Paul Derengowski, ThM
“Indeed, there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and who never sins” (Eccl. 7:20).
Imagine that you are standing before a grand jury because you have been accused of committing a heinous crime. Prior to your arrival you have been thinking to yourself that whatever the charge might be, it could not be all that bad. After all, you believe yourself to be a pretty good person. You don’t lie too much, you try and not hurt anyone, and you might even attend church twice a year, like a vast majority of your friends. In fact, although you are not religious, you are “spiritual,” and that counts for something, right? So, even though you have been accused, surely the evidence could not be so damning as to bring a full conviction. Then the judge begins to read the indictments. There are fourteen in all and the blood begins to rush from your face. Now what?
In the previous article it was pointed out that everyone automatically stands condemned before God at birth. Since every human being is an extension of the first two human beings, Adam and Eve, and they rebelled against God in the beginning, a sin nature was passed on to their offspring. To say that everyone is “guilty as sin” takes on a stark reality when viewed from God’s perspective. No one is without sin, including children, and all are deserving of the highest penalty for their transgressions before a holy God, even though most people think of themselves as deserving of leniency because of what they perceive as “good behavior.” Nevertheless, just what are the charges or indictments against each and every human being for inheriting what has been labeled “original sin”? What is true about fallen human nature which warrants the death penalty and dispels the fantasy that some deserve otherwise?
In the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans he provides fourteen indictments against the natural man which are a result of inheriting a sin nature. The natural man is the lost or spiritually unregenerate man, who prior to redemption stands “naked” and condemned before God. The indictments follow a scathing denouncement of those who thought they were better off than reality dictated, for some during Paul’s day either appealed to their religious heritage or self-righteousness while condemning others as the bases to vindicate themselves before God. God would have none of it, though, and Paul speaks in unflattering and candid terms about human nature as God sees it apart from His gracious forgiveness and blood-bought redemption. They are the evidences which will silence the condemned on the Day of Judgment and break the hearts of the redeemed upon introspection.
Indictment #1: There is none righteous, not even one.
Righteousness implies an absolute standard. There is nothing relativistic about God’s judgment when looking upon man amid his sin. Earlier there were those who tried to exalt themselves in contrast to others as they attempted to escape God’s judgment (Rom. 2:1-3), but because they were guilty of suppressing the truth in unrighteousness (Rom. 1:18-ff.), their attempt was born out of hypocrisy. Anyone who dares to make a moral judgment against another, while propping oneself up as morally superior, without appealing to God’s absolute standard (which is today found in God’s revelation, the Bible) stands convicted of the first charge of unrighteousness.
There is not one person, apart from Jesus Christ himself, who was ever born into the world and lived up to God’s righteous standard. Not even one! All have sinned and fallen short. Some have tried to circumvent this first indictment by appealing to family lineage or religious ritualism (like infant baptism or the “age of accountability” argument), but such circumvention is in vain when viewed from God’s perspective. None are born righteous. All are naturally at odds with God from the outset of their lives. All are worthy of God’s condemnation. Each and every one!
Indictment #2: There is none who understands.
The Greek word for “understand” (suniemi) implies not only the ability to intelligently perceive, but to bring or set things together coherently. Man in his fallen state is unable to do so, especially when it comes to the things of God. Not only does he live in a fantasy world where everything is interpreted through the lens of unbelief and rebellion, he actually goes out of his way to try and turn that fantasy into reality. He exchanges the truth for a lie in an effort to try and forget God at every turn. Because of his incapability to coherently put all the pieces of God’s creation together in an understandable whole, he randomly wanders through life like a blind man in a dark room without windows. It is the condition that all undergo until God removes the blinders of unbelief so that the lost may see and turn away from the darkness unto the light “and from the dominion of Satan to God, in order that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who have been sanctified by faith in” Jesus (Acts 26:18).
Indictment #3: There is none who seeks for God.
One of the most common fallacies spread about by both the unbeliever and many believers is that if or when a person comes to God, it is because the unbeliever when looking for Him. Nothing could be further from the truth. As noted in the Fall of Man narrative (Gen. 3), the sinner has no natural inclination to seek out God. Instead, he has a natural propensity to run and hide from him. Pride, shame, and inherent guilt—because man created in the image of God knows better than to disobey Him—keep man on the run as a fugitive. Although the sinner is deluded into thinking that he will not be held accountable for his wayward rebellion, one day there will be an accounting. All of his deeds will be taken into consideration, not to escape the punishment of hell or to receive the reward of heaven, but to mitigate his eventual eternal suffering. Although unregenerate man on the run from God deserves the ultimate punishment for his sin, God is still merciful to take into account whatever deeds the sinner may perform to lessen it. In the meantime, the unredeemed sinner only seeks one thing: whatever serves his own interests, none of which have anything to do with God.
