Once upon a time there was a mirror. I looked in the mirror and to my surprise the face looking back at me was dirty. The mirror could not fix my problem, but without the mirror, I would still be ignorant that I had a problem.

“Through law, knowledge of sin.”

Romans 3:20 underscores the importance of law. Some translations capitalize the word Law and add the definite article, implying clear reference to the Law of Moses. However, that is not what the text has in view. There is no definite article preceding law, so the reference is to law in general – ethics. Through law, or ethics, comes knowledge of sin. Israel was given the Mosaic Law to show them their inability, while gentiles, discover their inadequacy through ethics in a more general sense (Rom 2:14).

Either way, both groups – and all humanity – discover their own pre-existing fallenness through an inability to meet the standards of moral law (whether specific or general). It is interesting to examine various world religions and philosophies on this topic, as each of them in their own way acknowledges some deficiency in humanity that is surmountable by self-discipline and adherence to some moral code. Works. This was also the solution offered by Eve’s tempter in the garden: works. These proposed solutions suggest that by our own efforts we can be like God – or even become gods ourselves, or perhaps at least we can become the very best possible versions of ourselves.

But in the Bible we are told that plan simply doesn’t work: “…By works of law no flesh will be justified in His sight…” (Rom 3:20). Thankfully, God offers a very different plan: “But now apart from law the righteousness of God has been manifested…” (Rom 3:21). Biblical Christianity is unique among belief systems in its assertion of our inability, by self-discipline, self-actualization, or other self-reliance, to meet God’s standard. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Rom 3:21).

Still, we all seem to have some sense of self-goodness, especially when we measure ourselves in light of ethical standards. We do more ethical things than unethical ones. that should be good enough right? “There is none righteous, not even one…There is none who does good, not even one” (Rom 3:10). And again – let the words sink in: “…By works of law no flesh will be justified in His sight…” (Rom 3:20).

If we can’t meet His standard by our own efforts, and we demonstrate that deficiency constantly in our thoughts, speech, and actions, then what hope is there for us? Well, if left to our own devices, none. “And you were dead in your trespasses and sins…” (Eph 2:1).That about sums it up. Ethics (the Law for Israel, law for everyone else) teaches me that I am indeed unable to meet the standard of a holy Creator. Consequently, “the wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23a). I am separated from Him with no hope of reconciliation. But…

“But now apart from law the righteousness of God has been manifested…” (Rom 3:21).

“But the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 6:23b).

“But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved)…” (Eph 2:4-5).

By belief in Him, we have forgiveness of sin (Eph 1:7). By belief in Him, we are declared righteous (e.g., Gen 15:6). By belief in Him, we have eternal life (Jn 3:16).

The concept of ethics helps us understand that forgiveness, righteousness, and life are available only through grace, not of our own efforts. They are His gifts to us (Eph 2:8).

Just as Paul warned, we should use law lawfully (1 Tim 1:8). Law was never intended as a means of salvation, rather it is the means to show us our need for salvation. We should be very careful not to represent to unbelievers that ethics (and ethical behavior) can in any way help us earn forgiveness, righteousness, or life. We look in a mirror to discover our face is dirty, but we don’t expect the mirror can clean our face for us. Instead, we should use law lawfully, to illustrate the need for forgiveness, righteousness, and life, and to point us in the direction of the One who can provide those things for us. Ethics isn’t the key that unlocks the door, but ethics is designed to draw our attention to the One who holds that key in His outstretched hand.

What does ethics teach us about grace? Simply that we need it.