3:20 No one can earn justification by obedience to the law’s requirements. The law was never intended to be a means of salvation. A primary purpose of the law was to reveal sin in its full scope, thus pointing to humanity’s need for the gift of righteousness.
3:20 The law was never intended to save or sanctify. Knowledge of sin comes through the law. No one can ever be justified by keeping the law. Paul’s statement is as clear as one could desire. One of the greatest enigmas of human experience is the continuing persuasion of most religious people that a man can somehow make himself acceptable to the holy God through the observance of law, ritual, and moral precept, whereas the great missionary-theologian goes to great length to refute that idea.
3:20 through the law comes knowledge of sin. See “The Three Purposes of the Law” at Deut. 13:10. While the Jews appeal to their possession of the law as proof of their privileged position before God, Paul has now demonstrated that any Jew’s sin is unveiled and condemned, not hidden and condoned, by the law (note Paul’s self-description in 7:7–11). At the Last Judgment, all argument with a perfectly just and omniscient Judge will be futile.
3:20 works of the law This phrase could refer to all the requirements in the law. Alternatively, it might emphasize practices that distinguish Jews from Gentiles, such as observing the Sabbath, food laws, and circumcision. It’s possible for people to observe these laws ceremonially, but Paul’s earlier points suggest they will still fall short of observing everything in the law, such as completely loving their neighbor, or avoiding lust, idolatry, and covetousness.
will be declared righteous The Greek word used here, dikaioō, describes being in right relationship with God. No one, Jew or Gentile, can earn a right standing before God through obedience to the law. See note on 1:17; compare 2:13 and note; 4:3 and note.
law See note on 2:12.
comes knowledge of sin The law defines sin through its commands and prohibitions, thereby imparting knowledge about sin. But knowledge of sin is also experiential. When people break the law, they become aware of the presence and power of sin within them. See 7:7–25.
3:20 Works of the law is understood by some to refer only to the ceremonial law, i.e., those laws that separate Jews from Gentiles (such as circumcision, food laws, and Sabbath). But the context gives no indication of such a restriction, and therefore the phrase should be taken to refer to all the works or deeds required by the law. The law required perfect obedience to God’s will. All people sin and fall short of this standard, therefore no one is justified by the law. Justified is a legal term and indicates that no one will be declared to be righteous by God, who is the divine judge by virtue of his own goodness, since all violate and none fulfill God’s requirements (see note on Gal. 2:16).
3:20 works of the Law. Doing perfectly what God’s moral law requires is impossible, so that every person is cursed by that inability (see notes on Gal 3:10, 13). justified. See note on v. 24. through the Law comes the knowledge of sin. The law makes sin known, but can’t save. See note on 7:7.
3:20 — Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin.
God gave His people the law so they could understand their need for grace, not so that they could try to “earn” their way into His favor. The law shows us our sin; it doesn’t empower us to follow it.
3:20 A legal term used of the defendant in a trial, justified means “declared righteous.” No one will be declared righteous by doing what God requires in the Law. This is confirmed by the fact that the Law was not given to justify sinners but to expose sin (v. 19).
3:20 No one can be justified by keeping the law. The law was not given to justify people but to produce the knowledge of sin—not the knowledge of salvation, but the knowledge of sin.
We could never know what a crooked line is unless we also knew a straight line. The law is like a straight line. When men test themselves by it, they see how crooked they are.
We can use a mirror to see that our face is dirty, but the mirror is not designed to wash the dirty face. A thermometer will tell if a person has a fever, but swallowing the thermometer will not cure the fever.
The law is good when it is used to produce conviction of sin, but it is worthless as a savior from sin. As Luther said, its function is not to justify but to terrify.
3:20 “because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight” This is an allusion to Ps. 143:2, but with a phrase added. This was a major aspect of Paul’s gospel (cf. Gal. 2:16; 3:11). As a committed Pharisee, Paul uniquely knew the inability of religious enthusiasm and meticulous performance to provide inner peace.
|“through the Law comes the knowledge of sin”
|“for by the law is the knowledge of sin”
|“what the Law does is to make man know that he has sinned”
|“all that law does is to tell us what is sinful”
This was one of the purposes of the OT. It was never meant to bring salvation to fallen mankind. Its purpose was to reveal sinfulness and drive all humans to the mercy of God (cf. 4:15; 5:13, 20; 7:7; Gal. 3:19–22, 23–29).
