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3. Study and Exposition of Romans 1:16-17

A. Introduction

In Christianity Today, Wendy Murray Zoba says that one of the more effective evangelistic tools that Campus Crusade for Christ has developed is the Jesus film. She writes: “Several years ago in Peru, during the insurgence of the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path), a Wycliffe couple was travelling to show the film in a village. Their vehicle was intercepted by the Senderos, and they feared for their lives (with just cause). Instead of killing them, however, the terrorists decided to seize their equipment, including the film projector. The husband boldly suggested that they might as well take the film reels too.

Some time later, a man contacted them to say that he had been among the Senderos who had robbed them. He told them they watched the film seven times (out of sheer boredom), and some had been converted through it. He came to apologize and to tell of his ministry in preaching and evangelism.”24

B. Translation of Passage in NET

1:16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is God’s power for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 1:17 For the righteousness of God is revealed in the gospel from faith to faith, just as it is written, “the righteous by faith will live.”

C. Full Exegetical Outline

Idea: The reason Paul is not ashamed of the gospel is because it reveals the very righteousness of God and as such is able to save those who trust in it alone.

I. The reason Paul is not ashamed of the gospel is because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes, including the Jew first, then the Gentile (1:16).

A. Paul is not ashamed of the gospel (1:16a).

B. The gospel is God’s power for salvation to everyone who believes (1:16b).

C. The gospel is for the Jew first, then for the Gentile (1:16c).

II. The reason the gospel is God’s saving power to everyone who believes is because it reveals the righteousness of God—a righteousness which is by faith alone, a fact which is confirmed in the OT (1:17)

A. The righteousness of God is revealed in the gospel from faith to faith (1:17a).

B. It is written in the OT that the righteous by faith will live (1:17b).

D. Simple Point Outline

I. The Gospel: God’s Power to Save Everyone (16)

A. The Gospel is God’s Power to Save (16a)

B. The Gospel Saves Everyone Who Believes (16b)

II. The Gospel: The Revelation of God’s Righteousness and the Response of Faith (17)

A. The Gospel: The Revelation of God’s Righteousness (17a)

B. The Gospel: The Only Response—Faith (17b)

E. Exposition Proper

In 1:16-17 Paul tells us why he is unashamed of the gospel and eager to preach it, not only in Rome (1:15), but everywhere he goes. The reason is that the gospel is the power of God to save everyone who believes; it is the very revelation of the righteousness of God!

1:16 Paul says that he is not ashamed of the gospel for it is God’s power to save the person who believes, whether Jew or Gentile (though the Jew had special privilege in the outworking of God’s plan).

The term for (γάρ, gar) draws verse 16 and verse 15 together, the latter giving an explanation for Paul’s desires mentioned in the former. The fact that Paul is convinced that the gospel is the power of God for salvation and is, therefore, not ashamed of it, naturally leads to his desire to preach God’s truth in Rome. The stress in the “for” is not so much on the fact that the gospel is for everyone (including the Romans), as true as that might be, but rather on its efficacy in saving those who believe.

But why does Paul say that he is not ashamed (οὐ ἐπαισχύνομαι, ou...epaischunomai) of the gospel? In the next clause he says that it is because it is the power of God for salvation. But this does not tell us precisely why he is not ashamed, only that he has no need to be, for whatever reason, since the gospel is the expression of God’s power. Therefore, since it is somewhat unclear, some have contended that the “shame” concerns the nature of the gospel itself. After all, to the outsider the gospel sounds like nothing more than the death of a Jewish carpenter, who himself was part of a small, somewhat insignificant, nation under Roman dominion. In light of Paul’s visit to the capital city, a so-called gospel that included these facts might have seemed insignificant, i.e., something to be “ashamed of” (cf. Mark 8:38; 2 Tim 1:8). 

