Now we know that 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 ESV
Paul continues his polemic on the relationship between the Jews and the law by saying, “the law speaks to those who are under the law.” In other words, the law was given to the Jews by God and it told them exactly what God’s righteous expectations of them were. No arguments. No questions. No quibbling. No excuses. But in revealing His righteous standards to the Jews, God was not inferring that everyone else was exempt from His law. In fact, Paul makes it clear that God gave His law to the Jews “to keep people from having excuses, and to show that the entire world is guilty before God” (Romans 3:19 NLT). The Jews were given the privilege and responsibility of knowing God’s law. But they would prove incapable of living up to it. They could not claim ignorance, only incompetence. They would find themselves completely incapable of keeping the law. “For no one can ever be made right with God by doing what the law commands. The law simply shows us how sinful we are” (Romans 3:20 NLT).
A little later in his letter, Paul will clarify God’s purpose behind the giving of the law. Paul states, “if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’” (Romans 7:7 ESV). The law said, “you shall not…”, but Paul’s sin nature said, “why not?” The law revealed the righteous requirement of God, but indwelling sin took advantage of it. Paul describes it in vivid terms. “But sin used this command to arouse all kinds of covetous desires within me! If there were no law, sin would not have that power” (Romans 7:8 NLT). Paul goes on to say that the law is good and holy. It is spiritual. It was given by God to men and is, therefore, righteous. Paul describes the conundrum in which man finds himself. “For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:14-15 ESV). The Jews wanted to keep the law, but couldn’t. They tried, but they failed. All so that God might expose man’s complete incapability when it comes to earning a right standing before Him based on human effort. “For by the works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight” (Romans 3:20 ESV). Paul expounds on this thought in his letter to the church in Galatia. “Yet we know that a person is made right with God by faith in Jesus Christ, not by obeying the law. And we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we might be made right with God because of our faith in Christ, not because we have obeyed the law. For no one will ever be made right with God by obeying the law” (Galatians 2:16 NLT). A little later on in that same letter, Paul states, “If the law could give us new life, we could be made right with God by obeying it. But the Scriptures declare that we are all prisoners of sin, so we receive God’s promise of freedom only by believing in Jesus Christ” (Galatians 3:21-22 NLT). But the law had a purpose. God had a perfectly good, completely righteous reason for having given it. “Before the way of faith in Christ was available to us, we were placed under guard by the law. We were kept in protective custody, so to speak, until the way of faith was revealed. Let me put it another way. The law was our guardian until Christ came; it protected us until we could be made right with God through faith” (Galatians 3:23-24 NLT).
The law was designed to show us the kind of righteousness God was looking for. But in revealing the righteousness of God, the law also revealed the sinfulness of man. It exposed our inherent weakness. Even on our best day and given our best efforts, we could not live up to God’s holy standard. The law showed us our sin and revealed to us our need for a Savior. Augustine wrote, “The law orders, that we, after attempting to do what is ordered, and so feeling our weakness under the law, may learn to implore the help of grace.” The law was intended to drive the people of Israel to God, recognizing their desperate need for His grace, mercy, forgiveness and strength to live the lives He had called them to. The sacrificial system He provided was a constant demonstration of their sinfulness and their need for atonement. There was never a time when they could stop making sacrifices, because there was never a time when they ever stopped sinning. The writer of Hebrews tells us, “The old system under the law of Moses was only a shadow, a dim preview of the good things to come, not the good things themselves. The sacrifices under that system were repeated again and again, year after year, but they were never able to provide perfect cleansing for those who came to worship. If they could have provided perfect cleansing, the sacrifices would have stopped, for the worshipers would have been purified once for all time, and their feelings of guilt would have disappeared. But instead, those sacrifices actually reminded them of their sins year after year. For it is not possible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Hebrews 10:1-4 NLT). Then in verse 10, he points out the plan of God – the gospel. “For God’s will was for us to be made holy by the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ, once for all time.” The law revealed the righteous expectations of God and, in doing so, it exposed our sin and our need for a Savior. No one can save themselves. Self-righteousness is deceptive and ineffective. But the gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.