The Jews were still asking, “How can a man enter into the right relationship with God so that he too may inherit this great promise?” Their answer was, “He must do so by acquiring merit in the sight of God through doing works which the law prescribes.” That is to say, he must do it by his own efforts. Paul saw with absolute clearness that this Jewish attitude had completely destroyed the promise. It had done so for this reason—no man can fully keep the law; therefore, if the promise depends on keeping the law, it can never be fulfilled.
Paul saw things in terms of black and white. He saw two mutually exclusive ways of trying to get into a right relationship with God. On the one hand there was dependence on human effort; on the other, dependence on divine grace. On the one hand there was the constant losing battle to obey an impossible law; on the other, there was the faith which simply takes God at His Word.
On each side there were three things:
1. On the one side there is God’s promise. There are two Greek words which mean promise. Huposchesis means a promise which is entered into upon conditions. “I promise to do this if you promise to do that.” Epaggelia means a promise made out of the goodness of someone’s heart quite unconditionally. It is epaggelia tha Paul uses of the promise of God. It is as if he is saying, “god is like a human father; He promises to love his children no matter what they do.” True, He will love some of us with a love that makes Him glad, and He will love some of us with a love that makes Him sad; but in either case it is a love which will never let us go. It is dependent not on our merit but only on God’s own generous heart.
2. There is faith. Faith is the certainty that God is indeed like that. It is staking everything on His love.
3. There is grace. A gift of grace is always something which is unearned and undeserved. The truth is that man can never earn the love of God. He must always find his glory, not in what he can do for God, but in what God has done for him.
On the other side there is
1. Law. The trouble about law has always been that it can diagnose the malady but cannot effect a cure. Law shows a man where he goes wrong, but does help him to avoid going wrong. There is in fact, as Paul will later stress, a kind of terrible paradox in law. It is human nature that when a thing is forbidden it has a tendency to become desirable. “Stolen fruits are sweetest.” Law, therefore, can actually move a man to desire they very thing which it forbids. The essential complement of law is judgment, and, so long as a man lives in a religion whose dominant thought is law, he cannot see himself as anything other than a condemned criminal at the bar of God’s justice.
2. There is transgression. Whenever law is introduced, transgression follows. No one can break a law which does not exist; and no one can be condemned for breaking a law of whose existence he was ignorant. If we introduce law and stop there, if we make religion solely a matter of obeying law, life consists of one long series of transgressions waiting to be punished.
3. There is wrath. Think of law, think of transgression, and inevitably the next thought is wrath. Think of God in terms of law and you cannot do other than think of Him in terms of outraged justice. Think of man in terms of law and you cannot do other than think of him as destined for the condemnation of God.
So Paul sets before the Romans two ways. The one is a way in which a man seeks a right relationship with God through his own efforts. It is doomed to failure. The other is a way in which a man enters by faith into a relationship with God, which by God’s grace for him to come into trust. (Barclay, The Letter to the Romans. 68-69)