20. Therefore by law-works no flesh [or: mortal being] will be justified in his sight, for through law (comes) consciousness of sin.
In somewhat different phraseology the thought of Ps. 143:2 (“Do not bring thy servant into judgment, for no one living is righteous before thee”) is here reproduced. Cf. Job 9:2.
Paul’s argument is irrefutable. By the works of the law no one can ever be justified in God’s sight. Why not? Consider, for a moment, what the law demands. Nothing less than this, that a person love God “with all” his heart, soul, mind, and strength, and that he love his neighbor as he loves himself (Matt. 22:37–40; Mark 12:29–31; Luke 10:27). The apostle has shown that it is exactly this love that was lacking on the part of both Gentile (note: “neither gave thanks,” Rom. 1:21) and Jew (note: “hard and unconverted heart,” 2:5). He has made clear that every person stands condemned before God (3:19).
He stands condemned because of his sins of commission, but also because of his sins of omission (1:21, 28; 2:21; 3:11; cf. Matt. 25:41–43); not only because of his sins open and public, but also because of the evil he commits in secret (Rom. 2:16). He is damnable in God’s sight not only because of what he says and does (Rom. 3:13–17), but even because of what he is (3:9, 10); that is, because of his sinful state.
Only one conclusion is possible therefore. Man is doomed, doomed, doomed. His condition is one of thorough hopelessness and despair. And the law, with its demand of nothing less than moral and spiritual perfection (cf. Lev. 19:2), a state to which man, in his own power, can never attain, creates in him a dreadful, mortifying sense of sin; hence, a presentiment of doom, total and everlasting.
20. No human being will be justified in his sight by works of the law. A free quotation and amplification of Psalm 143:2, ‘(Enter not into judgment with thy servant [cf. Ps. 51:4, quoted in verse 4 above]; for) no man living is righteous before thee.’ Cf. Galatians 2:16 (‘a man is not justified by works of the law’); 3:11 (‘no man is justified before God by the law’). Paul adds the reason why no-one can be justified in God’s sight ‘by works of the law’; it is that through the law comes knowledge of sin. This affirmation is repeated and expanded in 5:20; 7:7–11
20. Therefore by the works of the law, &c. It is a matter of doubt, even among the learned, what the works of the law mean. Some extend them to the observance of the whole law, while others confine them to the ceremonies alone. The addition of the word law induced Chrysostom, Origen, and Jerome to assent to the latter opinion; for they thought that there is a peculiar intimation in this appendage, that the expression should not be understood as including all works. But this difficulty may be very easily removed: for seeing works are so far just before God as we seek by them to render to him worship and obedience, in order expressly to take away the power of justifying from all works, he has mentioned those, if there be any, which can possibly justify; for the law hath promises, without which there would be no value in our works before God. You hence see the reason why Paul expressly mentioned the works of the law; for it is by the law that a reward is apportioned to works. Nor was this unknown to the schoolmen, who held it as an approved and common maxim, that works have no intrinsic worthiness, but become meritorious by covenant. And though they were mistaken, inasmuch as they saw not that works are ever polluted with vices, which deprive them of any merit, yet this principle is still true, that the reward for works depends on the free promise of the law. Wisely then and rightly does Paul speak here; for he speaks not of mere works, but distinctly and expressly refers to the keeping of the law, the subject which he is discussing.2
As to those things which have been adduced by learned men in defence of this opinion, they are weaker than they might have been. They think that by mentioning circumcision, an example is propounded, which belonged to ceremonies only: but why Paul mentioned circumcision, we have already explained; for none swell more with confidence in works than hypocrites, and we know that they glory only in external masks; and then circumcision, according to their view, was a sort of initiation into the righteousness of the law; and hence it seemed to them a work of primary excellence, and indeed the basis as it were of the righteousness of works.—They also allege what is said in the Epistle to the Galatians, where Paul handles the same subject, and refers to ceremonies only; but that also is not sufficiently strong to support what they wish to defend. It is certain that Paul had a controversy with those who inspired the people with a false confidence in ceremonies; that he might cut off this confidence, he did not confine himself to ceremonies, nor did he speak specifically of what value they were; but he included the whole law, as it is evident from those passages which are derived from that source. Such also was the character of the disputation held at Jerusalem by the disciples.
