We’ve All Blown It

Romans 3:9-20

July 9, 2006 | Brian Bill

It had been a long day for the clerk at the cosmetic counter.  Having been on her feet all day, she was looking forward to going home.  Just before the doors closed, a man came running up to her frantically and said, “Tomorrow’s my wife’s birthday and I don’t have anything for her.  What do you recommend?”  The clerk brought out a nice bottle of perfume worth about $100.  He gasped and said, “That’s way too expensive!”  So she held up a bottle that cost $50.  He said, “That’s still too expensive.  What do you have that’s less expensive?”  She searched some more and found something for $25.  The husband replied, “That’s still too expensive!  What else do you have?”  She then brought out the cheapest thing she had at the counter, a tiny $10 bottle of perfume.  He was now exasperated and said, “You don’t understand.  I want you to show me something cheap!”  She quickly reached under the counter, pulled out a mirror, told him to look into it and said, “Try this!”

Mirrors don’t lie, do they?  This mega mirror that I have here today is nothing to mess around with.  It not only comes with bright lights but it also has a magnifying feature so that you can see more than you want to see.  Let me demonstrate.  As I look into this mirror I see that I need a haircut and that I’m starting to show some silver highlights.  I also see that in my haste to shave this morning I missed a few whiskers.  I also notice that I have a “uni-brow” that my daughters tell me I should pluck.  My forehead looks a bit greasy and I have this ugly scar across my chin which is a visible reminder of the car accident I had when I was 17.  I’m sure I could find additional imperfections if I studied my reflection some more but frankly what I’ve seen already is quite frightening.  I think I’ll just get up and walk away from this for awhile.

James 1:23-24 says, “Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like.”  The Bible is a mirror that reflects with pinpoint precision what we are really like.  And it’s not a pretty sight because sin has left a significant scar on each of us.  John Calvin wrote: “The Bible is like a mirror.  In it we see our imperfections and the curse that comes with it just as a mirror shows us the spots on our face.”  It’s like the person who took his pictures back to the photographer and said, “I want my money back.  These pictures don’t do me justice.”  The photographer looked at the pictures and said, “You don’t need justice, you need mercy!”  

As we’ve been learning from our study in Romans, the picture that Paul paints of the human race is not a pretty sight.  The good news is that he’s almost done speaking about sin.  The bad news is that what we are faced with today is perhaps the strongest statement on sin in all of Scripture.  This vivid description of human depravity will make most of us want to turn away.  But we can’t and we won’t because the gospel will only become good news when we first understand the bad news.  Mercy only makes sense when we commiserate about our misery.  Grace is amazing only to those who are annihilated by guilt.  As we come to our text today, Paul gets to the punch line of what he’s been saying for three long chapters.  

  • The whole world is under God’s wrath (1:18)
  • The Gentiles are guilty (1:18-32)
  • The Moralists are guilty (2:1-16)
  • The Jews are guilty (2:17-29)
  • No excuses will be accepted (3:1-8)

Please turn in your copy of the Scriptures to Romans 3:9-20.  This section begins with two simple questions that are quickly answered in verse 9.  Then, utilizing a string of Scripture that is expertly woven together, Paul holds up the mirror of the Word to show us just how sinful we really are.  Interestingly, Paul does not begin with an introduction, but with his conclusion.

The Conclusion (3:9)

In verse 9 Paul restates the basic charge: “What shall we conclude then?  Are we any better?  Not at all!  We have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin.”  When it comes to sin, no one has a pass.  Whether Jewish or Gentile, moral or immoral, religious or irreligious, everyone is under sin.  No group is guiltier than another and no individual is exempt.  I’m a sinner…and so are you.  I like what that famous theologian Pogo once said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Paul is “making the charge” which is a legal term often used to describe someone who was indicted for a certain offense.  The phrase “under sin” is a military term that means “under the authority of someone.”  In this case it means that everyone alike is under the control of sin.  The idea is similar in meaning to Galatians 3:10: “All who rely on observing the law are under a curse…”  We are first introduced to the controlling nature of sin when it is personified as a master in Genesis 4:7: “…Sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it.”  Jesus adds in John 8:34: “I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin.”  Interestingly, Paul uses the word “sin” approximately 48 times in Romans not in the plural to denote sinful acts, but in the singular to refer to the human condition being under the dominating force of sin.  We’ve all blown it and we’re all busted.  We sin because we are sinners.

