9 What then? Are we better than they? Not at all. For we have previously charged both Jews and Greeks that they are all under sin.
10 For as it is written:
“There is none righteous, no, not one;
11 There is none who understands;
There is none who seeks after God.
12 They have all turned aside;
They have together become unprofitable;
There is none who does good, no, not one.”
13 “Their throat is an open tomb;
With their tongues they have practiced deceit”;
“The poison of asps is under their lips”;
14 “Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness.”
15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood;
16 Destruction and misery are in their ways;
17 And the way of peace they have not known.”
18 “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
Paul is employing a similar method of critique here that he used in Romans 1. He is linking together passages from Scripture, in these instances where God’s own people were being chastised. In Romans3:10-18 he states that “not one of them is righteous, no not one (v10); not one of them does what is right (v12); their feet are swift to shed blood (v15) and there is no fear of God before their eyes (v18). Did Paul actually believe that no Jew ever feared God or ever did anything right – that their hearts were set on bloody slaughter so as to bring misery and destruction wherever they went? Of course he didn’t, likewise with his depiction of the Gentile nations in the previous chapter. It is a literary technique to adduce universal sinfulness and the fact that everyone sins and falls short of the glory of God (v23). He was not intimating that it is in everyone’s nature to act in the depraved manner described, so therefore equally he is not saying that no one by nature is righteous. For, “As it is written, no one is righteous, no not one(v10). That statement is the start of the concatenated prophecies drawn from the Old Testament (mainly Isaiah 59) where God’s people are being chastised. “No one is righteous” is no more a statement of fact than the idea that no Jew on the planet ever feared God.
For Paul well knew that the Old Testament (the only Scriptures at the time) does NOT teach that no one by nature is righteous, or anything like it. The Wisdom literature in particular teaches that some are righteous, other are not. And it can have nothing to do with “imputed righteousness” as some would wish to make out, for the wicked are often described as “those who leave the paths of righteousness to walk in the ways of darkness” (Prov2:13). God through Ezekiel warned that If a righteous person turns from their righteousness and does evil, they will die for it (Ezek33:18) Therefore it must have been their own righteousness that was previously possessed (likewise Ezek18:24).
Paul’s method of critique is typically Jewish and decidedly idiosyncratic . As a result, he can be (and has been) profoundly misunderstood. Even in his own day, the Apostle Peter taught that Paul’s writings were hard to understand and were being misunderstood by many (2Pet3:15-16). Paul himself was aware of the problem “Why not say (as we are slanderously reported and as some claim that we say), “Let us do evil that good may come”? Their condemnation is just” (Rom3:8). So why should we not say that the Christian is not required to keep the spirit of the law? Because of the passage considered in the previous post where the Apostle says nothing of the sort (Rom2 especially vv6-15 and 25-29). Likewise Jesus and the other apostles. As Paul will shortly re-affirm (next post), Torah observance is no longer a requirement, even for those who are set apart as God’s chosen people. Nevertheless, as James put it: “If, however, you are fulfilling the royal law according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’, then you are doing well” (Jam2:8).