Romans 1:16-17 Commentary Series

The Gospel of Christ

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “But the righteous man shall live by faith.” (1:16–17)

After having gained the attention of his readers by explaining the purpose of his writing and then introducing himself (1:1–15), Paul now states the thesis of the epistle. These two verses express the theme of the book of Romans, and they contain the most life-transforming truth God has put into men’s hands. To understand and positively respond to this truth is to have one’s time and eternity completely altered. These words summarize the gospel of Jesus Christ, which Paul then proceeds to unfold and explain throughout the remainder of the epistle. For that reason, our comments here will be somewhat brief and a more detailed discussion of these themes will come later in the study.

As noted at the close of the last chapter, the introductory phrase for I am not ashamed of the gospel adds a final mark of spiritual service to those presented in verses 8–15, the mark of unashamed boldness.

Paul was imprisoned in Philippi, chased out of Thessalonica, smuggled out of Damascus and Berea, laughed at in Athens, considered a fool in Corinth, and declared a blasphemer and lawbreaker in Jerusalem. He was stoned and left for dead at Lystra. Some pagans of Paul’s day branded Christianity as atheism because it believed in only one God and as being cannibalistic because of a misunderstanding of the Lord’s Supper.

But the Jewish religious leaders of Jerusalem did not intimidate Paul, nor did the learned and influential pagans at Ephesus, Athens, and Corinth. The apostle was eager now to preach and teach the gospel in Rome, the capital of the pagan empire that ruled virtually all the known world. He was never deterred by opposition, never disheartened by criticism, and never ashamed, for any reason, of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Although that gospel was then, and still is today, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, it is the only way God has provided for the salvation of men, and Paul was both overjoyed and emboldened by the privilege of proclaiming its truth and power wherever he went.

Although every true believer knows it is a serious sin to be ashamed of his Savior and Lord, he also knows the difficulty of avoiding that sin. When we have opportunity to speak for Christ, we often do not. We know the gospel is unattractive, intimidating, and repulsive to the natural, unsaved person and to the ungodly spiritual system that now dominates the world. The gospel exposes man’s sin, wickedness, depravity, and lostness, and it declares pride to be despicable and works righteousness to be worthless in God’s sight. To the sinful heart of unbelievers, the gospel does not appear to be good news but bad (cf. my comments in chapter 1), and when they first hear it they often react with disdain against the one presenting it or throw out arguments and theories against it. For that reason, fear of men and of not being able to handle their arguments is doubtlessly the single greatest snare in witnessing.

It is said that if a circle of white chalk is traced on the floor around a goose that it will not leave the circle for fear of crossing the white mark. In a similar way, the chalk marks of criticism, ridicule, tradition, and rejection prevent many believers from leaving the security of Christian fellowship to witness to the unsaved.

The so-called health and wealth gospel that has swept through much of the church today is not offensive to the world because it offers what the world wants. But that spurious gospel does not offer the gospel of Jesus Christ. Like the false teaching of the Judaizers, it is “a different gospel,” that is, not the gospel at all but an ungodly distortion (Gal. 1:6–7). Jesus strongly condemned the motives of worldly success and comfort, and those who appeal to such motives play right into the hands of Satan.

A scribe once approached Jesus and said, “Teacher, I will follow You wherever You go.” Knowing the man was unwilling to give up his comforts in order to be a disciple, the Lord answered, “The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head” (Matt. 8:19–20). Shortly after that, “another of the disciples said to Him, ‘Lord, permit me first to go and bury my father.’ ” The phrase “bury my father” did not refer to a funeral service but was a colloquialism for awaiting the father’s death in order to receive the inheritance. Jesus therefore told the man, “Follow Me; and allow the dead to bury their own dead” (vv. 21–22).

Geoffrey Wilson wrote, “The unpopularity of a crucified Christ has prompted many to present a message which is more palatable to the unbeliever, but the removal of the offense of the cross always renders the message ineffective. An inoffensive gospel is also an inoperative gospel. Thus Christianity is wounded most in the house of its friends” (Romans: A Digest of Reformed Comment [Carlisle, Pa.: Banner of Truth, 1976], p. 24).

Some years ago I spoke at a youth rally, after which the wife of the rally director approached me. Expressing an unbiblical mentality that is common in the church today, she said, “Your message offended me, because you preached as if all of these young people were sinners.” I replied, “I’m glad it came across that way, because that is exactly the message I wanted to communicate.”

Paul’s supreme passion was to see men saved. He cared nothing for personal comfort, popularity, or reputation. He offered no compromise of the gospel, because he knew it is the only power available that can change lives for eternity.

In verses 16–17, Paul uses four key words that are crucial to understanding the gospel of Jesus Christ: power, salvation, faith, and righteousness.


for it is the power of God (1:16b)

First of all, Paul declares, the gospel is the power of God. Dunamis (power) is the Greek term from which our word dynamite is derived. The gospel carries with it the omnipotence of God, whose power alone is sufficient to save men from sin and give them eternal life.

People have an innate desire to be changed. They want to look better, feel better, have more money, more power, more influence. The premise of all advertising is that people want to change in some way or another, and the job of the advertiser is to convince them that his product or service will add a desired dimension to their lives. Many people want to be changed inwardly, in a way that will make them feel less guilty and more content, and a host of programs, philosophies, and religions promise to meet those desires. Many man-made schemes succeed in making people feel better about themselves, but the ideas promoted have no power to remove the sin that brings the feelings of guilt and discontent. Nor can those ideas make men right with God. In fact, the more successful such approaches are from their own standpoint, the more they drive people away from God and insulate them from His salvation.

Through Jeremiah, the Lord said, “Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots? Then you also can do good who are accustomed to do evil” (Jer. 13:23). It is not within mans power to change his own nature. In rebuking the Sadducees who tried to entrap Him, Jesus said, “You are mistaken, not understanding the Scriptures, or the power of God” (Matt. 22:29). Only the power of God is able to overcome man’s sinful nature and impart spiritual life.

The Bible makes it clear that men cannot be spiritually changed or saved by good works, by the church, by ritual, or by any other human means. Men cannot be saved even by keeping God’s own law, which was given to show men their helplessness to meet His standards in their own power. The law was not given to save men but to reveal their sin and thus to drive men to God’s saving grace.

Later in Romans, Paul declares man’s impotence and God’s power, saying, “While we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly” (Rom. 5:6), and, “What the law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin” (8:3). Affirming the same basic truth in different words, Peter wrote believers in Asia Minor: “You have been born again not of seed which is perishable but imperishable, that is, through the living and abiding word of God” (1 Pet. 1:23).

Paul reminded the church at Corinth that “the word of the cross is to those who are perishing foolishness, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18), and “we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block, and to Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (vv. 23–25). What to the world seems to be utter absurdity is in fact the power by which God transforms men from the realm of darkness to the realm of light, and delivers them from the power of death and gives them the right to be called the children of God (John 1:12).

Ancient pagans mocked Christianity not only because the idea of substitutionary atonement seemed ridiculous in itself but also because their mythical gods were apathetic, detached, and remote—totally indifferent to the welfare of men. The idea of a caring, redeeming, self-sacrificing God was beyond their comprehension. While excavating ancient ruins in Rome, archaeologists discovered a derisive painting depicting a slave bowing down before a cross with a jackass hanging on it. The caption reads, “Alexamenos worships his god.”

In the late second century this attitude still existed. A man named Celsus wrote a letter bitterly attacking Christianity. “Let no cultured person draw near, none wise, none sensible,” he said, “for all that kind of thing we count evil; but if any man is ignorant, if any is wanting in sense and culture, if any is a fool, let him come boldly [to Christianity]” (William Barclay, The Letters to the Corinthians [Philadelphia: Westminster, 1975], p. 21; cf. Origen’s Against Celsus). “Of the Christians,” he further wrote, “we see them in their own houses, wool dressers, cobblers and fullers, the most uneducated and vulgar persons” (p. 21). He compared Christians to a swarm of bats, to ants crawling out of their nests, to frogs holding a symposium around a swamp, and to worms cowering in the muck!

Not wanting to build on human wisdom or appeal to human understanding, Paul told the Corinthians that “when I came to you, brethren, I did not come with superiority of speech or of wisdom, proclaiming to you the testimony of God. For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:1–2). Later in the letter Paul said, “The kingdom of God does not consist in words, but in power” (4:20), the redeeming power of God.

Every believer, no matter how gifted and mature, has human limitations and weaknesses. Our minds, bodies, and perceptions are imperfect. Yet, incredibly, God uses us as channels of His redeeming and sustaining power when we serve Him obediently.

Scripture certainly testifies to God’s glorious power (Ex. 15:6), His irresistible power (Deut. 32:39), His unsearchable power (Job 5:9), His mighty power (Job 9:4), His great power (Ps. 79:11), His incomparable power (Ps. 89:8), His strong power (Ps. 89:13), His everlasting power (Isa. 26:4), His effectual power (Isa. 43:13), and His sovereign power (Rom. 9:21). Jeremiah declared of God, “It is He who made the earth by His power, who established the world by His wisdom” (Jer. 10:12), and through that prophet the Lord said of Himself, “I have made the earth, the men and the beasts which are on the face of the earth by My great power and by My outstretched arm” (Jer. 27:5). The psalmist admonished, “Let all the earth fear the Lord; let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of Him. For He spoke, and it was done; He commanded, and it stood fast” (Ps. 33:8–9). His is the power that can save.


for salvation (1:16c)

Surely the greatest manifestation of God’s power is that of bringing men to salvation, of transforming their nature and giving them eternal life through His Son. We learn from the psalmist that, despite their rebelliousness, God saved His chosen people “for the sake of His name, that He might make His power known” (Ps. 106:8). As God incarnate, Jesus Christ manifested His divine power in healing diseases, restoring crippled limbs, stilling the storm, and even raising those who were dead.

