For years I've used Rom. 3:23 in preaching as a proof text that everyone (except Jesus, of course) has sinned. I mean, there it is: all--everyone, everywhere, everywhen--have sinned. But if you actually look at, you know, the whole sentence, there's a problem in the very next verse: ". . . being justified gratuitously by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus."
Do you see it? If you try to use Rom. 3:23 as proof that everyone has sinned, then there's no way around using v. 24 to say that everyone has now been saved. Universalism, anyone?
How do we get out of that little pit? Once again, it helps to look at the whole sentence, so let's take in v. 22: ". . . the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ unto all the ones who believe, for there is no difference. . ." So, the all in v. 23 refers not to every human being, but only to every believer. If we start at v. 19 and read Paul's whole idea here, it becomes pretty clear that the all refers to both Jew and Gentile, but again, only to believers.
Does that mean not everyone has sinned? Of course not. Elsewhere the NT makes clear that, in fact, everyone sins (Rom. 1:18-2:11; Heb. 4:15). The only problem is that Rom. 3:23 is not quite so easy to use as a one-step proof of universal depravity. It's still helpful, though. By the how-much-more logic often found in Scripture, if all Christians have sinned and are worthy of death (Rom. 6:23), then how much more are unbelievers.
So in a sense, we're back almost to where we started. But for me, at least, actually seeing what the Bible says (rather than what I would like it to say) has been both humbling and invigorating. I can't wait to be humbled again if it means coming a little closer to the truth of God's Word.
© Copyright 2011, A. Milton Stanley