Us in the dock

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What is the purpose of the Law of the land? Why do we have speed limits, why do we have rules about COVID? The answer of course is that we have an expectation that not only do those rules show us how we should live in order to keep a pandemic at bay or make our lives safer.  So, does God’s law function in the same kind of way. Of course, some people will break it but isn’t the general expectation that most people will do the best to keep it if they know it and doesn’t that mean they are more likely to escape God’s condemnation?

Well the implication of Romans 3, coupled with Romans 5 is that no, that is not the case. The expectation is not that people will generally speaking keep the Law to the required standard.  So what exactly does the Law do?

No advantage (v9)

V9 In the preceding verses we have established that there are privileges and benefits to being a Jew in relation to God’s revelation. The Scriptures (Law and Prophets) were given to the Jews and so they have had the opportunity to hear the warnings, promises and requirements of being God’s people. Does this give Jews an advantage over the other nations? Well, in terms of salvation itself, the answer is no because mere possession of the Law and prophets is not enough if those things haven’t radically transformed your heart. You see, it is not about whether we hear and know God’s Word that matters but whether or not we obey it.  Our inconsistent keeping of some rules serves to highlight that God’s expectations are known. Therefore, all people are going to be judged on the basis of their obedience or disobedience.

Total depravity (v10 -18)

V10a This means that both Jews and Gentiles are under sin.  Here in effect we are taken to the concept of whose rule and reign are you under. It doesn’t matter whether or not you have access to the law and it does not matter whether you are ethnically Jewish, in terms of who or what you are subject to, everyone is subject to sin.

The evidence for this is found in an Old Testament quote that appears in the first three verses of both Psalm 14 and Psalm 53 quoted in verses 10b -12.  The human condition is represented here in terms of

  • status, all are unrighteous, there is nobody that claim a right status with God.
  • Wilful ignorance. It is not just that nobody has acquired true knowledge of God but nobody has sought after him. This reflects the idea of suppressed knowledge in 1:18-32 and in the Psalms is highlighted by the identity of unbelief with folly.
  • A turning away or going astray. The OT talks about this in terms of sins of wandering or trespass. It is a failure to stick to God’s rule and way. The point is something that we have entered into corporately together.

We are then presented with a further set of quotes that highlight the way that all sin. These might be listed as

  • Words, by what we say and don’t say (v13-4)
  • Deeds (v15-17)
  • Heart Attitude, by lack fear of the Lord (v18).

First of all, sin comes out in what we say, our throats are tomb like, in other words, we speak words that are associated with death (the consequence of sin), our words and language are poisonous, reflecting bitter attitudes through cursing and accusation (v13-14).[1]  Then sin comes out in what we do described here in terms of “feet” suggesting a direction of travel and a haste or hurry to do harm.  Humans are swift to bloodshed, both literal  murder and the different types of harm that we do (v15) so that the consequences are destructive, often this is self-inflicted on perpetrators as well as experienced by victims (v16). We choose the opposite path to peace. This reflect inner conflict, hostility to God, enmity between each other and a lack of shalom wholeness (v17). [2]

V18 All of these things reflect a lack of reverence or fear of God, they suggest godless arrogance as people live as though YHWH does not exist. Again, this links to the point in Psalm 14 and 53 that the fool declares that there is no God.[3]

The Justice of God (v19-20)

V19 This means that the Law acts to convict of sin. It points out the failure of all to meet God’ righteous requirements.  The purpose of this is so that “all mouths will be stopped” in other words we are all silenced, there is no place for boasting or for pleading for leniency.  All are guilty of charge, all have had the opportunity to repent. God’s punishment is just.  This means that we are accountable to God for our sin. Remember that the question in the first 8 verses was about God’s justice coming into question. Here, this challenge is responded to. We are the ones in the wrong, we are the ones deserving justice, it is you and me that are in the dock, not Christ.

V20. The conclusion then is that nobody can be justified through the law. Remember that this is where the argument has building to. You are not going to be excused because of ignorance, you are not going to be exempt through race or simply through having access to Torah. Instead, all must be judged for their sin in line with the righteous standard of the Law either with reference to the written law of Moses or to their conscience. However because the Law itself serves to highlight what sin is, it leaves those who know it without excuse so that the Law brings judgement.  If nobody can plead ignorance or exemption then God judges righteously by the Law’s standards and by its standards we are all found wanting.

What does this mean for what we believe?

So, what purpose does the Law have. Well first of all, it points us towards what God is like. It highlights those things that are good, right and loving. However, what we are seeing here is that the Law doesn’t set us a standard which we will meet as much as it highlights how far short we fall of the standard. We are never going to meet it. Think of the difference between COVID-19 testing and vaccines in terms of function.  The purpose of the test is of course to protect the wider population just as the vaccine is but doing the test will not cure you or prevent you from catching the disease. All it will do is tell you if and when you catch it and then you will have to face the consequences.  The Law acts like a test to find all those who have caught the deadly virus of sin and guess what, we all have.

This is what is known as Total Depravity. This does not mean that we are all as depraved as we possible could be so that we have become monsters incapable of good and loving thoughts and actions. However what it means is that each of us is subject to sin and that affects every aspect of our lives. It means that even when we seek to do good, because of sin often that intent to do good is marred by selfish and idolatrous motives so that even our good deeds are sinful.

What does this mean for how we live?

What we believe affects how we live and so I want to suggest that there are some important implications for us if we believe the doctrine of total depravity to be true. First of all, it can be quite liberating. I remember when Sarah first went into teaching down in London, as is often the case, as an NQT, she was thrown in at the deep end and given an unruly bottom set class of boys to teach. The boys were in their last year, had no academic aspirations and no desire either to learn or in any way to make life reasonably peaceable for their teachers.  Now modern teaching theory is based on a philosophy of basic human goodness, it assumes that everyone both desires to and is able to learn and to behave. The pressure then is on the teacher to find the way in to get a happy response. If that happens then the problem is with the teacher. 

How liberating therefore for an NQT to remember that the doctrine of Total Depravity means quite the opposite. We cannot assume that youngsters will want to and be able to behave in a way that is conducive for learning.

It is helpful for us too in terms of the Gospel to get a sense of how God’s word describes people. In and of themselves they are not seeking after Christ and are unlikely to. This protects us from putting a legalistic pressure on ourselves to get results. It also guards us from believing that we’ve just got to find the right music, humour, emotional application or logical reasoning to break through.

Instead, we need to remember that it is only the Holy Spirit that can bring spiritually dead people to life, soften hearts and open deaf ears and blind eyes.  This doctrine will help us to keep our strategies in their place and viewed with the right perspective. It will cause us to depend on the Lord and prayer more than on our own abilities.

The Doctrine of Total Depravity reminds us of what Christ achieved for us on the Cross and should move us to gratitude and thankfulness.


[1] Psalm 5:9; Psalm 140:3.

[2] Isaiah 59:7-8.

[3] Psalm 36:1