"...THAT SAVED A WRETCH LIKE ME"
by Steve Zeisler
In the spring of 1970 I watched a Stanford professor incite a crowd to riot.
The rioters caused much damage to the university and to the research people
were doing there. I remember thinking at the time how easy it was to foment
frenzy and aggression.
The typical response, as on that occasion, is to fight fire with fire.
Rioting student were opposed by well armoured police tactical squadrons,
capable of greater violence than the rioters themselves. Both riots and
armed response to the occur in a vacuum of mature leadership.
The person who can quell the loud and aggressive behavior without having
to resort to aggression himself has real authority.
In a schoolroom, the class clown can stir up the kids to throw spitballs,
make noise and create other problems. The mature and authoritative teacher
can stop the problems without having to scream at the top of her lungs.
The person who can bring about stillness and create a willingness to listen
is someone with authority indeed.
EVERY MOUTH CLOSED
Romans 3:19 says,
"Now we know that whatever the law says, it speaks to those
who are under the Law that every mouth may be closed and the world may become
accountable to God...."
Everyone who encounters the truth of God (Paul calls it the Law) must finally
stop talking and be still. Every mouth must be silenced before the authoritative
message of God's word. Paul makes us realize that all our efforts to compete,
to defend ourselves, to find extenuating circumstances, must finally give
way to quiet so that we can hear something very important from the mouth
of the living God.
How can we be stilled in order to hear? Let's go back to verse 9:
What then [what conclusion shall we make]? Are we better than
they? No, not at all, for we have already charged that both Jews and Greeks
are all under sin....
In this verse Paul is wrapping up an argument that he's been making in the first
2 1/2 chapters of the book, where he is indicts the whole human race. He
wants those who hear his message to conclude that everyone has a terrible
First, he indicts the self-identified rebel, the one who shakes his fist
at God and says, "I will be the lord in my own universe." The
rebel pounding on his chest and insisting on his preeminence is very noisy.
Next we encounter the moral person who recoils from the rebel and points
a finger of judgment at every person but himself. Paul says to that person,
"You who judge others, you do the same thing." Judging others,
finding fault, finger-pointing, and denouncing other people and their problems,
create a great deal of noise.
Paul identifies the third group that we spoke of last week (first century Jews,
but also Bible-believing Christians today) as those who are well instructed
in the things of God--his thoughts, his commandments, human history, the
future--and are willing to apply the truth rigorously to other people. We
tell them how to live their lives and promote what we know to be their best
interests. Again, it is a very noisy business to teach others, And Paul
asks the penetrating question, "You who teach others, do you teach
yourself?" So we come to verse 9: "Are we better than they?"
Who does he mean by we? Some commentators say Paul is speaking of himself
as a Jew, meaning, are we Jews better than they? But he has already clearly
denied that the Jews have any advantage in pleasing God. I think he's once
again trying to put the mirror up in front of anyone who will hear his words,
and is referring to enthusiastic believers like the Christians in Rome.
Paul is saying, am I myself and are you Roman Christians putting ourselves
about having to look for the problem in our own hearts? Are we better? No!
We have already taught, he said, we have already charged, he says, that
both Jews and Greeks (this means all humanity) are under sin.
AS IT IS WRITTEN
If you and I are honest with ourselves, we will realize that we engage in
thoughts, behaviors and attitudes that are an offense to God and hurtful
to other people. Something about us that is inherently wrong. We cannot
stop ourselves and we cannot fix it by ourselves. That's what Paul means:
We have already charged that everyone is under sin. Verses 10-18:
...as it is written
Paul draws from the Old Testament in quoting these phrases, most of them
from Psalms, to reinforce his charge that everyone is under sin and to reiterate
that is the word of God that indicts us.
"There is none righteous, not even one;
There is none who understands,
There is none who seeks for God.
All have turned aside, and together they have become useless.
There is none who does good,
there is not even one.
"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;"
"Their feet are swift to shed blood.
Destruction and misery are in their paths,
And the path of peace they have not known.
"There is no fear of God before their eyes."
There are three points made in this string of quotations. First, Paul says
in verse 10, if you were to observe someone's life, either your own or someone
else's, and if all of its hidden areas were made plain, you would discover
that there is no one who is righteous.
Second, in verse 11 we read that there is no one who is willing or able
to see the purposes of God, or to understand the mysteries of humanity;
no one is wise.