While this explanation may form part of the answer, it seems that another related solution presents itself in the book and better fits the second explanatory clause in 1:16. In 6:1, 15, the apostle is warding off the possible conclusion that the gospel leads to antinomianism, i.e., the perception that “belief in the gospel of God’s grace leads to a life of fleshly indulgence.” In other words, “if you believe a gospel that is apparently antithetical to the law, and doesn’t demand continuous works of the law, you will of necessity become lawless.” This lawlessness, of course, would be something to be ashamed of. But, here in the opening of the letter, Paul wants to make it clear that his gospel is able to deliver the believer from sin; it is nothing less than the power of God and for that reason he is not ashamed. This explanation seems more likely in light of the explanatory clause. Let’s turn there now.

The second use of the term for (γάρ, gar) indicates that Paul is not ashamed of the gospel because it is the power of God for the salvation of the one who believes. Power (δύναμις, dunamis) and salvation (σωτηρία, sōtēria) were terms common in Hellenistic religion, though Paul’s background here is probably to be found in the OT (cf. 1:2-4). Such a rich OT background includes God’s power and deliverance evident throughout his dealings with Israel and now in the gospel, the message concerning the foolishness of the cross (1 Cor 1:18). “Salvation” includes both the negative aspect of being forgiven for all sin and delivered from the penalty of sin, but it also includes in it the positive idea of personal relationship with God, i.e., the restoration of a relationship previously ruined through sin (Rom 5:10-11). According to Paul, it is only the message of the cross that affects the power of God and restores the relationship between sinner and Lord.

But this power leading to a restored relationship with God is not operative in everyone, but only in everyone who believes (πάντι τ῅ πιστεύοντι, panti tō pisteuonti). As Paul will make abundantly clear throughout the letter to the Romans, salvation is by faith alone (cf. Romans 3:21-31; 4:1-25). And since all men are sinners (3:9-20), and the gospel deals with the issue of sin and alienation from God (5:1-11), all men are freely offered the gospel irrespective of nationality, religion, sex, education, etc. Those who trust in the gospel of God concerning his son will experience the power of God for salvation. Thus the offer is universal, but participation is limited to those who trust.

1:17 The word for (γάρ, gar) takes us back to the preceding idea in v. 16 about the gospel being the power of God for salvation. How is that so? Paul knows that the gospel saves because it reveals the righteousness of God (δικαιοσύνη θεου`, dikaiosunē theou). We may understand the expression “righteousness of God” in a broad sense referring both to God’s saving activity (the incarnation/cross/exaltation/Spirit) and the resultant status of those who have been saved; they are now in a right relationship with him. The stress, however, falls on the latter idea here and on the former in Romans 3:21-26. It is not simply a reference to God’s character, though all that he does in saving men and women flows from his righteous character.

The expression from faith to faith (ἐκ πίστεως εἰς πίστιν, ek pisteōs eis pistin) has been variously interpreted throughout the history of the church: (1) from the faith of OT saints to the faith of NT saints; (2) from an immature faith to a more mature faith; (3) from a Law-oriented faith to a gospel-oriented faith; (4) from the faith of the preacher to the faith of the hearers; (5) from present faith to a future, deeper faith; 6) from God’s faithfulness to man’s faith, etc. All these have some truth in them, but fail to deal adequately with the connection of this statement with the following quotation from Habakkuk. In the OT, the point of Habakkuk’s comment is that it is only by sheer faith that one can ever comprehend the seemingly difficult things God does and this is probably the sense here in Romans 1:17. There is a parallel in 2 Cor 2:16. There Paul says, in reference to non-Christian responses to both the gospel and his ministry that he is to some the smell of “death unto death.” His comment is intended to be rhetorical where “death unto death” means sheer death. Thus we may say that, by the phrase from faith to faith, Paul is simply arguing that it is by faith and faith alone that one receives this righteous status and understands God’s work of saving sinners.

