A quick look at any newspaper or passing glance at a weekly news magazine reminds us that in our world most news is bad and seems to be getting worse. What is happening on a national and worldwide scale is simply the magnification of what is happening on an individual level. As personal problems, animosities, and fears increase, so do their counterparts in society at large.
Human beings are in the hold of a terrifying power that grips them at the very core of their being. Left unchecked, it pushes them to self-destruction in one form or another. That power is sin, which is always bad news.
Sin is bad news in every dimension. Among its consequences are four inevitable byproducts that guarantee misery and sorrow for a world taken captive. First, sin has selfishness at its heart. The basic element of fallen human nature is exaltation of self, the ego. When Satan fell, he was asserting his own will above God’s, five times declaring, “I will…” (Isa. 14:13-14). Man fell by the same self-will, when Adam and Eve asserted their own understanding about right and wrong above God’s clear instruction (Gen. 2:16-17; 3:1-7).
By nature man is self-centered and inclined to have his own way. He will push his selfishness as far as circumstances and the tolerance of society will allow. When self-will is unbridled, man consumes everything and everyone around him in an insatiable quest to please himself. When friends, fellow workers, or a spouse cease to provide what is wanted, they are discarded like an old pair of shoes. Much of modern western society has been so imbued with the propriety of self-esteem and self-will that virtually every desire has come to be considered a right.
The ultimate goal in many lives today is little more than perpetual self-satisfaction. Every object, every idea, every circumstance, and every person is viewed in light of what it can contribute to one’s own purposes and welfare. Lust for wealth, possessions, fame, dominance, popularity, and physical fulfillment drives people to pervert everything they possess and everyone they know. Employment has become nothing more than a necessary evil to finance one’s indulgences. As is often noted, there is constant danger of loving things and using people rather than loving people and using things. When that temptation is succumbed to, stable and faithful personal relationships become impossible. A person engulfed in self-will and self-fulfillment becomes less and less capable of loving, because as his desire to possess grows, his desire to give withers. And when he forfeits selflessness for selfishness, he forfeits the source of true joy.
Selfish greed progressively alienates a person from everyone else, including those who are closest and dearest. The end result is loneliness and despair. Everything that is craved soon yields to the law of diminishing returns, and the more one has of it the less it satisfies.
Second, sin produces guilt, another form of bad news. No matter how convincingly one tries to justify selfishness, its inevitable abuse of things and other people cannot escape generating guilt.
Like physical pain, guilt is a God-given warning that something is wrong and needs correcting. When guilt is ignored or suppressed, it continues to grow and intensify and with it come anxiety, fear, sleeplessness, and countless other spiritual and physical afflictions. Many people try to overcome those afflictions by masking them with possessions, money, alcohol, drugs, sex, travel, and psychoanalysis. They try to assuage their guilt by blaming society, parents, a deprived childhood, environment, restrictive moral codes, and even God Himself. But the irresponsible notion of blaming other persons and things only aggravates the guilt and escalates the accompanying afflictions.
Third, sin produces meaninglessness, still another form of bad news and one that is endemic to modern times. Trapped in his own selfishness, the self-indulgent person has no sense of purpose or meaning. Life becomes an endless cycle of trying to fill a void that cannot be filled. The result is futility and despair. To questions such as, “Why am I here? What is the meaning of life? What is truth?” he finds no answers in the world but the lies of Satan, who is the author of lies and prince of the present world system (cf. John 8:44; 2 Cor. 4:4). In the words of Edna St. Vincent Millay in her poem “Lament,” he can only say “Life must go on; I forget just why.” Or, like the central character in one of Jean-Paul Sartre’s novels, he may say nihilistically, “I decided to kill myself to remove at least one superfluous life.”
A fourth element in sin’s chain of bad news is hopelessness, which is the companion of meaninglessness. The consumptively selfish person forfeits hope, both for this life and for the next. Although he may deny it, he senses that even death is not the end, and for the hopeless sinner death becomes therefore the ultimate bad news.
Millions of babies are born every day into a world filled with bad news. And because of the boundless selfishness that permeates modern society, millions of other babies are not allowed to enter the world at all. That tragedy alone has made the bad news of the modern world immeasurably worse.
The tidbits of seemingly good news are often merely a brief respite from the bad, and sometimes even what appears to be good news merely masks an evil. Someone once commented cynically that peace treaties merely provide time for everyone to reload!
In his Romans letter Paul speaks of the good news in many ways, each way emphasizing a uniquely beautiful facet of one spiritual gem. He calls it the blessed good news, the good news of salvation, the good news of Jesus Christ, the good news of God’s Son, and the good news of the grace of God. The letter begins (1:1) and ends (16:25-26) with the good news.
But the essence of Paul’s letter to the Romans is that there is good news that is truly good.
The Good News was promised by God and was not a new religion made up by Paul or anyone else. It was rooted in God’s promises in the Old Testament to his people through his prophets. The gospel that Paul preached was in perfect continuity with God’s earlier words in the Scriptures to his people, Israel. Both the Jews and Gentiles in the church of Rome needed to be reminded that the gospel is an ancient message of God’s plan for his creation. This was on Paul’s mind and is a recurring theme throughout the letter.
