Romans 5:6 For while we were still helpless, at the appointed moment, Christ died for the ungodly. In our natural state, we are helpless – unable to help save ourselves. There are several OT passages Paul may have had in mind:
Ecclesiastes 7:20 Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins.
Isaiah 64:7 There is no one who calls upon your name, who rouses himself to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have made us melt in the hand of our iniquities.
Jeremiah 10:23 I know, O LORD, that the way of man is not in himself, that it is not in man who walks to direct his steps.
Long before Paul met Truth on the road to Damascus, other servants of YHWH had diagnosed man in the same way. Isaiah comes closest to Paul’s description in our text, although Jeremiah is very close as well. The natural man does not call upon the Lord, he does not rouse himself to grasp Christ; his ways are not his – his steps are influenced by his spiritual father, the devil. But doesn’t Paul later say that everyone who calls upon the Lord will be saved? How many go to his source documents (the OT) to find out his meaning? How many read on in Romans 10 to see Paul’s answer: he asks a rhetorical question to make known to his readers that only those who believe in Christ can call upon His name in this manner. Those who obey the gospel are the ones who were given faith, raised up into new life, with a soul that cried out in faith to God.
Salvation is a work of God on a sinner who is helpless; dead in sins; unable and unwilling to do anything good. Those who call upon helpless men to make a decision for Christ are asking the clay to hop up onto the potter’s wheel.