B. Righteousness: It’s Not What You Know or Who You Are (Romans 1:1-3:26)
When I think of shame, I think of a 1973 Pontiac. It was one of the ugliest cars I have ever seen, but it was a means of transportation for a friend. The car ran even worse than it looked; some would have said it should have been in “intensive care” while others would have thought its proper place was the morgue. It would barely run, and when it did, it backfired often sounding a little like the car in “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” only this engine sounded more like: “Put put put, bang!” I drove the car to my house to have the use of my tools, pacing myself carefully to avoid stopping at traffic lights.
In the process of taking the car to my house, I needed to pick up two of my daughters at their school. My friend drove my car, just behind my two daughters and I in the Pontiac. As we drove past the school, where a number of the girls’ friends were still outside, the car faltered, then sputtered, and suddenly backfired. Instantly, without a word spoken, both girls ducked down, laying on the seat, hoping upon hope no one had even so much as seen them riding in that car. It was a horrible embarrassment to them. They were ashamed.
All of us have had a time in our lives when we were deeply ashamed, and we may or may not have had the luxury of being able to hide. There are a number of Christians who are ashamed of the gospel. It is not a new problem nor is it a rare one. Paul found it necessary to write Timothy twice, and it is very evident that this young man struggled with being ashamed of the gospel (see 2 Timothy 1:8, 12, 16). Even though he traveled with Paul, he still was tempted to “keep a low profile” as a Christian.
While it is not stated in our text, it is very likely that some of the Roman Christians were ashamed of the gospel. Christianity was becoming less and less popular in Rome. It would not be long before Rome would burn to the ground, and the Christians would be blamed for it. Soon, the Christians would be fed to the lions before cheering crowds in the coliseums of Rome. And because of its association with Judaism, the church was probably already under suspicion. How easy it would have been for the Roman Christians to become less vocal and less visible about their faith in Jesus Christ.
But it was not so with Paul. We see Paul’s first major argument in Romans introduced with these words:
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 (Romans 1:16).
What was it that caused Paul to be so bold about his faith? What was the difference between Paul, who was not ashamed of the gospel, and others, even Timothy, who struggled with shame and timidity? Paul tells us in this section: the gospel itself is the key to Paul’s boldness. The gospel was not only Paul’s message, it was his motivation. As Paul expounds it in Romans 1-3, let us take a closer look at the gospel, which not only results in the salvation of sinners, but in the boldness of those who believe, both in their lives and from their lips.
Structure of the Text
Romans is not as easy to divide neatly into sections as one might think. Often, a verse or verses may serve as the conclusion to a preceding section while also introducing the next section. We see an example of this in Romans 1:15. Typically, Romans 1:1-15 is set apart as the first section of the epistle, with 1:16-17 then understood as the “theme of Romans.” Romans 1:18–3:20 would then be the first major argument of the book, describing the sinful condition of all mankind, which demonstrates the need for a salvation independent of man’s merits. Usually, chapter 1 is seen as Paul’s demonstration of the “sins of the Gentiles,” while in chapter 2 he turns to the “sins of the Jews.” There are reasons for viewing these verses this way, but there are also some problems and limitations in doing so.
Allow me to begin with a slightly different outline, one that does not even follow exactly the structure I suggested in our first lesson. Note the overlap of verse 15 in this outline:
(1) Paul’s relationship to the Romans (1:1-15)
- Paul’s calling and that of his readers (1:1-7)
- Paul’s desire to visit Rome and “to preach the gospel” to them (1:8-15)
(2) An explanation for Paul’s eagerness to evangelize at Rome (1:15–3:26)9
- Paul is eager “to preach the gospel” in Rome (1:15)
- The gospel is the “power of God for salvation” (1:16)
- The gospel reveals the “righteousness of God” (1:17)
Our Purpose in This Lesson
In our first lesson, we sought to gain an overview of the entire Book of Romans with the purpose of determining Paul’s main emphasis and the way in which this is communicated and developed. We also attempted to identify some of the features and emphases of Romans which have had a dynamic impact on men and women throughout the ages of the history of the church. As we first looked at Romans as a whole, in the next several lessons we will devote ourselves to getting a feel for each of the major segments of the Book of Romans and attempt to identify the major thrust or point of each section, along with the way in which Paul develops his point. At the end of our introductory study of these sections, we will turn back to the beginning of Romans and begin a more detailed, verse-by-verse study.
