The doctrine of man’s depravity, of all the cardinal biblical truths should never need to be defended. The empirical evidence for man’s sinful nature is irrefutable and ubiquitous. It is the inescapable reality of life, manifest in our actions and—as we’ve already considered previously—rooted in our hearts.
And Jesus made it clear that our internal corruption spills over not only into our outward actions but also our words. He said, “The mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart” (Matthew 12:34). James 3:3–10 compares the tongue to fire, spreading a conflagration of destruction and evil everywhere. Proverbs 10:32 says the mouth of the wicked speaks what is perverse. Proverbs 15:2 says, “The mouth of fools spouts folly.” Scripture frequently describes the mouth of the sinner as a fountain of evil. A person’s speech reveals his or her true character. And worst of all, “no one can tame the tongue; it is a restless evil and full of deadly poison” (James 3:8).
In Romans 3:13–14 the apostle Paul makes that very point—and underscores the universal application—with a rapid- fire series of quotations from Psalm 5:9; 140:3; and 10:7. “‘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.’”
The sinner’s wickedness is evident the moment he opens his mouth. And notice the progression, from the throat to the tongue to the lips—traversing a mouth that is full of cursing and bitterness. The next verse (Romans 3:15) then shifts to the feet. It is as if he wants to portray the wickedness spewing forth from humanity like vomit.
Paul (like the psalmist before him) is painting a deliberately revolting picture: “Their throat is an open grave” (Psalm 5:9). To a Jewish reader in particular, nothing would sound more abominable than an open grave with a rotting corpse putting out its staggering and unbearable stench. But this is not about bad breath; it’s about something far more odious than that: an utterly corrupt soul with a decayed and still decaying heart. And because the grave is open, the evil is manifest, and the putrid foulness of it is pervasive.
And yet “with their tongues they keep deceiving” (Romans 3:13). It’s not merely that they have (in the past) been guilty of cunning and trickery. But “they keep deceiving.” They are relentless with their insincerity and double-dealing. The idea includes everything from flattery (as the source text in Psalm 5:9 says) to the most cynical brands of fraud and treachery.
Furthermore, all that evil proceeding from the mouth is not merely unclean; it is ultimately deadly—like “the poison of asps” (Romans 3:13). That is a direct quotation from Psalm 140:3. Vile, dishonest, unwholesome speech is viciously destructive, like poison. The imagery is apt. A deadly snake’s fangs are usually invisible until the snake is ready to strike, but the bite they deliver can be destructive beyond measure. In a similar way, flattery and deception might briefly conceal the evil potential of wicked speech, but the cloak of dishonesty only makes the destructive power of such words that much more sinister.
Paul is not exaggerating for effect here. Words can literally be deadly. Many conflicts have been started over words—ranging from wars between nations to conflicts that rip families asunder.
No one who listens to the speech that dominates today’s world would deny that the human mouth “is full of cursing and bitterness” (Romans 3:14)—angry, vile, filthy, blasphemous, proud, lustful, violent, lying, deceptive, destructive speech. In a way that is perhaps more conspicuous on the surface than any other aspect of human behavior, the topics and the tenor of human conversation provide irrefutable proof that the human heart is fallen and full of evil—thoroughly defiled by sin. There are certain gross evils most people would never do because of the consequences. But in today’s culture people freely speak evil with little or no restraint. And that is an inescapable reminder that even if we manage to change—or restrain—our behavior, our sinful nature still rages beneath that calm exterior.
Paul’s indictment against mankind reveals that both our character and conversation have been terminally corrupted. And as we’ll see next time, that corruption inevitably spills over into our conduct.
But this devastatingly bad news is not designed to drive us to ultimate despair, but to seek the solution outside of ourselves. Our sinful nature cannot be repaired—it must be replaced. The dark truth about man is meant to ignite our desires for a Savior who fulfilled the law that we have broken and suffered the punishment that we deserve. The apostle Paul’s indictment against mankind is designed to lead us to Christ. It is the path trod by all true gospel preachers, and one we are called to emulate.
(Adapted from The Gospel According to Paul)