The Works of the Law
“Whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.”- Romans 3:19–20
Paul’s thesis in his epistle to the Romans is that the gospel reveals a righteousness from God in Christ that alone can grant us eternal life as citizens of the Lord’s kingdom (Rom. 1:16–17). To make his case, he does not begin by teaching what Jesus actually accomplished in His humiliation and exaltation; rather, knowing the proclivity of sinners to view themselves more highly than they ought, the Apostle stresses the point that all have violated God’s commandments and have no claim to being righteous before Him (1:18–3:18). Lest anyone misunderstand him, Paul concludes this argument with a clear statement that the law enables no sinner to be justified. Romans 3:19–20, our passage for today’s study, leaves no wiggle room for meriting righteousness before God: “By works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.”
Today’s passage destroys, in particular, any remaining hope that even faithful Jews might have of keeping God’s law sufficiently for justification, for Him to declare them righteous. The law speaks to everyone under it, stopping their mouths and rendering the whole world accountable to the Lord for breaking it (v. 19). Paul is using an argument that moves from the greater to the lesser. If even the Jewish law with its crystal-clear revelation of our Creator’s perfections cannot justify the Jews, how is there any hope for the Gentiles to be justified by the law they know since they have less light than the Jews? The answer is clear: if the old covenant inscripturated law cannot justify the Jews, no law can justify any sinner.
Why can the law of God not provide justification for the sinner? As we will see in Romans 7:7–25, the problem is not the law itself. Instead, the problem is us. “If a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the [old covenant] law” (Gal. 3:21b). The law cannot give life precisely because of what Paul has argued in Romans 1:18– 3:19, namely, that we are thoroughly corrupted by sin and twist and suppress what is good. John Calvin’s comments on today’s passage makes it clear that the law of God can’t justify us because of our corruption. The most it can do for our justification is convict us as sinners.
The “works of the law” in Romans 3:20 are the things that the law of the Lord commands, preeminently the two great commandments to love God and neighbor (Matt. 22:34–40). These works, therefore, include all that is objectively good. No good deed of ours, however sincere, is ever pure enough to justify us.
Dr. R.C. Sproul writes in his commentary on Romans: “If we are paying attention to the law, we know it will not justify us. We know we will never be able to get into heaven on the basis of our works, because the law reveals to us our infirmities.” We have taken a long, hard look at the reality of human sin over the past two months. The question for us now is whether we really believe that no work of ours is good enough to save us. If we do not believe that, we do not believe the gospel.
Passages for Further Study