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).
The Theme of the Epistle
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.”
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.
- 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.
- 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.”
- 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.
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.
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).
16 As we have noted, v. 16a explains (cf. the “for”) why Paul is eager to preach the gospel in Rome (v. 15). But it also picks up the various descriptions of Paul’s commitment to the ministry of the gospel in vv. 1–15 (cf. vv. 1, 5, 9, 14). The negative form of Paul’s assertion, “I am not ashamed of the gospel,” may be a literary convention (litotes), justifying our rendering it as a straightforward positive statement (cf. TEV: “I have complete confidence”).10 However, “the foolishness of the word of the cross” (1 Cor. 1:18) would make some degree of embarrassment about the gospel natural—particularly in the capital of the Gentile world. It may also be that accusations to the effect that Paul’s gospel was antinomian or anti-Jewish lie behind this denial (cf. 3:8; 9:1–5).
The second clause in v. 16 explains (“for”) why Paul is not ashamed of the gospel. For this gospel, whose content is Jesus Christ, “appointed Son-of-God-in-power” (v. 4), mediates “the power of God leading to salvation.” The term “power,” as one might expect, is used widely in Greek philosophy and religion, but its NT background is undoubtedly to be sought in the OT teaching about a personal God who uniquely possesses power and who manifests that power in delivering (Exod. 9:16; Ps. 77:14–15) and judging (Jer. 16:21) his people.
“Salvation” and its cognates are widely used in both the Greek world and the LXX to depict deliverance from a broad range of evils.15 The NT as a whole uses “salvation” and its cognates with much of the same broad range of meaning as the OT, whereas Paul uses the words only of spiritual deliverance. Moreover, his focus is eschatological: “salvation” is usually the deliverance from eschatological judgment that is finalized only at the last day. Characteristic, however, of Paul’s (and the NT’s) outlook is the conviction that these eschatological blessings are, to some extent, enjoyed by anyone the moment he or she trusts Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. It is because of this “already” focus in Paul’s salvation-historical perspective that he can speak of Christians as “saved” in this life.17 “Salvation” often has a negative meaning—deliverance from something—but positive nuances are present at times also, so that the term can denote generally God’s provision for a person’s spiritual need. Particularly, in light of Rom. 3:23 and the use of “save” in 8:24 (cf. vv. 18–23), “salvation” here must include the restoration of the sinner to a share of the “glory of God.”
The last part of v. 16 introduces themes that recur as key motifs throughout Romans. First, God’s salvific power is available “to everyone who believes.” “Believe” and “faith”19 are key words in Romans; they are particularly prominent in 3:21–4:25. The lack of an explicit object after “believe” is also characteristic of Romans. This does not mean that Paul depreciates the centrality of Christ as the object of faith, but that the language of faith has become so tied to what God has done in Christ that further specification is not needed. To “believe” is to put full trust in the God who “justifies the ungodly” (4:5) by means of the cross and resurrection of Christ. Though intellectual assent cannot be excluded from faith, the Pauline emphasis is on surrender to God as an act of the will (cf., e.g., 4:18; 10:9). Pauline (and NT) faith is not (primarily) agreement with a set of doctrines but trust in a person. Though not explicit here, another focus of Romans is the insistence that faith is in no sense a “work.” Therefore, although we must never go to the extreme of making the person a totally passive instrument through whom “believing” occurs—for Paul makes clear that people are responsible to believe—we must also insist that believing is not something we do (in the sense of “works”) but is always a response, an accepting of the gift God holds out to us in his grace (see especially 4:1–8). As Calvin puts it, faith is “a kind of vessel” with which we “come empty and with the mouth of our soul open to seek God’s grace.” “Believing,” then, while a genuinely human activity, possesses no “merit” or worth for which God is somehow bound to reward us; for salvation is, from first to last, God’s work.
But this same phrase introduces another recurring motif of Romans: the availability of God’s “power for salvation” for “all who believe.” This phrase occurs four other times in Romans (3:22; 4:11; 10:4, 11), in each case with particular reference to the breaking down of barriers between Jew and Gentile. Paul’s ministry to Gentiles derives from his understanding of the gospel itself as eschatological revelation that fulfills the OT promises about the universal reign of Yahweh. This required the elimination of those barriers between Jew and Gentile laboriously erected by the oral (and written—cf. Eph. 2:15) law. Nowhere does this principle receive more emphasis than in Romans, as Paul seeks to validate his gospel before a skeptical audience.
Yet it is typical also of Romans that Paul does not rest content with a reminder of the universalism of the gospel but immediately introduces a note of particularism: “to the Jew first and then to the Greek.” It is only a slight exaggeration to say that the key to understanding Romans lies in successfully untangling the two connected strands of universalism—“to all who believe”—and particularism—“to the Jew first.” The attempted resolution of this apparent paradox must await our comments on Rom. 9–11, but we must say something here about this particular phrase. In opposition to “Jew,” “Greek” must indicate, broadly, any non-Jew. What is the nature of the Jew’s priority (“first”) over the Gentile? Some scholars, indeed, have sought to remove any sense of priority from the phrase,26 but without success. Paul clearly accords some kind of priority to the Jew. Some suggest that no more is involved than the historical circumstance of the apostolic preaching, which, according to Acts, began with the Jews and moved to the Gentiles. But Paul must intend more than simple historical fact in light of the theological context here. If we ask what precedence Paul accords Israel elsewhere in Romans, we find that his emphasis is on the special applicability of the promise of God to that people whom he chose (3:2; 9–11). However much the church may seem to be dominated by Gentiles, Paul insists that the promises of God realized in the gospel are “first of all” for the Jew. To Israel the promises were first given, and to the Jews they still particularly apply. Without in any way subtracting from the equal access that all people now have to the gospel, then, Paul insists that the gospel, “promised beforehand … in the holy Scriptures” (1:2), has a special relevance to the Jew.
Theme of the epistle
16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.
17 For therein is revealed a righteousness of God from faith unto faith: as it is written, But the righteous shall live by faith.
16, 17 In the preceding verse the apostle had affirmed that to the full extent of his own resolution and purpose he was prepared to preach the gospel at Rome. In verses 16, 17 he gives the reason for this determination. We might think that the negative way of expressing his estimate of the gospel, “I am not ashamed of the gospel” is scarcely consistent with the confident glorying which appears on other occasions (cf. 5:2, 3, 11; Gal. 6:14) or with the confidence in the efficacy of the gospel enunciated later in these same verses. But when we remember the contempt entertained for the gospel by the wise of this world (cf. 1 Cor. 1:18, 23–25) and also of the fact that Rome as the seat of world empire was the epitome of worldly power, we can discover the significance of this negative expression and the undertone of assurance which the disavowal reflects. The emotion of shame with reference to the gospel, when confronted with the pretensions of human wisdom and power, betrays unbelief in the truth of the gospel and the absence of shame is the proof of faith (cf. Mark 8:38; 2 Tim. 1:8).
There is a continuous and progressive unfolding of reasons in this text. The apostle tells us first why he is ready to preach the gospel at Rome—he is not ashamed of the gospel. Then he tells us why he is not ashamed of the gospel—it is “the power of God unto salvation”. And then, finally, he tells us why it is the power of God unto salvation—therein the “righteousness of God is revealed”.