Paul uses the noun sōtēria (salvation) some nineteen times, five of them in Romans, and he uses the corresponding verb twenty-nine times, eight of them in Romans. The basic idea behind the term is that of deliverance, or rescue, and the point here is that the power of God in salvation rescues people from the ultimate penalty of sin, which is spiritual death extended into tormented eternal separation from Him.

Some people object to terms such as salvation and being saved, claiming that the ideas they convey are out of date and meaningless to contemporary men. But salvation is God’s term, and there is no better one to describe what He offers fallen mankind through the sacrifice of His Son. Through Christ, and Christ alone, men can be saved from sin, from Satan, from judgment, from wrath, and from spiritual death.

Regardless of the words they may use to describe their quest, men are continually looking for salvation of one kind or another. Some look for economic salvation, others for political or social salvation. As already noted, many people look for inner salvation from the guilt, frustrations, and unhappiness that make their lives miserable.

Even before Paul’s day, Greek philosophy had turned inward and begun to focus on changing man’s inner life through moral reform and self-discipline. William Barclay tells us that the Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus called his lecture room “the hospital for sick souls.” Another famous Greek philosopher named Epicurus called his teaching “the medicine of salvation.” Seneca, a Roman statesman and philosopher and contemporary of Paul, taught that all men were looking ad salutem (“toward salvation”). He taught that men are overwhelmingly conscious of their weakness and insufficiency in necessary things and that we therefore need “a hand let down to lift us up” (The Letter to the Romans [Philadelphia: Westminster, 1975], p. 19).

Salvation through Christ is God’s powerful hand, as it were, that He has let down to lift men up. His salvation brings deliverance from the spiritual infection of “this perverse generation” (Acts 2:40), from lostness (Matt. 18:11), from sin (Matt. 1:21), and from the wrath of God (Rom. 5:9). It brings deliverance to men from their gross and willful spiritual ignorance (Hos. 4:6; 2 Thess. 1:8), from their evil self-indulgence (Luke 14:26), and from the darkness of false religion (Col. 1:13; 1 Pet. 2:9), but only for those who believe.


to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. (1:16d)

The fourth key word regarding the gospel is that of faith. The sovereign power of God working through the gospel brings salvation to everyone who believes.

Pisteuō (believes) carries the basic idea of trusting in, relying on, having faith in. When used in the New Testament of salvation, it is usually in the present, continuous form, which could be translated “is believing.” Daily living is filled with acts of faith. We turn on the faucet to get a drink of water, trusting it is safe to drink. We drive across a bridge, trusting it will not collapse under us. Despite occasional disasters, we trust airplanes to fly us safely to our destination. People could not survive without having implicit trust in a great many things. Virtually all of life requires a natural faith. But Paul has in mind here a supernatural faith, produced by God—a “faith that is not of yourselves but the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8).

Eternal life is both gained and lived by faith from God in Jesus Christ. “For by grace you have been saved through faith,” Paul tells us (Eph. 2:8). God does not first ask men to behave but to believe. Man’s efforts at right behavior always fall short of God’s perfect standard, and therefore no man can save himself by his own good works. Good works are the product of salvation (Eph. 2:10), but they are not the means of it.

Salvation is not merely professing to be a Christian, nor is it baptism, moral reform, going to church, receiving sacraments, or living a life of self-discipline and sacrifice. Salvation is believing in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Salvation comes through giving up on one’s own goodness, works, knowledge, and wisdom and trusting in the finished, perfect work of Christ.

Salvation has no national, racial, or ethnic barrier but is given to every person who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. It was to the Jew first chronologically because Jews are God’s specially chosen people, through whom He ordained salvation to come (John 4:22). The Messiah came first to the lost sheep of the house of Israel (Matt. 15:24).

The great Scottish evangelist Robert Haldane wrote,

From the days of Abraham, their great progenitor, the Jews had been highly distinguished from all the rest of the world by their many and great privileges. It was their high distinction that of them Christ came, “who is over all, God blessed for ever.” They were thus, as His kinsmen, the royal family of the human race, in this respect higher than all others, and they inherited Emmanuel’s land. While, therefore, the evangelical covenant, and consequently justification and salvation, equally regarded all believers, the Jews held the first rank as the ancient people of God, while the other nations were strangers from the covenants of promise. The preaching of the Gospel was to be addressed to them first, and, at the beginning, to them alone, Matt. 10:6; for, during the abode of Jesus Christ upon earth, He was the minister only of the circumcision, Rom. 15:8. “l am not sent,” He says, “but to the lost sheep of the house of Israel”; and He commanded that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name among all nations, “beginning at Jerusalem.” … Thus, while Jews and Gentiles were united in the participation of the Gospel, the Jews were not deprived of their rank, since they were the first called.

The preaching of the Gospel to the Jews first served various important ends. It fulfilled Old Testament prophecies, as Isa. 2:3. It manifested the compassion of the Lord Jesus for those who shed His blood, to whom, after His resurrection, He commanded His Gospel to be first proclaimed. It showed that it was to be preached to the chief of sinners, and proved the sovereign efficacy of His Atonement in expatiating [sic] the guilt even of His murderers. It was fit, too, that the Gospel should be begun to be preached where the great transactions took place on which it was founded and established; and this furnished an example of the way in which it is the will of the Lord that His Gospel should be propagated by His disciples, beginning in their own houses and their own country. (An Exposition of the Epistle to the Romans [MacDill AFB, Fla.: MacDonald Publishing Co., 1958], p. 48)

All who believe may be saved. Only those who truly believe will be.


For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “But the righteous man shall live by faith.” (1:17)

The fourth key word Paul uses here regarding the gospel is righteousness, a term he uses over thirty-five times in the book of Romans alone. Faith activates the divine power that brings salvation, and in that sovereign act the righteousness of God is revealed. A better rendering is from God, indicating that He imparts His own righteousness to those who believe. It is thereby not only revealed but reckoned to those who believe in Christ (Rom. 4:5).

Paul confessed to the Philippians, “I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish in order that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith” (Phil. 3:8–9). “But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3:21–24).

The German pietist Count Zinzendorf wrote, in a profound hymn,

Jesus, Thy blood and righteousness

My beauty are, my glorious dress;

’Midst flaming worlds, in these arrayed,

With joy shall I lift up my head.

Bold shall I stand in Thy great day,

For who aught to my charge shall lay?

Fully absolved through these I am,

From sin and fear, from guilt and shame.

From faith to faith seems to parallel “everyone who believes” in the previous verse. If so, the idea is “from faith to faith to faith to faith,” as if Paul were singling out the faith of each individual believer.

Salvation by His grace working through man’s faith was always God’s plan, as Paul here implies in quoting from Habakkuk 2:4, as it is written, “But the righteous man shall live by faith.” Abraham, the father of the faithful, believed, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness (Rom. 4:3), just as every person’s genuine faith, before and after Abraham, has been reckoned to him as righteousness (see Heb. 11:4–40).

There is emphasis here on the continuity of faith. It is not a one-time act, but a way of life. The true believer made righteous will live in faith all his life. Theologians have called this “the perseverance of the saints” (cf. Col. 1:22–23; Heb. 3:12–14).[1]

The Theme of the Epistle

Romans 1:16–17

I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”

In the sixteenth and seventeenth verses of Romans 1, we come to sentences that are the most important in the letter and perhaps in all literature. They are the theme of this epistle and the essence of Christianity. They are the heart of biblical religion.

The reason this is so is that they tell how a man or woman may become right with God. We are not right with God in ourselves. This is what the doctrine of original sin is all about. We are in rebellion against God; and if we are in rebellion against God, we cannot be right with him. On the contrary, we are to be judged by him. What is more, we are polluted by our sin. We are as filthy in God’s sight as the most disease infected, loathsome individual could be in ours, and in that state we must be banished from his presence forever when we die.

What is to be done? On our side, nothing can be done. Yet in these sentences Paul tells us that God has done something. In fact, he has done precisely what needs to be done. He has provided a righteousness that is exactly what we need. It is a divine righteousness, a perfect righteousness. And it is received, not by doing righteous things (which we can never do in sufficient quantity anyway), but by simple faith. It is received merely by believing what God tells us.

No One Righteous

In the next chapter, continuing our study of this very important section of the letter to the Roman church, I will show why Paul was not ashamed of this gospel. Here, however, I want to concentrate on the chief idea in these two verses, namely, that in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed and that this righteousness is received (and has always been received) by faith. The place to begin is with the fact that in ourselves we do not possess this righteousness.

There can be little objection to the statement that we do not possess true righteousness, because this is the point with which Paul begins his formal argument. That is, immediately after having stated his thesis in verses 16 and 17, Paul launches into a section extending from 1:18 to 3:20, in which he shows that far from being righteous before God, men and women are actually very corrupt and are all therefore naturally objects of God’s just wrath and condemnation.