And third, there is not even anyone who seeks for God. Despite all the effort
expended on religious quests, deep down nobody wants to find God because
of the painful self-discovery that will result.
Verse 12 summarizes:
All have turned aside, together they have become useless....
We don't find a single life that is what it ought to be, but what about
individual acts? Aren't there people who occasionally do wonderful deeds?
The answer is no. If you take into account motives, and all that proceeds
and follows a particular deed, you don't even find good actions. There's
nobody who does good. Now he speaks both of feet and speech, actions and
words. Verses 13-14:
The last phrase in verse 12 then starts another section:
There is none who does good....
'Their throat is an open grave,
What is on the inside is even more rotten than we think. In our speech we
blaspheme God, curse, hurt and tear at other people. What we say sullies
the name of God. The Bible clearly recognizes the ability of humans to do
wrong in their speech. The things we say have very great power to cause
with their tongues they keep deceiving,'
'The poison of asps is under their lips;'
'Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness....
'Their feet are swift to shed blood.
Destruction and misery are in their paths.
The path of peace they have not known. There is no fear of God before their
Bloodshed is not a mistake or accident. Their feet are swift to shed blood.
The last two phrases deserve attention. First, they don't know peace in
their own heart, in their relationships. And secondly, they don't revere
the living God. They have neither peace nor respect for God.
Many people interpret these verses as stylized poetry or have an interest
only in how Paul used the Old Testament; they distance themselves from its
message. But it is very hard to hear this and agree with it totally without
wanting to raise an objection: "Wait a minute, no, that can't possibly
be. Don't say no one. I mean some people do good things once in awhile.
I myself have been a pretty good guy on numerous occasions." We immediately
desire to bring up our good works and efforts: "I seek God, I care
about him, I read the Bible, and I'm brokenhearted when people get hurt.
I know I do things that aren't right but I have a good side too."
Or, we say, "Yes, I am an absolutely miserable wretch, but it's not
my fault. A lot of people treat me badly and that's why I am the way I am."
We may compare ourselves favorably with others: "Sure, everybody is
in the same boat, but those people are in the cargo hold. They're a lot
worse than I am." We have to claim extenuating circumstances.
Amid all this plea bargaining we must re-read verse 19:
Now we know that whatever the Law says, [Law here means the
Old Testament] it speaks to those who are under the Law, [that is, who need
to be judged by what God says], that every mouth may be closed and all the
world become accountable to God....
NO MORE NOISE
The purpose of these indictments is to forbid our saying, "Yes, but..."
It's a terrible list that is supposed to stop us from talking: no more description
of ourselves, no more bringing up our good works, no more distancing ourselves
from other horrible people-no more! It's time to listen. There must be silence,
because God has something very important to say. He has wonderful news,
but he cannot tell us about it if we keep insisting on showing the ribbons
we have won in moral competition with others.
That's what he means in verse 20:
...because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified
in His sight....
Attempts at self-justification are noise. Works of the Law, no matter how
extraordinary they are, will not make us right in God's sight.
for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin.
God's righteous standards make us perceive the disease. The apostle says,
"Sit there and be quiet."
Let me just read you a quotation about noise, for a minute before we get
to hear what comes next, having been silenced:
In The Screwtape Letters, written from the perspective of hell,
C.S. Lewis tells about how a senior devil, Screwtape, gives advice to a junior
devil on how to tempt this poor soul on earth.
Music and silence -- how I detest them both! How thankful we should be that
ever since our Father entered hell--though longer ago than humans reckoning
in light years could express--no square inch of infernal space.. has been
surrendered to either of those abominable forces. But all has been occupied
by Noise-Noise, the grand dynamism, the audible expression of all that is
exultant, ruthless and virile...We will make the whole universe a noise
in the end. We have already made great strides in this direction as regards
the Earth. The melodies and silences of Heaven will be shouted down in the
In heaven there is music and silence--music that praises God and silence
that listens long enough to learn what needs to be learned. But hell is
always filled with noise--the demanding, the insistent, the ruthless. And
most of us are very noisy inside. We are always focused on ourselves, looking
for ways to promote ourselves, bandage our wounded egos, and measure ourselves
And when we are quiet, every mouth shut, what will God say?
