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Commentary On Romans by Jean Calvin

Romans 3:19-20

19. 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.

19. Scimus autem quod quæcunque Lex dicit, iis qui in Lege sunt loquitur; ut omne os obstruatur, et obnoxius fiat omnis mundus Deo.

20. 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.

20. Quoniam ex operibus Legis non justificabitur omnis caro coram ipso; per Legem enim agnitio peccati.

19. Now we know, etc. Leaving the Gentiles, he distinctly addresses his words to the Jews; for he had a much more difficult work in subduing them, because they, though no less destitute of true righteousness than the Gentiles, yet covered themselves with the cloak of God's covenant, as though it was a sufficient holiness to them to have been separated from the rest of the world by the election of God. And he indeed mentions those evasions which he well understood the Jews were ready to bring forward; for whatever was said in the law unfavorably of mankind, they usually applied to the Gentiles, as though they were exempt from the common condition of men, and no doubt they would have been so, had they not fallen from their own dignity. Hence, that no false conceit as to their own worthiness should be a hinderance to them, and that they might not confine to the Gentiles alone what applied to them in common with others, Paul here anticipates them, and shows, from what Scripture declares, that they were not only blended with the multitude, but that condemnation was peculiarly denounced on them. And we indeed see the discretion of the Apostle in undertaking to refute these objections; for to whom but to the Jews had the law been given, and to whose instruction but theirs ought it to have served? What then it states respecting others is as it were accidental; or as they say, parergon, an appendage; but it applies its teaching mainly to its own disciples.

Under the law He says that the Jews were those to whom the law was destined, it hence follows, that it especially regards them; and under the word law he includes also the Prophets, and so the whole of the Old Testament -- That every mouth may be stopped, etc.; that is, that every evasion may be cut off, and every occasion for excuse. It is a metaphor taken from courts of law, where the accused, if he has anything to plead as a lawful defense, demands leave to speak, that he might clear himself from the things laid to his charge; but if he is convicted by his own conscience, he is silent, and without saying a word waits for his condemnation, being even already by his own silence condemned. Of the same meaning is this saying in Job 40:4, |I will lay my hand on my mouth.| He indeed says, that though he was not altogether without some kind of excuse, he would yet cease to justify himself, and submit to the sentence of God. The next clause contains the explanation; for his mouth is stopped, who is so fast held by the sentence of condemnation, that he can by no means escape. According to another sense, to be silent before the Lord is to tremble at his majesty, and to stand mute, being astonished at his brightness.

20. Therefore by the works of the law, etc. It is a matter of doubt, even among the learned, what the works of the law mean. Some extend them to the observance of the whole law, while others confine them to the ceremonies alone. The addition of the word law induced Chrysostom, Origen, and Jerome to assent to the latter opinion; for they thought that there is a peculiar intimation in this appendage, that the expression should not be understood as including all works. But this difficulty may be very easily removed: for seeing works are so far just before God as we seek by them to render to him worship and obedience, in order expressly to take away the power of justifying from all works, he has mentioned those, if there be any, which can possibly justify; for the law hath promises, without which there would be no value in our works before God. You hence see the reason why Paul expressly mentioned the works of the law; for it is by the law that a reward is apportioned to works. Nor was this unknown to the schoolmen, who held it as an approved and common maxim, that works have no intrinsic worthiness, but become meritorious by covenant. And though they were mistaken, inasmuch as they saw not that works are ever polluted with vices, which deprive them of any merit, yet this principle is still true, that the reward for works depends on the free promise of the law. Wisely then and rightly does Paul speak here; for he speaks not of mere works, but distinctly and expressly refers to the keeping of the law, the subject which he is discussing.

As to those things which have been adduced by learned men in defense of this opinion, they are weaker than they might have been. They think that by mentioning circumcision, an example is propounded, which belonged to ceremonies only: but why Paul mentioned circumcision, we have already explained; for none swell more with confidence in works than hypocrites, and we know that they glory only in external masks; and then circumcision, according to their view, was a sort of initiation into the righteousness of the law; and hence it seemed to them a work of primary excellence, and indeed the basis as it were of the righteousness of works. -- They also allege what is said in the Epistle to the Galatians, where Paul handles the same subject, and refers to ceremonies only; but that also is not sufficiently strong to support what they wish to defend. It is certain that Paul had a controversy with those who inspired the people with a false confidence in ceremonies; that he might cut of this confidence, he did not confine himself to ceremonies, nor did he speak specifically of what value they were; but he included the whole law, as it is evident from those passages which are derived from that source. Such also was the character of the disputation held at Jerusalem by the disciples.

But we contend, not without reason, that Paul speaks here of the whole law; for we are abundantly supported by the thread of reasoning which he has hitherto followed and continues to follow, and there are many other passages which will not allow us to think otherwise. It is therefore a truth, which deserves to be remembered as the first in importance, -- that by keeping the law no one can attain righteousness. He had before assigned the reason, and he will repeat it presently again, and that is, that all, being to a man guilty of transgression, are condemned for unrighteousness by the law. And these two things -- to be justified by works -- and to be guilty of transgressions, (as we shall show more at large as we proceed,) are wholly inconsistent the one with the other. -- The word flesh, without some particular specification, signifies men; though it seems to convey a meaning somewhat more general, as it is more expressive to say, |All mortals,| than to say, |All men,| as you may see in Gallius.

For by the law, etc. He reasons from what is of an opposite character, -- that righteousness is not brought to us by the law, because it convinces us of sin and condemns us; for life and death proceed not from the same fountain. And as he reasons from the contrary effect of the law, that it cannot confer righteousness on us, let us know, that the argument does not otherwise hold good, except we hold this as an inseparable and unvarying circumstance, -- that by showing to man his sin, it cuts off the hope of salvation. It is indeed by itself, as it teaches us what righteousness is, the way to salvation: but our depravity and corruption prevent it from being in this respect of any advantage to us. It is also necessary in the second place to add this, -- that whosoever is found to be a sinner, is deprived of righteousness; for to devise with the sophisters a half kind of righteousness, so that works in part justify, is frivolous: but nothing is in this respect gained, on account of man's corruption.

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