I make the point in this way. Notice that in verse 17 (our text here), Paul says that “a righteousness from God is revealed.” Then notice that in 3:21, he says virtually the same thing once again: “But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known to which the Law and the Prophets testify.” The words “is made known” mean “is revealed,” and the reference to “the Law and the Prophets” corresponds to Paul’s citation of a specific statement of the prophet Habakkuk in the earlier verse: “just as it is written: ‘the righteous will live by faith.’ ” So the full exposition of what Paul introduces in 1:17 begins only at 3:21.

So what occupies the intervening verses? They are a statement of the need for this righteousness, introduced by a parallel but deliberate contrast with these two statements. At the start of this section, instead of speaking of any revelation of righteousness, Paul declares: “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness” (v. 18, italics mine).

What Paul says in Romans 1:18 through 3:20 embraces all persons. But he develops his thoughts progressively, moving from a description of those who are openly hostile to God and wicked to those who consider themselves to be either moral, and therefore acceptable to God on the basis of their own good works, or else religious, and therefore acceptable on the basis of their religious practices.

One thing is true of everyone. Left to ourselves, we use either our heathen lifestyle, our claims to moral superiority, or our religion to resist the true God. Paul says that certain facts about God have been revealed to all people in nature. But instead of allowing that revelation to point us to God and then attempting to seek him out as a result of it, we actually suppress the revelation God has given in order to continue in our own wicked ways. This is the real grounds of God’s just wrath against us—not that we have failed to do something that we could not do or refused to believe something that we did not even know about, but that we have rejected the knowledge we have in order to pursue wickedness. When he gets to the end of this section Paul is therefore quite right in concluding, quoting from many Old Testament texts:

As it is written:

“There is no one righteous, not even one;

there is no one who understands,

no one who seeks God.

All have turned away,

they have together become worthless;

there is no one who does good,

not even one.”

“Their throats are open graves;

their tongues practice deceit.”

“The poison of vipers is on their lips.”

“Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.”

“Their feet are swift to shed blood;

ruin and misery mark their ways,

and the way of peace they do not know.”

“There is no fear of God before their eyes.”

Romans 3:10–18

We may not like this description of ourselves (who would?), but it is God’s accurate assessment of our depraved lives and civilization.

A Righteousness from God

In all literature there is no portrait of the human race so realistic, grim, or hopeless as this summation of Paul’s. Yet it makes the wonder of the gospel all the more glorious, for it is against this background that “a righteousness from God” is made known.

We need to see several important things about it.

  1. This righteousness from God is the righteousness of the Lord Jesus Christ. In 1:17 and 3:21, Paul says that righteousness “comes through faith in Jesus Christ.” But it is surely right to add, in view of what Paul said in the opening section of this letter (and says elsewhere), that this is the very righteousness of Christ, which God gives to us. Righteousness is revealed in the gospel—Paul says so—but the gospel concerns Jesus Christ (1:2–3). So it is Christ who has this righteousness, and it is from him that we both learn about it and receive it.

Jesus possesses righteousness in two senses, both important. First, Jesus is intrinsically righteous. That is, being God, he is utterly holy and without sin. That is why he could say during the days of his flesh, “I always do what pleases him [that is, God]” (John 8:29b) or, as he said to his enemies on another occasion, “Can any of you prove me guilty of sin?” (John 8:46a). His words left them speechless.

Jesus is also righteous in that he achieved a perfect righteousness by his obedience to the law of God while on earth. When John the Baptist resisted Jesus’ call for baptism, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness” (Matt. 3:14–15). By saying that it was proper for him to be baptized in order “to fulfill all righteousness,” Jesus showed that he intended to fulfill the demands of the law while he lived among us. And he did. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones has written:

He rendered a perfect obedience to the law; he kept it in every jot and tittle. He failed in no respect. He fulfilled God’s law completely, perfectly, and absolutely. Not only that! He has dealt with the penalty meted out by the law upon all sin and upon all sins. He took your guilt and mine upon himself, and he bore its punishment. The penalty of the law was meted out upon him, and so he has honored the law completely, positively and negatively, actively and passively. There is nothing further the law can demand; he has satisfied it all.

When Paul says that righteousness from God is revealed in the gospel, he means that the gospel shows how we can acquire the righteousness we need. But this does not exclude the truth that the existence and nature of this righteousness are also revealed to us in Christ’s person. In Christ we can see that righteousness truly exists and can be offered to us by God.

  1. God offers this righteousness of Jesus Christ freely, apart from any need to work for it on our part. This is the heart of the Good News, of course. For unless God were willing to give this righteousness to us and actually does give it, the mere existence of a perfect righteousness would not be good news at all. On the contrary, it would be very bad news, for it would increase our sense of condemnation.

It was the discovery of this truth that transformed Martin Luther and through him launched the Reformation. Luther was aware that Jesus exhibited a perfect righteousness and that this was a standard of character rightly demanded from all human beings by God. But Luther did not have this righteousness. In fact, the more he tried to achieve this righteousness, the more elusive it became. It was Luther’s very piety that created the problem. He wanted to be righteous. He wanted to please God. But the more he worked at pleasing God, the more he knew that pleasing God involved more than merely doing certain things and refusing to do others. He knew that pleasing God involved even the very attitudes in which he did or did not do these things. Basically he needed to love God, and he knew he did not love God. He actually hated God for making the standard of righteousness so impossible.

As I pointed out in the introductory chapter of this book, Luther wrote, “I had no love for that holy and just God who punishes sinners. I was filled with secret anger against him.”

But then Luther discovered that he had misunderstood God’s intention in revealing the nature and existence of this righteousness. It was not revealed so that men and women like Luther might strive toward it and inevitably fail desperately, as Luther did. It was revealed as God’s free gift in Christ, so that those who came to know Christ might stop their fruitless striving and instead rest in him. They could rest in his atoning death on their behalf, since he took the punishment of their sins upon himself and paid for them fully so that their sins might never rise up to haunt them again. They could rest in righteousness, knowing that God had given it to them and that they could thereafter stand before God, not in their own self-righteousness, which is no righteousness at all, but in the very righteousness of Christ.

The term for the application of the righteousness of Christ to the sinner is “imputation.” It is like putting the infinite moral capital of the Lord Jesus Christ in our empty bank account. It is having the riches of heaven at our disposal. When Luther saw this, it was as if the doors of heaven had been opened and he was able to pass through “the true gate of Paradise.”

  1. Faith is the channel by which sinners receive Christ’s righteousness. Paul lived many centuries before the Reformation, but he seems to have anticipated the sixteenth-century battles over the role of faith in salvation by the way he emphasizes faith both in this initial statement of his thesis and in his fuller development of the role of faith in receiving the gospel in 3:21–31. In Romans 1:17, he speaks of “a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith,’ ” quoting Habakkuk 2:4 (italics mine). In 3:21–31 he refers to “faith” eight times.

What is faith? Initially Luther thought of faith as a work and therefore grimly regarded it as something else to be attained. But faith is not a work. It is believing God. It is opening a hand to receive the righteousness of Christ that God offers.

Faith consists of three elements. First, it consists of knowledge. It is no mere attitude of mind; it involves content. We must have faith in “something.” In the case of salvation that content (and the object of our knowledge) is the revelation of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ.

Second, faith consists of a heart response to the gospel. This is because faith is not assent to some principle that is true but nevertheless has little relationship to us. It involves the love of God for us in saving us through the death of Jesus Christ, his Son. Unless this touches our hearts and moves them, we do not really understand the gospel.

Finally, faith consists of commitment, commitment to Christ. At this point, Jesus becomes not merely a Savior in some abstract sense or even someone else’s Savior, but my Savior. Like Thomas, I now gladly confess him to be “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28, italics mine).

In an excellent little book entitled All of Grace, the great Baptist preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon wrote, “Faith is not a blind thing; for faith begins with knowledge. It is not a speculative thing; for faith believes facts of which it is sure. It is not an unpractical, dreamy thing; for faith trusts, and stakes its destiny upon the truth of revelation.… Faith … is the eye which looks.… Faith is the hand which grasps … Faith is the mouth which feeds upon Christ.”

One person who read Romans 10:8 (“ ‘The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart’ ”) exclaimed, “Give me a knife and a fork and a chance.” He had the idea. He was prepared to receive the gospel personally.

Another who had the idea was Count Zinzendorf. His great hymn about justification through the righteousness of Christ received by faith comes to us through the translation of John Wesley:

Jesus, thy blood and righteousness

My beauty are, my glorious dress;

‘Midst flaming worlds, in these arrayed,

With joy shall I lift up my head.

Bold shall I stand in thy great day,

For who aught to my charge shall lay?

Fully absolved through these I am,

From sin and fear, from guilt and shame.

O let the dead now hear thy voice;

Now bid thy banished ones rejoice;

Their beauty this, their glorious dress,

Jesus, thy blood and righteousness.

It was by faith in the completed work of Christ and God’s gift of Christ’s righteousness to believing men and women that Zinzendorf expected to stand before God in the day of judgment and be accepted by him.

“Nothing in My Hands”

This was Paul’s expectation and experience, too. He tells of his experience of God’s grace in Philippians.

