The Powerful Gospel Rooted in God’s Righteousness
Tonight we come to what most people acknowledge is Paul’s first unveiling of the theme of the book of Romans . . . The powerful gospel that saves Jew and Gentile. This is such a rich section, I hope you will be as blessed tonight as I was in studying it.
Romans 1:16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel,
The most important words in the Bible are often the little words, words like “for” or “so” or “that.” These words are important because they give us the flow of thought of the author. In these two verses, the word “for” is used to link Paul’s thoughts. So understanding the “fors” will greatly help us understand the passage. To get at the meaning of the first “for,” we have to go back to the previous verses. We have already seen that in these first verses of Romans Paul is talking about his ministry to the church in Rome and in his desire to minister to them. In particular, he says in verse 15 that he is eager to preach the gospel to the church in Rome. The “For” in chapter 1, verse 16 is connected to verse 15. The “For” is answering the question, why is Paul eager to preach the gospel in Rome? The reason is that he is not ashamed of the gospel. He takes pride in the gospel.
Now we need to explore for a minute why Paul brings up this issue of being ashamed. Scottish theologian James Stewart, not the actor, said of this passage: “There’s no sense in declaring that you’re not ashamed of something unless you’ve been tempted to feel ashamed of it.” So why is Paul bringing up the issue of being ashamed of the gospel?
Some have suggested that since Rome was the leading metropolitan center of the world, a person might be intimidated bringing to that sophisticated city the story of a Jewish carpenter who rose from the dead and claimed to be the Son of God.
It is also possible that Paul was remembering the words of Jesus in places like Mark 8:38, For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels. Paul was human. He acknowledged in 1 Corinthians 2:3 that he arrived to minister to the church in Corinth with weakness and fear and with much trembling. Yet Paul overcame this challenge to speak to the church in Corinth without shame and so is affirming his allegiance to Christ.
We also must remember what Paul would go on to say in the first chapter of 1 Corinthians, for it may be another reason that he brought up the issue of shame. What Paul brought up in 1 Corinthians was the fact that the gospel was rejected by many. This could lead to shame on the part of the preacher or the believer when the message was not received. Paul said in 1 Corinthians that the gospel was a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks. The gospel was a stumbling block to the Jews because they did not believe in a suffering Messiah. The gospel was foolishness to the Greeks because they did not believe in the resurrection of the body. So Paul may be addressing the issue of being ashamed of the gospel because he knows how commonly people of all types, Jew and Gentile, reject the gospel. Paul may be thinking about the church living among the citizens of Rome. The Christians in Rome from a Jewish background were probably rejected by their families as heretics. Those from a Gentile background were probably rejected by their so-called sophisticated neighbors as foolish. So Paul is putting everything on the table and saying, “I am not ashamed” and you should not be either.
There may be other reasons why Paul brought up the issue of being ashamed as well. In Romans 3:8, Paul says that some people were charging him with preaching that we should do evil, that God’s grace may abound. So Paul may be defending himself against accusations that he should be ‘ashamed’ of what he preaches. But Paul is not ashamed of the gospel. This is a consistent theme in his life. He speaks to anyone and everyone about Jesus. He speaks to simple people and the intellectual and to the rabbi and to the ruler and to Jew and Gentile. So Paul was not ashamed to come to the most powerful city in the world and proclaim our gospel.
So Paul was eager to preach the gospel in Rome because he was not ashamed of the gospel. He felt an obligation to preach to Jew and Gentile, wise and foolish. And he felt that obligation even though many of those to whom he would preach would reject his message. Several applications come out of this for us. First, Paul was eager because he was not ashamed. The flip side to that is that if you are not eager to share the gospel, it is probably because you are ashamed. The rest of this passage is going to tell us all the reasons we should not be ashamed, but we need to bear this in mind first, that if we are not a witness, we are probably ashamed. Once we understand that we have the problem of shame, we can look at this passage to see how to address the problem.
