The Gospel of Christ
Wicked World, Angry God—May 31, 1981
Look with me in your Bible to Romans 1 and we’re going to be looking at verses 16 and 17 tonight. Let me rea these two verses to you and then we’ll comment on them as the Word of God is open to us.
Paul says: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek. For in it is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith.”
This is the most life-transforming truth ever put into mens’ hands. If we really understand and respond to these truths in these two verses time and eternity is totally altered. Now I believe that these two verses form the theme and the thesis for the epistle to the Romans. In brief but glorious comprehensive terms the epistle is compressed into these basic truths. It is a statement of the gospel of Christ. Paul begins by saying—I’m not ashamed of the gospel of Christ and then in concise terms expresses it in those two verses.
Now remember that Paul has concluded a masterful opening statement. A statement that really has two parts. Part one has to do with the gospel of God, the content of the gospel. Part two has to do with Paul’s own personal representation of that gospel. We look at the message in the first part of chapter one, and then the messenger in the remaining part.
So, he has discussed his message, he has discussed himself as the messenger, now he crystalizes the thesis of the epistle which will unfold in the remaining chapters. The whole epistle is really an expansion of what we see in verses 16 and 17. And so it is essential that we get a proper perspective on these two verses.
I really believe that up to this point Paul has been endeavoring to make contact with his audience. He has been endeavoring to make a connection, to get the people’s attention. And now that he has their attention he establishes his thesis. Look again at verse 16, he says, “I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ.” That phrase is the last statement in the section dealing with his ministry. He closes that section by saying—I’m not ashamed. And then he says—Of the gospel of Christ—and that introduces his theme. The theme is the gospel of Christ.
Paul is not ashamed of the gospel of Christ. All the learned religionists, all the philosophers of Rome do not intimidate Paul. They did not intimidate him in Athens. They did not intimidate him in Corinth. They did not intimidate him in Ephesus. They did not even intimidate him in Jerusalem. And they aren’t about to intimidate him here. He is proud of the gospel. He is overjoyed at the privilege of proclamation. He is utterly and absolutely eager to preach Jesus Christ. And even though it is a stumbling block to the Jew and foolishness to the Gentile the gospel is still the power of God unto salvation to all that believe and Paul is not hesitant to preach it.
He has been imprisoned in Philippi. He has been chased out of Thessalonica. He has been smuggled from Berea. He was laughed at in Athens. He was seen as a fool in Corinth. He was nothing but an irritant and sore spot in Jerusalem. He was stoned while in Galatia. And yet he will be eager to preach the gospel at Rome also.
I guess all of us would like to be able to identify with Paul in that same way. But the fact is for you and for me very often we are ashamed of the gospel of Christ. I don’t think weld confess that, I don’t think weld state that, I don’t think we easily admit that but that’s the way it works out. Because in those times when we could speak we don’t speak. When those times come when we could be bold we are not bold. We face the hostility of the world. We face the unimpressiveness of the gospel. It talks about sin and blood and death. And it sounds so foolish and so silly to men, and we’re afraid of what they might think and so we tend to be silent when we should speak. But Paul calmly viewed the distain of the unbelievers. He understood the contempt and the ridicule of those who rejected Christ. He faced death itself for the gospel but never once did he become ashamed of Christ.
Timothy did. But Paul never did. He would face anybody, anytime and preach Jesus Christ.
Oh how the fear of men brings a snare. Paul seemed to be able to overcome that in the power of God. I’ve been told that if you trace on the floor a circle with white chalk and put a goose in the middle of it, the goose won’t cross that white chalk. It will stay in that circle, according to what I read, and die before it will cross that white chalk. Kind of reminds me of some people who are gooselike. They have around them chalkmarks of fear of custom, the fear of convention, the fear of ridicule, the fear of being thought foolish, the fear of being rejected and they never walk outside that circle because they’re afraid. People say silly things about the gospel and about Christ and they never open their mouth.
But not Paul. Sadly, fear of opposition and fear of contempt from the world often leads us to be silent or else it leads us to corrupt the message and accommodate the message to men. That’s sad.
I was sharing with the men at Moody this week that there is a new movement in America called the “Health and Wealth” ministries. And they’re promising people that in Christ you get health and wealth. You get physical comfort and possessions. Do you know something that fascinates me? In llatthew chapter 8 a disciple came to Jesus and said—“I’ll follow Thee wherever Thou goest.” And Jesus said, “Well, I’m sorry but foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests but the Son of man has nowhere to lay His head.” He said—Fella, I do not accept you because you’re looking for comfort and you’re looking for ease and you’re looking for all of those kinds of things to make your physical life comfortable and I’m not offering that. And Jesus rejected him. He wanted comfort … Jesus said no. There are people-who are telling people today that Jesus will make you well, Jesus will give you healing. You’ll never be sick. You’ll never have a cold. Life will be blissful in the physical dimension. They are offering the very thing that Jesus rejected.
A second man came and said—I’ll follow You too but first let me go bury my father. Jesus said—You’d better let the dead bury the dead. The point was the man’s father wasn’t even dead yet. But he wanted to hang around to get the inheritance. He came to Jesus and said—I’ll come but let me get my money. Jesus turned him down. These people are playing into the hands of the lies of Satan. The things that keep men from Christ are personal comfort, they’re afraid of giving up comfort. And personal possessions, they’re afraid of losing those and here comes these false teachers and offer the very thing that keeps men from Christ to them. And thus they bypass the real gospel for a phony. And we must confront people with the gospel being unashamed to speak it and so unashamed of it in its truth that we do not compromise it to accommodate the sin of man.
Now, why was Paul bold? And here’s the key. Why was he bold? It says so in verse 16: “He was not ashamed of the gospel of Christ because it is the power of God unto salvation.” And now we go from the heart of the Apostle to the heart of the epistle. Ile is bold to preach because of what the gospel is, because of what the gospel does. The reason why Paul is not overcome by the temptation to be ashamed of the gospel, but quite the contrary, the reason that he proclaims it so joyously, so anxiously is because it is powerful, it changes lives. And he knows that and he has seen that and he believes that. Sure it’s a stumbling block, 1 Corinthians 1, and of course it’s foolishness but it’s also the power of God unto salvation to them that believe, and he knows that.
It reminds me of the old story I told you a few years back about the vacuum cleaner salesman that went out to the farmhouse. And he walked in there with his typical motor-mouth approach and didn’t wait for the lady to say a word. She opened the door and he was in the living room. And he said—Mam, I want to tell you about this vacuum cleaner. It will suck up everything in this house, you have to be careful you might even lose your floor it’s so powerful and I’m going to.… And she started—Wellll.… wait a.… And he just kept going. He said—I’m going to show you how much this will do. And he dumped ashes in the middle of the floor out of his bag, and garbage and junk and everything. And he said—Mam, if this vacuum doesn’t suck this up in two minutes I’ll eat it with a spoon. And finally she got an opportunity to speak and she said—Well, you’d better start eating, we aint got no electricity.
I mean, before you sell the product you better know whether there’s any power to make it operate. Right? And the reason the Apostle Paul was not ashamed was because he knew the power of the gospel.
He knew it could change lives in spite of what men thought. His supreme passion was to see men saved. He in Romans 9 even says he could almost wish himself accursed for the sake of seeing the salvation of his people. He didn’t care about his personal comfort. He didn’t care about his reputation. He didn’t care about his popularity, and even his life offered no compromise to a clear confrontive gospel. He would preach the gospel because he knew what it could do, it could change people.
Now that gets us into his introduction of the theme. And understanding the gospel of Christ comes to us in understanding four key words in this passage.… four key words. In verse 16 the word is power, and that’s the first word we want to look at.
The first word of great importance is power. The second word is salvation. The third word is believeth. And the fourth in verse 17 is righteousness. If you understand the meaning and connection and transition of those four terms you understand the gospel.
First of all, the first key word in the divine vocabulary of the gospel of Christ is that it is the power of God. The good news about Jesus Christ has power. Ttie word is dunamis, we get our word dynamite from it. And Paul has in mind the fact that the gospel of Christ carries with it the omnipotence of CTod- The all powerful God is behind it, operative in regenerating a person.
Men would like to change, do you know that? I believe that.
