, 68-69). Jesus became a propitiation for us. The fact that humans do not have to do any acts or works to get their salvation, that all they have to do is believe in Jesus and repent to Him their sins is what it takes, should be more appealing to people of this day, considering the laziness sweeping across the 21st century people. Although it is hard for us to admit our mistakes, I think that when one understands truly what is at stake and what Christianity is about, that it will place a seed, or a longing, in that person. Hopefully that is the case. All we can do is try our best to reach other people, because from Christ’s point of view, the more believers there are the merrier it is.

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  11. I think the best way to express a biblical worldview to a world that doesn’t see the flaws within it is to be like Jesus. I think in order to express biblical worldview to a fallen world is to remember that before we were redeemed by Jesus we were equal to their flaws. We are all members of a fallen world. We all have fallen short (Romans 3:23) but to me the best way to express the Bible to this broken world is by thinking like Jesus and putting ourselves out there and showing this world the love they so desperately need. The fallen in Jesus time did not see their flaws either but Jesus presented them with the real message of the Gospel and showed them love while also teaching them and holding them accountable to their wrongs and I think that we should also be doing that within this world that we are all members of. Jesus has called us to this purpose and we cannot truly express any sort of biblical or Christian worldview if we are not even really being like Christ in our own lives. In order to bring our views we must immerse ourselves in Jesus and in His message and love on those in this fallen world in hopes of showing them the real Christian and Biblical worldview.

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  12. I believe that it can be a mix between the deeply evil and the getting better stages. We are all of course sinful to the core and desire to rebel against God in our nature. But Christ presents to us the opportunity that we can turn from our evil ways and become better forms of our self. Ephesians 4:22 says that we may take off our old self and put on the new. This is true in that we were once inherently evil and destined to death, but now we can become alive in Christ and live eternally with Him one day. Our spiritual death will not be an issue any more. In Christ, we do have the desire to improve ourselves. We are still sinful and totally flawed, but we strive for better, though we will never get to perfection. Humanity will always be full of sin, but there will always be that hope in which we can place our trust in order to lead better lives than before.

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  13. Your end question: How can modern Christianity express a biblical view of humanity to a world which does not considered itself flawed?

    If Christians do not know the “biblical view of humanity” they cannot express the difference between the world and what the Spirit of YaHavah intended Christianity to be.

    The word “Christ” means the anointed one. Jesus earned that title or epithet when he fulfilled Isaiah 11:1-5. All of the following references explain the anointing, its purpose, and the sequence of its fulfillment for Jesus and believers:
    1. Psalm 110:4—Jesus was consecrated as High Priest forever in the order of Melchizedek (Hebrew 7:20-28)
    2. Isaiah 11:1-2—Promised anointing of Jesus in the seven spirits of YaHavah
    3. Daniel 9:24—Daniel prophesied the anointing of Jesus, identified by YaHavah through Daniel as the Holy one
    4. Matthew 3:16-17—Fulfillment of the anointing represented by the descending dove and voice of YHVH.
    5. John 3:5-8—Jesus told his disciples that one must be born again in the spirit to see the Kingdom of YHVH.
    6. Revelation 5:6— 6—And I beheld, and, lo, in the midst of the throne and of the Four Living Creatures, and in the midst of the elders, stood a Lamb as it had been slain, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven Spirits of YHVH sent forth into all the earth. (Acts 2:1-4; Isaiah 11:1) “The seven spirits sent forth” is the point to these verses. The seven spirits are how YaHavah teaches and cares for true believers. Read Proverbs 8:12-21.
    7. Acts 2:1-4— The manifestation of the Comforter by the seven spirit anointing was evidenced by a wind in the upper room and flames over the heads of the disciples. One must be born again in the Spirit of YaHavah to see the Kingdom of YHVH. This anointing showed the first century world the difference between Christianity and the world. The pagans of that time called Paul a “god” because of the wisdom of his words to them, which he did not accept and put his life at risk. In the second century, Jesus was labeled as an incarnated god in Hellenistic pagan tradition and no one had the good sense to rebuke it. Jesus was born human. He had to be human to fulfill the Genesis 3 prophecy about him. The father of all humans is Adam and his sin is visited down on all humans, except one. His name is Jesus and his father is YaHavah. YaHavah is sinless, making Jesus sinless and totally free of Adam’s sin and death and worthy to pay the price for Adam’s sin. He was also worthy to receive the Book of Life from which he will judge all at the end. Everyone knows the Book of Life as the scroll with seven seals. The seals are lessons for us on how to remain in the Book of Life. But that too has been veiled over by the deceit of the “enchanter” of Genesis. We know him as the serpent, devil, and Satan.

    The title of “Christian” implies the anointing of the Spirit of YaHavah in repentant believers. In 1Corinthians 2:16, the traditional translation is “But we have the mind of Christ.” Christ means anointed or consecrated to YHVH. In the case of being born again, the mind is consecrated in the Spirit of YHVH through Jesus Christ by YHVH. True born again persons have the seven spirits of YaHavah to protect them against the wiles and lies of the enchanter.

    I hope this has been of some help to you and your readers.

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