Romans 3:20 None Justified by Good Works


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?

Romans 3:19 Silence at Last


Now the apostle Paul comes to the end of the first main section of his letter, concluding that every human being is (1) accountable to God for what he or she has done; (2) guilty of having done countless wrong things; and (3) will never be justified by God on the basis of any supposed good works. His exact words in Romans 3:19-20 are: “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.” These two verses are very important, because to understand them is to understand the great foundational truths of Christianity. We will study these verses separately, mainly because verse 19 has played such an important part in the conversion of many, many people.

Follow me here; let’s say that you and I had lunch together and when we leave and start walking down the sidewalk together a swerving automobile comes up on the sidewalk and kills the two of us. In the next moment we would be what men call “dead.” We brush aside that absurd folly that we are going to meet St. Peter at the gate of heaven. (That exists only in jokes about two Irishmen.) We are going to meet God. Now suppose that in that moment of ultimate reckoning God should say to you, “What right do you have to come into My heaven?” What would be your answer? There are only three possible answers to be given. That is, all the many varieties of answers ultimately boil down to just three. One of which involves the text I am considering, which is why I tell this story.

The first answer people give to the question is a common one. It is that they have done certain things and therefore want to be accepted by God on the basis of these achievements. Some people have a very high opinion of themselves, of course. They think they have been models of righteous conduct – that they have never done anything bad, only what is good. In fact, they believe they have done a great deal good! Others know that they have not been consistently good, but they still want God to take note of what good works they have done and accept them into heaven on that basis.

You must clearly understand that no one is going to be justified before the bar of God’s justice on the basis of his or her good works, however great they may be. Your record will not save you. It is your record that has gotten you into trouble in the first place. Your record will condemn you. The only way anyone will ever be saved is by faith in Jesus Christ, who paid the penalty of our misdeeds for us and, in place of our misdeeds, offers us the gift of His great righteousness.

What would you say to the question, “What right do you have to come into My heaven?” The answer is that you wouldn’t say a thing. This brings us to the second answer which is our verse in Romans 3:19 where God had said, “Every mouth [will] be silenced.” At God’s judgment no one will be able to offer any good works as grounds for his or her justification or offer any valid excuses for bad conduct. All mouths will be made mute, and everyone will know that he or she is guilty and deserves God’s just condemnation. The reason of course, is that this is God’s judgment. The person we must appear before is God. We do not have the same experiences when we appear before mere men or answer before a mere earthly tribunal. If there were to be any spoken words spoken before the bar of God by those who have rejected the grace of God in this life and are being sent to outer darkness forever, it will be – not excuses – but a resentful acknowledgement of the truth of God and the justice of their own condemnation.

It’s clear that what we have been seeing is that the only saving answer to the question being posed – “What right do you have to come into God’s heaven?” – focuses not on the works of the sinner, but on the achievements of Jesus Christ. If we are to be saved, it will not be on the basis of anything we have ever done or can do, but solely on the basis of what He has done for us. Christ died for us. He suffered in our place. He bore the punishment of our sins. All who come to God on that basis and with that answer will be saved. No others will be. Only those who come to God trusting in the Lord Jesus Christ.

I end this study by asking that same question to you. Someday you will die. You will face God, and He will say to you, “What right do you have to come into My heaven?” What will your response be? Perhaps you will say, “Well, here is my record. I know that I have done some bad things, but I have done a lot of good things, too. I want you to look at these and see if they are enough for me to have deserved heaven. All I want from you is justice.” If you say that, justice is exactly what you will get. You will be judged for your sin and be condemned. Your good works, however fine they may seem in your sight or even in the sight of other people, will not save you. No one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the law of good works, for it is by the law that “we become conscious of sin” (Rom. 3:20).

Perhaps you will not plead your good works, but instead will stand before God silenced. This is better. At least you will have recognized that your goodness is not adequate before God. You will know you are a sinner. But it’s still a most pitiful position to be in: silent before the one great Judge of the universe, with no possibility of making a defense, no possibility of urging extenuating circumstances, no hope of escaping condemnation.