Really, all advertising that goes on in the world is based on one presupposition, and that is people want things different than they are. They want to look better, feel better, think better, have better experiences. They want to change their life. Basically, people want to change their life. There’s an appeal to that because that’s a basic human drive. And deep down inside, people, they really want things to be different but they are utterly impotent to change things.
In Jeremiah 13:23 Jeremiah says: “Can a leopard change his spots? Can the Ethiopian change his skin?” You have just about as much chance to change your heart. Men are impotent. They can’t do a thing about what they are. They can’t change anything. Oh, they may make a few reformations here and there and operate a little differently but real changes never happen.
Jesus said in Matthew 22:29: “Ye do err, not knowing the Scriptures nor the power of God.” And He said that to the religionists of His time. You don’t even know the power of God, you don’t know what power is. The gospel of Jesus Christ has the power to change men, to take them from sin, from Satan, from judgment, from death and from hell.
Men try other things to change them. The Bible says that some men believe they can be changed by doing good works, the deeds of the law. But the Bible says the deeds of the law cannot save. The Bible says the flesh cannot save. The Bible says the church cannot save. The Bible says religion cannot save. For neither is there salvation in any other name, for none other name under heaven is given among men whereby we must be saved than the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. Only the power of God can change people. There’s no other way.
In Romans 5:6: “When we were yet without strength, Christ died for the ungodly.” In other words, man is impotent, can’t change himself. He is utterly trapped and unable to do a thing about it.
In the eighth chapter of Romans and the third verse: “For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending His own Son was able to do.” In other words, you can take man and even give him good standards, and give him good rules, and good principles and he can’t change himself. It can’t be done. That is the frustration of man.
In James 1, in verse 18 it says: “Of His own will begot He us with the Word of truth.” In other words, what man cannot do for himself, God can do for man.
In 1 Peter 1, essentially the same thing. It says: “That we have been born again not of a corruptible seed,” not of a human decaying seed, “but of an incorruptible by the Word of God.” So, God’s word can do what we cannot do for ourselves. That is the basic principle of the gospel. Man is sinful and unable to remedy his condition … unable. The gospel, then, becomes a force. And I think the word dunamis is throwing the emphasis on the force rather than the process. It is the power in the sense that God is the source of a … of an incredible power, a limitless power that can transform lives.
Now look with me for a moment at 1 Corinthians chapter 1 …
1 Corinthians 1:18, and I want to look specifically at the Scripture I have mentioned a couple of times, and just briefly. “The preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness.” I mean, a crucified Christ is just ridiculous. “But unto us which are saved it is the power of God.” You see. That is the key point. The gospel may be foolishness to men but to us that are saved it is the power of God.
Verse 23: “We preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Gentiles foolishness. But unto theni who are called, both Jews and Gentiles, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God.” And again, the same emphasis.
You know, the Gentiles used to laugh at the Christians. The pagans in Rome and Corinth mocked them. You see, the key principle of their own religion was that their gods were basically indifferent. That they just were there and they couldn’t care less. They were apathea, apathetic, detached, remote. And the idea of an incarnation of God was utterly ridiculous to them. In fact, in doing some digging around Rome archaeologists have found some interesting things. And on the Palatine, which is one of the Seven Hills of Rome, they came across a caricature from the Christian era. And it depicts a slave and a slave is bowing down before a cross. And it says underneath this particular drawing: A lexa menos worships his god. And crucified on the cross is a jackass. Now that tells us a little bit about the attitude of the Romans at that time toward Christianity. They thought it was absolutely ridiculous … foolishness.
Somewhere around the year 178, Celsus wrote a bitter attack on Christianity. He said that the Christian view was—“Let no cultured person draw near, none wise, none sensible, 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.” It was for fools, he said. “And of the Christians,” he further wrote, “we see them in their own houses, wool dressers, cobblers and fullers, the most uneducated and vulgar persons.” He said Christians are like a swarm of bats, they’re like ants creeping out of their nests. They’re like frogs holding a symposium around a swamp. He said,—They’re like worms cowering in the muck. Nice guy—Celsus. And then he said—Christians worship a dead man. Foolishness, it’s foolishness.
“But unto us who are saved it is the … what?… power of God.” The world laughs at us, they mock us. But we know better, don’t we? And because it is the power of God in 1 Corinthians 2 as Paul goes on, he says: “When I came to you I came not with excellency of speech or of wisdom, I declared unto you the testimony of God and I was determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him … what?… crucified.” Had one message and it was the very message you despised. It is the cross. @,, Iock it if you will, it is still the power of God and so I preach the cross that your faith might not stand in the wisdom of men but in the power of God. I have seen the message of the cross transform hundreds, thousands of people in my lifetime. Let the world say what it will, the evidence is in and the cross transforms us.
Later on in 1 Corinthians 4:20 Paul says: “The kingdom of God is not in word but in power.” I mean, you know the biggest thing in my life is to know that God uses me as a channel to change people for time and eternity. It’s incredible … incredible. I look at my own life. I have certain weaknesses in my own life that I struggle with all my lifelong and I can’t really seem to do much about them. I have limitations in my mind. I have limitations in my physical body. I have limitations in my perceptions. I can’t do anything for them and yet God uses me to be the tool to change someone’s total being. Incredible. That’s the power of God.
So, behind the gospel is the power. How much power is behind the gospel? I’ll tell you. The Bible says, “God has great power,” Psalm 79:11. The Bible says, “God has strong power,” Psalm 89:13. The Bible says, “God has glorious power,” Exodus 15:6. He has mighty power, Job 9:4. He has everlasting power, Isaiah 26:4 He has sovereign power, Romans 9:21. He has effectual power, Isaiah 43:13. He has irresistible power, Deuteronomy 32:39. He has incomparable power, Psalm 89:8. He has unsearchable power, Job 5:9. He has power.
Jeremiah 10:12 says: “It is He who made the earth by His power.” Jeremiah 27:5 says: “It is I who by My great power and My outstretched arm have made the earth.”
In Psalm 33:8 and 9 it says: “Let all the earth fear the Lord, let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of Him for He spoke and it came to be.” What power.… what power.
By the same powerful command the Lord maintains the universe. Behind each miracle in the Bible there is the power of God. God can part the sea. God can bring food from heaven. Miracle after miracle show His power. But I really believe the greatest expression of His power is found in His power to save, to transform people, to change their nature, their time and their eternity. Psalm 106 verses 8 and 9: “He saved them for His namesake, that He might make known His mighty power.” You see, the manifestation of His power comes in salvation.
The New Testament presents the same power. In Alatthew 28:18 He said: “All power is given unto Me.” He had the power to cast out demons. He had power over sickness, every illness, to heal. He had power over the universe to provide for the needs of the people. He had the power to still the storm, the power to walk on the water. He had power over death. He called Lazarus out of the grave. He gave life to the dead son of the widow of Nain. He gave life to the daughter of Jairus. He raised Himself from the dead. But most of all, Romans 1:16 says it, “He had the power of God unto salvation.” He had power to save.
That’s the first key word. Power … and you should never, beloved,
listen to me, you should never and nor should I entertain the thought of being ashamed of the gospel of Christ for it is the power of God. Let it fly.
Second word, salvation. It is the power of God unto soteerion. The power of God unto salvation. Oh, that’s a great word. The power is seen in salvation because men, says Ephesians 2, are dead and the salvation act of God makes them alive, to live forever, cleansed of sin and fit for the Kingdom of God. The word salvation is used 18 times by Paul, 5-times in Romans and the verb form 29 times by Paul, 8 times in Romans. It’s a very key word. It means deliverance … it means deliverance. I preached one time and was preaching to young people at a youth rally and I used the word—being saved. And I said—You young people need to be saved. And somebody came to be afterward and said You shouldn’t use that word, it’s not contemporary. I’ll never forget it, a lady. She said—That word is not contemporary, kids can’t really dig on that word, you’ve got to use a better word. You want to know something? I couldn’t think of a better word. That was God’s word. You know, my first reaction was—Lady, that’s God’s word, I’m not interested in what your word is, that’s God’s word. What does it mean to be saved? It means to be delivered. From what? From sinand Satan and judgment and hell and only the gospel of Christ has the power to do that.
Man’s safe passage through human trials and his safe passage by divine judgment and his entrance into eternal blessedness is bound up in his being saved. It includes forgiveness. It includes escape from wrath. It includes life in the Spirit. It includes resurrection. It includes eternity. The gospel is God’s effective power active in the world to bring about deliverance for men from God’s wrath, from sin and Satan and judgment and death and hell.
