We have a friend in our fellowship who often says, “All doesn’t always mean all.” I’ve had a good time jesting with him about it, but I didn’t clearly understand what he meant until today when I had a personal encounter with this phenomenon.
I was curled up on my bathroom floor with my Bible. (Yes, it sounds like a strange place to read, but it was warm and cozy on the carpet in there, and I could turn the light on without risk of waking anyone else.) I had just prayed that God would open His word to me and teach me something new. Then I began the book of Romans. My faith is still often so small, because I was floored when I realized He heard me and had responded within minutes. What an awesome God we serve!
The main revelation came as I read this well-known passage in Romans 3:
“None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” (quoting from Psalm 14:1-3)
“Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.” (quoting from Psalm 5:9)
“The venom of asps is under their lips.” (quoting from Psalm 140:3)
“Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.” (quoting from Psalm 10:7)
“Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known.” (quoting from Proverbs 1:16, 3:15-17)
“There is no fear of God before their eyes.” (quoting from Psalm 36:1)
How I Have Historically Understood These Verses
These verses seem to say that every human being is unrighteous. Not one person understands. Not one seeks for God. Not one does good.
But I’ve always had a problem reconciling this passage with others like these:
- “By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he was commended as righteous.” (Hebrews 11:4)
- “Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation. Noah walked with God.” (Genesis 6:9)
- “And they (Zechariah and Elizabeth) were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord.” (Luke 1:6)
If no humans are righteous and none seek after God, how do we explain Abel, Noah, Zechariah and Elizabeth?
The Context of Romans
As I reflected on what Paul had been talking about in the first three chapters of this book, something began to click.
He’s been talking about ungodly, unrighteous people who suppress the truth. And he’s been directing his audiences’ attention to the fact that these ungodly people aren’t just Gentiles. Sure, some of them are Gentiles. Some sin without the law and will perish without the law (Romans 2:12). But there are also those Gentiles who, though they don’t have the full law, recognize enough truth in the things that have been made and do what the law requires (Romans 1:20 and 2:14). On the other hand, there are plenty of people who do have the law and don’t do it (Romans 2:17-24). Jews were not immune to being unrighteous evildoers, as it seems some of them supposed.
“Are we Jews any better off?” Paul asks in 3:9. “No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, as it is written.”
He then goes on to present those various quotes, mostly from Psalms.
It seemed to me that one of Paul’s main points was that unrighteous evildoers are made up of both Jews and Greeks. So, was he really trying to say that all humans are worthless, unrighteous, and unable to do good? Or was he trying to say that all groups of people – both Jews and Greeks – have unrighteous evildoers among them?
I figured I could probably gain some insight by going back to the psalms Paul quoted. I was interested to know whether David believed that every human being is worthless. Did he believe that not one person understands? That not one seeks for God?
David’s Perspective in Psalm 14
I started with the first reference Paul made, Psalm 14:1-3.
“The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds, there is none who does good.”
Interesting! David is specifying a group of people – fools. Maybe what Paul and David were trying to say was that among the fools, there is none who does good.
I continued to read.
“The LORD looks down from heaven on the children of man, to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one.”
Hmm… Maybe my theory was wrong after all. David seems to be saying every human, all the children of men, are corrupt.
“Have they no knowledge, all the evildoers who eat up my people as they eat bread and do not call upon the LORD?
Aha! There it was again! He started off defining the group of corrupt people as fools, and now he’s defining them as the evildoers. But, is there another group of non-evildoers or is he classifying the whole human race in this category?
I continue again.
“There they are in great terror, for God is with the generation of the righteous. You would shame the plans of the poor, but the LORD is his refuge.”
There it is! There are two distinct groups – the evildoing fools and the righteous.
But What About Psalm 5?
I went to the next psalm Paul quoted. Psalm 5:4 gave me more clues :
“For you are not a God who delights in wickedness; evil may not dwell with you. The boastful shall not stand before your eyes; you hate all evildoers. You destroy those who speak lies; the LORD abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful man.”
So David is presenting this group of evildoers again. But are all humans a part of this group?
“But I, through the abundance of your steadfast love, will enter your house. I will bow down toward your holy temple in the fear of you. Lead me, O LORD, in your righteousness because of my enemies; make your way straight before me.”
A few verses later, David says,
“But let all who take refuge in you rejoice; let them ever sing for joy, and spread your protection over them, that those who love your name may exult in you. For you bless the righteous, O LORD; you cover him with favor as with a shield.”
How beautiful! David doesn’t count himself among this group of evildoers. In fact, he counts himself among the righteous. They are not righteous because of their merit, but because they love the name of the Lord and because they take refuge in him. They will enter God’s house because of God’s abundant, steadfast love. Stunning!
At this point I was pretty confident that when David said they all had turned aside, he didn’t actually mean all. He meant that all of the fools had turned aside.
The Rest of the Psalms
The rest of the psalms that Paul quoted supported this understanding. There were always two groups. One group was full of arrogant, evil, lying, bloodthirsty, deceitful, boastful, violent people who renounced the name of Yahweh. The other cried for mercy, valued the steadfast love of God, took refuge in the shadow of His wings, and knew that light and life were found with God.
Unless further study sheds additional light on these verses, I believe that Paul and David were not saying that every single human is unrighteous and worthless. They were saying that every single fool is unrighteous and worthless.
Paul was trying to get the Jews to see that they were not immune from being unrighteous. And Gentiles were not automatically unrighteous. Just as both can be under sin, so can both receive the blessing of having their sins covered (Romans 4:7-12) Both can be established in righteousness through faith in the Messiah (Romans 3:21-26).
Maybe we’ve been fools at one time, but we have the ability to change camps. We can join the camp of righteous Abel, Noah, Zechariah, and Elizabeth. We can cry out for mercy, take refuge in the shadow of His wings, find the steadfast love of God, and receive light and life that belong to the Almighty through the blood of the perfect Lamb who took away the sins of the world.
What a merciful God! What a beautiful gospel!