As it is written: “There is no one righteous, not even one.” (Rom. 3:10)
From my experience this is the scripture that is the most often used as a “proof text” for the idea that nobody can by their own efforts be good enough to stand before a holy God and be accepted by him into everlasting life. It is a fairly common belief, even among the 90% of Christians who are not Calvinists, that if man’s righteousness is the criteria by which God judges then we are all doomed. God must provide another way for humans or he is obligated by his own nature to keep us out of his pure and holy presence, it is alleged. That way that God provided is Jesus shedding his blood on a cross and our faith in that. In God’s economy, so the common narrative goes, Christ’s righteousness is transferred to us so that instead of seeing our filthy rags God sees a righteous person, the righteousness of the only human who has ever lived a sinless life.
There are numerous problems with this view in light of all that scripture has to say about it but let’s just focus for now on what Romans 3:10 says and why Paul wrote it in the first place, and then look at the numerous scriptures that contradict Romans 3:10 if we are to take it at face value, scriptures that show that man’s righteousness is not only acceptable to God but expected of us.
One Way to End Up With Universal Condemnation
Paul is quoting the Old Testament to make a point, and without looking at the context it is easy to assume that Paul’s intention is to condemn the whole human race as not measuring up to God’s standards of righteousness. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” (Rom. 3:23) is often quoted in conjunction with this verse to hammer home a doctrine of Universal Condemnation, even though that verse says absolutely nothing about the consequences of sin. “The wages of sin is death,” (Rom. 6:23) is then used as a proof text to demonstrate the consequences of sin, though rarely is any attempt made to explain what kind of death is meant, when that death happens, who experiences it and to what degree, and if there is any difference between different sins as to the outcome of a final judgement. All sin is treated the same and it is just assumed that that means Eternal Suffering Torment (ECT), at least by those who believe in ECT. It is assumed that this must be the truth because James weighs in saying, “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.” (Jms. 2:10) James then becomes one of the proponents of a narrative that says the purpose of the Law which was added several hundred years after Abraham was to condemn every single person, even for the slightest of sins.
So there you have it. I just provided you with four verses from Romans and James that if strung together like I did must invariably lead anyone with an IQ higher than room temperature and spiritual discernment better than that of a toad’s – two standards some say I have yet to reach – to believe in Universal Condemnation. I just did Evangelical apologists, of which I was at one time, a big favor. Never mind the fact that someone in the church at Rome who was being read the letter to the Romans (most people were illiterate in those days so had to have someone read this stuff to them) would not be aware of the letter from James circulating at the other end of the Mediterranean, because James had not even been written yet!
You Can’t Construct a Theology Without the Building Materials
Actually, let’s mind that fact for just a moment. The problem with a constructed theology based on the whole of what is written in our New Testament is that early Christians had no way of coming to the same conclusions you do because the early church didn’t have the New Testament before it was all written during the 50 years or so between Pentecost and when the last of the New Testament was written. In addition, even what had been written at any given time wasn’t necessarily widely circulated throughout the region between Rome and Syria, the western and eastern limits of where the New Testament documents were written.
For all of you who have a constructed theology where you pride yourself on harmonizing all that the Bible has to say about your theology, as I do, put yourself in Rome in the year 58 AD when this letter from the apostle Paul, written in Greece across the Aegean Sea from Italy, is read in your church for the first time. Then try to construct a theology of salvation when you have access to only three or four other writings of Paul, or maybe even no other writings of Paul, and no access to any of the four Gospels, or Acts, or the epistles of Peter, James, John, Jude, and Hebrews, or Revelation, or Paul’s letters to Philemon, Timothy, Titus, the Colossians, or the Ephesians – because they hadn’t been written yet! And for the letters that had been written by the time Romans was written, they were all written to the churches in what is now Greece and Turkey. Being in Rome in 58 AD you might not even be aware of or have access to those letters, and even if you did chances are you were illiterate and couldn’t study them to form your theology.
Now try and construct your doctrine based on that and defend it with only Romans and the Old Testament. If you behave yourself I’ll give you the six letters Paul had already written so you can be a little more convincing.
It would be somewhat like building a stick-built house without the sticks, that is, without the two by fours.
But that’s exactly what we do with our constructed theologies, or “systematic theology”, as some call it.
“There is No One Righteous, Not Even One” – Is Exaggeration.
Let’s look at what we know about Romans 3:10 and see if this was meant by Paul as a blanket denunciation of the human race.
