Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Romans 3:19-20

Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. Therefore no one will be declared righteous in His sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.

The Law silences mankind before God. V.19-20 are Paul’s final words in this great assault on mankind, and remember, Paul is saying all of this not to be mean, but out of love. He desires that everyone would come to a saving knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ, but until guilt is admitted and need of a Savior is acknowledged, none are in a position to partake of the benefits that the gospel offers. So Paul relentlessly and without remorse pounds home this truth that all are guilty and stand in need of grace. These 2 verses can be hard to understand, because Paul uses the word “law” in many different ways. From the context of v.10-18, we know that he is not just talking about the Ten Commandments and the Leviticus stuff, but the whole of the Old Testament Scriptures. Furthermore, he is talking specifically to the Jews here, those “under the law.” Paul asserts that because the law silences the Jews’ mouth to defend themselves, that means that every mouth is silenced. The implication from this and from what we saw in chapter two is this: The Jews felt justified before God because they had the law—not that they followed the law, but that the fact that God had given them the law gave them reason in their minds to be able to stand before God. The irony is that this law that the Jews had boasted in because it was given to them was indeed the very thing God uses to shut their mouths in his presence.

If the Jews were held silent, having possessed the law, Paul says then “every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God.” After the Jews’ mouths are closed before God, there is utter silence in His presence. No one says a word before God’s Judge’s bench. There will be no plea bargaining, no excuses, no reasons. The Gentiles have nothing to say, because in spite of overwhelming evidence, they persistently suppress the truth in their unrighteousness. The Jews, who were as a nation brought into covenant with Him were given the law, but that law condemns their sinfulness at every turn.

Paul is explaining one purpose of the law. He has already said that the Jews misunderstood its purpose (it was not intended to justify), so now he’s telling them what one purpose of the law actually is: To silence mankind before God, to show mankind the heinousness of sin and its debilitating effects on the totality of man’s being. More than that—the Jews were guilty of applying the law to the Gentile converts to Judaism without applying it to themselves, so Paul corrected them and made sure that they remembered to apply to themselves as well. We must do the same. We can’t use the law just to condemn the sin in others. It condemns us as well. It silences others before God, and it silences us as well.

The Law holds the whole world accountable to God. That word “accountable” is powerful. It literally means, “under penalty.” The word of God, the Old Testament, having silenced the Jews therefore compels the entire world to be silent, having nothing to say in their defense before a holy God who sits on His throne of Judgment. He pronounces all guilty of sin and liable to the horrible temporal consequences of sin in this life and the fires of eternal torment in the life to come.

Paul wanted to show that the Holy Scriptures actually accomplish their purpose. Isaiah 55:11 “My Word that goes out from My mouth will not return to Me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.” One purpose of the Word of God is to show that all of mankind is accountable to God for their sin, to silence mankind before the judgment of God. The purpose of the Word was never to make man righteous, never to justify him. Jeremiah 23:29 “Is not My Word like fire, declares the LORD, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?” Do we believe that? Hebrews 4:12 “The Word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” The Word is powerful unto judgment. Do we consider the Word like that? Paul knows that as we read the Scriptures, we must understand our own sin.

Romans 1:20 showed us that we know God through creation. Romans 2:15 showed us that we know the law as it is written on our consciences, our hearts. And now in Romans 3:19, we are shown that we know these things also because of the nation of Israel. If the Jews, who had the blessings of God to succeed, failed, then we certainly have too. So Paul says that the proper understanding for someone in the sphere of the law, who has heard the law and been presented the law, who knows the judgments of the law, is to recognize his or her sinfulness and need of grace, because all are accountable.

We are not made righteous by the Law; rather, the Law shows us our sin. Paul in Romans 2:13 said that the doers of the law will be justified. So is he contradicting himself here? No. He is saying that there are no doers of the law. If there were, that would be one thing, but there are none. So no one is justified by the law. Paul doesn’t have a problem with obedience. He has a problem with people who think they are obedient, but they’re not. Why does the Law only bring out our sinfulness and make it more obvious? Why does it have no power to bring out, or give, righteousness? We find the answer in Romans 8:3: “What the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh.” The Law is not defective in itself, but it is weak because of the flesh, because of our unregenerate condition. That’s why nobody is going to get right with God by works of the Law. The Law without the Spirit is called “letter,” and it kills (2 Corinthians 3:6). By itself the Law brings out sin, not faith, and when it does, it is death-giving, not life-giving (Romans 7:9-10). So it can’t justify us. It can only condemn us, unless Christ bears our condemnation and releases the Spirit into our lives (Romans 8:3-9).

Paul concludes with something that would have been very shocking to his Jewish friends. At the very end of verse 20 he says, “For through the law comes the knowledge of sin.” Now that would have greatly irritated a pious Jew. A pious Jew would have said, “What do you mean that through the Scripture comes knowledge of sin? Through the Scripture comes the knowledge of the great and holy and awesome God.” Well, Paul is saying this provocatively. Paul isn’t trying to tell everything that the law is and does in this passage. But he is telling this. Think about it. The law itself in our fallen condition, as we are already sinners, shows us our need of grace. Far from putting us right with God, the law shows that we are wrong with God; we need to be put right with God, but that we can’t put ourselves right. Therefore the law itself functions to reveal to us our sin, to convince us of our sin, and to show us that we need an escape from sin which we can’t provide.

We can see from Romans 7:7-8 what Paul is saying: “What shall we say then? Is the Law sin? May it never be!

On the contrary, I would not have come to know sin except through the Law [Here is what Romans 3:20b means—the Law brings about the knowledge of sin]; for I would not have known about coveting if the Law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’ But sin, taking opportunity through the commandment, produced in me coveting of every kind; for apart from the Law sin is dead.” That is, sin lies unrecognized. When the Law meets an unregenerate heart, a person without the Holy Spirit and without faith, the effect is that it reveals the rebellion in our hearts; it makes our rebellion against God and his Law known; it brings it out. Sin rises up in the presence of the Law and shows itself with vivid colors. John Piper offers this analogy: It’s like a teenager who goes to the mailbox to get the mail. He brings it in and puts it on the table. He flips through it and sees nothing for him, and so he starts to walk away. No bad desires at all here, right? But then he notices at the top of one of the postcards the words, “For parents only!” And suddenly there is a desire to read the card. Are those words on the card sin? No. But through those words come the knowledge of sin. Suddenly what was lying dormant in the heart is shown to really be there—the desire to read what one ought not to read.

Paul’s question to us is this: “What stands you before God? What makes you secure before the God of the universe?” And his answer is, “The righteousness of God. That’s what stands.” But, you see, that brings another crisis. The response is: “Well, I’m not the righteousness of God. My life condemns me if that’s the standard. Where do I get this?” And Paul says, “Well, that’s where I wanted you to be in the first place.

Because until you understand that you need the righteousness of God, before you stand before the awesome and Holy God, you’re not ready to hear the good news that I’ve wanted to tell you.” But we have to wait until next time to see the great turning point, which comes in v.21-22. And for the rest of this book, Paul is going to tell us just how glorious that good news is. But it will make no sense to us, until we first acknowledge our need of that good news. Until we’re honest with ourselves, and we run from our deeds, good and bad, to the one place where we can find the righteousness of God, and that’s in Jesus Christ as is offered in the gospel.

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