Indictment #4: All have turned aside.
Commensurate with the previous indictment is the additional indictment of turning aside, turning away, or to avoid. In fact, given the aorist tense of the verb which means “to turn,” the sinner has already done it. It is not a process or a continued act, but one that has already taken place! But, turn aside or away from what or whom? Given the previous comment related to the sinner’s unwillingness or inability to seek for God the context would warrant that the sinner naturally turns away from or avoids God. But, when did that happen? Again, given the broader context which leads all the way back to Chapter 1 and the creation of the world in verse 20, the sinner turned away from God in Adam when Adam turned away from God in the Garden. Man in his natural fallen disposition went his own way by acting independently of God and is now in no-man’s-land, with an awareness of God (1:19), but without any inclination to turn around and obey Him.
Indictment #5: Together they have become useless.
Paul continues to lay out God’s case against the natural man lost in sin by asserting that he is “useless.” Before providing this indictment he uses the adverb hama which most Bible translations have rendered as “Together.” A better translation, though, given the absence of the dative case, would be “at the same time,” which would be consistent with Paul’s overall argument that when mankind fell, it fell “at the same time,” irrespective of nationality or election (i.e. Jew or Greek). In Adam, at the time he walked away from God, so did all mankind. At that point he became “useless” (Gr. achreoō) or morally and ethically depraved. He was a rudderless ship, having no compass to guide him, as he was tossed and turned by every capricious personal impulse or wave of teaching or learning. Given that he had tried in vain to block God out of his thoughts by suppressing the revelation God had given (Rom. 1:18), he knew not where he had come from or where he was going. Life was a crap-shoot, without meaning and without hope. Such is the condition of each and every lost person today. Life is meaningless to them, if truth be told and they are consistent. They are totally and morally bankrupt to try and make it otherwise. To discuss morals or ethics with them is “useless,” given they have no absolute foundation or reason to believe anything, since their moral compass is completely and utterly gone.
Indictment #6: There is none who does good, there is not even one.
Following the previous indictment on the morally bankrupt condition of the man lost in sin is the further reality that there is none who does good. Here Paul is not saying that humans are incapable of performing beneficent deeds as judged by human standards. Human assistance after a tragedy is regularly seen today or visiting someone in the hospital during an illness are “good” from an overall human viewpoint. What Paul is saying is that in God’s estimation no one can perform a “good” deed because of the presence of sin in each and every person’s life. Here Paul is reiterating just how pervasive the stain of sin became the moment Adam walked away from God. Everything mankind does amid his depravity is equally depraved, even though it may have the outward appearance of wholesomeness. Sin’s ever-presence in man constantly compels him to act with ulterior motives even in the best or worst of times. If it was otherwise, then the ultimate act of goodness, which is to work the works of God or to “believe in Him whom He has sent” (Jn. 6:29) could be accomplished through human effort and Jesus would have died in vain (Gal. 2:21). Mankind, in turn, would have something to boast about (Eph. 2:9) and become “like God” by declaring its own righteousness to be at least on a par with God’s, if not subordinating Him to the human standard of righteousness. Such subordination, however, would have extinguished God’s existence and made mankind “God,” or more likely, the devil, who originally proposed such a plan to Adam and Eve when he seduced them to act independently of God at the beginning of human history in the Garden of Eden. Instead, Paul reveals, there is no one who does good, not even one. The alternative to such a reality is to start down a demonically inspired slippery slope where every man is true and God is found to be a liar.
7. Their throat is an open grave.
The vivid imagery continues by describing the indicted as having throats which are opened graves. Here Paul obviously has the speech of the depraved in mind. Paul begins with the throat because that is where the actual sound is generated to form words. Some have thought that by referencing the throat that Paul has in mind the depth of the gravity of sin involved. That is a distinct possibility. Whatever the case he describes the degenerate’s speech as an “opened grave,” which is a better translation of the perfect passive participle (aneōgmenos) than most translations which render it as an adjective: “open.” When Adam sinned, sin made his speech as an opened grave, and the stench of the deceased was passed on to everyone thereafter. The idea is not that the deceased in the grave proffer any intelligent speech, but that what the living have to say reeks of the putrid and rotting (Eph. 4:29). Such imagery is consistent with what Paul had to say about anyone prior to salvation: “And you were dead in trespasses and sins…even when we were dead in our transgressions….” (Eph. 2:1, 5). The spiritually dead only produce speech consistent with that which proceeds from an opened grave. It is a far cry from those who argue that man is capable of calling out to God to accept His invitation to “accept Jesus” or “turn a new leaf” simply because the deceased has decided to act in accord with his own volition.