Many years ago G.K. Chesterton sent a letter to the editor of a newspaper in response to the question, “What is wrong with the world today?”  Here was his answer: “Dear sir, I am.”  It was the shortest letter they had received on the subject but it was also the most profound.  He must have been reading Romans 3.  After stating his conclusion, Paul moves on to a 13-count indictment that covers the condition, the conversation, the conduct, and the complacency of the accused.  

Our Condition (3:10-12)

Paul has appealed to creation and the conscience and now he drives home the conviction that comes from Scripture itself.  Notice the little phrase in verse 10: “As it is written…”  This is a common expression in the Book of Romans, stated on 16 different occasions.  I love that this is in the present tense, meaning that the Bible still speaks, right now, into our situation.  It’s not a dead book, but rather is “living and active” as Hebrews 4:12 says.  Paul is not speaking from his own authority but from the authority of the authoritative Word of God.  Jesus also quoted the Scriptures on a regular basis.  Matthew 4:4 is but one example of many: “It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”  

Let me suggest an application at this point.  One of the missionaries on our team in Mexico City once told me that he was trying to interject Scripture into every conversation he had.  Sometimes it would be an actual quote and other times it was a paraphrase but he worked at getting the Word into his words so that what came out of his mouth would benefit those who listen.  Let’s try to do the same thing, shall we?  By the way, I think that’s why Billy Graham is so effective at evangelism.  If you listen to him preach, he continuously repeats this refrain, “The Bible says…”

Most of the passages that Paul quotes are from the Book of Psalms, with one from Isaiah and one from Ecclesiastes.  It’s as if he is saying, “All I have to do is go to Israel’s songbook to prove that we are all sinful.  If I can find sin in the midst of all these songs, I can certainly find it in the other books of the Bible.”  Before we look at our condition, could you just underline or circle the words “no one,” “all,” “not even one” in these two verses?  Let’s read them together: “As it is written: ‘There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God.  All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.’”  We are not in good shape are we?  Let’s look at our condition more closely. 

  • No one is righteous.  God judges according to His own sinless perfection and compared to His holiness we are not even close to His righteousness.  To prevent any of us thinking that maybe there’s an exception to this, other than Jesus, Paul adds, “not even one.” Compared to each other, some of us have relatively more or less righteousness, but held up to God’s holiness, no one is righteous.  Not all are equally sinful but all are equally sinners.
  • No one understands.  While we can all learn about God, apart from God’s enablement, no one can fully understand Him.  1 Corinthians 2:14: “The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned.”  My in-laws just returned from a trip to Israel.  Their tour guide did a fantastic job but they marveled at how he could know so much about the holy land and what Jesus taught and still not be a believer.  Apart from God’s Spirit, as Ephesians 4:18 says, those who are unsaved are “darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them…”
  • No one seeks God.  While it may appear that there are some that are actually seeking hard after God, on their own, people are actually running from God.  The word “seek” here means to “seek with determination.”  Once again, if God does not draw someone to Himself, they cannot get there on their own as Jesus makes clear in John 6:44: “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.”  I was involved in “seeker ministry” for six years and while I celebrate what God is doing through this strategy, I’ve come to realize that the seeker we must be most sensitive to is the Savior, for He is the one who came “to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10).
  • All have turned away.  This phrase was used to describe a soldier who had deserted his post.  When God looked at His people in Exodus 32:8, He declared: “They have been quick to turn away from what I commanded them…”  Instead of running toward God we are running away because we have a bias toward disobedience and want to do things our own way as Isaiah 53:6 says: “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way…” Ecclesiastes 7:29 adds that “men have gone in search of many schemes.”
  • Together have become worthless.  The word “worthless” is very descriptive for it was used to describe something rancid like sour milk.  I experienced something similar last weekend when the night crawlers we were using to fish with sat out in the sun a little too long and had become downright gross and slimy and smelly.  When I opened the cover the next morning I almost passed out.  In a similar way God is grossed out by our rancid unrighteousness.
  • No one who does good.  Wanting to make sure we get the point, Paul repeats the refrain that not even one person does good.  Ecclesiastes 7:20: “There is not a righteous man on earth who does what is right and never sins.”