The second thing this phrase teaches me, along with the other Scriptures we have looked at, is that most people do not want the good news you have. Yet still Paul was not ashamed. Why? Because Paul was not focused on his own person being rejected since he already had a higher, greater, more important acceptance by God through the gospel he proclaimed. So for Paul, the great debt from which God had forgiven him made him under obligation to all, Jew and Gentile, wise and foolish. This obligation will move him to write in 1 Corinthians 9:16, “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” So ultimately our calling is to proclaim the gospel without shame and leave the results to God.
Knowing that we will be rejected would cause most of us to feel shame in almost any other area, but it is not to be so with the gospel. The rest of this passage tells us why we should not be ashamed. So let’s begin to answer the question of why we should be unashamed by looking at the next phrase . . .
for it is the power of God for salvation
There’s another “for” and it is again pointing to cause. Why am I eager to preach the gospel in Rome? Because I am not ashamed of the gospel. Why am I not ashamed of the gospel? Because it is the power of God for salvation.
The gospel is the power of God. You may hear some preacher’s say that this word for power is the word dunamis, from which we get dynamite. But that is a misleading way to think, because there was no dynamite in the first century and so dynamite was not on Paul’s mind when he penned this Greek word. Paul instead is just speaking of the gospel as the power of God for salvation.
“Power” is a dynamic thing, the English word dynamic is closer to the idea of the Greek word than the word dynamite. When the gospel is proclaimed, God works through it to bring salvation. This is what Paul will say later in Romans, “Faith comes through hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” So again, as we have said throughout this study, we are not talking about lifeless theology. We are not studying the gospel simply to fill our minds but to experience more fully the presence and power of God. Theology should lead to doxology and to mission. When the gospel is preached rightly and believed, that is what happens. To really hear the gospel is to experience the presence of God. As Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 1:22-24 For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. D.L. Moody said that the gospel is like a lion. All the preacher has to do is to open the door of the cage and get out of the way!
But it is important to note that the gospel is not just raw power or some great display of power. It is directed power. It is the power of God unto salvation. The gospel is going somewhere, it has purpose and direction, it is leading to salvation. This salvation includes forgiveness of sin but Paul will explain in Romans that salvation is much more than forgiveness alone. We were justified by faith, we are being sanctified and we will be glorified. Salvation covers all of life from the moment we believe through eternity. So it is right to say we were saved, it is right to say we are being saved and it is right to say that we will be saved. And I think the nature of salvation in its fullness is one of the reasons Paul is not ashamed of it. Any religion can make converts but what Paul is saying is that the gospel makes such a powerful impact on the truly saved that you don’t have to be ashamed of it.
How did Jesus triumph over the shame of the cross? Look at Hebrews 12:1-3. 1 Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, 2 looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. 3 Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted.
Did you see it? Jesus triumphed over the shame of the cross by looking to the joy that was set before Him. What was that joy? Bringing many sons and daughters to glory, being exalted as King of Kings and Lord of Lords, seated at the right hand of God. So Jesus looked at the fullness of what His salvation would bring and willingly endured the cross. So for us, we can stand unashamed of the gospel because of what it does in us and what it will do for us. We avoid feeling shame by remembering that the gospel will triumph. We remind ourselves that the gospel can do what no other religion can do because no other religion has a Savior who can reconcile sinners to God by His death, no other faith has a Savior who can give sinners hope by offering them grace and not works, no other religion can bring sinners safely into salvation for all eternity. Only the gospel of Jesus Christ can do that, therefore it is the power of God unto salvation, therefore we should not be ashamed of this gospel. But there is a condition to experiencing this powerful gospel and it is found in the next phrase.