But we contend, not without reason, that Paul speaks here of the whole law; for we are abundantly supported by the thread of reasoning which he has hitherto followed and continues to follow, and there are many other passages which will not allow us to think otherwise. It is therefore a truth, which deserves to be remembered as the first in importance,—that by keeping the law no one can attain righteousness. He had before assigned the reason, and he will repeat it presently again, and that is, that all, being to a man guilty of transgression, are condemned for unrighteousness by the law. And these two things—to be justified by works—and to be guilty of transgressions, (as we shall show more at large as we proceed,) are wholly inconsistent the one with the other.—The word flesh, without some particular specification, signifies men; though it seems to convey a meaning somewhat more general, as it is more expressive to say, “All mortals,” than to say, “All men,” as you may see in Gallius.
For by the law, &c. He reasons from what is of an opposite character,—that righteousness is not brought to us by the law, because it convinces us of sin and condemns us; for life and death proceed not from the same fountain. And as he reasons from the contrary effect of the law, that it cannot confer righteousness on us, let us know, that the argument does not otherwise hold good, except we hold this as an inseparable and unvarying circumstance,—that by showing to man his sin, it cuts off the hope of salvation. It is indeed by itself, as it teaches us what righteousness is, the way to salvation: but our depravity and corruption prevent it from being in this respect of any advantage to us. It is also necessary in the second place to add this,—that whosoever is found to be a sinner, is deprived of righteousness; for to devise with the sophisters a half kind of righteousness, so that works in part justify, is frivolous: but nothing is in this respect gained, on account of man’s corruption.
3:20 through the law we become conscious of our sin. Here is where Paul’s argument has been leading since 1:18: no one can keep the law perfectly enough (not Gentile regarding the natural law / Noahic law, not Jew concerning the Torah) such that one’s obedience will merit favor before God. This is because the law reveals the sinful heart of each individual and shows how far short each one falls of the divine righteousness (see Rom. 3:23). More than that, according to verses such as Romans 7:5 (“the sinful passions [are] aroused by the law”), the law of God actually motivates people to defy God’s commands. All of this is, of course, very bad news. But this bad news, as Romans 3:21–31 will go on to say, is designed to drive the sinner to the gospel of the grace of God in Christ. In other words, the stipulation of the new covenant is not the law of Moses, but rather faith in Jesus Christ. This is wonderful news for both Jew and Gentile, and Paul will develop this in Romans 3:21–4:25.
We might pause to speculate as to why Paul came to this shocking conclusion about the law. Theologians have offered two suggestions. First, perhaps Paul’s conversion as wrought by God caused him to realize that he had hurt, maybe even had killed, innocent people (the Jerusalem Christians whom the pre-Christian Paul persecuted) in the name of the law (see Acts 8:1–3). Second, even more shocking, Paul, upon his conversion, might have come to see that the law unjustly punished Jesus Christ on the cross (see Gal. 3:10–13).
20 This verse may give the reason why the whole world is accountable to God, or it may serve to confirm this accountability.623 But it is more likely that it draws an inference or conclusion from what Paul has been saying throughout this section of the letter. In light of universal (and especially Jewish) sin and its hold over people, no human being can be put right with God by “works of the law.” As in 2:13, Paul uses the verb “justify” (dikaioō) to indicate a forensic declaration of “right status” “before God” (see enōpion autou in the parallel clause). Also as in 2:13 and in agreement with general Jewish use of the language, this forensic declaration probably has in view the last judgment: the time when God would decisively render his verdict over the status before him of every human being. Such a future-oriented focus fits the general tenor of Paul’s teaching in 2:1–3:19, which concentrates on the question of the status of Jews on “the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed” (2:5). Paul will argue, by contrast, that the manifestation of God’s righteousness in the present time means that the person who believes in Jesus is even now “being justified” (v. 24).