When we read, “it is the power of God unto salvation”, the subject is undoubtedly the gospel. The gospel is the message. It is, of course, always a message proclaimed but the gospel itself is the message. We must not therefore overlook the plain import of this proposition that the message of the gospel is the power of God unto salvation; God saves through the message of the gospel (cf. 1 Cor. 1:21). And the implication is that God’s power as it is operative unto salvation is through the gospel alone. It is the gospel that is God’s power unto salvation. The message is God’s word, and the word of God is living and powerful (cf. Heb. 4:12).
“The power of God” is the power that belongs to God and therefore the power characterized by those qualities that are specifically divine. In order to express the thought we should have to say the omnipotence of God and, consequently, the meaning is no less than this that the gospel is the omnipotence of God operative unto salvation. And “salvation” will have to be understood both negatively and positively, as salvation from sin and death unto righteousness and life. The various aspects comprised in this “salvation” are developed in the epistle.
The power of God unto salvation of which the gospel is the embodiment is not unconditionally and universally operative unto salvation. It is of this we are advised in the words “to every one that believeth”. This informs us that salvation is not accomplished irrespective of faith. Hence the salvation with which Paul is going to deal in this epistle has no reality, validity, or meaning apart from faith. And we are already prepared for the emphasis which is placed upon faith throughout the epistle. The concept of salvation developed in this epistle, therefore, is the power of God operative unto salvation through faith. It is this salvation that is proclaimed in the gospel and the gospel as message is the embodiment of this power.
We must not discount the emphasis that the gospel is unto salvation to every one that believes. This is directly germane to the character of the gospel and to the meaning of faith. There is no discrimination arising from race or culture and there is no obstacle arising from the degradations of sin. Wherever there is faith, there the omnipotence of God is operative unto salvation. This is a law with no exceptions.
“To the Jew first, and also to the Greek.” Since Paul was the apostle to the Gentiles and since the church at Rome was preponderantly Gentile (cf. vs. 13), it is the more significant that he should have intimated so expressly the priority of the Jew. But it was the divine economy that the gospel should have been preached first of all to the Jew (cf. Luke 24:49; Acts 1:4, 8; 13:46). It does not appear sufficient to regard this priority as that merely of time. In this text there is no suggestion to the effect that the priority is merely that of time. The implication appears to be rather that the power of God unto salvation through faith has primary relevance to the Jew, and the analogy of Scripture would indicate that this peculiar relevance to the Jew arises from the fact that the Jew had been chosen by God to be the recipient of the promise of the gospel and that to him were committed the oracles of God. Salvation was of the Jews (John 4:22; cf. Acts 2:39; Rom. 3:1, 2; 9:4, 5). The lines of preparation for the full revelation of the gospel were laid in Israel and for that reason the gospel is pre-eminently the gospel for the Jew. How totally contrary to the current attitude of Jewry that Christianity is for the Gentile but not for the Jew.
This priority that belongs to the Jew does not make the gospel less relevant to the Gentile—“and also to the Greek”. The Gentile as fully as the Jew is the recipient of salvation and so, in respect of the favour enjoyed, there is no discrimination. The term “Greek” in this connection means all races other than Jews and includes the “Greeks and Barbarians” of verse 14.
In verse 17 we are given the reason why the gospel is the power of God unto salvation. And the reason is that in the gospel “is revealed a righteousness of God”. It needs to be observed how the concepts with which the apostle here deals are analogous to and no doubt derived from the Old Testament. Four pivotal ideas are coordinated in these verses—the power of God, salvation, revelation, and the righteousness of God. In the Old Testament we find these same ideas brought together in a way of which verses 16, 17 are plainly reminiscent. “Oh sing unto the Lord a new song; for he hath done marvellous things: his right hand, and his holy arm, hath wrought salvation for him. The Lord hath made known his salvation: his righteousness hath he openly showed in the sight of the nations” (Ps. 98:1, 2). “I will bring near my righteousness; it shall not be far off, and my salvation shall not tarry: and I will place salvation in Zion for Israel my glory” (Isa. 46:13). “My righteousness is near; my salvation is gone forth … my salvation shall be for ever, and my righteousness shall not be abolished … my righteousness shall be for ever, and my salvation from generation to generation” (Isa. 51:5–8). “My salvation is near to come, and my righteousness to be revealed” (Isa. 56:1). “For Zion’s sake will I not hold my peace, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until the righteousness thereof go forth as brightness, and the salvation thereof as a lamp that burneth” (Isa. 62:1). (cf. also Isa. 54:17; 61:10, 11). It is apparent that the making known of salvation and the showing forth or revelation of righteousness are parallel expressions and convey substantially the same thought. Hence in the language of the Old Testament the salvation of God and the righteousness of God in such contexts are virtually synonymous—the working of salvation and the revelation of righteousness are to the same effect. It is this same complementation that we find here. And this is why the apostle can say that the gospel is the power of God unto salvation: “for therein is revealed a righteousness of God”.
In line with the force of the term “revealed” in these Old Testament passages we shall have to give to the word here (vs. 17) a dynamic meaning. When the prophet spoke of the righteousness of God as being “revealed” he meant more than that it was to be disclosed to human apprehension. He means that it was to be revealed in action and operation; the righteousness of God was to be made manifest with saving effect. So, when the apostle says, the “righteousness of God is revealed”, he means that in the gospel the righteousness of God is actively and dynamically brought to bear upon man’s sinful situation; it is not merely that it is made known as to its character to human apprehension but that it is manifest in its saving efficacy. This is why the gospel is the power of God unto salvation—the righteousness of God is redemptively active in the sphere of human sin and ruin.
What is this “righteousness of God”? “The righteousness of God” sometimes denotes the attribute of righteousness, God’s rectitude (cf. 3:5, 25, 26). In this instance, however (cf. 3:21, 22; 10:3; 2 Cor. 5:21; Phil. 3:9), the righteousness in view is one that is brought to bear upon us unto salvation, and it is one to which faith bears the same relation as it does to the power of God operative unto salvation. While it is true that God’s attribute of justice cannot be violated in the salvation which we enjoy and while faith that is unto salvation cannot be divorced from belief in God’s rectitude, yet it is not the mere attribute of justice that effects our salvation (of itself it would seal our damnation), and it is not to the mere rectitude of God that saving faith is directed. Hence the righteousness of God in this instance must be something other than the attribute of justice. Justification is the theme of this epistle, and in these two verses the apostle is giving us an introductory summary of his leading thesis. The righteousness of God is therefore the righteousness of God that is unto our justification, the righteousness which he calls later on the free gift of righteousness (5:17), the “one righteousness” (5:18), “the obedience of the one” (5:19). We must, however, inquire more closely as to the import of this designation “the righteousness of God”.
Interpreters have taken it in the sense of origin, the righteousness which proceeds from God; others in the sense that it is the righteousness which God approves;23 others in the sense that it is the righteousness that avails with God and is therefore effective to the end contemplated. All of these observations are in themselves true. But it is questionable if any or all of them have focused attention upon what is perhaps the most important consideration, namely, that it is a righteousness that sustains a much closer relationship to God in respect of possession and property than these other notions express. It is not the attribute of justice for the reasons given. Yet it is so intimately related to God that it is a righteousness of divine property and characterized by divine qualities. It is a “God-righteousness”. Because it is such, God is its author; it is a righteousness that must elicit the divine approval; it is a righteousness that meets all the demands of his justice and therefore avails before God. But the particular emphasis rests upon its divine property and is therefore contrasted not only with human unrighteousness but with human righteousness. Man-righteousness, even though perfect and measuring up to all the demands of God’s perfection, would never be adequate to the situation created by our sins. This is the glory of the gospel; as it is God’s power operative unto salvation so is it God’s righteousness supervening upon our sin and ruin. And it is God’s power operative unto salvation because the righteousness of God is dynamically made manifest unto our justification. Nothing serves to point up the effectiveness, completeness, and irrevocableness of the justification which it is the apostle’s purpose to establish and vindicate than this datum set forth at the outset—the righteousness which is unto justification is one characterized by the perfection belonging to all mat God is and does. It is a “God-righteousness”.
