Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. Therefore no-one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.
Romans 3:19-20

These are the closing words of the final argument of Paul in which he is proving the universal and pervasive sinfulness of every single man, woman and child alive today or who has ever drawn breath, or is yet to be born. 


In other words the law is not theoretical . . . “Just suppose for a moment you actually broke God’s law then you could be a law-breaker.” No. “Whatever the law says it says to those who are under the law;” whatever it says! It is addressing the people who are under the law’s dominion, and that is the whole human race. Whatever the Highway Code might say about traveling below a certain speed in a restricted zone it is saying those words to every single person who is driving through that street. They are all under that law. Whether they are police vehicles or juggernauts or veteran cars or Robin Reliants – all are under the law of the Highway Code. Novice drivers, old age pensioners who have been driving for 70 years, teenagers who have just passed their driving test, members of the Royal Family, winners of the Grand Prix – they are all under the law of the Highway Code if they are driving in a restricted zone.  So it is with the law of God, it speaks to the whole human race, to all who are under it and that is everyone made in the image of God without exception. It is speaking to you, and to you, and to you, and to me, and to every one of us. Let us take three examples of what God’s law is saying to all of us today.

i] “Thou shalt not kill” is the sixth commandment. What duties does God require from every one of us in this law? We are to preserve our own lives carefully. We are to preserve the lives of others – if we are driving, or at the helm of a ship or in the pilot’s cabin of a plane, or even when we are riding our bikes. We are to resist all carelessness or temptation to neglect that might result in hurting or even ending the life of someone else. We are to promote fullness of life in ourselves and in others. Again, we are to bear patiently the providences of God – if God should bring sickness or some trials into our lives. We are to have quiet trust in him and not complain about what he has permitted to happen. We are to be restrained and modest in what we eat and drink, and in all our recreations. Towards others we are to have charitable love and compassion, and meekness, gentleness, kindness, mildness, patience, a willingness to be reconciled to others if there is tension, forgive any injuries done against us, overcome people’s evil with good. If we are able to help others then we should offer that help to them. We are to comfort people in their distress, and protest and defend the innocent. We are to speak up for the unborn child, and for those who are elderly and bed-bound who cannot speak for themselves. This law calls us to prolong and enrich the lives of others abundantly. That is the positive aspect of this sixth commandment.

What sins is God forbidding when he says, “Thou shalt not kill”? We are not to take away the life of another except in lawful war, and for national or personal defence, or when it is being done by the powers that be. It forbids the killing of the unborn child or the bed-ridden sufferer. We are not to withdraw from a fellow human being the necessary means of preserving life. God in the sixth commandment is condemning sinful anger, hatred, envy, a desire for revenge, all extreme passions, immoderation in eating and drinking and recreations and sports. We are not to sell unlawful drugs. Again, God is condemning provocative name-calling, excessive teasing, quarrelling, and hitting another person. Whatever the sixth commandment says it say to everyone who is under the law. To you . . . to you . . . to you . . .

ii] “Thou shalt not steal” is the eighth commandment. What duties does God require from every one of us in this law? It includes, keeping the terms of a contract we have signed, paying our rent, paying our bills, paying our taxes at every level, giving to everyone their due, giving and lending freely and generously according to our means and even beyond our means, moderation in our judgments, moderation and wisdom in the bequests of our wills, moderation in the ties which bind us to our possessions, exercising care in how we get money and keep it and use it and spend it. We are to be diligent in our lawful callings, frugal, earn what we can, save what we can, and give as generously as we can to the cause of God and his truth and to the poor and needy. This commandment protects the right of private ownership. It addresses Caesar because he is also under the law. At the present moment he is taking 44% of our money in the U.K. while God requires only 10%, and if we object to Caesar’s greed and power then he has the right to take away our liberty. God is saying to Caesar, “Take care!” We are to further the wealth of others by all just and lawful means as well as our own wealth. Those are the sorts of positive duties required in the law, “Thou shalt not steal.”