Paul’s Eagerness to Evangelize at Rome
Paul’s greeting, recorded in verses 1-7, beginning with, “Paul, a bond servant of Christ Jesus, …” and ending with, “Grace to you and peace from God, …” is the longest of all his greetings in any of his epistles. In this greeting can be found clues to that which Paul will emphasize in the body of the epistle.10 Important here, I believe, is the fact that Paul explains the bond which he has with these Roman saints, even though he has not yet visited Rome. It is the reason for his eagerness to visit them and the reason for his writing this epistle. Paul was called to be an apostle (1:1). He was set apart for the gospel and for its proclamation among the Gentiles (1:5). The gospel is not unexpected nor distinct from God’s dealings with Israel (1:2-3), although it was fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ (1:3-4). It was a gospel which was to result not only in a profession of faith, but in the practice of faith, in the “obedience of faith” (1:5). The Roman saints were, by and large, Gentiles, and thus they fell within Paul’s calling. He was called to bring Gentiles to faith, and these Gentiles had come to faith. Here was a common bond between them.
Paul wanted to visit these saints and to have fellowship with them. He looked forward to the encouragement they would give him, and he was also eager to minister to them. While Paul had not been the instrument through whom these saints had come to faith, he still felt an obligation to them. Since preaching the gospel was to result in far more than a profession of faith, Paul was eager to visit the church in Rome and to proclaim the gospel to them (1:8-15). He had attempted to visit them before but was prevented until now. He was planning to visit them in the future, and his letter was a kind of introduction to the ministry among them which he hoped to have.
A Preliminary Explanation
of Paul’s Eagerness to Evangelize
Verse 15 begins with the word, “thus,” informing us that it is a conclusion, a summation of what has gone before. Paul was an apostle to the Gentiles, and many of the Roman saints were Gentiles. Paul was writing these saints, just as he hoped soon to visit them and minister to them in person. To sum it all up, Paul was “eager to preach the gospel” to the church in Rome.
Verses 16, 17, and 18 each begin with the word, “for,” which informs us that we are about to hear an explanation of Paul’s statement in verse 15. In verses 16 and following Paul intends to explain to his readers just why he is eager to preach the gospel in Rome. In verse 16 Paul tells us he is not ashamed of the gospel—indeed he is eager to proclaim it—because the power of God works in and through the gospel in such a way as to save men. (This salvation is for Jews and Gentiles, and it is a salvation which is obtained by faith.) The gospel is not a cause of shame, but the cause of confidence, for it is mighty to save because God’s power is at work in it.
Verse 17 provides us with yet another reason for Paul’s eagerness to preach the gospel: the gospel is not only that through which God works so as to save men; the gospel is that through which God’s righteousness is revealed to men. The gospel reveals not only God’s power to save, but His righteousness in saving men. As Romans 1:18–3:20 will show, God is shown to be righteous in His condemnation of all men as sinners. As Romans 3:21-26 indicates, God is likewise shown to be righteous in the way He has provided a righteousness for men, a righteousness that is obtained not by works but by faith.
God’s Righteousness as
Revealed in His Wrath Toward Sinners
As Paul starts to systematically expound the gospel, he begins by demonstrating the universal sinfulness of all mankind, Jews and Gentile alike, without exception, and without distinction. It is man’s unrighteousness which requires God’s righteous judgment. It is man’s lack of righteousness which necessitates the provision of righteousness apart from human merit or works.
Four things become apparent when we begin to study the sinful condition of man as described in Romans 1:18-31.
First, there is a panorama of sin described. There are various types of sin described, showing the infinite variety and variation in man’s sinfulness. Not all sin takes the same forms nor manifests the same symptoms. Sin is much like cancer; it is deadly, and it can infect any part of the body and in a variety of forms. Three categories of sin seem to be described by Paul in Romans 1:18-31. The first category manifests itself in idolatry (1:18-23). The second category manifests itself in unnatural immorality, in perversion (1:24-27). The third category manifests itself in self-righteousness, in pride, and in an infinite array of evil deeds (1:28-31).
