The Necessity Of The Law That Cannot Save

Romans 3:19-31

The Reverend Bryn MacPhail / November 7, 2004


            The natural inclination of most human beings is to earn our own way. We dislike the idea of being indebted to someone. We prefer to position ourselves in such a way that enables us to assert that what we are, and what we possess, has been merited by our efforts.


            This becomes problematic when we begin to think about obtaining God’s favour. I have often asked individuals, ‘If you were to die today, and found yourself before God, what would you say? If God asked you, ‘What right do you have to enter My eternal kingdom?’ What would be your answer?’


            The most common response I hear is an appeal to their good works. ‘Oh, I’m not perfect’, they will maintain, ‘I have done some bad things, but for the most part, I have done what is right. I have done my best to follow the ‘Golden Rule’’.


            This perspective views the Law of God as the means to obtaining God’s favour. This perspective imagines that The Ten Commandments are a ladder that will help us to reach God’s standard of goodness.


            If this is our perspective, what can we expect to find? I suspect that our attempts to climb the ladder of God’s Law will yield much the same conclusion as arrived at by the apostle Paul: “by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in (God’s) sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20).


            In other words, no one is getting into heaven on account of their ‘good deeds’. A well-known American Presbyterian, the late Donald Grey Barnhouse, used to illustrate this by reference to an old-fashioned scale. A pound weight was put on the one side, representing God’s standard of righteousness, and on the other side we place our good works.


            The worst elements of society arrive first—thieves, perverts, and murderers. They are not altogether devoid of goodness and are able to put one or two ounces of goodness on the scale. But, since they are not able to balance the scales of justice, they are condemned.


Next, comes some average folks—people like you and I. These people have, perhaps, eight ounces of human goodness. That makes them four times as good as the previous group. But their goodness also fails to balance the scale and so, they too, are condemned.


Finally, the morally ‘great’ come forward. They are not perfect, but they have twelve or thirteen ounces to place on the scale. Does this balance the scale of God’s justice? No, nothing short of a pound will balance the scale. The morally ‘great’ are in the same boat as the average folks and the worst sinners. Since none are able to balance the scale, all stand condemned.


That is why Paul says in verse 23, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” The Law may reveal to us the weight of God’s righteousness, but it lacks the power to conform us to this standard.


            Rather than serving as a ladder, which leads to God’s favour, we find that the Law acts as a hammer, intent on smashing our self-righteousness. Rather than serving as a cleansing lather, we find that the Law acts as a mirror, exposing the stain of our sin.


If we were to keep God’s Law perfectly, then, yes, we would balance the scale of God’s justice. The problem, however, is that none of us have done that—we have all sinned and have fallen short of meeting God’s righteous standard.


And so, if we are to be reconciled to a holy God, we need something to balance the scales on our behalf. Paul explains that the Law does not do this, nor was it intended to do this. The Law was intended to expose our sin (Rom. 3:20), and it was designed to lead us to Jesus Christ (Gal. 3:24).


We have two options: Balance the scale by leading a perfect life, following every aspect of the Law, or balance the scale by placing our faith in Jesus Christ, the righteousness of God (Rom. 3:21, 22). And since we are incapable of the former, by grace, we must choose to the latter.


Arguably, no hymn writer delineates these two options better than Augustus Toplady, in his beloved hymn, Rock of Ages:


Not the labours of my hands can fulfill Thy laws demands,

Could my zeal no respite know; could my tears forever flow,

All for sin could not atone; Thou must save, and Thou alone.


It is for this reason that Paul asks rhetorically, “Where then is boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? Of works? No, but by a law of faith. For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the Law” (Rom. 3:27, 28).


What then, do we do with the Law? Some have mistakenly concluded that we dispense with the Law. They maintain that we have moved from the age of the Law to the age of grace. But this is not the case. Paul has said that “by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in (God’s) sight” (Rom. 3:20)—not now, not ever.