I believe that culture in which Paul wrote was ready for this message. I think they were looking for salvation, men are today. Oh they think they need economic salvation or political salvation or social salvation. They just need to upgrade their lives and their society. But they’re looking for salvation. They were then, you know. There was a time at the time of Paul when Greek philosophy was turning more and more to that which was internal. And it was looking at man and saying—Things aren’t right with man, we need something to change man. We’re trying to find that now only we’re trying to find it from maybe stimulating his brain, controlling him somehow, so we can change him. Well, they were looking at all kinds of things in Paul’s day. They turned to a kind of moral philosophy.
For example, Epictetus one of the writers at that time called his lecture room, “The Hospital for the Sick Soul.” Epicurus called his teaching, “The medicine of salvation.” They were looking for something to deliver man from the constancy of sin.
Seneca whose life coincided with the life of Paul said that all men were looking ad.salutem, toward salvation. What we need, he said, is some hand to reach down and lift us up. Men, he said, are overwhelmingly conscious of their weakness and their inefficiency in necessary things. And he said himself he was a homo-nontolerabelis, a man not even to be tolerated. He said men love their vices but they brought only despair, and men needed salvation.
Men have always needed that. But sometimes when they hear the gospel they think that as the answer sounds so stupid, but it is the power of God. Salvation has many dimensions. When a man or a woman is delivered, he is delivered from life’s infection. We are saved, says Acts 2:40, from a crooked and perversed generation. We are coated, if you will, with a divine antiseptic. Salvation is not only from life’s infection but salvation is from lostness. Jesus said He would come to seek and to save that which was … what?… lost. See, man’s on the wrong road, doesn’t know where he’s going, where he’s come from or where he is. He’s lost. And all of a sudden when he comes to Christ, instantlv he knows where he came from, where he’s going and right where he is. It means salvation from sin. Man is a slave to sin till Christ releases him. it means salvation from the inevitable judgment of God. In that sense it is an eschatological salvation that culminates in a triumphant eternity.
The various aspects of salvation, by the way, will be unfolded to us throughout the epistle of Romans. I guess it’s enough at this point to stop and say—it takes divine power to accomplish this salvation because man is so lost and so infected and so doomed and damned and so dead in sin, it takes the power of God to burst him through that. Can’t do it on his own. God characterizes man in the Bible as grossly, willfully ignorant. As purposely self-indulgent and unwilling to forsake all. He characterizes men as deep in false religion, as covered and directed and all they do by Satan. As filled with wrong motives and self-deceived. As trusting in their own good deeds which are at best filthy rags. As loving the passing things of the world. As hating the truth. As proud pleasure-seeking, guilty, lustful creatures. And as such they have no right to enter the Kingdom of God so they have to be delivered from all of that. And only the power of God can do it.
So Paul says—my thesis is the power of God can bring salvation. How? That’s the next key word. How? Verse 16, “To every one that … what?… believes.” Faith is the -Llhird key word … or belief. I mean, if the power of God can do it, for whom does it do it? For every one that believes. Salvation power operates only through faith, that’s all. Where there is faith there is the power of God operative in salvation.
You say—What is faith? Faith is believing. You all live by faith … everyday of your life. You turn on your faucet, fill the glass and you drink it. That’s faith. You don’t know what’s in there. You have no idea whose been playing in your pipes. I remember reading in a Reader’s Digest about a city in Kansas that had a great big water tank and their water was fed to them through this tank. It was pumped up through a well and filled the tank and then it came out of the tank into the town. And they converted to a piped-in system and drained the tank and they found all kinds of strange creatures in the bottom of the tank. They all got retroactive dysentery. They have been living by faith but they had their faith in the wrong thing.
I was flying into L.A. yesterday and Bill and I and @ionty were sitting on this airplane and all of a sudden for some reason or another it just went whoa … straight down for awhile and everybody sort of got instantly religious. I don’t even know who’s up there in the front of that airplane. I don’t … in fact I don’t know if anybody is up there. You see the pilot coming down the aisle shaking everybody’s hand and somebody always says—Who’s flying this thing? We live by faith all the time.
Faith is trust. You go to a restaurant and you eat what they feed you. We all live by faith. I mean, that’s the onlv way you can survive. God has put it in the heart of a man that he understands to live by faith. And faith in the spiritual dimension is far different than that kind of faith but it is nonetheless the same idea, it is trusting and believing and yes the power of God can save but it will save only those who believe. Believe what? Believe in thine heart that God has raised Him from the dead. That means that you believe He is who He said He was, that He died for the reason He said He died and that He rose again from the grave. And if you believe that you believe. “For by grace are you saved through … what?… faith, that not of yourselves.
It’s a gift of God not of works lest any man should boast.” Faith.
Salvation is not professing Christianity. It’s not that. It’s not … salvation is not baptism. Salvation is not moral reform. Salvation is not going to church, it’s not conforming to rules. It’s not self-discipline and restraint. It’s not morality. So many people think they’re saved for the wrong reason.
I sat next to a lady going to Chicago. I’ve had all kinds of experiences this week that are unbelievable. I sat next to this lady, 78 years old. And I sat down beside her and she had a little smile on her face. She had been to see her daughter in California now she was going back to somewhere up in northern Michigan. And after a while she perceived that I was a man of the cloth. And she said—Are you a reverend? I said—I don’t know about reverend but I am a pastor. I said—Do you have a church where you attend? She said—I’m Catholic. I said—Oh, do you know Jesus Christ as your personal Savior? She said—Oh, I’ve gone to the Catholic Church all my life. I said—Well, that’s interesting. She said—Do you know that the Catholic Church has changed? I said—That’s right, it has … it’s changed a lot hasn’t it? She said—Yes … and I don’t like it. She said—I liked it better the old way. Well, she’s 78, you know, it’s tough when tradition changes.
I said—Well, what do you mean by that? She said—You know what they’re doing now, they’re doing the services in English. I said—Is that a problem? She said I liked it better when I did not understand what they were saying. It’s exactly what she said. She said—Then I could go in there and just meditate within myself. I said—What did you gain by that? There was just a quietness in meditating within myself. I said—Don’t you think thatlit’s important to know the principles of the Word of God? Well, I … well, I think we should know some things. Well, the conversation was not as fruitful as I would like to have had it. But it got to the point where it was evident that her security was in the fact that she went to a church. She didn’t even care if she understood anything they were saying. In fact, she liked it better when she didn’t. I said—You know, mam, only one thing matters. At your age when you leave this life that you be ready to meet God because you know His Son the Lord Jesus Christ. Not what church you went to. I don’t know … T hope she thinks about that.
Salvation doesn’t come through the church. Salvation comes because a man or a woman recognizes that he has no resources and he sees himself lost and undone and he sees the filthiness and deformity of his sin. And he perceives the rottenness of his heart and the pollution of his nature and he is drawn to Christ as a remedv. And he sees One who died for his sin and who conquered his sin and paid the price and wants to give him new life. And he says—I believe … I believe. And it doesn’t matter who that man is, you know. It says in verse 16—Every one whether Jew or
Greek, to the Jew first and also to the Greek, Yes, the primacy of salvation was extended to the Jews. Salvation has primary relevancy to the Jews since they were God’s specially chosen people. It is to the Jew first, that @, lessiah came and said; “I am not come but to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Yes it was to them He came for the lines of preparation for the full revelation of the gospel were laid with Israel and so the gospel is preeminently the gospel for the Jew.
The great commentator Robert Holdane has some clear thought on this. Listen as I read what he wrote. “From the days of Abraham their great progenitor the Jew had be6n 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 was overall God blessed forever. They were thus as His kinsmen, the royal family of the human race. In this respect higher than all others and they inherited Emanuel’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. I am not sent, Jesus said, but to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. And He commanded that repentance and remission of sins 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.”
And then he says this: “The preaching of the gospel to the Jews first served various important ends. It fulfilled Old Testament prophecies. 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 prove the sovereign efficacy of His atonement in expiating the guilt even of His own 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.”
Sure, to the Jew first. But also to the Gentiles. The salvation of God was not limited -to any nation. To everyone, the Jew or Gentile.