Paul alludes to the OT to make his point; for his words, while not a quotation, resemble Ps. 143:2b: “no one living is righteous before you.” Paul’s decision to use the word “flesh” (sarx) to characterize humanity is probably significant: human frailty and weakness (connoted by sarx) explain why humans cannot be declared righteous by works of the law. Paul’s most significant addition, of course, is his reference to the law: it is not “out of works of the law” that a person is justified. The phrase “works of the law” ([ta] erga [tou] nomou) occurs only in Galatians and Romans in biblical Greek (Rom. 3:28; Gal. 2:16 [three times]; 3:2, 5, 10), is not used in Greek (as far as we know) before Paul’s day, and has few clear equivalents in other languages. Partly for this reason and partly because the phrase occurs at critical junctures in Paul’s teaching about the law and justification, the phrase has been the subject of considerable debate.629
Many interpreters across church history have thought that the phrase might have a restricted sense, referring to the ceremonial aspects of the law of Moses. Some early defenders of the “new perspective on Paul” suggested something similar, arguing that the phrase highlighted certain forms of conformity to the law that separated Jews from Gentiles.631 However, most interpreters now agree that the phrase “simply denotes doing what the law requires,” the law being the Mosaic law, the Torah. The debate, then, is not so much about the meaning of the phrase as about its significance. Interpreters of Paul, at least since the Reformation, have traditionally put the weight of meaning on “works,” concluding that, while the phrase obviously referred in Paul’s context to deeds done in obedience to the Mosaic law, it ultimately signified works of any kind.634 On this basis this verse, and others like it, were seen to refute the idea that a person could gain a right standing with God by anything that that person did.
The main alternative to this understanding is associated generally with the new perspective. Advocates of this general approach to Paul tend to give particular attention to what they claim was the apostle’s driving concern: to provide for the inclusion of Gentiles as full members of the new covenant people of God, in the face of Jewish insistence on the special and inviolable status of Israel. Jewish people in Paul’s day sought to preserve their special status by stressing the need to “do the law,” or observe torah. Particular attention was given to matters in the law that practically distinguished Jews from Gentiles—circumcision, ceremonial observances, keeping food laws, and observing Sabbath. New perspective interpreters argue that this “ethnocentrism” is the matrix within which Paul’s phrase “works of the law” must be understood. The Jewish people insisted on “works of the law” not primarily as a means of establishing a relationship with God (which, in any case, they already enjoyed as members of Israel) but as a means of enforcing their own special status and thereby, in effect, keeping Gentiles out. And since the phrase functions in this very specific historical context and since Paul criticizes “works of the law” for this particular reason, it is illegitimate to move from “works of the law” to “good works” in general. It is torah works that Paul criticizes—not works of any other kind.
Adequate discussion of the issues raised in this last paragraph would burst the bounds of any commentary—although I do try to suggest some basic responses in the excursus after this verse. Suffice to say that, while new perspective advocates are certainly right to argue that traditional interpreters have often neglected the specific historical factors affecting Paul’s teaching about the law, their own proposal represents a reaction too far in the other direction. With respect to the phrase “works of the law,” I make four basic points.
First, while obedience to the law was indeed stressed as a means of erecting a boundary between Judaism and the Gentiles, it also had great “intrinsic” significance, as the means by which covenant membership, or “righteousness,” was to be maintained and secured on the day of judgment. “Works of the law,” then, could function in this latter context as well as the former. (For discussion of the Jewish context, see the excursus after this verse.)
Second, I am not persuaded that the possible equivalents of the phrase in Paul’s Jewish world suggest the kind of specific sociological function for the phrase that new perspective advocates suggest.
Third, the interchange between “works of the law” and “works” in Romans suggests that we cannot keep these in separate categories. Paul’s claim that “works of the law” cannot justify (3:20, 28) seems to be parallel with his claim that Abraham was not justified by “works” (4:1–8). This general meaning of “works” is clear also in 9:11–12, where Paul specifically unpacks the word in terms of doing “anything good or bad” (see also 11:6). We should therefore view “works of the law” as a subset of (rather than separate from) the general category “works.”