At no point in human history was adherence to the Law the means to salvation. Salvation has always been by grace, through faith. The author of Hebrews emphasizes this point in, what is commonly called, ‘the faith chapter’. In Hebrews 11, we read that “by faith Abraham” acted; “by faith Isaac” acted, “by faith Joseph” acted, “by faith Moses” acted. Their faith, we are told was in “the Messiah”—not yet revealed (Heb. 11:24-26). But now, the object of our faith has been revealed—Jesus Christ, the Son of God.


Do we dispense with the Law? Why would we? It was never intended to save us. It was meant to expose our sin, drive us to Christ, and to promote righteous living. And, even today, the Law of God fulfills this function.


Charles Spurgeon says much the same: “It is true that the law cannot save; and yet it is equally true that the law is one of the highest works of God, and is deserving of all reverence, and extremely useful when applied by God to the purposes for which it was intended.”


The apostle Paul agrees: “Do we then nullify the Law through faith? May it never be! On the contrary, we establish the Law” (Rom. 3:31).


What does Paul mean, “we establish the law”? The Greek could also be translated, “we continue with the law” or, “we stand by the law”. In other words, the Law of God remains relevant for the people of God. Although the Law is incapable of saving us, it is nonetheless profitable for our ongoing use.


In order that we might understand the continuing role of the Law in the life of the Christian Church, we should ask a very basic question: “Why should we stand by the Law of God?’


One of the primary reasons for why the Christian should stand by the Law of God is because God has stood by His Law.


Have you ever wondered why Jesus had to come and live among us on earth, and die on the cross? Why didn’t God just ‘snap His fingers’ and forgive us of our sins? Why didn’t God just say, ‘I am a God of love and, for this reason, I’m going to love you all into My kingdom’?


The reason God has not acted in this way is because this would have undermined the holy standards of His Law. If God had not followed through in punishing lawbreakers, both, the integrity of the Law, and the integrity of God’s holy character, would have been compromised.


Imagine, for a minute, a man getting pulled over by police for doing 80 km/hour in a 50 km/hour zone. How is the law to be established in this situation? By feeling sorry for the man, and letting him go? Of course not. By suggesting that 50 km/hour is an unreasonable expectation and that 80 km/hour is quite understandable. No. What if the police officer offers to forgive the transgression as long as the driver promises to drive slower the next time? No.


The only way to establish the law is to enforce the law, and to follow through with the required penalty. Well, this is what God did through Jesus Christ. God did not say, ‘This Law of mine is too difficult; I’m going to lower My standards, and I’m going to be more relaxed in meting out punishment.’ No, God upheld the standards of His Law by requiring His Son to keep the Law on our behalf. God stood by the standards of His Law by having His Son receive the penalty we deserved for breaking it.


If God, at such great expense, did not set aside the high standards of His Law, then why would we ever imagine that the Law no longer applied to us?


The other compelling reason why we should be careful to obey God’s Law is because it fulfills one of God’s purposes for saving us. In Ephesians, chapter 2, Paul explains that we have been saved “by grace”, “through faith” and that salvation is “not as a result of works” (Eph. 2:8, 9), but then, in the very next breath we are told that we were “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10).


You and I were saved to do good works. We were not merely redeemed in order to avoid condemnation. There is a positive side to our salvation; God desires to transform you and I into the likeness of His Son. The Law of God then, has great relevance to us. Because Jesus Christ perfectly obeyed the Law, and because we are called to be like Christ, we must, therefore, be ever attentive to God’s Law.


Thankfully, when Christ saved us, He put in us a new desire; He put in us a desire to obey His Law. This was promised through the prophet Ezekiel, through whom the Lord said, “I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances” (Ezek. 36:27). That promise makes no sense, if the Church is supposed to dispense of the Law. But, on the contrary, we establish the Law.


Salvation by grace does not mean we are now free to do whatever we want. Salvation by grace means we now possess the ability to do that which God requires.


We must not set God’s Law aside. Rather, we must establish God’s Law in our lives. We must seek to be governed by God’s Laws in every context: our home, our neighbourhood, our place of work, and our place of worship.


Because, when we live according to God’s Laws, we more closely resemble the One who perfectly obeyed them. And, as we begin to resemble Christ, we soon find ourselves fulfilling the chief purpose for our existence. Amen.