Now follow me here very carefully. The gospel of Christ has power. It has power to save. It has power to save the one who believes. But how can it even if he believes? How can it change him? Because, verse 17: “For in it,” that is in the gospel, “is the righteousness of God revealed.” You see? The reason it can save is because when you believe the righteousness of God is revealed to you. In other words, it becomes yours. That’s how it can happen.
You say—Man is so sinful, so evil, so hopeless, so helpless, that even if he believed and even if it has the power to save, how can it? It can not because we all of a sudden become in ourselves righteous, but because all of a sudden to us is revealed the righteousness of God.
And that takes us to the fourth word—righteousness. Along with faith, by the way, this word is used 60 plus times in Romans. Key word and we’ll see it again and again. The reason why the gospel powers are released in salvation by faith i.s because faith, listen to this, activates the revelation of the righteousness of God. If I am to be righteous I have none of my own, God must give me His righteousness. And He does. You see, Jesus took our sin and in exchange God gave us His righteousness. That’s why it says that Christ became sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. When Paul says the righteousness of God is revealed, he doesn’t mean it’s just disclosed to human minds. He doesn’t mean it’s just spoken in human history. He means that it is specifically revealed in the action and the operation of regeneration. That is why the gospel is the power of God unto salvation to every one who believes. Because that belief activates the righteousness of God.
And by the way, the best translation is righteousness from God. The righteousness from God is revealed. It wouldn’t matter what I believed. I couldn’t be righteous in myself, could I? I could believe and believe and believe all I wanted to believe but I still can’t be righteous by God’s standard, I can’t be perfectly holy. I can’t be without sin. And that’s the perfect standard. So God says—If you’ll just believe I’ll give you My righteousness. How can you do that, God? Because Jesus has borne your penalty, the price is paid, I give you My righteousness.
God demands from man what man could never pay. He demands
absolute perfect holiness. Some people think that might be unjust. How could God demand that? Why doesn’t He lower the standard? Well, let’s say He lowered the standard a little bit. Let’s say God said—Well, in order to be saved, you have to be highly intelligent. Would that be fair? No it would be unjust to morons. Well if He said you have to be rich? No, that would be unjust to poor people. No, you have to be moral. Well, that wouldn’t be very just for the wicked and immoral people. No, you see, He set a standard that nobody could qualify for, so nobody can boast. And nobody needs to be left out. And then said—I’ll give you @Ty righteousness no matter who you are.
In Romans 3:21, as we draw to a conclusion, it says: “And now the righteousness of God apart from the law,” it’s apart from any works or lawkeeping, “the righteousness of God is manifest.” How? Verse 22: “The righteousness of God is by faith in Jesus Christ unto all and upon all who believe.” There it is again. Same principle … same truth. Look at 4:3, it’s even true in the Old Testament. Abraham believed God and it was counted unto him for … what?… righteousness.
In Philippians 3, I just want to mention ibis, verses 8 and 9: “Yea doubtless,” says Paul, “and I count all things but lost for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, whom I’ve suffered the loss of all things and do count them but refuse that I may win Christ.” Then this, “And be found in Him not having mine own righteousness which is of@the law but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith.”
You see? That’s the message.
This is the glory of the gospel that it is the power of God unto salvation. That it is activated by faith and that faith activates it because faith releases the manifestation of the righteousness of God on our behalf.
Count Zinzendorf wrote these words and you know them and love them—“Jesus, Thy blood and righteousness, my beauty are my glorious dress. @lidst flaming worlds in these arrayed with joy shall I lift up my head. Bold shall I stand in Thy great day for ought to my charge shall lay. Fully absolved through these I am, from fear and sin and guilt and shame. How Jesus Thy blood and righteousness.”
So he says in verse 17: “The righteousness of God is revealed.” And then this little phrase: “From faith to faith as it is written, The just shall live by faith.” What does it mean from faith to faith? I think it has the same idea as everyone that believes. You might look at it this way—he says, And the righteousness of God is revealed from, watch this, faith to faith to faith to faith to faith, anyone’s faith or everyone’s faith … no limitations. I see it moving across the world from faith to faith to faith to faith. Just as it was in the Old Testament, it’s nothing new. Habakkuk 2:4: “The just shall live by faith.” Nothing new. Abraham believed God and it was counted to him for righteousness.
“Not the labor of my hands can fulfill the law’s demands. Could my zeal no anger know, could my tears forever flow. All for sin could not atone,” what’s the next line? “Thou must save and Thou … what?… alone.”
That’s from the “Rock of Ages.”
So Paul presents the theme of the gospel; power, salvation, faith and righteousness. I hope you know Christ. I hope you put your faith in Him.
I close with this. One of my favorite missionaries is John G. Payton. He went to the New Hebrides filled with cannibals. And when he arrived in the New Hebrides he came to an island at the moment when there was a terrible epidemic. People were dying of disease. It had utterly decimated the population. He went into the huts of the sick people and had to care for them. He buried the dead. He tended to the dying. And when the epidemic had passed, he was received by all and they loved him. And he stayed with them.
He first thought to learn their language. And he began to listen to their speech, write down in a notebook all the words and phrases he learned. The natives got accustomed to him always having a notebook and stopping in the middle of the conversation to write some things down. There came a time then when he decided that he ought to translate some of the gospel into their language. But they had no word in their vocabulary for faith or trust or believe. They just didn’t trust anybody. But you can’t do much translating in the Bible without a word for that. And so he began to think.
At a time of frustration he began to go deer hunting. And they shot a deer-like animal and several smaller game and started to carry the kill back to the house of the missionary. The weather was at the equatorial point in the globe, oppressive. The hill in which they hunted was trackless and they finally arrived back absolutely exhausted. They dropped their heavy burden and all of them just flopped on the grass. One native said—Oh, it’s good to stretch yourself out here in the shade. John Payton shot off that grass, excitedly he had tliat companion recite that sentence again and again. And he wrote it all down in his notebook. And then he translated John 3:16 this way: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever stretcheth himself out on Him shall not perish but have everlasting life.”
That’s faith and it activates the righteousness of God in your behalf.
Thank You, Father for our time shared tonight. What a good night, can’t think of a better place to be unless it’s in Your presence than to be right here. I feel sorry for those who aren’t here that they should miss the testimonies, the joy, the gladness, the truth of the Word, but I thank You for these that are here by Your divine appointment. If there are any in our midst who have not yet experienced the wonders of salvation, may they know that before they leave tonight, their life is in Your hands. @lay they, by faith, receive the power of God unto salvation and be recipients of Your righteousness. Thank You, Father, for a good day. Bless every precious soul here tonight. And may this truth given to us be something we give to others that they might know You … whom to know is life eternal, for Christ’s sake we pray. Amen.
How Does the Gospel Save Believers? Part 1
August 9, 1998
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.”
Verse 16 says that “the gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” Back on June 21 I argued that what this means is not that the gospel is God’s power to convert people to faith (although that is indeed true!), but that it means the gospel is God’s power to bring those who keep on believing to everlasting safety and joy in the presence of God.
Our Ultimate Problem: The Wrath of God
One of the things we did not make plain in that message was why we need salvation. Salvation from what? What’s the problem? The answer in the book of Romans is resoundingly this: We need to be saved from the wrath of God. Look at Romans 1:18, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness.” This is given as the reason why we need saving. God is very angry at our unrighteousness and the way we suppress and distort the truth to justify ourselves.
Or look in the next chapter, Romans 2:8, to see another glimpse of this. Paul says that “to those who are selfishly ambitious and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness (notice those two words again, as in 1:18—“truth” rejected and “unrighteousness” embraced), [God will render] wrath and indignation.” This is our problem. God is indignant and wrathful toward us in our unrighteousness and our untruthfulness.
Or back up just three verses to Romans 2:5, “Because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God.” God’s wrath is a righteous judgment. When we are unrighteous, God’s righteousness blazes out with wrath and indignation. He is not to be trifled with.
This is what we need saving from in the end. This is our ultimate problem: God’s final wrath that separates us from himself and casts us into hell. If you ask the book of Romans, what do we need to be saved from, the answer comes back—yes, from sin; and yes, from guilt; and yes, from disunity and bad relationships; and yes, from destructive habits and harmful ways; but mainly the answer is: We need to be saved from God’s wrath. Our ultimate problem, though very few in the 1990s see the problem, is that we are sinners in the hands of an infinite, omnipotent, angry God.
