Romans 3:23 is the go-to verse for a concise explanation of the human problem: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” We need to remember that in it, the apostle Paul wasn’t announcing some early church discovery. Romans 3:23 is merely a summary statement of what has been true since Adam’s fall.
Paul could have made his argument many ways without having a New Testament at his disposal. Indeed, in the course of his epistle to the Romans, he returns to this point and sometimes brings up additional arguments that prove the sinfulness of all humanity. For example, in Romans 5:14, he points out that “death reigned from Adam until Moses” even before there was a written law defining what sin was. He argues that sin must be universal because death is universal. Sin is, after all, the whole reason people die. “Death [entered the world] through sin” (Romans 5:12). “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). And everyone dies. That 100 percent statistic furnishes undeniable proof that everyone is a sinner.
Paul could also have argued from the standpoint of past judgments. God drowned the entire world in a massive flood because “the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and . . . every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5). The ruthlessness and extent of human evil was clearly enormous. And then, even after the Flood had abated and Noah and family rebooted the human race, the Lord said, “The intent of man’s heart is evil from his youth” (Genesis 8:21). God subsequently destroyed the entire civilizations of Sodom and Gomorrah because “the men of Sodom were wicked exceedingly and sinners against the Lord” (Genesis 13:13).
Paul could have proved the universality of sin with an appeal to empirical evidence. The proof of sin’s universality is everywhere. The fruits and frustrations of sin are inevitable aspects of the human experience. No sensible, rational person would ever claim to be guilt free. Even those who might try to make that claim can easily detect the guilt of everyone else. And whether they know it or not, their guilt is obvious to all as well. This is one point of Christian doctrine that is not lacking for irrefutable evidence. Everyone sins. As the apostle John says, “The whole world lies in the power of the evil one” (1 John 5:19, emphasis added). Furthermore, “All that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world” (1 John 2:16).
In short, history proves the universality of sin. Sociology proves it. The reality of death proves it. But the most potent and enduring proof of humanity’s sinfulness is found in Scripture. Therefore having declared the truth about sin and the human dilemma, Paul proves it in the most conclusive way possible with a series of quotations from the Old Testament in Romans 3:10–18.
He introduces this section with the words, “As it is written . . .” and everything that follows, through the end of verse 18, is either a direct quotation or a close paraphrase from Scripture. He draws from numerous Old Testament sources.
So this is God speaking through divine revelation about the exceeding sinfulness of sin. This is the coup de grace after Paul’s long discourse on sin. He could have pointed to history; he could have applied a logical syllogism; he could have appealed to the reader’s conscience. Paul was a great scholar. He might have manufactured a careful philosophical argument or quoted one of the ancient Greek poets.
Instead, he cites Scripture, because it is the Word of God. That, by the way, is the essential strategy underlying all sound gospel proclamation with regard to how the good news is to be disseminated: “Preach the word . . . in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction” (2 Timothy 4:2). That is precisely what Paul himself does at the culmination of his discourse about sin in Romans 3. This is the pinnacle of his presentation. He calls on God as the ultimate witness, by letting the Word of God speak to the question of sin’s universality. And it is convincing. He quotes from or alludes to a long string of Old Testament sources, including Psalm 5:9; 10:7; 14:1–3; 36:1–3; 53:1–3; 140:3; Proverbs 1:16; Isaiah 59:7–8; and Jeremiah 5:16. All those texts authoritatively seal the case Paul has spent two chapters making.
The paradigm Paul uses is a classic legal pattern. He employs courtroom terminology and follows the course of a judicial proceeding. He puts the human race on trial. There is an arraignment. Then an indictment. And finally a verdict. We’ll consider each of those components in the days ahead.
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