Indictment #8: With their tongues they keep deceiving.
Moving from the throat, as an opened grave analogy, Paul reveals the actual speech of fallen man is continuously rife with deception. Whether it is through habitual lying, gossip, misleading statements, slander, ad hominem insults, unkind or rude remarks, ingratitude, or innuendo, man left to himself is dishonest and vile in what he has to say, whether it is about himself, God, or creation. It is not that every other sentence which comes streaming forth from his lips is chockfull of four-letter expletives. Such mindless scatological lingo only highlights how disgusting and degenerate the unregenerate are without God. No, the dishonesty, deceit, and vileness is manifest through means which exalt humanity to a status which is antithetical to how God views it in light of its lost condition. Typically this is seen, as mentioned above, in the context of man seeing himself as being pretty good in his own eyes, when the reality is he not only habitually suppresses the revealed truth of God, but then he sanctions the tawdry behavior of others like him who do the same (Rom. 1:32). The lost man is a fraudulent man who wants it every which way but loose, and then stands in abject judgment of others for not doing as he says, rather than as he does. When Jesus repeatedly called the scribes and Pharisees “Hypocrites” (Matt. 23:18-ff.), or those who pretend, being able to wear two faces at once (Matt. 6:16), surely Paul had Jesus’ commentary somewhere in the back of his mind when he presented this eighth indictment against sinful humans and their habitually deceptive tongues.
Indictment #9: The poison of asps is under their lips.
The natural man’s speech is still in view when Paul characterizes it as the poison of asps or venomous snakes. The asp is likely the Egyptian cobra whose bite injects a neurotoxin and cytotoxin into a victim which attacks its nervous system, as well as its cell structure. When the nervous system is affected a fairly rapid death takes place—usually in about 10 minutes—as nerve signals are interrupted from the brain to the muscles and eventually the heart and the lungs causing death. Cells are destroyed as well when the venom causes them to lose their membranes and integrity, leading to a failure to provide oxygen to the body and immunity from infection. If one were to apply what Paul is saying to the speech of the indicted one could conclude that such talk causes the eventual paralysis and death, figuratively, of those hearing it. There is nothing edifying, rational, or hopeful in the poisoned speech of a lost man, even though some who are equally as dead in spirit as the person are doing the talking may be charmed by his rhetoric. In fact, the deceased may be amused or even applaud his venomous speech. After all, a snake bite to someone who is already dead will have no effect. To the living, though, it is a painful, nauseating, death-inducing experience that has dire consequences if not remedied immediately with the grace and truth of God.
Indictment #10: Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness.
Consistent with Paul’s previous declarations concerning the putrid, deceptive, and poisonous speech of the lost is the content of the speech in verse 14. “The mouth of whom is full of curses and bitterness.” It’s not that the depraved have an occasional slip of the tongue and utter something mean-spirited. It’s that everything which comes spewing forth from between their lips amounts to nothing more than one curse or bitter gripe after another. Remove the positive influence of God from the mix and the lost man is nothing more than a lop-sided negative influence upon everyone around him. Cursing in this sense has to do with an evil prayerful wish of ill-fate toward someone or something. Bitterness has to do with that which is rotten in attitude; an angry, hostile resentment towards others which ultimately ends with taking a shot at God. A man lost in sin either subconsciously or consciously rails against God, constantly, and that often spills over into how he treats other human beings. Nothing escapes his wrath, since he irrationally believes that both the world and God owe him something. Yet, it is because of his failure to realize that the lie told to him, in Adam, never came to fruition and now he is on the warpath against any and all who might get in his way. Oh, there may be momentary interruptions of human joy and happiness, but for the most part the unregenerate man is inherently angry and bitter with himself, the world, and especially God. His damnable and hostile speech is a clear indication of it.
Indictment #11: Their feet are swift to shed blood.
Taking his cue from the Book of Isaiah, Chapter 59, Paul moves from degenerate talk employed by the natural man to degenerate action. Sometimes, in the minds of fallen men, it is not enough to character assassinate another through slanderous or injurious diatribe. One is compelled to act more forcefully to vanquish perceived enemies, opponents, or inconveniences by quickly moving to murder them. It is what the nation of Israel did in Paul’s reference and it is what fallen mankind has been doing from the beginning when Cain first slew his brother Abel and then played the innocent victim before God when he denied knowing where he had buried him and then asked, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Murder, though, is not only a dead end solution to any problem, those committing murder are worthy of death themselves (Gen. 9:6; Ex. 21:12; Rom. 13:1-4). Man knows this down deep within his otherwise seared conscience, yet it still does not prevent him from extinguishing the life of others when he feels it is necessary. Ironically, the desperate act to swiftly shed the blood of another human increasingly includes taking the life of the perpetrator. What initially began as a solution to terminate a political foe, business partner, or loving spouse often includes the termination of the murderer as well through a selfish and cowardly act of suicide. The last enemy of man’s deception, namely death, becomes a friend, or at least so it seems, and the natural man hastens his demise in a final lashing out against God by taking his own life, to which the devil applauds his effort (Jn. 8:44; 1 Pet. 5:8).