Our Conversation (3:13-17)

Most people sin by what they say and how they say it

After describing our condition, Paul turns next to our conversation.  This makes sense for what comes out of our mouths has its source in our hearts as Jesus said in Matthew 12:34: “You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks.”  Most people sin by what they say and how they say it.  Have you ever wished you could take back something you’ve said that really hurt someone?  I have.  That’s why in Proverbs 6, when God mentions six things He hates, three of them have to do with what we say.

Let’s read Romans 3:13-16 together: “Their throats are open graves; their tongues practice deceit.”  “The poison of vipers is on their lips.”  “Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.”  Paul traces how human depravity has infected the human anatomy:

  • Throats.  The Living Bible paraphrases it this way: “Their talk is foul and filthy like the stench of an open grave.”  Using a very graphic word picture, Paul is saying that the throat is to the heart what an open grave is to the corpse within it.  Graves are designed to be covered in respect for the deceased and to also protect those who pass by so they don’t have to see the disfigurement or smell the decay.  The phrase “open grave” literally means a yawning grave.  I guess that means we should be careful when we yawn so that people don’t see down our throats into our decaying hearts.
  • Tongues.  The tongue literally “practices deceit.”  That means that we’ve been deceitful so much that we’ve actually become good at it.  Have you ever noticed that you don’t have to teach a child how to lie?  It just comes naturally.  
  • Lips.  The poison of vipers is very descriptive.  Similar to our rattlesnakes a viper had a sac full of venom in its throat that was unleashed through hollow fangs when provoked.  Our lips can unleash venomous verbiage that poisons the people around us.
  • Mouths.  Before I was saved I had a very foul mouth, out of which came both cursing and bitterness.  The word “cursing” carries the idea of desiring the worst for a person by open criticism and public defamation.  Bitterness describes openly-expressed emotional hostility toward someone.  Out of the bitterness of the heart flows the cursing of the mouth.  David describes a person like this in Psalm 64:3-4: “They sharpen their tongues like swords and aim their words like deadly arrows.  They shoot from ambush at the innocent man; they shoot at him suddenly, without fear.”

Our Conduct (3:17)

Because of our depraved condition, our conversations are filled with decaying and depraved words.  But it doesn’t stop there because by nature we also end up doing deeds that are destructive.  Look at verse 17: “Their feet are swift to shed blood; ruin and misery mark their ways, and the way of peace they do not know.”  Our world history is filled with mass extermination, wars, and random crime.  According to Kerby Anderson, “In America, the crime clock continues to click: one murder every 22 minutes, one rape every 5 minutes, one robbery every 49 seconds, and one burglary every 10 seconds.”  We are a very violent society as evidenced by Columbine, and the journals and notes of the killers that have just become available this week.  Dr. Alan Barnett, a statistician with MIT, says a child born in America has a greater statistical probability of being murdered than did an American soldier who left for World War II.  Actually the most violent place to be today is in a mother’s womb, with over 43 million babies murdered since 1973.  

From head to foot sin has permeated everything.  Verse 17 ends by stating that most people actually move away from peace rather than toward being peacemakers: “and the way of peace they do not know.” 

Our Complacency (3:18)

Why is it that our condition is so messed up?  Why are our conversations filled with decay and death?  Why is our conduct so violent?  The answer in large part is found in verse 18 where we read of yet one more body part tainted by sin: “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”  We have become complacent towards God.  We take our sin too lightly because we take God too lightly.  

