Can People Seek God? Examining a Commonly Misused Bible Verse

Romans 3:11 is often pulled from its context and wrongly applied to every single person.

It is certainly not uncommon to hear Christians proclaim that no one seeks after God or that no man can seek after God. Often these types of claims come from those within the camp of Reformed theology (popularly called Calvinists), but these claims are also used by many non-Calvinists. Verses that seem to teach this idea can certainly be found. But is this what the biblical writers intended to teach or might they have had something else in mind?

Let’s first take a look at the verses that appear to teach that no one seeks after God, and then we will highlight some reasons why I believe these passages are being misunderstood, at least to a degree. (Note: all uses of bold in the verses quoted in this post have been added for emphasis.)

Commonly Misused Bible Verse—Romans 3:11

As it is written: “There is none righteous, no, not one; there is none who understands; there is none who seeks after God.” (Romans 3:10–11)

Well, there you have it. No one seeks after God, right? That’s what verse 11 plainly states, so how could I possibly argue that the Bible teaches something different? As always, we need to look at the entire context of what is being taught, consider other verses that seem to run counter to this, and in cases like this where the writer is quoting another passage, we need to look at the context of the original passage(s).

Following the letter’s introduction, Paul spends the bulk of Romans 1–3 building a watertight case demonstrating that all of mankind is guilty of sinning against God. Chapter one explains that Gentiles who suppressed the truth in unrighteousness (v. 18) were guilty of an array of sins. Notice, he does not say that every Gentile has done this (and he does not say that every unbeliever throughout the future will be guilty of this, which is how verse 18 is often misapplied today). But before anyone could think of himself as being better than those described in chapter 1, Paul points out that those who are self-righteous and judgmental are guilty of the same things (Romans 2:1). This includes both Jew and Gentile (2:9–10). In verses 12–16 he mentions Gentiles who live moral lives, but the fact that they recognize God’s moral standards shows that they are to be held accountable for breaking them. Then for the remainder of the chapter and through Romans 3:8, he focuses on Jewish people who are guilty of sinning against God.

As we reach Romans 3:9, Paul starts to wrap up this section of the letter by identifying who is guilty of sin before God. The conclusion: everyone. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Before he reaches that point, Paul quotes a handful of verses from the Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Isaiah that talk about the wickedness of sinners.

10 As it is written:
“There is none righteous, no, not one;
11 There is none who understands;
There is none who seeks after God.
12 They have all turned aside;
They have together become unprofitable;
There is none who does good, no, not one.”
13 “Their throat is an open tomb;
With their tongues they have practiced deceit”;
“The poison of asps is under their lips”;
14 “Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness.”
15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood;
16 Destruction and misery are in their ways;
17 And the way of peace they have not known.”
18 “There is no fear of God before their eyes.” (Romans 3:10–18)

Near the start of these verses we see our topic: “There is none who seeks after God” (v. 11). What is Paul attempting to do with this list of activities performed by sinners? Is he really trying to say that every single one of them is guilty of all of these actions? Of course not, that is, unless you want to say that every one of us (since we are all sinners) has a mouth “full of cursing and bitterness” (v. 14) and “feet that are swift to shed blood” (v. 15). So surely this cannot be referring to every person. What about every unbeliever? While this is certainly true of some, it’s demonstrably inaccurate to apply it to all unbelievers (e.g., Are all non-Christian pacifists really swift to shed blood?).

Similarly, in verse 10 we read that there is not a single righteous person, “no, not one.” But how can this be understood as a sweeping statement to refer to all humanity when the Bible identifies several righteous people, including Abel (Hebrews 11:4), Noah (Genesis 7:1), Abraham (Romans 4:9), and Lot (2 Peter 2:7). Indeed, just two chapters later, Paul mentions that someone might possibly be willing to die for a righteous man, and there might be someone who would die for a good man (Romans 5:7).1 This implies that Paul knew there were righteous people, so why would he quote a verse that seems to imply that none exist?

I believe it is a mistake to automatically assume that Paul believed that every single person prior to salvation was personally guilty of every single action here, yet that is essentially what someone is claiming when they cite Romans 3:11 as an absolute statement about every person’s unwillingness (or inability) to seek God.

Original Context Qualifies the Non-Seekers

When we consider the Psalms from which this verse is taken, it becomes clearer that not every single person is in view. Psalm 14 and 53 are very similar and begin with the same few verses, including an implication of our subject.

