SERMON FOR JUNE 28, 1998 FROM ROMANS 3:19-20
This morning we come to the end of the first major section in Paul’s letter to the Romans. Paul, in the first part of chapter three shows that the Jews have a special place in salvation history. In the second part of chapter three he balances that out by saying that even though the Jews have this special place in salvation history, they, like the Gentiles are under the power of sin. In verses 10-18 which we looked at last week, Paul masterfully wields the sword of the Spirit, key Old Testament texts which reveal that the Jews, not just the Gentiles are alike dominated by the power of sin. We looked at the extent of that domination last week. Paul makes an air tight case for what theologians call “the total depravity” of humanity. In Paul’s closing words in this section in verses 19-20, he gives the crucial role the word of God plays in revealing or exposing the depravity of humanity.
Let’s read 3:19-20. “Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silence 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.”
This text can be a bit difficult to understand because Paul uses the word “law” here. Now Paul uses this words more than 100 times in Romans and he uses it in different senses depending on the context. Here the context tells us how he is using it. In verses 10-18, he has just cited several Old testament texts which delineate the wretched spiritual state of sinful humanity. That means that in this case, Paul is using the word “law” to mean the entire Old Testament, a usage he often gives to this word. He says the law or Old Testament speaks to those who are “under the law.” By “under the law,” Paul means the Jews. The Jews, as we have seen in chapter three were given the law and were called to obey it. Its in that sense they are “under the law” the way Paul is using this phrase.
Paul continues and gives the effect the law has on the Jews. He says, “so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God.” That phrase, “that every mouth may be silenced” is a graphic one. It speaks of a court room scene where such condemning evidence of guilt is leveled by the prosecutor, that the defendant has nothing to say in his defense. We see this in the book of Job. Job has been complaining about the injustice connected with all his problems. And in chapter 38, the Lord speaks to him about his awesome character. He does this by giving question after rapid fire question which force Job to concede that God is bigger than he is and Job is way out of line in questioning God’s justice or goodness. After God presents this irrefutable evidence as to His Person and character, Job responds in 40:4 “How can I reply to you? I put my hand over my mouth.” God has silenced Job’s mouth with the tremendous weight of evidence He has presented about His holy character.
Paul is saying that through the law, God has silenced any mouth which would stand before Him and try to give evidence as to why they are righteous, as to why they in some way deserve his divine favor. Paul asserts that because the law silences the Jews’ mouth to defend themselves, that means that EVERY mouth is silenced. The implication from this and from what we saw in chapter two is this: The Jews felt justified before God because they had the law--not that they followed the law, but that the fact that God had given them the law gave them reason (in their minds) to be able to stand before God. The irony is that this law that the Jews had boasted in because it was given to them was indeed the very thing God uses to shut their mouths in his presence. The reason for this is because, although they HAD the law, they did not KEEP the law or, the Old Testament injunctions to obey God. That which they were depending on to justify them was instead the overwhelming evidence that God has used against them force them to shut their mouth and stand defenseless before Him.
If the Jews were held silent, having possessed the law, Paul says then “every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God.” After the Jews’ mouths are closed before God, there is utter silence in His presence. “The whole world is held accountable to God.” That word “accountable” is powerful. It literally means, “under penalty.” The word of God, the Old Testament, having silenced the Jews therefore compels the entire world to be silent, having NOTHING to say in their defense before a holy God who sits on His throne of Judgment. He pronounces ALL GUILTY of sin and liable to the horrible temporal consequences of sin in this life and the fires of eternal torment in the life to come. No one says a word before God’s Judge’s bench. There will be no plea bargaining, no excuses, no reasons. The Gentiles have nothing to say because they were never invited as a people into covenant with God. They, in spite of overwhelming evidence persistently suppress the truth in their unrighteousness. The Jews, who were as a nation brought into covenant with Him were given the law, but that law condemns their sinfulness at every turn.
From that truth, Paul applies another truth. “Therefore, no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law;...” The law, Paul has said is what silences every mouth before God. IT declares everyone guilty before a holy God. In light of that purpose of the law, it must follow that no one can be justified, declared righteous by observing the law. Paul finishes his argument by saying of the law, “rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.” Paul is addressing a wrong belief here. Namely, that it is possible to perfectly keep the law as God requires. We see this point in Galatians 3:10 where Paul says, “All who rely on observing the law are under a curse, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.” James 2:10 makes much the same point, “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.” Its not possible to keep the law and therefore be justified by the law. Paul says in effect, “You have missed the point because you don’t know one of the purposes of the law--to point out our sin and our tremendous need of God’s grace.”
