Romans 3:14-20 by Robert Dean
In our study of God's righteousness and how we get it, Paul talks about the law. What law is he referring to, and what exactly does "works of the law mean"?

In this lesson we begin to look at what justification means, and as we get into vs. 21, God makes a legal declaration - what is it?
Series:Romans (2010)
Duration:1 hr 4 mins 30 secs

No Human Can Be Righteous– Part 2
Romans 3:14–20
Romans Lesson #033
September 8, 2011

This entire section from 1:18 to 11:36 deals with God’s gift of perfect righteousness and it is related to understanding the need for righteousness, which is because God Himself is righteous. Because God is righteous He condemns all members of the human race and this demonstrates the need for every human being to acquire God’s righteousness. So Romans starts with an expression of the need. Why do we need to have righteousness?

Sometimes there is a discussion that goes on about gospel presentation and whether or not a person needs to understand that they are a sinner. It is not in the sense that we are focusing on sin and emphasizing that as the issue, but to understand why there is a need for righteousness; we have to understand that we lack righteousness. This is exactly how Paul sets this up. The more he talks about the gift of righteousness and how we get it he explains why there is a need for righteousness. That is developed in chapters one through 3:20. Because God is perfect righteousness and He is perfect in His judgment He cannot have a relationship with that which is anything less than His standard of righteousness. Any creature that doesn’t measure up to that is unrighteous by definition.

This is how Paul develops this. In 1:18-32 the point is that God’s condemnation of the human race is based on the fact that human beings have rejected God and this leads God to delivering them over to their own desires. This ends up in the rest of chapter one focusing on the fact that when man is left to his own desires he is going to drift in two directions. Chapter one focuses on the drift towards idolatry and licentiousness. That is the idea that there is no ultimate authority because man has done away with God as the source of absolutes and so man becomes his own source of absolutes and whatever he wishes to do. It is a downhill slide ethically, morally and spiritually.

In 2:1-5 the focus is on those who are moral. Just because man is a sinner it doesn’t mean he always sins. It doesn’t mean man is as bad as he can be, there are many good and wonderful things that people can do; but they just don’t measure up to the standard of God. In 2:6-16 there is an emphasis on the universality of human failure which will be demonstrated when God judges everyone on the basis of works. None of those who are judged at the end will be able to measure up in the basis of their own works, their own efforts, their own morality.

Then there is a shift from dealing with all of mankind, especially in terms of the Gentiles, to a focus on the Jew. This is because in the Jewish tradition the emphasis was on the fact that since God had blessed the Jewish people this gave them a special standing before God. It did but not in a soteriological sense, not in the sense of giving them justification, not in the sense of giving them righteousness. It just gave them more knowledge for which they were accountable. So in 2:17 to 3:8 God also condemns the Jew because of his trust in religious externals and human effort rather than depending exclusively on God’s grace to provide righteousness. Therefore he concludes in 3:9-18 on the basis of several quotations from the Hebrew Scriptures that all are under sin, both Jew and Gentile.

This leads to the conclusion that in the application of the Law, the Scripture, all the world is guilty before God and that the Law is not the source for justification but the means for exposing the fact that we are all sinners.

The next section begins in Romans 3:21 and it explains the reality or the fact of justification, what justification is. Basic definition: justification relates to the imputation of God’s righteousness that is acquired by all who believe in Jesus Christ. Justification is essentially a legal declaration from the Supreme Court of God that we are declared to be righteous. It doesn’t make us righteous, it doesn’t make us moral, it is a legal declaration because we possess the righteousness of Christ.

Romans 3:19 NASB “Now we know that whatever the Law says, it speaks to those who are under the Law, so that every mouth may be closed and all the world may become accountable to God.”

“Now we know…” This is the Greek word OIDA which indicates not coming through a process to knowing something but emphasizes more the arrival, having arrived at this point of knowledge and understanding. Many times this word is used in relation to the knowledge of God because God is omniscient, He doesn’t acquire knowledge. When it is used of humans it indicates knowledge that has already been arrived at, and this is emphasized also grammatically because it is in the perfect tense. The significance of the perfect tense grammatically is to emphasize completed action. This could be translated “now we have come to know.” We have come to know his conclusion because he has taken us step by step through a logical chain of argumentation to reach this conclusion.