Second, there is a pattern evident in sin. While sin manifests itself differently in men, the way sin grows reveals a common pattern, a common pathology. In each of the three examples which Paul gives of the sinfulness of man, the sin is described as beginning with the rejection of some revelation concerning God. In the first category, God’s nature is revealed to all mankind by creation. God’s “eternal power and divine nature have been clearly seen” (1:20). In the last case, God’s righteousness is revealed by the Law of God, even more clearly than that revealed by creation (1:32; 2:1-29). The revelation which God has given to men is rejected by men in every case. What has been revealed to men about God is rejected by men. That revelation is replaced or exchanged (1:23, 25, 26) for that which is untrue, that which is false. Man’s rejection of the truth is due to sin (see 1:18), and it also results in even greater sin. When men reject the revelation and exchange the truth for a lie, God “gives them over”11 to their sin, which results in even greater evil-doing.12
Third, there is some kind of progression evident in Paul’s description of man’s downward plunge in sin. Things seem, in some ways, to go from bad to worse. For example, Paul seems to move from the present consequences of sin (“the wrath of God is being revealed,” 1:18, NIV) to the future, eternal judgment of God on sin (“you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God,” 2:5). Paul seems to show a progression from those who are unrighteous to those who are self-righteous (in human terms). Those first described reject God’s revelation; those last mentioned actually affirm and profess to accept God’s revelation in the Law. The first group sets their worship of God aside, so to speak, choosing to worship created things in His place. The last group actually takes God’s place themselves. While God is described by Paul as the Judge of the earth, Paul indicts those in chapter 2 for setting themselves up as judges.
It is necessary to point out who is at the “bottom of the barrel,” those who are the most guilty of those mentioned. It is not the heathen who have only the natural revelation of the creation. It is not those who are guilty of perversion, as serious as this sin is. The most guilty are those who know more about God than the others, but who do not obey, worship, nor serve Him, in spite of all that they know about Him.
I have heard it taught that the expression “God gave them over” means, “God gave them up.” Usually, the group of those who are “given up” are the homosexuals. Some would have us think that these folks are beyond help, beyond salvation. Paul does not teach this nor does the Scripture suggest this anywhere. Indeed, Paul speaks of those who have been saved from such sin (see 1 Corinthians 6:9-11). The expression “God gave them over” does not mean that God has given up on saving such sinners. The point of this section is not to show that some men are “unsaveably” lost, but that all men are universally lost. But the grace of God and the work of Christ is greater than all our sins. Thus, while men are given over to sin, they may also be delivered from their sin.
I believe that being “given over” to sin may actually be an evidence of the grace of God, as well as an evidence of His wrath. Being “given over” to one’s sin may be a part of the process by which God saves men from their sins. The prodigal son, for example, was “given over” to his sin, so that in the pig pen he would “come to himself” and return to his father for forgiveness. Those who seem to be in the greatest peril are those who are sinners but who are not “given over” to the grossest manifestations of sin. Thus, in 2:1-5, Paul addresses those who think they are better than others, who think of others as sinners and of themselves as righteous. The great danger for those whose lives are relatively successful and trouble-free is that they believe this is an evidence of their righteousness and of God’s resulting favor. Paul warns such people that the “riches of His kindness” are really His “forbearance and patience,” which should “lead them to repentance” (2:4).
As I read through the pages of the gospels, I see that the sinners, those who have been “given over” to their sins, are those who come to Jesus for help, for healing, and for forgiveness. It is the righteous who shun Jesus and who stay away. They believe they do not need mercy nor grace, because they believe they are worthy objects of divine favor. How wrong they are!
Fourth, there is the appearance of two categories of sinners: the Jews and the Gentiles. Actually, there is only one category for sinners, and all of mankind falls into this category, whether Jew or Gentile. So too there will only be one category of the righteous into which men will enter through faith in Jesus Christ, whether Jew or Gentile.
