From Romans 1:18, where the argument began, and up to this point, Paul has been proving that the entire race lies under the just condemnation of God for its wickedness. His argument is an all-embracing negative, which precedes the even greater positive statements of Romans 3:21 and what’s to follow. How is this great argument summarized? Quite simply; Paul says that no one will be saved by good works: “Therefore no one will be declared righteous in [God’s] sight by observing the law; rather through the law we become conscious of sin.” Why is it that no one will be saved by good works? If not the utterly immoral person, why not at least the virtuous pagan or the righteous Jew? Why not you? Why not me? Paul’s answer takes us back over the chief points of the preceding chapters.
The first reason in Paul’s argument is one we have already looked at several times in various forms. It is that, far from pursuing God and trying to please Him (which is what most of us mistakenly think we are doing), the entire race is actually trying to get away from God and is resisting Him as intensely and thoroughly as possible. You remember from our previous studies how Paul says that we “suppress” the truth about God, much of which is revealed even in nature, not to mention the written revelation of God, which is the Bible. But because we don’t want to serve a deity who is like the One we know is there – the God who is sovereign over His creation, altogether holy, omniscient and immutable – we suppress the truth about this true God and try to construct substitute gods to take His place. And, says Paul, “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all [this] godlessness and wickedness” of mankind (Rom. 1:18).
The second reason why no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by observing the law is that no one actually does observe it. This is the explanation of the apparent contradiction between Romans 2:13, which says that “it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous,” and Romans 3:20, which says that “no one will be declared righteous in [God’s] sight by observing the law.” Both are true because, although anyone who perfectly obeys the law would be declared righteous – the righteousness of God requires it – in point of fact no one actually does this; rather, all disobey God’s law. At this point Paul speaks in almost identical terms to both the Jew, who actually possessed the revealed law of God, and to the Gentile, who did not possess it. So the second reason why no one will be declared righteous by observing the law is that no one actually does observe it. We fail to observe even the tiniest part, and we certainly do not observe the whole!
The third reason why no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by observing the law is that, far from observing the law (or even trying to observe the law), we are all actually violating the law in every conceivable way and on every possible occasion and are therefore actively, consistently, thoroughly, and intentionally wicked. This is the meaning of the two long lists of descriptive vices found in Romans 1:29-31 and Romans 3:10-18. These verses don’t mean that every human being has done every bad thing possible, but they do mean that the human race is like this. We are members of that human race, and, if the truth be told, the potential for every possible human vice is in everyone. It is because of this inward potential that Scripture says, “The Lord saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time” (Gen. 6”5).
The fourth reason why no one will be declared righteous before God by observing the law is that God is concerned with true or actual observance – that is, with the attitudes and actions of the heart – and not with any outward acts that appear pious but actually mean nothing. The chief example of this wrongheaded attempt at justification is the faith that certain people have placed in circumcision. Circumcision is neither extra-biblical nor unimportant. It was an important rite, just as baptism, the observance of the Lord’s Supper, church membership, and similar religious practices are important today. But the error of the Jew (and the error of many contemporary Christians) is in thinking that a person can be declared righteous before God by these things. That is not possible. Sacraments do have value once one is justified; that is, they are valuable signs of something that has occurred internally (if it has occurred internally), and they are meant to remind us of that experience and strengthen it. But no one can be saved by circumcision or by any other external religious act. God is not taken in by mere externals. There are no substitutes for faith.
We have been looking at the first part of our text which is a definite negative statement, declaring that no one will be declared righteous by observing God’s law. It tells us what the law cannot do. By contrast, the second half of the sentence contains a great positive statement, telling us that, although the law is unable to justify anybody, all of us being sinners, it is nevertheless able to show where we fall short of God’s standards and thus point us to the Lord Jesus Christ, in whom alone God provides salvation.
Apart from God’s law we may consider ourselves to be quite upright, model citizens who are fit candidates for heaven. But when we look into the law closely we soon see that we are not fit candidates at all. We are not upright. We are morally crooked. And we discover that if we are to become acceptable to the only upright, holy God, we must be changed by Him. If you are placing your hope in your supposed ability to keep God’s law or even just in your ability to do certain good things, your case is hopeless. Your heart needs cleansing, and no effort of your own can ever cleanse it.
Where will you find cleansing? You will find it only in Christ, to whom the law drives you. I trust you have found cleansing where so many others have found it. The apostle Peter declared “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
Romans 3:20 Reflection Questions:
What is your faith in; good works, church membership, the Lord’s Supper, baptism, or in Jesus Christ?
Have you found your cleansing? Do you see how the law points you to Christ?
How often you find yourself running from God? What are you substituting God with?
When was the last time you read the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7?