Text: Romans 3:19-20
This sermon took me about three drafts to write. I filled up about ten pages with words, and I thought I was almost done for a minute, before I decided to throw it all away and start yet again. This text kept stopping me in my tracks. There’s a lot that you could say about it, and part of my problem was that I kept trying to say it all. So instead I decided to say just one thing. Shut your mouth.
This is Paul’s argument here in a nutshell. You cannot find justification in the law because the law will not even let you speak. You cannot defend yourself. You are a sinner, and when you call upon justice the first thing that is exposed is yourself. The law shuts your mouth, and you are left with nothing to say. All you can do is ask for mercy. And that’s exactly where God wants you.
“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” (Rom. 3:19). In this text, the Apostle Paul is essentially telling the Jews and Jewish Christians alike to shut up. They have no ground for boasting in their standing before God, and they cannot appeal to their law-keeping as proof that they are somehow better than Gentiles. This is because the law which they are appealing to actually condemns them. It does not support their case at all but instead shows that God is righteous in judging both Jews and Gentiles to be sinners and under the curse of death.
Much ink has been spilled as of late regarding what Paul means by “the law” in this passage. Some take it to be a general reference to morality as such. Others argue that he means the religious rites of torah and no more. But in the context of Romans 3, I think that it is quite simple to see what Paul means. The “law” is actually the collection of Old Testament scriptures quoted in verses 9-18. There Paul had said, “What then? Are we better than they? Not at all. For we have previously charged both Jews and Greeks that they are all under sin. As it is written…” He goes on to quote from Psalm 14, 53, 5, 140, 10, and 36, as well as Isaiah 59. Each of those Scripture references affirms a pervasive human sinfulness which Paul then uses to support his claim for universal human sinfulness, sin among the Jews as well as the Gentiles. And then, after quoting all of those verses, Paul says, “Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law.” The law in question is not a generic moral law, but neither is it a special set of ritual works. It is rather a synonym for the Word of God. To use the expression “law” to mean divine scripture is not unusual, and the New Testament speaks this way when it uses the expression “the law and the prophets” to refer to the Old Testament. Jesus also refers to the book of Psalms as “your law” in John 10:34 and “their law” in John 15:25. Thus, the law speaking to those under the law means that the Old Testament Scriptures condemn the people to whom those Scriptures were given.
The Jews are condemned by their own religious writings. And why do they find condemnation? It is because when they question God’s work among the Gentiles and the development of the New Covenant, their own Scriptures point out their sinfulness. The law speaks, “that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God.”
Shut Your Mouth
“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” (Rom. 3:19). Having shown that the Old Testament didn’t merely call out the other guy’s sin but actually condemned the people of God themselves, Paul says that the next thing to do is to shut up. The law silences “every mouth,” as it exposes universal guilt.
Stopping one’s mouth is a reference we see throughout the Bible. It is what you do when you have been defeated, have to surrender, or have been proved definitely wrong. Psalm 63:11 states, “But the king shall rejoice in God; everyone who swears by Him shall glory; but the mouth of those who speak lies shall be stopped.” Psalm 107 also uses the expression in this way:
[The LORD] pours contempt on princes, and causes them to wander in the wilderness where there is no way; yet He sets the poor on high, far from affliction, and makes their families like a flock. The righteous see it and rejoice, and all iniquity stops its mouth. (vs. 40-42)
And again we read in Titus 1:10-11, “there are many insubordinate, both idle talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision, whose mouths must be stopped.”
Perhaps the most striking incident of a man having to stop his mouth is Job. After a truly challenging time of affliction, Job has questioned God’s righteousness. Why has He brought this upon Job and how is it fair? God responds by showing up in person:
Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind, and said: “Who is this who darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Now prepare yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer Me. Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell Me, if you have understanding Who determined its measurements? Surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? To what were its foundations fastened? Or who laid its cornerstone? ..Shall the one who contends with the Almighty correct Him? He who rebukes God, let him answer it.” (Job 38:1-6, 40:2)
How does Job respond? How can he respond?
Then Job answered the Lord and said: “Behold, I am vile; What shall I answer You? I lay my hand over my mouth. Once I have spoken, but I will not answer; Yes, twice, but I will proceed no further.” (Job 40:3-5)
He acknowledges his guilt, and he covers his mouth. He knows that he has no defense and so he stops trying to make one. Finally he says, “I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees You. Therefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:5-6)
And you know the really interesting and terrifying thing about Job? He really was a righteous man. He had more of a reason to question God than any of us do. It really did seem like things weren’t fair. And yet even Job, when confronted with the revelation of God Himself, stands condemned and mute.
This is what the law is. It is God showing up to have a look at us. What will he see? The Jews of Paul’s day thought that they might make the cut. They did their best. They kept the covenant. They were better than the Gentiles. I’m sure they would say that they were only able to do so by God’s grace and that they didn’t earn it, strictly speaking. But still, they were judging others. They were sizing themselves up over and against the Gentile Christians, and they were trying to make an argument that they were more scrupulous about the law and more faithful with the things of God. And to all of this Paul says, “Shut your mouth.”