I have often heard it said (or have read) that Romans 1 demonstrates the sinfulness of the Gentiles, and that Romans 2 demonstrates the sinfulness of the Jews. There is an element of truth here, but there is also a great deal of inaccuracy to such a statement. Notice that Paul does not find the Gentiles guilty of one kind of sin and the Jews guilty of another. Paul indicts the self-righteous Jew for doing the very same things he himself condemns, of not doing the very things he teaches others to do. In his concluding summary of Romans 3:10-18, where Paul gathers together a collection of Old Testament texts (mainly from the Psalms) to show the sinfulness of man, Paul makes no distinction between those who are Jewish sinners and those who are Gentile sinners. Indeed, Paul makes a point of saying that there is “no difference” (Romans 3:9).
Somewhere in the course of this study a very important fact came to mind, one which has never been so clear to me before. THE MAJORITY OF THE JEWS IN THE NEW TESTAMENT DID NOT BELIEVE THEIR WORKS WOULD MAKE THEM RIGHTEOUS BEFORE GOD. MOST OF THE JEWS WERE NOT REALLY LEGALISTS, IN REALITY. It was only a small group of Jews who were legalists, who thought that by their good works they could obtain righteousness. This small group of legalists was the Pharisee party. THE MAJORITY OF THE JEWS THOUGHT THEY WERE WORTHY OF GOD’S BLESSINGS BECAUSE OF WHO THEY WERE, NOT BECAUSE OF WHAT THEY DID. The Jews basked in the glory of their calling. They thought God chose them for blessing and that all others (the Gentiles) would get His eternal wrath. Paul exposes this mentality in his rebuke of Peter: “We are Jews by nature, and not sinners from among the Gentiles” (Galatians 2:15).
The Jews thought of sinners in terms of nationality, in terms of race, not in terms of conduct. The label “sinner” was synonymous with the term “Gentile.” Gentiles were “sinners”; the Jews were “righteous.” The Gentiles deserved God’s wrath and did not deserve God’s grace (see the Book of Jonah for a dramatic example of this mindset—Jonah being typical of the mindset of the Jews). The Jews, however, deserved God’s favor and did not need to worry about His eternal wrath, which was for sinners.
The fact was that the Jews believed God dealt with them on an entirely different basis than He did the Gentiles. God, they believed, had chosen the Jews as the objects of His favor and the Gentiles as the objects of His wrath. Being a Jew was sufficient grounds for God’s blessings; being a Gentile was sufficient grounds for His wrath. If God were to bless any Gentiles, they had to become Jews, proselytes. That was the way most Jews seemed to view the matter of God’s blessings and God’s judgment.
The Jew did not wish to be judged according to his works, but only according to his parentage. “We are the children of Abraham” was their cry. Their possession of the Law was proof to the Jews of their favored status. The fact that the Gentiles did not possess the Law was evidence of their rejection. While the possession of the Law was vitally important to them, the practice of the Law was quite another matter. Therefore, there were few legalists among the Jews—those who believed that by keeping the Law, without failure, they could merit God’s blessings. There were many, however, who felt that being a descendant of Abraham was their ticket to heaven, all they needed for God’s blessings.
Let me attempt to illustrate how this mindset actually undermined obedience to the Law. The same kind of attitude and action is a constant temptation to those who are commissioned to enforce the law—to be policemen. Over a period of time, a police officer can become very rigid in the way he enforces the law. He may hold to the very “letter of the law” when it comes to the offenses of others. But he (or she) can easily become lax about his own obedience to the law. While in seminary, I had the opportunity to ride with a policeman. He was a very nice fellow and a conscientious officer. But I noticed he was not as careful to stay within the speed limit as I was, for example. Who would arrest him? One of his friends, his fellow-officers? Not likely. And so it is that those who view themselves as the possessors of the law, and its enforcers, can become lax as to their own obedience to it. So it was, I believe, with the Jews.
And this is precisely why Paul indicts those who felt they possessed the Law13 and who sought to hold others to it, yet without obeying it themselves (chapter 2). Beginning with the first words of chapter 2, Paul turns to the self-righteous Jews, stunning them with his indictments. He has paved the way for this, but they did not seem to see it coming.14 Now, Paul’s charges fall on his readers like a ton of bricks.