The fool has said in his heart, “There is no God.”
They are corrupt,
They have done abominable works,
There is none who does good.
The Lord looks down from heaven upon the children of men,
To see if there are any who understand, who seek God.
They have all turned aside,
They have together become corrupt;
There is none who does good,
No, not one. (Psalm 53:1–3)

Notice that the words, “There is none who seeks after God” do not appear in this verse, or in any other Old Testament verse. Paul seems to be paraphrasing or summarizing an idea implicit in this passage. God is looking down upon the children of men to see if there are any wise people or any that seek Him. Verse 3 states that there is not one.

If this is where the Psalm ended then I think a stronger case could be made by those who claim that no one seeks after God (or no one can seek after Him). However, the Psalm does not end here. In fact, it goes on to speak about people who don’t fit into this category.

Have the workers of iniquity no knowledge,
Who eat up my people as they eat bread,
And do not call upon God? (Psalm 53:4)

Oh, that salvation of Israel would come out of Zion!
When God brings back the captivity of His people,
Let Jacob rejoice and Israel be glad. (Psalm 53:6)

The wicked people who do not seek after God in verses 1–3 are contrasted with “my people,” “His people,” “Jacob,” and “Israel” in verses 4 and 6. So obviously, the psalmist is not saying that every single person is included in the group that does not seek after God. Does this mean that perhaps some people do seek after Him? Let’s see what else the Bible has to say on that issue.

Seeking God

David wrote Psalms 14 and 53 cited above. He also wrote these words:

And those who know Your name will put their trust in You;
For You, Lord, have not forsaken those who seek You (Psalm 9:10).

Those who seek Him will praise the Lord (Psalm 22:26).

Let all those who seek You rejoice and be glad in You (Psalm 40:16).

David instructed his son, Solomon, to “know the God of your father, and serve Him with a loyal heart and with a willing mind; for the Lord searches all hearts and understands all the intent of the thoughts. If you seek Him, He will be found by you; but if you forsake Him, He will cast you off forever” (1 Chronicles 28:9).

The prophet Jeremiah taught that people could seek after God and find Him. (Image of Jeremiah from the Sistine Chapel taken from Dwelling in the Word.)

In Jeremiah 29:13, God spoke these words through the prophet: “And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart.” In his other book, Jeremiah wrote, “The Lord is good to those who wait for Him, to the soul who seeks Him” (Lamentations 3:25).

Similarly, in Hosea 5:15 we read, “…Then they will seek My face; In their affliction they will earnestly seek Me.” Later in the same book we read, “For it is time to seek the Lord, Till He comes and rains righteousness on you (Hosea 10:12).

Many more examples of people who sought God (or would seek Him) could be cited from the Old Testament. Does the New Testament teach that people can seek God?

In his famous address at the Areopagus in Athens, Paul told the people that God spread man across the face of the earth and had determined their times and boundaries (almost certainly a reference to the Babel event of Genesis 11). Why did He do this? Acts 17:27 says that God divided them up “so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us.” This isn’t some mere hypothetical that Paul is setting up. He said that God’s reason for dividing the people into nations was so that people might seek Him and find Him. So did this same individual (Paul) really think that not a single person could seek after God as he seems to have written to the Romans?

Hebrews 11 is known as the “faith” chapter, and it’s also been called the “faith hall of fame.” Here the writer tells us that “without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him” (Hebrews 11:6). According to the author of Hebrews, a person definitely can seek God, find Him, and be rewarded by Him. In fact, a person can even “diligently seek Him.”

In case you are wondering, in each of the verses cited above, the Greek word in the Septuagint (Greek translation of the OT) translated as “seek” is the same word used in each of the New Testament verses.

Furthermore, there are cases of people seeking God in Scripture. Ruth grew up in a pagan culture, but after seeing the example of her mother-in-law Naomi, Ruth wanted to follow the God of Israel. Many other examples could be given.

Who Can Seek Him?

When I have mentioned some of the above details to those who claim that no one seeks after God, they usually amend their original statement to say that a person cannot seek God unless God first enables or draws the person. Most Christians would agree with that amended statement. Yes, even the classic Arminian position states that man cannot believe in God unless God first works in him.2 I believe that is perfectly consistent with Scripture. Jesus said that no one can come to the Him unless the Father first draws him (John 6:44).

