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Bridging the Great Divide

by Stephen Davey Scripture Reference: Romans 3:19–20

Disease cannot be properly treated until it is properly diagnosed. So it is with the human condition. The apostle Paul makes it clear that sin, and the resulting separation from God, is mankind’s terminal “disease” and that the solution is not found in man but in God alone.


No one thought it was possible to build a bridge over the Niagara Gorge, just downstream from the famous Niagara Falls. But an engineer by the name of Charles Ellet became convinced the United States and Canada could be connected by way of a suspension bridge.  

A cable needed to be drawn from the American side to the Canadian side of this deep gorge. But how could that first step be accomplished? Charles Ellet came up with an idea. In January 1848, he offered a prize of five dollars to the first person who could fly a kite across the raging whitewater of the Niagara Gorge. A competition was arranged, and a teenage boy won the prize. The string of his kite was fastened to a tree on the far side of the gorge. That string was then used to pull a light cord across the river, and then a heavier cord, then a rope, until finally, a steel cable was stretched from one side to the other.

Eventually, a steel-cable suspension bridge was built, bridging the great chasm of the Niagara Gorge.[1]

I think you could summarize everything we have learned so far in Romans with one phrase: The Great Chasm.

The first three chapters of Romans form the first section in the book. It describes the deep gorge formed by human depravity—the great chasm between God and man, between heaven and earth—which is absolutely impossible for mankind to bridge.

In chapter 1, we learned that fallen mankind refuses to believe the obvious testimony of creation, which points to the Creator. Instead, man chooses to exalt nature.

In chapter 2, we learned that mankind resists his conscience, which whispers to him that he is a sinner. Instead, he chooses his own standard of morality.

In chapter 3, we learned that mankind does not run toward God but away from God. Man does not respect God and does not want to hear from God. Instead, he chooses to worship himself.

In this opening section of Romans, the apostle Paul has simply held up the mirror of God’s Word and said to sinful humanity, “Take a good, long look. This is who you really are.”

No matter how sincere you might be or how far you try to jump, you are not going to make it across this great divide, this whitewater of sinfulness. You are going to need a bridge to get across. To press the point home once more, Paul summarizes this opening section with one short verse: Romans 3:19:

We know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God.

Did you catch that? The entire world is accountable. This is the very thing the world hates to be told and does not want to consider—that one day the whole world will be held accountable to God.

This word for “accountable” means “brought to justice.” Paul uses courtroom terminology in this sweeping statement that all the unbelievers who have ever lived throughout all of human history will one day stand trial before God.[2]

You might have noticed that Paul says here in verse 19, “Every mouth [will] be stopped.” This is the opposite of what we see in a human court of law, where the defendant presents his case before a jury. He presents his arguments and evidence and proclaims his innocence. Now that might be appropriate in a human court of law because human juries can make mistakes. An innocent person might be accused, sinful behaviors might be ignored, or a lawyer might be able to influence the judge or jury.

But this is not going to happen in this courtroom scene Paul is describing. He is actually referring to the final judgment of all of unsaved humanity before God at the great white throne described in Revelation 20.

Before that throne of God, there is no need for a defense, or alibis, or excuses, or persuasive arguments—it is just silence there! Why? Because God Himself is the judge. He was an eyewitness to every sin the unbeliever committed. Everything they said, He heard; everything they thought in their heart, He knew. The verdict of God will be just and perfect.

In that courtroom all the world will understand that there is now an unbridgeable chasm between them and God. Their only hope had been to cross the bridge provided through Jesus Christ—a bridge in the form of His cross. But they denied the Creator; they rejected their conscience; they ignored the Savior who had died on that cross for them. They had clutched their sin, and now they stand covered in their own sin.

They will stand before God, Paul says here, in total silence. There is no appeal. There are no arguments. It will be too late to pray. The verdict will be guilty. Why? Paul answers that in verse 20: “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.”

No one will get into heaven by keeping the law, because no one can keep it. In fact, one of the reasons God gave the law was to prove to people that they could not keep it. Paul says here, “Through the law comes knowledge of sin.” The only thing the law can do is reveal what you have broken. That speed limit sign does not make me a lawbreaker; it just proves I am as I speed by. One author writes, “The straight-edge of the Law . . . shows us how crooked we are.”[3]

Have you ever hung wallpaper in a room at your house? Have you ever tried hanging wallpaper with stripes in it? I think that is a bad idea. That could ruin your marriage. Stay away from stripes. But there you were, you thought you were doing a pretty good job at it until you came to a window. That window frame made you realize you were hanging it crooked. Now the straight edge of that window frame cannot straighten your wallpaper; it can only reveal that it is crooked.

Or that mirror I mentioned earlier—it can reveal your dirty face, but it cannot wash your face. It can show you that you need to comb your hair, but it cannot do it for you. It can only reveal what you look like.[4]

In the same way, the law is God’s gift to us, not to make us feel guilty, but to show us why we are. The law can’t clean up our lives or wash away the guilt of sin. Only God can do that.

Now with that point made, Paul finishes the first section of his letter to the Romans here at verse 20. He has accomplished his goal. It was not to make us feel better or pat us on the head. He has honestly warned us that the world without Christ will be brought before the judgment of God one day, and the world will have no excuse or defense before a holy God.

Paul has described the great divide between God and mankind, the sinfulness and depravity of mankind that has created the terrible abyss of eternal judgment.

And here is the point: no one can cross the Niagara Gorge of human depravity except by faith in the one who bridged that chasm by His death on the cross—the Lord Jesus Christ. He clearly said in John 14:6, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

If you want to cross over one day and spend eternity with God in heaven, the bridge is available as long as you are alive.

Next, as Paul continues his letter to the Romans, he will begin to describe that divine connection between God and man—Jesus Christ, our Bridge to eternal life.

[1] Adapted from Robert Lewis, The Church of Irresistible Influence (Zondervan, 2001), 33.

[2] Ralph Earle, Word Meanings in the New Testament (Baker Book House, 1989), 151.

[3] J. B. Phillips, The New Testament in Modern English (Archbishop’s Council, 1972), on Romans 3:20.

[4] R. Kent Hughes, Romans: Righteousness from Heaven (Crossway, 1991), 335.

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