What sins does God forbid when he says, “Thou shalt not steal”? Neglecting any of those duties is sinful, and so is robbery, kidnapping, receiving stolen goods from a man in a pub, fraudulent dealings on the phone, on the web, in personal conversations, lying about the value of stocks and shares, the age of an animal, the fertility of a field, false weights and measures, removing land-marks, not keeping the terms of a contract, extortioning, charging excessive interest rates, bribery, going to law vexatiously, abusing the stock market by insider dealing, applying for financial assistance from the government and so from other tax-payers for illnesses and injuries that you do not have, taking from your neighbour what is his, withholding from him what belongs to him, a covetous spirit, a preoccupation in getting money from others, envying the prosperity of the rich, idleness, wasteful gambling, and all other ways in which you defraud yourself of the blessings that God has given you and the contentment that that should create. We do not demand from members of our fellowship that they hand over to the leaders of our church all their possessions. All such things are forbidden in this law, “Thou shalt not steal” for every one of us. For you . . . and you . . . and you . . .

iii] “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour” is the ninth commandment. What duties does God require of us in this law? That our ‘yes’ is ‘yes’ and our ‘no’ is ‘no’ even to our own hurt. We promote the truth in everything we say and in all relationships – though we are under no obligation to reveal to our neighbours the amount of all our possessions or all that is in our heart and desires and thoughts. We preserve the good name of our neighbours. We stand for the truth. From our inmost beings we speak sincerely, freely, clearly and fully in everything we say. We esteem our neighbours; we love and rejoice in their good reputations. We sorrow for their weaknesses and we cover their infirmities. We freely acknowledge their gifts and graces. We grieve over the foolish stories we hear about them. We discourage gossip, and flattery, and exaggeration, and slander. We keep lawful promises. We do not denigrate our minister or church leaders and put their actions and words in the worst light and draw attention to each weakness or faux pas. We don’t make false promises such as that the word of God guarantees every Christian wealth and long life and the healing of every illness. We are to do with all our hearts whatsoever is true, honest, lovely and is of good report. Those are the duties required in the commandment, “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.” That is what God requires of you . . . of you . . . of you . . . and me.

What are the sins forbidden in the law, “Thou shalt not bear false witness”?  Everything that prejudices the truth of your neighbours’ words and lives, such as giving false evidence, bribing witnesses, pleading for an evil cause such as racism, or anger towards the rich, or violence towards certain offenders, unjust sentences, calling evil good, and good evil, rewarding the evildoer, forgery, concealing the truth, undue silence in a just cause, holding our peace when justice means we should speak up and defend the unpopular and the unloved. Speaking the truth unreasonably or maliciously for a wrong end; making doubtful expressions that prejudice the truth; lying, slandering, backbiting, bad-mouthing, tale-bearing, whispering, scoffing, reviling, saying rash words, misconstruing what men have said, flattery, vain-glorious boasting, thinking or speaking too highly or too meanly of yourself or others, denying the gifts of God, aggravating smaller faults, hiding or excusing sins when called to make free confession of them; unnecessarily pointing out to others the failings of some people; refusing to listen to the just defence of men or women being criticised, evil suspicion, grieving at the success of others, rejoicing in people’s disgrace, scornful contempt, breaking lawful promises, failing to encourage love for our neighbours. These are some of the sins forbidden in the law, “Thou shalt not bear false witness.”

So whatever the law says it says to those who are under the law, and everyone of us is under those three laws of God, as well as under the other seven commandments. What a wonderful happy and peaceful land we would live in if we kept all those commandments. There would be emptier jails, and less policemen, and prison officers, and lawyers employed. We could go to bed without locking our doors and windows. We could walk home in the darkness without fearing anyone following us. We could trust what salesmen said to us. Our children would be safe, as well as our helpless elderly folk in care homes. What blessings come from keeping the law! Alas, this is not what we see – not at all.  So the law of God addresses every one of us.


One of the reasons that these words of our text are written here in the Bible by the Holy Spirit is to prepare us for the grace of the gospel. They are here that we might be convinced of sin’s power over us, and humbled under a sense of our guilt and weakness, and silenced under a conviction of the justice and power of its condemnation. We can only think of what the law is saying and then we prostrate ourselves like the tax collector in the Temple did, “God be merciful to me a sinner.” Have you reached that point yet? We are utterly unable to do what God’s commandments require from us. We can in no way satisfy the law’s wise demands. If ever we are going to be saved, then it must be by another merit, an alien righteousness, utterly outside of ourselves, another power not our own and by atonement for all we have done wrong. As Joseph Hart says

“Death’s within thee, all about thee,
But the remedy’s without thee;
See it in thy Saviour’s blood.”