However, some Christians claim that God must first regenerate the person before he could seek God. Their theology leads them to what I believe is an erroneous position. That is, if God has already regenerated the person, why does the person still need to seek God if he has already found Him? This strange notion is rooted in the Calvinist’s view of man’s total depravity and spiritual “deadness.” While I believe unregenerate man is depraved, possessing a sin nature and guilty of sinning against God, I believe Calvinists misinterpret what Paul meant when he spoke of those who were “dead in trespasses in sin” (Ephesians 2:1, 5). This will be the topic of an upcoming blog post, so let’s return to our main topic for now.3

Is it only those who are first regenerated that have the ability to seek God? I don’t believe so. While Jesus did say that the Father must first draw someone before they could come to Him, He also said that if He were lifted up from the earth (often believed to be a reference to His impending Crucifixion), He would draw all to Himself (John 12:32). The Apostle John stated that Jesus is “true Light which gives light to every man coming into the world” (John 1:9). I believe that God has given all people the ability to seek Him, and those who do will find Him.

Does this mean that a person saves himself because they sought God? Not at all! God initiated the process by drawing the person, Jesus died and rose to make salvation possible, and the Holy Spirit convicts the person of sin. The person who seeks God simply believes the message of the gospel, responding in faith to the sacrificial death, burial, and Resurrection. And since we know that Paul went to great lengths to explain that faith is not a work, then we can state unequivocally that when a person places their faith in Christ’s atoning work that they are not in any way whatsoever performing a work to save themselves.

Conclusion

The debates about Calvinism/Arminianism and related issues will likely continue until the Lord returns. They certainly will not be solved in this blog post, so please don’t turn the comment section into a debate on those issues—let’s stick to the topic in this post. Regardless of one’s position on these matters, I believe it is important for Christians to be more careful in how we use and quote the Bible. To cite Romans 3:11 to claim that no man seeks after God ignores the many passages in the Bible that speak of those who do seek God and those who are expected to seek Him. This forces a contradiction into the text where no contradiction exists when one understands the context of Romans 3 and balances that statement in light of relevant data found elsewhere in Scripture.

I think some of the overemphasis on Romans 3:11 is due to an overreaction to the seeker-sensitive movement in churches and the right desire to caution believers against thinking that people will naturally seek God if we are kind to them. While God may use our examples to draw them to Christ, we need to remember that the unbeliever’s default mindset is not a godly one. So we should never be content in thinking that through our moral behavior, church attendance, etc., we are directing the unbeliever to God. Being seeker-friendly should not be our primary goal, particularly since that often means that the message is watered down to avoid offending someone. Yes, we should be friendly, but it is the gospel of Jesus Christ that is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes (Romans 1:16), so we must make every effort to tell them of Christ’s atoning work on the Cross and His subsequent Resurrection—even if it offends them.

Thanks for reading!

 


  1. Notice that Paul makes a distinction between a righteous man and a good man. Many Christians argue that no one is good but God, based on the statement Jesus made to the rich young ruler in Mark 10:18 and parallels in Matthew and Luke. However, once again, context must again be taken into account since many people are identified as being good in the Bible. 

  2. See articles 3 and 4 of the Articles of Remonstrance http://www.theopedia.com/five-articles-of-remonstrance 

  3. Rather than referring to a total inability to place faith in God or perform any spiritual activity, as Calvinists teach, the context shows that Paul means something different. This was one of Paul’s ways of speaking about “Gentiles in the flesh” (v. 11) and “aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (v. 12), and “who were once far off” but have now “been brought near by the blood of Christ” (v. 13). They were wrecked and marred by sin and headed for destruction. So rather than claiming that the person was actually dead, meaning no spiritual vitality or capability whatsoever, he is using death in a way consistent with his usage in Romans 8:10 where he says that living believers’ bodies are dead but he means that they are wrecked or marred by sin. They are obviously not physically dead, since he’s addressing living people. 


Comments

Can People Seek God? Examining a Commonly Misused Bible Verse — 4 Comments

  1. Great job, Tim! Once again you’ve pointed out the need to consider scripture in light of other scripture. (The Apostle Paul to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20:27). The best way to interpret scripture is in light of other scripture, relying on the guidance of the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:19-21, Psalm 119:18). Personally, I think much of the error we see today comes from reading (listening to or watching) what someone has to say about a doctrine of scripture instead of just reading the Bible. As you’ve taught before the best approach is a literal, historical, grammatical approach to interpretation.

    My scripture references are from memory, so feel free to correct me if I’m off.

  2. Good article! I was curious where you’d go with it when I saw the title. I hadn’t realized there were so many passages that talk about seeking God!

    • Thanks for the encouraging words Joel. Your response highlights the main reason I wrote this article. Far too often we have an imbalanced understanding of Scripture due to our recitation of popular (and important) verses. This often causes us to overlook passages that balance the idea we think is taught in the well-known verse. For example, as I mentioned in footnote 1, we often claim that no man is good because Jesus said that only God is good, and yet many verses talk about good men. Thanks for reading!

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