The Gospel of Christ (Romans 1:14-17)


It is my privilege to have the opportunity and the responsibility to preach the message found in these words this morning.  There is no other message in this world that is more important, or which deserves the kind of serious and close consideration it demands and the engagement of our entire soul in order to understand its meaning and application to our lives.  The mysteries of physics, as interesting and as awe-inspiring and humbling as they are, are but a child’s game to the gospel of Christ which I am to preach to you today.  The discoveries of biology and chemistry, as necessary as they are to human convenience and comfort in this world, cannot change our relationship to God.  But the gospel is the power of God unto salvation.  The enjoyments of human and earthly comfort cannot give you the kind of real peace and comfort and happiness that is afforded us through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.

I know that there are many people who would scoff as these sentiments, or at least deny that the gospel is any more important than any other religious or philosophical treatise.  My desire and prayer to God for you is that if you are more entranced by the wisdom of the world than the gospel of Jesus, God will open your eyes to see and grasp for yourself the reality and relevance of the gospel for you.

Maybe the Lord will do for you what he did for Adonirum Judson, the first Baptist missionary to Burma in the early nineteenth century.  Although he was raised in a very devout home – his father was a minister – as a young man Judson rejected the faith of his parents and embraced the anti-Christian philosophy of French skepticism and came under the deadly influence of godless cynicism.  As it is in many cases, he did not arrive at this position all on his own; he was deceived by a brilliant skeptic by the name of Jacob Eames, who became his chief encourager in unbelief.  

However, in God’s providence, after leaving home to find his own way in life, he came one night to an inn and was put in a room next door to a man who was seriously ill.  All night this man lay moaning and groaning and sighing.  In fact he was dying and in the morning Adonirum learned that the man had died during the night.  For some reason, Judson asked for the name of the man. When he heard it, the answer hit him like a bolt of lightning and shocked him out of his unbelieving complacency: it was Jacob Eames.  This man who had been so confident in his unbelief was dead, and Judson was made to realize that for all the brashness and confidence his friend had expressed in life, none of that was of any use to him now.  And now he was ushered into an unknown eternity, totally unprepared to meet God.

This didn’t bring Judson to conversion immediately, but God did use this to begin to break the fallow ground of his heart, and he was able over the next few months to come to a settled conviction of the truths of the gospel.  He would devote the rest of his life, risking everything, to serve the cause of God and truth.  

Adonirum Judson didn’t become a Christian because he was weak-minded.  Everyone around him recognized that he was brilliant and that there were few people who were intellectually his peer. He came to faith in Christ because the Holy Spirit opened his eyes to see the emptiness and helplessness of the human philosophy and wisdom that he had once espoused and to see through the gospel his need for salvation and the sufficiency of Christ to give that to him.  I hope that the Holy Spirit will help you to see as Judson saw the goodness and grace of God in the gospel of Christ.  

This passage might just be the means he uses to do that.  For these verses give us the gospel. In them, we see three things.  First, we see Paul’s burden for the gospel.  This comes through when he says, “I am a debtor” in verse 14, “I am ready to preach the gospel” in verse 15, and “I am not ashamed of the gospel” in verse 16.  Second, we see Paul’s confidence in the gospel.  What does Paul think about this gospel?  “It is the power of God unto salvation,” he says (16).  Finally, we see Paul’s statement of the gospel in verse 17, where he summarizes for us in a single verse the content of the gospel message: “For therein in the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith, as it is written, The just shall live by faith.”

What we have here is the theme of this epistle.  Verses 14-15 properly belong to the introduction of Paul’s letter, but they also serve as a transition to the theme, which is why I include them here.  The thesis statement of Romans is found in verses 16-17.  It is therefore utterly important that we understand what Paul is talking about here, for how can you fail to understand the thesis and yet go on to understand the exposition of that thesis?