Then he indicates the first principle. “… that whatever the Law says, it speaks to those who are under the Law…” When he uses the word “law” here, both is the first line and the second line, in the Greek there is the article with the noun. That is important. The presence of the article here is not just talking about law in general, not law in principle, he is specifically talking about the Hebrew Scriptures. The Greek phrase translated “under the Law” is the preposition en [e)n] with the articular form of NOMOS. Often in Greek if there is an articular noun, like “the law,” and you are going to say “under the law” or “in the law,” often it will substitute the preposition and drop the article. That is important because if the article is there it means the writer is including the article for precision and to make sure we get the point that he is still talking about the same law that he spoke of in the previous clause. He is being very clear here; he doesn’t want anyone to think that somehow he is slipping over into another nuance of the word “law.” He is not saying those who are under law, as a principle, he is still talking about those who are specifically subject to the Mosaic Law. The Mosaic Law was given to the Jewish people by God through Moses on Mount Sinai when God brought the Israelites out of Egypt. The Mosaic Law was to define the life of God’s people in the land that God was going to give to them.

God did not give the Law to all of the Gentiles. When we examine the Old Testament Scriptures God never holds the Gentiles accountable to anything that is specific to the Mosaic Law. When God condemns the Jews in the Old Testament and warns them of coming judgment it is because they specifically violate the Ten Commandments. The violate the first commandment through idolatry; they violate the Sabbath commandment and so they are going to be removed from the land for so many years to make up for the sabbatical years violated. When we look at all of the of the condemnations on the Jews we see it is all traced back to specifics of the Mosaic Law. But when God condemns the Gentiles He condemns them for violations related to things not just specific to the Mosaic Law—idolatry was not condemned just in the Mosaic Law, it was wrong prior to the giving of the Law based on the Noahic covenant. So the basis for judgment of the Gentiles was not the Mosaic Law.

So the principle that Paul is making here is that the law he is speaking of is not law in general but the Mosaic Law which was specifically given to the Jewish people, and by not living up to the Mosaic Law he demonstrates that they are under condemnation for breaking that law.

“… so that every mouth may be closed…” The word translated “closed” is the Greek word PHRASSO which means to be silenced. The context of this is a courtroom scenario. The significance of this is that someone may claim they are not guilty, that they meet the standard. They marshal arguments to show they are not guilty, that they have enough works and can be declared righteous. The principle that Paul is using here is saying that because you have violated the law you are left defenseless. The defendant has no argument to support his claim that he is righteous. “… and all the world may become accountable to God…” Now he moves to all the world: Jew and Gentile. All are guilty before God. Isaiah 64:6 NASB “For all of us have become like one who is unclean, And all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment; And all of us wither like a leaf, And our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.”

Romans 3:20 NASB “because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law {comes} the knowledge of sin.” What is interesting is that in the English the word “Law” is translated with a definite article, but in the Greek it is ERGON NOMOU; there is no article. This emphasizes the quality of the principle of the law, and in context it goes right back to the reference to to the law that he has made in the previous verse. The word “justified” is the same word that is translated “righteousness.” We could translate this for clarity’s sake. “therefore by the works of the law no flesh will be declared righteous in His sight.” It is a judicial or forensic term. So the term that has been used to describe the kind of righteousness that we need to get into heaven is forensic righteousness. It is a legal righteousness. Because we have been declared legally unrighteous because of sin we have to be declared legally righteous. How do we get that declaration? This is what Romans is all about: this gift of declaration of righteousness. It is not a legal fiction, it is accomplished by virtue of a substitution; we get it on the basis of someone else’s qualification. But Paul is simply drawing the conclusion here that by the works of the law (related to Gentiles as well as the Mosaic Law), no matter what kind of morality we try to generate, it is not enough to measure up to God’s standard.

“… for through the Law {comes} the knowledge of sin.” This is one of several clear statements in Scripture that indicate that the purpose of the Law of Moses was not to give a stair step to heaven, where if they follow these principles they can eventually get enough Brownie points to get into heaven, but to show that under no condition can we ever get enough Brownie points. The Law’s purpose wasn’t to show how to become righteous; it was to show that we can never become righteous. The Law reveals or exposes sin.

What exactly does the phrase “works of the Law” mean? It is a phrase that occurs eight times by Paul and it is a term that is at the center of a debate that has developed in the last 20-30 years. The idea here is that when Paul talks about the works of the Law he is using it only in a sense of condemning certain Jews who were saying that of you really want to see the blessings of God you have to become Jewish; a Gentile could not be blessed and be saved or given righteousness unless he became Jewish. So what they have done is try to restrict the meaning of it to something that is related only to certain rituals within the Law, not morality or trying to achieve righteousness from the Law.

