Romans 1:16-17 is seen to be central in this epistle by almost everyone who studies these verses. In fact, I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that they form the thesis statement for the letter. To see this, you need only see how the letter unfolds from this point. It’s clear that up to now the apostle has been writing an introduction to the epistle – introducing himself and his intensions. Having stated that his desire is to bring the gospel to Rome, he how makes his grand statement about the gospel he wants to preach. From this point, he unpacks the need for the gospel (1:18-3:20), the revelation of the gospel in terms of the righteousness of God (3:21-5:21), deals with objections to the gospel (6:1-7:25), gives a case for the superiority of the gospel in terms of hope (8:1-39), talks about the place of Israel and the promises of God with respect to the gospel (9:1-11:36), and spells out the application of the gospel to everyday life (12:1-15:33). In these two verses, therefore, we have a fountain of truth that bursts out from them into the rest of this wonderful letter. So I take them to be the theme of Romans. The book of Romans is about the gospel, which is about the righteousness of God for us through Christ.
It is almost surprising, therefore, that the apostle would begin what amounts to the thesis statement of the epistle with the words, “I am not ashamed of the gospel.” But the fact of the matter is that the gospel will be forever attached to shame in any culture that is yet hostile to the claims of Christ. And therefore anyone who embraces the truth of the gospel is going to be exposed to the shame of the gospel. The gospel is shameful to the world because it is offensive and foolish and weak to them (cf. 1 Cor. 1:17-31). It is offensive because it assumes some things that people refuse to believe. For example, it assumes that men and women are by nature sinful and exposed to the just wrath of God. That’s hard for people to swallow. It also assumes that men and women by nature can do nothing to save themselves. That’s hard. It calls us to embrace Christ not only as Savior for the forgiveness of sins, but also as Lord to reign over our lives, and most people just don’t want to give up their self-sovereignty. They will not have Christ rule over them. As the singer put it, they want to have it their way. And so many people hear the gospel and are scandalized by it. They are ashamed of it.
And if we are not careful, we who have embraced Christ and his gospel can become ashamed of it as well. It is so easy for us to be overly influenced by the opinion of others, and to allow the fear of man to guide our actions, to cause us to hide our lights in this world, to be silent when we should speak, to do nothing when we should act.
I am so thankful, by the way, of the honesty of the apostle here. He knows that the gospel is not going to be welcomed by everyone, and that a lot of people are going to oppose it. So he is not going to sugarcoat things. He knows that the preaching of the gospel brings opposition and often intense persecution. There is no Pollyannaish perspective here. He himself had experienced persecution over and over again. I don’t think there is any doubt that the source of the shame is the real possibility of suffering for the sake of the gospel. It’s why Paul told Timothy, “Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God” (2 Tim. 1:8). It is why our Lord himself told his disciples that “whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels” (Mk. 8:38).
If you live the gospel and speak the gospel, the fact of the matter is that not everyone is going to like you. Some are going to hate you. And in that moment, you are going to be tempted to be ashamed of the gospel. And if the shame wins out, your witness will wither with it.
So the question is, how do we hold the gospel so that we do not become ashamed of it? How do we, like Paul, instead live a life eager to share it with others (v. 15)? And how do we make the theme of this epistle the theme of our lives? The answer is that we need to understand what the gospel is and what the gospel does. And then we need to really value them, like the apostle, so that we are eager to live and share the gospel when others want to shame us for it.
Paul addresses both things here in verses 16 and 17, although he focuses on what the gospel does. It’s important to grasp the fact that the gospel is not just information about God but it is in fact the power of God. God does amazing things through the gospel. The question is, what things?
The gospel is the power of God for salvation
Note the apostle’s logic here: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel” – why? – “for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (16). Why should we not be ashamed of the gospel? Because it is the power of God for salvation. Paul put it like this to the Corinthians, “For the word of the cross [the gospel] is folly to those who are perishing [and thus an opportunity for shame], but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18). In verse 21, he continues, “For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.” In 1 Cor. 2:4-5, “And my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.” In all these verses, the apostle underlines the fact that God’s power is at work through the gospel. As we noted a couple of sermons ago, this is because it is through the gospel that God effectually calls people to faith in Christ.
