Sermon on Romans 1:16-17 – "The Righteousness of God"

[A Sermon I preached at Dillingham Presbyterian Church, Barnardsville, NC on Aug 27, 2017]
SermonAudio link:
Romans 1:16-17 – The Righteousness of God Revealed in the Gospel
These are the two most important verses in the most important epistle in the most important book in the world.

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. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”

It goes without saying that the Bible is the most important book in the world. Not only does it sell more copies every year than any other book, it has been more influential than any other book. And even more importantly, it is the Word of God by which we come to know of Him and of His salvation.
That Paul’s Epistle to the Romans is the most important epistle in the New Testament may be debated. But it is here, in this epistle, in this letter, more clearly than anywhere else, that the uniquely Christian and Biblical path of salvation by Grace through faith is laid out against all works of men. The epistle of the Romans is a treatise on God’s love for His people.
These two verses; verses 16 and 17 of Chapter 1, are the most important in the epistle because they give the theme of the entire letter; The Righteousness of God Revealed in the Gospel and this received by Faith.
With these 2 most important verses, we want to look at three points in particular today:
1. The Gospel is the Power of God for Salvation.
2. The Gospel reveals a Righteousness from God.
3. The Righteousness of God is through faith.
Let’s repeat the passage one more time:
Paul says: “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. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”
I. The Gospel is the Power of God for Salvation.
First, because Paul says he is not ashamed of the Gospel, we must ask:
A. Why might one expect Paul to be ashamed of the Gospel?
In the preceding passage in the book of Romans, which I last preached upon, Paul makes mention of the learned or wise people. Now Paul brings to the wise, as he brings to everyone else, the message of the Gospel. It is this message, as Paul tells us in 1st Corinthians 2, that he preaches not with “lofty speech or wisdom” nor any “plausible words of wisdom.” It is a message that the world does not consider to be wise; a message said to be “foolishness to the Greeks.” But Paul is not ashamed of the message, even amongst learned people, because the message is the power of God for salvation. Paul is faced with the possibility, even the likelihood of being ridiculed when he preaches the Gospel. But he is not ashamed, for the Gospel is the power of God for salvation.
Paul intentionally uses a type of understatement for effect. By saying “I am not ashamed of the Gospel” he really means “I am proud of the Gospel.” And he has reason to be: it is the power of God for salvation. Technically, the literary device Paul uses is a litotes which is when a positive statement is made by negating its opposite. It is like saying “A million dollars is no little sum.” Similarly, Paul says “I am not ashamed of the Gospel.”
The Gospel does not only contest the wise but it is also goes up against the powerful. The Romans boast of their power in conquering the world, but the Gospel is superior by far. Earthly armies destroy, but the Gospel saves. In the whole Rome empire, there was no power that could save even a single person. And thus Paul can say of the Gospel, “I am not ashamed of it” for it can do and already has done something greater than the powerful Roman empire could ever do. Paul writes this perhaps to say to church at Rome, who he has wanted to visit but has been unable to, “I’m not avoiding Rome because of Rome’s power, nor because of any weakness of the Gospel in confronting such a place.”
To apply this point, remember this: Do not be ashamed about the Gospel, or being a Christian, or of anything in the Bible. You might not always know the answers when someone questions you about your faith, but there are good answers to all objections to the Christian Faith. And those good answers come from the Bible.
When I was 14 I started questioning what I was being taught at church. This is a very typical thing for teenagers to do. And often you’ll see they fall away from the church for a period. That 15-25 age group is always under-represented at a church. The return to the pew often occurs after they are married and start having their own children. So, anyways, I questioned the faith. Had I merely questioned the faith, maybe I would have ended up not attending church anymore. But I REALLY QUESTIONED IT. I kept going. I kept questioning. It was hard, but I found answers! Incredible answers, in the Bible. And over time I became more and more convinced of its truth. So I’ve found that there is no reason to fear study or questions; the Bible always is shown to be the truth have the truth.
If there is something you are questioning in the faith, ask questions. Look for biblical answers. Ask your Christian elders (whether actual church elders or others you respect). Ask them to help you answer the questions you have. And in this way you will grow stronger in your faith.
B. The power of God, not the power of man.
We must note also that the Gospel is the power of God, not the power of man. It is the power of God for salvation.
The Greek word for power, in the original text, is δύναμις (dunamis), from where English gets the word Dynamite. The Gospel is the dynamite power of salvation.
1. The Gospel is not
a weak request that you fill in the remainder of the work.
2. The Gospel is not
that Jesus did 99% and you need to the do the remaining 1%.
3. The Gospel is not