But why would Paul come on so strong against Jews if his readers are primarily Gentile? I believe this can be answered from the context of the entire New Testament. The Jews continually sought to “Judaise” the church. Many, if not most, of Paul’s warnings and corrections were those pertaining to Jewish errors and distortions of the truth. By speaking so strongly on this matter, Paul shows this mindset to be evil, and thus he sets about to correct it. The Judaisers must have lost a great deal of their influence with the arrival of this epistle. And when a Jew wrote it, it may have had an even greater impact.
In laying down his indictment, in condemning the Jews as well as the Gentiles, Paul found it necessary and proper to specify, in print, the basis for divine judgment:
But because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God, who will render to every man according to his deeds: to those who by perseverance in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life; but to those who are selfishly ambitious and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, wrath and indignation. 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 every man who does good, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For there is no partiality with God (Romans 2:5-11).
The basis on which all men are judged by God is their works. Those who practiced righteousness could expect God’s blessings. Those who did not practice His righteousness, but who practiced unrighteousness, could expect God’s judgment. On the basis of this standard, no one could be found righteous, and all mankind falls under the condemnation of a holy God. Judged according to their practice, all men fail to meet God’s standard of righteousness.
There is none righteous, not even one (Romans 3:10).
In judging men this way, the righteousness of God is seen in two ways. First, God is righteous in holding all men to His standard of righteousness and in condemning all who fail to meet the standard. Second, God is righteous in judging all men without partiality, without showing favoritism. If God condemned the Gentiles but blessed the Jews, He would be unjust, because neither the Jews nor the Gentiles are righteous and have earned His blessings. When God condemns Jews and Gentiles alike, both according to their works, He is seen to be a just Judge.
While God judges Jews and Gentiles by their deeds, He is also seen to be fair in dealing with men differently. There is a world of difference between judging men with partiality and judging men differently. Not all men have the same revelation of God, and thus it would not be fair to judge all by precisely the same standard. God judges all men on the same basis, and He also judges all men on a different (individual) standard. The standard is that knowledge which men possess which governs their practice. The Gentile, who does not have the Law, is not judged by the Law, but rather in accordance with the revelation he has received (see Romans 1:18-32). The Jew, who possesses the Law, is judged by what he has learned from the Law (Romans 2:12-24).
It is not the possession of the Law which makes one righteous, but the practice of the Law. The Law did not make any Jew righteous. Though they boasted in the Law, though they taught it to others, though they condemned others by it, no Jew ever fulfilled its requirements. Thus, the Jews, like the Gentiles, failed to attain righteousness by their works. A man’s works are always sufficient to condemn him, but they are never sufficient to make him righteous.
The Jews took great pride in circumcision. Circumcision was a sign to the Jews that they were under the Law, that they placed themselves under the Law of Moses. Paul closes out chapter 2 by showing that in the light of the Jew’s failure to fulfill the Law, circumcision was of no advantage to them. The right of circumcision was only of value if one could keep the law. But since no man could keep the Law, circumcision without obedience to the Law was worthless. As a token of faith, circumcision had great meaning. As a token of one’s efforts to please God by law-keeping, it was worthless. And since physical descent from Abraham was of no help in earning righteousness, circumcision was of no help in identifying one as a Jew, a son of Abraham, either (2:25-29).
These words came as a severe blow to the pride of the Jews. If being a Jew, being circumcised and possessing the Law, did not give the Jews an edge on the Gentiles, if it could not make them righteous, what good were these things? What was the advantage of being a Jew in the first place? This is the question which Paul raises first in chapter 3. Being a Jew is a great privilege, for God chose the Jews to be His instruments through whom His Word was revealed. They were privileged to be used of God, but they were not privileged to be dealt with on a different basis than the Gentiles. How blessed to be used by God. What a privilege!