We must never forget that the law (in this case, as it is expressed in the Old Testament) is a manifestation of God’s character--holy, righteous, perfect. As people look into the character of God, they will become conscious of their sin just as Isaiah became conscious of His sin when he visually saw the exalted Lord in the temple. Isaiah saw a vision of the Lord in the temple and he was powerfully confronted with his own sinfulness. The law, or the word of God presents a literary vision of God and the result is intended to be the same, to throw all those who desire to relate to God on their face before him and cry out, “Woe is me, I am undone...for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.” That is one of the purposes of the law, which in this case means that which speaks of God in the Old Testament. As Paul closes this section of the letter on the horrible sinfulness of man which necessitates the glory of God’s grace revealed in the gospel, he states that it is ultimately the word of God which will condemn people under the penalty of sin. The word, which reveals the sin of humanity and which leaves all people guilty before a holy God.
Let’s look at two points of application in light of this truth about this purpose of the word of God. The first point of application is this: Believers need to liberally use the word of God when sharing their faith and trust wholly in the power of the word. This point assumes we are sharing our faith. If we are not then we haven’t caught much of what Paul has said about the dreadful plight of humanity under the power of sin. We also don’t understand or care how much glory He receives when the gospel of grace is accepted by a sinner. Paul says the law makes people “conscious of sin.” The first step in reaching someone for Christ who is lost is--make sure they know they are lost.
Generally speaking, telling a sinner God loves them up front is unbiblical. They need to see right up front that they are, to quote Jonathan Edwards, “Sinners in the hands of an angry God.” As repulsive as that is to our “refined,” 20th century evangelical ears, that is much closer to a biblical pattern than much of what is often presented in evangelical evangelism courses. This needs to be presented in such a way that the person knows you care about them, but your concern for them motivates you to tell them the truth about them. And the way to tell them the truth according to Paul is to give them the word of God. It is “through the law we become conscious of sin” according to Paul. And the sinner, in order to be saved MUST be conscious of, and broken by their sin.
There may be several reasons why we are not willing to do this--to use the word in this fashion. But near the top of the list is the hidden pocket of unbelief which sounds like this, “quoting bible verses to a person isn’t going to effect them.” We may not say this in our head, but we feel it in our heart. The culture screams this message at us--the Bible is irrelevant and full of errors. But Paul and the rest of Scripture says that the word has power to convict of sin. Listen to some texts which bear this out and allow them to embolden you to be confident in the power of the word as you use it with unbelievers. Jeremiah 23:29 says, “Is not my word like fire,” declares the LORD, “and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?” Do we believe that? Do we believe that the word of God is a fire able to burn through layer after layer of sin and self centeredness? Do we believe the word is a fire which, when applied to the heart of a sinner is able burn off the calluses and expose a tender, God-softened conscience? Do we see the word as a fire, able to burn up all the excuses, all the justifications, all the puny arguments a sinner is able to marshal to try to protect themselves from the hound of heaven? The word is like fire.
Jeremiah also says the word is like a “hammer that breaks a rock in pieces.” The picture I get is this big rock--like the ones on the shore Lake Superior which, when met with repeated blows of the hammer of the word, is turned into gravel. Do we believe this about the word? We work next to someone who is the most hardened sinner. They boast and brag about their sin. We think to ourselves, “Man, that guy is so hard, he’ll never receive Christ.” Is he harder than the word of God which can break rocks to pieces? Should the overt, gross sinfulness of a sinner intimidate a believer who has the hammer of God in his hand? Maybe we ought to, in love “take a few swings” with this hammer before we write off the power of the word of God.
A classic text on the efficacy of the word is Isaiah 55:10-11, “As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out of my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.” Here the word is like water which comes from heaven and causes the earth to flourish. To the degree that you can bank on the rain to nourish the wheat, you can count on the word to fulfill its mission. The word is more reliable than a cruise missile. It goes out and always does exactly what God sends it to do. You would think if that were true (and it is) that we would be more bold to share the word with others. If you discovered a cure for the common cold that always did precisely what it was supposed to do, you would be a bit worked up about that. Yet, we have the word of God which always succeeds to do what God intends and we hesitate to share it.