The mediacy or instrumentality of faith is again brought to the forefront. “From faith unto faith” in verse 17 is to the same effect as “to every one that believeth” in verse 16. There is much difference of opinion as to the precise intent of this formula. It has been interpreted as referring to the advance from one degree of faith to another or as equivalent to “by faith alone”26 or as implying that the righteousness of God is by faith from beginning to end. It would appear that the clue to the interpretation is provided by Paul himself in a passage that furnishes the closest parallel, namely, 3:22 (cf. Gal. 3:22). There he speaks of “the righteousness of God through faith of Jesus Christ unto all who believe”. It might seem that the expression “unto all who believe” is superfluous in this instance because all that it sets forth has been already stated in the expression which immediately precedes, “through faith of Jesus Christ”. But the apostle must have some purpose in what seems to us repetition. And the purpose is to accent the fact that not only does the righteousness of God bear savingly upon us through faith but also that it bears savingly upon every one who believes. It is not superfluous to stress both. For the mere fact that the righteousness of God is through faith does not of itself as a proposition guarantee that faith always carries with it this effect. We found already that the apostle laid stress on this in verse 16 when he said “to every one that believeth”. And the most reasonable view appears to be that this same emphasis is intended by the formula “from faith to faith”. “From faith” points to the truth that only “by faith” are we the beneficiaries of this righteousness, and so it is a “faith-righteousness” as truly as it is a “God-righteousness”. “To faith” underlines the truth that every believer is the beneficiary whatever his race or culture or the degree of his faith. Faith always carries with it the justifying righteousness of God.
It is not unreasonable to take “from faith to faith” in construction with “a righteousness of God”. For since this righteousness is operative unto salvation only through faith it can properly be designated a righteousness of faith to all who believe. It is more natural, however, to couple “from faith to faith” with the word “revealed”. The dynamic force of the word “revealed” relieves this construction of an objection which might be urged against it, namely, that revelation as such is not dependent upon faith. With the dynamic import of the term “revealed” in mind, however, the thought expressed is that the righteousness of God is efficiently made known unto justification only through faith and that it is invariably operative to this end in the case of every one that believes.
The appeal to Habakkuk 2:4 is for the purpose of confirmation from the Old Testament. Discussion has turned on the question of the proper rendering, whether “by faith” is to be taken with the subject of the sentence or with the predicate. Are we to render the proposition, “The righteous by faith shall live”32 or “The righteous shall live by faith”? Is the proposition to the effect that the righteous will live or to the effect of intimating how the righteous will live, namely, by faith? There are good reasons for the latter alternative. (1) Habakkuk 2:4 cannot naturally be interpreted any other way and the massoretic interpunctuation favours this view. (2) The truth being established by the apostle is that the righteousness of God is by faith—the emphasis rests upon the way in which man becomes the beneficiary of this righteousness. We should expect that the reference to “faith” in the quotation would have the same force. (3) The expression “the righteous by faith” is not one that can plead the analogy of Scripture usage.
16 As we have noted, v. 16a explains (note the “for” [gar]) why Paul is eager to preach the gospel in Rome (v. 15). But it also picks up the various descriptions of Paul’s commitment to the ministry of the gospel in vv. 1–15 (vv. 1, 5, 9, 14). The negative form of Paul’s assertion, “I am not ashamed of the gospel,” may be a literary convention (litotes), justifying our rendering it as a straightforward positive statement: “I have great confidence in the gospel.” However, “the foolishness of the word of the cross” (1 Cor. 1:18) would make some degree of embarrassment about the gospel natural—particularly in the capital of the Gentile world. But perhaps the most important reason for Paul’s negative wording is his realization that many Romans view “his” gospel with some degree of suspicion. As “apostle to the Gentiles,” Paul had a key and controversial role in bringing Gentiles into the kingdom apart from the law. His impassioned defense of the law-free gospel often met resistance; and there are good reasons within Romans to justify our thinking that at least some Roman Christians were among the resisters (see esp. 3:8; 9:1–5; 11:13–15).
The second clause in v. 16 explains (“for”) why Paul is not ashamed of the gospel. For this gospel, whose content is Jesus Christ, “appointed Son-of-God-in-power” (v. 4), mediates “the power of God leading to salvation.” The term “power,” as one might expect, is used widely in Greek philosophy and religion, but its NT use is in line with OT teaching about a personal God who uniquely possesses power and who manifests that power in delivering (Exod. 9:16; Ps. 77:14–15) and judging (Jer. 16:21) his people.
“Salvation” and its cognates are widely used in both the Greek world and the LXX to depict deliverance from a broad range of evils.198 The NT as a whole uses “salvation” and its cognates with much of the same broad range of meaning as the OT, whereas Paul uses the words only of spiritual deliverance. Moreover, his focus is eschatological: “salvation” is usually the deliverance from eschatological judgment that is finalized only at the last day.199 Characteristic, however, of Paul’s (and the NT’s) outlook is the conviction that these eschatological blessings are, to some extent, enjoyed by anyone the moment they trust Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. It is because of this “already” focus in Paul’s salvation-historical perspective that he can speak of Christians as “saved” in this life.200 “Salvation” often has a negative meaning—deliverance from something—but positive nuances are present at times also, so that the term can denote generally God’s provision for a person’s spiritual need. Particularly, in light of Rom. 3:23 and the use of “save” in 8:24 (note vv. 18–23), “salvation” here must include the restoration of the sinner to a share of the “glory of God.”
The last part of v. 16 introduces themes that recur as key motifs throughout Romans. First, God’s salvific power is available “to everyone who believes.” “Believe” and “faith”202 are key words in Romans; they are particularly prominent in 3:21–4:25. The lack of an explicit object after “believe” is also characteristic of Romans. This does not mean that Paul depreciates the centrality of Christ as the object of faith, but that the language of faith has become so tied to what God has done in Christ that further specification is not needed. To “believe” is to put full trust in the God who “justifies the ungodly” (4:5) by means of the cross and resurrection of Christ. Though intellectual assent cannot be excluded from faith, the Pauline emphasis is on surrender to God as an act of the will (e.g., 4:18; 10:9). Pauline (and NT) faith is not (primarily) agreement with a set of doctrines but trust in a person. Though not explicit here, another focus of Romans is the insistence that faith is in no sense a “work.”204 Therefore, although we must never go to the extreme of making the person a totally passive instrument through whom “believing” occurs—for Paul makes clear that people are responsible to believe—we must also insist that believing is not something we do (in the sense of “works”) but is always a response, an accepting of the gift God holds out to us in his grace (see especially 4:1–8). As Calvin puts it, faith is “a kind of vessel” with which we “come empty and with the mouth of our soul open to seek God’s grace.” “Believing,” then, while a genuinely human activity, possesses no “merit” or worth for which God is somehow bound to reward us; for salvation is, from first to last, God’s work.