Paul had been an exceedingly moral man: “.… If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless” (Phil. 3:4–6). But Paul learned to count his attainments as nothing in order to have Christ “and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith” (v. 9). This is a vivid, personal statement of what he also declares at the beginning of Romans.

In Philippians, Paul uses a helpful metaphor, saying that before he met Christ his thoughts about religion involved something like a lifelong balance sheet showing assets and liabilities. He had thought that being saved meant having more in the column of assets than in the column of liabilities. And since he had considerable assets, he felt that he was very well off indeed.

Some assets he had inherited. Among them were the facts that he had been born into a Jewish family and had been circumcised according to Jewish law on the eighth day of life. He was neither a proselyte who had been circumcised later in life, nor an Ishmaelite who was circumcised when he was thirteen years of age. He was a pure-blooded Jew, having been born of two Jewish parents (“a Hebrew of Hebrews”). As an Israelite he was a member of God’s covenant people. He was of the tribe of Benjamin. Moreover, Paul had assets he had earned for himself. He was a Pharisee, the strictest and most faithful of the Jewish religious orders. He was a zealous Pharisee, proved by his persecution of the church. And, as far as the law was concerned, Paul reckoned himself to be blameless, for he had kept the law in all its particulars so far as he had understood it.

These were great assets from a human point of view. But the day came when God revealed his own righteousness to Paul in the person of Jesus Christ. When Paul saw Jesus he understood for the first time what real righteousness was. Moreover, he saw that what he had been calling righteousness, his own righteousness, was not righteousness at all but only filthy rags. It was no asset. It was actually a liability, because it had been keeping him from Jesus, where alone true righteousness could be found.

Mentally Paul moved his long list of cherished assets to the column of liabilities—for that is what they really were—and under assets he wrote “Jesus Christ alone.”

Augustus M. Toplady had it right in the hymn “Rock of Ages”:

Nothing in my hand I bring,

Simply to thy cross I cling;

Naked, come to thee for dress;

Helpless, look to thee for grace;

Foul, I to the fountain fly;

Wash me, Saviour, or I die.

Rock of Ages, cleft for me,

Let me hide myself in thee.

When those who have been made alive by God turn from their own attempts at righteousness, which can only condemn them, and instead embrace the Lord Jesus Christ by saving faith, God declares their sins to have been punished in Christ and imputes his own perfect righteousness to their account.

Not Ashamed

Romans 1:16–17

I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”

At first glance it is an extraordinary thing that Paul should say that he is “not ashamed” of the gospel. For when we read that statement we ask, “But why should anybody be ashamed of the gospel? Why should the apostle even think that something so grand might be shameful?” Questions like that are not very deep or honest, since we have all been ashamed of the gospel at one time or another.

The reason is that the world is opposed to God’s gospel and ridicules it, and we are all far more attuned to the world than we imagine. The gospel was despised in Paul’s day. Robert Haldane has written accurately:

By the pagans it was branded as atheism, and by the Jews it was abhorred as subverting the law and tending to licentiousness, while both Jews and Gentiles united in denouncing the Christians as disturbers of the public peace, who, in their pride and presumption, separated themselves from the rest of mankind. Besides, a crucified Savior was to the one a stumbling-block, and to the other foolishness. This doctrine was everywhere spoken against, and the Christian fortitude of the apostle in acting on the avowal he here makes was as truly manifested in the calmness with which, for the name of the Lord Jesus, he confronted personal danger and even death itself. His courage was not more conspicuous when he was ready “not to be bound only, but also to die at Jerusalem,” than when he was enabled to enter Athens or Rome without being moved by the prospect of all that scorn and derision which in these great cities awaited him.

Is the situation different in our day? It is true that today’s culture exhibits a certain veneer of religious tolerance, so that well-bred people are careful not to scorn Christians openly. But the world is still the world, and hostility to God is always present. If you have never been ashamed of the gospel, the probable reason, as D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones suggests, is not that you are “an exceptionally good Christian,” but rather that “your understanding of the Christian message has never been clear.”

Was Paul tempted to shame, as we are? Probably. We know that Timothy was, since Paul wrote him to tell him not to be (2 Tim. 1:8). However, in our text Paul writes that basically he was “not ashamed of the gospel,” and the reason is that “it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith.’ ”

In this study, following the treatment of D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, I want to suggest eight reasons why we should not be ashamed of this gospel.

The Gospel Is “Good News”

The first reason why we should not be ashamed of the gospel is the meaning of the word gospel itself. It means “good news,” and no rational person should be ashamed of a desirable proclamation.

We can understand why one might hesitate to convey bad news, of course. We can imagine a policeman who must tell a father that his son has been arrested for breaking into a neighbor’s house and stealing her possessions. We can understand how he might be distressed at having to communicate this sad message. Or again, we can imagine how a doctor might be dismayed at having to tell a patient that tests have come out badly and that he or she does not have long to live, or how a person involved in some great moral lapse might be ashamed to confess it. But the gospel is not like this. It is the opposite. Instead of being bad news, it is good news about what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. It is the best news imaginable.

The Way of Salvation

The second reason why we should not be ashamed of the gospel is that it is about “salvation.” And not just any salvation. It is about the saving of ourselves.

The background for this side of the Good News is that, left to ourselves, we are in desperate trouble. We are in trouble now because we are at odds with God, other people, and ourselves. We are also in trouble in regard to the future; for we are on a path of increasing frustration and despair, and at the end we must face God’s just wrath and condemnation. We are like swimmers drowning in a vast ocean of cold water or explorers sinking in a deep bog of quicksand. We are like astronauts lost in the black hostile void of outer space. We are like prisoners awaiting execution.

But there is good news! God has intervened to rescue us through the work of his divine Son, Jesus Christ. First, he has reconciled us to himself; Christ has died for us, bearing our sins in his own body on the cross. Second, he has reconciled us to others; we are now set free to love them as Jesus loved us. Third, he has reconciled us to ourselves; in Jesus Christ (and by the power of the Holy Spirit) we are now able to become what God has always meant for us to be.

We can say this in yet other ways. Salvation delivers us from the guilt, power, and pollution of sin. We are brought back into communication with God, from whom our sins had separated us. And we are given a marvelous destiny, which Paul elsewhere describes as “the hope of the glory of God” (Rom. 5:2). In 1 Corinthians 1:30 Paul expresses these truths somewhat comprehensively when he writes that “Christ Jesus … has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption.” Paul was not ashamed of the gospel, because it was about a real deliverance—from sin and its power—and about reconciliation to God.

God’s Way of Salvation

The third reason why Paul was not ashamed of the gospel is that it is God’s way of salvation and not man’s way. How could Paul be proud of something that has its roots in the abilities of sinful men and women or is bounded by mere human ideas? The world does not lack such ideas. There are countless schemes for salvation, countless self-help programs. But these are all foolish and inadequate. What is needed is a way of salvation that comes not from man, but from God! That is what we have in Christianity! Christianity is God’s reaching out to save perishing men and women, not sinners reaching out to seize God.

Paul speaks about this in two major ways, contrasting God’s way of salvation with our own attempts to keep the law, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, with our attempts to know God by mere human wisdom.

As to the law, he says, “For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in sinful man, in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit” (Rom. 8:3–4). This means that, although we could not please God by keeping the law’s demands, God enables us to please him, first, by condemning sin in us through the work of Jesus Christ and, then, by enabling us to live upright lives through the power of the Holy Spirit.

As to wisdom, Paul writes, “For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe” (1 Cor. 1:21).

The Power of God

This leads to the fourth reason why Paul was not ashamed of the gospel, the matter he chiefly emphasizes in our text: The gospel is powerful. That is, it is not only good news, not only a matter of salvation, not only a way of salvation from God; it is also powerful enough to accomplish God’s purpose, which is to save us from sin’s pollution.

It is important to understand what is involved here, for it is easy to misconstrue Paul’s teaching. When Paul says that “the gospel … is the power of God for salvation,” he is not saying that the gospel is about God’s power, as if it were merely pointing us to a power beyond our own. Nor is Paul saying that the gospel is the source of a power we can get and use to save ourselves. Paul’s statement is not that the gospel is about God’s power or even a channel through which that power operates, but rather that the gospel is itself that power. That is, the gospel is powerful; it is the means by which God accomplishes salvation in those who are being saved.

Since Paul puts it this way, we are right to agree with John Calvin when he emphasizes that the gospel mentioned here is not merely the work done by God in Jesus Christ or the revelation to us of that work, but the actual “preaching” of the gospel “by word of mouth.” He means that it is in the actual preaching of the gospel that the power of God is demonstrated in the saving of men and women.

In the previous section I quoted what the King James Version calls “the foolishness of preaching” (1 Cor. 1:21), and since that is Paul’s own phrase, we can see it as proof that Paul was himself aware of how foolish the proclamation of the Christian message is if considered only from a human point of view. Some years ago I had the task of talking about “The Foolishness of Preaching” as one message of seven in a weekend conference on reformed theology. My address came after a break for lunch in the middle of what was a very long Saturday, and I began by saying that if there was anything more foolish than the foolishness of preaching, it was preaching about the foolishness of preaching after lunch on a day during which the listeners had already heard a number of other very distinguished preachers. It was a way of capturing what every preacher feels at one time or another as he rises to proclaim a message that to the natural mind is utter folly and that is as incapable of doing good in the hearers as preaching a message of moral reformation to the corpses in a cemetery—unless God works.