Paul argues that his doctrine of “the righteousness of God by faith,” is anticipated in the Old Testament just as (καθὼς, kathōs) the quotation from Habakkuk 2:4 argues. There are several complexities involved in understanding the precise meaning of Paul’s citation of Hab 2:4 (and we cannot go into them here), but its immediate function is to substantiate the claim that the gospel is appropriated only by faith. It is enough to say that by faith is probably to be taken with the righteous rather than will live as we have translated it. (But cf. the Greek OT and the Hebrew text which take by faith with will live).

Thus the point Paul is making is that the person who is righteous by faith, will live. Paul uses this text in a way somewhat different than it is understood in the OT and the reader is urged to compare the two. Nonetheless, the meaning of the text in Hab 2:4 and that in Rom 1:17, are, in the end, not that disparate. The point in both cases is that sheer faith is the key to grasping God’s work in any situation, i.e., whether his work involves a ruthless invading army or Christ’s atoning work on the cross!

To conclude, we may also point out that many scholars have also suggested that the citation of Habakkuk stands as a title or outline for the book. Some have said that the expression “the righteous by faith” would then refer to the ideas in 1:18-4:25, and “will live” to those in 5:1-8:39. Though it is difficult to say for certain, and beyond the scope of this commentary, a close study of the text tends to confirm this thesis or something very similar.

F. Homiletical Idea and Outline

Idea: Do not be ashamed of the Gospel…

I. Because it is the power of God to save any person who trusts (1:16).

A. The Gospel concerning Christ is the power of God.

B. Every Person who trusts in him will be saved.

II. Because it reveals the righteousness of God—a righteousness by faith alone (1:17).

A. The Gospel of God reveals the righteousness of God.

B. The Gospel of God is received by faith alone.

G. Contribution of the Passage to Systematic Theology

The text has several interpretive difficulties in it with differing viewpoints among the commentators. This does not mean that we cannot use it in developing our systematic theology, only that we must do so with some caution.

The passage contributes to our bibliology for it expresses ideas about God’s definitive revelation in Christ and the preaching of the gospel. It also involves the use of an OT text which is connected to our bibliology and our hermeneutics.25 We will want to ask how Paul is using the Habakkuk text, what it means, and how his hermeneutical decisions should impact our own interpretive methods.

The passage contributes to our soteriology in at least two ways. First, if included in the idea of “the righteousness of God” is the new status the sinner enters into, then we have here the concept of positional truth, that is, truth about my new “standing” before God (e.g., “to be declared [not made] righteous,” as in Romans 5:1-2). Second, if “from faith to faith” means “by sheer faith” or “faith alone”—and I think it does—then we have here a positive statement about the necessity for a complete and pure trust in Christ and a negative statement (by inference) about placing any trust in our own good works—religious or otherwise—for salvation (cf. Rom 3:21-16; Eph 2:8-9). Of course, this theme of “faith vs. works” for salvation and Christian growth runs throughout the epistle, but is dealt with explicitly in texts such as 4:1-25.

H. Contribution of the Passage to Discipleship and Church Mission

We must keep the response to the gospel centered on genuine faith and we must never forget that it is the gospel of God that is powerful to save, not our evangelistic methods nor our abilities to package the gospel in ways a non-believer can understand (as important as these things are, cf. 1 Cor 9:19-23). God can make fools of us in the twinkling of an eye if we start to rely on anything other than him in the preaching of the gospel.

24 Wendy Murray Zoba, “Bill Bright’s Wonderful Plan for the World,” Christianity Today, no. 14 (July 1997), 24; as cited in Larson, Choice Contemporary Stories and Illustrations, 103.

25 “Bibliology” concerns the study of the Bible, including such topics as “revelation,” “inspiration,” “inerrancy,” and “canonicity,” among others. Hermeneutics is often described as the art and science of interpretation. Thus, it is important to discern the use of an OT citation such as Habakkuk 2:4 in Romans 1:17 because it may help us in two areas: (1) to understand how the testaments relate to each other (i.e., promise –fulfillment, continuity-discontinuity, etc.); and (2) how we should interpret the Bible. This last point is related to the first, but involves complicated discussions that space will not allow for here.  

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