So what will you say? I trust you will be able to answer – I hope this study had helped you to the point of being able to answer, if you have not come to it already – “My right to heaven is the Lord Jesus Christ, He died for me. He took the punishment for my sin. He is my right to heaven, because He has become my righteousness.”

Romans 3:19 Reflection Questions:

So what is your answer to the question above?

Who do you know needs to know the points of this study?

Romans 3:13-18 The Race in Ruin

We have already had one very grim description of the human race in the verses that end Romans 1. There humanity was described as being “filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity (see Rom 1:29-31). After a list such as this, we might think unnecessary to catalogue more. Yet, as Paul gets to the end of this first main section of Romans, in which the need of people for the gospel of grace is so clearly and comprehensively pointed out, he seems to sense a need to do it all over again. The difference between this and the passage in Romans 1 is that each of these sentences is a quotation from the Old Testament, whereas the earlier passage was made up merely of the apostle’s own descriptive terminology. In other words, the verses in Romans 1 are a description of the world as Paul saw it, though he is also writing as an apostle and by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The verses in Romans 3 are more specifically and obviously God’s own description of the race’s depravity.

Verses 13 and 14 are made up of three quotations from the Old Testament: Psalm 5:9, Psalm 140:3, and Psalm 10:7, though there are other passages that are similar. What is striking about them is that they all refer to organs of speech: throat, tongue, lips, and mouth. And they describe how the words spoken by these organs are used to harm others. In the previous verses we have shown how people harm themselves by turning away from God. Here we learn how they also harm others by the organs of speech that God gave them. What do you think of first when you read these verses? If you are like me, you notice the words cursing and bitterness and think, first of all, of harsh speech, which is meant to wound another person. Yet, what Paul is saying here goes deeper, because the words that describe the outcome of the harmful words of the ungodly all have to do, not with psychological injury, but with death.

We are not to think that this grim description is limited to mere words; in verse 14 the deceitful and poisonous speech of verse 13 boils over into “cursing and bitterness” on those who refuse to be deceived. And in verses 15-17 those who teach falsehood move from words to violent actions. These verses, quoted from Isaiah 59:7-8, describe three acts of violent men, beginning with the end result of these acts. To see the progression, we need to take them in reverse order. (1) “The way of peace they do not know” (v. 17). This relates to people as they are in themselves apart from God. They know no personal peace-“… the wicked are like the tossing sea, which cannot rest, whose waves cast up mire and mud” (Isa. 57:20). This also describes the effects such persons have upon others. Having no peace themselves, they disrupt the peace of other people. (2) “Ruin and misery mark their ways” (v. 16). Again, this is something wicked persons experience themselves; their way is misery and ruin. It’s also something they bring on others. Without a changed nature, human beings naturally labor to destroy and ruin one another. (3) “Their feet are swift to shed blood” (v. 15). Working backward, we come to the last of these deceitful actions. Their end is death – and not just physical death, though that would be bad enough in itself – but spiritual death, which is death of the soul and spirit in hell. Death means separation. Physical death is the separation of the soul and spirit from the body. Spiritual death is the separation of the soul and spirit from God. It’s forever!

The last phrase of this great summary of the human race in ruin is from Psalm 36:1. It tells why all these other violent and wicked acts have happened: “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”  In the Bible the word fear, when used of God, denotes a right and reverential frame of mind before Him. It has to do with worshiping Him, obeying Him, and departing from evil. When Romans 3:18 declares that the human race has not done this, it’s saying what Paul has been stating all along. Because men and women will not know God, choosing rather to suppress the truth about Him, their minds are darkened and they become fools. They claim to be wise but, “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles” (Rom. 1:22).

It’s interesting, that Paul here also refers to “eyes.” This is the sixth of the specific body references Paul makes in these verses in order to make his accusations vivid. Since eyes are our organs of vision, and to have the fear of God before our eyes means that we have God constantly in our thoughts and in a central position in everything that concerns us. It means that we are ever looking toward Him. Again, in discussing man’s downward path, that it is our destiny as those who are made in God’s image to look up to the heavenly beings and beyond them to God and thus become increasingly like God. To have the “fear of God before [our] eyes” is to do just that. It’s the way of all blessing, growth, and knowledge. But if we will not do that, we will inevitably look down and become like the beasts that are below us.