But that is just the point! God does work through the preaching of this gospel—not preaching for its own sake, but the faithful proclamation of God’s work of salvation for sinful men and women in Jesus Christ.

Let me say this another way since it is so important. We read in the first chapter of Acts that when the Lord Jesus Christ dispatched his disciples to the world with his gospel, he told them: “… you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (v. 8). Earlier they had been asking about the kingdom of God, no doubt thinking of an earthly, political kingdom, which they highly valued and hoped for. But Jesus’ reply pointed them to something far greater. His was a spiritual kingdom—not spiritual in the sense of being less than real, but a kingdom to be established in power by the very Spirit of God—and they were to be witnesses for him. Moreover, as they witnessed, the Holy Spirit, which was to come upon them, would bless their proclamation and lead many to faith.

And so it happened. Three thousand believed at Pentecost. Thousands more believed on other occasions.

So also today. The world does not understand this divine working, but it is nevertheless true that the most important thing happening in the world at any given time is the preaching of the gospel. For there the Spirit of God is at work. There men and women are delivered from the bondage of sin and set free spiritually. Lives are transformed—and it is all by God’s power. As D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones says, “The thing to grasp is that the apostle is saying that he is not ashamed of the gospel, because it is of God’s mighty working. It is God himself doing this thing—not simply telling us about it: doing it, and doing it in this way, through the gospel.”

A Gospel for Everyone

The fifth reason why Paul was not ashamed of this gospel is that it is a gospel for everyone—“everyone who believes.” It is “first for the Jew” and then also “for the Gentile.”

Paul’s phrase “first for the Jew, then for the Gentile” has led readers to think that he was saying something like “to the Jew above the Gentile” or “to the Jew simply because he is a Jew and therefore of greater importance than other people.” But, of course, this is not what Paul intends. In this text Paul means exactly the same thing Jesus meant when he told the woman of Samaria that “salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22). Both were speaking chronologically. Both meant that in the systematic disclosure of the gospel the Jews had occupied a first and important place. This was because, as Paul says later in Romans, theirs was “the adoption as sons; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises. Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of Jesus Christ …” (Rom. 9:3–5). No one can fully understand the gospel if he or she neglects this historical preparation for it.

But this does not mean that Paul is setting the Jew above the Gentile in this text or, as some would desire by contrast, that he is setting the Gentile above the Jew. On the contrary, Paul’s point is that the gospel is for Gentile and Jew alike. It is for everybody.

Why? Because it is the power of God, and God is no respecter of persons. If the gospel were of human power only, it would be limited by human interests and abilities. It would be for some and not others. It would be for the strong but not for the weak, or the weak but not for the strong. It would be for the intelligent but not the foolish, or the foolish but not the wise. It would be for the noble or the well-bred or the sensitive or the poor or the rich or whatever, to the exclusion of those who do not fit the categories. But this is not the way it is. The gospel is for everyone. John wrote, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16, italics mine). At Pentecost Peter declared, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Acts 2:21; cf. Joel 2:32). Indeed, the Bible ends on this note: “The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come!’ And let him who hears say, ‘Come!’ Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take of the free gift of the water of life” (Rev. 22:17). (I have added italics to these passages to emphasize this important point.)

How can one be ashamed of a gospel which offers hope to the vilest, most desperate of men, as well as to the most respectable person? How can we be ashamed of anything so gloriously universal.

Salvation Revealed to Sinners

The sixth reason why Paul was not ashamed of the gospel is that God has revealed this way of salvation to us. The gospel would be wonderful even if God had not revealed it. But, of course, if he had not revealed it, we would not know of it and would be living with the same dreary outlook on life as the unsaved. But the gospel is revealed. Now we not only know about the Good News but are also enabled to proclaim God’s revelation.

And there is this, too: When Paul says that the gospel of God “is revealed,” he is saying that it is only by revelation that we can know it. It is not something we could ever have figured out for ourselves. How could we have invented such a thing? When human beings invent religion they either invent something that makes them self-righteous, imagining that they can save themselves by their own good works or wisdom—or they invent something that excuses their behavior so they can commit the evil they desire. In other words, they become either legalists or antinomians. The gospel produces neither. It does not produce legalists, because salvation is by the accomplishment of Christ, not the accomplishments of human beings.

Christians must always sing: “Nothing in my hand I bring, / Simply to thy cross I cling.” But at the same time, simply because they have been saved by the Lord Jesus Christ and have his Spirit within them, Christians inevitably strive for and actually achieve a level of practical righteousness of which the world cannot even dream.

A Righteousness from God

The seventh reason why Paul was not ashamed of the gospel is the one we considered most fully in the previous chapter, namely, that it concerns a righteousness from God, which is what we need. In ourselves we are not the least bit righteous. On the contrary, we are corrupted by sin and are in rebellion against God. To be saved from wrath we need a righteousness that is of God’s own nature, a righteousness that comes from God and fully satisfies God’s demands. This is what we have! It is why Paul can begin his exposition of the Good News in chapter 3 by declaring, “But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify” (v. 21). (As previously mentioned, this verse is a repetition of the thesis presented first in Romans 1:17.)

By Faith from First to Last

The eighth and final reason why the apostle Paul was not ashamed of the gospel is that the means by which this glorious gift becomes ours is faith, which means that salvation is accessible to “everyone who believes.”

What does Paul mean when he writes, ek pisteōs eis pistin (literally, “from faith to faith”)? Does he mean, as the New International Version seems to imply, “by faith entirely” (that is, “by faith from first to last”)? Does he mean “from the faith of the Old Testament to the faith of the New Testament” or, which may be almost the same thing, “from the faith of the Jew to the faith of the Gentile”? Does he mean “from weak faith to stronger faith,” the view apparently of John Calvin? In my opinion, the quotation from Habakkuk throws light on how the words ek pistẽs are to be taken. They mean “by faith”; that is, they concern “a righteousness that is by faith.” If this is so, if this is how the first “faith” should be taken, then, the meaning of the phrase is that the righteousness that is by faith (the first “faith”) is revealed to the perceiving faith of the believer (the second “faith”). This means that the gospel is revealed to you and is for you—if you will have it.

Martin Luther’s Text

Romans 1:17

For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”

In the year 1920 an English preacher by the name of Frank W. Boreham published a book of sermons on great Bible texts, in each case linking his text to the spiritual history of a great Christian man or woman. He called his book Texts That Made History. There was David Livingstone’s text: Matthew 28:20 (“Surely I will be with you always, to the very end of the age”). There was John Wesley’s text: Zechariah 3:2 (“Is not this man a burning stick snatched from the fire?”). There were twenty-three sermons in this book, and Boreham published four more similar books in his lifetime.

Of all the texts that are associated with the lives of great Christians, none is so clearly one man’s text or so obviously a driving, molding force in that man’s life as Roman 1:17. And, of course, the man whose text it was is Martin Luther.

I propose that we study Romans 1:17 from the standpoint of Luther’s life. Already we have seen that Romans 1:16–17 are the theme verses of this important Bible book. We have studied them from two perspectives. The first study focused on the chief idea: that there is a righteousness from God, which God freely offers human beings and which alone is the basis of their justification before him. It is received by faith. The second study worked through these verses in detail, showing eight reasons why Paul could say (and all true believers today can continue to say) that they are not ashamed of God’s gospel. In this study we want to see the outworking of that gospel in the life of just one man, Martin Luther.

In the Convent at Erfurt

Martin Luther began his academic life by studying law, which was his father’s desire for him. But although he excelled in his studies and gave every promise of becoming successful in his profession, Luther was troubled in soul and greatly agitated at the thought that one day he would have to meet God and give an account before him. In his boyhood days he had looked at the frowning face of Jesus in the stained-glass window of the parish church at Mansfeld and had trembled. When friends died, as during his college days two of his closest friends did, Luther trembled more. One day he would die—he knew not when—and he knew that Jesus would judge him.

On August 17, 1505, Luther suddenly left the university and entered the monastery of the Augustinian hermits at Erfurt. He was twenty-one years old, and he entered the convent, as he later said, not to study theology but to save his soul.

In those days in the monastic orders there were ways by which the seeking soul was directed to find God, and Luther, with the determination and force that characterized his entire life, gave himself rigorously to the Augustinian plan. He fasted and prayed. He devoted himself to menial tasks. Above all he adhered to the sacrament of penance, confessing even the most trivial sins, for hours on end, until his superiors wearied of his exercise and ordered him to cease confession until he had committed some sin worth confessing. Luther’s piety gained him a reputation of being the most exemplary of monks. Later he wrote to the Duke of Saxony:

I was indeed a pious monk and followed the rules of my order more strictly than I can express. If ever a monk could obtain heaven by his monkish works, I should certainly have been entitled to it. Of this all the friars who have known me can testify. If it had continued much longer, I should have carried my mortification even to death, by means of my watchings, prayers, reading and other labors.

Still, Luther found no peace through these exercises.

The monkish wisdom of the day instructed him to satisfy God’s demand for righteousness by doing good works. “But what works?” thought Luther. “What works can come from a heart like mine? How can I stand before the holiness of my Judge with works polluted in their very source?”

