Reformed Spirituality

By the Law Is the Knowledge of Sin

By Simon PadburyMarch 06, 2019
In Irresistible Grace9 min read
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Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in [God’s] sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin.
Romans 3:20.

The apostle Paul was still interested in the law of God as a Christian—the same law as he had studied and sought to live by as a Jewish Pharisee (see Acts 26:5; Philippians 3:5). The “apostle of the Gentiles” (see Romans 11:13; 1 Timothy 2:7; 2 Timothy 1:11). has a lot to teach us all about the law of God.

When he wrote about the “the law”, Paul usually1 meant that body of laws revealed by God and contained in the five books of Moses—which the Jews call the Torah (this word means the Law in Hebrew).

Paul focused his reader’s attention upon the moral laws within “the law” (the Torah):2 these comprise God’s own revealed, and precise, definition of what is righteous and what is sin—what is morally right and wrong.3

Both Jews and Gentiles are held accountable by God to his moral law. The truth is as Paul teaches us: “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” (Romans 3:19).

The Jews were “under the law”—the Law of Moses, which we also know as the Old Covenant. But here Paul affirms that the scope of the core morality of the Torah includes all the “world”,4 Jew and Gentile. For the same moral law is part of the basic innate knowledge of all mankind in the human conscience, even where it is suppressed and rejected (see Romans 1:18; see also Romans 1:28-32; 2:1-3,14-15).

So, we are all subject to the judgment of God.

I Had Not Known Sin, but by the Law

The apostle gives testimony of his own experience of the work of the Holy Spirit in the soul—in applying God’s moral law.

He says, “I had not known sin, but by the law…For without the law sin was dead. For I was alive without the law once: but when the commandment came, sin revived, and I died. And the commandment, which was ordained to life, I found to be unto death. For sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it slew me… sin, that it might appear sin, working death in me by that which is good;5 that sin by the commandment might become exceeding sinful” (Romans 7:7-13; the reader should find it useful to study the whole chapter).

Paul refers to his own pre-regenerate state as being “alive without the law” (v.9). We need to understand what he means by this unexpected statement. For although Paul6 was a Pharisee in those days, yet he admits that he had not applied that law so rigorously to his own soul as the Holy Spirit would do upon regenerating him. For in his fallen nature (same as with all of us) Paul rejected his predicament as guity before God, whether as understood by the revealed law or by his conscience.

He describes the time when the Spirit reproved him of righteousness7 as the time when “the commandment came” to him. His conscience was made tender through his regeneration—but at the same time the response of his fallen nature was even greater rebellion against God; as he said, “sin revived, and I died” (v.9).

7 See Chapter 13, The Work of the Holy Spirit.

That is how man’s sinful nature manifests its emnity against God (Romans 8:7): when confronted by the moral law, it strives to sin all the more!

And this is how Paul came to understand how sinful his fallen nature really was.

The Holy Spirit caused Paul’s own sins to prick his conscience so much that he now abandoned the idea that he was in any way capable of pleasing God by what he had previously thought of as his good deeds.

He could now see that his depraved nature continued its war against God by warring against his new nature (Galatians 5:17).

Paul could not stop himself from sinning (see Romans 7:15,23). And now he was painfully aware that he was deliberately sinning against God and against his own tender conscience.

His pretense and sanctimonious pride had been ripped away, now that “the commandment came” to him. He now knew himself to be the Hell-deserving sinner that he was, and he knew that could not help himself. And now his sins were all, as it were, awake and lively within his heart.

His own sinfulness, by the convicting work of the Holy Spirit, now “appeared [to be] sin” to him—it had “become exceeding sinful” (Romans 7:13) in his own estimation.

And so Paul says of himself, “I died.” In other words, Saul the self-righteous Pharisee (or so he had thought) gave up all hope in himself. He now saw his spiritually dead, hopeless, lost, fallen nature for what it was.

He was made to understand that all his so-called righteousnesses were indeed as filthy rags in God’s eyes, and he began to truly hunger and thirst after that righteousness which is “without the law,” namely the righteousness of Christ (Isaiah 64:6; Matthew 5:6).

The Knowledge of Sin

These experiences of the apostle Paul, which he described in general terms, are the experiences of all the Lord’s people.

If the Holy Spirit applies the moral law to our hearts, so that we know in our own experience what Paul was talking about here, then it stops our mouths boasting about how good we are, because it slays our self-righteous pride. It shows us what we really are—how the righteous God sees us (unless we are saved).

We will no longer think of ourselves with pride for our moral goodness—because now we know the truth: “There is none righteous, no not one…” (Romans 3:10-18)—so, no, I am not righteous, and I cannot be good.

The Holy Spirit shows us our awful predicament before the holy and just God as Hell-deserving sinners. This is how we come to understand how burdened down we are with our sins.

Paul concludes that the lesson the law of God should teach us is this: “Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his [God’s] sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20).

But we have not finished learning the lesson of the law if we are left there.

What the Law Can Do

Those people who have been properly taught God’s law by the Holy Spirit are thereby brought directly to the Saviour himself.

As the apostle teaches in another epistle: “If there had been a law given which could have given life, verily righteousness should have been by the law. But the scripture hath concluded all under sin, that the promise by faith of Jesus Christ might be given to them that believe. But before faith came, we were kept under the law, shut up unto the faith which should afterwards be revealed. Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith” (Galatians 3:21-24).

It is true that fallen human beings, wherever they are in the world, and in whatever century they live, still possess in some measure the “work of the law written in their hearts” (Romans 2:15), i.e. in their consciences.

