Commentary on Romans 3:9-20

A Summary of
Romans 3:9-20

St. Paul takes up here the question interrupted at verse 5. Having shown that all mankind, Jews as well as pagans, are under the cloud of sin, and that neither the privileges and divine favors of the one, nor the gross errors of the other are able to shield from the divine wrath, the Apostle now proceeds to confirm his argument by an appeal to the authority of Sacred Scripture. The Psalmist and the Prophet Isaias are cited to prove the universal sinfulness of men and the need of redemption. And, lest the Jews might contend that these texts applied only to the Gentiles, the Apostle reminds that the Scriptures have reference primarily to the Jews, to whom they were given, and that they plainly declare no man to be made just before God by the works of the Law.

This section is generally regarded as a conclusion to all that has preceded regarding Jews and Gentiles. The Scriptural terms used in it are very general and applicable to all, even though they seem to pertain somewhat more directly to Jews than to Gentiles (Lagrange, Cornely, etc.).

Rom 3:9  What then? Do we
(i.e., Jews) excel them (Greeks, Pagans)? No, not so. For we have charged both Jews and Greeks, that they are all under sin.
The Apostle asks in the name of his fellow-countrymen whether, in spite of their many privileges, the Jews excel the pagans from a moral viewpoint, and are therefore more free from sin than the Gentiles? And he replies in the negative, because both Jews and Gentiles have sinned and are under the yoke of sin, from which neither the natural law, nor the Law of Moses is able to free them (Rom 1:11). The superior privileges of the Jews (Rom 3:1-2) did not make those of the Apostle’s time less sinful as a class than the pagans.
There is much difference of opinion regarding the meaning of προεχομεθα, literally, “are we surpassed,” but here translated, “do we excel”; but these different opinions can be reduced to the following: (a) The verb is to be taken in the middle voice, meaning, to seek pretexts or excuses : “What excuse have we then to sustain us at the Judgment?” (Julicher). (b) The verb is passive: “Are we then surpassed by the Gentiles?” (H. S., Field), (c) The verb is middle, but equivalent to an active: “Do we excel the Gentiles” (Cornely, Lagrange, etc.). This last is the traditional interpretation.

Rom 3:10  As it is written: There is not any man just.

Rom 3:11  There is none that understandeth: there is none that seeketh after God.
Rom 3:12  All have turned out of the way: they are become unprofitable together: there is none that doth good, there is not so much as one.
These verses are a free citation of Psalm 14:1-3, according to the Septuagint. David in this Psalm is affirming that all men are sinners, and the Apostle, in order to prove his conclusion, that not a few among the Jews and Gentiles, but all as a class are sinners, cites the Psalmist as a witness that all, whether under the law of nature, or under the Law of Moses are wanting in true justice. The Psalmist is speaking of man left to his own corrupt nature without the aid of grace, and he means to say that not all, but some at least of the sins enumerated in these and in the following verses (Rom 3:13-18) were found in each person.

None that understandeth
was applicable to the pagans, who had not the true knowledge of God.

None that seeketh after God
referred to the Jews who failed to serve the God whom they knew.

, i.e., useless in God’s service.

None that doth good
is descriptive of man without the aid of grace.

Rom 3:13  Their throat is an open sepulchre: with their tongues they have dealt deceitfully. The venom of asps is under their lips.
The first part of this verse is freely borrowed from Psalm 5:10; the last part, from Psalm 140:4. Although verses 13-18 follow in our Vulgate the preceding verses of Psalm 14, they really pertain to several other Psalms and to the Prophet Isaias. This custom of citing passages from different parts of Scripture to prove or illustrate the subject in hand was freely made use of by St. Paul, and by the Jewish Rabbis generally.

Their throat
, etc. The throat of the sinner, because of the corrupt and evil discourses that proceed from it, is compared to a sepulchre from which vile and poisonous odors are exhaled.

The venom of asps
, i.e., a deadly poison.

Rom 3:14  Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness:
This verse is a free citation of Psalm 10:7, according to the Hebrew.

Rom 3:15  Their feet swift to shed blood:

Rom 3:16  Destruction and misery in their ways:
Rom 3:17  And the way of peace they have not known.
These verses are freely borrowed from Isaiah 49:7-8. They show the degradation of the sinner who, with slight provocation, spills innocent blood and spreads misery and destruction everywhere around him, and who has no peace because filled with hatred, bitterness and sinister designs.

Rom 3:18  There is no fear of God before their eyes.
This verse, which is almost literally from Psalm 36:2, gives the cause of the foregoing disorders, namely, the lack of fear of God.

Rom 3:19  Now we know that what things soever the law speaketh, it speaketh to them that are in the law: that every mouth may be stopped and all the world may be made subject to God.
The Apostle now warns that the Scriptural testimonies just cited have reference principally to the Jews for whom they were primarily written and to whom the Law was given. Hence there is no reason for boasting on the part of the Jews.

The law speaketh
. Law is here used for the whole of Scripture, i.e., of the Old Testament. Both the inexcusable Gentiles and the proud Jews are reduced to silence, and are become liable to condemnation before God for their sins.

Rom 3:20  Because by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified before him. For by the law is the knowledge of sin.
Another reason why there can be no boasting on the part of the Jews, nor for greater reason on the part of the Gentiles, is that no one shall ever be, or ever has been, justified before God by the works, i.e., by the legal prescriptions of the Law. This the Apostle here affirms by the words of Ps 143:2. All the Law could do was to point out what ought to be done and what ought to be avoided, but it was as powerless to give the interior help and strength necessary for the observance of its precepts, as it was to free from sin committed. Obviously the works here spoken of were the legal prescriptions of the Law performed without faith and without the aid of grace. It is not the knowing, but the doing of the Law (Rom 2:13), i.e., the observing of the moral precepts of the Law, which grace alone can secure, that will justify and lead to salvation.
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