We know it wasn’t because it’s obviously hyperbole, which is exaggeration for effect. The Bible is full of it. Here are a few examples:
Do not take a purse or bag or sandals; and do not greet anyone on the road. (Lk. 10:4)
What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self? (Luke 9:25)
The king [Solomon] made silver and gold as common in Jerusalem as stones, and cedar as plentiful as sycamore-fig trees in the foothills. (2 Chr. 1:15)
So the Pharisees said to one another, “See, this is getting us nowhere. Look how the whole world has gone after him!” (Jn. 12:19)
“There is no one righteous, not even one,” is hyperbole meant for Israel. It’s not meant to be literal and applied to the whole human race. How do we know? There are at least seven things that lead us to this conclusion.
- First, let’s quote the whole passage:
We have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin. As it is written: “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one. Their throats are open graves; their tongues practice deceit. The poison of vipers is on their lips. Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness. Their feet are swift to shed blood; ruin and misery mark their ways, and the way of peace they do not know. There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
Yikes! Notice one of the descriptions of these people is, “their feet are swift to shed blood.” As you can see from just reading the passage it’s a patently ridiculous idea to think Paul meant this as a literal condemnation for the whole human race and everyone who has ever lived. Maybe your in-laws’ family gatherings but not everybody on the planet!
I think if I found myself in this society I’d shoot the travel editor who thought this place was somewhere anyone would want to visit. I mean literally shoot the guy because if this passage literally applies to me then my feet would literally be swift to shed blood and I literally wouldn’t give it a second thought!
2) A second reason to believe Romans 3:10 is hyperbole not meant to be taken as literal for all societies is because of what follows in verse 19:
Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God.
Ahah! See Kirby, right there it says this was written so the whole world would be held accountable to God!”
Not so fast. The whole world wasn’t under the law, only the Jewish world was. The Greek word for “world” is “kosmos” which is any orderly arrangement of things. It is used for the Greek speaking world and Roman Empire elsewhere. Paul specifically says this is for the Jews, as they are the only ones under the Law, and I would add, it was not meant for the good Jews, just the hypocrites. Paul would have no issue with righteous lawkeeping Jews like John the Baptist’s parents of whom it is said, “And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless.”
Notice also it says “whatever the law says, it SAYS to those who are under the law.” Who else was reading what was written in the Old Testament? It doesn’t SAY anything to people who aren’t reading it. It was said for the Jews to read, not the Aborigines in Australia.
As Barnes puts it in Barnes’ Notes, “The point, then, is to prove the depravity of the Jews, not that of universal depravity. The interpretation should be confined to the bearing of the passages on the Jews, and the quotations should not be adduced as directly proving the doctrine of universal depravity.”
3) A third reason Romans 3:10 is not a blanket condemnation of all humanity is laid out right from the beginning in the previous verse:
We have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin.”
In other words, Paul is leveling the playing field with regard to how the Jews viewed themselves and how they viewed the Gentiles. His purpose is not to condemn the human race. In fact, the only person in the bible to do that, other than when God was about to send the flood, was one of Job’s Comforters. The Comforters are, after all, infamous for teaching bad theology.
Many conclude that since they were all “concluded under sin” that Paul was condemning them to eternal damnation but again, that’s not his argument. He is merely pointing out to a people who thought they were sinless that they were not. If Paul can just get the proud, hypocritical and wicked Jews to understand they are sinners just like the Gentiles they look down on then he would consider that Mission Accomplished for his epistle.
Compare that with today’s Christians who think that God views them as sinless and righteous, the righteousness of Christ having been “imputed” to them because of what they believe, yet all the while not caring about their conduct, some even living in wickedness. If you’re involved in jail ministry you may have encountered people who live to harm others for their own selfish needs but believe they are Christians. It’s the same deception. It’s almost as if Paul is anticipating one of the consequences of a wrong understanding of imputation that we see today.
The Jews thought that since they are descendants of the giants of the faith, especially Abraham and Israel, and that it was to them that the one God of the universe entrusted the Torah (Law) and blessed them with prophets, mighty kings, and miraculous and glorious leading into a Promised Land, that their conduct didn’t really matter. They could behave themselves any way they wanted, or misbehave, with impunity. They were Functional Atheists because in their day to be an atheist meant to believe they are not accountable to any God. Meanwhile, the Gentiles could be saints and to the wicked Jews that wouldn’t make any difference to God in the Judgement because they were not heirs of the promises and hadn’t been following the Law of God. At the end of their day God is good with bad Jews and not good with good Gentiles.
Does this sound familiar? Isn’t that the same as Evangelical theology that says bad people will be forgiven as long as they become Christians and even the best non-Christian in the world is toast on Judgement Day?