This could be paraphrased: “They care nothing about God or what He thinks about them.”  In his book called “The Discipline of Grace,” Jerry Bridges writes: “When we sin we are in effect treating God and His Word with disdain or contempt.”  We could say it this way: Every sin has its roots in our rejection of God and our refusal to revere Him.

I’m convinced that the best way to experience victory over sin in our lives is to cultivate a healthy fear of God.  Proverbs 9:10: “…through the fear of the LORD a man avoids evil.”

After the giving of the 10 Commandments, the people become afraid of the quaking mountain and the thunder and the lightning.  Moses tried to settle their nerves by telling him they didn’t have to be afraid, but they did need to fear God.  Listen to Exodus 20:20: “Do not be afraid. God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning.”  I think the evangelical church in America, including ours, could stand to fear God much more than we do.  The early church sure learned about this after Ananias and Sapphira lost their lives because of their lies in Acts 5:11: “Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events.” They were in awe of His greatness and had a holy dread of violating His standards.

Let’s get practical here.  When we sin, or are tempted to sin, we usually follow whatever is put before our eyes.  If we can consciously keep God before our eyes and focus on the fear that is due His name, we will not want to sin.  In other words, when God is “big” we are careful with our conduct; and when we “shrink” Him or ignore Him, we’re more apt to do what we want to do.  Psalm 101:3: “I will set before my eyes no vile thing.”  Let’s by like David who prayed in Psalm 86:11: “Give me an undivided heart, that I may fear your name.”

Taken together, these verses teach that sin has infected and affected our condition, our conversation, our conduct, and our complacency.  Holding up the mirror of the Word of God, we affirm the historic Protestant doctrine of Total Depravity.  We are totally depraved, not just deprived.  We don’t need more education, or more money, or more anything.  We can’t blame our environment or our background.  We’ve all blown it and are busted.  As someone has said, “If sin were blue, we’d be blue all over.”  Part would be dark blue, part would be sky blue, part would be light blue, but every part would be blue in some shade or another.

Our Condemnation (3:19-20)

After spelling out the indictment, Paul makes his closing argument in verses 19-20 to show that we are all condemned: “Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God.  Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.” I see three truths from these two verses.

  • We will be silenced before God.  As we come face-to-face with the mirror of God’s Word and see our scars of sin, we will be silenced before Him.  This word literally means, “To stop muttering.”  There is nothing we can say, no excuse we can think up.  We’ve blown it and we’re busted.  Psalm 107:42: “…all the wicked shut their mouths.” When confronted with the majesty and mystery of God, Job realized that he had nothing to say in Job 40:4-5: “I am unworthy-how can I reply to you?  I put my hand over my mouth.  I spoke once, but I have no answer- twice, but I will say no more.”  Salvation comes only to those who are silenced by their sinfulness.  Until you and I stop complaining, blaming and making excuses, we cannot be saved.  Hell is filled with people who simply would not stop talking.  We must own our sin and be silent before the Savior.  
  • We are accountable to the Almighty.  This is a legal term, which means that we are liable before God.  We are guilty as charged.  Everyone will appear before the Almighty and give an account of their lives.  Are you ready for judgment day?
  • The Law helps us see that we are lawbreakers.  J.B. Philips renders verse 21 this way: “It is the straightedge of the law that shows us how crooked we are.”   Contrary to popular belief, the keeping of the Law is impossible because it was given to expose sin.  Turn over to Romans 7:7: “Indeed I would not have known what sin was except through the law.”  Galatians 2:16 says, “Know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ.  So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified.”

