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Romans 3:20

“For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.”

Knowing the depth of our sin and misery is the first step to possessing the comfort of belonging to Christ because we see our need to trust Christ for salvation only when we are convinced of our own depravity (Eph. 2). But how can we even begin to realize the seriousness of our sin? The answer Scripture gives is that God’s law exposes our wickedness, as the third question and answer of the Heidelberg Catechism explains.

In Romans 3:9–20, Paul concludes his argument about the desperate plight of humanity apart from Jesus. All fallen descendants of Adam are “under sin” and cannot do anything to achieve a righteous status before the Lord. This includes keeping God’s law: “By works of the law no human being will be justified in [God’s] sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (v. 20). Instead of equipping us to achieve that perfect righteousness by which our Creator can accept us in His holy presence, God’s law gives us knowledge of sin; that is, the Lord’s commandments expose the “sinfulness” of our sin and the pervasiveness of our corruption.

When the Spirit opens our eyes as we study God’s law, we see that we fall far short of what the Lord demands, no matter how good we think we are. Our Creator requires more than mere external conformity to the letter of His law. The commandment against coveting deals with heart issues (Ex. 20:17), showing that we break the Lord’s statutes in ways only He can see. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount reveals that the commandments also address our motivations. The laws against murder and adultery are designed both to keep us from physically and emotionally hurting others and to prevent us from wanting to do such things (Matt. 5:21–30). At the very least, all of Adam’s natural progeny want to break God’s law, so we cannot hope in our obedience to it.

Our failure to keep God’s law is not a failure of the commandments themselves, “for if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law” (Gal. 3:21). The problem is our fallen, sin-loving hearts that put us against the Lord, for if we could keep God’s law, we could use it to secure our place in heaven. John Calvin comments on today’s passage: God’s law gives us the hope of salvation “by itself, as it teaches us what righteousness is, the way to salvation: but our depravity and corruption prevent it from being in this respect of any advantage to us.”

Coram Deo Living before the face of God

That the Law exposes the depth of our sin and misery gives us an important clue as to whether or not we are reading it rightly. As we study God’s law, we should be seeing areas of our lives where we still fall short of His demands, and if that is not happening, we are probably not truly understanding His commandments. Let us ask the Spirit to open our eyes in reading the law of God in order that the true state of our hearts might be exposed to us.


For Further Study
  • Psalm 143:2
  • Galatians 3:15–29

Grateful Proclamation

The Lives of the Saints

Keep Reading The Apocalypse of John

From the January 2012 Issue
Jan 2012 Issue