Dealing with the requirements of the Law (Romans 3:20)

INTRODUCTION. This post considers, first, the divine purpose of the Law (Romans 3:20) and then discusses the approaches that sinful man uses to avoid the Law’s message of condemnation. The post concludes by giving the correct response.


The old covenant Law was rigidly absolute in its condemnation of all infractions and, at the same time, was absent of any provision for forgiveness of intentional sin. There was a divine purpose in this, for the Law was delivered to Moses in this “condemnation-with-no-forgiveness” form so that the sinner would feel the terrifying weight of his condemnation and thus would seek for a Savior with his whole heart. The Law as delivered at Sinai made clear that the LORD God was perfectly holy and would accept from man nothing less than a lifetime of sinless, perfect obedience (see Matthew 5:48) for admittance into heaven. Any violation of the Law renders the violator guilty and condemns him entirely. The Holy Spirit-inspired word of the living God clearly warns the sinner that he is under God’s wrath and condemnation because of his sin. This is the message and the purpose of the Law (Romans 3:20).


The problem arises when God’s clear message is proclaimed to sinful man. For the fact is that fallen man rebels against God’s gospel message of sin and condemnation. The typical approach of the sinner in our day is to reject the idea that God will judge him for his sin, so he refuses to subject himself to the Law of God (Romans 8:7). Instead of accepting his wretched condition and crying out to the Lord for mercy, modern man imagines that a generous grading curve exists as part of the Law and he assumes that if he is relatively “good” (whatever that means), God will welcome him into heaven. By applying the man-made concepts of a grading curve and “relative goodness,” the Law’s intended warning about God’s wrath against sin is neutralized. Thus, modern man’s approach to dealing with the Bible’s warnings about sin is to assume that God judges sin on a grading curve.


In Jesus’ day, the Pharisees had developed a more formal approach for accomplishing the same thing. The Pharisees were a sect of religious Jews who claimed to strictly adhere to the Mosaic Law. Like people today, the Pharisees did not like or accept the clear message of the Law and the prophets which declared that “the soul who sins will die” (Ezekiel 18:4). To correct the Bible’s “error,” the Pharisees invented literally hundreds of rules to remove the absolute standard of the Law and to define what it meant to keep the Ten Commandments in terms that people could actually achieve. So, for example, “keeping the Sabbath” (the fourth commandment) was not treated as an absolute command where violators are punished by death (see Numbers 15:32-36), but instead, “keeping the Sabbath” was defined by not doing certain things that the Pharisees themselves had defined as unlawful. (See Mark 2:23-28; 3:1-6; Luke 13:10-17; 14:1-6; John 5:9-16; 9:13-34; 19:31) In the same way, each of the absolute commands in the Law was broken down into many acts of external “obedience.” The net result of all this invented legalism was that the Pharisees confused adherence to their own contrived rules of external performance with real obedience to the Law, and then they equated man-made “obedience” with God’s required righteousness. In this way, the Law, which was given to drive people to despair at their failure to keep the Law, became instead a means to earn a relative righteousness based on your own best performance. This meant that in the Pharisees’ religious system, a person could be blameless (Phil. 3:6) without a heart change, without repentance, without acknowledging your own sin, without faith, and without a Savior. All that was required was knowing all the man-made rules and keeping them better than most other people. So, according to the Pharisees, righteousness could be achieved if you were willing to work hard enough.

SUMMARY. In summary, then, the key to dealing with God’s holy Law is to eliminate the Law’s absolute demands for perfect obedience. The modern approach for doing this is to assume that God accepts as “good enough” whatever efforts we make to obey His commands and then curves them up so that almost everyone gets a passing grade. Thus, the modern approach sees the holy and righteous Law of the living God as a toothless tiger giving us helpful ideas about how we can be better. By contrast, the Pharisees’ approach sees the Law as a genuine threat, as God’s published requirements necessary for us to avoid condemnation. We must, therefore, work hard to achieve our own righteousness. But both these approaches miss the mark.


What is the right approach? First, we must accept the full weight of the Law. The Law is given by God to reveal to us His perfect holiness and our abject sinfulness (Romans 3:20). When we are crushed by our failure to keep God’s Law, we must cry out to Him for mercy. When we, by faith, cry out for mercy, we will find the Lord Jesus Christ, the One who will impute to us His perfect sinlessness and who died on the cross as the perfect sacrifice to pay for our sins. By faith in Jesus, we fulfill the righteous requirements of the Law, of a sinless life (imputed to our account by Jesus) and of a perfect blood sacrifice to pay for our personal sins (Romans 8:3-4).

When we trust Christ as our perfect sacrifice and as the One who perfectly kept the Law on our behalf, we can rest in the truth that, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).

SDG                 rmb                 8/17/2022                   #559

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