Sin absolutely is universal. The Bible gives us a clear answer to this inquiry: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). In its original context, that statement comes after Paul spells out the doctrine that all humans, whether Jew or Gentile, are under sin. This has been the point of his letter since the end of the introduction. This letter is all about the gospel, and one cannot understand salvation without a knowledge of sin. Further, when we grasp the universality of sin our worldview will be better equipped to interpret the evil and pain in this world.
Jews and Gentiles are all under sin
Paul shows in Chapter 1 of Romans that Gentiles, although they don’t know about the Law of Moses, are still sinners because they have an inherent knowledge that there is a god, and yet they worship idols (vv. 20-23). Chapter 2 continues this thought, saying that they have a conscience convicting them when they’re wrong (v. 14). Elsewhere we discussed these passages when we answered the popular question, “Does the good man who never heard of Jesus go to heaven?”
In Chapter 2 the attention is shifted from Gentile to Jew, saying that Jews are also sinners because they did know the Law and yet broke it. If a Jew was to look down upon a Gentile for not following the Law, they are guilty because they do the same sinful practices (vv. 1, 3)! It was the habit of Jews to depend upon their heritage and circumcision for their salvation, i.e. boasting of their descent from Abraham. Yet Paul says that their circumcision is only good if they obey the Law, and that a true Jew is one who does (vv. 25-29).
Part of the way through Chapter 3, Paul summarizes what he has said thus far in the letter: “We have…charged that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin” (Rom. 3:9, emphasis mine). This is the conclusion of what has been said in the first two chapters: Gentiles and Jews both have broken God’s Law, are heading for judgment, and cannot be justified by their works. Paul then lists several Old Testament passages showing the depravity of man, and the universal extent of sin. (Below is Romans 3:10-18 with the OT references in parantheses.)
“There is none righteous, not even one;
There is none who understands,
There is none who seeks for God;
All have turned aside, together they have become useless;
There is none who does good,
There is not even one.” (Psa. 14:1-3)
“Their throat is an open grave,
With their tongues they keep deceiving” (Psa. 5:9),
“The poison of asps is under their lips” (Psa. 140:3);
“Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness” (Psa. 10:7 LXX);
“Their feet are swift to shed blood,
Destruction and misery are in their paths,
And the path of peace they have not know” (Isa. 59:7-8).
“There is no fear of God before their eyes” (Psa. 36:1).
A study of each of these in their original contexts would uncover even more insight into the bad character of those people. For our present purposes, however, may I just draw attention to the repetition of “all” being bad, and “none” being good. Although these OT passages themselves may have a particular group in mind, Paul extends the application to all human beings. Therefore, not a single person (apart from grace) knows about God, or even wants to know about Him.
Sin spread to all mankind through Adam
In Chapter 5 of Romans we learn that our sinfulness can be traced back to Adam, the first human. This elaborates on how sin’s spread was universal to all human beings. From one transgression of the one man, condemnation, judgment, death, and sin spread to “all men” (Room 5:15-19). All of this as we are punished for Adam’s sin (whether this happens in a realist or federalist sense is left untouched, we ought not read into Paul’s words). It may sound unjust that someone else’s fault becomes ours, but we must remember that corporate relationships are common. In his study on Imputed Sin, Murray explains, “In God’s government of men there are the institutions of the family, of the state, and of the church in which solidaric or corporate relationships obtain and are operative.”1
But that’s not all. Along with the guilt of original sin imputed to us, we are born with a natural inclination to always sin. Shedd says that, “Indwelling sin is something more than actual transgression. It is inward lust, deeply seated, and making continual and strong opposition to the principle of holiness.”2 In fact, later in Romans Paul says that our nature (typically called “flesh” in Paul, opposed to Spirit) is so corrupt that we cannot obey God:
“I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh.”
“The mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.”
Sin infects every part of our being
And so sin infects all human beings to the core of our being. There is no part of our being that is untouched by sin. God told Adam and Eve that if they ate of the tree they would die. Paul picks up on this in Chapter 8 of Romans, saying that we groan within ourselves awaiting the redemption of our bodies (v. 23). Not just our outer man, but our inner man was affected too. Way back in Genesis we are told that “every intent of the thoughts of [man’s] heart was only evil continually” (6:5). Jeremiah wrote that our hearts are desparately wicked and beyond repair (Jer 17:9). Paul says to Titus that our minds and consciences are defiled (Titus 1:15). Paul elsewhere says concerning the wicked that their minds are futile, their understanding is darkened, and that their hearts are hardened (Eph. 4:17-18).
It is part of our nature, and therefore something in us from birth. Berkhof says in his Systematic Theology that, “sin is the heritage of man from the time of his birth, and is therefore present in human nature so early that it cannot possibly be considered as the result of imitation,” and that our sinful nature is “something inborn and original, as distinguished from what is subsequently acquired.”3
Not merely at birth, but sin is a part of our nature even from the time of conception. The Psalmist says “The wicked go astray from the womb; they come forth speaking lies” (Psalm 58:3), and David says that he was in sin when his mother conceived him (Psalm 51:5). I know this sounds harsh because we don’t think of babies as wicked, but from experience, does any parent need to teach their child to sin? No! They do it naturally without having to be shown.
So the Bible’s answer to the question, “Is sin universal,” is a resounding yes. If you would like further proof outside of the Bible, consider that death too is universal. If death was a result of Adam’s first sin, and as Romans 6:23 says, “The wages of sin is death,” then the fact that somebody dies is proof that there was sin in them.
1 Murray, John The Imputation of Adam’s Sin (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 1959) 22.
2 Shedd, William G. T. Commentary on Romans Thornapple Commentaries (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1980 reprint) 208.
3 Berkhof, Louis Systematic Theology (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1994 reprint) 240.