Kevin Labby is Senior pastor of Willow Creek Presbyterian Church in Winter Springs, Florida.

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Sermon - Romans, Part 6: "Why We Can't Save Ourselves" (3:9-20)

Sermon - Romans, Part 6: "Why We Can't Save Ourselves" (3:9-20)


Some of you are too young to remember the show All in the Family. That’s fine. I think that I can paint a picture of it at least sufficient to begin our sermon this morning.

All in the Family starred a character named Archie Bunker. Archie was a WWII veteran, a hard-working blue collar family man, and - sadly - a bigot. He despised commies, hippies, women’s libbers, and other ne’er-do-wells, and looked down on African-Americans and other ethnic minorities. Even so, the show’s creator, Norman Lear, somehow made Archie oddly lovable. Yes, he was a fearful man, full of uncharitable judgments designed to simplify and justify his life. However, even if viewers didn’t share his fears, they could empathize as they considered their own. This was the subversive genius of Lear’s writing; he showed that human beings, no matter how divided, are still fundamentally the same.

In my favorite episode, the rest of the Bunker family goes away for the weekend, and Archie locks himself in the basement. Trapped alone with only a tape recorder and a supply of vodka, Archie gets drunk and, irrationally fearful for his own survival, decides to record his last will and testament. As he speaks into the recorder, the ghostly visages of his loved ones appear as drunken hallucinations, passing judgments on him. Broken by the crushing weight, Archie ultimately prays to God for deliverance from the cellar.

Eventually, an increasingly desperate Archie hears a voice at the cellar door, a voice he initially mistakes for the Lord! As Archie prepares to meet his Maker, the cellar door opens and Archie the bigot finds himself face-to-face with - wait for it - a black man! In the hilarious and climactic scene, Archie humbly falls to his knees in repentance before him, and pleads, “Forgive me, Lord!”

For the past month or so, we’ve been trapped like Archie in the cellar, so to speak. These opening chapters and verses of Romans have been dark; they’ve painted a bleak and hopeless picture of humanity. All humanity, without distinction, is guilty before God and without excuse. All stand condemned. God’s wrath is already being revealed. There is no escape, no way out.

Confronted with difficult verses like these, we face a choice. First, we can reject them. Many do that today. They say words like these are so 2,000 years ago, the backward thoughts of backward people. It’s all Bronze Age religion and superstition. We’ve evolved, and that means evolving beyond religion.

Another options is to keep religion, but to re-interpret passages like these to our liking. Many do that, too. They say that these words don’t really mean what they say. Through imaginative re-interpretations, they twist and contort these and like verses to bend around modern sensibilities.

Finally, we can simply receive and respect them as God’s Word, striving to understand and submit our mind and heart to them - even if we struggle to do so. That’s the approach we want to take.

You know, as an aside, we shouldn’t be all that surprised when God’s Word disagrees with us. One pastor and theologian, Tim Keller, has said it this way, “If your god never disagrees with you, you might just be worshiping an idealized version of yourself.”

Now, why would the Holy Spirit inspire the Apostle Paul to give such a sustained, grave diagnosis of the human condition? One reason for such a grim diagnosis is so that we take our condition seriously, and that we seek it’s only remedy. Without such a strong warning, we would no more look to God for our deliverance than a bigot like Archie Bunker would look for help from his African-American neighbor.


Paul brings this much larger section to a close by describing the breadth of sin. It infects and affects us all. Let’s read verses 9-10:

9 What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, 10 as it is written:

“None is righteous, no, not one;

This is the culmination of a long argument made by the Apostle Paul. Over the past couple of chapters, Paul made the case that all humanity is sinful. Whether the religious Jew or the pagan Gentile, all have turned away from God.

When we think of what it means to turn from God, we usually think of irreligion - that is, living life without any religious involvement, even in open disobedience to God’s commands. As Americans, we might call this a life of “sex, drugs, and rock and roll.” The path of irreligion is a rather obvious rejection of God.

However, Paul’s made the shocking claim that people can turn from God not just through irreligion, but also through religion. They can do all the right things, but for all the wrong reasons - trusting in themselves and their religious performances, rather than in God, for their salvation.

This is why Paul says here, “Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all.” He’s making the point that the Jews’ external religious performance, unless done from a heart of love for God, was actually a way of keeping God at a distance, of living life without need of him. It was trust in self, not trust in God.


Having established the breadth of sin, Paul then turns to its depth.

We often use a prayer repeatedly here at Willow Creek. It’s a prayer of confession from the Book of Common Prayer, and reminds us of the three theaters of sin, so to speak: our thoughts, our words, and our deeds. Interestingly, Paul’s argument follows that very pattern.

In thought (3:11-12)

First, he describes our guilty thoughts apart from God’s grace:

11 no one understands;
no one seeks for God.
12 All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
no one does good,
not even one.”

Tim Keller has an insightful thought on this. He says:

The text doesn’t say, “No one seeks blessing from God.” Of course they do. “No one seeks answers to prayer from God.” Of course they do. “No one seeks forgiveness from God.” Of course they do. “No one seeks spiritual …” Of course they do. But no. Paul’s saying no one seeks God. All your so-called serving, and all your so-called doing good, is really for yourself. It’s away from God. It’s away from others. It’s toward self-centeredness.

Apart from the renewing work of God’s Spirit, we don’t seek God for God; we seek God for ourselves, to have him love and serve us - rather than to love and serve him.

