Charles Simeon Commentary - Romans 3:20 - 3:20

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Charles Simeon Commentary - Romans 3:20 - 3:20

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Rom_3:20. By the law is the knowledge of sin.

OUR lost estate, and our consequent need of a Saviour, can never be truly known, unless we compare our lives with that universal rule of duty, the law of God. St. Paul took this method of proving that both Jews and Gentiles were under sin: in all the preceding part of this epistle he sets forth their transgressions against the law; and having confirmed his assertions by many passages out of the old Testament, he says in the verse before my text, “We know that what things soever the law saith, it saith to them that are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world become guilty before God.” From hence it is evident that the law of which he is speaking, is the moral law, that same law which was originally engraven in the heart of Adam, and was afterwards published to the world on Mount Sinai: for the Gentiles having never been subject to the ceremonial or judicial law, it can be no other than the moral law, which shuts their mouth and brings them in guilty before God. The principal ends for which he referred them to this law were these; first, to convince them that they could not be justified by their obedience to it (and therefore in the words immediately preceding our text, he says, that by the law shall no flesh be justified;) and secondly, to shew them their undone condition by the law; and therefore he adds, in the words of our text, “by the law is the knowledge of sin.”

From these words we shall take occasion to compare our lives with the law of God, that so we may obtain the knowledge of our sins: and while we are thus bringing our iniquities to remembrance, may the Spirit of God come down upon us, to convince us all of sin, and to reveal unto us that only Deliverer from sin, the Lord Jesus Christ!

The law was delivered to Moses upon two tables of stone, and comprised in ten commandments.

The first of the commandments respects the object of our worship, “Thou shalt have none other gods but me.” In this we are required to believe in God, to love him, and to serve him with all our hearts, and minds, and souls, and strength: and if we examine ourselves by it, we shall see that our transgressions are neither few nor small: for instead of believing in him at all times, how rarely have we either trembled at his threatenings or confided in his promises! Instead of loving him supremely, have we not set our affections on the things of time and sense? Instead of fearing him above all, have we not been swayed rather by the fear of man, or a regard to our worldly interests? Instead of relying on him in all difficulties, have we not rather “leaned to our own understanding, and trusted in an arm of flesh?” and instead of making it our meat and drink to do his will, have we not lived to ourselves, seeking our own pleasure, and following our own ways? Surely if we seriously inquire into our past conduct, we shall find that throughout our whole lives “other lords have had dominion over us,” the world has been our idol, and self has usurped the throne of God. If therefore we were to be tried by this commandment only, our offences would appear exceeding numerous, more than the hairs of our head, more than the sands upon the sea shore.

The second commandment respects the nature of worship: “Thou shalt not make to thyself any graven image.” God is a Spirit, and therefore is not to be addressed by the medium of any sensible object, but is to be “worshipped in spirit and in truth.” Yet, whenever we have presented ourselves before him, we have scarcely paid him more respect, yea frequently much less, than the heathens manifest towards their gods of wood and stone. Let us only consider what has been the frame of our minds when we have approached the throne of grace; how little have we stood in awe of his Majesty! How unaffecting has been our sense either of our wants, or of his power

and readiness to help us! And if we look at the prayers which we have offered, we shall see cause to acknowledge that they have been dull, formal, and hypocritical. Our confessions have neither been attended with humility nor followed by amendment: our petitions have been without faith and without fervour: and our thanksgivings, which should have been the warm effusions of a grateful heart, have frozen on our very lips. Indeed secret prayer is by the generality either wholly omitted, or performed as a task or drudgery: as for family devotions they are wholly, and almost universally, neglected: and in the public assemblies, instead of breathing out our hearts before God, our thoughts are wandering to the ends of the earth, or, as the Scripture has said, “we draw nigh unto God with our mouth, but our heart is far from him.” Let us all therefore consult the records of our own consciences, that we may judge ourselves with respect to these things; nor let us forget that every such omission and every such defect has swelled the number of our transgressions, and greatly aggravated our guilt and misery.

The third commandment respects the manner of worship; “Thou shall not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.” The name of God is never to be uttered by us but with awe and reverence. But, not to mention the stupid indifference with which it is often repeated in prayer, how generally, how daringly is it profaned in common conversation, so generally, that no age, sex, or quality is exempt from this impious custom; and so daringly, that it is even vindicated: the thoughtless manner in which that sacred name is used, is often urged as an excuse for the profanation of it; when it is that very thoughtlessness which constitutes the profanation. But instead of extenuating the guilt of this sin, we shall do well to consider what God has said respecting it, “The Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.”

