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Paul speaks of ‘sinned’ as a verb, but also of sin in the singular, as a noun, so what is the important difference between Romans 2:12 and 3:9?

Romans 2:12 – For as many as have sinned without law shall also perish without law; and as many as have sinned in the law shall be judged by the law. (King James Version)

Romans 3:9 – For we have before proved both Jews and Gentiles, that they are all under sin. (King James Version)

The noun, hamartia, is sin, and sinning is the doing of sin – the verb. But what is Paul really getting at here, in his letter to Roman Christians?

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  • The context. Different contexts resulting in the same conclusion.
    – Perry Webb
    Commented May 26 at 13:28

5 Answers 5

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Recently I read this explanation, which clarifies a most important point. The author is expounding the culmination of Paul's argument in Romans 3:1-8, that he has already proved both Jew and Gentile to be "under sin" (Romans 3:9). Paul states that "all have sinned" as this sin is the deliberate, willful choice to sin; such is the nature of the will and its related actions - it is nothing but sin. The author now explains:

"Humanity chose to sin. The word 'sinned' occurs first in Rom. 2:12. Again it is found in Rom. 3:23. Next in Rom. 5:12, 14 and 16. Then lastly in this epistle, Rom. 6:15. That is the verb. It is what is done. But it is not the form of the word that Paul uses in Rom. 3:9, when he declares that all are 'under sin'.

Here 'sin' as such, occurs for the first time in the epistle. It is the noun form of the word. This does not denote action, moral or otherwise, but rather the thing itself. It may be 'a' sin, but the word has a far deeper meaning. Used in this place it refers neither to the deed, nor to the intention, but to the inbred state. However it is certainly not the case that the apostle introduces this revelation of man's condition in order to mitigate his inexcusable action of sinning, but rather to show that this exposes a far deeper and more serious inward state.

The action 'sinned' came before the state 'sin' in the revelation. Here, for the first time in Romans, the apostle shows the state of the fallen man. However, he exposes it - and this must be observed - first by proving man's sinful disposition. What this reveals, what that wilful rebellion brings to light, what that disposition in the whole human race exposes is an inbred condition deeper in the life of man than the genesis of any one individual.

'They are all under sin', Rom. 3:9. 'Under' is the word that determines here the precise bearing of the noun hamartia, sin. The pronoun, 'they' refers to the whole human race, Jew and Gentile, religious or irreligious. Humanity's wilful, inexcusable, sinning shows that in every nation, all generations, each condition, mankind is 'under' sin from the fall. Here this important truth is introduced to be taken up again and again in the epistle, Rom. 3:9,20; 4:8; 5:12,13,20,21; a further 16 times in ch. 6; 12 times in ch. 7, and so on.

This refers to the state of man in the fall, revealed by his deliberate sinning in life, the one in no way mitigating the other, but both alike meriting the just judgment of the righteousness of God in the day of wrath. It is this that the apostle had 'before proved'." Justification by Faith, John Metcalfe, pp. 94-5, 1987. http://www.johnmetcalfepublishingtrust.co.uk/contact_us.htm

The quote shows the difference between the act of sinning, and what sin is. Of course, one cannot be separated from the other! It is vital to know the subtle nuances here. Paul actually takes several chapters at the start of his letter to Roman Christians to delve deeply into this vital matter, but I'm sticking to the limited scope of the question.

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  • You say, "willful choice to sin". I wonder what meaning you attach to these words. As I understand it the will is free "to" choose but not free "from". i.e., not free from the considerations which determine why a particular choice is made.
    – C. Stroud
    Commented May 26 at 21:49
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    @C.Stroud 'Sin' is the contradiction of what is 'heard' (as with most who heard the words of Jesus, and who read his words in the Bible; their interior consciousness denies the witness of God). All resistance to, and acting against, what is of the word of God is the interior condition. Sin. The outward act, of thought, speech, activity, influence, conspiracy, against the revealed word of God is Transgression. A stepping across. All of this is lawless. Unruly. Disorderly. Lawlessness. And the person is thus defiled with Iniquity becoming guilty, judicially and in person, feelingly. Guilt.
    – Anne
    Commented May 27 at 9:36
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    All of this is dealt with in redemption, in justification and in sanctification. Sin, as such, sin itself, is dealt with in the death of Christ. So those who wilfully reject what Christ has done to deal with sin are left with their sin. Those who have accepted a distorted gospel of salvation that minimises all of this feel ‘healed’ but remain sick with sin as they have not accepted the biblical gospel. “For they have healed the hurt of the daughter of my people slightly, saying, Peace, peace; when there is no peace.” Jer.8:11. Cf. how God heals! “Heal me, O Lord, and I shall be healed; save me
    – Anne
    Commented May 27 at 9:36
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    and I shall be saved: for thou art my praise.” Jer.17.14 & Micah 7:19 “thou wilt cast all their sins into the depth if the sea.” The subject of sin is so massive, only a few points can be given by way of answer to such a question as this. I trust we are agreed on this.
    – Anne
    Commented May 27 at 9:38
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    I agree 100% with what you have kindly explained. I have been thinking about the human will, choice and free choice and may have got in a muddle. +1
    – C. Stroud
    Commented May 27 at 10:43
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Consider the context of two resurrections of Revelation 20:

3 And cast him into the bottomless pit, and shut him up, and set a seal upon him, that he should deceive the nations no more, till the thousand years should be fulfilled: and after that he must be loosed a little season.
4 And I saw thrones, and they sat upon them, and judgment was given unto them: and I saw the souls of them that were beheaded for the witness of Jesus, and for the word of God, and which had not worshipped the beast, neither his image, neither had received his mark upon their foreheads, or in their hands; and they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years.
5 But the rest of the dead lived not again until the thousand years were finished. This is the first resurrection.
6 Blessed and holy is he that hath part in the first resurrection: on such the second death hath no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with him a thousand years.

John described these events somewhat out of their natural order:

  • First resurrection: The saints are transformed into immortal spirits.
  • Satan is bound.
  • Millennium: The saints rule and teach with Christ for a thousand years in the Kingdom of God.
  • Second resurrection: Those that had never been offered salvation (the vast majority of mankind) are returned to life, still as physical mortal beings, and are taught God's way.
  • Satan is temporarily loosed.
  • Judgement: The saints help judge everyone, with the few that still refuse salvation being condemned.
  • Second Death: The condemned are permanently destroyed.

Compare those events with the two parts of Romans 2:

12 For as many as have sinned without law shall also perish without law; and as many as have sinned in the law shall be judged by the law
13–15
16 [in] the day when God shall judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ according to my gospel.

The "without the law" part refers to those in the second resurrection, people that had never been offered salvation. They died as sinners, but without ever knowing any better. They died guilty of breaking the law, but not yet judged and condemned.

The "in the law" part refers to those that had been offered salvation during our current age but who rejected it, knowingly sinning. They are already condemned by the law to eternal destruction (the second death).

Paul is pointing out that it isn't sufficient to simply be part of Christianity, going through the motions without true faith.

Paul also inserts a parenthetical remark:

13 (For not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified. 14 For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves: 15 Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another;)

Even nations that are ignorant of God's law often end up naturally following some of those laws (and they will be given their chance of salvation in the second resurrection).

But those that have accepted God's way during this current age, but not fully incorporated it into their hearts, will face the second death. These are the people that Paul message is meant for.

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  • A +1 to offset the down vote. Ray Butterworth, you have compressed a whole lot of information into a small post! I think it would be hard to follow if not explained in simple language. Commented May 29 at 13:30
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This is one of the fundamental tenants of the Gospel that sin is both a noun AND a verb. We see this most dramatically in 1 John 1:8, 10 -

V8 - If we say we have no sin [noun], we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.

V10 - If we say we have not sinned [verb], we make Him out to be a liar, and His word is not in us.

Thus, we are sinners for two reasons:

  1. We have sinned, ie, done wrong acts
  2. We are sinners because of what we are; we have a sinful nature - we like what is wrong

Thus, any cure for the problem of sin must involve two things: forgiveness for the wrong acts and a repair of our human nature than causes us to sin. Significantly John says this in 1 John 1:9 -

If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to

  • forgive us our sins and
  • to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

Simply forgiving sin would not fix the root-cause of the sin problem because, as David says:

Ps 51:5 - Surely I was brought forth in iniquity; I was sinful when my mother conceived me.

Paul says the same things:

Rom 3:23 - for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,

Paul goes on the explain how gracious God is to forgive in Rom 3-5. But then he goes further in Rom 5:12ff to explain that we all inherit a sinful nature:

  • Rom 5:12 - Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, so also death was passed on to all men, because all sinned.
  • Rom 6:4 - We were therefore buried with Him through baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may walk in newness of life.
  • Rom 6:6, 7 - We know that our old self was crucified with Him so that the body of sin might be rendered powerless, that we should no longer be slaves to sin. For anyone who has died has been freed from sin.
  • Rom 8:2 - For in Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set you free from the law of sin and death.
  • Rom 8:5 - Those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh; but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit.
  • 2 Cor 5:17 - Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old things have passed away; behold, the new has come into being.

Thus, at conversion, we realize that we are forgiven of our sins and the transformation of the life to the "new creation" begins where the Christian imitates the life of Jesus by the miraculous power of the Holy Spirit in the life and mind.

Thus, sin is both a verb (what we have done wrong) and a noun (what we are, a state of being sinful).