to everyone who believes,
What we see first in this phrase is that this gospel is to everyone. This gospel will reach all kinds of people. So there is nothing today that disqualifies you from experiencing this powerful gospel. Family background doesn’t matter, race doesn’t matter, education doesn’t matter, job or lack thereof doesn’t matter, how other people feel about you doesn’t matter, past immorality doesn’t matter, if you’ve sinned through gambling or drinking or drugs or spousal abuse or theft or homosexuality or lying or anything you can be forgiven. There will be all these kinds of people in heaven. So the gospel is to everyone, young and old, rich and poor, notable and anonymous. But not everyone is saved. We all know lost people and most of us probably know people who died in a lost state. And the Bible is clear that while a multitude will be saved others will be judged. So the word everyone must be balanced by the words “who believes.” This is the condition of salvation. It is by faith. Unbelief is the only thing that can disqualify you from salvation. So, as we have said before, the tent of God’s kingdom is huge, but the doorway into the tent is narrow, faith in Christ. And to everyone who believes the gospel is the power of God for salvation. So it would be senseless to think of salvation as something that could be real without being powerful in my life, it would contradict the plain meaning of Romans 1:16. The gospel is the power of God. So if I claim to believe the gospel but it makes absolutely no difference in my life, I must conclude that I haven’t really believed. We can’t disconnect the power of God in the gospel from our so-called decision for Christ. In other words, the Bible does not allow us to say, “I trusted Jesus in 1983 and I haven’t given it a second thought. It makes no difference in my life. I made my peace with God and that’s that.” That, my friends, is the portrait of a false convert. And most churches have scores of those kinds of people on their church rolls. So I want to say that the person who claims to be a Christian but hasn’t been to church in 20 years is almost certainly not backslidden, they’re lost.
The way Romans 1:16 is written supports this thought. The gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, not believed. Present tense, not past tense. So believing is an ongoing action. You see this same thing in 1 Corinthians 15:1-2 where Paul says, “I preached to you [the gospel], which also you received, in which also you stand, by which also you are being saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain.” As we said a few weeks ago in the sermon on Simon in Acts chapter 8, the Bible is clear that there is a kind of faith that is in vain, it is empty, it is the acknowledgment of a truth without the allegiance of heart and life. James calls it dead faith in the second chapter of his letter. And this kind of belief can not save. Only living faith, faith that goes on believing, can save. True believers will persevere in faith. For the true believer, over time Jesus will become increasingly precious. This doesn’t mean that there won’t be seasons of dryness or relative fruitlessness. It doesn’t mean trials will never through you off course. It does mean that in the end you will find that God has been faithful to you all the way and that He will bring you into His presence forever in the end.
John Piper says, “So I conclude that the reason Paul is not ashamed of the gospel is that it is the only truth in all the world that will not let you down when you give your life to it in faith. It will bring you all the way through temptation and persecution and death and judgment into eternal safety and ever-increasing joy in the presence of a holy and glorious God. All the other “gospels” in the world that win so many converts will fail you in the end. Only one saves from the final wrath of God and leads to fullness of joy in his presence and pleasures at his right hand forever. Therefore, there is no need to be ashamed of it, no matter what others say or do. And O how eager we should be to speak this gospel to believer and unbeliever alike.”
Now let’s look at the last part of verse 16 . . .
to the Jew first and also to the Greek.
Now it is interesting that right after Paul’s words about how the gospel was to everyone who believes, right after his words about there being no distinctions, Paul immediately raises a distinction, “to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” Paul gives a certain priority to the Jews. How can these two truths be reconciled in such a way that neither is compromised?
I think it is best to consider first what Paul does not mean when he says to the Jew first and also to the Greek. First, on a very fundamental level, we need to remember that the word Greek here does not refer to people from Greece but is another way of expressing the idea of the Gentiles, or non-Jews. So Paul is making a comparison here between the Jews and all non-Jews, saying that the gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, first to the Jew and also to the Gentile.
I think there may be something also to consider in that Paul did not say to the Jews and also to the Greeks but to the Jew and also to the Greek. It is singular, not plural. I think Paul wants to indicate through this that salvation happens one person at a time. God will not save all Jews or all Greeks but only those who believe. The gospel goes out to all but it is believed or rejected one person at a time.