The fourth commandment respects the time of worship; “Remember the sabbath-day to keep it holy.” In what manner we are to keep it holy, the Prophet Isaiah teaches us [Note: Isa_58:13.]; “Turn away thy foot from the sabbath, from doing thy pleasure on my holy day, and call the sabbath a delight, the holy of the Lord, honourable; and honour him, not doing thine own ways, nor finding thine own pleasure, nor speaking thine own words.” But how has this day been regarded by us? Have we conscientiously devoted it to God, and spent those sacred hours in reading, meditation and prayer? Have we, as well by example as by precept, inculcated on our dependants a regard for the sabbath? and have we improved it for the welfare of their souls as well as of our own? alas! have not those blessed seasons been rather wasted in worldly business, worldly company, and worldly pleasures? Yes, it is to be feared that however we may have kept up a mere formal attendance on the external services of the Church, we have not any of us accounted our sabbaths a delight, or spent them in devout and holy exercises. We may rest assured however, that of every such abuse of the sabbath we shall give a strict account; for if God has so solemnly warned us to “remember that we keep the sabbath holy,” no doubt he himself will remember what regard we payed to it.

Here end the commandments of the first table, which relate to God, as those of the second table relate more especially to our neighbour; yet not so entirely as to exclude ourselves. We proceed therefore with them:—

The fifth commandment, “Honour thy father and thy mother,” requires a becoming deportment not only towards our own immediate parents, but towards all mankind, however related to us; our superiors, equals, and inferiors: to the first of these we owe submission; to the two last, love and condescension. But how often have we affected independence, and refused submission to lawful authority! How often have we envied the advancement of our equals, or exalted ourselves above them! How often have we treated our inferiors with haughtiness and severity! Even our natural parents we have by no means honoured as we ought, nor sustained any relation in life as God has required us to do. In all these respects therefore we have sinned before God, and “treasured up wrath for ourselves against the day of wrath.”

Thus far many will readily acknowledge themselves guilty. But so ignorant are mankind in general of the spirituality and extent of God’s law, that they account themselves blameless with respect to all the other commandments: if they have not literally, and in the grossest sense, committed murder, adultery, theft, or perjury, they have no conception how they can have transgressed the laws which forbid these things. But let us calmly and dispassionately examine this matter; bearing this in mind, that it is our interest to know our sins; because by knowing them, we shall be stirred up to seek the forgiveness of them through the Saviour’s blood; whereas, if we remain ignorant of our sins, we shall not feel our need of a Saviour, and shall consequently die without an interest in him.

The sixth commandment then respects our own and our neighbour’s life; “Thou shalt do no murder.” We take for granted that none of us have imbrued our hands in human blood: yet this by no means exempts us from the charge of murder. Our Lord, in that justly admired Sermon on the Mount, has given us the clew, whereby we may be led to a true exposition of this and of all the other commandments; “Ye have heard,” says he, “that it hath been said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill, and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment; but I say unto you, that whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment, and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council; but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.” By this comment of our Lord’s, we are assured that causeless anger and passion are esteemed by him as violations of this commandment. And St. John in the third chapter of his first epistle confirms this by saying, “He that loveth not his brother abideth in death; whosoever hateth his brother is a murderer; and ye know that no murderer hath eternal life abiding in him.” From this additional testimony therefore we see that the hating of any person, or the not truly loving him, is a species of murder in the sight of God. Who then is innocent? Who has been free from passion? Who has not often conceived anger and hatred against his neighbour? And shall it be thought unreasonable to call this murder? Look at the effects of anger; how often has it terminated in murder, when the perpetrators of the act little supposed themselves capable of such an atrocious crime! and if we have been irritated and provoked by small occasions, who can tell what our anger might have effected if the occasion had been increased, and the preventing grace of God withdrawn? And what is that which the world has falsely called a sense of honour? ’tis revenge, ’tis murder; murder in the heart, as it often proves murder in the act. But there are other ways of committing murder: if we have wished a rival dead, in order that we might be advanced; if we have wished an enemy dead, because of our aversion to him; if we have wished a relation or any other person dead, in order that we might succeed to his fortune or preferment, or if we have rejoiced in the death of another on any of these accounts, we have manifested that same principle in our hearts, which, if kindled by temptation and favoured by opportunity, would have produced the most fatal effects. Nor is this all: we are no less guilty in the sight of God, if we do what tends to the destruction of our own life, than if we seek the destruction of our neighbour’s life. Not to mention therefore the too common act of suicide, how many bring upon themselves pain, sickness, and disease, I may add too, an early and premature death, by means of debauchery and excess. Let not any one therefore imagine himself innocent even in respect of murder: for in every instance of anger, impatience, or intemperance, yea, whenever we have wished for, or rejoiced in another’s dissolution, we have violated this commandment.

The seventh commandment respects our own and our neighbour’s chastity: “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” Fornication and adultery are by many practised without remorse, and recorded without shame. But to such we may well address the words of Solomon: “Rejoice, O young man, in thy youth, and let thy heart cheer thee in the days of thy youth, and walk in the ways of thine heart and in the sight of thine eyes; but know thou, that for all these things God will bring thee into judgment.” Nor will it avail any thing to say, that we committed these sins only in our youth; and that now we have left them off; for sin is sin, whensoever and by whomsoever committed; and however it may have escaped our memory, it is not therefore erased from the book of God’s remembrance; nor however partial the world may be in its judgment respecting it, will it escape due notice at another tribunal; for we are assured by the Apostle, that “whoremongers and adulterers God will judge.”