Even though the church in Rome consisted mostly of Gentiles and former converts to the Jewish faith, Paul reminded them all that in their acceptance of the gospel they were not casting off Moses and the law in order to embrace Christ. Rather, they were discovering and responding to the outworking of God’s eternal plan. The prophets in the Old Testament announced the coming fulfillment of God’s grace in Christ. The actual fulfillment of those prophetic statements confirmed God’s involvement all along. This direct statement by Paul anticipates an important teaching that he would develop later in this letter.
|Whenever we think that God’s love for us depends on our behavior or spiritual success, we put ourselves in a hopeless situation because we can never be good enough to deserve God’s love. As Paul later explains in this letter, God’s love precedes everything. All of our attempts to earn his love will fail. That’s because perfect love would require a perfect effort, clearly beyond us. It is also true that when we think of God’s love as conditional, we unwittingly transform it into something much less than love.
|Conditional love is an oxymoron. God’s love is unconditional. The first delightful surprise in the gospel is that “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8, nrsv). When you’re feeling spiritually dull or anxious, ask yourself, “Have I begun to think of God’s love as dependent on my effort?” Thank God for his unconditional, perfect love, and respond by living for him.
Romans 1:15-17 So I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome. 16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”
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.
1:16 I am not ashamed of the gospel. Verses 16 and 17 summarize the thrust of the rest of Paul’s letter and give the reason behind Paul’s missionary zeal. Paul was ready, even eager (1:15) to preach at Rome. And he was not ashamed of the gospel, even though the gospel was held in contempt by those who did not believe; even though those who preached it could face humiliation and suffering.
Paul was not intimidated by the intellect of Greece nor the power of Rome. When describing to the Corinthians the typical attitudes toward the gospel, Paul wrote, “we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles,” (1 Corinthians 1:23 nrsv). Paul was not ashamed, because he knew from experience that the gospel had the power to transform lives, so he was eager to take it to as many as would listen. This verse marks the beginning of Paul’s extended explanation of the gospel. Reading, understanding, and applying the gospel faithfully can also bring us to that point of being unashamed of what God has said and done.
One reason that the exuberance of those first days of knowing Christ tends to fade is because of the reception from other believers as well as from the unbelieving world. Becoming ashamed of the gospel is an attitude young Christians often learn from those who have been believers the longest. Faint praise, condescending responses, and averted eyes all combine to give the young believer the subtle but crushing hint that enthusiastic comments about what Christ has done for him or her need to be toned down. Paul was eager to speak and unashamed of his message. It was life to him, and he knew it would be life to others. In what ways do you sometimes seem to be ashamed of the gospel? What young or recent believers need you to rejoice with them in their new faith?
Many believers in Christ want to keep their faith a secret, carefully avoiding situations where they might be identified as a Christian. They are afraid of being embarrassed. These feelings are based on real though often exaggerated possibilities. They cause us to be silent when we ought to speak. They cause us to be anonymous Christians in most parts of our life. Shame grows when we think:
- People will openly ridicule our faith.
- Friends might desert us if they know we are Christians.
- Christians have a reputation as poor examples or hypocrites.
- Our faith is something private rather than public.
- Our success or achievement is worth more to us than having others know we are Christians.
Whatever the superficial reasons for being ashamed of the gospel, they all arise from misunderstanding or forgetting the radical, eternal, and awesome nature of God’s message and what it tells us about him.
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).
It is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes.NIV The Greek word for power (dynamis) is the source for our words dynamite and dynamic. Dynamite was not invented by Nobel until 1867, so it is obvious that Paul did not have that specific picture in mind. Instead, the inventor of the explosive took its name from the Greek. But the parallel is instructive. The gospel can be like spiritual dynamite. Under certain circumstances it has a devastating, even destructive effect, demolishing world views and traditions—paving the way for new construction. Placed inside a stone-hard heart that is resistant to God, it can shatter the barrier. God’s power in the gospel is not only explosive; it also overcomes evil. Dynamite must be carefully handled, but it is very effective when put to its proper use. Keeping dynamite under lock and key, hidden by those who know about it, may keep it from being misused, but it also prevents the dynamite from doing what it was designed to do. The dynamite of the gospel deserves to be respectfully treated, but effectively used! Furthermore, it must never be used as a weapon, but as a constructive power.
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 man’s 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.
The word dynamic also reminds us of another aspect of the gospel. While bringing spiritual life to a person, we cannot always predict the course it will take. Paul knew that Christians have the responsibility to proclaim the gospel whenever and wherever they can. Believers are not to be ashamed about its simplicity or universality—the gospel’s effectiveness can be entrusted to God. Until we are convinced that the gospel is dynamic and effective, we will tend to be ashamed to pass it on. What has the gospel done in you? If the gospel is a message you know, but not a power that has changed you, it will matter little what you do with it.