I think the best way to go from here is probably to look at what Paul does not mean by giving priority to the Jews. First, the Jews do not have priority because of any righteousness in them. This is where Paul is going to go in Romans 3:9-10, “What then? Are we [Jews] better than they [Gentiles]? Not at all; for we have already charged that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin; as it is written, ‘THERE IS NONE RIGHTEOUS, NOT EVEN ONE.’” And when we get to my favorite passage in Romans, 3:21-25, we find these words right in the middle, “For there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” So Paul is not talking about individual righteousness when he says, “to the Jew first.” The Jews are given priority because they are more righteous.
Second, the Jews do not have priority in how they are saved. God justifies Jew and Gentile alike by the same means: faith in Christ.
Finally, the Jews do not have priority by getting to enjoy more of God’s blessings in Christ. Paul makes it clear in Ephesians that the wall of separation between Jew and Gentile has been torn down so that all the spiritual blessings we have in Christ belong to Jew and Gentile. As Ephesians 3 says, “the Gentiles are fellow heirs and fellow members of the body, and fellow partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”
So these are at least three of the ways that the Jews do not have priority in salvation. But there are also several ways in which the Jew does have priority, yet none of these ways violates the truth that the gospel comes to all kinds of people without distinction. These are issues Paul is going to discuss later in Romans in great depth, but he’s previewing it for us here in this little phrase, just kind of priming the pump for what he will discuss later. The issue of Jew and Gentile is one of the major themes of Romans, so we’re going to be re-visiting this issue often through the weeks.
So let’s just briefly touch on ways that the Jews do have priority in the gospel. I am using here several of the points John Piper raised in his excellent sermon series on Romans. First, The Jews have priority over the Gentiles because they were God’s chosen people. God freely chose the Jews to be His special people who would announce the coming of the Savior and through whose physical line would come the Savior. Now I want to be clear that God did not choose the Jews because of anything in them. It was His free choice. This is exactly what Deuteronomy 7:7-8 says, “The LORD did not set His love on you nor choose you because you were more in number than any of the peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but because the LORD loved you and kept the oath which He swore to your forefathers.”
Second, the Jews have a priority over Gentiles because they received God’s special revelation, the Old Testament. Paul will bring this out more clearly in chapter 3, when he says that the Jews had an advantage because they “were entrusted with the oracles of God.” So all the great promises of the salvation that was coming in Christ was first entrusted to the Jews in the Old Testament Scriptures. In this way this powerful gospel comes to the Jew first.
Third, the Jews have priority because Jesus came as a Jew to the Jews. Paul told us in Romans 1:3 that Jesus was from the line of David according to the flesh, in other words, He was a Jew. And in Jesus’ ministry, He clearly focused most of His attention on the Jews. They had priority in his ministry. In this way the gospel came to the Jew first.
Finally, and interestingly, the Jews have priority over the Gentiles in both final judgment and final blessing. In Romans 2:9-10, Paul says, amazingly, “There will be tribulation and distress for every soul of man who does evil, of the Jew first and also of the Greek, but glory and honor and peace to everyone who does good, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” In other words, the priority that the Jews have, if it is rejected and squandered will result in a priority in judgment. And if they are grateful for their priority and trust in the mercy of their Messiah, then they will go first into the final blessing of God. There are definite dangers in having this priority. “From everyone who has been given much, much will be required” (Luke 12:48).
As Piper says, “The whole point is that God is the One who has mercy. Ethnicity is not decisive here. There is no merit with him. We are all sinners. So the real emphasis falls back on that wonderful word “everyone” that we started with: “The Gospel is the power of God to everyone who believes.” So, whether Jew or Gentile, believe! And receive the power of God to save you from your sins and guilt and death and judgment and hell, and bring you home to ever-increasing joy in his presence forever and ever.”
When I was in college one of the students there was a guy who seemed to be a person of character, but he wore this t-shirt that always bugged me and I’ve never really known why until now. I grew up in the 80’s and 90’s in those days when wearing Christian t-shirts was considered cool. The first one I remember was Jesus under the weight of the cross and it said, “God’s Gym, His pain, your gain.” There were many, many others much more corny than that. But the one this guy had said, “The righteousness He requires is the righteousness His righteousness requires Him to require.” Now you may say, “Pastor, you didn’t like that shirt because it was so confusing. And I guess that’s partly right. But I’ve really seen from this study of verse 17 the real reason I didn’t like that t-shirt.