My daughter Lydia and I ran in a 5K race on the 4th of July.  The route was mapped out clearly as the first half-mile went straight up a steep hill.  I struggled, huffing and puffing as I lumbered up the road.  Lydia kept looking back at me, wondering if I would make it as she asked, “Daddy, are you OK?”   When she saw me looking for a place to sit down, she’d say, “Come on, daddy, you can do it.”  I finished the race with a time of 26:53, placing 20th out of 31 in my age group and 296th out of 579 runners.  Like I often say, I may be short…but I’m slow!  The winner ran a time of 15:22.  A lot of people did better than me, including Lydia, and I finished ahead of some others.  But I was nowhere near the top.  

Imagine if you will that God set the standard for the winner, not at 15 minutes but at 3.2 minutes.  Do you know anyone who can run a one-minute mile?  It’s impossible.  Likewise, in the race of life, you may finish ahead of someone else, or behind others, but the fact of the matter is that no one is good enough to meet God’s standards.  We need help, don’t we?   Our only hope is to put our faith and trust in Christ who finished the race in record time.  He is the only sinless Son of God who died as our substitute on the Cross.  When we place our faith and trust in Him, His time is credited to our account and we are declared righteous, not by what we have done but by what He has done.

When we look into the mirror of God’s Word, it becomes clear pretty quickly that we need an extreme makeover.  We are deeply depraved, hopelessly lost, but incredibly loved.


R.C. Buckner, a big, bold and brash man, lived about 100 years ago in Texas.  This imposing figure had a very tender heart for children, starting Buckner’s Children’s Homes all across the state.  The children affectionately called him “Papa Buckner” and would run up to him every time he visited.  He would always take the time to pick up each and every child and give them a hug.   

One day he was visiting one of the homes and was hugging all the children gathered around him when he noticed a little girl who was standing with her face against the wall.  He discovered that she had been seriously burned in an accident, and had a terrible scar on her face.  He went over to her and asked, “Sweetheart, don’t you want Papa Buckner to hug you?”  Without turning around she snarled, “No, I’m too ugly.”  Papa Buckner knelt down, picked her up in his burly arms, turned her face gently toward his, looked right into her eyes and then planted a tender kiss right on the burned portion of her face.  After he kissed her, he said, “Sweetheart, you are beautiful to me, and you are beautiful to God.”

Fellow sinner, the holy and awesome God of the universe has bent down and kissed the scars of our sin when He sent the Savior to the world.  In spite of our hideous deformities and our unholy depravity, He wraps His arms around us, turns our face toward His and says, “You are beautiful to me!”  

I’d like you to take out your bulletin right now and find the “Sermon Notes” insert.  You’ll notice that we’ve put a post-it note on this sheet.  I’d like you to take a pen and write these words on the note:

I’ve blown it, but I’m beautiful to God

I’m fatally flawed, but fully forgiven

Please take this post-it note off this sheet and when you get home I want you to put it on the mirror in your bathroom as a daily reminder of how much God loves you.


Once when D.L. Moody was preaching he told his audience to come back the next week and he would tell them how to get saved.  That night was the great Chicago fire and he never got that chance to give an invitation.  He determined from then on that he would always give people an opportunity to respond to the gospel message.  Likewise I was tempted to have you wait until next week because our topic will be “How to Be Right With God” but I don’t want make the same mistake that Moody did.  Allow me to explain how you can be saved using the ABCs.

Admit your condition as a depraved sinner.  Own up to the fact that your conversations have been filled with decay.  Confess that your conduct has been destructive and that you’ve been complacent toward God.  Are you ready to be silent before Him as you confess your sins?

Believe that Jesus died as your substitute.  He came to seek and to save the lost and to give his life as a ransom for your sins.

Commit yourself to Him for the rest of your life.  John 1:12 says, “But to as many as received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.”

If you sense God drawing you to Himself right now, you could make these words your own as we pray together: “Lord Jesus, I’m silenced by my sinfulness.  I admit that I’ve blown it big time and my sins are repugnant to you.  I confess that I have not feared you.  I repent and turn to you right now.  I believe that you died the death I deserved.  I accept your perfect score and commit myself to you now by asking you to come into my life.   Make me into the person you want me to be.  Amen.”

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?