The only way to receive salvation is to believe in Christ. This offer is open to all people. The gospel is powerful because the power of God resides in it by nature. This power is not descriptive of how the gospel is effective, but a guarantee that it is effective. The gospel is the inherent power of God that gives salvation to all who accept it. Its power is demonstrated not only by accomplishing the salvation of a person, but also in its undiminished capacity to do this for everyone who believes. What then is salvation? It is the forgiveness of sins, but it goes even deeper—to a restoration to wholeness of all that sin has defaced or destroyed. And salvation can only happen when a person believes. Having made this point, Paul continues to expand on the effectiveness of the gospel in verse 17.
First for the Jew, then for the Gentile.NIV The Jews were given first invitation because they had been God’s special people for more than 2,000 years, ever since God chose Abraham and promised great blessings to his descendants (Genesis 12:1-3). God did not choose them because they deserved to be chosen (Deuteronomy 7:7-8; 9:4-6), but because he wanted to show his love and mercy to them, teach them, and prepare them to welcome his Messiah into the world. He chose them not to play favorites, but so that they would tell the world about his plan of salvation. Being first, then, is simply a statement about the order of God’s plan, rather than an indication of relative value. Paul later makes the case in Romans 4 that when God chose Abraham, the father of the Jewish nation, he was still a Gentile. God chose Abraham to bring into being a nation through which he would work to bring salvation to the world. That nation came to be the Jews. The entire plan has been an expression of God’s love.
For centuries Abraham’s descendants had been learning about God by obeying his laws, keeping his sacrifices and feasts, and living according to his moral principles. Often they forgot God’s promises and requirements and had to be disciplined; but still they had a precious heritage of belief in the one true God. Of all the people on earth, the Jews should have been the most ready to welcome the Messiah and to understand his mission and message—and some of them were. The disciples and Paul were faithful Jews who recognized in Jesus God’s most precious gift to the human race (see Luke 2:25, 36-38). The Jews were given the first opportunity to receive the Messiah during his ministry on earth (John 1:11) and during the days of the early church (Acts 1:8; 3:26). Although Paul was commissioned as the apostle to the Gentiles (Acts 9:15), even he followed this pattern. Whenever Paul went to a new city, he recognized his obligation to carry the gospel to the Jews first (Acts 13:45-46; 28:25, 28).
1:17 In it the righteousness of God is revealed.NRSV The gospel tells us how we, sinners as we are, can be declared righteous before God; and it tells how God, who is righteous, can vindicate sinful people. What then is righteousness? This is precisely what Paul explains in detail in this letter, especially for the benefit of the Gentiles in the church who would have been unfamiliar with the concept.
The phrase righteousness of God can mean “God’s righteousness” or “the righteousness God gives those who believe.” Paul had both definitions in mind. Righteousness is an aspect of God’s character, his standard of behavior, and a description of all that he wishes to give to us. The gospel shows how righteous God is in his plan for us to be saved, and also how we may be called righteous.
|This righteousness from God is the righteousness he bestows on people; in other words, it is God’s provision for justifying sinners. The way for sinners to become righteous before God is revealed in the gospel. We could not know about this righteousness were it not for the gospel. Luther defined this as a “righteousness valid before God, which a man may possess through faith.” When God declares us righteous, we have been made right with him. (See also Isaiah 46:12-13; 61:10.)
A righteousness that is by faith.NIV Our righteousness begins because of God’s faithfulness to his promises; it moves on in our response of faith and is a continuing process through life. Thus it is by faith from first to last.NIV Faith—unconditional trust—is the appointed way of receiving God’s righteousness. Faith in what? Faith in the fact that Jesus Christ took our sins upon himself, taking the punishment we deserved, and in exchange making us righteous before God. By trusting in Christ, our relationship with God is made right both for now and for eternity.
The expression by faith from first to last translates what in Greek is literally “from faith to faith.” It is also possible to translate this as “through faith for faith” (nrsv).
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.
In this expression some have seen Paul’s description of the development of faith from beginning to maturity. Others think that Paul might be outlining the transmission of faith from the faithful proclaimer to the faithful responder. The thrust of the phrase, however, indicates that our relationship with God begins and exists by faith. When it comes to our relationship with God, we never initiate; we always respond. We love because he first loved us. Every obedience in the Christian life is based upon a simple trust that God has set us free in Christ to love, instead of leaving us hopelessly trapped in our feeble efforts to be righteous by our own strength.
As it is written: “The one who is righteous will live by faith.”NRSV Paul is quoting from Habakkuk 2:4 this quotation is used again in Galatians 3:11 and Hebrews 10:38. Righteousness by faith was not a new idea—it is found in the writings of the prophets, with which the Jewish believers would be familiar. Even though Paul was taking pains to carry out his mission of carrying the gospel to the Gentiles, he was determined to hold up its connection with the plan and promise God had begun with the Jews. Paul quotes this verse and amplifies what he means by saying that faith is from first to last.
The one who is righteous will live by faith. There are two ways to understand this statement: (1) “the righteous by faith will live”—i.e., one’s faith in God makes him righteous before God, and as a result, he has eternal life or (2) “the righteous will live by faith”—i.e., those made right with God live their Christian lives by remaining faithful to God. In summary, this expression means Christians will live because of God’s faithfulness and because of their response of faith in God; as a result, they will have eternal life and experience fullness in life.