Hebrews 4:12 says, “For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any two edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow;...” People get from this verse that the word is a sword. It is, but that’s not what this verse says. Its says that it is sharper than any two edged sword. It is also living and active. What that means is this. When you give the word to a sinner, it is sharp enough to penetrate all their defenses and lodge in their heart. And it doesn’t just stay there like a bullet. No, it is living and active. Once it gets into their heart, it starts to reveal things to them. It relentlessly comes to them, again and again, showing them their sin. This is not like putting a bullet into someone, its like burying a nugget of spiritual uranium in them. It stays and illuminates the darkness of their heart and moves to whatever area God sends it to so that it can do its dividing work to show them their guilt and sin before a holy God. Given what the Bible says about the power of the word, how could we ever be embarrassed or sheepish about telling someone what the Bible has to say about them or their condition. Paul’s words ring in our ears, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes...” Believers need to liberally quote texts of scripture to unbelievers. “Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God.” That enables us to be bold as we seek to witness to people.
A second point of application has to do with a major role of the word to the church. Believers must understand the primary role of Scripture in their lives. What is the primary role of the word for the believer? Many in evangelicalism would say to edify or build up and that would be correct as far as it goes. But if you ask them to tell you what they mean by “edify” or “build up” they might very well say, “to bring comfort.” That’s wrong. Now, the word can bring tremendous comfort to the contrite heart, but the primary purpose of the word in our sanctification which Paul brings out here in Romans 3 is, “through the law we become conscious of sin.” The unbeliever hears the word, is convicted of their sin and repent of it. God transforms them into a new creature. The same is true for the believer. The believer hears the word, is convicted of their sin and repent of it. God transforms them from glory to glory to the image of Christ. With the unbeliever, they enter the kingdom of God through the word. With the believer, we progress in the kingdom of God through the word as it reveals our sin and we repent of it.
Let’s look at a classic text which bears out this purpose of the word. Second Timothy 3:16. “All scripture is God breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” The Scripture “teaches” us. That is, it reveals to us information about the character of God. Now look at the next three participles which describe what else it does. First, it “rebukes” us. The word means to verbally chastise someone. It is used in Revelation three after Jesus gives His scathing denunciation of the Laodicean church where he tells them he is going to vomit them out of his mouth. Jesus says, “those whom I love I rebuke.” This is chastisement. One role of the word is to chastise us in our sin. The word also “corrects” us. It literally means to “straighten out.” The word is used of what Jesus does to the crippled up old woman in Luke 13:13. He straightens her out and enables her to stand erect again. The emphasis is on bringing something that is crooked into line. The word straightens out our crooked thoughts, desires, attitudes, and actions if we allow ourselves to be straightened out. The final thing the word does is to “train in righteousness.” That doesn’t sound corrective does it? The word that is used means “to discipline” and is used in Hebrews 12:10-11. Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good that we may share in his holiness. No discipline [training] seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.” Training in righteousness by the word is to be disciplined by the word and it is sometimes not pleasant at the time. It is corrective.
This is how the word of God does its training for righteousness. Three of the four functions of the word in 2 Timothy 3:16 are in some ways, on a human level negative and unpleasant. Knowing this ought to effect the way we approach the word. When we come to the word, we ought to come to it with the attitude, “Lord, I want to be like you and I know your word trains me to be like you. Lord, would you show me my sin so that I can repent of it and be further transformed to your image?” Some may say, “But where is the grace?” This whole process is chocked full of God’s grace. First, he is gracious enough to train you to be like Him in the first place. We don’t deserve that. We don’t deserve this precious gift of his word to do this for us.
Second, when he does correct us, he does it because he loves us, “Those whom I love, I rebuke.” Any rebuke we ever receive from the word is utterly dripping with the grace of his corrective love. Finally, when the word reveals our sin, we can know even more profoundly the grace of God. The more sin we recognize within ourselves, the greater our awareness of the vastness of God’s grace to forgive us. That, in turn causes us to love God more, for as Jesus said, “He who has been forgiven little loves little.” The converse must also be true, “He who has been forgiven much, loves much.” When the word, whether it is the preached word or the written word convicts us of sin, it opens a brand new door for us to discover God’s forgiveness when we repent of our sin. And the more we experience His forgiveness, the more we love Him. If that isn’t grace then I don’t know what grace is! The correction we receive from the word should be embraced as a gift of grace, not spurned because its sometimes unpleasant for us to hear or read. The word isn’t a warm, fuzzy pillow or a cup of warm milk to calm our nerves. Its a sword, a hammer and a fire which God uses to mercifully cut out, pulverize and burn off our sin by His Spirit.
If we come to the word with the humble attitude of wanting desperately to discover the sin in our hearts so we can be more like Christ, God will give grace because he “gives grace to the humble, but opposes the proud.” What a gift God has given us in his word which, among other things, makes us “conscious of sin.” May God grant us grace to read and hear the word with humble hearts.
Page last modified on 12/31/2001
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