Silence at Last (Romans 3:19)

Romans 3:19

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.

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 first great foundational truths of Christianity.

A Diagnostic Question

I want to study these verses in two separate messages, however, and one of my reasons for dividing them is that verse 19 has played an important part in the conversion of many, many people.

From 1927 to 1960 the pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia (the church I now pastor), was Donald Grey Barnhouse, a gifted Bible teacher whom God used wonderfully in preaching and conference ministries throughout this country and around the world. He dealt with many people’s problems in his ministry, and early on he developed what he came to call a series of diagnostic questions to help him analyze where those he was trying to help were coming from spiritually. First, he tried to determine whether or not the individual involved was a Christian. “Are you born again?” he would ask. If the person gave a clear-cut testimony to his or her faith in Christ, Barnhouse would then go on to deal with the specific problem that had been raised. If not, he would proceed as follows:

“Perhaps I can help clarify your thinking with a question. You know that there are a great many accidents today. Suppose that you and I should go out of this building and a swerving automobile should come up on the sidewalk and kill 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—note my emphasis on the word right—what right do you have to come into my heaven?’ What would be your answer?”

Barnhouse found, as he used this approach again and again in counseling situations, that only three possible answers can be given to it. That is, all the many varieties of answers ultimately boil down to just three. One of them involves the text I am considering, which is why I tell this story.

“Justified by Good Works”

The first answer people give to the question is a common one. It is that they have done certain good 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 of 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. Some have kept the Golden Rule, they say—or tried to keep it. Others have tried to help their neighbors, and so on.

If a person replied to Barnhouse’s question with any of those claims, he took them to Galatians 2:16b, which says that we “… put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified.” Barnhouse showed that no one can satisfy God’s perfect standards by tainted human righteousness.

Then he frequently told the following story. Early in his ministry he knew a man who lived near Tenth Presbyterian Church to whom he would often speak about the gospel. This man usually replied to the preacher’s message by laughing patronizingly. He wasn’t the kind of person who needed the church or any kind of religion, he would say. He belonged to a lodge, the chief function of which was to do good works. He was active in that lodge and lived up to its high moral principles. If he ever met God, he felt he would be all right on the basis of his lodge associations.

Years went by, during which the man resisted all attempts by Barnhouse to explain the gospel to him.

One day word came that the man was quite ill. He had been stricken with a fatal disease and was not expected to live out the day. Barnhouse went to see him. A member of his lodge was present on what is called “the deathwatch,” since no member of the lodge was supposed to be allowed to die alone. This lodge member was seated across the room from the bed on which the other was dying. He was reading a newspaper. As Barnhouse entered, the replacement for this man also entered the room, and the shift was changed. The first man got up and left; the second took his place.

Barnhouse realized that the situation was desperate and decided on a bold course of action. He sat down by the bed and spoke along these lines: “You don’t mind my staying here for a few minutes and watching you, do you? I have often wondered what it would be like for a person to die without Jesus Christ. I have known you for quite a few years, and you have always said that you do not need Christ and that your lodge obligations are enough. I would like to observe a person end his life with those beliefs and see what it is like.”

The man on the bed was struck through the heart. He looked at Barnhouse like a wounded animal. “You … wouldn’t … mock … a dying man … would you?” he said.

Barnhouse then asked his diagnostic question. “You are going to appear before God in a very short while. Suppose he asks you, ‘What right do you have to come into my heaven?’ What will you say?”

This time the man looked back in agonized silence, and great tears flowed from his frightened eyes and down his pale, wrinkled cheeks. Then, while he listened attentively, Barnhouse told him how he might approach God through the merits of the Lord Jesus Christ. The man replied that his mother had taught him those truths as a child but that he had abandoned them. He had lived without faith. But now, in his final moments on earth, he came back to God through Jesus Christ, confessed his faith in Christ and then had someone call his family members so he might give his newfound testimony to them. He asked Barnhouse to tell his story at his funeral, which took place a few days later.

You must clearly understand this. 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 own great righteousness.

“Not a Thing to Say”

The second answer that can be given to Barnhouse’s question involves our text in Romans, but it, too, is connected with a story. One summer Barnhouse was crossing the Atlantic by ship, and about the second or third day out, which was a Sunday, he preached for the passengers. This led to several fruitful conversations, one with a young woman who was a professor of languages at one of the eastern colleges. In the course of their conversation Barnhouse asked his question: “If this ship should suddenly suffer some great catastrophe and sink to the bottom of the sea and we died, and if, when you appeared before God, he should ask you, ‘What right do you have to come into my heaven?’ what would you say?”

The woman answered, “Why, I wouldn’t have a thing to say.”

Barnhouse replied, “You are quoting Romans 3:19.” She didn’t know what he meant, so he opened his Bible and showed the verse to her: “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.” He explained that she had said it in American idiom: “I wouldn’t have a thing to say.” God had said, “Every mouth [will] be silenced.” But it is the same thing. At God’s judgment no one will be able to offer any good works as grounds for his or her justification or proffer 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.