4) The fourth reason to take that passage as non-literal is that at least one prophet of God was told the opposite by God concerning God’s people. Jeremiah was told in the following that the Exile would soften them so they would seek God, contrary to an overly literalistic reading of Romans which indicates no one seeks God. Here’s what God promised through Jeremiah:
“This is what the LORD says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my gracious promise to bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you,” declares the LORD, “and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,” declares the LORD, “and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.” (Jer. 29:10-14)
The verses that follow in Jeremiah tell us the evil being committed by God’s people, how they would not listen to their Lord but be more than willing to listen to the false prophets in their midst. But this was a description of a temporary condition that would change during Israel’s exile in Babylon. The 70 years of exile would make Israel not only open and listening to God but actively seeking him out, contrary to what Paul quoted in Romans which describes Israel at other times.
5) A fifth reason to believe Rom. 3:10 is hyperbole is that it follows a common pattern seen in other prophetic writings in the Old Testament from which Paul is making reference. For example, when a prophet like Isaiah is explaining why Israel will suffer judgement he will quite often word it in the extreme:
For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah his pleasant plant: and he looked for judgment, but behold oppression; for righteousness, but behold a cry. (Is. 5:7)
Doesn’t that sound like he looked and couldn’t find anyone righteous? Yet just a few verses later he says,
Woe unto them…which justify the wicked for reward, and take away the righteousness of the righteous from him! (Is. 5:23)
How is it possible for the wicked to take away the righteousness of the righteous if “none are righteous, no not one” which Paul quoted from elsewhere in the Old Testament is to be taken at face value and applied universally?
Perhaps the prophets of old should have gotten together and shared notes before speaking?
Nah, we just need to do our job and harmonize the scriptures so they actually make sense. It’s really not that hard to do. If we are willing to abandon our theological biases when confronted with new scriptural evidence.
Tradition dies hard, doesn’t it?
6) A sixth reason to believe Rom. 3:10 is hyperbole is because of how St. John defines a righteous person:
“He who does righteousness is righteous.” (1 Jn. 3:7)
John didn’t say a righteous person is one who believes the Gospel, he said it is someone who acts righteously, with no hint that he was trying to prove that it can’t be done, as many Christians today allege.
7) A seventh reason to believe Rom. 3:10 is hyperbole are the numerous scriptures that detail who is righteous and why they are righteous, which is because of what they do, not what they believe.
All the Saints Who Were Considered Righteous Because of Their Conduct
Here’s a partial list of those who were considered righteous before God. First, I’ll list those who may have or did have a connection with God, and therefor may have had some sort of faith, but notice it wasn’t their faith that was mentioned here as a reason why they were considered righteous. It was their conduct.
We will follow this by descriptions of righteousness that could be applied to anyone on the planet irrespective of his faith or lack thereof:
Abel – Not as Cain, who was of that wicked one, and slew his brother. And wherefore slew he him? Because his own works were evil, and his brother’s righteous. (1 Jn. 3:12)
Noah – Before Noah was called to build the ark the Bible says this about him, “This is the account of Noah. Noah was a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time, and he walked with God.” (Gen. 6:9) He was blameless, no doubt, because he walked with God. Unlike his peers, he believed he would be accountable to God for his conduct, and lived his life accordingly. If he had not been blameless, he would not have been considered a righteous man.
Abraham – “Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar?” (Jms. 2:21)
Lot – “He rescued Lot, a righteous man, who was distressed by the filthy lives of lawless men, for that righteous man, living among them day after day, was tormented in his righteous soul by the lawless deeds he saw and heard.” (2 Pet. 2:7-8)
David considered himself one of the righteous ones that God judges favorably. “Oh let the wickedness of the wicked come to an end; but establish the just: for the righteous God tries the hearts and reins. My defense is of God, which saves the upright in heart. God judges the righteous, and God is angry with the wicked every day. (Ps. 7:9) Paul should have shown up in history quite a bit earlier to inform David that “no one is righteous,” right?
David lays out many times an oft repeated theme, repeated elsewhere in scripture as light vs. dark, sheep vs. goats, wheat vs. weeds, good vs. bad, born from above vs. born from below, and walking in the Spirit vs. walking in the flesh. Every single time, without exception, the difference between the two is conduct. It’s never about belief, in and of itself.
