Romans 3:19-20 (ESV)
Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin.
Virtually every culture on earth bans murder and stealing. Yet in the animal kingdom, murder and stealing aren’t just common; they’re everywhere. Life is mostly about protecting what you have and not getting eaten. It isn’t really, “survival of the fittest.” It’s more like, “survival of the strongest,” or even, “survival of the meanest.”
Animals know no right and wrong. Might makes right. The law of the jungle is that the best fighter wins, and the loser dies or runs away. There are no rules.
But we invent rules (such as “don’t pee in the house”) that make no sense to them. Only animals that obey my rules are allowed in my house.
God gave us rules that are totally different from the law of the jungle. God’s law bans murder and stealing. God also bans lying and adultery. He even has religious laws.
And we break those laws constantly. One of the great mysteries of life is why intelligent people can’t seem to be housebroken. The rules aren’t all that difficult—and each one is a good idea—but we just won’t learn. (It’s an even bigger mystery why God still lets us into His house, but that’s not for today.)
Paul’s point here is simple but essential. The law is the lens through which we see sin. Without the law, we’d be just like the animals.
But notice that Paul doesn’t say that without the law there would be no sin. He says that without the law there would be no knowledge of sin. We’d still be in rebellion against God, there just wouldn’t be specific rules to break, so our rebellion wouldn’t have such obvious “symptoms.”
This is a key part of God’s magnificent plan of redemption. It sets the stage for Christ. Without the law we’d have no idea that we need Him.
It’s funny how this aligns with the cliché, “Rules were made to be broken.” That’s a pretty lame cliché, yet it exactly describes what happens with God’s laws.
But God’s laws were also made to be obeyed. They should be obeyed. The fact that they aren’t obeyed sets up the gospel, but that doesn’t mean breaking them is a good thing. Paul will get to this point soon. Meanwhile, we should try to obey God’s laws. In fact, we should try as hard as we can. Why? So we can do good?
No, so we can fail—and in failing gain even more knowledge of sin.
Then we see our desperate need of Christ.
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