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    I agree with you that humans are sinful - no exceptions. But what do you mean by "a repair of our human nature than causes us to sin"? What Christ did on the cross was to deal with sin (singular). When we admit the depth of our sin and acknowledge that only God can save us from it, we put our faith in the finished work of Christ. He smashes the chains of sin that keeps people enslaved to sin. It is God who does all of that, and he doesn't merely "repair" anything - he has declared utter war on sin (singular) and has destroyed its power. This miracle is no "repair" but a total transformation.
    – Lesley
    Commented May 28 at 13:11
  • @Lesley - I fully agree - 2 Cor 5:17 says that the converted person is a "new creation". But that is the point - Jesus' work (involving the Holy Spirit) involves both legal forgiveness and a transformation of character - unless both things happen the sin problem persists.
    – Dottard
    Commented May 28 at 21:32
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Answer

The important difference between Romans 2:12 and 3:9 with regard to sin is that the former talks about the “action” on our part and the latter talks about the “result” of such actions.

Explanation

Action:-

In spite of all the popular human-made definitions of sin, God Himself defines sin as the transgression of God’s Law:

“Whoever sins is guilty of breaking God's law, because sin is a breaking of the law” (1 John 3:4).

This is the action mentioned in Romans 2:12.

Result:-

There are different levels of the result.

  1. First of all, they become under sin which is the immediate and direct result of the action of sinning:

“For we have charged both Jews and Greeks before, all with being under sin” (Rom 3:9).

  1. To a person who is under sin, the sin “lords it over” him if he is not under grace:

“For your sin shall ………. lord it over you”, if you are not “under grace” (Rom 6:14). (I have removed “not” without changing the meaning)

  1. But if you are under sin, that is, when sin lords it over you, you are under Law:

“For your sin shall ……… lord it over you, for you are …….. under Law” (Rom 6:14). (I have removed both “not”s without changing the meaning)

  1. When you are under sin, you are under Law and that means you are under the “custody” of Law:

“But before the coming of faith, we were guarded under Law, having been locked up to the faith being about to be revealed” (Gal 3:23).

So, under sin means under Law. Under Law means under the custody of Law. The Law claims our life as a penalty. We have no right to live. It is this penalty of the entire humanity that Jesus Christ paid in full on the cross.

[Under Law does not mean under the “obligation” of keeping Law. Under Law means under the penalty of Law. This is a great misunderstanding on the part of antinomians]

  1. The Law claims our life as long as we live. But once we die, we are freed from the custody of Law:

“Or are you ignorant, brothers, (for I speak to those knowing Law), that the Law lords it over the man for as long a time as he lives?” (Rom 7:1)

  1. In Baptism we die together with Christ who died on our behalf as a penalty for our sins:

“Or are you ignorant that all who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore, we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, so also we should walk in newness of life” (Rom 6:3-4).

In baptism, we receive the Holy Spirit as a free gift (Acts 2:38) and thus we receive a new life freed from the custody of law because:

“It is the Spirit that gives life” (John 6:63).

  1. Thus we come under grace of God freely because Jesus paid the penalty on our behalf. Now we live not a fleshly life but a spiritual life walking closely with God.

We are no longer under Law because by our death with Christ in baptism we are freed from the clutches of the Law. We are spiritual and are able to abide by the spiritual Law:

“But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under Law” (Gal 5:18).

The people who are led by the Spirit are able to follow the "spiritual" Law.

Conclusion

So Romans 2:12 talks about the action on our part and Romans 3:9 talks about the result which then takes a series of steps until we become a new spiritual person through Christ.

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According to Thayer’s, the preposition under (ὑπό Strong’s 5259) as used in Romans 3:9 means being “subject to the power of.”

Thayer’s Greek Lexicon

εἶναι ὑπό τινα or τί, to be under, i. e. subject to the power of, any person or thing: Romans 3:9; Romans 6:14, 15; 1 Corinthians 9:20; Galatians 3:10, 25; Galatians 4:2, 21; Galatians 5:18; 1 Timothy 6:1

In Paul’s epistle to the Romans, he traces sin to its roots and outlines the effect of sin on all humanity.

Romans 5:12 ESV

Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned

Despite its human origin, sin is presented as more than just an act of human disobedience or the product of human choice, but as a powerful corrupting force that shapes human behavior with devastating consequences. Intrinsically tied to man’s carnal nature, such is the power of sin that the knowledge of God’s law serves only to heighten sin’s influence and increase man’s accountability (cf Rom 7:7-20). Without God’s help, the human will alone is helpless against sin’s power, and humanity without exception – subject to its rule.

Romans 7:14-15

14 For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am carnal, sold under sin. 15 For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do.

Paul’s arguments regarding sin reinforce his larger point that God alone has the power to free mankind from sin.

Romans 8:3-4

3 For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, 4 in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.

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  • "Paul’s arguments regarding sin reinforce his larger point that God alone has the power to free mankind from sin." Get's my vote!
    – Lesley
    Commented May 31 at 8:56

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