Gospel: God Has Rescued Us from the Wrath of God
The gospel is mainly the good news that God himself has rescued us from the wrath of God. Not mainly from ourselves and the mess we make of our lives; but from his own anger and his own righteous judgment. The gospel is the power of God for salvation from the wrath of God—the power that brings us to eternal safety and joy in the presence of God.
You see it perhaps most clearly of all in Romans 5:9. “Much more then, having now been justified by His [that is, Jesus’] blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him.” In the end, it’s all about escaping the wrath of God, or, having the wrath of God turned away from us, so that he becomes a friendly King and not an enemy.
So when verse 16 says, “The gospel is the power of God for salvation,” it means that the gospel is God’s power to rescue believers from the “wrath of God,” or from “the righteous judgment of God” (2:5)
How Does the Gospel Save Believers?
Now the question in today’s sermon is, How does the gospel save believers? How is the gospel God’s power for salvation? And the answer is given in verse 17. Maybe we can feel the force of this verse by translating it incorrectly and making it say what we might expect it to say, but what it does not say, and then go back and do it correctly. Let’s read it incorrectly. Starting at verse 16, “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 love] of God is revealed from faith to faith.”
Now that is not what it says. But that is where the emphasis for many of us falls, when we think about the gospel. The gospel is the good news, we say, because in it the love of God is revealed. And indeed it is. Romans 5:8 says, “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” That too is the gospel. The gospel of Jesus is a demonstration and revelation of the love of God for sinners. But that is not what verse 17 says.
Now there are two simple reasons that I put it this way—why I start with a wrong translation. One is to make plain that the love of God could not just sweep the unrighteousness of man and the wrath of God under the rug and pretend all is well. The love of God had to deal with man’s unrighteousness and had to deal with God’s wrath. The love of God is not a sentimental thing that can just say, “I feel nice to you, and so I will now be nice to you.” If that were true, the book of Romans would have been a lot shorter than it is. Indeed the Bible would have been a lot shorter, and we could have skipped the gruesome story of the death of the Son of God.
The love of God is a love full of wisdom and a love full of justice and a love full of truth. It is a love that upholds all the other attributes of God, rather than blotting them out. The love of God is worked out wisely and legally and justly and truthfully—nothing hidden, nothing suppressed. It takes our unrighteousness and God’s righteousness into account, and deals with them in the death and resurrection of Jesus. How it does that is what this book is mainly about.
The other reason I begin by mentioning what Paul does not say is to stress that Paul must want Christians to understand how they will be saved from the wrath of God. He must want us to know more than just that God loves us and sent Jesus to die for us. Think about this! It is so simple and so plain. Evidently it matters to Christ and to his inspired apostle, Paul, that Christians learn how the gospel is the power of God for salvation. Because he tells us how—in verse 17, and then for sixteen chapters he tells us how!
A Strong Understanding of the Gospel
Why do I stress this? I stress it because it is simply unbiblical that so many Christians today have such a weak grasp—a weak understanding—of what our human condition is without grace, how God planned our redemption, what God did in Christ to save us, how the Holy Spirit worked in us to convert us, and how God goes on working (by the gospel!) to keep us and purify us and fit us for heaven. These are the things that the New Testament (especially Romans) is at pains to teach Christians, and it is stunning how many Christians simply do not care to know these things and therefore do not know them.
So I am stressing that in verse 17, instead of saying, “God saved us by his love and that’s all you need to know,” Paul begins to explain for us how the gospel saves believers. He does not just say, “It shows the love of God.” Paul gets inside the love of God and shows how God deals with the real problems of the universe. We begin to learn what the real issues of the universe are. And they are deeper than we think they are—not the bombing of embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam—but far deeper than that. There is an enmity against God and a suppression of truth and a deep unrighteousness of soul and the almighty wrath of God behind such things that only one power in the universe can overcome—the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Starting at verse 17 Paul moves inside the love of God and inside the gospel to show us how the gospel is that kind of power. And he writes this way because we Christians need to know these things. I’m not asking you to take a course in theology. I’m asking you to read and care about the inspired word of God in Romans 1:17. Christ sent his apostle to teach us how the gospel saves believers and brings them safe to heaven.
This is what you are going to want to know when the doctor says, “We’ve done all we can do.” And you say, “How long do I have?” And he says, “A week? Maybe two”—and then face to face with the Maker and Judge of all the universe, infinite in holiness and unswerving in justice. O my beloved Bethlehem, this is what you are going to want to know. How can I persuade you and win you to care about the most important things in the world?
The Comfort and Privilege of Understanding How God Works
I plead with you to get serious about growing in the knowledge of God (Colossians 1:10) and how he saves the unrighteous. If God inspired Paul to tell us, we ought to want to know. And what a privilege to know! And a comfort to know! What a joy to know! This series on Romans is a golden opportunity—a precious window of time. We are moving slowly so that you can think and study and read and discuss and review and check things out and pray over what you hear. This series has the potential of taking you deep into the heart and mind of God—if you want to go there. I plead with you: Do not be passive, don’t coast. Make the thought of this letter the thought of your mind. Build your whole way of thinking and feeling out of the building blocks in this great letter.
So this morning, would you ask with me this question: How does the gospel save believers? How does the gospel powerfully bring us to eternal safety and joy in the presence of God when what we really deserve is God’s wrath, which verse 18 says is already being revealed from heaven? How will the gospel triumph in those last two weeks of your life to rescue you from despair and terror, and bring you home to God?
The answer of verse 17 is this: the gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes because “in it [that is, in the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith.”
Now here is the puzzle. How can this be good news when the righteousness of God is our problem? The fact that God is righteous and I am unrighteous is the problem. His wrath is being revealed against the unrighteousness of man, verse 18 says. Martin Luther said he hated Romans 1:17 before he figured this out. He wrote,
I had … been captivated with an extraordinary ardor for understanding Paul in the Epistle to the Romans. But … a single word in Chapter 1 [verse 17], ‘In it the righteousness of God is revealed,’ stood in my way. For I hated that word ‘righteousness of God,’ which … I had been taught to understand … is the righteousness [with which God] punishes the unrighteous sinner. (John Dillenberger, ed. Martin Luther: Selections from His Writings, [Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Co., 1961], p. 11)
God Gives to Us What He Demands from Us
So how is this good news—that the righteousness of God is revealed in the gospel? Here’s the answer: God demands righteousness and we don’t have it, so the only hope for us is that God himself would give the righteousness that he demands. That would be good news. That would be gospel. And that is what he does. What is revealed in the gospel is the righteousness of God for us that he demands from us. The reason the gospel is the power of God for salvation—the way that the gospel saves believers is that in it God reveals a righteousness for us that God demands from us. What we had to have, but could not create or supply or perform, God gives us freely, namely, his own righteousness, the righteousness of God.
This is how the gospel saves us from the wrath of God. You see in verse 18 that “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men.” So what is our rescue? What is our hope to escape this wrath when we are ungodly and unrighteous? The answer is that God would intervene and supply us with a righteousness that is not our own. That he would give to us the righteousness he demands from us. If God would do that, then his wrath would be averted and we could be reconciled to him. And that is, in fact, what he did. And that is the gospel. That is the way it saves us.
“The gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes,” because in it God offers to us what he demands from us, namely, his own righteousness. He reveals as a gift in Christ Jesus what was once only a demand. This is how he saves: in the gospel of Jesus’ death and resurrection God gives to us the righteousness that he demands from us.
Now there is two more Sunday’s worth of good news in this verse. Next Sunday we need to ask, What is this gift of God’s righteousness? 1) Is it the vindication of his own justice in the punishment of our substitute, Jesus? 2) Or is it our right standing with God as forgiven and acquitted sinners without guilt in his presence? 3) Or is it the moral transformation in us that actually changes our nature into obedient, righteous children of God? Or is it all three?
And the Sunday after that, we must ask how faith figures into this saving revelation of the righteousness of God. What does the phrase “from faith to faith” (verse 17) mean? And how does the quote there from Habakkuk 2:4 help us embrace all this great truth by faith?
But to close today I want to go back to Martin Luther. Maybe God will use his testimony to bring some of you from mere hearers this morning to those who love and live on this gospel reality of God’s gift of righteousness. You remember he said he hated Romans 1:17. But he goes on explaining his struggle with his own guilt and fear before the righteousness of God.
