“For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith.” (Romans 1:17)
I love to read. Two qualities that I really enjoy about good writing are: 1.) Being able to see the writer’s passion for what they are writing (nothing can draw a reader’s interest as quickly as being able to feel the writer’s interest and pick up on that excitement) and, 2.) Getting right into the action and not miring the reader down in endless background and introduction. The Apostle Paul’s Epistle to the Romans contains both of these features.
If you look at most outlines and commentaries on the Book of Romans, you will see the first 17 verses labeled something like: “Introduction”, “Greeting and Introduction”, “Theme and Salutation”, or something to that effect. By any estimation, no more than 17 verses serve as the background and introduction before Paul begins to unfold the details of his message: the Gospel of God. In my opinion, I don’t believe Paul gets through one verse before he begins to go into detail. Even his “introduction” is filled with glimpses of the majestic Truths that will be carefully and systematically unfolded over the next 16 chapters. As we looked at before, he cannot even mention the words Gospel of God in Verse 1 without expounding on them briefly.
Verse 17 is, therefore, both the summation of the introduction as well as the commencement of the body of the letter to the Romans. It is a hinge, so to speak, upon which the entire epistle is hung. More than this, Verse 17 (along with the preceding 3 verses) is a ray of hope; a lantern lit to guide our way as we begin to tread into the dark caverns of the rest of this chapter and into the next two. For without a doubt, we will find no light, no hope whatsoever until we emerge from the gloomy darkness, resultant from the sin of man, in the 21st verse of Chapter 3. Like two beacons guarding the entrance and exit of this terrible chasm, Romans 1:17 and 3:21 concern themselves with the “righteousness of God”; the only righteousness in which we may find hope and solace, as the verses between these two make clear that there exists no other true righteousness at all. All other “righteousness” is an illusion, a shifting shadow playing upon the walls of the cave and dissipating into empty smoke at the shining of this sole authentic righteousness which God provides. We will have no other word of encouragement, no other benediction of hope beyond Romans 1:17 until we reach 3:21, so let us look for a moment at the wonderful Truths contained therein before we descend into the darkness to follow:
In Verses 14-16, Paul lays out his reasons for preaching the Gospel. “I am a debtor“, he tells us in Verse 14, “both to Greeks and [non-Greeks], wise and unwise.” Pop Culture has thrown around the axiom: “With great power comes great responsibility” a great deal in recent years and has applied it to the duties of everyone from world leaders to comic book superheroes. But for the Christian, we could add to this: “With great knowledge comes great responsibility.” Once we have learned of God’s saving power through Jesus Christ, we have an obligation to share this knowledge with others. God does not call all of us to preach from pulpits or to serve in foreign missions, but He does call all of us to share the Gospel with those in our own lives. Paul will tell his readers later in this Epistle to “Owe no man anything, but to love one another” (Rom. 13:8) and what greater debt of love could anyone have but to share the Gospel with a lost and dying world? Paul sees it as his debt and responsibility to preach the Gospel as God has called him to do.
Verses 14 and 16 mention three pairs of people (or “couplets”): “Greek and Barbarian“, “Wise and Unwise“, “Jew and Greek.” In the First Century Roman Empire, there was not a person alive who did not fall into one or more of those categories. In other words, Paul felt himself a debtor to all and declared that the Gospel was God’s method of Salvation available for everyone. The universal applicability of the Gospel is one of the first features of it that is given in the Book of Romans. This is extremely important because the next section of Romans will demonstrate the universal necessity of the Gospel — it is available for everyone because everyone needs it. There simply is no other method whereby God will save man. None. It is extremely crucial to understand the universal applicability of the Gospel; if we do not believe that it applies to us, then we will not accept it; if we do not believe that it applies to someone else, then we will not share it.
In Verse 15, Paul says “I am ready to preach the Gospel…” He is really saying that he is eager to preach to his readers and, as we looked at earlier, this eagerness really comes through! “I am not ashamed of the Gospel“, he tells us in Verse 16. Though the Gospel was a “stumblingblock” for the Jews and “foolishness” for the Greeks (1 Cor. 1:23), Paul was not ashamed. Though there stood no magnificent temples or churches or synagogues to the glory of Jesus Christ at the time, though the language of Christianity was not shrouded and clothed with grandiloquent rhetoric designed to tickle the ears of those who sat upon marble steps and debated philosophy, though the central Figure of Christianity had come as a poor Jewish carpenter and was put to death like a common street criminal, though most of those making up the Church at the time were poor, working people (if not slaves), Paul was not ashamed. He was not ashamed because the Gospel is the power of God. How can we be ashamed of a message when it comes from so great a Messenger? The couriers from Caesar’s own court had no reason to feel shame when they carried messages from the throne of Rome throughout the Empire because they came in the name of Caesar. They came in the power of Caesar and had nothing to fear from the hand of any man in the Empire, how much more confidence would one have who came in the name of God? The words “Unto Salvation” in Verse 16 tell us the purpose of the Gospel, that is, what the intention and end result of it is. Lest anyone were to lose sight of the Gospel’s purpose; becoming focused and enamored with the demonstrations of power and the performing of miracles by the hands of the Apostles, or the exercising of the gifts of the Holy Spirit (are there not some who are only focused on such things even in our own day?), Paul reminds us what the intent of all of these things is. God’s power is for the purpose of leading people to Salvation in Christ. It is not a spectacle displayed for the entertainment of curious onlookers.
And finally, the Gospel contains “a righteousness from God” (as the phrase in Verse 17 is better rendered). It reveals unto man a righteousness which God provides to man whereby he may be put in right-standing with God. As much space is devoted further along in the Epistle developing what this precisely means and exactly what it entails, I will not linger at this time on this wonderful phrase. “From faith to faith” has been understood in many different ways, but in taking the whole of the Book of Romans into consideration, it seems most appropriate to interpret this to mean that it is by the door of faith wherein we enter into relationship with Christ and it is through the instrument of faith that we grow therein. For Salvation is not to be understood as something which happens only in a single moment of time, but something dynamic that continues in the life of the believer. We were saved from the penalty of sin the moment we first trusted in Christ, but this is not the end of it. It is by faith that we are being saved from the habit and practice of sin by the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Ultimately, we will be saved by the resurrection and transformation of our physical bodies when we forever enter into the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ. Salvation is inclusive of God’s entire program of Redemption and it is begun by faith in Christ and it shall be finished by the same.