So what is one end of this law? Paul tells us here, that “every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God.” (v.19). So Paul is looking right at these people, his own fellow countrymen, and he’s saying to the Jews, “Remember that God’s word is first for you.” And I’m making the same point to you today on the authority of Paul, remember what I’m preaching is God’s word for you. Don’t think about how it applies to the people of our small town – out there, or to the other children in school or to the non-Christian students at the university. Think about what Paul is saying to you. Consider what God is saying. That’s what I want you to see. If we really understand the Bible, we know that all are guilty and accountable under the law and before God’s judgment – all who are apart from Christ. If you are not in Christ, if you’ve not entrusted yourself right into Christ, if you have not received the benefits of his saving work and person, then you are going to be declared guilty and accountable before God at the great judgment. Two things:

i] We are all held accountable to God. Whereas some pious Jews might believe that the Gentiles were under condemnation and needed salvation, they could not believe themselves to be under that condemnation. Paul again is pressing them with the realisation that a divine verdict of condemnation is the major event daily drawing nearer them. “The whole world,” he says, “is accountable to God.” So let me ask you whether you are in this world? Is gravity holding you down just now? If it is, then you are going to answer to the God who designed gravity.

This word ‘accountable’ is another one of those courtroom terms. Back in Romans 1 and verse 20 there is the first courtroom term in the apostle’s closing argument. Remember that Paul said, “all men are without excuse”? That term is a courtroom term that literally means that a man on trial doesn’t have a defence. He doesn’t have a leg to stand on; he doesn’t have a thing to plead. He doesn’t have an argument, he doesn’t have a defence before the court for his crime. Now Paul comprehends us. Picture what he’s talking about here in our text. He comprehends us standing before God. The trial has begun. We’ve got nothing to say in our favour, no argument, no plea. We have nothing to appeal to in order to excuse ourselves for how we’ve lived and what we’ve done. There is absolutely no defence at all. The correct procedures have taken place. There has been no miscarriage of justice whatsoever. We’ve been fairly and justly convicted of the crimes that we did. Now we are standing before the bar of justice, and we are awaiting sentencing. And in Romans, chapter 3 and verse 19 Paul says that those three of the ten commandments (as well as the other seven) are condemning what they do condemn in order that every mouth will be stopped, and that we might be held accountable before God.  By the law of God is the knowledge of sin.

These apply to every single one of us, whether we choose to admit it or not. Not all are equally sinful . . . but all are equally sinners. Some sin more, some sin less, but all are under the domination of sinful unbelief, and so are sinners to a greater or lesser degree. Those hidden seeds of inner evil may lie dormant for many years, decades even, and then suddenly, under trial and provocation, one horrible sin springs up. It produces bitter fruit in our lives. Wise is the man who looks into the mirror of Scripture and acknowledges the truth of his condition. For that man, no matter how bad his life, there is hope. The only truly hopeless case is the man who will not admit the truth about himself. Paul is saying that we answer to the holy and righteous God, our Creator and sustainer, the one who has blessed us all our days, the one we’ve ignored. We know before him that what we’ve done we have done our way.

ii] We are going to be dumbstruck before God. If you’ll look at the second half of verse 19 there is another thing I’d like you to see. The Scripture tells us that we will be dumbstruck while we await the sentence that’s to come from the Great White Throne. We’re going to be speechless before God as we await the sentencing. It’s almost as if the judge in the courtroom is speaking now to us convicted criminals: and he is asking us, “Do you have anything to say to this court in your defence, any mitigating circumstances, any final plea, before I proceed to the sentencing?” And our response is a long, long, silence: no excuses, no explanations, no appeal for reasons why the sentence should be “Not Guilty” or even a little rap over the knuckles No, we say just nothing at all. This person, accountable before God, is speechless before God in the court as he awaits the sentence being delivered. And so standing before God, with the trial over, we’re lost and condemned people. Before the sentencing phase, God looks and asks us whether we have anything to say before this court, and the only thing we can say is, “I wish it wasn’t me.”

Paul knows that as we read the Scriptures the most indispensable requirement for knowing the word of God is to understand our predicament – the fact of our sinfulness before God. If we are reading the Scripture without a growing appreciation of that then we’ll always get everything else wrong. For example we will never appreciate the great Redeemer who came from heaven and humbled himself even to the death of the cross. And so Paul concludes here that the proper understanding of someone who has been spotlighted by God’s law, who has heard the law, who has been confronted and stopped short by the law, and who knows the judgments of the law is to recognise his or her sin and need of grace from God. The law alone can’t save you, it cannot acquit you, and it cannot justify you.

