Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.
In the New International Version of Romans, the word therefore has already occurred two times: once in Romans 1:24, where Paul speaks of God’s having given mankind up to its wickedness (“Therefore God gave them over …”), and once in Romans 2:1, where he speaks to the morally sensitive but unbelieving person (“You, therefore, have no excuse …”). However, in the Greek manuscripts, the proper and strongest word for “therefore” (dioti) occurs for the first time in Romans 3:20, which is our text. Dioti literally means “on account of which thing” (dia ho ti). So it is appropriate that it is found here, where it marks a conclusion based on all that has been said in the first major section of Paul’s letter.
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 is 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.”
But why? 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 religious Jew? Why not you? Why not me? Paul’s answer takes us back over the chief points of the preceding chapters.
Wrath: The Rejection of God
The first plank 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 do not 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).
“But what about the good things human beings do?” asks someone. “You can’t deny that people are often kind and helpful to one another or go out of their way for others. Don’t these things count for anything?”
Let me answer this question by an illustration from a book by Robert M. Horn, a staff member of British InterVarsity (the Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship). It is entitled Go Free! The Meaning of Justification, and the illustration is borrowed in turn from a book by Loraine Boettner (The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination), who borrowed it from W. D. Smith (What Is Calvinism?). These writers imagine a sailing ship manned by a crew of pirates. The pirates are on good terms with one another. They work hard at their jobs, are honest among themselves (according to a certain “pirate code”), help one another, and even defend one another. Their hard work really is hard work. Their kindness to each other really is kindness. But all these “good” actions are also and at the same time “bad” or wrong behavior, because they are aimed at maintaining themselves in violation of international maritime law. Their good deeds are highly selective; they do not help everyone, only themselves or those like themselves. They actually rob, maim, and murder many other people. And even their kindnesses to each other grow out of their rebellion, expressing and actually reinforcing it.
Here is a more modern example. Some years ago Mario Puzo wrote a book called The Godfather, which later became a movie, and a sequel to the movie. The book was a study of the so-called Mafia, the powerful crime families who control much of the illegal gambling, prostitution, drug dealing, and other criminal activity in America and other parts of the world. This book and the films based on it showed the tremendous violence exerted by these crime families to achieve their goals. But what made the violence particularly shocking is that it seemed to exist alongside tender and otherwise noble feelings and actions of these figures. Mafia dons are often quite kindly family men. They love their wives and children. They are loyal to each other. They defend each other. In fact, they are ruthless in righting a wrong done to a member of their own crime family. Ah, but they are still crime-oriented, and the structure and ethical code of the family is created only to enhance their own well-being in violation of the law and at the expense of other people.
That parallels our situation in respect to mankind’s universal rebellion against God. We may do good things (at least “good” as they appear to us), but our good is actually bad, because it is designed to maintain our rebellion against the only sovereign God and his laws.
No Excuse: God’s Law Broken
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. To the Jew he says, “You who preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that people should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who brag about the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law? As it is written: ‘God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you’ ” (Rom. 2:21b–24). The point of these statements is that the laws these religious people broke are in their Scriptures. In fact, they are from the very heart of the Old Testament, the Ten Commandments given to Moses on Mount Sinai. It is the Ten Commandments that say, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exod. 20:3), “You shall not commit adultery” (v. 14), and “You shall not steal” (v. 15). These were laws of which the Jews were most proud. But they had broken them, as indeed all human beings have.
It is exactly the same idea in the case of the Gentile. The Gentile of Paul’s day, the Greek or Roman of the first century, did not have the Old Testament law for the most part (though some did). But Gentiles had a code of ethics of their own. They knew that they should do good. They knew that they should seek the prosperity of other human beings. They knew that stealing and all other harmful practices were wrong. But they did bad things all the same, just as we do! Paul tells the Gentile, “You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things” (Rom. 2:1).
This means that whenever we are offended at another person’s actions, as we frequently are, we condemn ourselves before God. For what we find blameworthy in another, we also do. Is a person rude to you and are you offended? If so, your reaction condemns you, since you are often rude to other people. Are you angry when someone takes unfair advantage of you? You are right to be angry; a violation of fairness is wrong. But you still condemn yourself, because you are also unfair to others. You may not always admit it, but it is true. Whatever standard you raise by which you approve one set of actions and disapprove another set of actions in others—that very standard condemns you, because you cannot and do not live up to 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 Actual Case: Great Wickedness
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. Apart from these lists, a person might reluctantly admit that at least at times he or she breaks even the lowest possible standard for decent behavior and might say, “I do not pretend to be able to do even a single right thing all the time or in every possible situation.” But that is a far cry from admitting that one is thoroughly wicked in God’s sight. And as long as a person is unwilling to admit that, there is always the feeling that somehow (regardless of the person’s admitted shortcomings) the good that a person does will be acknowledged by God, and justification by good works will at least become possible.
