Coming now to Romans chapter 3, we find the apostle Paul ready to lay on the line, quite unmistakably, his principal thesis concerning divine grace and justification by faith. Before he does so, however, he disposes of a hypothetical case which might be argued, and indeed underlay much perverse Jewish thought about national privilege and responsibility. The tragedy was that the Jewish race tended to lay jealous claim to such privilege without a balancing acknowledgement of their responsibilities. When Paul throws out the question (3:1), ‘What advantage, then, is there in being a Jew, or what value is there in circumcision?’ it is as though he is confronting a debater who is contesting the case he has made up to this point. So really, this person says, there is no difference between Jew and Gentile. Not so, says Paul, the Jews were greatly privileged to have God’s law, God’s oracles or commandments to regulate their lives.

Furthermore, you cannot argue that, because some Jews were unbelieving and unfruitful, God had broken His promise to the Jewish nation in condemning them. Paul’s actual words are, ‘What if some did not have faith? Will their lack of faith nullify God’s faithfulness? Not at all!’ is the answer to that. As already explained in chapter 2, Jewishness as far as God is concerned, is Jewishness of the heart, not just by natural birth. All men of whatever race will be judged justly.

‘But,’ says our wriggling debater in verse 5, ‘if our unrighteousness brings out God’s righteousness more clearly, what shall we say? That God is unjust in bringing his wrath on us?’ Again he says, in effect, ‘if my untruthfulness serves to show up God’s truthfulness to His glory, surely that is a good thing and we might as well do evil in order to show up God’s righteousness.’ But such an argument is wholly contemptible, and will be shown to be so when we come to consider the cost of the redemption provided by God to deal with human sin.

Paul goes on to make a composite quotation from several psalms and from Isaiah, a common practice of rabbis in their teaching. The Old Testament Scriptures served to establish beyond all doubt the truth of universal guilt before God. ‘There is no one righteous, not even one’ (3:10). And the scriptures cited make very plain that the character, words and behaviour of men are all uniformly defiled and depraved. “They have together become worthless; … Their mouths are full of cursing … and the way of peace they do not know.”

Verses 19-31 of Romans chapter 3 now present in choice and succinct terms the very heart of what the apostle Paul calls “my gospel”. No-one will be declared righteous in His sight by observing the law; rather through the law we become conscious of sin. ‘But now a righteousness from God, apart from the law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.’

Yes, all that I have been saying, says Paul, about universal human sin, is summed up in, all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, but (a glorious but) there is justification based on divine grace, and all resting on the redemption made by Jesus at Calvary. For we read, ‘God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. God, indeed, is just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.’ It is the language of the law courts, and it took a lot of coming to terms with for Jews who were steeped in the idea of retribution for evil. It is also the language of the slave market, redeemed when helpless to liberate oneself.

The apostle is going to proceed in his letter to elaborate on this marvellous theme, but one issue must first be settled beyond doubt. ‘Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. On what principle? On that of observing the law? No, but on that of faith.’ Let human pride be forever buried far out of sight. ‘For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law.’ Furthermore, never let the notion surface again that God is the God of the Jews exclusively. ‘Is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles too? Yes, of Gentiles too.’ And before anyone argues that this somehow nullifies the law, let it be stated unequivocally, ‘Rather, we uphold the law.’ We shall see presently, as Paul develops his triumphant theme of grace and justification, just how eloquently he vindicates the law and its true purpose, beginning with Abraham and his very early experience of God and His purposes.