Fourth, we would expect “works of the law” here to be something of a summary of the extended discussion of Jewish “doing” in chap. 2. But the context of chap. 2 makes it clear that this “doing” is not restricted to any particular kind of works. In fact, Paul makes clear that the problem with Jewish works is essentially the same as the problem with Gentile works (see vv. 2–3, 22–23, 25, 27). Again, this makes it unlikely that the problem with “works of the law” is narrowly Jewish. Rather, the inability of “works of the law” to justify appears to be bound up with a fundamental human problem: universal, enslaving sinfulness (a broad application that, as we have seen, is probably connoted by Paul’s language of “all flesh”). In other words, the “problem” with “works of the law” is not fundamentally that they are “torah works” that maintained Israel’s privileged position. The problem is that they are “works” that humans under sin’s power (3:9) are unable to produce in adequate measure to secure righteous standing with God. To put it another way, the problem is not with the Jews’ possession of the law but with their failure to perform it.
I therefore align myself with those many interpreters and theologians who find in Rom. 3:20 a vital anthropological basis for Paul’s gospel: nothing a person does, whatever the object of obedience or the motivation of that obedience, can bring him or her into favor with God. It is just at this point that the significance of the meaning we have given “works of the law” emerges so clearly. Any restricted definition of “works of the law” can have the effect of opening the door to the possibility of justification by works—“good” deeds that are done in the right spirit, with God’s enabling grace, or something of the sort. This, we are convinced, would be to misunderstand Paul at a vital point.
The last part of v. 20 supports Paul’s contention in the first part of the verse by setting forth what it is that the law does accomplish (as opposed to that which it cannot accomplish). The law does not justify; rather, “through” it comes “knowledge of sin.” Since “knowledge” in the Bible can sometimes designate personal experience of something (e.g., 2 Cor. 5:21, where Christ is said not to have “known” sin), “knowledge of sin” might mean the actual experience of sinning. However, while Paul will show that the law exists in a fatal nexus with sin and death (7:7–12), he never suggests that the law is itself responsible for sinning. “Knowledge of sin,” on the other hand, does not simply mean that the law defines sin; rather, what is meant is that the law gives to people an understanding of “sin” (singular) as a power that holds everyone in bondage and brings guilt and condemnation.643 The law presents people with the demand of God. In our constant failure to attain the goal of that demand, we recognize ourselves to be sinners and justly condemned for our failures.
Paul’s important assertion that “no flesh can be justified by the works of the law” is the bottom line in the argument that extends all the way back to 1:18. This is then a good time to look back over that argument and draw some conclusions about its general shape. Our best point of entry is an attempt to answer the question of how two assertions Paul makes in this section fit together: “doers of the law will be justified” (2:13) and “no one will be justified by works of the law.” There appear to be only five ways of explaining this contrast. First, one could argue that 2:13 states only a hypothetical promise: only for the sake of argument does Paul suggest such a possibility. As I have noted in the exegesis of 2:13, this is unlikely. Second, one could find a salvation-historical distinction between the two: in the “old age,” doing the law could justify, but in the “new age” it no longer can. Not only does this make Paul’s argument in 2:13 irrelevant to his present readers (who are in the “new age”), but it contradicts the express denial of Paul that the law could justify (see Gal. 3:21). Third, one could argue that “justify” in 2:13 refers to the judgment, or to a “second justification,” while “justify” in 3:20 relates to the initial entrance into salvation. However, while there is precedent in Judaism, the NT (see perhaps Jas. 2:14–26), and in Paul (Gal. 5:5; and possibly elsewhere) for the use of “justify” or related words to depict the judgment, nothing in the wording or context of 2:13 and 3:20 suggests any difference in the time of justification (both use the future passive of dikaioō). Fourth, one could define “doing the law” and “works of the law” in different ways, so that the former means “fulfilling the law in Christ,” or “obeying God as a response to grace” while the latter connotes the specifically Jewish concern with “observing torah.” We have also found reason for rejecting this interpretation: lexical and contextual evidence does not justify any sort of distinction.