“But,” Paul continues, “if the nation Israel was found to have many sinners in its ranks, what does this say about God and His faithfulness? Does the sin, the condemnation of Jews, not reflect badly on God?” Not at all, for this was all a part of the plan and purpose of God. It was not God’s intention to make a believer of every Jew. As Paul will later spell out, it was only His plan to preserve a small remnant, through which His plans, purposes and promises could be fulfilled (see Romans 9-11). God is faithful regardless of man’s infidelity. God’s character is not contingent upon man’s character. God is found to be righteous by His condemnation of sinners, just as much as He would be by His rewarding of the righteous (Romans 3:4).
Another objection is raised by Paul in verse 5 of chapter 3: “If man’s unrighteousness proves God to be righteous, then isn’t God benefiting at man’s expense? Can such wrath toward sinners be righteous on God’s part?” Paul makes it clear that such a profane question is only for the purpose of clarification. If God were unrighteous, as implied, He could never judge the world.
There remains one final objection spelled out in verses 7 and 8: “If God is shown to be righteous by His condemnation of me and my sin, why does He still judge me?” The thought seems to be this: God is gaining glory at my expense. If God comes out ahead in the deal, then why does He still intend to follow through with my judgment? In fact, why should I not be free to think that in such a case God’s lot would be even better if I actively pursued sin? The more I sin, the more righteous God appears. Therefore, I might as well multiply my sin. Such a response is so evil, even on its face, that Paul simply replies, “Their condemnation is just” (Romans 3:8).
Now it is time for Paul to sum it all up. When men are judged by what they do with what they know, all men fail to meet God’s standards of righteousness. All men, whether Jews or Gentiles, are found to be under the divine sentence of condemnation. And so, in summation, Paul cites a series of Old Testament quotations, all of which point to the universal sinfulness of men, Jew and Gentile.
as it is written, “THERE IS NONE RIGHTEOUS, NOT EVEN ONE; THERE IS NONE WHO UNDERSTANDS, THERE IS NONE WHO SEEKS FOR GOD; ALL HAVE TURNED ASIDE, TOGETHER THEY HAVE BECOME USELESS; THERE IS NONE WHO DOES GOOD, THERE IS NOT EVEN ONE.” “THEIR THROAT IS AN OPEN GRAVE, WITH THEIR TONGUES THEY KEEP DECEIVING,” “THE POISON OF ASPS IS UNDER THEIR LIPS”; “WHOSE MOUTH IS FULL OF CURSING AND BITTERNESS”; “THEIR FEET ARE SWIFT TO SHED BLOOD, DESTRUCTION AND MISERY ARE IN THEIR PATHS, AND THE PATH OF PEACE HAVE THEY NOT KNOWN.” “THERE IS NO FEAR OF GOD BEFORE THEIR EYES” (Romans 3:10-18).
Then, in his own words, Paul sums up the matter:
Now we know that whatever the Law says, it speaks to those who are under the Law, that every mouth may be closed, and all the world may become accountable to God; because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin (Romans 3:19-20).
The Law, in which the Jew boasted and the possession of which the Jew took for righteousness, is not able to make any man righteous but only to show him unrighteous. The Law points out the need for righteousness, but it does not provide that righteousness. The Law spells out those works which a righteous man would do, but it did not enable sinful man to do them. The Law is a wonderful standard, but the Law can only show men need to be saved. The Law, like an x-ray machine, can point out the problem, but it cannot make men well.
After such depressing news, Paul now points to the good news of the gospel. What men could not do, and what the Law could not do for men, God did in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ (Romans 3:21-26). The wrath of God had to be satisfied. God could not simply overlook sin; it had to be judged. And so God provided men with salvation in such a way that He demonstrated His righteousness and satisfied His wrath, all at the same time.
Jesus Christ, God’s Son, came to the earth, adding humanity to His deity (Romans 1:3-4), so as to be qualified to die for the sins of men. Because He was perfect, without sin, His death was for no sin of His own. In punishing Jesus, God’s wrath toward the sinner was satisfied. All of the sins of those who believe in Jesus, those who lived before Him, and those who live after, are punished in Him. And the righteousness which He possesses is offered to those who will believe in Him, by faith. What man could never do by his own efforts, God has done in Christ. Everyone who believes is offered the gift of salvation in Jesus. And because this offer is to all men, Jews and Gentiles, there is no partiality in God’s blessing. He will save all who trust in Jesus. In this way, God has made salvation available to all men and demonstrated His righteousness at the same time. Truly the gospel does demonstrate the righteousness of God!