This is important to remember when faced with a world increasingly hostile to the gospel and its truths. It is very easy to forget that the gospel is not something we need to defend so much as something to declare. Because ultimately what brings people to saving faith are not our arguments (though I am certainly not discounting them!) but the power of God which convinces the mind and the heart of the relevance and reality of gospel truth. The thing is, men are spiritually blind (2 Cor. 4:3). It is just as easy to give sight to the blind as it is to give spiritual sight to the spiritually blind. But Christ can do it (2 Cor. 4:4-6). Or, to use Paul’s metaphor in Eph. 2, men are spiritually dead. Can you give life to the dead? Of course not. But God can! What is impossible with men is possible with God (cf. Mt. 19:26). The gospel, in other words, is not something which depends upon your power and your ability and talents and personality and so on, but something which carries with it the power of God. C. H. Spurgeon put it this way:
A great many learned men are defending the gospel; no doubt it is a very proper and right thing to do, yet I always notice that, when there are most books of that kind, it is because the gospel is not being preached. Suppose a number of persons were to take it into their heads that they had to defend a lion. There he is in the cage, and here come all the soldiers of the army to fight for him. Well, I should suggest to them, if they would not object, and feel that it was humbling to them, that they should kindly stand back, and open the door, and let the lion out! I believe that would be the best way of defending him, for he would take care of himself; and the best “apology” for the gospel is to let the gospel out. Never mind about defending Deuteronomy or the whole of the Pentateuch; preach Jesus Christ and him crucified. Let the Lion out, and see who will dare to approach him. The Lion of the tribe of Judah will soon drive away all his adversaries.
If you would not be ashamed of the gospel, you need to remember that it is the power of God.
And it is important to see that the power of God is connected to the gospel. There are some who will so focus on the power of God to the point that the gospel plays no role in the salvation of the sinner. But this is not how the apostle puts it. God does not play with us as if we were robots. No, he reasons with us (cf. Isa. 1:18). He treats us as the rational beings he created us to be. The power of God operates in opening the mind so that we see the reality and relevance of the gospel to our lives. The power of God does not operate independently of the gospel, but with and through the gospel. It is the gospel which is the power of God unto salvation.
Now the salvation the apostle is speaking of here is spiritual salvation unto eternal life. This is clear from the next verse (18) where the apostle begins to unpack man’s need in terms of the wrath of God. The salvation which the gospel brings us is salvation from the wrath of God. How could Paul be ashamed of that? What else is there in the world which can bring about something as significant as the deliverance of the soul from the wrath of God? What else can we do with our lives that has that sort of impact? Let me tell you, it is better to live your entire life in obscurity while having led just one person to faith in Christ than to be the richest person in the world with all the fame and notoriety and worldly pleasure and comfort that riches bring. It is insanity to be ashamed of something which brings such infinite and lasting and meaningful blessing or to trade it for something that will one day disappear and crumble into dust.
How does it come? It comes to “to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” How do people get saved? They are saved by simply trusting in Christ, by believing the gospel. This is true of all people. There are no distinctions. It doesn’t matter who you are, where you’ve come from, what your past or present experiences are. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done. What matters is what Jesus Christ did and it is by faith that we become connected to his saving work.
The apostle says more about this in the next verse as well, when he says that “in [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for [to] faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith’” (17). There has been a lot of discussion over what is meant by this phrase “from faith to faith.” I won’t go into all the possibilities, because I think the apostle is probably being rhetorical here by the repetition, and simply means something along the lines of “by faith from first to last.” We don’t merit salvation by doing. We receive salvation by believing. And this is the way it is at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end. There is never a time when we will have to earn our way into the favor of God. Our salvation is dependent solely upon what Christ has done for us, and being in him we are secure, but the Bible says that our union with Christ occurs as we trust in him alone for our salvation.
Paul then quotes Habakkuk 2:4, “The righteous shall live by faith.” He is showing that the priority he gives to faith is not something new. It is taught in the OT as well. It supports the contention of the apostle that eternal life (salvation) comes to us by faith and constitutes us as righteous before God. We are not righteous by law-keeping; we are righteous by faith in Christ and in the promise of God’s grace to us through him (cf. Gal. 3:11).
The gospel is the revelation of God’s righteousness
The apostle’s argument doesn’t end in verse 16. Paul is not ashamed because the gospel is the power of God to salvation. But then he goes on to explain why it is the power of God for salvation: “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith’” (17).
To understand what the apostle is getting at here, I think we need to compare this with the following verse: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (18). In other words, what makes the revelation of God’s righteousness by faith necessary is the revelation of God’s wrath against unrighteousness. Our sin has brought upon us the just wrath of God. God could have left us there, but instead he has done something altogether surprising: he has brought to bear his righteousness to meet the need created by our unrighteousness.
Now, our unrighteousness poses two problems. First of all, it creates a problem of guilt. Sin is cosmic treason, as R. C. Sproul has put it, and as traitors, we all deserve to die. No one is guilt-free. We have all sinned and come short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23). That’s our first problem.
The second problem unrighteousness creates is that it makes us love what we ought to hate, so that we love sin and hate God. We exchange the glory of the God for created things (1:23). Our bodies, which were meant to be instruments of righteousness unto God are not instruments of unrighteousness unto sin (6:13). We have becomes the slaves of sin. This is the problem of bondage.
