Pastor’s Class Notes
Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall

ROMANS 3:19-20

Introduction: These two verses provide us the most sweeping and comprehensive statement in the Bible regarding the purpose of Law. We learn here three vital lessons about the precepts of God.

I. WHAT THE LAW SHOULD DO

Romans 3:19 “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.”

The Law should cause one to see his own unworthiness, resulting in his mouth being stopped. An honest self-appraisal will cause a man to shut his mouth with regard to any form of boasting. The one who sees his own actual condition will plead no defense. Every excuse will die on his lips.
The phrase in our text is taken from the court room, and refers to a defendant whose guilt has been overwhelmingly proven. The case is so strong that when the defendant is called on to speak in his own defense, he is silent. He has nothing to say and awaits sentencing from the Judge.

“Guilty before God” is a dreadful thought, and the Lord wants us to realize the magnitude of it. God wants us to be so convicted of sin that we are forced into silence. Boasting must cease.
The Pharisee and modern moral man are ever ready to tell of their own achievements in goodness. Until a man is convicted of his own sinfulness, he will keep talking about his own goodness and/or someone else’s badness. Remember the Pharisee and Publican of Luke 18: The Pharisee declared, “God, I thank Thee that I am not as other men are. . .I fast. . .I tithe.” The Publican said not one good word about himself: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” Jesus praised the Publican. God wants us rendered speechless. Every evasion must be cut off.
Job felt himself wronged and challenged God to a face to face dialogue. Once God arrived, however, Job immediately replied, “I am vile; what shall I answer thee? I will lay mine hand upon my mouth” (40:4). He was ready to be quiet and acquiesce to God’s verdict. The Word of God declares us all guilty. This fact alone should stun us into silence.
The thought of God giving men what they deserve is a frightening thought. When God begins to move against evil, sinners have to be dumbstruck. This is what the Bible means by “The Lord is in His Holy temple; Let all the earth keep silence before Him” (HAB 2:20). In that passage God is preparing to move against sinners.
Someday all men, however clamorous and boastful, will be silenced. When men pause before the throne of God on Judgment Day, they will be stripped of every excuse. Everyone in Hell will know they deserve to be there. Every man in outer darkness will acknowledge, “This I deserve.”
Do not wait until then to confess your sinfulness. Do it now. We can either have our mouth shut by God then and hear Him say, “Depart,” or we can shut our mouth voluntarily now and hear Him declare us forgiven.
Close your mouth to any claim of inherent goodness. Confess you cannot save yourself. Receive what Christ has done.

II. WHAT THE LAW CANNOT DO

Romans 3:20a “Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no
flesh be justified in his sight:”

The Law cannot save. Paul slams the door on the possibility of anyone being saved by keeping the Law. This is actually good news, because no one is capable of fully keeping the Law. The Law requires us to love God with all our heart, and our neighbor as ourselves. This is impossible. If that were the standard for salvation, we would all be doomed, beyond any hope or help. All men are morally bankrupt before the Tribunal of God.
No matter what we proudly hold up to God as virtue or achievement, the Lord responds, “No!” Produce all our personal righteousness, and the Law withers it into filthy rags. We have fallen way short of keeping the Law. It is impossible for sinful man to satisfy God.
I think this is why Paul used the word “flesh” here to describe the human race. “Flesh” refers to man’s frailty and insignificance as contrasted with the greatness and majesty of God, who is everlasting Spirit. “Flesh” pinpoints our weaknesses and faults, reminding us we are earthly and temporary. It carries the connotation of corruption.
We are breakers of God’s Law, and it is ludicrous to think we can be saved by the very law we have broken. If a man breaks a law, he does not appeal to the same law to prove his own innocence. His only hope for pardon is to meet the demands required by society of him for breaking that law. The debt must be cleared.
Suppose a poor man commits a crime and is sentenced to a $12,000 fine or 12 months in jail. He is obviously headed for jail, but suppose a rich relative pays the fine. As the poor man heads for freedom, he is stopped in the street by a policeman who recognizes him and knows of his guilt. He immediately apprehends the poor man and asks, “What right do you have to be out of jail as a free man?” If the poor man replies, “Just look at my record; assess me by my deeds,” the officer will take him back to jail because the man is obviously guilty of crime. The poor man’s only hope for escape is to be able to say, “My fine has been paid; justice has been served.”
This is also our only hope. Our record will not gain us entrance to heaven. Our only chance is for Someone else to pay the debt we owe.
A man can be right with God only when the demands of justice are met. Salvation is not a flippant pardon. Justice must be served. The debt and penalty must be paid, and has been through the death of Jesus.
Do not trust in your own goodness. Jesus began His Sermon on the Mount by saying the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to the “poor in spirit” (MT 5:3). This refers to those who realize their own spiritual bankruptcy. Jesus was contradicting all notions men can satisfy God through deeds of Law.

III. WHAT THE LAW CAN DO

Romans 3:20b “. . .for by the law is the knowledge of sin.”

The Law allows us to recognize and define sin, and shows how sinful we are. The Law is a straight-edge by which we see how crooked we are.
The Law is given to prove man cannot save himself. It strips a man of any pride in his own ability to save himself. The Law has fulfilled its purpose once it makes a man realize how full of sin he really is. It has succeeded once it brings a man to the bottom.
This is as far as the Law can lead. It points out the need for a kind of life it is powerless to provide. It shows how much we need cleansing, but cannot cleanse us. It reveals our sinfulness to us, but does nothing to cure it. Law brings conviction, not conversion; prosecution, not defense; indictment, not emancipation; condemnation, not forgiveness; guilt, not innocence. Law can only jolt us into seeing what is wrong with ourselves.
The wife of a heavy drinker once found her husband wallowing in a drunken stupor. He was absolutely filthy, with clothes torn, hair matted, face bruised. She made a picture of him in this wretched condition, and placed it on the mantel beside a portrait made of him at the time of their wedding. Back then he had been handsome and well-dressed. When the husband saw the two pictures side-by-side, he was awakened for the first time to a full realization of his condition. It was the beginning of a better life for him. Realizing how desperate and despicable was his plight became the turning point for him. It was essential before he would seek help.
God’s Law performs this same service for us. It shows us how desperate our condition truly is. A mirror can show us the spots on our face, but cannot remove them. No one tries to clean their nose by rubbing it against a mirror. It is impossible to wash a face in a mirror, for mirrors are not cleansing agents. X-ray machines reveal broken bones, but cannot heal them. If you break your back, resting on an x-ray machine will not help. An otoscope reveals strep throat, but swallowing it will not kill any germs. A stethoscope reveals a heart murmur, but the problem is not solved by wearing a stethoscope inside the shirt thenceforth.
All these devices are merely indicators to point out the need for something else. Law was given to show how desperately we need God’s mercy. As Augustine said, “The Law was given that grace might be sought, and grace was given that the Law might be kept.” Be wise and let Law do its proper work in your life. Let it end your boastfulness; cease trusting it for salvation; trust in Him to Whom it points. Flee to Jesus.