Paul references this Psalm in Romans chapter 3, so the next thing that I did in studying this was to head to the New Testament and look at what Paul has to say. (You can look at Psalm 14 part 1 and part 2 if you like.) One thing that I'm really liking about the Psalms is that, because Paul likes the Psalms and quotes them regularly, studying the Psalms is helping me to get to know Paul. He's always been difficult for me. And, reading through this section of his Epistle to the Romans, I'm extremely grateful for the benefit of the modern revelation and prophetic commentary. It makes trying to work through these passages a whole lot easier!
So, looking at chapter three, where he quotes this Psalm, it's a continuation of what's being said in chapter two... which is a continuation of what's started in chapter one. So I backed up in order to find the beginning of the thought, and because Paul can be a bit verbose, I did a quick paraphrase:
From Paul, to the saints in Rome.
I'm glad that you're strong in the gospel; I pray for you every day, and I'd like to visit. We could then strengthen each other in the faith. I am ready to preach the gospel; I am not ashamed of it because it has the power to bring souls to salvation: the just shall live by faith. There is a lot of wickedness in the world.
Hypocrisy is serious; it will get you in big trouble; indignation and wrath follow wickedness while glory, honor, and peace follow righteousness -- for both Jew and Greek: God is impartial to all according to their works. People can tell good from evil with or without the law. However. If, having the Law (of Moses), you still only have the appearance (but not the reality) of righteousness, what good does it do you to have the Law? And if a Greek is righteous without the benefit of the Law, won't that be counted for good to him?
Having the Law is better than not having it; disbelief does not hamper God's work. There is none that is righteous; all fall short of the glory of God. Grace comes through faith on Christ, equally to all men. Chapter 3 is where we find the quotation of Psalm 14, which is really kind of a paraphrase:
As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one: There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God.
Paul continues with a section from Psalm 5:
Their throat is an open sepulcher; with their tongues they have used deceit...
Next, he references a very descriptive passage from Job 20, as well as Psalm 140:
...the poison of asps in under their lips.
Then he turns to Isaiah 59:
Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness: Their feet are swift to shed blood: Destruction and misery are in their ways:
Paul continues out this chapter of his Epistle to the Romans with a discussion of Grace, and its relation to both the Law and to our works.
One thing that I noticed several years ago is that there are paired doctrines, often things that are in apparent conflict or tension with each other. We are not to judge - but we are also to judge righteous judgements. There's the interrelationship of self-reliance and dependence on God. In each case you need to understand the Lord's teachings on both sides of the coin in order to be able to determine what we ought to do. Grace and works are, I believe, an important example of these paired doctrines. In the process of teaching this pair of principles, Paul says that there are three things that are available equally to Jews and also to the Gentiles or Greeks, which I understand to mean to both believers and non-believers:
- The power of God unto Salvation in Christ (Romans 1:16)
- Rewards according to works (Romans 2:5-11)
- Justification through the Grace of Christ (Romans 3:9-10, 23-24)
When working with these paired principles, it has been my observation that, to make our attempt at keeping the commandments, to achieve what I think of as Correct Action, you have to thoroughly understand both sides of the coin. Correct Action is found, balanced on the knife's edge, at that place where the two apparently opposing ideas come into harmony. This, to me, is the reason why the Lord's way is so often described as a strait way: this strait is not the word that means direct or unbent line; this strait is the one used describing passages of water, such as the Straits of Magellan, and it means a narrow channel between two larger bodies of water, and is often used in relation to difficult or troublesome situations: traversing a strait is a hazardous occupation for a ship, as there is typically only a narrow channel, often a winding narrow channel, and there were deadly rock hazards on both sides, should they steer wrong. While the scriptures do characterize the Lord's path as straight, they much more often characterize it as being strait. The beautiful applicability of this analogy is readily apparent when contemplating all these paired principles, but especially in understanding Grace and works.
Paul addressed works first, and he clearly thought that we ought to be aware of our actions, and working hard to embrace righteousness and flee from sin.
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who love not the truth, but remain in unrighteousness.