The righteousness of God contemplated in verse 17, therefore, must be something that meets the need created by the guilt of sin and the grip of sin. But why does Paul call it the “righteousness of God”?
There are three ways this phrase may be used. Following John Stott, we may understand it as referring to one of three things: a divine attribute (cf. Rom. 3:5, 25, 26), a divine activity (cf. Isa. 46:13; 51:5-8), or a divine achievement. Stott ends up opting for a combination of the three, which I think is correct: it is “God’s just justification of the unjust.” Or, as Douglas Moo puts it in his commentary, it is “the act by which God brings people into right relationship with himself.” Seen in this way, we can see how it meets the problems posed by our unrighteousness. It is God’s saving act by which he brings unrighteous people into a state of grace and acceptance. In doing so, he also renovates us inwardly so that we begin to change from a life characterized by bondage to sin to freedom in serving Christ. We cannot save ourselves. Our unrighteousness condemns us but our righteousness cannot save us. In order to be saved, God must intervene, he must interpose his righteousness on our behalf.
However, as I look at the way Paul develops the theme of God’s righteousness in the following chapters, it seems to me that the primary focus is on the righteousness of God as the bestowal of a righteous status. We are guilty before God and in order to be restored to fellowship with God we need to become righteous again. The only way that can happen is if God himself creates the righteousness by which we are accepted into his presence. So I take it primarily to refer to the conferral by God of a righteous status which is given to us entirely by grace through faith on the basis of what Christ has done for us.
I believe this for the following reasons. First, I believe this because of the connection between faith and righteousness. Righteousness is seen not simply as something that God does but as something God gives, and which he gives to faith. For example, consider the following passages. Rom. 3:22 – “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.” Rom. 10:4, 6 – where Paul talks about those who do “not submit to God’s righteousness” and then says that “Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” And in verse 6, he speaks of “the righteousness based on faith.” It is called the “free gift” in 5:15, and in 2 Cor. 5:21 the apostle says that in Christ we become the righteousness of God in him. Every one of these verses implies that righteousness is not something we do but something we receive from God by faith.
Second, I believe this because elsewhere the apostle says that righteousness is imputed to us by faith. For example, in Rom. 4, he says that God imputes righteousness to us apart from works (ver. 5, 6, 11, 24). Here righteousness is a status that is credited to us, not on the basis of our good deeds but on the basis of the sacrificial death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Third, looking outside Romans, we see Paul explicitly say in Phil. 3:9 that he wanted to be found in Christ, “not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.” The righteousness of God comes to us through faith in Christ; it is not a righteousness of our own, but something which is freely given to us.
So, the message of the gospel then is that though we all stand before God as guilty and condemned sinners, God has provided a righteousness through Christ that we receive by faith alone. This righteousness justifies us before God and gives a right to everlasting life. The fact that men are justified not by acquiring merit through their works but by looking out of themselves to Christ and his finished work means that no sinner who comes to Christ, however black his past, will be cast out. Salvation by grace is anchored in righteousness by faith. We are declared righteous before God, not by trying but by trusting.
It was this understanding of the text that opened Martin Luther’s eyes to the glory of the gospel and rescued him from despair. He described this experience which brought about a new understanding of the gospel and which became the theme of the Protestant Reformation itself:
I greatly longed to understand Paul’s epistle to the Romans and nothing stood in my way but that one expression, “the righteousness of God,” because I took it to mean that justice whereby God is just and deals justly in punishing the unjust. My situation was that, although an impeccable monk, I stood before God as a sinner troubled in conscience, and I had no confidence that my merit would assuage him. Therefore I did not love a just and angry God, but rather hated and murmured against him. Yet I clung to the dear Paul and had a great yearning to know what he meant.
Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the justice of God and the statement that “the just shall live by his faith.” Then I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise. The whole of Scripture took on a new meaning, and whereas before the “righteousness of God” had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in greater love.
Paul was not ashamed of the gospel because it was the power of God for salvation. It is the power of God for salvation because in it God reveals his righteousness. In other words, we are saved by believing the gospel because the gospel is the message by which we become connected to God’s saving righteousness. With Luther, it meets us at our deepest need with the strongest encouragement.
It is this gospel which the apostle is about to unpack for us, slowly, carefully, powerfully, in the following chapters. It is the gospel of the power God which brings us the righteousness of God to all who believe. Let us not be ashamed of it, but rather make it the theme of our hearts and lives.
 Charles H. Spurgeon, “Christ and His Co-Workers,” in The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit (London: Passmore, 1896), 42: 256. Quoted in, MacArthur, John. The Inerrant Word (Kindle Locations 2135-2137). Crossway. Kindle Edition.
 This the way the NIV renders the text, for example.
 John R. W. Stott, Romans: God’s Good News for the World (IVP: 1994), p. 62-63.
 Douglas Moo, Romans (NICNT).