An Exegetical Paper on Romans 3:9-11

In Romans 3:9-11, Paul writes, “What then? Are we better than they? Not at all; for we have already charged that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin; as it is written: “There is no righteous person, not even one; There is no one who understands, There is no one who seeks out God.” In this passage, Paul is writing to the reader that no one is greater than the other and that all are under the condemnation of sin, they are all deserving of death and no one is righteous than the other. The Jew is no better than the Greek, and vice versa. Christ came to save all; man, woman, and child.

Romans is in the New Testament canon, taking place shortly before Paul’s visit to Jerusalem with the gift of the Gentile congregation (15:25; Acts 24:17)1. The book of Romans is a letter and is known for the use of rhetorical questions (e.g. 3:8; 6:1; 7:7; 9:14). Romans is useful in understanding the big picture because it references and illuminates the promise of the Gospel revealed in the Old Testament. It is first revealed through the fall of Adam, showing the need for a savior (5:12––21), God’s promise to crush Satan’s head under the feet of Eve’s promised seed, which is Christ. The gospel continues to be revealed in Soli Deo Gloria, found within Abraham, where God proclaims the message of justification and faith alone. Paul insists all throughout his teaching that the Gospel does not destroy the Mosaic Law but establishes it. Jesus is the promised seed through David and is the One all the prophets look to and proclaim. Romans is the document showing Jesus as the promised prophet, priest, and king of Israel and the savior to all.

The chapter in the discussion of Romans is chapter three, verses nine to eleven. The chapters previous to three open with an introduction and Paul’s purpose to visit Romans and how the just shall live by faith and not of works (legalism and the use of Jewish law as a way of salvation). Paul references Habakkuk 2:4, “The righteous shall live by faith” in verses sixteen and seventeen of chapter one. Paul writes in chapter one verses eighteen to twenty-seven about God’s wrath on the unrighteous, which is then concluded in chapter two verses one to sixteen, where he writes of God’s righteous judgment. In verses seventeen to twenty-four of chapter two, Paul calls out the Jews and how they are just as guilty as the Gentiles (this is further explained in chapter three). The first eight verses of chapter three are on God’s judgment defended and thus introduce verses nine to eleven, how all have sinned and that God will judge all regardless if they are Jew or Gentile. The next section, containing the verses discussed, is on how all have sinned. The sections and chapters subsequent chapter three verses nine to eleven are on God’s righteousness through faith and how boasting is excluded by the law of faith. This continues how no one is greater than the other because all are sinful and it is by faith in Christ not by works that man is redeemed. Chapter four is on how Abraham was justified by faith, even before he was circumcised. Abraham was not the heir of the world because of his works and circumcision but by his faith in God, he was given a promise that goes beyond generations.

In Romans 3:10, Paul quotes David’s Psalm 14:1-3 and Psalm 53:1-3. Psalm 14:1-3 states, “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ They are corrupt, they have committed detestable acts; There is no one who does good. The Lord has looked down from heaven upon the sons of mankind to see if there are any who understand, Who seek God. They have all turned aside, together they are corrupt; There is no one who does good, not even one.” Psalm 14 is a Psalm of the foolishness and wickedness of people, not just the Jews or the Gentiles, all people are. The fool, like the Jew, denies the existence of God, but in the context of the New Testament canon, they deny Christ as savior which is seen as practical atheism because they are unable to see beyond the ignorance of their true salvation. Paul uses Psalm 14 to demonstrate this in how foolishness points to the lack of morality and not necessarily the lack of intellect. Like the fool, the Jew isn’t just oblivious to the goodness of God but to the salvation brought by Christ. “There is no righteous person, not even one; There is no one who understands, There is no one who seeks out God;” Man is sinful and corrupted by evil, and is unable to be saved on their own, in the New Testament, the legalism of the Pharisees and the belief of works is shown in the Israelites. They are lost in their own ignorance as Christ as savior and are unable to see the light that is He who saved.

