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

Do you listen to the Law and the conscience?

INTRODUCTION: This post continues a series of articles that I have been writing lately about the workings of the Law and the conscience and how those two diagnose sin and restrain sin. RMB


It is obvious from history and from reading Romans 1:18-3:9 that the sins of the Gentiles were more flagrant and more frequent that the sins of the Jews. Read Romans 1:18-32 and observe that the type of sin and the degree of sin among the Gentiles are quite different from the sins among the Jews in Romans 2:1-3:9. (An interesting exercise is to read the prophet Amos 1:3-2:8 and see a similar thing taking place in that passage. The LORD first judges the pagan nations for their sins (1:3-2:3), which are barbaric and heinous, but He then judges Judah and Israel for their sins, which are milder by comparison, but are more abominable before the LORD because these are people who are supposed to be obedient to the LORD and who have the Law and the covenants to guide them.) This difference in the nature of the sins of Gentiles compared to the sins of the Jewish people is explained in part by the fact that the Jews had their conscience plus God’s Law to restrain their sinful behavior, while the Gentiles had only their consciences.


There is more to say about this, but before we do that, we should remember that the function of both the Law and the conscience is to warn a person of their own sin. God has graciously given every person a conscience so that they can sense when they have violated God’s holy Law (Rom. 2:14-15) and can confess that sin and repent. The Lord also by His grace gave the Jews the privilege of possessing His holy Law (Rom. 3:1-2). But as gracious as both the conscience and the Law were, neither one had any real power to restrain sin. The Law and the conscience could help someone know about their sin, but they are powerless to prevent sin or to atone for sin. Unless and until a person is converted and becomes a new creation by faith in Christ Jesus (2 Cor. 5:17), they remain a slave of sin and are no match for the temptations of the world, the flesh, and the devil. So, the Law and the conscience are diagnostic instruments given to reveal a person’s sin so that the person can confess their sin and repent.


THE CONSCIENCE: We have stated that, while the conscience is given to bring awareness of sin, it has no power to restrain sin . . . directly. But by creating an awareness of sin, the conscience can restrain sin indirectly through the guilt and shame that comes from an awareness of sin. The conscience is that inner voice within a man or woman which acts like the Law of God and cries out “Sinner!” The one who has sinned has now been accused, and to relieve their feelings of guilt, they may cease from their sinful behavior. In this indirect way, the conscience can help restrain a person’s sin.

What is the problem with this theory? The problem is not with the operation of the conscience but is with the sinner’s ability to ignore and silence the conscience’s warnings. In the unconverted person, the desire of the flesh to sin coupled with the person’s love of sin and their slavery to sin all work together to drive their behavior toward sin. A person may start out in life with a conscience that is tender and sensitive, and which creates feelings of guilt when the person sins, but as they grow into childhood and adolescence and adulthood, their ability to sin and their love of sin continue to grow while the voice of the conscience remains at the same volume. The unconverted person learns to ignore the voice of their conscience and becomes skilled at smothering any feelings of guilt generated by the conscience. In this way, the conscience is soon rendered useless both as a warning mechanism and as a restraining influence in the life of the unbeliever. This means that the Gentile of Romans 1:18-32 and the modern-day American who has never been exposed to the moral teachings of the Bible only need to silence the small voice of the conscience in order to sin with impunity.

That describes the unbeliever’s response to the conscience. But what about those people who are like the Jews described in Romans 2:1-3:9 who, in addition to their conscience, also have the Law? Are they restrained by the Law of God, by the commandments that reveal the holiness of the God of Israel?

THE LAW: The teaching of the New Testament is that the Law of God is His primary diagnostic instrument. While all people possess a conscience, almost all people also learn to sear their consciences as with a branding iron (1 Timothy 4:2), but the Law is explicitly stated to be the revealer of sin. Romans 3:20 and Romans 7:7 declare that the Law brings the knowledge of sin, so we would expect that the Law would be a better restrainer of sin than the conscience. Also, the person who knew the Law would seem to have two restrainers of sin, the restraint that every person has from their conscience, but also the added restraint of the Law. Does this theory agree with what we see in life and in Scripture?

No, it does not. The Law is a better revealer of sin, but the Law is not a better restrainer of sin. The unconverted person who has their sin revealed by the Law feels more guilt, but instead of regretting that sin and repenting of that sin, the unbelieving sinner will typically reframe the sin so they can eliminate the feelings of guilt and shame. In 1 Samuel 15, Saul is caught in a direct violation of the LORD’s command, yet he shrugs it off as unimportant and something that the people made him do. In the Garden of Eden, instead of confessing and repenting, Eve blamed the serpent and Adam blamed Eve. This is the pattern for the unconverted. Although obviously guilty of sin based on the revealed will of God, he denies his culpability and maintains his innocence because “the Law doesn’t apply to him” or because “he didn’t really break the Law.”


What the Law and the conscience have in common is that both these gracious gifts from God that help the sinner see his sin are hated and resisted by the unconverted sinner. As soon in life as possible, the unbeliever learns to silence and smother the conscience, because he does not want anything restricting his freedom to enjoy his sin. Likewise, the unbeliever who has fallen into the unpleasant situation of being exposed to the Law, either in its true form as the commandments of Scripture or in its twisted form as commandments from a form of religion (e.g., Catholicism), detests and resents that Law. The Law is perceived as simply the means the powerful use to control those under their thumb.

The next post will be about how the believer views the Law and the conscience.

SDG                 rmb                 12/3/2021                   #463