Indictment #12: Destruction and misery are in their paths.
The twelfth indictment against the natural man is futuristic in scope and could be interpreted in a couple of different ways. Given all that Paul has written previously about the deceptive and murderous, he could be saying that the end result is destruction and misery for those who come into contact with them or Paul could be describing the future destiny of the fallen man who remains trapped by his sin. Most likely it is the former that Paul has in mind. Wherever the degenerate man goes destruction or brokenness (Gr. suntrimma) and misery or ruin (Gr. talaiporia) lies in his wake (paths). Paul’s words to the Ephesians ring true in this respect when he described those believers who prior to God’s intervention were “separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (2:12). Degenerate human beings impact all they meet along their life’s journey in destructive and miserable ways, which ends in the same for them. Again, it’s not that they cannot perform humanly benevolent deeds or provide glimpses of joy (Matt. 7:11), but that in the final analysis, those deeds and appearances are tainted by sin which end in brokenness and ruin.
Indictment #13: And the path of peace they have not known.
Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me” (Jn. 14:6). The word for the “way” (Gr. hodos) in John’s Gospel to describe Jesus is the same word Paul uses to describe the “path” (hodos) of peace that escapes the lost man. Jesus is the path of peace and the lost man does not have a clue who he is. Oh, he may have used Jesus’ name as a curse word or he may have even prayed a few sanctimonious prayers to impress his friends, but he does not know him. Jesus is the one who paid the sin debt in order that there would be peace between God and man. Peace implies a calling of a truce between two or more warring factions. Peace implies a settled agreement whereby two or more parties previously engaged in conflict are now at ease. Peace implies the healing of strife and division. The lost knows nothing about God’s kind of peace because they know nothing about Jesus. Sadly, one day, many of the lost will claim that they do know him, as they offer their self-styled ritualism as a substitute for living their lives in accord with his lordship. His response will be, “I never knew you; depart from me, you who practice lawlessness” (Matt. 7:21-23). Then they will bow their knees to the Lord, as the Lord, but it will be too late (Rom. 14:11; Phil. 2:10). That will be all they will know of “the path of peace” as they descend down the path of eternal torment in the Lake of Fire (Rev. 20:11-15).
Indictment #14: There is no fear of God before their eyes.
Perhaps the most damning indictment against the lost man is that he has no fear of God. Some modern-day Christians soften the idea of fear to mean “reverential respect,” but that is hardly what Paul has in mind here, much less elsewhere. The Greek word for fear (phobos) is the same word regularly translated in the English for “phobia.” It means to dread, to terrorize, or to put one into a state of severe distress. “It is a terrifying [phoberos] thing to fall into the hands of the living God,” wrote the writer of Hebrews (Heb. 10:31). Such terror is not shared by the lost, much less by many who are redeemed. Most will not even acknowledge that God exists or if a discussion arises over His existence, they go into overdrive to suppress what they do know about God in an effort to conclude that He does not exist. To the lost and depraved ignorance or agnosticism is bliss when God is the topic. They neither fear him nor are they going to—until, once again, it is too late. Then they will be as those in the impending Great Tribulation, as they out to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the presence of Him who sits on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb; for the great day of their wrath has come; and who is able to stand?” (Rev. 6:16).
Man in his lost state stands condemned before a holy and righteous God. Before he ever entered the world and breathed his first breath it was so. The reason for this is the sin nature passed on to him from his ancestors which goes all the way back to Adam. God has provided a succinct list of indictments against man to lay out His case against him to prove that man without God is fallen and he can only act in certain ways, none of which will remove the death sentence which man duly deserves.
Paul wrote, under God’s inspiration:
Romans 3:9 What then? Are we better than they? Not at all; for we have already charged that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin; (10) as it is written, “There is none righteous, not even one; (11) There is none who understands, There is none who seeks for God; (12) All have turned aside, together they have become useless; There is none who does good, There is not even one.” (13) “Their throat is an open grave, With their tongues they keep deceiving,” “The poison of asps is under their lips”; (14) “Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness”; (15) “Their feet are swift to shed blood, (16) Destruction and misery are in their paths, (17) And the path of peace have they not known.” (18) “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
Let those with eyes to see and a mind to comprehend do so with cautious understanding and resolve.