Sin’s Dominion over All Mankind (3:9-20)

Lesson ▪ 2002-03
Tags: Romans 3:9-20; Sin; Condemnation; Depravity
Excerpted from God’s Righteousness Revealed: An Exposition of Romans
Related Resources: Sin, Grace, and Works: An Exposition of Ephesians 2:1-10


In this section Paul concludes his argument for universal condemnation. He has already established the guilt of the entire race, with Gentiles particularly in view (1:18-32); moralists, regardless of background (2:1-16); and Jews (2:17-3:8). Here he focuses on addressing one last objection that Jewish readers might raise in response to his statements in 3:1-8.

The Charge (v. 9)

Some Jews who heard Paul’s argument in verses 1-8 might reply that the Jews’ advantages constitute a form of righteousness, thus earning them favor in God’s sight. Paul answers without hesitation; he has already proven the sinfulness of both Jew and Gentile (v. 9). Nevertheless, he develops one final line of evidence—Old Testament teaching.

The Old Testament Case for Human Depravity (vv. 10-18)

These verses consist entirely (following an introductory “As it is written”) of quotations from the Old Testament—primarily from Psalms—that establish the fact of man’s inherent sinfulness. The table below explains his use of Old Testament texts:

OT SourceUse in Romans 3
Psa. 14:1-3There is none righteous, no, not one
There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God
They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no, not one (vv. 10b-12)
Psa. 5:9Their throat is an open sepulchre; with their tongues they have used deceit (v. 13a)
Psa. 140:3the poison of asps is under their lips (v. 13b)
Ps. 10:7Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness (v. 14)
Isa. 59:7-8Their feet are swift to shed blood
Destruction and misery are in their ways
And the way of peace have they not known (vv. 15-17)
Psa. 36:1There is no fear of God before their eyes

While this section may appear at first glance to be a list of Old Testament texts with little structure, there is actually a progression of thought within it. Verses 10-12 establish the universality of the sin condition, using verbiage such as none, not one, all, and together. The next five verses deal with sin’s outward manifestations in speech (vv. 13-14) and action (vv. 15-17). Finally, verse 18 identifies the root cause of sinful behavior: a rebellious, irreverent stance toward God.

The Conclusion (vv. 19-20)

Verses 10-18 describe the universal condition of mankind apart from God’s gracious intervention. In verses 19-20 Paul uses this teaching to answer the question regarding the Jew’s status. Anticipating that the Jew still sought to establish his righteousness through obedience to the law, Paul reiterated that the law was an agent of condemnation (cf. 2:12-16) designed to create awareness of one’s need for divine grace.

Verse 19 contains what might appear to be a logical fallacy. Paul says that the whole world becomes guilty because the law condemns those who are subject to it. If one assumes that the law in view is that of the Old Testament, one must explain how its condemnation affects the world rather than Jews alone. There is a reasonable explanation. Paul might be assuming that the guilt of the Gentile world was already well established, either by its obvious alienation from God, or by virtue of his arguments in 1:18-32. Therefore, the guilt of the Jews, added to that of the Gentiles, would equal the guilt of the whole world.

A second explanation assumes that the “law” referred to in verse 19 is not exclusively the Old Testament law, but the law as a principle. As Paul argued in chapter 2, any moral standard that is not observed perfectly can serve only to condemn. Our perverted nature ensures that we will never obey any standards completely, thus the law—broadly defined—does lead all the world to a state of guilt. Regardless of which interpretation is chosen, the Old Testament law gave the Jew no basis for justification.


The fact that sin is universal and pervasive leads to a number of important applications for believers and unbelievers alike:

  • Righteousness is nothing less than a gracious gift from God. No one possesses innate righteousness; no one achieves righteousness through any form of practice or discipline. Paul has set the stage for his discussion of justification by faith. Since there is no hope for salvation apart from God’s grace in Christ, we owe it to others to share the gospel with them (cf. 1:14-15).
  • Apart from the work of God’s Spirit, sin affects every aspect of our lives. Our core rejection of God’s authority leads us to sin against Him in word and deed. As believers, we must always keep in mind that sin is universal and pervasive; when we do not allow God to lead and empower us, we are bound to commit sin.