Paul opens the passage with a question, “What then? Are we better than they?” In this context, the Jews were prideful as the chosen people and thus were unable to see the truth that Christ is the savior and that their way to salvation was through works. Luke Timothy Johnson states in his commentary on Romans that “ Paul’s next question is extraordinarily difficult to interpret, not only because its text and punctuation are uncertain but also because Paul’s use of language is obscure.” The relationship between the “What then?” and the “are we better off than they?” is a series that is not quite answered through Paul but through David in Paul’s reference to Psalm 14 in the subsequent verses.

In most of the commentaries on Psalm 14, it is seen as a “last days” Psalm, meaning that the contents will come to pass in the future. The first line is notably a reference to Sennacherib who stated, “Do not let Hezekiah deceive you into thinking your God will save you. The other gods did not save their nations: are you thinking your God will save you?”. Sennacherib hints that he and his men do not believe in ‘god in the entry or they do not see God as the savior, hence he is a fool and has committed the unforgivable sin of blasphemy. In relation to Psalm 14 and Sennacherib, the Jews reject Christ as the savior and thus they are regarded as fools because (a) they do not believe and (b) they still think they will be saved based on their works and not their faith in the savior. Verse nine is then seen as a negative-positive relation for the lines “Not at all;” and “for we have already charged that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin” because Paul is negating that the Jews are better than the Greeks when in reality, they are just as flawed and other God’s wrath because of their sin, like the Greeks and the Gentiles who reject Christ. Johnson continues to state, “A final resolution appears impossible. Fortunately, Paul’s following words do throw some light on his intended meaning, for he places Jews and Greeks once more on equal footing.”

Verses ten and eleven are a progression to the reference of Psalm 14, where Paul quotes, “There is no righteous person, not even one; There is no one who understands, who seeks out God.” This verse is a catenae, or a “chain.” Such catenae are usually organized thematically or by means of word linkage. Here the phrase “there is not one” is repeated five times in 3:10-12, and once more at the end (3:18). verses eleven and eighteen in the entirety is a breakdown of man’s true nature of corruption, beginning with “There is no righteous person” in verse eleven. Beyond verse eleven to verse eighteen, Paul states, “They have all turned aside, together they have become corrupt; There is no one who does good, There is not even one. Their throat is an open grave, With their tongues, they keep deceiving, The venom of gasps is under their lips: Their mouth is full of cursing and bitterness: Their feet are swift to shed blood, Destruction and misery are in their paths, And they have not known the way of peace. There is no fear of God before their eyes.” What follows after verse eleven says, “But you die as men.” Whence also the following is written in Genesis, “And God reconsidered that he had made man upon the earth; and he regretted it in his heart and God said: I should destroy man, whom I have made, from the face of the earth.” Connecting the question then asked in verses nine to verses ten and eleven is a Ground because it concludes Paul’s point that the Jews are not better than the Greeks, they are equal in the eyes of God for both parties are corrupted and sinful; man is corrupted and sinful. It is by faith, through faith, in Christ alone that man is saved.

Romans 3:9-11 is applicable to the modern-day Christian in how it proclaims the truth that it is by faith alone and not by works that man is saved. There is no way to Christ other than the Gospel that proclaims the truth. It is foolish to believe that it is by works or that only the Jews will be saved through their good works because they are the chosen people. Jesus was the ultimate sacrifice and it’s believing in him that will save man, not the works. “We are no better than they? Not at all;” Jesus came to save all, not just the Jews, not just the Gentiles, he came to save all. There is no one more righteous than the other, there is no one who is knowledgeable of all things, there is only Christ who is the most righteous and the most knowledgeable, and thus he is the perfect savior to man.

Gianna Turner is a student attending Reformation Bible College in Sanford, Florida. Gianna graduated last year from Alpine Christian School in west Texas with a passion for knowing more about theology and Scripture. She attended a Christian Counseling Conference in 2021 and discovered her purpose in life is to work with children and help them with childhood trauma and their development. She writes for Warriors for God in her free-time and shares her college papers in order to lend her college wisdom to our readers.

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