19 Now we know that whatever the Law says, it speaks to those who are under the Law, so that every mouth may be closed and all the world may become accountable to God; 20 because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin.
When was the last time you looked in a mirror? If you’re anything like me, it was just this morning. In fact, I look into the mirror virtually every day of my life. Because of that I know exactly what I look like: buzzed blonde hair, goatee, a mole just left of my nose. Imagine though that you had never once looked into a mirror or a reflective surface of any kind. Could you really have an accurate perception of the way you look? Sure, you could feel around your face, but that would probably leave you with an image more like one of those caricatures from the fair than a face. All of your most prominent features would be blown out of proportion. You could ask others for their opinion, but they would likely focus on your more appealing qualities while downplaying, or not even mentioning, your more unmentionable features. In my case, they might have to use Thumper’s mom’s wisdom: “If you can’t say somethin’ nice, don’t say nothin’ at all.”
For most of us, this is how we treat our identity and character. We try to avoid looking at the depth of our ugliness and tend to rely on friends and family to pump up our “self-esteem”. If we hear a negative comment or have a negative thought, we quickly try to replace it with others’ affirmations. If we can’t find that, we resort to self-affirmation becoming like SNL’s Stuart Smalley in telling ourselves, “I’m good enough. I’m smart enough. And dog gone it, people like me.”
In Romans, one of Paul’s main teachings is in regard to the role of God’s Law in the lives of people. We tend to get its role wrong. First, we think that it helps determine our relationship before God. Those who follow His standards are pleasing and righteous. Those who don’t are disappointing and judged by God. This usually leads to a balancing scale judgement. If He is more pleased than He is disappointed, then I’ll hit the jackpot in the afterlife. The second misconception is that the Law becomes the standard by which believers live after becoming Christians. We may come to realize that nothing we do will make us right in God’s sight, so we rely on justification by faith for salvation, but then we rely on following the Law for living the Christian life. After all, didn’t God give those instructions to be lived by?
To the first group, Paul unequivocally states, “by works of the Law no flesh will be justified”. The reason: it was never intended by God for that purpose. Then what was its purpose? Then is it to be a rule book to live by after justification, right? Paul settles that issue most definitively in Galatians 3:1-3, when he calls those who are trying to finish in the Christian life by works of the Law as foolish.
So if the Law does not help us win God over and if it is not the rules by which the Christian should strive to live, what is its purpose? It has always and will always have one purpose: to close every mouth and make everyone accountable to God. How? By showing each and every one of us our sin. Why? Because we have tendency to think we are beautiful when we are downright ugly. Psychologists, in study after study, have proven that most people believe that they are pretty good people, at least better than average. One such study found that 93% of Americans believe that they are above-average drivers. In fact, as you are reading this, you are probably thinking to yourself that you are an above-average driver. I know I do! Yet, there is no way that this can be statistically true. At most, only 49% could ever truly be “above-average” by definition alone.
This phenomenon is in full force regarding righteousness. Most people and religions play the numbers game. Most believe that they are better than the average person and that God will take the best and the brightest, the most morally beautiful, and all are deluded into a false sense of security. The Law’s purpose is to stop that kind of thinking, turn the moral mirror away from others and onto ourselves, and show us how utterly hideous we are, and not just some of us, all of us. The Law was never intended as a path to righteousness before God but a mirror of unrighteousness to bring a sense of shame, unworthiness, and eternal insecurity.
Just like a mirror is never going to do anything to make me better looking, the Law will never produce righteousness. The only one that can justify a man before God is the God who became man, and the only thing that can produce right living in a man is the God who indwells man.
May we stop trying to use the Law to perform for the King and instead allow it to show us how much we need Him.