But now, apart from the Law, the righteousness of God has been
manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the prophets, even the righteousness
of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there
is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,
being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in
Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation [sacrifice of
atonement], in his blood through faith. This was to demonstrate his righteousness,
because in the forbearance of God, He passed over the sins previously committed;
for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time,
that He might be the just and the justifier of the one who has faith in
This is a wonderful announcement: The righteousness of God is made plain
apart from the Law. It is witnessed to by the Law and the Prophets; that
is, they hinted at or pointed to this righteousness of God. But it comes
to us, not by means of our activity, but as a gift. The righteousness of
God is well-being, worth, becoming everything you and I ought to have been.
God made us in his image, to display his character. He made us for joy,
to love the rest of his creation, to enjoy deep and honest fellowship with
one another. He made us to be valuable in his sight and ours. That's what
righteousness is. God is going to give this righteousness, this worth,
this well-being, to us as a gift.
It doesn't come through our noisy accomplishments, it comes as we quietly
listen, and receive his gift.
JUSTICE AND JUSTIFICATION
Verse 26 suggests a problem that God had in giving this gift. How could
he himself remain pure, holy, committed to truth, and unbending in righteousness,
just and the justifier of those who have faith, making us as he is, without
banishing our sin? How could he himself be entirely holy and invite us into
his presence without doing something about our unrighteous? Could he ignore
our blasphemy? Could he just excuse it as if it were not real?
If that were the case, then he doesn't take us seriously. Our free-will
choices would have been rendered ridiculous. But he remains holy and yet
makes us just, and right by allowing his Son to suffer the penalty we should
pay, placing on Jesus the rejection and the judgment that we deserve. On
that basis, he can make a free-gift offer to us. Verse 24:
...[We are ] justified as a gift, or freely by his grace, through
the redemption which is in Christ Jesus....
Being right with God, finding life-building worth, becoming who we were
intended to be, is a gift from God with no noisy contribution by us. When
we finally stop speaking of ourselves, we can let him give us righteousness
The end of verse 22 through 23, act to silence the voices that won't find
merit in some groups of people distinguished from others:
...the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for
all who believe [you'd expect verse 24 to follow on 'being justified as
a gift,' but he reminds them,] there is no distinction for all have sinned
and fallen short of the glory of God....
Righteousness is offered to all because all are guilty of sin. Either everyone
is either going to get this gift or else nobody gets anything. It is a gift
freely given because of what Jesus did on the cross for us.
Three terms are used in these verses: a legal term, a religious term, and
a commercial term.
The legal term is justification. What that means is this: that we have been
examined in honest court, found guilty and rightly condemned and sentenced.
Justification answers the charge against us, cancels the indictment, and
sets the prisoner free. We are justified because somebody else received
the punishment we deserved. We are free to walk out with no indictment against
us, not having to answer the questions about what we have done, what we
have thought, and the hurts we've inflicted. We are justified.
The religious term, propitiation is translated in the NIV as sacrifice of
atonement. It was used in the Old Testament of the animal sacrifices in
the temple. Ritually cleansed by the blood of animals, people were able to
walk into the presence of God spiritually purified. We are able to live
our lives as uncondemned people, set free from defilement, cleansed from
that which would cut us off from God, because of Jesus' death on our behalf--his
shed blood, not the blood of animals.
The commercial term used is the word redemption. In slave markets, people
who had been in chains, not free to act as they wanted to, having to do
what their masters demanded, were redeemed and given their freedom. Jesus'
death on the cross also frees us from our slavery to hateful actions and
thoughts. We are redeemed from the evil to which we were chained.
Paul returns to the problem of talking too much in verse 27:
Where then is boasting?
Who gets to be impressed with himself now?
Who gets to promote himself or herself?
It is excluded. By what kind of law? Of works? No, but by a law of faith.
Receiving the gift of God comes by expressing thanks to the One who offers
the gift. Faith is saying thank you, agreeing that we need what we did not
have, being genuinely grateful to God from the heart. That is how we activate
by faith the gift that he offers. Who is going to boast about that? Verses
...is God the God of Jews only? Is He not the God of Gentiles
also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since indeed God who will justify the circumcised
by faith and the uncircumcised through faith is one. Do we then nullify
the Law through faith? May it never be! On the contrary, we establish the
Think for a moment of what you are being offered. Stop inventing reasons
to be at the center of the discussion. Is there boasting? Is every mouth
When we are ready to hear God's voice, he will speak to us about the cross
of Christ. He will offer us life itself.
Catalog No. 4294
February 14, 1993
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