Thus I raged with a fierce and troubled conscience. Nevertheless, I beat importunately upon Paul at [Romans 1:17], most ardently desiring to know what St. Paul wanted. At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words, namely, “In it the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.’ ” There I began to understand [that] the righteousness of God is … righteousness with which [the] merciful God justifies us by faith.… Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates. (Martin Luther: Selections, pp. 11–12)
O how I pray that many of you will find this verse a pathway into paradise.
How Does the Gospel Save Believers? Part 2
August 16, 1998
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.”
The Gospel Saves Believers
We are asking the question, How does the gospel save believers?, not: How does the gospel get people to be believers? When spoken in the power of the Holy Spirit, the gospel does have power to open people’s eyes and change their hearts and draw them to faith, and save them. That’s what is happening on Tuesday nights and Wednesday nights this summer. People are being drawn to Christ through the power and beauty of the gospel. But I am stressing what Paul says here in verses 16 and 17, namely, that “the gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” Believers need to be saved. The gospel is the instrument of God’s power to save us. And we need to know how the gospel saves us believers so that we make proper use of it.
Notice the link between verses 15 and 16: “So, for my part, I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome.” Who is this “you”? Verses 6–7 tell us: “… among whom you also are the called of Jesus Christ; to all who are beloved of God in Rome, called as saints.” So he says in verse 15 that he is “eager to preach the gospel” to these called, loved, saints whose “faith is being proclaimed all over the world” (v. 8). Why? Verse 16: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (literally: who is believing) namely, you. And, namely, you Bethlehem believers.
I say it with Paul: I, John Piper, am eager to preach the gospel to you who believe—exactly to you who believe—because this gospel which is laid out in the book of Romans, is the power of God to save you. You believers need to hear the gospel in order to be saved. And Paul labors mercifully for 16 chapters to tell us the gospel and how it works to save believers.
Believers Are Dependent on the Gospel Every Day
And I fully believe that the reason he does is that when believers know and love and live on the meat of the gospel, we will be so gospel-filled and gospel-shaped and gospel-dependent and gospel-driven and gospel-hoping and gospel-joyful that no one will need to tell us why we need to share the gospel or how to share the gospel. We will be so thankful and so desperately, day-by-day dependent on the gospel for our own hope of eternal life, and our own sanity, and our own stability, and our own marriages or singleness, that it will be impossible not to know that people need the gospel and why they need it and how it relates to their biggest needs—because we know we need it, and why we need it, and how it meets our biggest needs day by day.
One of the great reasons Paul was so eager to preach the gospel to believers (verse 15) and why I am so eager to preach his gospel to you, is that, if we thrive day-by-day on the meat of the gospel—if the gospel becomes a day-by-day, hour-by-hour instrument of God’s power in our lives to save us—then our witness to family and friends and strangers will not be an artificial scheme but the very heartbeat of the way we think and feel and fight the fight for faith and love every day.
Paul was utterly convinced—and we should be too—that preaching the gospel to believers would bear fruit. Look back at verse 13: “I do not want you to be unaware, brethren, that often I have planned to come to you (and have been prevented so far) so that I may obtain some fruit among you also, even as among the rest of the Gentiles.” When the gospel is preached among believers there will be fruit! All kinds of fruit. Righteousness, peace, joy (Romans 14:17)—and converts who hear and see the gospel from the people of God.
How Does the Gospel Save Believers?
So I am focusing on verse 17 for three weeks because verse 17 answers the question: How does the gospel saves believers? If we believers are going to live on the gospel, this is how we do it. We learn from God’s word how the gospel is going to save us, and then we believe it, and yield to it, and cherish it, and follow God’s design day by day for how he plans to save us from everything that would destroy us, especially the “righteous judgment of God” (Romans 2:5) and the wrath to come (Romans 5:9). That’s what “salvation” refers to mainly in verse 16: “The gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” Those who go on believing, year after year, will be saved from wrath by the power of God in the gospel (see Mark 13:13).
How? How does the gospel save believers from the wrath to come, and bring us safely into the joy of our God (Matthew 25:21, 23)?
Verse 17 says it works like this: “The gospel is the power of God unto salvation to everyone who believes because in it—in the gospel—the righteousness of God is revealed.” We saw last week that Martin Luther at first hated this verse because he thought the revelation of God’s righteousness was not good news, but more bad news. It’s the righteousness of God that creates our problem: we are unrighteous and suppress the truth (Romans 1:18). So we are under condemnation by the righteousness of God.
God demands righteousness from us. That’s his nature and what his law demands. He is righteous. But we don’t have it to give. So we are guilty and condemned and perishing, alienated from God and without hope in the world. So what’s the good news? What’s the gospel? The good news is that the righteousness which God demands from us, he gives to us. That was last week’s point. That is what verse 17 means: the gospel is the power of God to save believers because, day by day, all through our lives, we see revealed in the gospel of Christ’s death and resurrection the gift of divine righteousness that supplies to us what God demands from us.
What does “The Righteousness of God” Mean?
Then I asked at the end, What does this gift of God’s righteousness refer to? I mentioned the three possibilities that seem most likely to me. So today I want to show you which of these I think Paul means and why.
Does the righteousness of God mean: 1) the vindication or demonstration of his own righteousness in forgiving sin because he punishes that sin in our substitute, Jesus? 2) Or does he mean our right standing with God as forgiven and acquitted sinners without guilt in his presence? 3) Or does he mean the moral change in us that actually makes us obedient, righteous children of God?
Now we are going to see over time in Romans that all three of these are, in fact, true meanings of God’s righteousness, and that it is part of the gospel that all three of them are free gifts for us, obtained by the death of Jesus in our place. And it may be that Paul has all of them in mind in verse 17: the righteousness of God—in all these ways—is being revealed in the gospel to faith; and that is why it is the power of God to save believers. It’s true that we see in the gospel, day by day, all that is needed for God to be righteous, and to declare us righteous, and to progressively make us righteous. That’s what the gospel reveals to us day by day. That is what we grasp hold of by faith. That is what keeps us believing and helps us fight the fight of faith and persevere to the end and be saved.
Our Right Standing Before God
But there are several reasons why I think Paul’s main intention in verse 17 is the “righteousness of God” in the sense of our right standing before him as forgiven, acquitted sinners without guilt—in other words, as people who are justified, or declared righteous because the righteousness of God has been imputed to us. In Christ, we now have a right standing with God. God imputes to us his own righteousness even while we are still ungodly. He counts us as having his righteousness. That’s what I think verse 17 mainly refers to. That’s what is revealed in the gospel.
Here are my reasons.
- God credits his righteousness to man
- Notice the connection between the first part of verse 17 and the last part, the quote from Habakkuk 2:4. “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith.” Then comes an Old Testament quote introduced with “as it is written.” In other words, what he has just said about the righteousness of God being revealed in the gospel is as—is like—what he is about to quote from Habakkuk 2:4, namely, “BUT THE RIGHTEOUS man SHALL LIVE BY FAITH.”
Do you see what has happened to the word “righteousness” (or “just,” which is the same in Greek)? In the first half of the verse, the righteousness is God’s (“the righteousness of God is revealed”), but in the second half of the verse the righteousness is man’s (“the righteous man shall live by faith”). How can Paul give an Old Testament quote to illustrate his point if there is such a huge difference in the use of the very words he wants to compare? The answer is that there is not a huge difference. This quote from the Old Testament shows that what Paul has in mind when he speaks of the gospel revealing “the righteousness of God” is not mainly that God himself is righteous, but that he imputes or credits his righteousness to man so that man can be called “just” or “righteous.” “The righteous man,” he says,—the one who is now righteous because of the gift of God’s righteousness—“shall live by faith.”
So what verse 17 means is that, in the gospel, the righteousness of God is revealed in the sense that we see it being given to sinners so that we are justified—have a right standing with God. What we can’t provide on our own, God imputes to us so that we are forgiven and acquitted and justified before him. Now, there is another reason to see verse 17 this way. So add to this one the following one.
- God’s righteousness is manifested through faith
- Here’s my second reason for thinking that this is what Paul has in mind in verse 17. Turn with me to Romans 3:20. The parallel between these next verses and Romans 1:17 is so close that I can’t help letting these verses guide how I fill out the shorthand of 1:17.