But this same phrase introduces another recurring motif of Romans: the availability of God’s “power for salvation” for “all who believe.” This phrase occurs four other times in Romans (3:22; 4:11; 10:4, 11), in each case with particular reference to the breaking down of barriers between Jew and Gentile. Paul’s ministry to Gentiles derives from his understanding of the gospel itself as eschatological revelation that fulfills the OT promises about the universal reign of Yahweh.207 This required the elimination of those barriers between Jew and Gentile laboriously erected by the oral (and written—see Eph. 2:15) law. Nowhere does this principle receive more emphasis than in Romans, as Paul seeks to validate his gospel before a skeptical audience.
Yet it is typical also of Romans that Paul does not rest content with a reminder of the universalism of the gospel but immediately introduces a note of particularism: “to the Jew first and then to the Greek.” It is only a slight exaggeration to say that the key to understanding Romans lies in successfully untangling the two connected strands of universalism—“to all who believe”—and particularism—“to the Jew first.” The attempted resolution of this apparent paradox must await our comments on Rom. 9–11, but we must say something here about this particular phrase. In opposition to “Jew,” “Greek” must indicate, broadly, any non-Jew. What is the nature of the Jew’s priority (“first”) over the Gentile? Some scholars, indeed, have sought to remove any sense of priority from the phrase,209 but without success. Paul clearly accords some kind of priority to the Jew. Some suggest that no more is involved than the historical circumstance of the apostolic preaching, which, according to Acts, began with the Jews and moved to the Gentiles. But Paul must intend more than simple historical fact in light of the theological context here. If we ask what precedence Paul accords Israel elsewhere in Romans, we find that his emphasis is on the special applicability of the promise of God to that people whom he chose (3:2; 9–11). However much the church may seem to be dominated by Gentiles, Paul insists that the promises of God realized in the gospel are “first of all” for the Jew. To Israel the promises were first given, and to the Jews they still particularly apply. Without in any way subtracting from the equal access that all people now have to the gospel, then, Paul insists that the gospel, “promised beforehand … in the holy Scriptures” (1:2), has a special relevance to the Jew.
The Gospel: The Power of Salvation (Rom. 1:16–17)
These verses rise like a majestic summit of Paul’s gospel. This is not simply a high plateau of thought reflecting the terrain of what lies below, but a massif of bold and powerful words and ideas, each one like a shimmering peak. We must consider each aspect of this daring formulation, for, as all interpreters of Romans agree, these verses contain the heart of Paul’s understanding of salvation.
1:16–17 / I am not ashamed of the gospel, writes Paul (v. 16). The apostle had to be aware that a carpenter from Galilee posed problems as the savior of the world. In an earlier letter to Corinth he wrote, “we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.… But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are” (1 Cor. 1:23, 27–28). Verse 16 is the only place in the Pauline corpus (with the exception of 2 Tim. 1:12, 16) which mentions shame in connection with the gospel. In a place like Rome it took courage not to be ashamed of what must have seemed like an absurdity: that an unknown Jew who suffered a disgraceful death on the eastern fringe of the Roman Empire was being proclaimed as God in human flesh!
But in a daring counteroffensive Paul calls the gospel the power of God. The epistle to Rome was written to a people who, like modern Americans, were conscious of their power. Ancient Rome needed no lessons in the meaning of power; indeed, Rome defined power. The Roman army controlled the better part of the Western world, the Roman navy plied and pacified the Mediterranean Sea, and Roman roads laced the patchwork of nations surrounding the Mediterranean and extending northward into Europe together into a united fabric of life. The Latin tongue would increasingly replace Greek as the mode of communication in the ancient world, and Rome’s currency measured the scale of values. Roman justice was the arbiter of what was right and wrong, who would live and die. The genius which made it possible was the Roman faculty for administration, symbolized by the raised eagle of the Roman standard.
In comparison with Rome’s self-evident power, the gospel of Jesus Christ must have been dismissed as something of little consequence. But the power of which Paul speaks is a different power. It is not the power of state, ideas, movements, technology, progress, or whatever. It is the power of God, and God’s power is a combination of his freedom and sovereignty to do what he wills to do. The power of God is expressed supremely in God’s way of dealing with the world, which is summed up in the gospel. The gospel, as we noted, is not a thing, but a person, Jesus Christ. The power of God does not compete with other powers in this world, nor can it be compared to them. The ways of God are not the ways of this world (Isa. 55:8–9).
This power in Greek is called dynamis, from which the English word “dynamite” is derived. But unlike the powers which so mesmerize our age—wealth, beauty, status, weaponry, winning, control—the power of God in Jesus Christ is a supernatural power. The power of God does not grow from the soil of worldly power, and thus it confronts the powers and values of this world as a paradox, indeed as an offense. It is a power whose instruments are not the great things of this world, but the weak things. It is strength in weakness (2 Cor. 12:9), wealth in poverty (2 Cor. 8:9), life in death (Gal. 2:19–20), the Son of God being crucified as a common criminal (Phil. 2:6ff.). That which the world rejects God elects for his sovereign purposes (1 Cor. 1:18–31), so that what God ordains is solely indebted to God and not to this world. God’s power is thus the opposite of naked power. Power for its own sake is the sign of satanic power, power as brute force in and of itself, with no purpose other than unleashing itself and destroying everything around it—and finally itself—in its maddened heat.
God’s power, on the contrary, is power with a purpose, power for salvation. The noun sōtēria in Greek comes from the verb sōzein, which means to rescue or save. Jews, of course, were acquainted with God as savior. God had been their deliverer from Egypt, the superpower of the ancient Near East, and had rescued them from the threatening waters of the Red Sea. God had saved them from the hand of their enemies and delivered them from exile under Babylon. This much was clear to every Jew. But Paul never uses the word sōtēria with reference to rescue from temporal danger. Human oppressors and dangers must have seemed to him only symptoms of the ultimate forces of enslavement—sin, death, and Satan. It is for these, and especially for the human relationship with God, that Paul reserves the term salvation, for these are the final realities which either destroy or perfect the human soul.
Salvation for Paul has both a negative and a positive side. Negatively he understands it as a saving from the wrath and judgment of God (5:9). But salvation is more than the absence of inimical or menacing circumstances. Positively Paul understands salvation as a saving for the glory for which the entire created order longs (8:18–19, 30). The positive side of salvation is the more important, for it entails the restoration of the goodness and harmony which God originally created, apart from the rupture of sin. Salvation is thus a saving from sin and death, and a saving for eternal life (4:25). It is the only successful rescue operation which the fallen creation has ever been offered.
Two things always characterize salvation in Scripture: it is God’s saving initiative, and it is offered to sinners. The radical news about salvation is not only who performed it—God alone—but also to whom it is available. Paul’s answer, as startling as it is terse, is that salvation is for everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile (v. 16). The power of God in Jesus Christ is not for some and against others; salvation is not a matter of maneuvering oneself via nationality or good works or intentions into a favorable position with the deity. God’s power is not an arbitrary power but a creative power, constituted and executed for everyone who believes.
The universality of salvation is accentuated in three ways in verse 16. First, Paul inserts the pronoun everyone, which includes Jews as well as non-Jews (Gentiles). Second, to the Jew first emphasizes Jewish priority regarding salvation, although not Jewish jurisdiction over it. Salvation began with the Jews because they were chosen first, but it was not limited to them, and hence their priority in the scheme of salvation can not be understood as exclusiveness. Finally, the untranslatable Greek particle te implies a fundamental equality between Jews and Greeks. Paul will shortly remind his readers that all have sinned (3:23; 10:12), that there is no distinction between Jews and Greeks with regard to the need for salvation, and hence faith remains the only access to it.
