Every now and then you may hear someone say, “All means all.” It seems a self-evident observation. “Do all things without murmurings and disputings:” (Phil 2:14) We should never murmur about anything, because all means all. “And whatsoever ye do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God and the Father by him.” (Col 3:17) Christians should do nothing that does not bring praise to the Lord; after all, all means all. The problem is that, at least biblically if not practically, all does not always mean all.
“Children, obey your parents in all things: for this is well pleasing unto the Lord.” (Col 3:20) The question has been asked, “But what if my parents forbid me to go to church?” Or worse, “But what if my parents ask me to steal?” Does obey in “all things” extend to every circumstance? Might we not rather use the parallel passage from Ephesians that says, “Children obey your parents in the Lord?” All becomes modified to “all, except.”
There is another passage that is often misinterpreted, in which “all” doesn’t necessarily mean what many people think it means. After all, “all is not“Don’t get too high and mighty because you had the Law; you couldn’t keep it, either.” always all.” This passage in Romans 3, though, requires a little background.
Paul writes to the church in Rome because there appears to be a conflict. (Like there has ever been a congregation that didn’t have some sort of conflict?) For the Corinthians, which appears to be the most messed up congregation ever, the conflicts were many and varied. For the Roman church, it appears there was only one overriding conflict: ethnic prejudice. The gentile brothers were saying they were better than the Jewish believers because the Law of Moses was imperfect. The Jewish believers were saying they were better because the Hebrews had always been God’s chosen people. Paul is saying that he wants to come to Rome, but they need to get their act together, together. He lays his argument out in a long letter that falls somewhat naturally into the divisions that we have established as chapters.
After a brief introduction, he first addresses the non-Jewish believers. “You should have known better.”
For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse: Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, And changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and fourfooted beasts, and creeping things. (Rom 1:21-23)
The Jewish rabbis talk about the “Noachide Laws.” These are laws that were communicated to Noah and, thus, are for all men. They precede the Law of Moses, and constitute the self-evident laws that should be followed by all non-Jews. They are generally considered to be the following seven: Do not deny God. Do not blaspheme God. Do not murder. Do not engage in illicit sexual relations. Do not steal. Do not eat from a live animal. Establish courts/legal system to ensure obedience to said laws. Four of these seven are included in the judgement of the apostles and elders from Jerusalem, as found in Acts 15. In this chapter, Paul includes these, and more, in his indictment of the former life of the non-Jews in the Roman church.
And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a reprobate mind, to do those things which are not convenient; Being filled with all unrighteousness, fornication, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, debate, deceit, malignity; whisperers, Backbiters, haters of God, despiteful, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, Without understanding, covenantbreakers, without natural affection, implacable, unmerciful: Who knowing the judgment of God, that they which commit such things are worthy of death, not only do the same, but have pleasure in them that do them. (Rom 1:28-32)
They should have known better. Nevertheless, even the non-Jews who did not have the Law of Moses had a law, and sinned anyway.
Having established that the non-Jews came into the church from a sinful state, Paul turns his attention to the Jews. “Don’t get too high and mighty because you had the Law; you couldn’t keep it, either.”
The natural reaction of the Jewish Christians was to judge the others. They were, after all, God’s chosen people. They had the Law of Moses to show them the way to follow God. What they took as an excuse for boasting, however, Paul turned into a reason for sorrow.
Thou therefore which teachest another, teachest thou not thyself? thou that preachest a man should not steal, dost thou steal? Thou that sayest a man should not commit adultery, dost thou commit adultery? thou that abhorrest idols, dost thou commit sacrilege? Thou that makest thy boast of the law, through breaking the law dishonourest thou God? (Rom 2:21-23)
Having the Law would only be grounds for boasting if they had been able to keep the Law perfectly. The nature of law, however, is that those who know it are tempted even more to break it. There was a hotel in Florida that was built right on the waterfront. It was so close to the water that the management put signs in every room on that side of the hotel warning, “Please, no fishing from the balconies.” The hotel spent thousands of dollars repairing glass balcony doors in the lower rooms, because people were fishing from the upper balconies, and the wind would blow their lead sinkers into the windows and doors below. Then somebody came up with a simple solution: remove the signs prohibiting fishing from the balcony. Once the signs were gone, once the law no longer existed, nobody thought of the possibility of fishing from the balcony. The law (rule) contained in itself the suggestion of the possibility of breaking the rule.
So it was with the Law of Moses. By its nature, and by human nature, nobody could keep it perfectly. There was no cause for boasting because nobody was able to keep the Law. (Later in the letter—Chapter 7—, Paul argues that the Law was not faulty, in itself, but the fault was in this propensity of people.)
Chapter 3—All does not mean All
In the first part of chapter 3, Paul continues his indictment of the Jewish Christians, not just for not obeying the Law of Moses but also for their attitude toward the non-Jewish believers. He points out that the Jews did indeed have an advantage in that they had a direct communication from God. They have an advantage, but are not better for it. “What then? are we better than they? No, in no wise: for we have before proved both Jews and Gentiles, that they are all under sin.” (Rom 3:9) Toward the end he makes the oft-misinterpreted “all” statement.
But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference: For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. (Rom 3:21-24)
There is no difference, for all have sinned. No difference between whom or what? Who is the “all” that have sinned? Taking into account everything that Paul has said up to this point, it is obvious that he is saying there is no difference between Jew and gentile. And why is there no difference? Because all have sinned. Taken in this context, “all” is equivalent to “both.” All, Jew and gentile, have sinned. Unlike how the passage is commonly used, Paul is not saying that every individual person has sinned. (He saves that until chapter 5.) Yes, when he includes Jew and gentile in “all,” this does include every individual, because everyone falls under one or the other of those categories. But in this case he is speaking specifically about categories rather than the individual members of the categories.
Now, someone might think that although they are in one of the guilty classes, it surely must not apply to them because they are an exception. Surely when Adam “gave names to all cattle, and the birds of the air, and to every beast of the field” (Gen 2:20), he didn’t name eachThe rule contained in itself the suggestion of the possibility of breaking the rule. individual cow and donkey and seagull. He just named the kind. Here is where Paul uses “all” again, but meaning each individual.
Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned: … But not as the offence, so also is the free gift. For if through the offence of one many be dead, much more the grace of God, and the gift by grace, which is by one man, Jesus Christ, hath abounded unto many. (Rom 5:12, 15)
In the earlier passage, Paul uses “all” to mean all classes of people, though not necessarily all people in those classes. In the later passage he includes all people, regardless of classification. All sons of Adam is pretty inclusive. Nobody can claim to be the exception there. In this case, all does mean all. It is just that this is the verse, rather than the one from chapter 3, that should be quoted to show everyone’s guilt.
So all doesn’t always mean all. In the Southwestern United States, y’all (you all) actually can mean one person; when talking to a group it is “all y’all.” All can mean everything, only as long as it is legal. It can mean every class of people or things, as in Romans 3. It can mean every person or thing, as in Romans 5. It can even leave how much of all open to judgement, as in “all my state shall Tychicus declare unto you.” (Col 4:7) (He probably didn’t detail every incident of Paul’s life.) As in “all” things when it comes to reading the scriptures, we should read carefully to understand “all” the meaning.