“Now we know that what things soever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin.” (Romans 3:19-20)
There was a woman I knew who was considered a very kind and giving person by everyone who lived around her. She had a lot of friends and everyone knew that they could trust her and count on her for help and good advice when they needed it. She was considered a sort of mentor to some of the younger girls in her community and was a well-liked, model citizen both to her peers and to those in positions of authority. Yet even with all of these things going for her, she sat down one day and wrote a heart-felt letter to the only person whom she felt could resolve the problem which perplexed her the most: she requested that this man grant permission for her to be put to death.
In addition to being a kind, giving person and a good friend to so many people, this woman was also a convicted murderer. The man to whom she sent her plea for what she believed would mercifully end her suffering was the Governor of the State wherein she was serving a life sentence with no possibility of parole. Already having served close to 15 years, this young lady preferred to be released from this life rather than live out the rest of her days behind prison walls. Her request was denied. The rumors abounded concerning the circumstances behind her crime; some said that she had been horribly abused, others claimed that drugs had so clouded her judgment that she really had no idea what she was doing when she pulled the trigger, killing her husband. She herself was notably silent on the subject — “I made a mistake” were the only words of explanation she ever seemed to offer. Yet mistake or not, she had been found guilty of first degree murder and would never live outside of prison again. Maybe it was public sympathy, maybe it was the inherent distaste of the judge presiding to sentence a 19-year-old girl to receive a lethal injection; either way, it was the determination of the court that this young woman would spend the remainder of her days in prison rather than face the Death Penalty. By all accounts, this inmate was a model prisoner. She had the rare distinction of having a nearly immaculate record while in confinement — her only offenses were petty and had occurred very early on in her incarceration. Most of the time she had served had been done without violating any rules or regulations whatsoever. But nothing she could do at this point could ever erase the fact that she was a criminal, a “law-breaker.” It only took one violation of the laws of the land for her to become a convicted felon. Subsequent “law-keeping” could do absolutely nothing to reverse her fate.
As we come to Romans 3:19-20 in this study, we hear the resounding echo of the holy Law of God, thundering its final verdict. Much as a judge’s gavel slamming down, the Law of God has issued its irrevocable decree with a finality that leaves the hearer utterly speechless. GUILTY!! The judgment is in and nothing is left for the convicted but to await to serve out the sentence handed down. No opportunity will be given to “make up for” our crimes or “erase” the conviction. We can no more compensate for our sins by living a “good” life henceforth than the woman I just told of would be able to overturn her conviction by being a “good” inmate from here on out. How would the judge in her case react if she were to write him a letter saying, “I know that I am guilty of murder, but I have kept my cell very clean, I haven’t been caught with any contraband, I have volunteered for several work crews, and I am always sure to fill out my requests to the Warden legibly and according to regulations.” Would the judge be inclined to release her back into society based on this? No. The thing about the law is that no amount of “law-keeping” can ever erase any “law-breaking.” The law, in fact, is only concerned with those who violate it, not those who keep it. I have never had a Police Officer pull me over for driving safely within the speed limit, but I have been pulled over for breaking the posted speed limit! And, frankly, the Officer really didn’t care that I had driven the last hundred miles within the speed limit, nor did he really care that I drove the rest of the way home slowly. I received a ticket for breaking the law, but I have never received a commendation for obeying it!
This is the dilemma faced by anyone who attempts to be saved by keeping God’s Law. You can keep it perfectly your entire life, yet if you break it one single time, you are guilty and a “Law-breaker.” James tells us that even if we are guilty of breaking a single part of the Law, we have become guilty under the whole thing! (James 2:9-10). If we steal but do not commit adultery, it doesn’t matter: we are guilty of breaking the Law of God. Even if we were to do so only once. And as the Lord Jesus demonstrated in the Sermon on the Mount, breaking the Law of God has to do not only with our actions, but our thoughts and intentions, as well. We are all guilty of breaking it often, are we not? The Law of God only has the power to convict of sin and sentence every person to die because of it (Ezekiel 18:20, Romans 6:23). The Law of God does not have the power to save us any more than the legal statute prohibiting murder is able to exonerate the woman serving a life sentence. Our Salvation must come from somewhere else, it must come from a Savior Who has paid the penalty that we have earned.
“For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse: for it is written, Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them. But that no man is justified by the law in the sight of God, it is evident: for, The just shall live by faith.” (Galatians 3:10-11)
The New Testament makes it abundantly clear that no one will be justified with God by keeping His Law. Even still, there are groups and entire denominations calling themselves “Christian” who are trying to do just that. They will consign Christ’s atoning work some role in the process in order to call themselves “Bible-believing Christians”, but for all practical purposes, they are attempting to be justified with God based on their own Commandment keeping. In many of their teachings, the line between what “pleases God” and what God “requires” for Salvation becomes so blurred that it is impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins! Yet the focus inevitably seems to be placed on one or two aspects of the Law of Moses (particularly Sabbath-keeping and Jewish dietary guidelines) which are obsessed over to the exclusion of the rest of it. There are really only two ways that we may come to God; through Christ by Grace or through ourselves by works. It is one or the other and only Grace will save us! We are not at liberty to intermingle God’s Grace with our works and present this to Him for Salvation, we can only trust in one of them. Legalism, the keeping of God’s Law for Salvation, was among the earliest distortions of the Gospel Message and is soundly refuted by huge portions of the New Testament– including the entire Book of Galatians. It is fitting that any appeal to God’s Law for Salvation would be shown to be futile immediately before the only Way for Justification with God is disclosed in Romans 3.