The lifeline between God the rescuer and humanity the foundering victim is faith. Faith is often the object of misunderstanding. Some regard faith as a formula or creed, as a set of words (indeed, very true words) sufficient to save them. Others see faith as faithfulness, i.e., as something which human beings possess independently of the gospel, thus shifting the emphasis from what is believed or the act of believing to the believer. In an extreme form this results in the preposterous assertion that “It doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you believe it.”
For Paul, faith is distinct from all such ideas. Faith is always and only the human response to the gospel. Apart from the work of the cross there can be no faith. Faith is the response which God’s unmerited grace evokes from an individual, and it can best be defined as trust, belief, and commitment. Trust is a relational term. One does not trust in something but in someone, and in the nt the someone is Jesus Christ. Paul will discuss this posture of total dependence on God in the case of Abraham (ch. 4). But faith is more than active response. It is also a content of belief which depends on the character of God. Were it only response it would evaporate into subjectivism. But God has done something in the cross of Jesus Christ which is objectively true, apart from human participation and in spite of any response of it. This truth determines the destiny of individuals, nations, and the cosmos itself. Finally, faith is commitment. Commitment is the decision to live in the present according to the promises of the future. Commitment is the radical choice to entrust one’s destiny to God despite circumstances to the contrary. Faith is the corresponding human response to the divine initiative of righteousness. Righteousness and faith thus belong together. Where Paul broaches the subject of righteousness in Romans he turns to the vocabulary of faith; but where righteousness is absent (e.g., chs. 6–8), so too is the language of faith.
Thus, righteousness … is by faith from first to last (v. 17). The expression, faith from first to last, is an agreeable rendering of the Greek, which literally reads, “from faith to faith.” The saving activity of God occurs prior to human response and finds its correlative in faith. God’s righteousness both awakens faith and produces faith. Paul’s use of the present participle, everyone who believes (rather than an aorist participle which denotes completed action), denotes faith as an ongoing activity. Faith is less a quantum of something possessed than an orientation in which one participates actively and freely.
The Greek word dikaiosynē can be rendered by either “righteousness” or “justification.” The former word usually refers to the character and activity of God, whereas the latter usually refers to the justified condition of the believer. Context alone determines how it should be understood. In classical Greek, dikaiosynē usually meant ethical rightness or goodness. In the ot righteousness refers above all to God’s faithfulness to the covenant with Israel, an understanding reflected several times in Romans (3:3–5, 25; 9:6; 10:3; 15:8). But Paul’s typical usage of righteousness carries the sense of acquitting, or conferring a righteous status on someone. It contains the idea of transference or conversion, the essence of which is that God considers believers right with himself even though they are not yet morally good. The Christian life might be said to begin in a fiction, for when God declares a believer righteous the person is at the moment no better than he or she was before. But the fiction appears different from the divine perspective, for God’s declaring believers righteous through the death of Christ is grounded in a truth deeper than the human perspective can penetrate. God deals with humanity not by what it is, but by what it can be, indeed, what it will be through the work of Christ. Moreover, Paul says that God’s righteousness is revealed. The Greek construction (imperfect active indicative) means that righteousness is being revealed or unfolded in the gospel, thus underscoring its dynamic impact. Righteousness is therefore a new condition established by God, which bears fruit in new life, which is known as sanctification.
The concluding quotation, taken from Habakkuk 2:4, is better rendered, “The one who is justified by faith will live” (rather than the niv, “The righteous will live by faith”). The idea is that God grants life to the person who first is made right with him by faith. Not works, but faith—defined as trust in God, commitment to God, and belief in God—is the only proper fulfillment of the law of God. This is the nucleus of Romans. The pattern of righteousness-faith-life in the Habakkuk quotation provides Paul with an overall thematic development of the epistle, in fact. In chapters 1–3 Paul will discuss the righteousness of God; in chapters 4–8 the meaning of faith, particularly in relation to sin (6:1–14), law (6:15–7:25), the Holy Spirit (8:1–39), and the salvation of Jews and Gentiles (9–11); and in chapters 12–16 the consequences of the new life for the church (12), government (13), and reconciliation between Jews and Gentiles (14–15).
The Gospel of Deliverance
Big Idea The gospel of Jesus Christ is the final stage of salvation history, the ultimate fulfillment of the twofold Old Testament promise of the restoration of Israel and the conversion of the Gentiles.
Understanding the Text
The Text in Context
In 1:15 Paul expressed his deep desire to preach the gospel in Rome. Now, in 1:16–17, he spells out the nature of that gospel. In so doing, 1:16–17 forms the theme of the letter to the Romans: the gospel of Jesus Christ. As Thomas Schreiner points out, it is this theme that integrates the other key ideas in 1:16–17 and, indeed, in the entire letter: salvation, justification by faith, and the order of salvation (Jew first, then Gentile). Schreiner catches the ensuing logic of 1:15–17: Paul is eager to preach at Rome (1:15) because he is not ashamed of the gospel (1:16a), and he is not ashamed of the gospel because it is God’s power for salvation (1:16b), and the gospel is God’s power of salvation because it conveys the righteousness of God to all who believe (1:17a). All of this is rooted in Habakkuk 2:4 (and in the story of Israel’s restoration as proclaimed by other prophets, such as Isaiah).
My contention is that the Old Testament covenant structure informs Romans. We saw above that 1:1–15 fits nicely with the preamble component of the covenant format. Now I suggest that 1:16–17 corresponds to the historical prologue component of the covenant structure. The historical prologue section (see, e.g., Deut. 1:6–3:29) rehearses God’s intervention on behalf of ancient Israel, often recalling the exodus and the conquest of Canaan as well as the return of Israel to their homeland after exile in Babylonia (587/586 BC). These events theologians call “salvation history”—that is, God’s acts of salvation on behalf of Israel. Romans 1:16–17 is doing much the same, except that it conveys the conviction that God’s greatest act of deliverance on behalf of Israel is now happening in Jesus Christ because of his death and resurrection (cf. 1:3–4), and that it includes the salvation of Gentiles (cf. 1:5–15).
Historical and Cultural Background
- Besides the Old Testament covenant structure, a key point in the historical background of Romans 1:16–17 is the story of Israel. That story unfolds in the Old Testament in three stages: Israel’s sin of idolatry against Yahweh; Israel’s rejection of the prophets of Yahweh who called Israel to repentance and God’s subsequent sending of Israel away into exile, first into Assyria in 721 BC and then to Babylonia in 587/586 BC; and the promise of Israel’s return/restoration to their homeland if they repent by turning back to God. It is this third stage that weighs so heavily in the meaning of Romans 1:16–17. I will call attention to these three components of the story of Israel repeatedly in my treatment of Romans.