Romans 1:17 For in it the righteousness of God
Now how does this “for” connect to the rest of the passage? Is Paul telling us another reason why he is not ashamed of the gospel, or is he giving a reason for why the gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes? Is it, “I am not ashamed of the gospel because the righteousness of God is revealed in it” or is it “the gospel of God is the power of salvation to everyone who believes because the righteousness of God is revealed in it?” I think it is clear since he has just finished talking about the gospel as the power of God, that this “for” connects not to shame but to the gospel. The gospel is the power of God because it reveals God’s righteousness. So you can’t separate the gospel from the person of God. The gospel is the expression of the person of God. And when we think about the expression of the person of God, what we should think about is righteousness. This is why the gospel has power, because it is the expression of the all-powerful God who is righteous.
In the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed. Now there has been much ink spilled in the pursuit of the meaning of the word “righteousness.” The gospel reveals a righteousness of God that is distinct from human righteousness. But what exactly is this “righteousness”? There are basically three views. Some believe it simply refers to an attribute of God. It stands parallel to “power of God” in verse 16 and the “wrath of God” in verse 18 so in verse 17 the righteousness of God is revealed. As the power of God is revealed in the gospel, so the righteousness of God is also revealed. Righteousness here then refers to God’s infinite purity and holiness. When Paul explains the gospel in the great passage he writes in 3:21-26, he will say that one of the reasons the gospel was given was so that God might demonstrate His righteousness. So one view is that the righteousness in verse 17 is pointing simply to the person of God. It is God’s righteousness that is revealed in the gospel. As to how it is revealed, we’ll save most of that until we get to chapter 3:21-26.
A second view is that the righteousness of God is God’s activity whereby He declares to be righteous those who turn to him in faith. People who hold this view argue that the parallel expressions in 16 and 18, power and wrath are not descriptions of attributes of God but of activities of God.
A third view is that the righteousness of God refers to humans’ righteous status that results from God’s saving activity. The main support for this view is that the emphasis on faith at the end of the verse would point to this righteousness being something that is given to believers rather than just being a raw demonstration of God’s person or activity.
My answer to differences of interpretation is not always to bring the interpretations together, but in this case it is. I do not believe that the three views of the meaning of “the righteousness of God” in Romans 1:17 are exclusive of one another. Righteousness is undoubtedly an attribute of God and one of the big goals of the book of Romans is to point us toward glorifying God in all things. At the same time, God is clearly active in declaring all who trust Him as righteous. And God’s activity and His carrying out of His plan is clearly also an emphasis in Romans, so that Paul really spends three whole chapters, chapters 9-11 explaining one aspect of God’s plan. The clear implication of Romans is that God is actively at work. Even the present tense verbs here point to that activity. And all those who are justified by faith have received the righteousness of God. This too is a huge emphasis in Romans. So I think in this case a bringing together of the three views is the most accurate way to look at the text: Our infinitely righteous God is actively giving His righteousness to all who trust Him. I think that is the idea behind this phrase “the righteousness of God.”
Now we need to look at another important piece of this verse . . .
is revealed from faith for faith,
We see here that the righteousness of God is a revealed righteousness. It is not something that we naturally see and love and trust in. The righteousness of God must be revealed to us. How is it revealed to us? Through the gospel. Now this might seem odd to you because what would we naturally say that the gospel reveals? (God’s love). And indeed it does, for Jesus says in John 3:16 that “God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” So the gospel does reveal God’s love. But the very important point Paul will make in Romans is that the gospel even more reveals God’s righteousness and this is really at the heart of its power. That’s all I can say about that right now without giving the rest of the book away but just keep this in mind. As Paul goes through Romans talking about the Gospel, the chief attribute of God he is concerned with is God’s righteousness.