Now in dealing with this passage, I want to go backwards.  I do this because Paul is reasoning here from his excitement and burden for the gospel to its source, namely, the gospel message itself.  In some sense the logic of Paul demands that we look at these verses this way.  We might read verses 14 and 15, and ask Paul, “Why are you so ready, so eager, to preach the gospel everywhere and to everyone?”  And his answer comes to us in verse 16: “Because I am not ashamed of the gospel.”  And if we were to ask him, “Well, then, why are you not ashamed of the gospel?” he goes on to say, “Because it is the power of God unto salvation.”  This leads to a further and final question for the apostle: “Why is the gospel the power of God unto salvation?”  And Paul’s answer to that is in verse 17: “Because in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith, as it is written, The just shall live by faith.”  So to answer all these questions, we really need to understand Paul’s answer to the last one, for this really is the key that unlocks them all.  Once we understand Paul’s answer in verse 17, we will then be in a position to understand why the gospel is the power of God to salvation, and once we understand that, we will be in a position to understand why he was so eager to preach the good news in Rome.

In other words, it is Paul’s statement of the gospel in verse 17 that gives the reason for his confidence in the gospel in verse 16 which gives the reason for his burden for the gospel in verses 14-15.  So we will start in verse 17 and work our way up to verse 14.

Paul’s Statement of the Gospel (17)

Why do I say that we have Paul’s statement of the gospel in verse 17?  It is because, after saying that he is not ashamed of the gospel in verse 16, he goes on to say, “For therein,” that is, in the gospel that he is not ashamed of, “is revealed.”  In the gospel we have revelation, and the content of that revelation is in the words “the righteousness of God . . . from faith to faith.”  What is the gospel?  It is a revelation.  What is revealed?  “The righteousness of God from faith to faith.”

Though Paul doesn’t explicitly say so here, we know that this revelation he is speaking of is a revelation from God.  The gospel is the gospel of God (1:1) not only in the sense that it is about him but also that it is from him.  The Lord Jesus is the one who commissioned Paul to preach this message (1:5).  To the Ephesians, the apostle writes about “the dispensation [or stewardship] of the grace of God which is given me to you-ward: how that by revelation he made known unto me the mystery; (as I wrote afore in few words, whereby, when ye read, ye may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ) which in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men, as it is now revealed unto his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit” (Eph. 3:2-5).  God revealed the mystery of the gospel (see Rom. 16:25) to Paul and he did so by the Spirit.  The gospel is not therefore just another message: it is God’s word to us.  Let us hear the word of God!

Now the key phrase here, the heart of the message of the gospel, is found in the words “the righteousness of God.”  These are the most important words you will or can possibly hear and it is an infinite and eternal blessing to personally know and to believe what those words mean.

Paul will use this phrase or others like it several times in this epistle.  He will come to it again in chapter 3 in verses 21-22, “But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference.”  Speaking of those who had rejected the gospel, Paul writes in chapter 10, “For they being ignorant of God's righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God” (3).  In each case he is summarizing what is at the heart of the gospel message.  

What then does he mean by the righteousness of God?  Is he talking about God’s attribute of righteousness?  If that is what Paul means, then he would be saying that the gospel reveals to us the holiness and righteousness and justice of God in his character, what he is in himself.  However, though this is true of God, it’s hard to see how this is good news by itself.  For when the justice of God is coupled with the reality of the universal sinfulness of man, we don’t get good news, we get “a certain fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation, which shall devour the adversaries” (Heb. 10:27).  

Incidentally, this is what Martin Luther, the German reformer, initially thought these words meant, and it tormented him.  It tormented him because he had a true understanding of both the holiness of God and his own sinfulness.  When you bring those things together you don’t get good news, you get guilt and distress. He wrote:

Do you not know that God dwells in light inaccessible?  We weak and ignorant creatures want to probe and understand the incomprehensible majesty of the unfathomable light of the wonder of God.  We approach; we prepare ourselves to approach.  What wonder then that his majesty overpowers us and shatters! 