- Another key reference point for appreciating Romans 1:16–17 is to relate its message to the culture of the day, especially the mindset of the capital city of Rome. Paul declares in 1:15–16 that he is not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God unto salvation. Such a bold assertion by the apostle came in the face of Rome’s execution of Jesus by way of crucifixion. Indeed, the cross of Christ had already become a laughingstock in the Greco-Roman world, as 1 Corinthians 1:18–28 makes clear. Not long after Paul, graffiti was found in Rome mocking the cross of Christ. A drawing on a plaster wall near the Circus Maximus depicts a man worshiping the crucified Christ, who is portrayed as a donkey on a cross. The implication of the drawing is obvious: to worship a crucified king is asinine! To the contrary, however, Paul knows that the gospel of the crucified Christ is the most powerful message in the world.
|Key Themes of Romans 1:16–17
■ The gospel of Jesus Christ is the last and greatest divine act of salvation and deliverance on behalf of Israel and, for that matter, the entire world.
■ The gospel is for the Jew first and then the Gentile (compare 1:16 with 2:1–3:20; 9–11; 14–15), which means that the twofold end-time Old Testament promise of the restoration of Jews and the conversion of Gentiles is now being fulfilled in Jesus Christ.
■ It is by faith in Christ alone that anyone can receive the gospel of deliverance.
See the “Historical and Cultural Background” section of Romans 16:25–27 (a passage that corresponds closely with 1:16–17) below for a further discussion of the themes of anti-imperialism, emperor worship, and Paul’s use of “gospel” language.
1:16–17 I am not ashamed of the gospel … “The righteous will live by faith.” Three major interpretive insights emerge from these theologically dense and much-debated verses. First, a growing chorus of scholars roots the major key terms in 1:16–17 in the Old Testament promise of the restoration of Israel, especially as presented by Isaiah. Note the connections laid out in table 1.
God sent Israel into exile because of their sin of idolatry, but in keeping with his covenant promises, God later restored Israel to their homeland. The Israelite city of Lachish was destroyed by the Assyrians under Sennacherib in 701 BC and then again by the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar in 587/586 BC. Sennacherib tells the story of his conquest in large wall reliefs that were excavated from his palace in Nineveh. The section shown here shows Israelite families leaving the city as exiles.
Table 1: Romans 1:16–17 and the Restoration of Israel
|The Restoration of Israel, Especially as Recorded in Isaiah
|“not ashamed” (compare 1:16 with 9:33; 10:16)
|one who trusts in the Lord will not be disappointed—that is, they will participate in Israel’s restoration (Isa. 28:16)
|the good news of Israel’s return to their land (Isa. 40:9; 52:7; 61:1; Nah. 1:15; see also Isa. 60:6; Joel 2:32)
|God’s saving action at the exodus, a motif applied to the return of Israel from exile (Isa. 43:2, 16–19; 52:10–12; see also Exod. 9:16; Pss. 77:14–15; 140:7)
|God’s deliverance of Israel from the exile (Isa. 12:2; 25:9; 46:13; 49:6; 52:7, 10)
|God’s faithfulness to his covenant by restoring Israel to himself (Isa. 46:13; 51:5, 6, 8; Mic. 6:5; 7:9)
|the restoration of Israel will reveal God’s righteousness and his faithfulness to his covenant (Isa. 22:14; 40:5; 43:12; 53:1; 56:1; 65:1)
|the righteous one is the one who trusts in the Lord to bring Israel out of exile and back to their homeland (Hab. 2:4)
Second, the theme of the restoration of Israel found in 1:16–17 takes on two nuances in Romans: (1) The restoration of Israel will witness the establishment of a new covenant (compare Rom. 11:27 with Isa. 27:9; 59:20–21; and Rom. 2:14–15; 2:29; 8:1; 9:4 with Jer. 31:31–33; Ezek. 36:3–24). (2) The restoration of Israel will include the conversion of the Gentiles (Isa. 2:2–4; 52:15; 61:9–11; 65:1; Mic. 4:1–3).
Third, uncovering the story of Israel, especially the restoration of Israel, as the immediate background to 1:16–17 helps to resolve three critical issues therein: the meaning of the phrase “righteousness of God”; the meaning of the words “faith to faith”; and how 1:17 relates to Habakkuk 2:4. These concerns will now be addressed briefly, with the story of Israel’s restoration in mind.
- Much ink has been spilled over the phrase “righteousness of God,” with essentially two interpretations ruling the day: the forensic view and the transformative view. The forensic view understands the righteousness of God to be God’s legal declaration that the believer in Jesus is righteous before God; that is, God’s righteousness is imputed to the sinner’s standing before God. The primary support for such a perspective is found in Paul’s emphasis in Romans on faith as the sole means of acquiring God’s righteousness (cf. 1:17; 3:21–22; 4:3, 5–6, 9, 11, 13, 22; 9:30–31; 10:3, 4, 6, 10; see also Gal. 2:20–21; 3:6, 21–22; 5:5; Phil. 3:9). To be sure, Paul refers to faith as the basis of receiving God’s righteousness three times in Romans 1:16–17 alone.
The transformative view of the phrase “righteousness of God” understands the action of God as transforming the sinner. In support of this view one could point to the apostle’s words in 1:16: the gospel is the saving power of God. Moreover, as mentioned before, all the key terms in Romans 1:16–17, including “righteousness,” are essentially rooted in Isaiah’s good news that God is faithful to his covenant people Israel and will restore them to himself. Many modern commentators are reticent to choose between these two options because both are grounded in Romans 1:16–17 and its Old Testament moorings. Thus, the righteousness of God is God’s saving act of fulfilling his promise to restore Israel and convert Gentiles based exclusively on faith in Jesus Christ. With this conclusion I agree.
- What does the phrase “from faith to faith” (NIV: “by faith from first to last”) mean? Various explanations have been offered: from the faith of the Old Testament to the faith of the New Testament; from the faith of the law to the faith of the gospel; from the faithfulness of God to the faith of human beings; from beginning to end, salvation is by faith. The last-mentioned possibility is the one most defended today because of the emphasis in Romans 1:16–17 on faith and believing. I agree with this conclusion and would add one important detail: for the Old Testament covenant, keeping the law of Moses was the way to ensure that the Israelite remained in a right relationship with God, but according to Paul, one receives the righteousness of God by believing in Jesus Christ, not by obeying the Torah. Moreover, the restoration of Israel is no longer geographical in orientation or exclusive in membership; rather, it is spiritual in nature and encompasses all the nations.
- Three questions await the reader of Habakkuk 2:4 as quoted by Paul in Romans 1:17. First, why does Paul omit the personal pronoun “my” from the Greek text (LXX) of Habakkuk 2:4: “But the righteous shall live by my [God’s] faithfulness” (contrast the Hebrew text [MT]: “But the righteous by his [the Israelite’s] faith/faithfulness shall live”)? The answer seems to be that Paul wants to make it clear that it is the faith of the individual that he has in mind (so the MT, not the LXX). Second, what does “by faith” modify: “the just/righteous by faith shall live” or “the righteous shall live by faith”? The former seems to be correct, since Romans 1:18–4:25 highlights faith as the means to justification, and Romans 5–8 seems to emphasize eternal life as the gift of justification. Third, are Habakkuk and Paul at odds with each other? That is, does Habakkuk 2:4 affirm that obeying the law is the way to stay in covenant with God? There does seem to be tension between Habakkuk and Paul here. For Habakkuk, obedience to the law is the means to being faithful to God; for Paul, faith in Christ is the means to be justified. But this is no real contradiction, since both inspired authors emphasize that faith resulting in faithfulness is the means to receiving God’s approval (cf. Rom. 3:21–22).
We see in all of this that Romans 1:16–17 nicely corresponds to the historical prologue section of the covenant format: God in Christ has been faithful to his Old Testament promises to Israel and Gentiles, but based on faith and not on the law.