The first two occurrences of this phrase occur in this context of Romans 3: in verses 20 and 28. Romans 3:20 is a conclusion and Romans 3:28 is also in conclusion. Verse 28 NASB “For we maintain that a man is justified [declared righteous] by faith apart from works of the Law.” As Paul introduces the opening paragraph of the next section he says, Romans 3:21 NASB “But now apart from the Law {the} righteousness of God has been manifested…” There it doesn’t say apart from the works of the Law but what Paul means is apart from the works of the Law. Throughout this he is talking about the works of the Law. He talks about the Law but he is assuming it is the works that derive from the Law as the basis for righteousness.

Then in Galatians. Galatia was a Roman province and the area where Paul went on his first missionary journey was to southern Galatia. Then on his second missionary journey we are told in Acts that he went back and revisited those churches before he headed off to the north-west and eventually to Greece. But when he went to these cities the first thing he would do was go to the local synagogue and begin to teach that Jesus was indeed the Messiah. Eventually there would be some opposition from those who did not accept Jesus as Messiah. There were some who tried to come between the two views and blend things and they said it was great to accept Jesus as Messiah but you have to also keep the Mosaic Law. These were the Judaizers; they tried to make the Gentiles become Jews in order to be saved. In that sense, at a minimal level, when this new perspective on Paul comes along and people say that all works of the law means is that he is just dealing with it at that level they are right in that that is part of it. But they want to restrict it to that, and that is where they are wrong.

Then there were others who said no only can you not become righteous unless you are circumcised and enter into the covenant with God as a Jew but that also is the basis for your spiritual growth and life afterward. So there were those who said that salvation was faith plus works and there were those who said that sanctification or spiritual growth was faith plus works. As Paul concludes his first argument he comes to Galatians 2:16 NASB “nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified.” This is one of the greatest statements in all of the New Testament on justification. He makes it very clear that the works of the Law, following the Mosaic Law in any way, shape or form, is not the means of acquiring righteousness.

Then in Galatians 3 he starts to deal with the second issue which has to do with obedience to the Mosaic Law as the means of spirituality or spiritual growth. Galatians 3:2 NASB “This is the only thing I want to find out from you: did you receive the Spirit by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith?” The answer, of course, is by faith. [5] “So then, does He who provides you with the Spirit and works miracles among you, do it by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith?” These are contrasts, it is either faith or works of the law. In these passages it is very clear that he is talking about faith, but what he means by the works of the law is more than just simply saying that you had to enter into a covenant relationship with God via Judaism in order to experience either the blessing of salvation or the blessing of spiritual growth.

Jesus refers to this in John 7:19 when He is being attacked by the Pharisees. NASB “Did not Moses give you the Law, and {yet} none of you carries out the Law? Why do you seek to kill Me?” He was pointing out that even among the Pharisees they couldn’t keep the law.

So we have the statement: Romans 3:20 NASB “because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law {comes} the knowledge of sin.”

Just to summarize this we have to understand the meaning of “works of the Law,” and this involves a grammatical phrase in Greek called a genitive construction. Is this works produced by the Law or works that derive from the Law? The trouble with the genitive construction is that it can pass several different nuances, some of which are a little opposite of one another. There is what is called a noun of action. We usually think of a verb as being action but there are nouns that describe verbal action. Love is a noun of action. We can love someone (verb) but when we talk about the love of God the noun “love” is describing the action of love on God’s part. The love of God can be understood as God’s love for people. “The love of God has been shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit” is talking about God’s love having been made manifest in us. God is the one the love is proceeding from and that is what is called a subjective genitive. But in other passages the love of God is a phrase that means the love directed toward God. So this Greek phrase has to be understood within the context and it can either be love from God or love to God. If it is love from God, God is the subject performing it; if it is love to God, God is the object receiving it. So it is one or the other.

The really strange thing is that in our world of anything can mean anything in hermeneutics today or in interpretation, whatever you want it to mean, there has developed a new category in grammar called a plenary genitive. That means that it means both: two opposite things at the same time. That is like saying well it is white and it is black at the same time. It is irrational; it is either one thing or the other. It is important to understand this.