-Romans 1:17-18, with JST footnote integrated
He asks his listeners to consider: what advantage is there in being [a believer] if it's only outward, and not from the heart? What good is circumcision - the ordinances - if you don't actually keep the law, if it's not in your heart? Won't this make your circumcision into uncircumcion? He's talking specifically about the Jewish ordinance of circumcision, which was symbolic of all that they did in pursuit of obedience to their Law; it was the symbol of their membership in the kingdom. In our day, it is the temple that we've been asked to make the great symbol of our membership, and I like to look at passages like this in light of my temple covenants: what good do temple covenants do me if I'm not keeping the law, if it's not in my heart, if my actions don't match my covenant? The Lord, Himself, emphasized the importance of our works:
Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven, but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.
Our works are so important to the Lord that when He taught us how to show love to Him, it was actions that He asked for:
If ye love me, keep my commandments.
Works are important; they matter. We need to be doing our best, serving Him, working with all our hearts, might mind and strength, "that ye may stand blameless before God at the last day." I love the way that Brad Wilcox explained it, when a student came and asked about Grace. He explained to her that Christ paid the whole debt, the whole gap between what she can do and what the law demands; it is finished.
She said, “Right! Like I don’t have to do anything?”
“Oh no,” I said, “you have plenty to do, but it is not to fill that gap. We will all be resurrected. We will all go back to God’s presence. What is left to be determined by our obedience is ... how comfortable we plan to be in God’s presence and how long we plan to stay there.”
Christ asks us to show faith in Him, repent, make and keep covenants, receive the Holy Ghost, and endure to the end. By complying, we are not paying the demands of justice—not even the smallest part. Instead, we are showing appreciation for what Jesus Christ did by using it to live a life like His. Justice requires immediate perfection or a punishment when we fall short. Because Jesus took that punishment, He can offer us the chance for ultimate perfection and help us reach that goal. He can forgive what justice never could, and He can turn to us now with His own set of requirements.
-Brad Wilcox, His Grace is Sufficient, emphasis added
Christ has made clear that works are integral to the requirements that He places on us: the requirement for works is unavoidable. We must pay attention to our works, and strive to live the kind of life that He showed us, and that He has commanded that we live. The doctrine of the importance of our works is inescapable, intrinsic to the Christian life. But it's also only one side of the coin.
It's only one side of the coin, because, however hard we try and however well we succeed, it's never, ever going to be enough to satisfy Justice. Justice is a stern, strict taskmaster: for every crime, a punishment. No unclean thing can live the kingdom of God. No exceptions. No exemptions. No take backs. No second chances. Forever.
This law must be satisfied; it is part of the nature of God.
And it is completely, utterly beyond our ability.
Our work, our devotion, however sincere, our effort, however consistent, will never be enough. We are not perfect, and perfecting is what the law demands. Every one of us is an unprofitable servant. Paul talked about it using the words of the Psalmist:
What then? are we better than they? No, in no wise: for we have before proved both [believers] and [unbelievers], that they are all under sin; As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one... They are all gone out of the way, the are together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no, not one.
It looks pretty bleak, but there is no reason to fear. Works, though important, were never intended to bring us to salvation.
Elder Dallin H. Oaks has said... “The repenting sinner must suffer for his sins, but this suffering has a different purpose than punishment or payment. Its purpose is change”. Let’s put that in terms of our analogy: The child must practice the piano, but this practice has a different purpose than punishment or payment. Its purpose is change.
I have born-again Christian friends who say to me, “You Mormons are trying to earn your way to heaven.”
I say, “No, we are not earning heaven. We are learning heaven. We are preparing for it (see D&C 78:7). We are practicing for it.”
-Brad Wilcox, His Grace is Sufficient
The two principles, Grace and works, work in tandem, like the two sides of a brace, shaping us, helping us to reach our potential as children of God and allowing us to aspire to becoming, someday, heirs and joint-heirs with Christ. We urgently need them both.
There's so much more here in Romans that I'd like to dig into more completely. There's also this very interesting explanation of the historical setting for Romans, and why so much of this is centering around a Jews vs. Greeks theme in this section, and its companion article about questions Paul asks in his epistle to the Romans. I would like, at some point, to also do a serious study of Romans, though Psalms will be keeping me busy for a while yet, I think. There's still so much in Psalms that I haven't looked at, yet. The way that you can keep coming back to the scriptures, time after time, and always there is some new insight to be gained, that's one of my favorite things about them. Stop by again, sometime. Click the button to see the index for my Bible Study posts, or come join the conversation over on Facebook; we'd love to have you.