Romans 3:20: “By the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin.” So you see that the issue here is how sinners are “justified.” That is, how do we get a right standing with God when we have no righteousness of our own? How do we get acquitted in the courtroom when we are guilty sinners? Then he continues in 3:21 with words that are very close to Romans 1:17, “But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God [same phrase as in 1:17] has been manifested [very close to the word “revealed” in 1:17], being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets.” So he explains “justification” (verse 20) as a “manifestation of the righteousness of God” (verse 21). And he continues to do so in verses 22–24, which shed bright light on the “revealing of the righteousness of God” in 1:17.
He says (please try to see all of verses 22–24 as one piece) that this righteousness that is now manifested is “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.” In the flow of Paul’s thought, the phrase “being justified as a gift by God’s grace” in verse 24 is a restatement and explanation of what he meant in verse 22 by “the righteousness of God through faith.” So we have God’s act of justifying sinners in verse 20 and again in verse 24 and in between we have two references to God’s manifesting his righteousness through faith (verses 20, 22).
So I take Paul to be saying this: In the death of Jesus (verses 24–25), God has manifested his own righteousness by imputing or crediting that righteousness to sinners and pronouncing them righteous or just with his own righteousness. This is called justification. This idea of manifesting his righteousness now apart from the law (verses 21–22) is so close to the revealing of the righteousness of God in 1:17, that I think they are the same.
This is my second reason for saying that Romans 1:17 refers to the righteousness of God given to man in the act of justification—the act of declaring sinners righteous through faith in Jesus.
Not Pressing Artificial Separations
But I don’t want to press artificial separations here between these ways of looking at God’s righteousness.
The gospel does reveal that God demonstrates his attribute of righteousness in justifying sinners who trust Jesus (Romans 3:25–26); that’s why Jesus had to die—to show that sin was dealt with righteously, to show that God was “both just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (3:26).
And the gospel does reveal that the death of Jesus purchased not only a declaration of our right standing before God, but also a development of our right living before God. Romans 8:3–4 says, “Sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, [God] condemned sin in the flesh” [that’s what happened at the cross: sin was punished, executed. Now here is the purpose that the cross enables:] (4) so that the [just] requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” Because our sins have once for all been condemned in the death of Christ, we now have new power and freedom to make real progress in fulfilling the moral law of God by the power of his Spirit. “He breaks the power of cancelled sin,” as Charles Wesley wrote (“O For a Thousand Tongues”).
The Gospel Reveals to Us God’s Work for Us
But for all that, which we will see fully in the weeks to come, don’t miss the glory of the main point in verse 17. How does the gospel save believers? How does it save you? The gospel is the power of God to save everyone who believes (Romans 1:16), because in it is being revealed for our encouragement and for our endurance in faith the precious truth that God gives to us what he demands from us, namely, his own righteousness. And he does this mainly in the sense that he declares believers to be righteous with his own righteousness. He counts us as righteous with a perfect righteousness, namely, his own. He forgives us, acquits us, justifies us by our faith.
This is how the gospel saves us. It reveals these things for us to see and believe.
What we need day in and day out, in order to make our way to heaven, is to see and receive and feed on this gift of imputed righteousness. This is the way God saves believers. This can be and should be grasped by children. Let me try to say it simply. We all do bad things and we all are bad in the sense that the bad we do comes from a deeply rooted badness. Our bad deeds come from a bad heart. But God says that we should be good or he cannot accept us, because his own goodness would be ruined by our badness. So what we need is for God to take our badness and punish it in the death of Jesus, and then take the goodness of Jesus—his own goodness—and make it ours.
That’s what he did. So everyone who believes in Jesus receives the gift of God’s goodness, God’s righteousness. That is called justification by faith.
Feed on the Gospel Daily
Look to it daily in the gospel. Be relieved by it daily from the gospel. Be encouraged by it daily from the gospel. Be emboldened by it daily. Be empowered daily. You live by an alien righteousness. Not by your performances, but by God’s. This is the gospel we live by and this is the gospel we will share this week with family and friends. And this is the gospel that will save us and bring us safely home to God.
How Does the Gospel Save Believers? Part 3
August 23, 1998
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.”
Two Ultimate Concerns in Life
There are only two ultimate concerns in life. One is how to display God in our lives. The other is how to be happy in God forever. These are the great concerns in the world for every person and every people group, whether we are conscious of it or not. How shall a person think and feel and act so as to show the glory of God? And what must we think and feel and do so as to be fully happy in God for all eternity? And not just us, but all the peoples.
Romans 1:16–17 deals with these great concerns—as does the whole book. Verse 16 is about God’s power to save us. That deals with concern number two: our longing to be happy in God forever. “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.” The power of God for salvation—that means, at least, the power of God to make us happy in him forever. Romans 14:17 says, “The kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” That is what salvation includes. So the gospel is the power of God to bring believers into the eternal experience of “righteousness, peace and joy.”
Verse 17 is about the revelation of the righteousness of God in the gospel. So this verse deals with our first great concern: how to display God in our lives. Verse 17 explains how the gospel—the good news about the death and resurrection of Jesus—saves believers. The gospel is the power of God to give believers eternal joy, it says, “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.’ ” What stands out here is that the gospel has power to save us because it reveals something of God. And that’s what the first great concern in the universe is: the revealing or showing of God.
So verse 16 deals with the great concern of our eternal joy (called “salvation”) and verse 17 deals with the issue of the manifestation of God (in particular his righteousness). Things don’t get any bigger. They don’t get any more important than this. If you think you have bigger issues in your life than this, you are not seeing reality. If you think the Clinton scandals are bigger or the missile reprisals are bigger, you need to turn off the TV and think for a moment. Henry VIII made Bill Clinton look like a Puritan, and he is dead—barely a blip on the screen of history (died 1547), where Bill Clinton will be very soon. And the terrorism of Genghis Khan, wiping out whole peoples, makes today’s terrorist assaults seem like recess squabbles; but he is gone, and who even knows what century he lived in (AD 1162–1227)?
What seems great and all-important now may, in fact, be very small. But whether God is shown and known, and whether you will have eternal joy—these are truly great and ultimate concerns. So I am praying earnestly that God will open your eyes and give you a passion for the gospel which is the power of God to save believers, and for the revealing of God’s righteousness which is the way the gospel brings believers to eternal life and joy.
“We Shall Be Saved from the Wrath of God”
This is our sixth message on these two verses. And the main point I have been making is that these verses are not mainly about how people become believers, but about how believers are saved—how we escape the wrath of God at the end of the age and enter into eternal life and joy. Verse 16 says that the gospel is the power of God to save believers. And verse 17 says that the way it works is that in the gospel the righteousness of God is being revealed. Both the believing in verse 16 and the revealing in verse 17 are present tense continuous action verbs (in Greek). “The gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who continues to believe, because in that gospel the righteousness of God continues to be revealed.”
From our side the key to our being saved from the wrath to come is to go on believing and trusting God. The key, from God’s side, to our being saved is that he goes on revealing to us the righteousness of God in the gospel, month after month and year after year.
The issue in these verses is how God saves believers from his final judgment and brings them safely into everlasting righteousness and peace and joy. Romans 13:11 says, “Salvation is nearer to us now than when we [first] believed.” Full and final salvation is future. Romans 5:9 says, “Having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him.” That is what is at stake in these verses. How does God bring a believer through life so that in the end he is saved from wrath and has eternal life and joy?
In fact, Romans 5:9 is an exact restatement of Romans 1:16–17 with the order of thought reversed. Let’s reverse the order of the two halves of Romans 5:9 so they match the order of Romans 1:16–17. Instead of “[a] Having now been justified by His blood, [b] we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him,” turn it around and let it say, “[b] We shall be saved from the wrath of God through Christ, [a] because we have been justified by his blood.” That is exactly the structure of Romans 1:16–17.
Justification Is the Foundation of Glorification
The gospel is the power of God unto salvation because in it the righteousness of God is revealed, that is, God reveals righteousness as a free gift that we need and don’t have. That, we have seen, is the meaning of verses 16 and 17: our final salvation (verse 16) is based on God’s giving the righteousness to us that he demands from us (verse 17). The way Paul says it in Romans 8:30 is: “Those whom He justified, He also glorified.” Justification (God’s righteousness completely imputed to us) is the foundation of glorification (God’s righteousness completely imparted to us).
