“For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Most Christians are familiar with Romans 3:23—perhaps too familiar. Many of us have quoted it while sharing the “Roman Road” gospel presentation. It also serves as a quick-fire explanation for why we can never find any sinless people. But how many of us have truly comprehended the devastating truth of our universal guilt?
In Romans 3:9–18, Paul gives the following summary of his long opening discourse (Romans 1:18–3:8), in which he says all of humanity—every tribe, tongue, and nation—stands guilty before God:
What then? Are we [Jews] better than they [the Gentiles]? Not at all; for we have already charged that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin;
As it is written, “There is none righteous, not even one; there is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God; all have turned aside, together they have become useless; there is none who does good, there is not even one. Their throat is an open grave, with their tongues they keep deceiving, the poison of asps is under their lips; whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness; their feet are swift to shed blood, destruction and misery are in their paths, and the path of peace they have not known. There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
Although virtually all people like to think of themselves as basically good, the testimony of God’s Word is precisely the opposite. Scripture states unequivocally that the entire human race is evil. In the vernacular of our times, humanity is bad to the bone—corrupt to the core. To put it in familiar theological terms, we are totally depraved.
We are naturally, intuitively, painfully aware of our guilt too. A ubiquitous sense of shame goes with being a fallen creature. It’s what made Adam and Eve try to mask their nakedness with leaves. That’s a perfect metaphor for the futile ways people try to paper over the shame of their wickedness. They don’t want to face it. They try to eliminate that sense of guilt by adopting a more convenient kind of morality, or by silencing their crying conscience.
The culture all around us is loaded with encouragements and incentives for people to indulge their favorite sins, ignore their own culpability, deny their guilt, and silence their conscience. In fact, a strong sense of guilt is popularly regarded as a mental-health defect. Seeing oneself fundamentally as a victim is much easier, and certainly more gratifying, than facing the reality of sin. WebMD.com, the premier online source offering simple medical advice to laypeople, features an article titled “Learning to Forgive Yourself” that includes this quote from a clinical trainer at a rehab center: “People do things—intended or not—that hurt others. You may not intend to harm, but the other person is no less hurt.” Now, you might think the article would go on to encourage the offender to seek forgiveness from the person who he or she offended, even if the offense was unintentional. Not so. The very next sentence says, “That’s when you need to stop at some point and forgive yourself.”  Jean Lawrence, “Learning to Forgive Yourself,” WebMd.com, accessed July 25, 2016, http://www.webmd.com/balance/features/learning-to-forgive-yourself?page=2.
That’s very bad advice. That attitude toward guilt has created a society full of people convinced they are purely victims, not malefactors. They won’t hear of their own culpability, much less confess it; therefore they cannot hear the good news of the gospel, much less believe it.
Admittedly, we don’t like the dishonor that our sin inevitably brings us. Naturally, we want to be free from the weight of our guilt. But suppressing guilt and denying our sinfulness is not the answer to our sin problem. That is Paul’s point in Romans 1:18, before his discussion of sin really gets started: To “suppress the truth in unrighteousness” is to incur the wrath of God.
Living under the frown of God’s wrath, under the reality of His condemnation, and under threat of eternal judgment is frightfully worse than facing our guilt. However miserable life in this world may seem because of guilt and shame, life in the next world will be infinitely more miserable for those who have to face God’s endless judgment.
Those are inevitable fruits of sin: misery in this life, and eternal, unimaginable misery in the life to come. People try to squelch their earthly despondency by artificial means such as frivolous diversions, the pursuit of pleasure, alcohol, drugs, or ultimately even suicide. But if those who give themselves over to such things manage to retain any semblance of sanity, the guilt will persist anyway, because, according to Romans 2:15, the basics of God’s moral law have been inscribed on our hearts by God Himself. Romans 2:15 also says the human conscience bears witness to that law. So whether the thoughts of our minds accuse or excuse us, the conscience bears witness to our guilt. No matter how hard we try to suppress, muffle, or shout down the voice of conscience, in the end, Paul says, “God will judge the secrets of men through Christ Jesus” (Romans 2:16).
It is a universal dilemma. The whole world is guilty before God (Romans 3:19). And Paul is meticulous in making that point. Jews and Gentiles alike have a law written on their hearts. The Israelites coming out of Egypt under Moses’ leadership received the law in more explicit fashion, inscribed by the finger of God on tablets of stone. Still more detailed laws and prophecies were recorded on papyrus scrolls. And today the entire Word of God is easily available to practically anyone on paper or in electronic form. No one gets to claim ignorance. And no one gets to claim innocence.
But worse than that, no one has the ability to break free from this sinful condition. Sin is a bitter bondage, and people under the power of sin are absolutely helpless to rid themselves of guilt in this life or escape horrible judgment in the life to come. This is not a problem only for derelicts, mass murderers, evil dictators, and other especially foul types of sinners. In our natural fallen state, we “are all under sin” (Romans 3:9, emphasis added). And “by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight” (Romans 3:20). That’s Paul’s point, and no one gets an exemption.
This, then, is the clear, bottom-line, starting-point truth in the gospel Paul preached: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). No one escapes that verdict. We have no capacity to break free of our sin or eliminate its guilt. Left to ourselves, we would be eternally damned. And that’s what we deserve.
All who come to genuine saving faith join with the penitent thief on the cross in saying “we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds” and looking to Christ, who “has done nothing wrong” (Luke 23:41).
(Adapted from The Gospel According to Paul)