The Human Condition
Early on in the book of Romans, Paul seeks to establish a crucial truth, one central to the gospel—the sad state of the human condition. This truth exists because, from the Fall onward, we have all been contaminated by sin. It’s wired in our genes as is the color of our eyes.
Martin Luther, in his commentary on Romans, wrote the following: “The expression ‘all are under sin’ must be taken in a spiritual sense; that is to say, not as men appear in their own eyes or in those of others, but as they stand before God. They are all under sin, those who are manifest transgressors in the eyes of men, as well as those who appear righteous in their own sight and before others. Those who perform outwardly good works do them from fear of punishment or love of gain and glory, or otherwise from pleasure in a certain object, but not from a willing and ready mind. In this way man exercises himself continually in good works outwardly, but inwardly he is totally immersed in sinful desires and evil lusts, which are opposed to good works.” —Commentary on Romans, p. 69.
* Study this week’s lesson to prepare for Sabbath, October 21.
Several key words occur in this passage:
Amazingly enough, some people actually challenge the idea of human sinfulness, arguing that people are basically good. The problem, however, stems from a lack of understanding of what true goodness is. People can compare themselves to someone else and feel good about themselves. After all, we can always find someone worse than ourselves to compare ourselves with. But that hardly makes us good. When we contrast ourselves to God, and to the holiness and righteousness of God, none of us would come away with anything other than an overwhelming sense of self-loathing and disgust.
Romans 3:23 also talks about “the glory of God.” The phrase has been variously interpreted. Perhaps the simplest interpretation is to give the phrase the meaning it has in 1 Corinthians 11:7, “He [man] is the image and glory of God” (RSV). In Greek the word for “glory” may be considered as loosely equivalent to the word for “image.” Sin has marred the image of God in humans. Sinful humans fall far short of reflecting the image or glory of God.
As bad as we are, our situation is not hopeless. The first step is that we acknowledge our utter sinfulness and also our helplessness in and of ourselves to do anything about it. It is the work of the Holy Spirit to bring about such conviction. If the sinner does not resist Him, the Spirit will lead the sinner to tear away the mask of self-defense, pretense, and self-justification and to cast himself or herself upon Christ, pleading His mercy: “ ‘ “God, be merciful to me, the sinner!” ’ ” (Luke 18:13, NASB).
At the turn of the twentieth century, people lived with the idea that humanity was improving, that morality would increase, and that science and technology would help usher in a utopia. Human beings, it was believed, were essentially on the path toward perfection. Through the right kind of education and moral training, it was thought that humans could greatly improve themselves and their societies. All this was supposed to start happening, en masse, as we entered into the brave new world of the twentieth century.
Unfortunately, things didn’t quite turn out that way, did they? The twentieth century was one of the most violent and barbaric in all history, thanks—ironically enough—in great part to the advances of science, which made it much more possible for people to kill others on a scale that the most depraved madmen of the past could only dream about.
What was the problem?
We might need faith to believe a lot of things in Christianity: among them, the resurrection of the dead, the Second Coming, and a new heaven and a new earth. But who needs faith to believe in the fallen state of humanity? Today, each of us is living the consequences of that fallen state.
In Romans 1, Paul was dealing specifically with the sins of the Gentiles, the pagans, those who had lost sight of God a long time ago and, thus, had fallen into the most degrading of practices.
But he wasn’t going to let his own people, his own countrymen, off the hook either. Despite all the advantages that they had been given (Rom. 3:1, 2), they, too, were sinners, condemned by God’s law, and in need of the saving grace of Christ. In that sense—in the sense of being sinners, of having violated God’s law, and of needing divine grace for salvation—Jews and Gentiles are the same.
“After the Apostle has shown that all heathen are sinners, he now, in a special and most emphatic way, shows that also the Jews live in sin, above all because they obey the Law only outwardly, that is, according to the letter and not according to the spirit.”—Martin Luther, Commentary on Romans, p. 61.
Often it’s so easy to see and point out the sins of others. How often, though, are we guilty of the same kinds of things—or even worse? The problem is that we tend to turn a blind eye on ourselves, or we make ourselves feel better by looking at just how bad others are in contrast to ourselves.
Paul would have none of that. He warned his countrymen not to be quick to judge the Gentiles, for they, the Jews—even as the chosen people—were sinners. In some cases they were even more guilty than the pagans they were so quick to condemn, because as Jews they had been given more light than the Gentiles.
Paul’s point in all this is that none of us are righteous, none of us meet the divine standard, and none of us are innately good or inherently holy. Jew or Gentile, male or female, rich or poor, and God-fearing or God-rejecting, we all are condemned. And were it not for the grace of God as revealed in the gospel, there would be no hope for any of us.
We should notice that God’s goodness leads, not forces, sinners to repentance. God uses no coercion. He is infinitely patient and seeks to draw all people by His love. A forced repentance would destroy the whole purpose of repentance, would it not? If God forced repentance, then would not everyone be saved, for why would He force some to repent and not others? Repentance must be an act of the free will, responding to the movement of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Yes, repentance is a gift from God, but we have to be ready and open to receive it—a choice that we alone can make for ourselves.
What comes to those who resist God’s love, refuse to repent, and remain in disobedience? Rom. 2:5–10.
In Romans 2:5–10, and frequently throughout the book of Romans, Paul emphasizes the place of good works. Justification by faith without the deeds of the law must never be construed to mean that good works have no place in the Christian life. For instance, in Romans 2:7, salvation is described as coming to those who seek for it “by patient continuance in well doing.” Although human effort can’t bring salvation, it is part of the whole experience of salvation. It’s hard to see how anyone can read the Bible and come away with the idea that works and deeds don’t matter at all. True repentance, the kind that comes willingly from the heart, always will be followed by a determination to overcome and put away the things that we need to repent over.
Further Thought: “Thus the biblical terminology shows that sin is not a calamity fallen upon the human unawares, but the result of an active attitude and choice on the part of the human. Further, sin is not the absence of good, but it is ‘falling short’ of God’s expectations. It is an evil course that the human has deliberately chosen. It is not a weakness for which humans cannot be held responsible, for the human in the attitude or act of sin deliberately chooses a way of rebellion against God, in transgression against His law, and fails to hear God’s Word. Sin attempts to pass beyond the limitations God has set. In short, sin is rebellion against God.”—The Handbook of Seventh-day Adventist Theology (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald® Publishing Association, 2000), p. 239.
“A terrible picture of the condition of the world has been presented before me. Immorality abounds everywhere. Licentiousness is the special sin of this age. Never did vice lift its deformed head with such boldness as now. The people seem to be benumbed, and the lovers of virtue and true goodness are nearly discouraged by its boldness, strength, and prevalence. The iniquity which abounds is not merely confined to the unbeliever and the scoffer. Would that this were the case, but it is not. Many men and women who profess the religion of Christ are guilty. Even some who profess to be looking for His appearing are no more prepared for that event than Satan himself. They are not cleansing themselves from all pollution. They have so long served their lust that it is natural for their thoughts to be impure and their imaginations corrupt.”—Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church, vol. 2, p. 346.