Likewise, it’s not that we don’t do good; we do. However, it’s not the good that God requires. It’s not good done for God’s glory, and for the good of others. It’s done for our good, for our glory.

We had this woman at my previous church. Her name was Mary. She was quiet person by nature, somewhat unassuming. A razor-sharp intellect and wit to match; it was a joy to talk with her, but the conversations were always fleeting and brief. She almost seemed to move about the church in a stealthy way.

However, looking back on it, I’d say she was probably one of the most involved and active members of the church family. As the pastor, I saw more than most. I’d come up to the church during off hours and find Mary cleaning and straightening and prepping and serving. She didn’t want attention or accolades. She served in secret, not for her glory - but for God’s glory and the good of others.

Now, I’m sure that Mary was far from pure and perfect in her motives. At best, we’re all divided. Even so, by all indications, there was a beautiful grace of God at work within her. The Spirit was moving her into a fuller expression of her identity as a new creature in Christ.

In word (3:13-14)

Let’s continue in verses 13-14:

13 “Their throat is an open grave;
they use their tongues to deceive.”
“The venom of asps is under their lips.”
14 “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.”

Now, let’s stop here just for a second and notice something. As Paul moves from our thoughts to our words, and from our words to our deeds, he mentions various members of the human body. Here, he mentions the throat, the tongue, and then the lips. In a moment, he’ll speak of feet and eyes. Why does he do so? He’s establishing, through a spiritual autopsy of sorts, the totality of human depravity - that sin’s effects not only reach all human beings, but also every dimension of their being. Sin’s effects are total.

At first, this might seem quite over the top, right? Your throat an open grave? The venom of asps on your lips? Is your mouth truly full of curses and bitterness? Most of us would admit that our speech isn’t always what it should be, but it’s certainly not as bad as it could be - right?

On the one hand, we might agree. After all, the doctrine of total depravity does not assert that people necessarily believe and behave as badly as they could. Rather, it teaches that sin effects all aspects of our being; it compromises every dimension of a human being, their mind, body, emotions, will, etc..

On the other hand, we might take pause. When you press inward and peel back the veneer, what flows out? What is revealed?

When you’re under pressure at work, are you tempted to lie to cover yourself?

When you’re behind a keyboard, with some measure of anonymity, are you more mean than when you’re face to face?

When you’re angry at your spouse or children, do you speak words that you regret?

Have you ever said something so cutting and cruel that you still remember it this morning?

In these moments, we give verbal expression - sometimes, quite frightfully - to the darkness still at work within us. We realize that, left to our own devices apart from God’s grace, there is nothing good in us.

In deed (3:15-18)

Looking to verses 15-18, we see their deeds condemn them as well:

15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood;
16 in their paths are ruin and misery,
17 and the way of peace they have not known.”
18 “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”

The spiritual autopsy of sorts continues. Paul notes the murderous and destructive actions of humanity divorced from God. Full of destructive attitudes and affections, their actions soon follow.

Did you know that, according to the CDC, there are approximately 1.6 million emergency room visits for assault per year? Did you know that America has aborted over 60 million children since 1973? Some estimates place the global abortion rate since 1980 at approximately 1.5 billion? Did you know that the last century was the most murderous in recorded history? Approximately 187 million people were killed or allowed to die by human decision.


Paul’s indictment described the general human condition apart from God’s restraining and renewing grace. Paul now gives the final verdict in verse 19:

19 Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God.

By saying “every mouth stopped,” Paul argues that humanity has come to the end of itself. It has no more excuses; cannot offer viable justifications; and should possess no more delusions of self-sufficiency. It stands fully condemned, and fully accountable to God

Conclusion: NO APPEAL (3:20)

We have no appeal. Let’s read verse 20:

20 For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.

A few years ago, my daughter cut her foot pretty badly on one of the doors here at the church, on a Sunday morning. A couple of our children’s ministry team members did a wonderful job binding up her wound as safely and thoroughly as possible. However, it required medical attention, and so I drove her to the nearby Care Spot Urgent Care.

The doctor was very professional, but very direct - without a lot of obvious compassion. He opened the gauze, and attempted to show me the severity of the wound. I didn’t want to look at it, and protested that he’d have two patients if he insisted - my daughter and her dad, passed out on his floor. However, he wanted me to see it for myself, so that I would take appropriate action. I looked, and had the reaction that one would expect.

He then told me that he was powerless to fix so great a wound, but that the emergency room at Winnie Palmer Children’s Hospital would do a wonderful job. I drove safely, but as quickly as I could.

When we arrived, an exceptionally competent and warm staff ushered my daughter into a room; exposed and evaluate the wound; and then delivered the diagnosis. They looked her right in the eye and said, “Nina, we want you to know two things. First, we’re always going to tell you the truth, even the difficult truth. This is a very bad cut. We’re glad you came here; you needed to do so. Second, it’s going to be OK. We’re going to treat this wound, and it will heal just fine. Don’t worry. We’ve got this.”

They then asked, “Are you good with us going ahead?” She nodded in agreement. They then did a masterful job of sewing her back up. She was all better soon after, without even a scar to show for it.

Why did God give us the law? Here, Paul says that it’s not to justify us; it’s not to give us a roadmap to earn forgiveness (justification) through good behavior and religion. It’s to make us look deep into sin’s wound, to diagnose the breadth and depth of our need of healing, and drive us to the only One who can deliver us: the Great Physician, Jesus Christ.

Let’s pray.

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