Or to see the same order of salvation in different language, look at Romans 8:32: “He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things?” In other words, the foundation for all our future hope of life and joy and salvation is based on God’s giving his Son to die as a substitute for us so that our sins could be on him, and his righteousness could be on us. It’s the same pattern of salvation in Romans 8:30, 32 and Romans 5:9 and Romans 1:16–17. This is the great theme and structure of this book.
Our Hope for Salvation
All our hope for salvation (verse 16) hangs on beholding and believing the revelation of God’s righteousness as a gift to us (verse 17). The book of Romans is going to demand many things of us as believers, but we are not to do any of them in order to take away our guilt or forgive our sin or get for us the gift of righteousness. God accomplished that once for all in the death of Jesus in our place; and he gave it to us freely through faith the very moment we truly believed. This is why justification is treated as a past event in our lives and is the foundation and security of everything else: “Having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God” (5:9). The past grace of justification secures the future grace of salvation.
The power that will bring believers to that salvation is the revelation of that justification. That’s the meaning of the connection between Romans 1:16 and 17. To fulfill all that is required of us to enter heaven, we must see it over and over again—the ongoing revelation in the gospel that the righteousness of God is given to us freely through faith. If we don’t know ourselves acquitted and forgiven and counted righteous now, we will not be able to walk the path that leads to life. Either we will despair and turn to worldliness; or we will try to earn our way into God’s favor with moral and religious performances.
Everything God requires of us as believers assumes that we are justified—accepted, forgiven, acquitted, counted righteous with his righteousness, not ours. From that secure position we must fight sin and unbelief. And the one who fights like that—as a justified sinner—will live.
“The Righteous Man Shall Live by Faith”
Now that is exactly what I think the last half of verse 17 means. Let’s look at this quote from Habakkuk 2:4. “In the gospel the righteousness of God is being revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “But the righteous man shall live by faith.” In the context of the book of Habakkuk the meaning of this sentence is just what it is here. The unrighteous nations are in great peril before the judgment of God. For example, Habakkuk 1:5–6:
Be astonished! Wonder! Because I am doing something in your days—You would not believe if you were told. For behold, I am raising up the Chaldeans [Babylon], that fierce and impetuous people who march throughout the earth to seize dwelling places which are not theirs.
But Judah herself is not exempt from judgment. The wickedness and idolatry of some is about to be tried in the wrath of the Babylonian invasion. The crucial question here is: How can a person be saved? How can they gain their lives and not be destroyed in God’s judgment? That’s the same question addressed by Romans 1:16—who will be saved from the wrath of God?
Two Crucial Truths
The answer of the book of Habakkuk is given in 2:4: “Behold, as for the proud one, His soul is not right within him; but the righteous will live by his faith.” There are two crucial truths in this verse that are relevant for Paul’s argument.
- Rescue depends on faith.
One is that rescue from the judgment of God depends on faith. That’s what Habakkuk 2:4 promises: “the righteous will live by his faith.” That is, it’s by faith that you gain your life. By faith you will not be swept away utterly in the wrath of God. By faith you will live. So “living” in Habakkuk 2:4 and here in Romans 1:17b (“the righteous will live”) refers to salvation from the judgment of God. And that is tremendously important for Paul’s point in verse 16. There he says, “salvation [is] to everyone who believes.” Rescue from God’s wrath and the gift of eternal life is given freely to those who trust God. Then he sees this same truth in Habakkuk 2:4 and quotes it to give further support to that part of his point. The words, “will live by faith” in verse 17b correspond to “salvation to everyone who believes” in verse 16. We are saved from judgment and inherit life by trusting God. (See Habakkuk 2:18 and 3:16, 18–19 for what the “faith” of 2:4 looks like. And see Habakkuk 3:13 for the word “salvation” as reference to the promise of life.)
That’s one truth in Habakkuk 2:4 that is relevant for Paul’s argument.
- Life is gained by faith.
The other is that it is a righteous person who gains his life by faith. “The righteous shall live [the righteous person shall gain his life and be saved from God’s wrath] by faith.” Now that is crucial for what Paul is saying about the righteousness of God. Habakkuk 2:4 doesn’t say in so many words that we get God’s righteousness by faith, which is what Paul teaches in this book and in Romans 1:17. But Habakkuk does link the righteous person and faith. The least we can say—and maybe we should say more—is that the thing about righteous people that brings them to life and salvation is their faith. It is a very small step then to say: Well then, faith is the essential thing about being righteous before God.
In fact, if it is by faith that we escape God’s judgment, and if, as Habakkuk 1:13 says, “[God, your] eyes are too pure to approve evil, and You cannot look on wickedness with favor,” then faith must somehow be counted by God as righteousness, because otherwise we could never be rescued by him and given life by him, because we are all sinners and he could never look on us with favor. So, if God can’t look on any evil with approval (Habakkuk 1:13) and yet saves us and gives us life by our faith (Habakkuk 2:4), then our righteousness that has a standing with this holy God must be a righteousness by faith and a gift from him. And that is the other reason this text is so crucial for Paul’s argument.
So in summary, we see two things in Romans 1:16–17 that are confirmed in the Old Testament quote. 1) One (verse 16) is that the gospel is the power of God to save believers. If we have faith in him we will live and not perish. 2) The other is that the way God saves believers is by revealing (in that gospel) the righteousness of God as a gift “from faith to faith.” The righteousness he demands from us (Habakkuk 1:13) he freely gives to us. This is what God reveals “from faith to faith.”
“From Faith to Faith”
So the last thing I want to ask in these verses is, What does “from faith to faith” mean in verse 17? There are two or three keys to this.
1) The only real parallel to this phrase in the New Testament is in 2 Corinthians 2:15–16. (But see also Psalm 84:7 and Jeremiah 9:3.) Paul says, “We are a fragrance of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing; to the one an aroma from death to death, to the other an aroma from life to life.” “From death to death,” and “from life to life” are identical in wording to “from faith to faith.” The most natural interpretation seems to be: when Paul’s message and sufferings meet with death in the soul, that leads to the final death of the soul. And when his message and sufferings meet with spiritual life, that leads to final life. Death is unresponsive to the gospel and is confirmed in its deadness forever. Spiritual life is responsive to the gospel and is confirmed and preserved for eternal life.
So here in Romans 1:17 it says, “The righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith.” That is, when the revelation of the gift of righteousness meets with faith it leads to future faith. Faith is the initial window of the soul that lets the light of the revelation of righteousness in. And when the light of God’s gift of righteousness comes in by faith, it powerfully works to awaken and sustain and engender more and more faith for the years to come.
- The other key to understanding “from faith to faith” is to see how well this meaning meets the demands of verse 16. Verse 16 says that the gospel is the power of God unto salvation for all who go on believing—present tense continuous action. So we must go on believing. In 1 Corinthians 15:1–2, Paul says, “Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain.” So if we give up on our faith and throw it away, our supposed faith will prove to have been vain, empty, dead.
The Gospel Keeps Believers Believing
What saves is persevering faith (Mark 13:13; Colossians 1:23). If that’s true, now it makes clear sense why verse 17 explains how God saves believers by saying that in the gospel God reveals a righteousness for us that is first perceived and embraced by faith, and then has the effect of awakening all the necessary future faith that we need in order to be saved. The gospel saves believers because the gospel keeps believers believing. (See 1 Peter 1:5.)
In Romans 8:13 Paul says, “If you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” But the problem is, we all know that in our war with sin we do not win often enough to have peace in our consciences. So if our life hangs on perfect winning in the war with sin, we are going to despair and not persevere to the end. We will simply give up, because there is no use trying.
What then will keep us going and fighting so that we will live? Romans 1:16, 17 answers: the gospel is the power of God to save believers because in the gospel we can see revealed every day that our standing with God is not based on our own righteousness but on God’s, freely given to us by faith. And when we see that over and over in the gospel, day after day, as long as we live, our faith is renewed and sustained, and we press on in the fight. Our confidence that God will help us in life and save us from the wrath to come is based on our ever-renewed assurance that our acceptance with him is based on the gift of his own righteousness, not ours.
So every time the Bible demands you to do something do not think, “I must do this to take away my guilt or to get forgiveness or to get a right standing with God.” Rather think, “I will do this because my guilt is already removed, I am already forgiven, I already have the gift of God’s righteousness, and so I know that God is for me and will help me. So I will trust him and obey him and display by my radical, risk-taking obedience the glory of God’s grace. And I will draw nearer and nearer to him in the fellowship of his sufferings and the joy of his companionship.