In Luther’s agony of soul, God sent him a wise spiritual father by the name of John Staupitz, the vicar-general of the congregation. Staupitz tried to uncover Luther’s difficulties. “Why are you so sad, brother Martin?” Staupitz asked one day.

“I do not know what will become of me,” replied Luther with a deep sigh.

“More than a thousand times have I sworn to our holy God to live piously, and I have never kept my vows,” said Staupitz. “Now I swear no longer, for I know that I cannot keep my solemn promises. If God will not be merciful towards me for the love of Christ and grant me a happy departure when I must quit this world, I shall never with the aid of all my vows and all my good works stand before him. I must perish.”

The thought of divine justice terrified Luther, and he opened up his fears to the vicar-general.

Staupitz knew where he himself had found peace and pointed it out to the young man: “Why do you torment yourself with all these speculations and these high thoughts?… Look at the wounds of Jesus Christ, to the blood that he has shed for you; it is there that the grace of God will appear to you. Instead of torturing yourself on account of your sins, throw yourself into the Redeemer’s arms. Trust in him—in the righteousness of his life—in the atonement of his death. Do not shrink back. God is not angry with you; it is you who are angry with God. Listen to the Son of God.”

But how could Luther do that? Where could he hear the Son of God speak to him as Staupitz said he would? “In the Bible,” said the vicar-general. It was thus that Luther, who had only first seen a Bible in his college days shortly before entering the cloister, began to study Scripture.

He studied Romans, and as he pondered over the words of our text the truth began to dawn on him. The righteousness we need in order to stand before the holy God is not a righteousness we can attain. In fact, it is not human righteousness at all. It is divine righteousness, and it becomes ours as a result of God’s free giving. Our part is merely to receive it by faith and to live by faith in God’s promise. Guided by this new light, Luther began to compare Scripture with Scripture, and as he did he found that the passages of the Bible that formerly alarmed him now brought comfort.

In his sermon on Luther’s text, Boreham describes a famous painting that represents Luther at this stage of his pilgrimage. The setting is early morning in the convent library at Erfurt, and the artist shows Luther as a young monk in his early twenties, poring over a copy of the Bible from which a bit of broken chain is hanging. The dawn is stealing through the lattice, illuminating both the open Bible and the face of its eager reader. On the page the young monk is so carefully studying are the words: “The just shall live by faith.”

The Road to Rome

In 1510, five years after he had become a monk and two years after he had begun to teach the Bible at the new University of Wittenberg, Luther was sent by his order to Rome.

On the way, while being entertained at the Benedictine monastery at Bologna, Luther fell dangerously ill and relapsed into the gloomy dejection over spiritual matters that was so natural to him. “To die thus, far from Germany, in a foreign land—what a sad fate!” D’Aubigné wrote, “… the distress of mind that he had felt at Erfurt returned with renewed force. The sense of his sinfulness troubled him; the prospect of God’s judgment filled him once more with dread. But at the very moment that these terrors had reached their highest pitch, the words of St. Paul, ‘The just shall live by faith,’ recurred forcibly to his memory and enlightened his soul like a ray from heaven.” Luther was learning to live by faith, which was what the text was teaching. Comforted and eventually restored to health, he resumed his journey across the hot Italian plains to Rome.

“Thou Holy Rome, Thrice Holy”

Luther had been sent to Rome on church business. But, in spite of this, he approached the ancient imperial city as a pilgrim. When he first caught sight of Rome on his way south he raised his hands in ecstasy, exclaiming, “I greet thee, thou holy Rome, thrice holy from the blood of the martyrs.” When he arrived, he began his rounds of the relics, shrines, and churches. He listened to the superstitious tales that were told him. At one chapel, when told of the benefits of saying Mass there, he thought that he could almost wish his parents were dead, because he could then have assured them against purgatory by his actions.

Yet Rome was not the center of light and piety Luther had imagined. At this time, the Mass—at which the body and blood of Jesus were thought to be offered up by the priests as a sacrifice for sins—was the center of Luther’s devotion, and he often said Mass at Rome. Luther performed the ceremony with the solemnity and dignity it seemed to him to require. But not the Roman priests! They laughed at the simplicity of the rustic German monk. Once, while he was repeating one Mass, the priests at an adjoining altar rushed through seven of them, calling out in Latin to Luther, “Quick, quick, send our Lady back her Son.” On another occasion, Luther had only reached the gospel portion of the Mass when the priest administering beside him terminated his. “Passa, passa,” he cried to Luther. “Have done with it at once.”

Luther was invited to meetings of distinguished ecclesiastics. There the priests often ridiculed and mocked Christian rites. Laughing and with apparent pride, they told how, when they were standing at the altar repeating the words that were to transform the bread and wine into the body and blood of the Lord, they said instead (no doubt with solemn intonation), “Panis es, et panis manebis; vinum es, et vinum manebis” (“Bread you are, and bread you will remain; wine you are, and wine you will remain”). Luther could hardly believe his ears. Later he wrote, “No one can imagine what sins and infamous actions are committed in Rome; they must be seen and heard to be believed. Thus, they are in the habit of saying, ‘If there is a Hell, Rome is built over it; it is an abyss whence issues every kind of sin.’ ” He concluded, “The nearer we approach Rome, the greater number of bad Christians we meet with.”

Then there occurred the famous incident told many years later by Luther’s son, Dr. Paul Luther, and preserved in a manuscript in the library of Rudolfstadt. In the Church of St. John Lateran in Rome there is a set of medieval stone stairs said to have originally been the stairs leading up to Pilate’s house in Jerusalem, once trod upon by the Lord. For this reason they were called the Scala Sancta or “Holy Stairs.” It was the custom for pilgrims, like Luther, to ascend these steps on their knees, praying as they went. At certain intervals there were stains said to have been caused by the bleeding wounds of Christ. The worshiper would bend over and kiss these steps, praying a long time before ascending painfully to the next ones. Remission of years of punishment in purgatory was promised to all who would perform this pious exercise.

Luther began as the others had. But, as he ascended the staircase, the words of our text came forcefully to his mind: “The just shall live by faith.”

They seemed to echo over and over again, growing louder with each repetition: “The just shall live by faith,” “The just shall live by faith.” But Luther was not living by faith. He was living by fear. The old superstitious doctrines and the new biblical theology wrestled within him.

“By fear,” said Luther.

By faith!” said St. Paul.

“By fear,” said the scholastic fathers of medieval Catholicism.

By faith!” said the Scriptures.

“By fear,” said those who agonized beside him on the staircase.

By faith!” said God the Father.

At last Luther rose in amazement from the steps up which he had been dragging himself and shuddered at his superstition and folly. Now he realized that God had saved him by the righteousness of Christ, received by faith; he was to exercise that faith, receive that righteousness, and live by trusting God. He had not been doing it. Slowly he turned on Pilate’s staircase and returned to the bottom. He went back to Wittenberg, and in time, as Paul Luther said, “He took ‘The just shall live by faith’ as the foundation of all his doctrine.”

This was the real beginning of the Reformation, for the reformation of Luther necessarily preceded the reformation of Christendom. The later began on October 31, 1517, with the posting of his “Ninety-Five Theses” on the door of the Castle Church at Wittenberg.

J. H. Merle D’Aubigné, the great nineteenth-century historian of the Reformation, wrote:

This powerful text had a mysterious influence on the life of Luther. It was a creative sentence both for the reformer and for the Reformation. It was in these words God then said, “Let there be light! and there was light.” … When Luther rose from his knees on Pilate’s Staircase, in agitation and amazement at those words which Paul had addressed fifteen centuries before to the inhabitants of that same metropolis—Truth, till then a melancholy captive, fettered in the church, rose also to fall no more.

“Here I Stand”

When Luther rose from his knees on the steps of the Scala Sancta, the high point of his long career—his refusal to recant his faith before the imperial diet at Worms—was still eleven years away. But Luther was already prepared for this challenge. He would be ready to defend his position, because he now saw that a man or woman is not enabled to stand before God by his or her own accomplishments, however devout, still less by the pronouncements of ecclesiastical councils or popes, however vigorously enforced, but by the grace and power of Almighty God alone. And if a person can stand before God by grace, he can certainly stand before men.

Luther was summoned before the diet by the newly elected emperor, Charles V. But it was really the Roman See that had summoned him, and the champions of Rome were present to secure his condemnation. Upon his arrival at the town hall assembly room at four o’clock on the afternoon of April 17, Luther was asked to acknowledge as his writings a large stack of books that had been gathered and placed in the room. He was also asked whether he would retract their contents, which called for reform of abuses rampant in the church, asserted the right of the individual Christian to be emancipated from priestly bondage, and reaffirmed the fundamental doctrine of justification by faith.

Luther asked that the titles might be read out. Then he responded, “Most gracious emperor! Gracious princes and lords! His imperial majesty has asked me two questions. As to the first, I acknowledge as mine the books that have just been named. I cannot deny them. As to the second, seeing that it is a question which concerns faith and the salvation of souls, and in which the Word of God, the greatest and most precious treasure either in heaven or earth, is interested, I should act imprudently were I to reply without reflection.… For this reason I entreat your imperial majesty, with all humility, to allow me time, that I may answer without offending against the Word of God.”

It was a proper request in so grave a matter. Besides, by taking reasonable time to reflect on his answer, Luther would give stronger proof of the firmness of his stand when he made it. There was debate concerning this request, but at last Luther was given twenty-four hours to consider his response.