The reader of Romans 1:16–17 encounters several theological truths. First, the gospel is still the power of God to deliver sinners. Second, God is faithful to his covenant promise: he sent the Messiah to save his people and beyond. Third, there is no room for anti-Semitism, certainly not in the Christian community; but neither is the law of Moses a covenant marker any longer for the people of God by faith. Fourth, faith in Jesus Christ is the end-all means to receiving the righteousness of God.
Teaching the Text
The following themes can be the bases for sermons or lessons regarding Romans 1:16–17: First, a message entitled “Saved by Faith” could make the point that both Old Testament and New Testament believers were saved by faith. This is in contrast to past generations of interpreters who argued that salvation in the Old Testament was based on obeying the law while salvation in the New Testament is by faith in Christ. The content of salvation may have changed between the two Testaments—God’s revelation through Moses and God’s revelation in Christ—but the method of receiving that revelation leading to salvation in both cases was based on faith.
Second, a message entitled “Not Ashamed of the Gospel” could dwell on the scandal and paradox of the cross: the crucifixion of Jesus Christ for the sin of the world is an abhorrent thought to most moderns but is nonetheless the power and wisdom of God for salvation. As Martin Luther proclaimed, the cross is Deus absconditus (God hidden); that is, behind the weakness, foolishness, and sinfulness of the cross is divine power, wisdom, and righteousness.
Third, still another sermon/lesson based on Romans 1:16–17 is “The Reverse of the Curse,” dealing with the fact that the sin/curse of the law was poured out on Jesus on the cross, while his resurrection dispenses the blessing/restoration of the covenant to all who believe.
Fourth, the message “The Just by Faith Shall Live” could explore how Paul highlights “by faith” in Romans 1:18–4:25 and “shall live” in Romans 5–8. The goal of such a message or lesson would be to show that Paul first makes it clear in the former section that justification before God is based on faith in Christ alone, while the latter section expounds on the life that results from justification.
Illustrating the Text
While abhorrent to many, the crucifixion is God’s power and wisdom for salvation
Art/History: Alexamenos Graffito. The Alexamenos Graffito, also known as the Graffito Blasphemo, is an inscription carved in plaster on a wall near the Palatine Hill in Rome, close to the Circus Maximus. It depicts a humanlike figure attached to a cross and having the head of a donkey. The date for this inscription is most likely the beginning of the third century. The inscription is thought by most scholars to be a mocking description of a Christian. Justin Martyr, a Christian apologist, summarized the view of Christ by the people of the time. They considered it a joke that a crucified man would be made equal to the eternal creator God. A person like that could only be treated with disdain or contempt; he must be a lunatic.
Quote: The Passion of the Christ. In this film (2004), a powerful and graphic portrayal of the suffering and death of Jesus, one of the criminals to be crucified with Jesus asks him, “Why do you embrace your cross, you fool?”
Song: “Scandalon,” by Michael Card. This is a powerful, contemporary lyric that addresses the scandal of the cross.
The Alexamenos Graffito. The Greek inscription on the graffito reads, “Alexamenos worships [his] god.”
Song: “Sovereign Lord,” by Phil Mehrens. This is another contemporary lyric that posits the great paradox taught here.
The just (those made righteous by faith) will live
Film: Martin Luther. This classic film (1953), produced in black and white, stars Niall MacGinnis as Luther. It was filmed in what was then West Germany in studios in Wiesbaden in collaboration with the Lutheran Church. The acting is memorable and raw, and the scene where Luther discovers the meaning and dimension of the doctrine that the just will live by faith reveals the power of that Scripture passage. It is a careful and faithful portrayal of Luther’s story; the research was done by, among others, Theodore Tappert, a scholar of the Reformation, and Jaroslav Pelikan, a scholar of church history and the history of theology. A more recent version, Luther (2003), has useful scenes but is, finally, less faithful, more of a biopic.
GOOD NEWS OF WHICH TO BE PROUD
I am proud of the good news, for it is the power of God which produces salvation for everyone who believes, to the Jew first and to the Greek. The way to a right relationship with God is revealed in it when man’s faith responds to God’s fidelity, just as it stands written: ‘It is the man who is in a right relationship with God as a result of his faith who will live.’
When we come to these two verses, the preliminaries are over and the trumpet-call of Paul’s gospel sounds out. Many of the great piano concertos begin with a crashing chord and then state the theme which they are going to develop. The reason is that they were often first performed at private gatherings in great houses. When the pianist first sat down at the piano, there was still a buzz of conversation. The crashing chord was played to attract the attention of the company, and then, when attention was obtained, the theme was stated. Up to these two verses, Paul has been making contact with the people to whom he was writing; he has been attracting their attention. Now the introduction is over, and the theme is stated.
There are only two verses here, but they contain so much of the very essence of Paul’s gospel that we must spend some considerable time on them.
Paul began by saying that he was proud of the gospel which it was his privilege to preach. It is amazing to think of the background of that statement. Paul had been imprisoned in Philippi, chased out of Thessalonica, smuggled out of Beroea and laughed at in Athens, and in Corinth his message was foolishness to the Greeks and a stumbling-block to the Jews. Out of that background, he declared that he was proud of the gospel. There was something in the gospel which made Paul triumphantly victorious over all that anyone could do to him.
In this passage, we meet three great Pauline watchwords, the three foundation pillars of his thought and belief.
(1) There is the conception of salvation (sōtēria). At this time in history, salvation was the one thing for which people were searching. There had been a time when Greek philosophy was speculative. Up to 500 years earlier, much time had been spent discussing the problem: what is the one basic element of which the world is composed? Philosophy had been speculative philosophy and it had been natural philosophy. But, bit by bit, as the centuries passed, life collapsed on itself. The old landmarks were destroyed. Tyrants and conquerors and perils surrounded people; degeneracy and weakness haunted them; and philosophy changed its emphasis. It became not speculative but practical. It ceased to be natural philosophy and became moral philosophy. Its one aim was to build a ring-wall of defence against the advancing chaos of the world.
Epictetus called his lecture room ‘the hospital for the sick soul’. Epicurus called his teaching ‘the medicine of salvation’. Seneca, who was contemporary with Paul, said that everyone was looking ad salutem, towards salvation. What we needed, he said, was ‘a hand let down to lift us up’. People were overwhelmingly conscious of ‘their weakness and their inefficiency in necessary things’. He described himself as homo non tolerabilis, a man not to be tolerated. People loved their vices, he added with a sort of despair, and hated them at the same time. In that desperate world, they were seeking a peace described by Epictetus as being ‘not of Caesar’s proclamation, but of God’s’.
There can seldom have been a time in history when men and women were more universally searching for salvation. It was precisely that salvation, that power, that escape, that Christianity came to offer.
Let us see just what this Christian sōtēria, this Christian salvation, was.
(a) It was salvation from physical illness (Matthew 9:21; Luke 8:36). It was not a completely other-worldly thing. It aimed at rescuing an individual in body and in soul.
(b) It was salvation from danger (Matthew 8:25, 14:30). It was not that it gave people a life free from perils and dangers, but it gave them a security of soul no matter what was happening. As Rupert Brooke wrote in the days of the First World War, in his poem ‘Safety’:
Safe shall be my going,
Secretly armed against all death’s endeavour;
Safe though all safety’s lost; safe where men fall;
And if these poor limbs die, safest of all.
