Sin’s Corruption of Our Character

The problem of sin isn’t fundamentally external. It’s most visible in our actions, but our actions are merely the manifestation of a corruption that comes from within.

If we were using a medical metaphor, we might say Romans 3:10–12 includes a full examination of the sinner, beginning with a kind of spiritual MRI scan. This passage reveals how corruption pervades the inner being—the very heart and soul of man. In the words of Jeremiah, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked” (Jeremiah 17:9, NKJV).

Paul says the same thing, using a series of Old Testament references that make negative statements describing the debauched character of all people in their natural fallen state. Here, Paul very bluntly spells out just how thoroughly corrupt we are because of our sin.

In Romans 3:10, he says, “There is none righteous, not even one.” That is a paraphrase and summary of the first three verses of Psalms 14 and 53.

The first three verses of both psalms contain several phrases that Paul will quote in Romans 3. Verse 1 of Psalm 14 says, “They are corrupt, they have committed abominable deeds; there is no one who does good.” Psalm 53:1 says, “They are corrupt, and have committed abominable injustice; there is no one who does good.” Romans 3:10 is a shortened paraphrase of those two nearly identical verses, with these words added to the end: “Not even one.” (That final phrase is borrowed from verse 3 in both psalms.)

Paul’s choice of words in this paraphrase is deliberate. Righteousness is the central theme of Paul’s entire epistle to the Romans. That word and its cognates appear at least thirty times within the letter. That’s because the gospel is a message about how sinners can be made righteous—right with God. At the very outset, therefore, Paul makes it clear that no one is righteous. And to make sure we don’t miss the point or look for an escape hatch, he appends those words from the end of Psalms 14:3 and 53:3: “Not even one” (emphasis added).

By the way, the Greek word translated “righteous” (here and elsewhere in the New Testament) is the same root word translated “justified” just a few verses later, in Romans 3:20: “By the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight” (emphasis added). No one is righteous, and no one can become righteous through his own efforts—no matter how hard one applies oneself under the law of God.

Paul will restate this point as distinctly as possible in Romans 8:7–8: “The mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” In fact, the only standard acceptable to God is absolute perfection. In His famous Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20). He went on to teach that anger is of the same nature as murder (Matthew 5:21–22), and lust is the same flavor of sin as adultery (Matthew 5:27–28). Then Jesus set the standard as high as possible: “You are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). That is an echo of Leviticus 11:44, where God tells the Israelites, “Be holy, for I am holy.” That command is repeated more than a dozen times throughout Scripture.

If we don’t sense our lost condition when we read what Scripture has to say about sin, we certainly ought to feel it when we understand the nature of the holiness God demands of us. No mere mortal has ever attained that standard, nor do we have the potential even to come close.

Romans 3:11 continues this indictment of our character, now homing in on the sinfulness of the human intellect. Paul is following the order of Psalms 14 and 53. Verse 2 in both psalms say that God looks “down from heaven upon the sons of men to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God.” Paul notes the psalmist’s reference to understanding and states the conclusion plainly implied by the two psalms: “There is none who understands” (emphasis added).

This is the reality of sin. It has a blinding effect even on the human intellect. Fallen humanity has no true perception of divine reality. Sinners have no right apprehension of God—therefore they cannot even have a true perception of what righteousness looks like. Paul says the same thing in different words in 1 Corinthians 2:14: “A natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised.”

This is a harsh indictment, but it is absolutely true. The entire human race is fallen and fleshly. In our natural state we lack righteousness, we lack even a proper understanding of righteousness, and we hate what we don’t understand. Every one of us has been “foolish ourselves, disobedient, deceived, enslaved to various lusts and pleasures, spending our life in malice and envy, hateful, hating one another” (Titus 3:3). Elsewhere, Paul says fallen people go through life

in the futility of their mind, being darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their heart; and they, having become callous, have given themselves over to sensuality for the practice of every kind of impurity with greediness” (Ephesians 4:17–19).

It’s hard to see how the state of fallen humanity could be any worse.

But the reality is worse: “There is none who seeks for God” (Romans 3:11, still echoing verse 2 of Psalms 14 and 53). No sinner naturally wants to know God. There simply is no such thing as a self-motivated seeker after God. “The wicked in his proud countenance does not seek God; God is in none of his thoughts” (Psalm 10:4, NKJV, emphasis added).

This is a point that people sometimes want to dispute. After all, there are many familiar verses in Scripture that invite sinners to seek God, promising that those who do seek will find. “Seek the Lord your God, and you will find Him if you search for Him with all your heart and all your soul” (Deuteronomy 4:29). “Let the heart of those who seek the Lord be glad” (1 Chronicles 16:10). “Seek the Lord while He may be found; call upon Him while He is near” (Isaiah 55:6). “You will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart” (Jeremiah 29:13). “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you” (Luke 11:9). “He who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him” (Hebrews 11:6). There are literally more than a hundred verses in Scripture like those, urging sinners to seek God and promising blessing to those who do.

In recent years, many churches have based their entire ministry philosophy on the assumption that lots of unbelieving people are seeking God. These churches have refurbished their music, teaching, and public worship with the stated goal of being “seeker-sensitive.” In order to achieve that goal, church leaders rely on opinion surveys and an almost obsessive fixation with cultural trends in order to gauge the tastes and expectations of unbelievers. Then every feature of their corporate gatherings is carefully reworked, dumbed down, or purposely de-sanctified in order to make unbelievers feel comfortable.

But people are not really seeking God if they are looking for a religious experience where the music, entertainment, and sermon topics are carefully vetted in order to appeal to popular preferences. That kind of “seeker” is just looking for a cloak of piety in a context where he or she will also get affirmation, self-gratification, and companionship with like-minded people.

But the gospel that Paul preached pointed in the opposite direction. Paul fully understood the felt needs and cultural expectations of his diverse audiences: “Jews ask for signs and Greeks search for wisdom” (1 Corinthians 1:22). But the apostle’s response was the polar opposite of “seeker-sensitivity”: “We preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness” (1 Corinthians 1:23). The Greeks who craved a philosophical discourse on wisdom heard a message Paul knew would sound to them like foolishness; and the Jews who demanded a sign instead got “a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense” (Romans 9:33). But both groups heard exactly the same message from Paul. He knew only one gospel, and never considered pragmatic alternatives: “I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2). Paul knew that our corruption from sin is so deep seated and wide reaching that no solution can be found outside of our Creator, Savior, and Redeemer.

And as we’ll see next time, fallen sinners don’t seek God—they actually flee from Him.  

Used with permission from John MacArthur.

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