Now, how does this righteousness which is revealed in the gospel come to us? By faith. So the righteousness we receive by faith is an external or alien righteousness. It’s not about something we do. It’s not about something we achieve. It is about something we believe. Faith is not a work. We do not receive the righteousness of God because of any good in us. Again, as Augustus Toplady wrote in the old hymn, “Nothing in my hands I bring; simply to thy cross I cling.” This runs against the tide of everything that is in us. For us it is always about earning and effort and we think goodness is something we can achieve by our own white-knuckled effort. Matt Chandler says, “Bottom line, you have not earned right standing with God by your effort or your cleaning up of your life. We have been made pure standing blameless in front of God not because of any kind of religious or moral pursuit but because Christ died.”
So what is the place of works? Paul’s going to tell us more about that in the book of Romans but the short answer is this . . . Works are the not the root of salvation, works are the fruit of salvation. This is something we will talk about in great detail later, so hold that thought.
Salvation is by faith. And the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, or from faith to faith or in faith from first to last. The Greek phrase has been taken in many ways. Many important figures in church history have had different interpretations of this phrase. Augustine believed that Paul was referring to the faith of the preacher and the faith of the hearer. Many of the Early Church Fathers believed that faith to faith meant from faith in the law to faith in the gospel. John Calvin thought the phrase pointed to the growth of faith in the believer, so that salvation comes through faith and faith grows as one continues to walk with God. Karl Barth thought that the first faith meant the faithfulness of God while the second pointed to the faith of the individual. Others believe it is a statement against Judaism, in that it is saying salvation is by faith and it has faith, not works, as its goal.
There is a passage in Paul’s writings that has a similar construction,
2 Corinthians 2:15, 16, — 15 For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, 16 to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things? Now it seems to me here that these phrases death to death and life to life mean death which leads to death and life which leads to life. In other words, our witness is like death to some and they will end in eternal death if they continue in unbelief and to some our message is life and that life will lead to eternal life. So I am convinced that the same thing is going on here in verse 17 . . . When the revelation of the righteousness of God is believed, it leads to more faith. “Oh God our help in ages past our hope for years to come, our shelter in the stormy blast and our eternal home. Under the shadow of Thy throne Thy saints have dwelt secure; sufficient is Thine arm alone and our defense is sure.” Faith unto faith.
as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”
This is the first time in Romans that Paul directly cites the Old Testament. In support of his declaration that righteousness comes by faith, Paul turned to words of the Old Testament prophet Habakkuk. In Galatians 3:11, Paul used the same quotation to prove that no one is justified by keeping the law.
In Romans, Paul uses the phrase from Habakkuk. In order to understand Romans, we’re going to have to understand Habakkuk. What God said to Habakkuk brought him great comfort. He was frustrated with God because of the wickedness of Israel and God’s seeming unwillingness to act. Habakkuk spent some time at the beginning of his book complaining against God about this. God surprised Habakkuk in response by telling him that He was going to judge Israel through a nation far more wicked than Israel. This set Habakkuk off again, and he complained against Israel. It is almost as if Habakkuk was embarrassed at the way God was doing things. But God’s answer to Habakkuk was this: “I am about to reveal something to you, Habakkuk, that I want you to record so that a herald may go and proclaim it. It is a revelation of my righteousness, and will put to rest your fears of inaction and injustice. In the meantime—until my righteousness is revealed—you who are righteous are to trust me, to live by faith. There is nothing you can do to ‘fix’ the situation. You will have to live by faith, not by sight, until what I have written is accomplished. My plan will come to pass, but you will have to wait for it. Meanwhile, live by faith.”
Now, if we apply this to Romans, we see Paul writing to a community of Christians in the most powerful city in the world. It was a church that was under all kinds of persecution. In a few years from the time Romans was written, Paul would lose his own life there, put to death by the Emperor Nero. Could it be that the believers in Rome may have felt just like Habakkuk? Could it be that they had questioned God’s work and wondered what He was doing? Could they have even been embarrassed at the way God was working or not working? Maybe the church in Rome was like Habakkuk, desperate for change but not knowing what to do.