We are left, then, with the supposition that one must insert a step in the argument between the two statements, to the effect that “no one can do the law.” Not only does this make the best sense of both statements in their contexts, but it is, in effect, the assertion that Paul inserts between the two verses: “all are under the power of sin … there is no one righteous, no, not one” (3:9–10). We should add that a view like Dunn’s, according to which “works of the law” are defined as Jewish identity markers and do not justify because the covenant that they represent cannot justify, simply moves the question back one step further: Why doesn’t the covenant justify? Paul has shown why in 2:1–3:19: the law cannot be “done” to the extent necessary to secure justification through that “law” covenant. It is far more likely, then, that this is the ultimate logic undergirding his denial that works of the law can justify here—a logic rooted not (or at least not only) in salvation history, or in concern about social barriers, but, more deeply, in the human condition itself.
This conclusion is sometimes contested on the grounds that the Judaism of Paul’s day believed that the law could, in fact, be “done,” and that if Paul had wanted to contest this widespread view, he would have had to make this point explicitly. However, the Jewish assumption that one could “do the law” meant that a person could be regarded as having “kept the law” by following its provisions for sacrifice (and it is possible that this is what Paul means when he claims that, as a Jew, he was “faultless” with respect to the “righteousness based on the law” [Phil. 3:6]). Jews did not believe in what we might call “sinless perfection.” What Paul writes in Rom. 1–3 clearly looks at the law in terms of what has sometimes been called its “moral” element. As the comparison with Gentiles makes clear, Paul focuses on the degree to which Jews have obeyed the law’s commands. And, especially in light of the drastic “solution” of a crucified Messiah, Paul radicalizes the “plight” of the Jews, taking a more pessimistic view of Jewish (and human) capacity to follow God than was typical among his fellow Jews. In doing so, of course, Paul was following an important strand of teaching in the OT itself, as the persistence and seriousness of Israel’s idolatry and disobedience led to the conclusion that only God’s own gift of a new heart, animated by a fresh gift of his Spirit, could cure the stubborn problem of sin (e.g., Ezek. 36:26–27). Paul says nothing here about the ceremonial law; indeed, he says almost nothing explicitly about it anywhere in his letters. But we can assume that, like the author of the Letter to the Hebrews, Paul considers Christ’s death the “once-for-all” atoning sacrifice—a sacrifice that “cancels” any power in the OT sacrificial system to atone.648
20 The term by which verse 20 is introduced is not properly rendered by “therefore” (as in A.V.) but by “because”. This verse gives the reason why every mouth is stopped and the whole world is condemned, to wit, that “from the works of the law no flesh will be justified” before God. This does not overthrow the principle stated in 2:13 that “the doers of the law will be justified”. This holds true as a principle of equity but, existentially, it never comes into operation in the human race for the reason that there are no doers of the law, no doing of the law that will ground or elicit justification—“there is none righteous, no, not one” (vs. 10). For this reason that there is actually no justification by the works of the law the function of the law is to convince of sin (vs. 20b). The law does perform this necessary and contributory service in connection with justification; it imparts the knowledge of sin and enables us to perceive that from the works of the law no flesh will be justified and therefore every mouth is stopped and the whole world rests under God’s judgment.
The future tense in “will be justified” and the “becoming” intimated in “become liable to God” do not refer to the future judgment. These expressions point rather to the certainty and the universality of the propositions with which they are concerned.
20 The final word to the Jews is designed to rob them of any fancied support in the Mosaic law, the word “law” being used as in the second occurrence in v. 19. Justification before God cannot be attained by attempted observance of the law, no matter how hard a person may work at it. The fact is that no one has succeeded in keeping the law (cf. Jn 7:19).