But look at how God sees human beings: “They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless” (Rom. 1:29–31). It is from this viewpoint that 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.
All have turned away,
they have together become worthless;
there is no one who does good,
not even one.”
“Their throats are open graves;
their tongues practice deceit.”
“The poison of vipers is on their lips.”
“Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.”
“Their feet are swift to shed blood;
ruin and misery mark their ways,
and the way of peace they do not know.”
“There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
These verses do not 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. We may not get a chance to murder someone. We may not even be tempted to do so. But given due provocation, right circumstances, and the removal of the societal restraints provided to limit murderous acts, we are all capable of murder and will murder, just as others have. So also with God’s other commandments.
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).
Circumcision: No Substitutes
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. This was not a case of simple pagan superstition or of the mere traditions of the elders, because the rite of circumcision was prescribed for Israel by God in the Old Testament. It was a rite given to Abraham, who was to circumcise all the males in his household and pass on this rite to those who were their descendants (Gen. 17:9–14). Circumcision was to be a mark of membership in the special chosen family of God’s people. This was such an important requirement that later in Jewish history we find a scene in which God was displeased with Moses and was about to kill him, evidently because he had neglected to circumcise his own son. He was saved only when Zipporah, his wife, performed the rite for him (Exod. 4:24–26).
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.
Paul writes, “Circumcision has value if you observe the law, but if you break the law, you have become as though you had not been circumcised.… A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code” (Rom. 2:25, 28–29a).
“But circumcision is commanded in the law!” says the Jew.
True, but not as a means by which a man or a woman can be justified.
“But aren’t we commanded to be baptized?” asks the Christian.
Yes, but as an outward sign of a prior, inward faith. It is not baptism that saves us, but God who works in us inwardly.
“But aren’t we told to observe the Lord’s Supper?” the believer wonders.
Yes, if we have been justified by faith in him whose death the communion service signifies. But to eat the bread, which signifies the Lord’s broken body, and drink the wine, which signifies the Lord’s shed blood, without faith in him is to eat and drink condemnation to oneself (1 Cor. 11:29).
God is not taken in by mere externals. There are no substitutes for faith.
The Law’s Good Function
I come back to our text, which says that “no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.” We have been looking at the first part of this sentence, the negative, and we have gone back over the opening section of Romans to see why this great negative is true.
Yet this is only one part of the sentence. The first part of the sentence makes this 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.
J. B. Phillips is an Englishman who has written a very lively paraphrase of the New Testament, called The New Testament in Modern English. Because he is an Englishman and not an American, Phillips has occasionally used British terms for concepts that would be described in an entirely different way by Americans. Therefore, for Americans at least, Phillips throws new light on key passages. This is true of Romans 3:20. In England what we call a ruler or yardstick is called a straightedge. So when Phillips came to this verse and wanted to show what the law does for us (even though the law is not a means by which we can be justified), he paraphrased the text by writing, “ ‘No man can justify himself before God’ by a perfect performance of the Law’s demands—indeed it is the straightedge of the Law that shows us how crooked we are.”
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.
One commentator has compared the law of God to a mirror. What happens when you look into a mirror? You see yourself, don’t you? And what happens if your face is dirty and you look into a mirror? The answer is that you see that you should wash your dirty face. Does the mirror clean your face? No. The mirror’s function is to drive you to the soap and water that will clean you up.
With that analogy in mind, let me give you a verse written by Robert Herrick, an English poet who lived about the time of William Shakespeare. It uses an image drawn from classical mythology in which the great Greek hero Hercules was sent to perform what was thought to be an impossible task: to clean up the immense, filthy stables of King Augeas. Comparing his heart to those stables, Herrick wrote:
Lord, I confess that thou alone art able
To purify this Augean stable.
Be the seas water and the lands all soap,
Yet if thy blood not wash me, there’s no hope.
That is it exactly. 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 most 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. William Cowper, an eighteenth-century poet, found cleansing there and wrote:
There is a fountain filled with blood,
Drawn from Immanuel’s veins;
And sinners, plunged beneath that flood,
Lose all their guilty stains.
The dying thief rejoiced to see
That fountain in his day;
And there have I, as vile as he,
Washed all my sins away.
I trust you also have found cleansing where Robert Herrick, William Cowper, and 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).
 Boice, J. M. (1991–). Romans: Justification by Faith (Vol. 1, pp. 328–336). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.