Summing It All Up
Paul was joyful at the salvation of the saints in Rome. Bringing Gentiles to faith was his calling in life, as an apostle. Their salvation therefore was good news for Paul. He desired to visit them, to share the fellowship of a common faith and mutual ministry. He desired to come to them to proclaim the gospel. He was eager to do so, because the gospel is God’s mighty means of saving men. The gospel is also the revelation of God’s righteousness. His righteousness is seen in His wrath toward sin. God judges all mankind sinful, Jew and Gentile. His basis for condemning men is their practice of what has been revealed to them. The greater the revelation, the greater the guilt and condemnation.
The Jews were glad to pronounce all Gentiles sinners. They thought themselves to be God’s favorites, God’s “pets.” They possessed the Law of Moses, and they were proud of it. They taught the Law to others, and they condemned men by its holy standards. But they did not feel obliged to meet its standards themselves. They did not believe that God would judge them by their practice of the Law. They expected to be blessed because of their possession of the Law. They took pride and found their confidence in possessing the Law and in their circumcision, which was a token to them of their favored status. Paul, in showing God’s judgment to be impartial, and to be based upon what men did with what they knew, took all of this away. In doing this, every Jew, along with every Gentile, was shown to be a sinner, failing God’s standards, and deserving His condemnation.
Because all mankind is found to be unrighteous, under a divine sentence of death, God Himself accomplished salvation for men. He satisfied His holy wrath by punishing His Son, in the place of the sinner. In Jesus Christ, God offers men the righteousness which He requires and which men can never attain through their own works. All who believe in Jesus Christ are saved. In all of this, the righteousness of God is demonstrated.
There are several vitally important principles taught in our text which have great relevance to our own lives. Let me conclude by pointing out some of these principles and suggesting some areas of application.
Principle Number One: God does not judge us on the basis of who we are, or on the basis of how much we know about Him, but rather on the basis of what we do with what we know.
The Jews knew more about God than the Gentiles, but that did not mean they were righteous. In the final analysis, the Jews had the greater guilt because they had the greater knowledge, but they did not live in accordance with God’s revelation.
So far as divine judgment is concerned, God judges men on the basis of their response to His revelation, not just their receiving it. Men do not have to hear the gospel in order to be condemned. They have sufficient knowledge about God from the creation (see Psalm 19). Revelation requires our response; it requires our obedience. That is why Paul did not say that he was called as an apostle to bring men to a profession of faith, but to the practice of their faith, to the “obedience of faith” (Romans 1:5).
And so I must ask you this question, my friend. If only from what you have read from this message, you know enough of the gospel to be saved. What have you done with what you have heard? It is not enough to know that you are a sinner, and that your deeds render you guilty of sin before a holy God. It is not enough to know and to believe that Christ died for your sins, bearing your punishment and offering you His righteousness. You must personally receive the gift of salvation by placing your trust in Jesus as God’s provision for the forgiveness of your sins and for the righteousness you need to enter into His kingdom. If you have never trusted in Jesus Christ for your salvation, I pray that you will act on this offer now, that you will receive God’s gift of forgiveness and eternal life.
And for those of us who are Christians, this principle has some very strong words of warning. Many “Bible believing Christians” think that righteousness is more a matter of what you know than of what you do. Many think that if they possess a great deal of knowledge they are righteous before God, even though they do not practice the truth. God is more interested in what we do with what we have learned than in mere learning alone. May we practice what our Lord Jesus, Paul, and the apostles preached.
Principle Number Two: The Gospel assumes that men are sinners, condemned by their works, and unable to save themselves.