In the Psalms, David, as do others in other places in scripture, makes the same contrast: the righteous vs. the wicked, with behavior as the defining factor:
“The LORD tries the righteous: but the wicked and him that loves violence his soul hates.” (Ps. 11:5)
“The eyes of the LORD are upon the righteous, and his ears are open unto their cry. The face of the LORD is against them that do evil, to cut off the remembrance of them from the earth.” (Ps. 34:15)
“A little that a righteous man has is better than the riches of many wicked.” (Ps. 37:16)
There is no indication that David thought he was the only righteous person in Israel. He fully expected a plethora of others to be counted in that number:
“Be glad in the LORD, and rejoice, you righteous: and shout for joy, all you that are upright in heart.” (Ps. 32:11)
“Bring my soul out of prison, that I may praise thy name: the righteous shall compass me about; for thou shalt deal bountifully with me.” (Ps. 142:7)
“All the horns of the wicked also will I cut off; but the horns of the righteous shall be exalted.” (Ps. 75:10)
The city of Jerusalem before it went bad. “How is the faithful city become an harlot! it was full of judgment; righteousness lodged in it; but now murderers.” (Isaiah 1:21)
Closer to Christ, right on the eve of the New Covenant we see this:
John the Baptist’s parents. “And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless.” (Lk. 1:6)
Wait, what? Wasn’t the Law given precisely to show people that they could not possibly be righteous by following the Law so that they would see their need for a Savior? Isn’t that what Paul told us in Gal. 3:21 when he said, “Is the law then against the promises of God? God forbid: for if there had been a law given which could have given life, verily righteousness should have been by the law”?
Luke has no excuse for including this in his Gospel since Galatians was written first, right?
It will take a whole commentary on Galatians to sort this one out but for now let’s stay with the plain words of Luke and we’ll dissect Galatians at another time.
All of the Normal People in the Bible Who Were Considered Righteous – and Why They Were
Now observe all these descriptions of righteous people, and how many of them there must have been. These descriptions apply to anyone irrespective of his faith:
Those who don’t give bribes. In Exodus 23:8 a bribe is described as an injustice for the righteous. Why? Because those who would otherwise be the best people to secure a government contract, for example, who are called “righteous”, are cheated out of that contract by an unrighteous person who happens to have enough money to bribe the official who decides who gets the contract.
Officials who don’t take bribes. Deuteronomy 16:19 says that a bribe “perverts the words of the righteous.” Instead of doing the right thing (acting righteously), an official accepting a bribe says what he has been paid to say, going against what he knows to be right. A righteous official, one who does not accept bribes, will not have his better judgement perverted by a bribe.
Everyone who has hope in his death because he is righteous. “The wicked is driven away in his wickedness, but the righteous has hope in his death.” (Pr. 14:32) Would Solomon agree that nobody has hope in his death unless he also has faith? Would Paul argue with Solomon?
Winners in a lawsuit before Judges. Deuteronomy 25:10 describes the job of a judge: to condemn the wicked, and justify the righteous. If there are “none righteous, not even one,” then all the judges of the world getting paid the big bucks sure have any easy job: condemn everyone who comes before them. It wouldn’t take a law degree to declare that none are righteous. High school kids working for minimum wage could do that if there are no righteous to justify.
Winners in cases brought before God at the temple. In 1 Kings 8:32 Solomon expected a positive outcome for the righteous when God heard from heaven and judged between the wicked and the righteous. He prayed that God would condemn the wicked and justify the righteous, giving to him according to his righteousness. If he thought his righteousness was as filthy rags he wouldn’t want God to judge between him and others. Inviting that would be to invite destruction for his soul. See also 2 Chr. 6:23.
Everyone who is not wicked. The righteous are over and over again contrasted with the wicked. If we are to believe that righteousness can only come by way of faith, then these scriptures just don’t fit because they are describing the righteous in many societies throughout world history:
The wicked man flees though no one pursues, but the righteous are as bold as a lion. (Pr. 28:1)
Please note, the righteous are rarely contrasted with those who are not believers, but when they are, it is always in the context of unbelievers who don’t think they are accountable to God for their actions, and so think they can live wickedly with impunity. Mere atheism, with no mention of the wickedness of the atheist, is never discussed in the scriptures.
Those who promote an effective justice system with lack of destruction, violence, and conflict, i.e.: the ones who don’t pervert justice. “Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrong? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds. Therefore the law is paralyzed, and justice never prevails. The wicked hem in the righteous, so that justice is perverted.” (Habakkuk 1:3-4) That sounds like Mexico where the cartels intimidate the police and judges, wouldn’t you say? Yet there are those who are the righteous ones being hemmed in by the wicked and do seek a just system.