So Paul reaches back into his Jewish background and his Old Testament knowledge to the book of Habakkuk. And what Paul is telling his readers is two-fold: the gospel will triumph and as you wait for it to do so, live by faith. So Paul is not ashamed of his circumstances, even though he had been a prisoner for the Lord. Even though he had been cursed and put down and beaten because of the gospel. He was not ashamed of God, even though the world in which he lived was set against God. Why was he not overcome with shame or guilt or sorrow over the circumstances in which he lived? Because of the gospel. Because it is the power of God. Because it is the revelation of God’s righteousness. And God’s righteousness through the gospel will ultimately triumph over the power of sin. And as we wait for that day, we who have received the righteousness of God by faith now continue in faith.
This is the same message we need to hear, in a culture which seems to be going down the tubes. We are now called a “post-Christian” nation. Some of us wonder if there is anybody we can vote for, we wonder if there is any way to stem the tide of filth on tv and the internet. We may feel hopeless and we may feel ashamed that sometimes so little good seems to come in a nation where so many claim to be followers of Jesus. But the power is not in the church the power is in the gospel. The righteousness of God will one day be revealed in its fullness, but right now it is revealed in the gospel. Our call is to daily live by faith in this truth.
I am reminded of Isaiah 55:11: “So is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.”
John Piper says, “What saves is persevering faith. If that’s true, now it
makes clear sense why verse 17 explains how God saves believers by saying that in the gospel God reveals a righteousness for us that is first perceived and embraced by faith, and then has the effect of awakening all the necessary future faith that we need in order to be saved. The gospel saves believers because the gospel keeps believers believing. 1Peter 1:3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, 5 who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.
In Romans 8:13 Paul says, “If you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” But the problem is, we all know that in our war with sin we do not win often enough to have peace in our consciences. So if our life hangs on perfect winning in the war with sin, we are going to despair and not persevere to the end. We will simply give up, because there is no use trying.
What then will keep us going and fighting so that we will live? Romans 1:16,17 answers: the gospel is the power of God to save believers because in the gospel we can see revealed every day that our standing with God is not based on our own righteousness but on God’s, freely given to us by faith. And when we see that over and over in the gospel, day after day, as long as we live, our faith is renewed and sustained, and we press on in the fight. Our confidence that God will help us in life and save us from the wrath to come is based on our ever-renewed assurance that our acceptance with him is based on the gift of his own righteousness, not ours.
So every time the Bible demands you to do something do not think, “I must do this to take away my guilt or to get forgiveness or to get a right standing with God.” Rather think, “I will do this because my guilt is already removed, I am already forgiven, I already have the gift of God’s righteousness, and so I know that God is for me and will help me. So I will trust him and obey him and display by my radical, risk-taking obedience the glory of God’s grace. And I will draw nearer and nearer to him in the fellowship of his sufferings and the joy of his companionship.”
God demands righteousness and we don’t have it. That’s the bad news. And the worst news is that because of this lack of righteousness and because of the rebellion that is in our hearts instead, we are under the condemnation of God and will suffer his wrath forever. That is bad news. And there is no way out of that. Whether I realize that is the path I am on or not. The Hollywood star who seems to have the world by the tail and the drunk on the street corner are both in the same boat. The powerful politician and the sanitation worker stand under the same judgment. This is bad news for humanity. The most selfish, indulgent person you can imagine is under the same judgment as the most dutiful, diligent, high achiever. This truth is what makes th good news so good. God demands righteousness we don’t have, so He gives it to us by sending His Son to bear the penalty for our unrighteousness on the cross. The gospel gives to us what God demands from us. And this is the problem I had with my school friend’s t-shirt. “The righteousness He requires is the righteousness His righteousness requires Him to require.” And I would add, “And this righteousness He supplies. To save you, to change you, to use you in His service, to keep you to the end, and to raise you forevermore in the fullness of joy that is His presence, forever free from sin and its effects. The righteousness He requires is the righteousness He supplies. Praise His Name.