The law doesn’t just ask you to do your part. It doesn’t say “Be a good person.” It doesn’t say check the boxes and follow these steps. It doesn’t even say, “Be better than non-Christians.” It says “Don’t sin.” We should be clear about this. Paul says again and again that the law brings out our sin, shows it to be sin, and holds all men under condemnation. In Romans 5:20, Paul actually says that “the law entered that the offense might abound”! Again in Romans 7:13, “Sin through the commandment might become exceedingly sinful.” In 1 Corinthians 15:56 we are told, “The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law.” And in Galatians 3:22 it says, “But the Scripture has confined all under sin, that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.” The law exposes sin, and sometimes it even appears to aggravate and exacerbate its presence. This is for a specific purpose: to prove the justice of God and the guiltiness of man. Whenever we want to plead our own interest, judge others, or call God’s plans into question, the law stops our mouth. The law shuts people up because it speaks the truth irrefutably. And it still speaks it to you and me. We are, each of us, sinners just the same, and that means that each of us, on our own, stands guilty and condemned before God. The only thing we ought to say is “Lord have mercy upon me a sinner.”
Every Mouth Silent
Now at this point you might ask if I’m trying a little too hard to be Jonathan Edwards. Am I putting you all on a guilt trip, unnecessarily focusing on the doctrine of sin. Shouldn’t we be celebrating the gospel? To this we can give a few answers. The first is simply that you cannot understand the good news of salvation until you first understand and believe in the bad news of sin. You have to have something to be saved from. And you have to believe in the bad news of your sin because it is you that needs saving. This is why Christianity has lost its effectiveness in America. Our people do not believe that they really have a problem. The have no shame in justifying themselves. “Every person is special.” “Every woman is beautiful.” “We are all equally valid and important in this world.” Everyone wants to be recognized, and no one wants to acknowledge that they might be guilty. They will, no doubt, admit to being flawed in all sorts of ways and even having problems, sometimes major problems. But yet, somehow, these problems never seem to register that there might be a deeper problem, a problem inside every human heart. Indeed they, we!, might be the problem. No, before we are allowed to get to this point we are re-affirmed, distracted, and moved along to some other talking point. America rejects guilt and shame.
And so to preach the gospel, you have to preach the law. That’s all there is to it. We have to name sin as sin before we can explain why forgiveness is a good and necessary thing. But there’s another point to be made, especially with regards to this section of Romans. Paul isn’t trying to make us feel guilty in respect to one another. We are not being called to admit that other people are more righteous than we are and that we should be ashamed of ourselves for letting others outdo us. That’s not what he’s saying here at all. Instead he is bringing us face to face with God Himself. “Let God be true but every man a liar. As it is written: ‘That You may be justified in Your words, And may overcome when You are judged’” (Rom. 3:4). Our justification must begin not with ourselves but with God. God’s righteousness in salvation must also justify Himself. It must show that He is and was always just and right. And that means we have to be honest with ourselves and our situation. We have to admit our condition, how bad we are, and what we rightly deserve.
The law has power precisely because it is telling the truth. When we are held accountable for our actions—for our anger, our gossiping, our lack of love, our lack of mercy—we are brought face to face with reality. And this act of being broken by the law is actually what prevents us from holding false guilt over other people. It stops us from sizing up ourselves against other people, and it ought to prevent us from judging. It ought to stop our mouths, as well as the mouth of the whole world. And that should leave a holy silence. We must all confess the righteousness of God.
The Bible does bring a message of equality. But it isn’t a message that we are equally good and worthy of affirmation. It is that we are equally guilty. None of us can judge others and none of us can boast because we are all equal. There is none righteous. Until you get to this point in your understanding of yourself and your relationship with God, you cannot understand your salvation. And insofar as you continue to esteem yourself a “true Christian,” one with integrity and spiritual strength, over and against those weak Christians who just barely get by—insofar as you do this you are in need of being broken by the law. Shut your mouth and repent. Only once you do this can you understand what it means to be forgiven, and only then can you believe that Jesus forgives your sins.
The first step in our move to Christ is to not only “be broken by” the law, but to embrace the truth of what it says and therefore justify God. Confess that God is holy, just, and true. What He says is right, and His judgments are just. The problem is completely on our end, and it always starts with us individually. Only after we do this can we understand grace, and only after we understand grace can we use the law rightly in our lives today.
Are you really doing this? How often do you contemplate your sin? You might be thinking about sin in general, the sins of the world, the oppression by evil and powerful people, or even the continual annoyances of your basketcase neighbor. But do you consider that you yourself are also complicit in the war against God? Prior to coming to salvation, you were an active enemy against God. And even after coming to salvation, you still have the old Adam in you, tempting you and causing you to revert to sin. Are you holding yourself to the same standard that you hold others to, and are you really be honest with the demands of justice? If not, you need to be broken. And rest assured, you will be. In God’s timing, He will bring disaster. He will bring calamity. He will turn your life upside down and shake you to the core, and you won’t be able to argue. So you better get ready now. Sooner or later, as the old gospel song puts it, God’s gonna cut you down.
But, you won’t have to stay there. There is, it is true, an important sense in which you are always brokenhearted and poor and spirit. You have to always remain humble. But once you are humbled and brought to grace, you are forgiven. You are accepted by God. Things are set right. At this point, and only at this point, can you internalize the law and use it rightly. We can challenge ourselves to live holy lives, to do good works, and to build the kingdom of Christ through love, mercy, and piety. But the order of all of this is essential. See your guilt. See God’s love. Be humbled by grace.
If we start off with the keeping of the law and hope to later arrive at mercy and sacrifice, we will always fail. We will end up as legalists, judging others and secretly trusting in our own integrity. But if we start from brokenness, from the true acknowledgement that we are unworthy and evil sinners who were shown free grace, then we can keep the law with a posture of humility. Only then do we truly love righteousness because we love God’s own righteousness, His judgment against us, and His miraculous mercy in satisfying that righteousness through the work of His Son Jesus. Let us pray.