Here we have trials by our peers. But our peers are like us. They are also sinful. Frequently juries excuse bad behavior.

Not even judges are always entirely upright in their decisions. In some cases they can be bribed. Or they simply make mistakes.

Moreover, human law is inexact and imperfect. It has loopholes. We can plead extenuating circumstances. And even if we lose our case, we can generally appeal to a higher court and to a court beyond that. If we finally exhaust our legal options and perhaps are sent to prison, we can still carry on our efforts at self-vindication. We can write letters. We can write a book. We can argue. We can refuse to be silenced.

Ah, but before God every mouth will be silenced! Then we will all know that we are not righteous and that there is not a word that can be spoken in our defense.

As evidence for this statement I bring forward the experience of the saints. Surely, if anyone could stand before God and be able to speak in his or her own defense, it would be an upright biblical character. But this is not what we find such people doing. Whenever a biblical “hero” has a glimpse of God’s glory, the result is not a loosing of the tongue but a feeling of utter worthlessness before God—and of silence.

Job is an example. Job wanted answers to an important question: Why do the righteous suffer? His friends had no satisfactory answers, although Job discussed the options with them at length. But when at last God spoke, revealing himself to Job and asking a series of probing questions that go on and on in the book that bears Job’s name (chapters 38–41), Job was overcome with confusion and answered:

“I am unworthy—how can I reply to you?

I put my hand over my mouth.

I spoke once, but I have no answer—

twice, but I will say no more.”

Job 40:4–5

Job was silenced.

Isaiah had the same experience. When God revealed himself to Isaiah in the great vision recorded in chapter 6 of his prophecy, Isaiah replied, “Woe to me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty” (v. 5). How interesting that Isaiah’s response focused on his lips and the lips of his people! He recognized that anything he might say was unworthy, unclean, sinful. He was silenced. He said no more. It was only after God sent a seraph with a coal from the altar to purge his lips that Isaiah was freed to speak again and obey the command to take God’s message to God’s people.

When Habakkuk had a revelation of God, he testified:

I heard and my heart pounded,

my lips quivered at the sound;

Decay crept into my bones,

and my legs trembled.

Habakkuk 3:16

Habakkuk’s lips trembled, but no sound came out.

Even John, the beloved disciple of the Lord, when he saw the risen Christ in that awesome vision recorded in the first chapter of Revelation, had no words for him. Instead, he fell at Christ’s feet “as though dead” and did not move until Jesus placed his hand upon him and performed something like a physical resurrection (Rev. 1:17).

In his treatment of our text Barnhouse suggests that if there will be any 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 acknowledgment of the truth of God and the justice of their own condemnation.

They will cry, “It was all true, God. I was wrong. I knew I was wrong when I made my excuses. But I hated and still hate the principle of righteousness by the blood of Christ. I must admit that those despised Christians were right who bowed before you and acknowledged their dependence on you. I hated their songs of faith then, and I hate them now. They were right, and I hated them because they were right and because they belonged to you. I wanted my own way. I still want my own way. I want heaven, but I want heaven without you. I want heaven with myself on the throne. That is what I want, and I do not want anything else and never, never will want anything other than heaven with myself on the throne. I want my own way. And now I am going to the place of desire without fulfillment, of lust without satisfaction, or wanting without having, of wishing but never getting, of looking but never seeing, and I hate, I hate, I hate, because I want my own way. I hate you for not letting me have my way. I hate, I hate.… ”

Their voices will drift off into outer nothingness, and there will be silence at last.

The Only Saving Answer

It is clear from what I have been saying 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 will enter heaven.

Some years ago there was an Arthur Murray dance instructor who had been out late on a Saturday evening. In the wee hours of the morning he staggered back to his hotel room, fell into bed, and went to sleep. The next morning he was suddenly jolted awake by his clock radio. A man was speaking, and he was asking this question: “If in the next few moments some great disaster should happen and you should be killed and if you should find yourself before God and he should ask you, ‘What right do you have to come into my heaven?’ what would you say?”

The dance instructor was amazed and confounded by this question. He had never heard a question like that before. He realized that he did not have an answer. He had not a single thing to say. His mouth, filled with empty words just hours before, was suddenly stopped. He sat silently on the edge of his bed while Barnhouse—he was the preacher on that radio program—explained the answer to him.

That dance instructor was D. James Kennedy, now pastor of the Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and author of the popular witnessing and evangelism program known as “Evangelism Explosion.” Kennedy believed on Jesus Christ that day in his hotel room, and the question that had been used to save him became the chief tool in his evangelism strategy. Since that day many thousands of people have come to Christ through his program.

What is Your Answer?

I end by asking that same question of 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 not enough for me to have deserved heaven. Add it up. 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. For, as we have seen, God has said:

“There is no one righteous, not even one;

there is no one who understands,

no one who seeks God.

All have turned away,

they have together become worthless;

there is no one who does good,

not even one.”

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 is 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.”[1]


[1] Boice, J. M. (1991–). Romans: Justification by Faith (Vol. 1, pp. 321–327). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.

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