It was in this mindset that he came to Romans 1:17, initially thinking that the righteousness of God meant “that justice whereby God is just and deals justly in punishing the unjust.”  He goes on to say,

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 [in Rom. 1:17].

By the way, I have to say in passing here that Luther’s experience can be really helpful, I think, to people who are struggling with some aspect of the truth of God’s word.  You will notice that it was a false understating of Rom. 1:17 that led him to hate and murmur against God.  Yet he didn’t give up!  Instead he “clung to the dear Paul.”  He clung to God’s apostle even as he murmured against the apostle’s God.  I don’t know if anyone here finds himself or herself in that position, but if it does I hope you will do what Luther did.  Is there something about the gospel that you keep resisting?  Dear friend, don’t give up on the God of the gospel.  Perhaps you have misunderstood something.  Do what Luther did, and cling to the gospel, cling to God’s word and pray for understanding.  Because that’s exactly what happened to him.  He goes on:

Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the justice of God and the statement “the just shall live by faith.”  Then I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness 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 “justice of God” had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in greater love.  The passage of Paul became to me a gate to heaven. . . . 

May you see what Luther saw and may this passage become for you a gate to heaven!

Luther saw the truth.  What is the righteousness of God?  In the way Paul is using this phrase, it is not so much an attribute of God but an act of God.  It is the act of grace and mercy by which God justifies us through faith.  Let me put it this way: the righteousness of God is the gift from God by which he makes the unrighteous righteous by faith in Christ.

We will see how God does this in the coming chapters.  But for now let me summarize it like this.  We are unrighteous before God and therefore condemned (see verses 18, ff).  There is no hope for us in ourselves.  We cannot make ourselves righteous because the righteousness God demands is perfect obedience to his law.  No one does that.  “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (3:23).  The gospel message is not that you can make yourself righteous.  It is that God makes unrighteous people righteous through Christ.  Note how Paul describes the righteousness: “the righteousness of God.”  This just means a righteousness which comes from God.  It is not human goodness but Divine grace that saves us.

This is why the gospel is good news.  And we need to hear it today more than ever.  Our secular culture tries to get around the problem of the human condition by denying the existence of God and therefore any guilt we experience they just explain away.  But the Bible is more realistic here.  It says that it is possible for you to feel guilty because you are guilty.  (I realize there is such a thing as false guilt.  But false guilt is false partly because it is mimicking real guilt.)  

Other religions have you deal with the sin problem by doing stuff, by being better.  But God’s word tells us that this is a fool’s errand.  We will never be perfect, and in any case we can’t erase the sins we’ve already committed.  

The gospel is good news precisely because it tells us that God has intervened through Christ to give us what we do not have: righteousness by which we can stand before God and be accepted by him into his friendship and fellowship.

But how do we receive this gift of righteousness?  Notice that Paul says that it doesn’t come to us by good works but through faith.  When he says, “from faith to faith,” he is saying that the righteousness of God which justifies us before God is received “from faith to faith,” that is, “by faith from first to last.”  This faith is not the basis of our justification before God but the means by which we receive it.  It is the empty hand of the beggar that receives the free gift.  And it is not faith in ourselves, it is not even faith in faith, but faith in Christ.  The gospel is the gospel of Christ (16) and the faith to which it points us is faith in him.  What does the gospel tell us to do?  It tells you to go to Jesus Christ for the righteousness that you need for pardon and acceptance with God.  Go to him and find it all in him!  Trust in him and find yourself clothed in the righteousness of the Redeemer: “For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him” (2 Cor. 5:21).

One more thing before we move up to the previous verse: Paul goes on to quote the Old Testament prophet Habakkuk (Hab. 2:4), in the words, “The just shall live by faith.”  What is Paul doing here?  He is anticipating the objection that this is all new.  But he is saying, it isn’t.  This is always the way God has saved people: not by works but by grace through faith.  Even the OT prophets testify to this fact.

