What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, as it is written:
“None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”
“Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.”
“The venom of asps is under their lips.”
“Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.”
“Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known.”
“There is no fear of God before their eyes.” – Romans 3:9-18 ESV
Paul has just said that the Jews do have an advantage, because they “were entrusted with the oracles of God” (Romans 3:2 ESV). They had been given the seal of circumcision as a sign of the covenant that God had made with them. They were His chosen people. He had promised to bless them and through them bless all the nations of the earth. He had led them, protected them, given them their own land, provided them with His law, privileged them with His presence and instituted a sacrificial system that provided them with atonement for their sins. So they did have a distinct advantage. And yet, Paul begins verse nine with a question: “What then? Are we Jews any better off?” And then he answers his own question: “No, not at all.”
The Jews, Paul included, did have an advantage, but that did not mean they all took advantage of it. Some did. Some, like Abraham, recognized that their righteousness was determined by faith and not by works. They trusted in God’s promises. Better yet, they trusted in God. Martin Luther writes, “Abraham did not believe God in order that he might become the father of many nations, but he believed God as the One who is true and faithful” (Martin Luther, Commentary on Romans). Abraham believed in the faithfulness of God. He never got to live in the promised land. He never lived long enough to see his descendants become a mighty nation. And yet he believed. He trusted in the faithfulness of God. Quoting St. Augustine, Martin Luther writes, “God is glorified through faith, hope and love. According the a common saying, God is directly insulted by three sins: unbelief, despair and hatred” (Martin Luther, Commentary on Romans). Unbelief in God was an ongoing issue for the Israelites. And it manifested itself in idolatry, disobedience, stubbornness, immorality, selfishness, and the constant urge to achieve righteousness through self-effort.
So Paul says even the Jews are no better off than the Gentiles. All are under sin. Then to support his statement, Paul turns to the Old Testament Scriptures. Verses 10-18 are drawn from the Psalms and the writings of the prophets, Jeremiah and Isaiah. Almost operating in the role of a prosecuting attorney, Paul brings glaring evidence to bare against any and all who might try to claim their righteousness before God. Every single man and woman stands as guilty and condemned. None is righteous. No one understands the truth about God’s holiness and His determination that righteousness if through faith and nothing else. No one truly seeks God. They seek their own will and their own pleasure. They seek what they can get from God, not a relationship with Him. Paul uses the Scriptures to paint a bleak picture of man’s condition. But we must remember that Paul is attempting to explain the glory of the gospel of God, “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it, the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith” (Romans 1:16-17 ESV). Paul’s thesis statement for his letter seems to be, “The righteous shall live by faith.” So he goes out of his way to prove that, without faith, no one is righteous. That includes his own people, the Jews.
When John the Baptist began his ministry, he had a singular message. It was “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2 ESV). Later on, after John had been arrested by Herod, Jesus picked up that same message. “From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’” (Matthew 4:17 ESV). When we read the word, repent, we tend to think of someone having to turn away from sin. And while that is an accurate reading of the word, it is far from complete. To repent carries the idea of changing one’s mind. So when John and Jesus called the people of Israel to repentance, they were telling them to change their minds. But about what? Sin? No, sin was the outcome of something else. They needed to change their minds about God and the means of achieving a righteous standing before Him. They were still believing that righteousness was based on works. They had long ago stopped believing in the faithfulness of God and started believing in the myth of their own faithfulness. They thought they could earn favor with God through their attempts to keep His law. But Jesus told them to repent, to change their minds. He was calling them to believe in Him. All they believed about God and righteousness was wrong, and therefore, their view of their own sinfulness was wrong. They saw themselves as righteous and without sin.
But Paul was not going to let anyone stand on the lie of self-righteousness. So he proved the guilt of man with the words of God. None is righteous, no, not one. Self-righteousness is self-delusional. The idea of sinlessness is ridiculous. John wrote, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8 ESV). Self-deceit may make us feel better about ourselves, but it does not make us righteous before God. Faith in ourselves is not the kind of faith God is looking for.