When he appeared the next day, the demand was the same: “Will you defend your books as a whole, or are you ready to disavow some of them?”

Luther replied by making distinctions between his writings, trying to draw the council into debate and thus have an opportunity to present the true gospel. Some of his books treated the Christian faith in language acceptable to all men. To repudiate these would be a denial of Jesus Christ. A second category attacked the errors and tyranny of the papacy. To deny these would lend additional strength to this tyranny, and thus be a sin against the German people. A third class of books concerned individuals and their teachings. Here Luther confessed that he may have spoken harshly or unwisely. But if so, it was necessary for his adversaries to bear witness of the evil done. Luther said he would be the first to throw his books into the fire if it could be proved that he had erred in these or any others of his writings.

“But you have not answered the question put to you,” said the moderator. “Will you, or will you not, retract?”

Upon this, Luther replied without hesitation: “Since your most serene majesty and your high mightiness require from me a clear, simple, and precise answer, I will give you one, and it is this: I cannot submit my faith either to the pope or to the councils, because it is clear to me as the day that they have frequently erred and contradicted each other. Unless therefore I am convinced by the testimony of Scripture, or by the clearest reasoning—unless I am persuaded by means of the passages I have quoted—and unless they thus render my conscience bound by the Word of God, I cannot and I will not retract, for it is unsafe for a Christian to speak against his conscience.”

Then looking around at those who held his life in their hands, Luther said: “Here I stand. I can do no other. May God help me. Amen.” Thus did the German monk utter the words that still thrill our hearts after four and a half centuries.

The Master of All Doctrines

Later in life Luther was to write many things about the doctrine of justification by faith, which he had learned from Romans 1:17. He would call it “the chief article from which all our other doctrines have flowed.” He called it “the master and prince, the lord, the ruler and the judge over all kinds of doctrines.” He said, “If the article of justification is lost, all Christian doctrine is lost at the same time.” He argued, “It alone begets, nourishes, builds, preserves, and defends the church of God, and without it the church of God cannot exist for one hour.”

What a heritage! What a rebuke against the weak state of present-day Christianity!

If justification by faith is the doctrine by which the church stands or falls, our contemporary declines are no doubt due to our failure to understand, appreciate, and live by this doctrine. The church of our day does not stand tall before the world. It bows to it. Christians are not fearless before ridicule. We flee from it. Is the reason not that we have never truly learned to stand before God in his righteousness? Is it not because we have never learned the truth: “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Rom. 8:31b)? The church will never be strong unless it is united around faithful men and women who firmly hold this conviction.[2]

16. I am not indeed ashamed, &c. This is an anticipation of an objection; for he declares beforehand, that he cared not for the taunts of the ungodly; and he thus provides a way for himself, by which he proceeds to pronounce an eulogy on the value of the gospel, that it might not appear contemptible to the Romans. He indeed intimates that it was contemptible in the eyes of the world; and he does this by saying, that he was not ashamed of it. And thus he prepares them for bearing the reproach of the cross of Christ, lest they should esteem the gospel of less value by finding it exposed to the scoffs and reproaches of the ungodly; and, on the other hand, he shows how valuable it was to the faithful. If, in the first place, the power of God ought to be extolled by us, that power shines forth in the gospel; if, again, the goodness of God deserves to be sought and loved by us, the gospel is a display of his goodness. It ought then to be reverenced and honoured, since veneration is due to God’s power; and as it avails to our salvation, it ought to be loved by us.

But observe how much Paul ascribes to the ministry of the word, when he testifies that God thereby puts forth his power to save; for he speaks not here of any secret revelation, but of vocal preaching. It hence follows, that those as it were wilfully despise the power of God, and drive away from them his delivering hand, who withdraw themselves from the hearing of the word.

At the same time, as he works not effectually in all, but only where the Spirit, the inward Teacher, illuminates the heart, he subjoins, To every one who believeth. The gospel is indeed offered to all for their salvation, but the power of it appears not everywhere: and that it is the savour of death to the ungodly, does not proceed from what it is, but from their own wickedness. By setting forth but one salvation he cuts off every other trust. When men withdraw themselves from this one salvation, they find in the gospel a sure proof of their own ruin. Since then the gospel invites all to partake of salvation without any difference, it is rightly called the doctrine of salvation: for Christ is there offered, whose peculiar office is to save that which was lost; and those who refuse to be saved by him, shall find him a Judge. But everywhere in Scripture the word salvation is simply set in opposition to the word destruction: and hence we must observe, when it is mentioned, what the subject of the discourse is. Since then the gospel delivers from ruin and the curse of endless death, its salvation is eternal life.

First to the Jew and then to the Greek. Under the word Greek, he includes all the Gentiles, as it is evident from the comparison that is made; for the two clauses comprehend all mankind. And it is probable that he chose especially this nation to designate other nations, because, in the first place, it was admitted, next to the Jews, into a participation of the gospel covenant; and, secondly, because the Greeks, on account of their vicinity, and the celebrity of their language, were more known to the Jews. It is then a mode of speaking, a part being taken for the whole, by which he connects the Gentiles universally with the Jews, as participators of the gospel: nor does he thrust the Jews from their own eminence and dignity, since they were the first partakers of God’s promise and calling. He then reserves for them their prerogative; but he immediately joins the Gentiles, though in the second place, as being partakers with them.

17. For the righteousness of God, &c. This is an explanation and a confirmation of the preceding clause—that the gospel is the power of God unto salvation. For if we seek salvation, that is, life with God, righteousness must be first sought, by which being reconciled to him, we may, through him being propitious to us, obtain that life which consists only in his favour; for, in order to be loved by God, we must first become righteous, since he regards unrighteousness with hatred. He therefore intimates, that we cannot obtain salvation otherwise than from the gospel, since nowhere else does God reveal to us his righteousness, which alone delivers us from perdition. Now this righteousness, which is the groundwork of our salvation, is revealed in the gospel: hence the gospel is said to be the power of God unto salvation. Thus he reasons from the cause to the effect.

Notice further, how extraordinary and valuable a treasure does God bestow on us through the gospel, even the communication of his own righteousness. I take the righteousness of God to mean, that which is approved before his tribunal; as that, on the contrary, is usually called the righteousness of men, which is by men counted and supposed to be righteousness, though it be only vapour. Paul, however, I doubt not, alludes to the many prophecies in which the Spirit makes known everywhere the righteousness of God in the future kingdom of Christ. Some explain it as the righteousness which is freely given us by God: and I indeed confess that the words will bear this sense; for God justifies us by the gospel, and thus saves us: yet the former view seems to me more suitable, though it is not what I make much of. Of greater moment is what some think, that this righteousness does not only consist in the free remission of sins, but also, in part, includes the grace of regeneration. But I consider, that we are restored to life because God freely reconciles us to himself, as we shall hereafter show in its proper place.

But instead of the expression he used before, “to every one who believeth,” he says now, from faith; for righteousness is offered by the gospel, and is received by faith. And he adds, to faith: for as our faith makes progress, and as it advances in knowledge, so the righteousness of God increases in us at the same time, and the possession of it is in a manner confirmed. When at first we taste the gospel, we indeed see God’s smiling countenance turned towards us, but at a distance: the more the knowledge of true religion grows in us, by coming as it were nearer, we behold God’s favour more clearly and more familiarly. What some think, that there is here an implied comparison between the Old and New Testament, is more refined than well-founded; for Paul does not here compare the Fathers who lived under the law with us, but points out the daily progress that is made by every one of the faithful.

As it is written, &c. By the authority of the Prophet Habakkuk he proves the righteousness of faith; for he, predicting the overthrow of the proud, adds this—that the life of the righteous consists in faith. Now we live not before God, except through righteousness: it then follows, that our righteousness is obtained by faith; and the verb being future, designates the real perpetuity of that life of which he speaks; as though he had said,—that it would not be momentary, but continue for ever. For even the ungodly swell with the false notion of having life; but when they say, “Peace and safety,” a sudden destruction comes upon them, (1 Thess. 5:3.) It is therefore a shadow, which endures only for a moment. Faith alone is that which secures the perpetuity of life; and whence is this, except that it leads us to God, and makes our life to depend on him? For Paul would not have aptly quoted this testimony had not the meaning of the Prophet been, that we then only stand, when by faith we recumb on God: and he has not certainly ascribed life to the faith of the godly, but in as far as they, having renounced the arrogance of the world, resign themselves to the protection of God alone.

He does not indeed professedly handle this subject; and hence he makes no mention of gratuitous justification: but it is sufficiently evident from the nature of faith, that this testimony is rightly applied to the present subject. Besides, we necessarily gather from his reasoning, that there is a mutual connection between faith and the gospel: for as the just is said to live by faith, he concludes that this life is received by the gospel.