Now, if this is true, we are in a position to see why Paul would say that the gospel is the power of God unto salvation.

Paul’s Confidence in the Gospel (16)

“For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth, to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.”

The “for” at the beginning of verse 17 alerts us to the fact that it is the ground for verse 16.  In other words, verse 17 tells us why the gospel is the power of God unto salvation.  Paul is saying that the gospel is the power of God unto salvation because in the gospel God reveals the one thing we need to be saved, his righteousness.  In other words, verse 17 helps us to see here that the salvation Paul is talking about is in verse 16 not about having a better life now.  It is not about experiencing God’s best for you in this life.  It is about escaping the wrath of God (again, see verse 18).  What God is doing by bringing people to faith in the gospel is nothing less than giving them his righteousness.  And Paul is saying that the gospel is God’s powerful means to accomplish this.  As he will put it later, “Faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (10:17).

Lloyd-Jones gives this illustration in one of his sermons in his exposition of Romans.   The gospel, he says, is like a doctor’s prescription.  Suppose you have a terrible and debilitating disease, and you’ve been to see this doctor and that doctor, and maybe a few quacks along the way.  None of them have been able to help you and like the woman in the gospels with the issue of blood, you have only been made worse under their care.  But then one day you meet this doctor, and he says he can heal you.  He gives you a prescription for a certain medication and tells you that if you take it, you will be healed.  You follow his direction: you get the medication, and you take it.  And he is right; you are healed.  The medication prescribed was powerful to heal.

The gospel is like that.  There are a lot of quacks in the world who will try to help you get over your sin and guilt.  They will prescribe meditation, or drugs, or finding yourself, or immersing yourself in work, or making something of yourself, or just being spiritual.  But none of that will really help you, none of that will make you right with God.  Only the righteousness of God can do that, and the gospel is the prescription that believed, truly heals.  The gospel is powerful in that sense.

But I think there is another reason Paul says the gospel is powerful.  It is not only that it reveals the true solution to our need, but also that God is pleased in the power of the Holy Spirit to open blind eyes and change hardened hearts so that we will believe.  And this is exactly what you see in the book of Acts and in the ministry of Paul.  For example, we read in the fourth chapter of the book of Acts that “when they had prayed, the place was shaken where they were assembled together; and they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and they spake the word of God with boldness. . . . And with great power gave the apostles witness of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus: and great grace was upon them all” (Acts 4:31, 33).  It’s what Paul was referring to when he tells the Thessalonians, “For our gospel came not unto you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Ghost, and in much assurance; as ye know what manner of men we were among you for your sake” (1 Thess. 1:5).  It is why Paul says to the Corinthians, “And I, brethren, when I came to you, came not with excellency of speech or of wisdom, declaring unto you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know anything among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness, and in fear, and in much trembling. And my speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man's wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power: that your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God” (1 Cor. 2:1-5).

I think we can summarize verses 16-18 in this way: our faith stands in the power of God (16) in order to receive the righteousness of God (17) so that we are saved from the wrath of God (18).

So you can see why Paul had such confidence in the gospel.  These are not the words of men.  This is not the wisdom of the world.  This is God’s message to men, a message that he makes powerful in our hearts through his effectual call: “But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness; but unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:23-24).  And so “we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us” (2 Cor. 4:7).

Brothers and sisters, we too need to have confidence in the gospel.  God still works through it.  Does our culture seem averse to it?  Is it foolishness to men?  Does it seem impossible that anyone should believe it?  Well it is impossible!  But that is no problem to God, is it?  What is impossible with men is possible with God.  In the end, no matter how depraved and depressed a nation or a culture becomes, Christ’s sheep will hear his voice.  And he is speaking through his word in the gospel.

And so we are finally in a position to see why Paul had such a burden for the gospel.  Paul had a burden for the gospel because it is the only message among men that is the power of God unto salvation to all who believe.  For there is no other name under heaven by which we must be saved.  The gospel is the only message among men that truthfully and clearly declares to us the name of Christ.