And as Robert Browning had it in ‘Paracelsus’:
If I stoop,
Into a dark tremendous sea of cloud,
It is but for a time; I press God’s lamp
Close to my breast; its splendour, soon or late,
Will pierce the gloom: I shall emerge one day.
The Christian salvation makes us safe in a way that is independent of any outward circumstance.
(c) It was salvation from life’s infection. It is from a corrupt and perverse generation that we are saved (Acts 2:40). Those who have this Christian salvation have a kind of divine antiseptic which keeps them from infection by the evil of the world.
(d) It was salvation from lostness (Matthew 18:11; Luke 19:10). It was to seek and to save the lost that Jesus came. The unsaved man or woman is on the wrong road, a road that leads to death. The saved man or woman has been put on the right way.
(e) It was salvation from sin (Matthew 1:21). Men and women are like slaves in bondage to a master from whom they cannot escape. The Christian salvation liberates them from the tyranny of sin.
(f) It was salvation from the wrath of God (Romans 5:9). We shall have occasion in the next passage to discuss the meaning of this phrase. It is sufficient to note at the moment that there is in this world an inexorable moral law and in the Christian faith an inevitable element of judgment. Without the salvation which Jesus Christ brings, we can only stand condemned.
(g) It was a salvation which is eschatological. That is to say, it is a salvation which finds its full meaning and blessedness in the final triumph of Jesus Christ (Romans 13:11; 1 Corinthians 5:5; 2 Timothy 4:18; 1 Peter 1:5).
The Christian faith came to a desperate world offering a salvation which would keep men and women safe in time and in eternity.
(2) There is the conception of faith. In the thought of Paul, this is a rich word.
(a) At its simplest, it means loyalty. When Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, he wanted to know about their faith. That is, he wanted to know how their loyalty was standing the test. In 2 Thessalonians 1:4, faith and steadfastness are combined. Faith is the enduring devotion and loyalty which marks the real follower of Jesus Christ.
(b) Faith means belief. It means the conviction that something is true. In 1 Corinthians 15:17, Paul tells the Corinthians that, if Jesus did not rise from the dead, then their faith is vain—all that they have believed is wrecked. Faith is the assent that the Christian message is true.
(c) Faith sometimes means the Christian religion (the Faith). In 2 Corinthians 13:5, Paul tells his opponents to examine themselves to see if they are holding to their faith, that is, to see if they are still within the Christian religion.
(d) Faith is sometimes practically equivalent to indestructible hope. ‘We walk’, writes Paul, ‘by faith, not by sight’ (2 Corinthians 5:7).
(e) But, in its most characteristic Pauline use, faith means total acceptance and absolute trust. It means ‘betting your life that there is a God’. It means being utterly sure that what Jesus said is true, and staking all time and eternity on that assurance. ‘I believe in God’, said the writer Robert Louis Stevenson, ‘and if I woke up in hell I would still believe in him.’
Faith begins with receptivity. It begins when we are at least willing to listen to the message of the truth. It goes on to mental assent. We first hear and then agree that this is true. But mental assent need not result in action. Many people know very well that something is true, but do not change their actions to meet that knowledge. The final stage is when this mental assent becomes total surrender. In fully fledged faith, we hear the Christian message, agree that it is true, and then cast ourselves upon it in a life of total submission.
(3) There is the conception of justification. Now, in all the New Testament, there are no more difficult words to understand than ‘justification’, ‘justify’, ‘justice’ and ‘just’. We shall come across them many times in this letter. At this point, we can only lay down the broad lines on which all Paul’s thought proceeds.
The Greek verb that Paul uses for to justify is dikaioun, of which the first-person singular of the present indicative—I justify—is dikaioō. We must be quite clear that the word justify, used in this sense, has a different meaning from its ordinary English meaning. If we justify ourselves, we produce reasons to prove that we were right; if someone justifies us, that person produces reasons to prove that we acted in the right way. But all verbs in Greek which end in -oō do not mean to prove or to make a person or thing to be something; they always mean to treat, or account or reckon a person as something. If God justifies sinners, it does not mean that he finds reasons to prove that they were right—far from it. It does not even mean, at this point, that he makes the sinners good. It means that God treats sinners as if they had not been sinners at all. Instead of treating them as criminals to be obliterated, God treats them as children to be loved. That is what justification means. It means that God treats us not as his enemies but as his friends, not as bad people deserve but as good people deserve, not as law-breakers to be punished but as men and women to be loved. That is the very essence of the gospel.
That means that to be justified is to enter into a new relationship with God, a relationship of love and confidence and friendship, instead of one of distance and enmity and fear. We no longer go to a God radiating just but terrible punishment. We go to a God radiating forgiving and redeeming love. justification (dikaiosunē) is the right relationship between God and human beings. The person who is just (dikaios) is someone who is in this right relationship, and—here is the supreme point—who is in it not because of anything that he or she has done, but because of what God has done. Such people are in this right relationship not because they have meticulously performed the works of the law, but because in utter faith they have cast themselves on the amazing mercy and love of God.
In the Authorized Version, we have the famous and highly compressed phrase the just shall live by faith. Now, we can see that, in Paul’s mind, this phrase meant: people who are in a right relationship with God, not because of the works of their hands, but because of their utter faith in what the love of God has done, are the ones who really know what life is like in time and in eternity. And, to Paul, the whole work of Jesus was that he had enabled men and women to enter into this new and precious relationship with God. Fear was gone and love had come. The God previously thought of as an enemy had become a friend.
Ver. 16.—For I am not ashamed of the gospel (of Christ, in the Authorized Version, is very weakly supported by manuscripts; neither is it required), for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and to the Greek. In saying he was “not ashamed,” St. Paul may have had in his mind our Lord’s own words (Mark 8:38 and Luke 9:26.) We are reminded in this verse of the passage, 1 Cor. 1:17–31, where the idea here shortly intimated is enlarged on. He was fully aware that the pride of Greek philosophy would be likely to despise the message of the cross as “foolishness.” It would be strange to them at first, and out of accord with their intellectual speculations. But he was convinced too that in it was contained the one view of things to meet human needs, and such as to commend itself in the end to thinkers, if their consciences could be roused. In preaching to the Corinthians he had indeed purposely refrained from presenting the gospel to them in “words of man’s wisdom,” lest the simple message, addressed alike to all, should lose any of its essential power, or be confounded with the human philosophies of the day. But to them also, in his First Epistle, he declares that this was not because it was not “wisdom,” as well as “power,” to such as could so receive it. Among the more advanced, and therefore more receptive (ἐν τοῖς τελείοις), he does, he says, “speak wisdom” (1 Cor. 2:6), Christianity having, in fact, its own philosophy, appreciable by them. As is well said in the Exposition of 1 Corinthians in the ‘Speaker’s Commentary,’ “No contrast is here at all between reason and revelation, as some think, but strictly between two philosophies—the philosophy of God and the philosophy of the world.” Therefore to the Greek, as well as to the Jew, he is not ashamed to preach the cross; and in this Epistle, suitably to its purpose—more, it may be supposed, than his ordinary preaching—he does set forth the Divine philosophy of the gospel. But the message, he adds, is “to the Jew first,” because it was to the people of the covenant (cf. ch. 9:4, etc.) that the salvation in Christ was in the first place to be offered. Hence also, in all his missionary work, he first addressed himself to the synagogue, and only when he was rejected there, turned exclusively to the Gentiles. So at Rome too, when he afterwards went there (Acts 28:17–29).
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