For the first time in Romans we encounter the expression ex ergōn nomou (lit. “by works of law”; NIV, “by observing the law” (cf. v. 28), which has such prominence in Galatians (2:16; 3:2, 5, 10). The meaning of this phrase has been much discussed in recent years owing to the influence of the “new perspective” on Paul (see Introduction, p. 29). An increasing number of scholars conclude that “works of law” refers not to a general obedience to the law but specifically to those issues that marked out the Jews from the Gentiles, namely, circumcision, Sabbath, and dietary laws. Thus, the issue in v. 20, as articulated by Dunn, 1:159, is not “works of the law as a means to achieving righteousness and acquittal,” as it has traditionally been understood, but “the function of the law as an identity factor, the social function of the law as marking out the people of the law.” What Paul wants to oppose, according to this view, is the restricting of salvation to the Jews and the consequent exclusion of the Gentiles. It is clear, of course, that Paul would have been opposed to the law as constituting a boundary marker that would exclude the Gentiles from God’s grace. But Paul’s argument here is a more basic one. It gives a negative verdict on any and every claim of righteousness via the law, and it is applied not merely to the Jews (as would be the case, according to Dunn’s view) but to all flesh, so that “every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God” (v. 19).
Part of v. 20—“no one [lit., no flesh] will be declared righteous in his sight”—is a quotation from Psalm 143:2, in which a change in the Greek text is made from “no one living” to “no flesh” (NIV, “no one”), an alteration designed to bring out the frailty and inability of human beings with respect to meeting God’s requirements (cf. 8:3). The practical result of the study of the law is to “become conscious of sin” (cf. 5:20; 7:7–11). How startling it is to contemplate the fact that the best revelation one has apart from Christ only deepens the awareness of failure. While the Jews thought of the law as the means by which righteousness could be achieved, Paul takes a decidedly more pessimistic view—indeed, a contrary view: the law simply brings a heightened awareness of sin. And thus the law loudly proclaims the need for the gospel.
None Justified by Good Works
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.
- 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).
 Blum, E. A. (2017). Romans. In E. A. Blum & T. Wax (Eds.), CSB Study Bible: Notes (p. 1785). Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers.
 Criswell, W. A., Patterson, P., Clendenen, E. R., Akin, D. L., Chamberlin, M., Patterson, D. K., & Pogue, J. (Eds.). (1991). Believer’s Study Bible (electronic ed., Ro 3:20). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
 Sproul, R. C. (Ed.). (2005). The Reformation Study Bible: English Standard Version (p. 1617). Orlando, FL; Lake Mary, FL: Ligonier Ministries.
 Barry, J. D., Mangum, D., Brown, D. R., Heiser, M. S., Custis, M., Ritzema, E., … Bomar, D. (2012, 2016). Faithlife Study Bible (Ro 3:20). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.
 Crossway Bibles. (2008). The ESV Study Bible (p. 2163). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2006). The MacArthur study Bible: New American Standard Bible. (Ro 3:20). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
 Stanley, C. F. (2005). The Charles F. Stanley life principles Bible: New King James Version (Ro 3:20). Nashville, TN: Nelson Bibles.
 Radmacher, E. D., Allen, R. B., & House, H. W. (1999). Nelson’s new illustrated Bible commentary (p. 1429). Nashville: T. Nelson Publishers.
 MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (p. 1687). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
 Utley, R. J. (1998). The Gospel according to Paul: Romans (Vol. Volume 5, Ro 3:20). Marshall, Texas: Bible Lessons International.
 Hendriksen, W., & Kistemaker, S. J. (1953–2001). Exposition of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans (Vol. 12–13, p. 125). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.
 Bruce, F. F. (1985). Romans: an introduction and commentary (Vol. 6, p. 104). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
 Calvin, J., & Owen, J. (2010). Commentary on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans (pp. 130–133). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.
 Pate, C. M. (2013). Romans. (M. L. Strauss & J. H. Walton, Eds.) (p. 73). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
 Moo, D. J. (2018). The Letter to the Romans. (N. B. Stonehouse, F. F. Bruce, G. D. Fee, & J. B. Green, Eds.) (Second Edition, pp. 215–222). Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
 Murray, J. (1968). The Epistle to the Romans (Vol. 1, p. 107). Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
 Harrison, E. F., & Hagner, D. A. (2008). Romans. In T. Longman III &. Garland, David E. (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Romans–Galatians (Revised Edition) (Vol. 11, pp. 67–68). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 Boice, J. M. (1991–). Romans: Justification by Faith (Vol. 1, pp. 329–336). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.