Paul’s Burden for the Gospel (14-16)

There are three ways Paul expresses this burden.  First of all, he says, “I am a debtor both to the Greeks, and to the Barbarians, both to the wise, and to the unwise” (14).  Now as John Stott put it in his commentary on this passage, there are two ways you can be a debtor to someone.  One way is to have taken something from them that you will eventually have to give back.  The other way is to have something given to you by one party to give to another party.  That is the sense in which Paul was a debtor.  Here is what he is saying: God has given me the gospel to give to others and I am their debtor until I give it to them.

Who is Paul debtor to?  Well, everybody.  That is the implication of “both to the Greeks, and to the Barbarians, both to the wise, and to the unwise.”  In the ancient world, Greek and Barbarian was the way to say, “civilized and uncivilized.”  The Greek was the civilized part of the world and the Barbarian the uncivilized.  And you are either the one or the other!  The same goes for “wise and unwise.”  You are one or the other.  It did not matter to Paul what one’s nationality or intellectual achievements were.  He was a debtor to all of them.

Now we are not apostles, and we don’t have the same commission as Paul did.  But in some sense we are still debtors like Paul.  Remember the Great Commission is a commission for the church to the end of the world, and that means it is a commission for us: “And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Amen” (Mt. 28:18-20).

Secondly, Paul says, “So, as much as in me is, I am ready to preach the gospel to you that are in Rome also” (Rom. 1:15).  Now I am not a King James Only guy, and you know that.  But there are times when I do prefer the reading in the KJV over other translations and this is such an instance.  “As much as in me is” is a marvelous way of expressing Paul’s total commitment to the gospel.  He is ready, eager, and willing to preach the gospel at Rome or wherever he can.  This is not an assignment foisted upon him.  This is not an unwilling task, even though the preaching of the gospel brought him a lot of pain and suffering and persecution throughout his life.  He loved it, was willing to die for it, precisely because it is the power of God to salvation.

The third way Paul expresses his burden for the gospel is in the words, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ” (16).  This is an example, as has been pointed out by others, of a literary device called litotes, where you express the positive in terms of the negative.  Hence, what Paul means by this is that he is confident in the gospel of Christ.  He boasts in the gospel, as he puts it to the Galatians (Gal. 6:14).  

Not that there weren’t reasons to make someone ashamed, which is perhaps why Paul uses this expression.  We can be tempted to be ashamed of it because of the hostility that unconverted men have towards it.  So Paul will tell Timothy his son in the faith, “Be not thou therefore ashamed of the testimony of our Lord, nor of me his prisoner: but be thou partaker of the afflictions of the gospel according to the power of God” (2 Tim. 1:8).  Our Lord warns us in fact of the danger of being ashamed of him and therefore of his gospel, when he says, “Whosoever therefore shall be ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation; of him also shall the Son of man be ashamed, when he cometh in the glory of his Father with the holy angels” (Mk. 8:38).

But Paul was not ashamed, and neither should we.  Why not?  Because the gospel is the power of God to salvation, because in it God reveals the only thing that will save us, the righteousness of God from faith to faith.  It is the greatest message in the world, for it reveals to us the grace and mercy and love of God to sinners undeserving of his grace and mercy and love.  So let us, like Paul, believe it for ourselves and proclaim it to others.  As Luther put it,

If you have a true faith that Christ is your Savior, then at once you have a gracious God, for faith leads you in and opens up God’s heart and will, that you should see pure grace and overflowing love.  This it is to behold God in faith that you should look upon his fatherly, friendly heart, in which there is no anger nor ungraciousness.  He who sees God as angry does not see him rightly but looks only on a curtain, as if a dark cloud had been drawn across his face.

May the Lord cause all of us to believe on Jesus and to see God in that way, through Christ, with a fatherly, friendly heart.  


Popular Posts