A Commentary by John Stott
Three features of this grim biblical picture (10-18) stand out.
First, it declares the ungodliness of sin. Near the beginning comes the statement that *there is…no-one who seeks God* (11), and at the end *there is no fear of God before their eyes* (18). This is more than an assertion that when people renounce God they tend to plunge recklessly into evil, whereas when they fear God they shun evil (e.g. Jb. 28:28). It is rather that Scripture identifies the essence of sin as ungodliness (cf. 1:18). God’s complaint is that we do not really ‘seek’ him at all, making his glory our supreme concern (Ps. 14:2), that we have not set him before us (Ps. 54:3, RV; cf. Ps.16:8), that there is no room for him in our thoughts (Ps. 10:4), and that we do not love him with all our powers. Sin is the revolt of the self against God, the dethronement of God with a view to the enthronement of oneself. Ultimately, sin is self-deification, the reckless determination to occupy the throne which belongs to God alone.
Secondly, this catena of Old Testament verses teaches the *pervasiveness* of sin. For sin affects every part of our human constitution, every faculty and function, including our mind, emotions, sexuality, conscience and will. In verses 13-17 there is a deliberate listing of the different parts of the body. Thus, *their throats are open graves*, full of corruption and infection; *their tongues practise deceit*, instead of being dedicated to the truth; *their lips spread poison* like snakes; *their mouths* are filled with bitter curses; *their feet are swift* in the pursuit of violence, and scatter ruin and misery in their path, instead of walking in *the way of peace*; and *their eyes are* looking in the wrong direction; they do not reverence God.
These bodily limbs and organs were created and given to us so that through them we might serve people and glorify God. Instead, they are used to harm people and in rebellion against God. This is the biblical doctrine of ‘total depravity’, which I suspect is repudiated only by those who misunderstand it. It has never meant that human beings are as depraved as they could possibly be. Such a notion is manifestly absurd and untrue, and is contradicted by our everyday observation. Not all human beings are drunkards, felons, adulterers or murderers. Besides, Paul has shown how some people sometimes are able ‘by nature’ to obey the law (2:14, 27). No, the totality of our corruption refers to its *extent* (twisting and tainting every part of our humanness), not to its *degree* (depraving every part of us absolutely). As Dr. J.I.Packer has put it succinctly, on the one hand ‘no one is as bad as he or she might be’, while on the other ‘no action of ours is as good as it should be’.
Thirdly, the Old Testament quotations teach the *universality* of sin, both negatively and positively. Negatively, *there is no-one righteous, not even one* (10); *there is no-one who understands, no-one who seeks God* (11); *there is no-one who does good, not even one* (12b). Positively, ‘all have swerved aside, all alike have become debased’ (12a, REB). The repetition hammers home the point. Twice we are told that ‘all’ have gone their own way, four times that ‘no-one’ is righteous, and twice that ‘not even one’ is an exception. For to be ‘righteous’ is to live in conformity to God’s law, and ‘the best man, the noblest, the most learned, the most philanthropic; the greatest idealist, the greatest thinker, say what you like – there has never been a man who can stand up to the test of the law. Drop your plumb-line, and he is not true to it’. (cf. 1 Ki. 8:46; Ec. 7:20).
Verse 19 has proved a puzzle to commentators. Its purpose is clear, namely that *every mouth may be silenced* and that *the whole world* may be *held accountable to God*. (19b). But how is this conclusion reached? The probable explanation is that Jewish people reading the series of Old Testament quotations would assume that they applied to those wicked and lawless Gentiles. And of course God’s judgment would fall on them. But Paul reminds Jews of their common knowledge: *we know that whatever the law says* (here meaning the Old Testament in general), *it says to those who are under the law* (19a), literally, ‘within’ the law), namely themselves as Jews, so that they will be included in the judgment as well. In this way every mouth is stopped, every excuse silenced, and the whole world, having been found guilty, is liable to God’s judgment. These words, writes Professor Cranfield, ‘evoke the picture of the defendant in court who, given the opportunity to speak in his own defence, is speechless because of the weight of the evidence which has been brought against him’. There is nothing to wait for but the pronouncement and execution of the sentence.