We have now the principal point or the main hinge of the first part of this Epistle,—that we are justified by faith through the mercy of God alone. We have not this, indeed, as yet distinctly expressed by Paul; but from his own words it will hereafter be made very clear—that the righteousness, which is grounded on faith, depends entirely on the mercy of God.[3]

16 Having confessed his fervent desire to preach the gospel at Rome, Paul goes on to give the reason for his zeal to preach the gospel. He has no sense of reserve about his mission. “I am not ashamed” is rhetorical understatement (litotes) pointing to Paul’s confidence in the gospel. He does not in any way consider his task unworthy or one that will prove to be illusory. He is ready to challenge the philosophies and religions in Rome that vie for attention, because he knows, on the basis of his experience in the East, that God’s power is at work in the proclamation of the good news and that it is able to transform lives. The gospel is nothing less that “the power of God” (cf. 1:1), foretold in the prophets (v. 2), concerning the Son of God, Jesus Christ (v. 3). “Power” here refers to the intrinsic efficacy of the gospel. It offers something desperately needed by humanity and not to be found anywhere else—a “righteousness from God” (v. 17).

The linkage between power and salvation is striking. Judaism was prone to think of the law as power, but this is not affirmed in Scripture. As for salvation, the OT is clear in its teaching that, whether it is conceived of physically as deliverance (Ex 14:13) or spiritually (Ps 51:12), it comes from the Lord. This is maintained in the NT as well and is affirmed in Paul’s statement that the gospel is “the power of God” for salvation. So when the apostle permits himself to say that he himself saves some (1 Co 9:22), it is only in the sense that he is Christ’s representative who is able to proclaim the way of salvation to others.

“Salvation” (sōtēria, GK 5401) is a broad concept. It includes the forgiveness of sins but involves much more, because its basic meaning is “soundness” or “wholeness.” It promises the restoration of all that sin has marred or destroyed. It is the general term that unites in itself the particular aspects of truth suggested by “justification,” “reconciliation,” “sanctification,” and “redemption.” But its efficacy depends on a person’s willingness to receive the message. Salvation is available to “everyone who believes.” That is, salvation is by “faith.” (In Greek, “believe” [pisteuō, GK 4409] and “faith” [pistis, GK 4411] are from the same root.) This sweeping declaration concerning “everyone who believes” ties in with the previous statement (concerning Greeks and non-Greeks) and now includes both the Jew and the Gentile. The Jew receives “first” mention. This does not mean that every Jew must be evangelized before the gospel can be presented to Gentiles; it does mean that the gospel is in the first instance the fulfillment of the hope of Israel (cf. Ac 28:20) and must therefore be proclaimed first to the Jews. In this era of fulfillment, just as Jesus came first to the lost sheep of the house of Israel (Mt 15:24; 10:6), so now the gospel concerning Jesus must first go to the Jews. Thus to them was given the first opportunity to receive him, both during his ministry (Jn 1:11) and in the Christian era (Ac 1:8; 3:26). Paul himself followed this pattern (13:45–46). The theological priority of Israel rests on the reality of God’s covenantal faithfulness. The Gentiles are latecomers (Eph 2:11–13) and, as Paul will declare later on, foreign branches grafted into the olive tree (Ro 11:17).

17 Next the apostle passes to an explanation of his statement that the gospel means salvation for those who receive it by faith. The reason given is that this salvation discloses (lit.) “the righteousness of God” (dikaiosynē [GK 1466] theou). Paul depends on the OT for this language (Isa 46:12–13; cf. 61:10). Note how in the verses just mentioned “righteousness” and “salvation” are nearly equivalent terms. “In the Hebrew tradition, early and late, God’s righteousness is the way he acts, and notably the way he acts in maintaining the covenant” (Ziesler, 186). Such an idea was quite foreign to Greek thought. Clearly, the character of God is involved in the sense that what he does and provides must be in keeping with his nature (cf. Ro 3:26). But just as clearly, the expression must go beyond this to include the activity of God whereby he extends salvation to his people. The gospel would not be the good news if it simply disclosed the righteousness of God understood as an abstract description of God’s character. Such a message would scarcely demand faith. In view of humanity’s sinful state, it could only create fear. But salvation as God provides it and offers it is fully in keeping with his righteous character. God saves because he is faithful to his covenantal promises.

“The righteousness of God” thus refers to God’s saving activity. The significance of this may be seen by looking at Paul’s statement in Philippians 3:9, where he contrasts his pre-Christian state, in which he had a righteousness based on his activity of observing the law, with his present situation, in which he rests on a righteousness which is of (from) God, based on faith. God’s righteousness in the present context, while it has an implied reference to his character, stresses divine provision. What this entails will be unfolded in due course. In earlier letters Paul had already taught that Christ was the medium for the bringing of righteousness from God to sinful humanity (1 Co 1:30; 2 Co 5:21).

Somewhat baffling is the twofold reference to faith: “from faith to faith” (ek pisteōs eis pistin; cf. NIV, “by faith from first to last”). Are these two prepositional phrases to be joined to the verb “revealed,” or should they be taken with God’s righteousness as indicating how that righteousness is to be received? The position in the sentence may be said to favor the former alternative, but the resultant sense is obscure. Furthermore, when Paul restates the theme of his letter (3:21–22) in such a way as to take account of the intervening material, he mentions God’s righteousness as manifested (corresponding to “revealed” in 1:17), then repeats the word “righteousness” and characterizes it as a righteousness “through faith” (dia pisteōs) and for all who believe. These phrases are probably to be understood as a recapitulation of what has been said in 1:17.

Assuming, then, that we are to connect the statement about faith with God’s righteousness, we must still inquire into the distinctives of the two phrases involving faith. Among the numerous suggestions are these: “from the faith of the preacher to the faith of the hearer”; “from OT faith to NT faith” (based on the quotation immediately following); “entirely from faith”; and “from faithfulness [God’s] to faith [human],” as Barth, 41, interprets it. These various renderings understand “from” as a point of departure. This would be entirely legitimate if the preposition was apo, but it is ek, which Paul uses repeatedly with faith when indicating the basis on which God grants justification (3:26; 5:1; Gal 2:16) or righteousness (Ro 9:30; 10:6)—a fact that incidentally shows how readily the term “righteousness” can take on the force of “justification.” The really troublesome element here is the second phrase, “to [eis] faith.” Perhaps what it conveys is the necessity of issuing a reminder to the believer that justifying faith is only the beginning of Christian life. The same attitude of faith must govern believers in their continuing experience as children of God.

Paul’s quotation of Habakkuk 2:4 is of very great importance. Bruce, 78, rightly says that it “may be called the ‘text’ of this Epistle; what follows is in large measure an exposition of the prophet’s words.” The order of the Greek words presents some ambiguity. Are we to understand this text as saying, “The righteous will live by faith,” or, “The one who is just by means of faith shall live”? That is, do the words “by faith” (ek pisteōs), which occur in the Greek in the middle of the sentence, modify the preceding words (“the righteous,” ho dikaios, GK 1465) or do they modify the verb that follows (“will live,” zēsetai, GK 2409)? If it is the former, the meaning amounts to, “a person who is righteous by faith—that person will live.” If the latter, the meaning amounts to, “a righteous person—that person will live in accordance with his or her faith [= will live faithfully].” Since the apostle quotes the same passage in Galatians 3:11 to show that one is not justified by law but rather by faith, it is probable that he intends the reference in the same way here. It would also be consonant with the argument that Paul is about to pursue. Since the quotation is used in Romans at the beginning of his argument, where he confronts the problem of the sinner’s getting right with God, the wording that fits most closely the movement of thought should be chosen. At this point Paul is not concerned with how the justified person lives but how the sinner can be considered just (“righteous”) in the sight of God, i.e., how the sinner can “live” in the sense of having “salvation.” Righteousness as a matter of ethical conduct is reserved for later treatment (chs. 6–8). Ethical righteousness depends on right relation to God, so the latter merits priority of treatment.

Paul presents a unique form of Habakkuk 2:4, omitting the personal pronouns found both in the Hebrew (= “his” faith[-fulness]) and LXX (= “my” [i.e., kyrios faith[-fulness]). Since the word pistis (GK 4411) can mean either “faith” or “faithfulness,” the ambiguity of the text is increased. Paul’s understanding of the text is closer to the form represented in the LXX. (For a different understanding of the text, see Heb 10:37.) Does Paul’s form of the text indicate his knowledge of the Hebrew and LXX forms and a desire to steer between the two? We know that he would endorse the truth that the Christian is not only justified by faith but is also expected to live by faith in order to please God. Without question, such an emphasis has its place. But only when the initial problem of the sinner’s plight has been met does Paul turn to ethical paranaesis. The liberty involved in using a quotation in a way somewhat different from its original setting is made possible by a Jewish hermeneutic governed by a prior conviction of fulfillment (pesher, “this is that”). This practice was also common in Judaism before Paul’s time, as we know from the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Qumran community, for example, applied Habakkuk 2:4 to their own situation by an interpretative elaboration. “Its interpretation concerns all observing the Law in the House of Judah, whom God will free from punishment on account of their deeds and of their loyalty to the Teacher of Righteousness” (1QpHab 8.1). Here the passage is made to do service on behalf of the special type of piety, grounded in the study of the Torah, which distinguished the Qumran community.[4]

[1] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1991). Romans (Vol. 1, pp. 49–57). Chicago: Moody Press.

[2] Boice, J. M. (1991–). Romans: Justification by Faith (Vol. 1, pp. 103–126). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.

[3] Calvin, J., & Owen, J. (2010). Commentary on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans (pp. 61–66). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.

[4] Harrison, E. F., & Hagner, D. A. (2008). Romans. In T. Longman III &. Garland, David E. (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Romans–Galatians (Revised Edition) (Vol. 11, pp. 41–44). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

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