However, they must be brought face-to-face with the breadth and depth of moral law as revealed in the Bible—so that God will bring his people to this experience about which Paul speaks: “the commandment came, sin revived, and I died” (Romans 7:9).

Being schooled by the “schoolmaster” brings people to Christ. That is what the law can do in people’s souls, when the Holy Spirit applies it to them.

That is why the church must preach both Law and Gospel.

What the Law Cannot Do

The moral law was indeed “ordained to life” by God (Romans 7:10; see also Lev 18:5; Luke 10:28). But as Paul taught, “If there had been a law given which could have given life, verily righteousness should have been by the law” (Galatians 3:21). But the law cannot give life, because no fallen sinner of mankind can earn eternal life through keeping the law.

The law’s purpose was not to provide a way of self-salvation by our own “good works” but to bring us to Christ, the only Saviour.

We need to understand that God’s moral law, in its fullness, reveals a standard of holiness that we cannot hope to achieve. And we need to learn the lesson that our own experience should teach us: that we cannot “do this and live” (compare Lev 18:5; Luke 10:28).

Paul, the former Pharisee, now teaches us: “For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh: that the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit” (Romans 8:3,4; compare Acts 13:38,39).

So, as Paul argued in Romans chapter 3: we have no righteousness of our own (v.10-20)—but God has provided us with a righteousness that is not our own, “without the law” (v.21).

We have not kept the law, but the “righteousness of the law” (as obeyed by Christ) is “fulfilled in us” (Romans 8:3) because Christ himself died for us. “For he [God] hath made him [Christ] to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him” (2 Corinthians 1:21).

The righteousness of the law can now be fulfilled in us who are in Christ because has Christ died for our sins and he has “condemned sin in the flesh” so that it loses its power over us. Therefore, Christians can now “walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit” (Romans 8:4). And this walking “after the Spirit”, of course, includes an increasing obedience to that which is good—namely, God’s moral law (see Romans 7:12).

What the Gospel Is Not

Any system that fails to embrace the Bible’s teaching that the salvation from beginning to end is the all work of our Triune God—is not the Gospel.

You have not understood the Gospel if you think that your salvation is ultimately determined by your own mental effort in believing in Christ. That would make your faith your saviour, not Christ! But it is not as though the one good work which a person must do in order to be saved is to believe in Christ.

However, not all who hold this false gospel are necessarily unsaved people. For there are some who have been taught this error—and some who even preach this error—but God has quickened their souls and he has already begun to change their minds.

God has opened their eyes so that they see something of the depth of the sinfulness of their own souls; they now know that they themselves are certainly not “basically good at heart”. Yet for a while they still struggle, attempting to hold two contradictory systems of beliefs.

They were taught the the faith-salvation error (and, depending on what kind of church they are in, they may also be taught the faith-healing error and faith-prosperity error). But now they are coming to believe the truth that the Bible teaches, and which their personal experience agrees with.

They have a growing appreciation of the fact that everything they have ever done, said and thought has been thoroughly polluted by their own wickedness. They know there is no hope for them—if salvation depends upon anything that they do, or think, or feel.

So, by the effectual working of God the Holy Spirit within them, the deepest prayer of their heart becomes, “O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” (Romans 7:24). And their heart begs, “God be merciful to me a sinner” (Luke 18:13).

All who believe on the Lord Jesus Christ shall be saved (John 3:16; Acts 2:21; 16:31).

If you believe in the Christ of the Bible “according to the Scriptures” (see 1 Corinthians 15:3,4)—you are someone who has thus believed through God’s grace—by the gift of God (see Acts 13:48; 18:27; Romans 5:15; Ephesians 2:8).

And you shall learn to repent of all that denies this, so that you give God all the glory for your salvation. “But God be thanked, that ye were the servants of sin, but ye have obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine which was delivered you” (Romans 6:17).

Chapter 15 of God’s Grace In Our Experience.

To be continued.

  1. Sometimes Paul also uses the phrase “the law” to mean a motivating principle in the soul. Christians have two opposing “laws” within them: an evil one from their old fallen nature, which Paul refers to as the “law of sin”, “law in my members” and “law of sin and death”; and a good one from their new regenerate nature—“the law of my mind”, “the law of faith” and “the law of the Spirit of life” (compare Romans 3:37; 7:5,21-25; 8:1-4; Galatians 5:16-18; Ephesians 4:22-24).
  2. The Law also contained numerous judicial laws pertaining to the societal rule under the governors and magistrates of the Old Testament nation of Israel; and ceremonial laws pertaining to Israel’s religious worship and observances (clothing, food, hygeine, feasts, sabbaths, etc.) and to the Tabernacle (later, Temple) and its sacrifices, under the Levitical priesthood. Compare the Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter 19 and the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith, chapter 19.
  3. The moral law of God is summarised (or, as more precisely stated in the Westminster Shorter Catechism Q.41, “summarily comprehended”) in the Ten Commandments (see Exodus 20:1-17; Deuteronomy 5:6-21). And it is expounded and applied at length in the Law of Moses (see Exodus and Deut) and in spiritual depth in Christ’s Sermon on the Mount (see Matthew 5-7).
  4. This translates the greek word κόσμος (kosmos).
  5. By “that which is good” Paul means the law. See also Romans 7:12,16; 1 Timothy 1:8.
  6. Previously known as Saul (see Acts ch.9; 13:9; Romans 1:1).

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