We may not like the truth about who we are. But silence is actually the first step in the way of salvation. God’s design in showing us that we are all under sin is to shut us up long enough to hear what God has to say. Have you stopped arguing with God? Whenever you stop saying, “Yes, but . . . Yes, but . . .”, you can be saved. Hell is filled with people who simply wouldn’t stop talking. They wouldn’t listen. They said, “That’s religion . . .” So they never heard the truth about themselves and their need and how God can save them. Since they never knew the divine diagnosis about their condition, they never understood what God had done to redeem law-breakers. It’s when you finally stop talking and start to listen, that the truth of the gospel can come crashing through your door and break the hinges and locks and chains. As long as you defend yourself, you cannot be delivered. So stop talking and start listening and see what God can do for you. Remember what we have seen today and in these past weeks:

i] Everybody in the whole world is guilty before God. This is the great lesson of these first three chapters. I am guilty. You are guilty. Everybody in your family is guilty. Everybody at your school and university and work place is guilty. The check out girl at the supermarket is guilty. The lollypop lady is guilty. Your next-door neighbour is guilty. And all the people in Nigeria and Syria and the USA and Ecuador are guilty before God. You are no exception. You are no different. This should sober you. This is a fact that is not in any school curriculum, though it is more important than any other fact they teach. Hold on to this truth. Let it make you a wise and penetrating counselor and a guide toward God.

ii] No mouth anywhere in the world can speak – from a person in a primitive tribe to the Ph. D. in the university common room. No one can raise a legitimate objection against God’s judgment. Every mouth will be stopped. God has put numerous lesson books in the world to show the world that we are all guilty. We’ve seen at least three. One is there in chapter one, the lesson book of creation: Romans 1:20, “Since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.” Another in chapter two, the lesson book of conscience: Romans 2:15, “They show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them.” And the third in chapter three, the lesson book of Israel and its ten commandments, Roman 3:19, “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.” The point of all these lesson books for the nations is to shut their clamouring mouths. No legitimate objections are going to be raised against the justice of God at the judgment day. Get right with him now, because no one will make a case against his justice at the last day.

iii] The mouths that raise objections against God today will one day be silenced. Every mouth will be stopped. O how great are the boasts of tiny men these days. “Where is God?” they say, but only for a short season. Then they perish, and meet the Ancient of Days, and their mouths are stopped. All boasting will be extinguished. As Isaiah 2:17 says, “The pride of man will be humbled and the loftiness of men will be abased; and the LORD alone will be exalted in that day.”

iv] Therefore do not fear the voice of man. All his railing will cease. Fear God. O that God would give us all a radically God-saturated way of looking at the world! O that we would look on every intimidating derision of God and know that that too will soon be silenced. “Wait for the LORD; Be strong and let your heart take courage; Yes, wait for the LORD” (Psalm 27:14).


v] Finally, remember that your own heart is sinful, and that, were it not for the power and grace of the regenerating Holy Spirit, you and I would be as rebellious as any man in the world. Remember that your own mouth will be stopped. And so, while there is still time, turn to Christ. So what is the great conclusion we must receive?


Therefore no-one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin” (v.20). The problem we face is not the principle that the law is good and righteous and so it reproves the sinner. That is not A problem. Thank God for his law. The problem is us. Paul who magnified the grace of God more than any man didn’t have a hang up about the law and the necessity of obeying God’s law. The apostle had a hang up about people who thought they are obedient when they were not. So the apostle Paul says, “I want to make an announcement here. The standard of judgment is God’s law – and it is – and we all have to appear before the bar of God, but some of you are depending upon your own goodness, that you’re nice blokes. So stop right here (before we go on and consider more of the person and work of Jesus Christ and the ordo salutis and nature of the church and the last things). Stop here! What about your heart and life under the law of God. How are you in God’s sight?

Think again of the heart of Christianity. Why did the Messiah come into the world? Why was he born under the law? It was to fulfil all righteousness for us – civil obedience, ceremonial obedience and the moral obedience that he rendered to God. He did it on our behalf, to accomplish a perfect, infinite, eternal and human righteousness for us, to clothe us and cover our stains. And then why did the Son of God hang on the cross under the judgment of God? It was because we are all law-breakers, but God sent his Son in the likeness of sinful flesh in order to suffer the condemnation of the broken law in our place. Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!