The victims of a despotic regime. “Can a corrupt throne be allied with you– one that brings on misery by its decrees? They band together against the righteous and condemn the innocent to death.” (Ps. 94:20-21)
A good man who shows favor to others. “A good man shows favor, and lends: he will guide his affairs with discretion. Surely he shall not be moved for ever: the righteous shall be in everlasting remembrance.” (Ps. 112:5-6)
Righteousness is the normal state of humanity. You don’t have to be “blood covered” to be considered righteous before our holy God. You don’t have to have Jesus’ righteousness “inputed” to you. (See what I did there?) The scriptures tell us of man’s righteousness even more than it tells us about God’s righteousness.
All of these people prior to Christ that I quoted above finding favor with God because of their conduct! Can there be any doubt that righteousness is contrasted with wickedness, not with lack of belief, and is based on one’s behavior rather than on one’s “status” before God based on his faith?
Did this somehow change with the advent of Christ so that now righteous people are no longer righteous unless they also have knowledge of and faith in Christ? Did the righteousness of the people living at the time of Christ suddenly become “filthy rags” when Jesus rose from the dead, so then they are condemned before a holy God instead of being favored by God? Wasn’t Jesus’ ministry designed to bring more people into the Kingdom of Heaven, not less?
If that’s what we are supposed to believe for some unknown reason the apostle John didn’t get that memo, or didn’t understand Paul if he did. Even in the latter half of the 1st Century, by some the last letters written in the New Testament, he was still saying a righteous person is one who does the right thing:
Dear children, do not let anyone lead you astray. He who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous. (1 John 3:7)
Alright Brother John. I’m not going to let Calvinists, Evangelicals, Fundamentalists, or even Protestants in general lead me astray who tell me nobody can be good enough on his own efforts to stand before a holy God and get a favorable hearing based on his own human righteousness.
In addition, this same John in his Apocalypse describes the robe that the Bride of Christ dresses herself with, saying, “Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready. Fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear.” Notice how she has to do something to be clothed with this robe. It wasn’t just thrown about a passive participant. She had to put it on. And just so we don’t miss the symbolism – it’s too bad John doesn’t do this with all of the symbols in the Apocalypse – he tells us just what the robe symbolizes: “Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of the saints.” (Rev. 19:7-8) Once again, John is telling us that righteousness is defined by what we do, not by our status granted because of our beliefs, and this time he’s passing along a message he was given while he was taken up to Heaven!
So what does a righteous person look like according to the scriptures? Is he described as a believer or as a doer?
Did Paul preach something different?
No, not at all. Paul also confirmed that the way to righteousness and salvation is by way of conduct:
To the Gentiles also, I preached that they should repent and turn to God and prove their repentance by their deeds. (Acts 26:20)
For [God] will render to every man according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. (Romans 2:6-9)
If those who are not circumcised keep the law’s requirements, will they not be regarded as though they were circumcised? (Romans 2:26)
The Evangelical narrative divides the human race into three categories:
- Those without faith, whether (experientially) righteous or not = unsaved
- Those who think they have faith but are wicked = unsaved
- Those who are righteous because they have faith = saved
The Scriptures divide the human race into two categories marked by conduct:
- Unrighteous = unsaved
- Righteous = saved
The purpose of the Gospel is so that the unrighteous would become righteous, and the righteous would become like Christ. Because our status before God is based on conduct – whether we live righteously or wickedly – faith in Christ is meant to change our behavior, which will change our status, if our behavior disqualifies us from a good standing before God in the first place.
Where Christians get confused is seeing “righteousness by faith” as a change in status, evidenced by good conduct, rather than simply a change in conduct because of or enhanced by faith. This is the product of the Reformation understanding that based on conduct only, no man is righteous enough for God. Everyone, no matter how good they may be, is unrighteous, they say.
Those who accept this premise of Universal Condemnation to Hell – Because Human, as I like to call it, view all of the above scriptures detailing righteousness in a way where either it’s the evidence of faith or it’s not good enough to God apart from faith.
According to the Bible, righteousness is defined as good conduct, and human righteousness is good enough for God. Romans 3:20 does not say otherwise.
Is there even such a thing as righteousness granted on the basis of faith alone, commonly called “imputed righteousness”? In short, the righteousness of Christ that is imputed to a believer is nothing more than the believer living his life according to the words and example of Jesus to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Until the believer has done that, nothing has been imputed, and he doesn’t have any kind of righteousness at all. This will of course require another post to explain.
This is a follow on post to Salvation by Being Good
You might also be interested in Righteousness by Self-Effort is Good, Expected, and Attainable