But this commandment extends much further than to the outward act: it reaches to the inmost thoughts and desires of the heart. Let us hear an infallible expositor; let us hear what our Lord himself says in his Sermon on the Mount: “Ye have heard that it hath been said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: but I say unto you, that whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her, hath committed adultery with her already in his heart” By this commandment therefore is forbidden all indulgence of unclean thoughts, and consequently all immodest words, all obscene allusions, all wanton looks, all impure desires and affections. Who then will say, I am pure? Who will take up a stone to cast at another?

The eighth commandment respects our neighbour’s goods; “Thou shalt not steal.” Theft is universally branded with disgrace: and it may be hoped that we, who have been so far out of the reach of want, have never been reduced to so infamous a practice. Yet how many are guilty of practices equally repugnant to the spirit of this commandment! How many defraud the government by withholding or evading the legal imposts! How many defraud the public by circulating coin which they know to be either base or defective! How many defraud those with whom they transact business, by taking undue advantage of their ease, their ignorance, or their necessities! How many defraud their creditors by neglecting to pay their debts! And how many defraud the poor by not giving to them what the Great Proprietor of all hath made their due! If indeed we regard only these effects of dishonesty, they will probably appear to us light and insignificant; but if we look to the principle which gives birth to these things, it will be found no less corrupt than that which manifests itself in theft and robbery. Odious therefore as the imputation of fraud may justly be considered, there is not one who has not at some time or other been guilty of it: so that this commandment as well as all that have preceded it, will accuse us before God.

The ninth commandment respects our neighbour’s reputation; “Thou shall not bear false witness.” We offend against this law, not only when we perjure ourselves before a magistrate, but whenever we misrepresent the conduct of others, or pass hasty and ungrounded censures upon them. All whisperers therefore and backbiters, and all who circulate reports injurious to their neighbour, are condemned by it: nor does it forbid such falsehoods only as are pernicious, but such also as are jocular, marvellous, or exculpative: for, as to the morality of the act, it matters little whether we falsify to our neighbour, or against him. Who then has not been often guilty in these respects? Who does not feel the force of the Psalmist’s observation, that “as soon as we are born we go astray, speaking lies?” Nor let any think lightly of this sin: for so detestable is it in the sight of God, that he has given us this solemn warning, “All liars shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.”

The tenth commandment, “Thou shall not covet,” is perhaps the most extensive of any; because while the others forbid the indulgence of any sinful act, this forbids the first risings of desire after any sinful object: it utterly condemns the least motions of discontent at our own lot, or of envy at the lot of others. It was this commandment which first wounded the conscience of the Apostle Paul; he was in all points relating to the ceremonial law, and according to the letter of the moral law, blameless; and he conceived that he must therefore of necessity be in a state of salvation: but this good opinion of his state arose from his ignorance of the spirituality and extent of the law: and when his eyes were once opened to see that the law condemned him for the first risings of evil as well as for the actual commission of it, he became guilty in his own sight, and acknowledged the justice of his condemnation. Thus he says of himself; “I had not known sin but by the law; for I had not known lust (i. e. the evil and danger of it) unless the law had said, Thou shall not covet: for I was alive without the law once; but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died.” The plain meaning of which is this: before he understood the spiritualily of the law he thought himself safe; but when that was revealed to him, he saw himself justly condemned for his offences against it. May that same, that salutary, conviction be wrought also in our hearts! for our Lord has told us, that “the whole need not a physician, but they that are sick;” plainly intimating thereby, that we must feel our need of him, before we shall be willing to receive his saving benefits. Though therefore we may think as highly of our state as the Apostle did of his, yet if we feel not our condemnation by the law, we shall but deceive ourselves; and though we be possessed of his knowledge, zeal, and holiness, yet shall we, like him, be “dead in trespasses and sins:” for till we be indeed weary and heavy laden with a sense of sin, we never shall, nor ever can, come unto Christ for rest.

To conclude—

If, while we have been surveying the duties of the first table, we have called to mind our low esteem for God, together with the unnumbered instances wherein we have neglected his worship, misemployed his sabbaths, and profaned his name; if in examining the duties of the second table, we have remembered our several violations of them, both generally, by misconduct in the different relations of life, and particularly, by anger and intemperance, by actual or mental impurity, by dishonesty or want of liberality, by wilful and allowed falsehood, by discontent with our own lot, or coveting of another’s, surely we shall confess with the Psalmist, that “our iniquities are grown up unto heaven, they are a sore burthen too heavy for us to bear.” We shall see also with how great propriety the compilers of our Liturgy have directed us to cry after every commandment, “Lord, have mercy upon us, and incline our hearts to keep this law.”

To make us thus cry out for mercy is the proper use of the law; for the Apostle says, “The law is our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ.” And if we once obtain this view of the law, and by it the knowledge of our sins, we shall then have the best preservative against errors: for instead of making the divinity of Christ and his atonement a matter of mere speculative inquiry, we shall see that we have no safety but in his blood, no acceptance but in his righteousness. We shall then “count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ,” and shall each of us be like-minded with that great Apostle who said, “I desire to be found in Christ, not having mine own righteousness which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith.”