Ellet J. Waggoner
The Signs of the Times : July 3, 1884
In the two preceding articles on the law we have considered it simply in the light of Christ’s declaration to the young man: “If thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments.” No one who contemplates the breadth of the law, and believes the inspired statement that it is perfect—the righteousness of God—can feel disposed to deny the statement of the wise man, that to fear God and keep his commandments is the whole duty of man. Obedience to a perfect law must produce a perfect character, and perfection is all that can be required of anybody.
But while we have been making these statements upon the authority of the Bible, some reader has doubtless called to mind the fact that Paul says that “by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified;” and he wants this harmonized with what has been said; or, possibly, he may think that it entirely overthrows our argument. We will examine it. The passage in full reads thus: “Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight; for by the law is the knowledge of sin.” Romans 3.20
To understand this verse we must take it in its connection. But first, to the verse itself. Why can no flesh be justified in the sight of God by the deeds of the law? The last clause of the verse gives the answer: “For by the law is the knowledge of sin.” Well, why does the fact that the law gives the knowledge of sin make it impossible for any one to be justified by it? Read from the ninth verse onward, and you will see. Paul says: “We have before proved both Jews and Gentiles, that they are all under sin.” This he has done in the first and second chapters. “As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one; there is none that understands, there is none that seeks after God. They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable; there is none that does good, no, not one.” Romans 3.10-12. After particularizing somewhat on this point, the apostle says: “Now we know that what things soever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law; that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God.” Verse 19. Then follows the conclusion, “Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight.”
Now we can see the force of Paul’s conclusion. Since the law gives us the knowledge of sin, by pointing it out, it condemns the whole world, for there is no man that has not sinned; all the world are guilty before God. And this is a sufficient reason why no one can be justified by the law. The law that justifies a criminal is a bad law; but the law of God is “holy, and just, and good;” it will not justify a sinner.
Let us illustrate this by a familiar example. Here is a man who has been taken in the act of robbing a store. He is brought into court for trial. Now will he stand up before the judge, and declare that he wants no counsel; that all he desires is simple justice, and then demand that the law be read, and declare his willingness to rest his case upon that alone? Certainly not, unless he desires to live in prison. He knows that the law does not justify any man in committing robbery; and he will therefore seek in every way possible to evade it. But there is no possibility of evading the law of God, and consequently all the world stands condemned. No one can fail to see that if the law justified sinners, then sin would cease to be sin; theft, murder, and adultery would be legal acts, and anarchy would prevail and be confirmed throughout the land.
If, however, an innocent man is accused of a crime, he may with all confidence appeal to the law. He does not wish to have anybody turn aside the law from its true meaning. He is anxious that his acts be compared with the plain reading of the law. And when that law is read, it justifies him, because he has done nothing but what it commends. By these two examples we see the working of a good law: it condemns the guilty, and justifies the one who has scrupulously obeyed its requirements. That this is the case with the law of God is seen by our Saviour’s words: “For every one that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved. But he that doeth truth cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought in God.” John 3.20, 21
It is plain that under no circumstances can a good law justify crime. The man may say, “This is the first time I ever violated the law.” But the judge would reply, “You ought not to have violated it this time; perfect obedience is what the law requires.” Or if he professes his determination to keep the law strictly forever afterward, that will not justify his sin, for he never can do more than his duty, and thus make up for past neglect. Whichever way he turns, the law stands in his way condemning him. Now shall we say that because the law thus condemns sin it is unworthy of respect, and ought to be abolished? By no means; no one but a confirmed reprobate would desire such a thing. The fact that it condemns the sinner shows it to be a good law, and lovers of the right will rejoice to see it maintained.
The position, then, thus far, is this: To keep the commandments is the whole duty of man; it is only by keeping them that we can have eternal life. But no man has kept them; neither can any man show a perfect record in this respect. “All have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.” Romans 3.23. How, then, it may well be asked, can any one be saved? How can we become justified? The answer comes: “Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus; whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; to declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus.” Romans 3.24-26
Christ was sinless; the law was in his heart. As the Son of God his life was worth more than those of all created beings, whether in Heaven or on earth. He saw the hopeless condition of the world, and came “to seek and to save that which was lost.” Luke 19.10. To do this he took upon himself our nature, Hebrews 2.16, 17; and on him was laid “the iniquity of us all.” Isaiah 53.6. In order to save us, he had to come where we were, or, in other words, he had to take the position of a lost sinner. Thus the apostle says: “For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin.” 2 Corinthians 5.21. It was this fact that caused him such anguish in the garden. He felt that the sins upon him were shutting him away from God. It was this that caused him, when hanging on the cross, to utter that cry of bitter agony, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” It was not physical pain that crushed the life out of the Saviour of the world, but the load of sin, which he bore. “The wages of sin is death.” Romans 6.23. Sin will cause the death of every one who is not freed from it, for “sin when it is finished, brings forth death.” James 1.15. And because Christ was “numbered with the transgressors,” he suffered the penalty of transgression.
But the suffering of Christ was not on his own account. He did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth.” 1 Peter 2.22. He was one who could safely appeal to the law to justify him, for he had never violated it. The law had nothing against him. “But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities.” Isaiah 53.5. He alone has done more than his duty—more than was required of him; consequently he has merit to impart to others. This grace is freely given to all who believe in him. Thus: Our past life has been nothing but sin, for whatever good we may have thought to do, it was far from perfect. But we believe implicitly in Christ, and have faith in the efficacy of his sacrifice; and because of this simple faith, Christ will take our load of sins upon himself, and we will be accounted as though we had never committed them. He can take them without fear of any evil consequences to himself, because he has already suffered the extreme penalty of the law for them. And since our sins are taken from us, we are as though we had never broken the law, and therefore it can have nothing against us—it cannot condemn us. So we stand before the court justified. Justified by what? By our works? No; justified by faith in Christ. Our works condemned us; Christ has justified us. And so Paul’s conclusion is true, that “a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.” Romans 3.28
We now see that Paul does not contradict himself when he says (Romans 2.13), “For not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified,” and when he says (Romans 3.20), that “by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified.” Both are true. The doers of the law are always justified, as we have before shown, and the only reason why there is no one who is justified by the law is because there is no one who has done all the law.
In this article we have given only a brief outline of the way by which the sinner is justified. In subsequent articles we shall consider his relation to the law after he is justified, and also how, although no one is justified by the law, our Saviour’s words apply with equal force to all, “If thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments.”