The gospel is only for those who are hopelessly lost. There is no one too needy, too sinful for salvation. There are many who are too good for salvation, not because of any weakness in the gospel, but because those who are righteous do not need forgiveness or divine grace. Self-righteousness is the most dangerous form that sin can take, for it is the fatal disease which seems to need no cure. The gospel is no gospel at all if it does not have, as its starting point, man’s utterly hopeless condition in his own sins. Those who are lost can be saved, but those who are not desperately ill and dying think they need no cure. There are those who think that the gospel should make much of the love of God but that the wrath of God should be played down. This is not the same gospel which Paul proclaimed.
Principle Number Three: There is no status among sinners, just as there is no status among saints.
The principles underlying divine judgment and salvation remove all possibility for any sense of pride or superiority. The Jews felt superior to the Gentiles, but such pride was foolish and ill-founded. The Jews, like the Gentiles, were sinners, condemned by their own sins. And just as there is no basis for pride among sinners, neither is there any basis for pride among saints. There is nothing which men can do which merits God’s favor or blessing. Salvation is made available to men on the basis of what Jesus Christ has done. We receive salvation by faith. And so the only basis for boasting is in Christ. He is exalted by saving men; men should be humbled by their sin and by their salvation. Status seeking is not only sinful, it is rooted in error and deception, not in the truth.
Principle Number Four: The Gospel is our motivation, as well as our message. The Gospel is not only the means of saving men, it is the means by which God makes his children bold to proclaim and to practice their faith.
Paul was saved by the gospel, as well as called to preach the gospel. He was eager to do this. If he could not reach the city of Rome personally, he would write these saints. He was not ashamed of the gospel, as some were, but was eager to evangelize. The key to his boldness was the gospel itself. The gospel is God’s means of manifesting His power, resulting in the salvation of men. The gospel is God’s means of revealing His righteousness to men. God’s righteousness is revealed in the condemnation of sinners and even in the pouring out of His wrath on His Son. His righteousness is revealed by the way in which He chose to judge men, as well as to justify them. God does not show partiality. He has no favorites. Only those who acknowledge their own sin and trust in the Lord Jesus Christ by faith are forgiven their sins and given His righteousness.
Paul was bold to proclaim Christ and eager to evangelize in Rome. The reason for Paul’s eagerness is to be found in the gospel itself and not just in Paul. The gospel is God’s powerful means of saving men. It is God’s means of manifesting His own righteousness to men. It is the only means whereby sinners can be forgiven and enter into God’s promised blessings.
No wonder Paul wanted to preach the gospel to the Romans. Our lack of boldness in proclaiming Jesus Christ to lost men is, in large measure, the result of our failure to understand the gospel, or to believe it. May God grant that our lives may be so dominated by the gospel, both in its message and in its motivation, that we become as eager to evangelize as Paul was.
Thus, for my part, I am eager to preach the gospel to you … (Romans 1:15).
9 The fact of the matter is that the rest of the epistle explains Paul’s eagerness to evangelize (proclaim the gospel) at Rome. The gospel alone saves lost men, whose sins place them under divine sentence by the righteous God (Romans 1-5). The gospel alone requires and enables men to live righteously in a sinful world (Romans 6-8). The gospel alone explains God’s dealings in history with the nation Israel (Romans 9-11). And the gospel alone motivates men to serve and worship God (Romans 12-16).
12 The results of being “given over” are often strikingly appropriate to the sins which caused them. For example, the sin of rejecting the revelation of God’s self-revelation seems to lead to practices which are unnatural, those which are perverted.
13 I was tempted to use the term “Jews” here, and well I could have. But Paul did not use the term. I think I know why he used the more generic term “man” (see 2:1, 3). Since God does not distinguish between Jews and Gentiles in the way He judges them, why should we make such distinctions? Paul begins his argument by making some distinctions, but only because this is the way his readers thought. When Paul concludes, he will speak of man’s universal condemnation in general terms, not racial terms. God is just because He does not distinguish between Jew and Gentile. The Jews were wrong because they thought that He did and thus they expected His favor, and they were lax about their obedience to His Law.
14 The Jews were just as guilty as the Gentiles of the sins condemned in chapter 1, which is precisely Paul’s point in chapter 2 (see 2:1-2). In Romans 1:32 Paul spoke of those who “know the ordinance of God” (1:32) but did not practice it, who even encouraged others to disobey as well.