Exposition of Romans 3:20, The law reveals sin, not righteousness

Trying to get to heaven by keeping the law is like trying to get to Honolulu from Los Angeles by driving an automobile. There is a small problem called the Pacific Ocean!

The purpose of using the automobile in the analogy above is to focus attention on the immensity of the Pacific Ocean. Hold that thought!

(ESV) 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.

The law is like the automobile in the introduction; the Pacific Ocean is like our sin. Trying to get to heaven by keeping the law, we run into the immensity of our sin. As much as I like this analogy, it makes Honolulu equal to heaven, so dont go there! (Smile)

Moo summarizes the position taken by a majority of commentators: [They] viewed works of the law as a subset of the larger category good works; and they understood this verse, and others like it, to be refuting the idea that a person could gain a right standing with God by anything that the person did.[1] Upholding this position was one of the biggest contributions made by the Protestant Reformation in contrast to the Roman Catholic position that mixes works with grace in salvation. Both groups — Protestants and Roman Catholics — still adhere to their respective views.

The final clause of 3:20 — since through the law comes knowledge of sin — reveals something very important about the Law of Moses. The purpose of the law was not to provide a means of salvation; rather, the law was given to sensitize Israel to its need for Gods mercy and grace.

The Greek noun epignosis, translated knowledge in 3:20, means knowledge, recognition.[2] Notice the second meaning; the law gave Israel recognition of their human sinfulness. In that way they attained the knowledge of the inner problem that should have driven them into the merciful hands of God. Moo says, What is meant is that the law gives to people an understanding of sin (singular) as a power that holds everyone in bondage and brings guilt and condemnation.[3]

The law was never designed to produce righteousness. Instead, God intended that it point out our sin and thus point the way to his grace.

By sea or by air: that is the question.

By Gods grace, you get to make a choice. If you decide to follow the wide road that leads to destruction — trying to earn your way to heaven by more good deeds than bad ones — your short drive toward heaven will end just off Los Angeles, and we will pull your dripping car from beneath the surf.

If you want to take the narrow way that leads to life — trying to get to heaven by grace through faith — the next section of Romans will explain how to board the one flight that will soar over all your sin and take you there.

1. What life experiences lead us to think that all our goals including heaven can be reached by self-effort? What is the relationship between the American ideal of the self-made person and the idea of making our own way to God?

2. What types of wishful thinking are involved in thinking we define the terms God should find acceptable? Who has the last word in this scenario?

When you think about it, the Old Testament is extremely helpful in showing how certain get-to-heaven strategies work out. It shows that God selected the Jews to be the people to whom he would reveal himself and among whom he would dwell. He gave Israel an elaborate yet simple set of laws to govern this relationship and reveal to them their inability to overcome their sinful ways.

History shows plainly that the Israelites could not keep those laws and lost both God from their midst and then their homeland and freedom. We can be eternally thankful to God that he does not ask us to overcome our personal sin on our own. Instead, our merciful God has provided the solution in Jesus Christ.

Copyright 2012 Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from materials created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.


[1] Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1996) 206.

[2] BDAG-3, epignosis, recognition, knowledge, q.v.

[3] Moo, Romans, 210.