The Mouths of Sinners
“‘All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.’ ‘Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.’ ‘The venom of asps is under their lips.’ ‘Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.’”- Romans 3:12–14
Using a series of quotes from the Old Testament, Paul draws together in Romans 3:10– 18 the threads of his argument that Jews and Gentiles are both guilty of breaking God’s law and stand condemned before Him. After introducing the quotes by citing the universality of sin and its effects on the mind (vv. 10–11), the Apostle looks in verses 12–14 at how the depth of our depravity manifests itself in our actions.
Verse 12 describes all human beings in Adam—that is, all human beings outside of Christ—as “worthless.” We need to be careful here not to read Paul’s quote of Psalms 14:3 and 53:3 as if human beings have lost all the dignity they possess by virtue of being made in God’s image (Gen. 1:26–27). The idea is one of thoroughgoing corruption that results in uselessness with respect to the things of the Lord. In other words, apart from divine grace, human beings do not and cannot fulfill the task for which they were made, namely, to bring all creation under dominion in imitation of the wise and sovereign providential rule of our Creator. We do not serve God with the strength or focus that we ought, and if the standard by which one is declared righteous before Him is perfection, then outside of Christ we are indeed worthless servants of the Lord. Human beings are not born into a natural state of being on “God’s side.” Actually, we hate Him and seek to overthrow His rightful claim upon our lives both overtly and with subtlety. Nothing we do truly pleases Him as long as we are not in Christ. In his commentary on Romans, John Murray puts it quite well: “As respects well-doing there is not one; as respects evil-doing, there is no exception.”
Romans 3:13–14 quotes Psalms 5:10; 10:7; and 140:4 to show how deep sin runs by looking at our throats, lips, tongues, and mouths, all of which are organs related to our speech. Scripture tells us that our tongues have great power, not in the sense that they are magical tools but in that words of blessing and cursing have powerful, lasting, and often permanent effects on ourselves and others. “Death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Prov. 18:21), and God made us to bestow life with our speech through edifying and encouraging words, the proclamation of His truth, and so on (15:4; 1 Peter 3:10). But if even those who are in Christ need to be told to stay away from “corrupting talk” (Eph. 4:29), then surely the sinfulness of humanity is so deep that it penetrates even our words. No one can claim to have kept God’s law in what they have done or what they have said.
The degradation of a culture is clearly seen in the kind of language it tolerates about other people and even about God Himself. We are living in a society that is increasingly vulgar and whose corruption threatens even those who have been called out of darkness into the Lord’s marvelous light. If we follow Christ, we must be careful with our speech. If we show no desire to edify others and honor God with our lips, we may still be in Adam and not in Christ.
Passages for Further Study