You have rejected those facts if you have not seen your need of him because of your sin! You haven’t ever trusted in the Messiah; you haven’t acknowledged your own sin; you haven’t fled to him, you haven’t put your faith in him alone for salvation. Let me tell you ahead of dying time, and loneliness time, and judgment time, and eternity-facing time, and hell time. Paul is saying, “What will the verdict be? The verdict will be guilty. The sentence will be eternal death, and you will have nothing to say. Absolutely nothing, because the works of the law will justify no flesh in his sight. The problem is not with the law, the problem is not with the principle of justice. The problem is with us, and the problem is with our sin. The law of God is condemning us. The law can’t save you, the law can’t acquit you, the law can’t justify you. Think about it, the law itself shows us our need of grace.

What Paul says would have been very shocking to his Jewish neighbours. At the very end of verse 20 he says, “For through the law comes the knowledge of sin.” Now that I think would have greatly irritated a pious Jew. A religious Jew would have said, “What do you mean that through the Scripture comes a knowledge of sin? Through the Scripture comes the knowledge of the great and holy and awesome God. How dare you say that through the Scripture merely comes the knowledge of sin?” Well, of course, Paul is saying this provocatively. He’s been provocative throughout this passage. He knows he’s provoking the moral Jew, but he’s doing it for a gospel purpose.

And Paul isn’t in this little phrase telling you everything that the law is and does, but he is telling you this . . . think about it . . . the law itself addresses us in our fallen condition. The law itself shows us our need of grace. Far from putting us right with God, the law shows that we are wrong with God; and that we need to be put right with God, but that we can’t be put right ourselves, or in our selves, or by ourselves. In the light of this situation, the law itself functions to reveal to us our sin, to convince us of our sin, and to show us that we need an escape from sin which we can’t provide.

Isn’t it interesting that in those habits and patterns of life in us which are most offensive to others, to our spouses, to our friends, to our colleagues, to those who know us best, that when we see them confronted with our bad behaviour then one of our favourite techniques is to deny that we’ve done such a thing, or said such things. Because it’s so painful for us to think about what we’ve done, we would rather pretend  . . . “like . . . we didn’t do it, you know” . . .  in the clear light of contradictory evidence. And the apostle Paul says, “I know that. The sinner loves to cope by denial, and the law is here lifting the mirror in front of him and convincing him that his denial is itself sinful. Look what you are, consider what you are. You need grace and mercy.” The law can’t save you. It can’t put you right. It can’t remove sin, but it can show you your need of a Saviour. So far from justification being possible by the law, the opposite is true. The law brings the knowledge of sin. It uncovers and exposes it. It shows its true nature, and that it deserves condemnation. The law imparts the knowledge of sin, we realise as never before that from the works of the law, no flesh will be justified.

Paul, as we said, doesn’t have a hang up with obedience, he doesn’t have a hang up with the law, but he has a hang up with people who think that they are obedient, who think that they are keeping the law, but they are not. And he is saying look, if you at the end of time will be counting on the acquittal of God based upon being a nice person, based upon having done good deeds, based upon having been obedient to the law of God, then your verdict is already settled. Guilty! And that is why you need an alien righteousness, not from within you, but from somewhere else, and an alien status of forgiveness, not self-imposed but from someone else. That is why you need a supernatural power, not from within you but from someone else that can enable you to walk in righteousness.

And by the way, Paul, notice, is not pointing us to look within. So often we hear people today say, “What we need to do is look within and find the power, find that spark, find that divine something.” That is the dumbest idea in the history of the world. Paul’s whole point in this passage is that there is nothing within us to look to, that can get us off this particular hook. The whole thrust of his argument is we need to look somewhere else. We need to look somewhere else other than ourselves to find a righteousness that will stand us before God.

Paul’s question to us is this. “How can you stand before God? What will make you secure before the holy God of the universe?” And his answer is, “The righteousness of God. That’s what makes us secture.” But, you see, that brings another crisis. “Well, I’m not the righteousness of God. My life condemns me if that’s the standard. Where do I get this?” And Paul says, “Well, that’s what I wanted you to ask in the first place. Because until you understand that you need the righteousness of God, before you can stand before the awesome and holy God, then you’re not ready to hear the good news that I’ve been wanting to tell you.” And for the rest of this book, for the remainder of his letter, Paul is going to tell us just how glorious that good news is. But it will make no sense to us, no sense, until we first acknowledge our need of that good news. Until we’re honest with ourselves, and we run from our deeds, good and bad, to the one place where we can find the righteousness of God, and that’s in Jesus Christ as is offered in the gospel. That’s the issue that Paul is pressing on you today. That’s the issue that Christ is pressing on you for He said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy leaden, and I will give you rest.” He can deliver, you can’t.

25th May 2014   GEOFF THOMAS