Romans 1:16, 17
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 for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”
The Righteous Shall Live By Faith
Paul’s oft-quoted statement in verses 16 and 17 is a summary introduction, an outline of sorts, to the entire book of Romans. First of all Paul is “not ashamed of the gospel.” As we shall see, there were many who attacked Paul for preaching the gospel of grace, but he refused to bow his head and mumble incoherently with hesitant voice. He was bold and unashamed in the face of his religious critics. He was unashamed in the face of unbelieving skeptics. And, most of all, he was unashamed in the face of Caesar himself, before whom Paul later testified. This attitude of boldness characterizes Paul’s presentation of the letter from the beginning to the end.
The boldness of Paul flowed from his confidence in the power of God. Paul had seen the risen Lord, Jesus the Messiah, and he had no qualms about declaring Christ’s authority in all the earth. As Paul says in Ephesians, the same power that raised Christ from the dead now works in us (Ephesians 1:19, 20). The power of the gospel lies in what God did in the resurrection of Christ. And what God did in the resurrection of Christ is realized in us when the gospel is preached to us and we believe with obedient faith. Then, what God did in Christ becomes what God does in us, and the gospel reveals the power of God unto salvation. Such power makes men bold.
The gospel was more than theory to Paul, more than abstract doctrine to be discussed and dissected for intellectual stimulation. The gospel itself was the medium of God’s power to save. The power of God to save men from their sins and all creation from the bondage of the curse was contained in the declaration of what God had done in Christ. God saves through preaching. Through the preaching of the gospel, the death, burial and resurrection of Christ are lived out in the life of the believer. The power of God that raised Christ from the dead raises us from the dead in the preaching of the gospel. There is no power on earth greater than this.
And yet, we must be careful to see that salvation means more to Paul than just a personal deliverance from the power of sin and death. No doubt salvation can never be seen as less than that, but it must be seen as much more than that. For Paul, the gospel is the fulfillment of the salvation promised to Israel and, by extension, to the entire world. As Romans unfolds we shall see that, for Paul, salvation includes much more than merely “going to heaven when I die.” We shall see that salvation encompasses the full scope of universal redemption promised to Israel by the prophets. This includes the redemption and reconciliation of all creation through the resurrection at the last day. The gospel promises a new heaven and new earth where righteousness dwells. That is good news indeed.
Paul’s most fundamental reason for writing Romans is to defend the idea that salvation is given freely “to everyone who believes.” The good news of what God has done in Christ is preached to all nations beginning at Jerusalem. The prophetic vision of the Old Testament that all nations would come to worship the one true God was now coming to pass in the evangelistic ministry and mission of the church. True, the gospel is preached “to the Jew first”—there is no doubt that salvation is offered initially to Israel. Yet, we must not stop short of the full vision of the gospel: the gospel is preached “also to the Greek.” The gospel is the power of God to save everyone that believes.
The gospel reveals the “righteousness of God.” The gospel shows us that God is righteous, that God is faithful, that God is right. In other words, the “righteousness of God” here concerns the fact that God keeps His Word. His promises have not failed. This will be an important theme throughout Romans. The gospel preached by the Christian faith is the realization of God’s Old Covenant promises to Israel. Though critics and mockers may deride Paul’s gospel as making a liar out of God, Paul will vehemently defend his message with countless Scripture quotations as being the fulfillment of what the prophets foresaw. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the vindication of God, of Christ, and of the body of Christ, the church. The gospel Paul’s preaches needs no other endorsement. The resurrection and exaltation of Christ is enough.
The righteousness—the rightness of God—is revealed in the preaching of the gospel, in the account of how God is fulfilling His promises to Israel in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. This gospel is preached first to Israel and, then, to all nations. This seems to be what Paul has in mind when he says, “The righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith,” which is literally “from faith unto faith.” The righteousness of God is revealed in the outworking of faith from the faithful remnant of Israel to the faith that is now spreading abroad throughout the world (cf. 1:8). This is a sort of “faith-momentum” that builds in the earth until the consummation of all things by faith at the end. This is the same idea that the writer of Hebrews employs when he speaks of Jesus being “the author and finisher of our faith.” The faith that Jesus set in motion in the faith of the elders, beginning with Abel (Hebrews 11:4), will continue until the last of God’s elect is brought into the faith. God’s righteousness is revealed from faith unto faith.
This process of salvation “from faith unto faith” means that the fulfillment of the promise will not be immediate. Therefore, the faithful must patiently wait on God until the realization of the promise comes. This leads Paul to quote from Habakkuk 2:4: “The righteous shall live by faith.” Paul quotes from Habakkuk because both Habakkuk and Paul are concerned with the same issue: how the faithfulness of God is worked out in the face of the faithlessness of Israel. Like Habakkuk, Paul has wrestled with the question of Israel’s persistent unbelief. Like Habakkuk, Paul sees impending judgment upon Israel, this time by the Romans in AD70. He, too, wonders how God’s promises can stand in the face of this seeming failure, with Israel rejecting her Messiah and her city and temple being destroyed. And the word comes to Paul as it came to the prophet so long before him, “The righteous shall live by faith.”
Paul has come to see in his Gentile mission the ultimate outworking of the purpose of God, as he will argue so eloquently and passionately in Romans 9-11. We shall hear the echoes of this word throughout Romans: The righteous shall live by faith.
God shall be vindicated. His promises are sure. The faithful must simply believe that. Moreover, those who believe shall share in the vindication of God. The righteous shall be vindicated at the last day in the resurrection of the dead. The righteous shall live by faith. However, this final vindication is anticipated in the resurrection of Christ, which we share through baptism into Christ. Those who believe the gospel, are baptized into Christ and receive the fullness of the Spirit are vindicated already awaiting the final display of their vindication before the world at the last day. The righteous shall live by faith.