How could our salvation be due to anything but mercy if we are as ruined as Paul describes us? Ruined? Yes! But we may be saved from ruin by the glorious work of our Savior, Jesus Christ!

Romans 3:13-18 Reflection Questions:

Why do you think Paul felt the need to quote from the Old Testament in these verses?

What other New Testament passages come to you mind regarding harmful speech?


Are your eyes ever looking toward God throughout your days?

Romans 3:9-11 No One Righteous, Not Even One

In this third chapter of Romans, beginning with verse 9, the apostle summarizes the condition of every Human Being apart from the grace of God in Jesus Christ, and it’s not a pretty picture. All (Jews and Gentiles) are alike under sin, and all are thus subject to the wrath and final judgment of Almighty God. Quoting from Psalm 14:1-3, Psalm 53:1-3, and Ecclesiastes 7:20, Paul declares: “As it is written: ‘There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God.’” This is a serious charge and a devastating picture of the race, because it portrays human beings as unable to do even a single thing either to please, understand, or seek after God. It’s an expression of what theologians rightly call man’s “total depravity.”

It’s vitally important that we come to terms with the bad tendency to run from the truth about ourselves. Without an accurate knowledge of our sin, we will never come to know the meaning of God’s grace. Without an awareness of our pride, we will never appreciate God’s greatness, nor will we come to God for the healing we so desperately need. The situation is a bit like being sick and needing a doctor. As long as we are convinced we are well (or at least almost well), we will not seek medical care. But if we know we are spiritually sick, we will turn to the Great Physician, Jesus Christ, who alone is able to heal us.

So the first thing Paul says about the human race in his summary of its lost condition is that it has no righteousness. Verse 12 adds, “All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.” The second pronouncement Paul makes about human beings in their sinful condition is that no one understands spiritual things. We need to view this as a lack of spiritual perception and not merely a lack of human knowledge. If we think on the human level, comparing the “understanding” of one person with that of another, we will observe rightly that some people obviously understand a great deal about our world. And since we are impressed by that, we will be misled. We need to see that in spiritual matters the important thing is that no one truly understands God or seeks to know Him.

To summarize this study: According to the Bible no one unaided by the Spirit of God (1) has any righteousness by which to lay a claim upon God; (2) has any true understanding of God; or (3) seeks God. But what we don’t have and cannot do and have not done, God has done for those who are being saved.

So, what exactly has God done? First, God has sought us. We had run from Him, but like “The Hound of Heaven” God pursued us relentlessly. Some of us ran from God for a long time and can recall the days of our waywardness well. If God had not pursued us, we would have been lost eternally. We would never have come to God by ourselves. Now we know that no one is ever saved who has first been pursued by God and been found by Him. Second, God has given us understanding. He has done this by making us alive in Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, as a result of which our eyes have been opened to see things spiritually. This does not mean that we perfectly comprehend all things about God and His ways, but we now truly “understand” in the sense that we believe these things and respond accordingly. Last of all, God has given us a righteousness that we did not have in ourselves and, in fact, could never have had – His righteousness, which is the righteousness of Jesus Christ and is the ground of our salvation.

If we are truly dead in sin, as Paul says we are, and if that involves our will as well as all other parts of our psychological and spiritual makeup, we will find ourselves in near despair. We will see our state is hopeless apart from the supernatural and totally unmerited workings of the grace of God. And that is what God wants! He will not have us boasting of even the smallest human contribution to salvation. It is only as we renounce all such vain possibilities that He will show us the way of salvation through Jesus Christ and lead us to Him.

Romans 3:9-11 Reflection Questions:

Are you still trying to earn your salvation?

Do you believe you are seeking God or are you praising and worshiping Him for pursuing you?

Did you know that if you are a “church hopper” you are running from God?