some moderately good news that Jesus is here to help you out.
Rather, the Gospel is THE GOOD NEWS that is THE POWER OF SALVATION. It needs no help from man, but is the announcement of what Christ accomplished on the cross when he said “IT IS FINISHED.” The power of God accomplishes what is sets out to do, for there is no power that can stand up against God.
C. For everyone who believes.
Paul continues saying the Gospel is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.”
The Gospel is not the power of God for everyone, but for everyone who believes. The gift of belief, the gift of faith, is given to the same people whom God elected and whom Christ died for. The power of the Gospel for salvation doesn’t become active for you when you believe, but salvation was already accomplished at the cross. And the same power, the power of God, brings you faith through the Holy Spirit.
Make no mistake, in this passage “the power of God” does not end when Paul speaks of “everyone who believes.” It is not your belief that turns the Gospel into the power of God. But it is the Gospel, as the power of God, that makes you believe. The power is entirely God’s, not your own. And the glory earned for salvation belongs to God, not to man.
When Paul says the Gospel is “the power of God for salvation is to everyone who believes” he explains that it is “to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” This means EVERYONE. All types of people.
But why does he say it this way? Why “the Jew first?” and then “also the Greek?”
God had a divinely planned historical order. Although there were Old Testament believers outside of the race of the Israelites, it was primarily the Jews with who were God’s people. When Jesus for the first time charged his twelve disciples, he sent them only to ‘the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ And when Paul carried out his mission mandate, he and his companions, wherever possible, first of all brought the gospel to the Jews.
But even in the Old Testament God promised that salvation was not going to be limited to one nation. Rather, in the Old Testament, in the book of the prophet Isaiah we hear of a New Covenant to be made with the Gentiles:
Isaiah 42:6: I the LORD have called thee in righteousness, and will hold thine hand, and
will keep thee, and give thee for a covenant of the people, for a light of the Gentiles.
This New Covenant is made in Christ. It is a covenant made by God and kept by God. And it is the Gospel of this fulfilled New Covenant which is the power of God for salvation.
Knowing this first point, that the Gospel is God’s power of salvation, we must ask “how does the Gospel save man?”
II. The Gospels reveals a RIGHTEOUSNESS FROM GOD
We now move on to the second point of the sermon today: The Gospel reveals A RIGHTEOUSNESS FROM GOD.
Paul writes, “For in it (THE GOSPEL) the righteousness of God is revealed.
It is this passage that God used to make a believer of the German monk Martin Luther, and so begin the Reformation.
Our two verses today are of great historical importance for it was here that Martin Luther began to understand the true Gospel, so long diminished in the church.
Let us break here to note the by “Martin Luther” I’m referring to the 16th century church reformer, and not the 20th century civil rights activist, Martin Luther King Jr.
I had a TIME Magazine once that ranked the 100 most important people of the last 1000 years. Martin Luther was ranked number 2! I think he was only behind Christopher Columbus. That in our nation today we don’t know that much about Martin Luther is a sad reflection of our society’s priorities. The public schools don’t teach the Reformation!
A. Martin Luther’s rediscovery
Well, it was Martin Luther whom God used to ignite the Reformation of the church and return Christendom to the truth of the Gospel. And in this process the Lord used the very passage we are considering today; Romans 1:16-17.
Luther says explicitly (of his conversion):

I hated that word ‘righteousness of God,’ which, according to the use and custom of all the teachers, I had been taught to understand philosophically of the formal or active justice, as they called it, by which God is righteous and punishes sinners and the unrighteous.
Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt I was a sinner before God with a most disturbed conscience. I could not believe that he was placated by my satisfaction. I did not love, indeed, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners. Secretly, if not blasphemously, certainly murmuring greatly, I was angry with God.
Yet I clung to the dear Paul and had a great yearning to know what he meant.
Finally by the mercy of God, as I meditated day and night, I paid attention to the context of the words, ‘In it the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.” Then I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith.
This, then, is the meaning: the righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, viz. the passive righteousness with which the merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous one lives by faith.’ Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates. There a totally other face of all Scripture showed itself to me. And whereas before ‘the righteousness of God’ had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in greater love.”

So struggling with his own sin in the face of a righteous God, Martin Luther found great relief in Paul’s epistle to the Romans which explained how the elect are saved by the righteousness of God credited to them.
Luther was right that Paul, in this passage is not talking about that righteous quality of God himself, but a righteousness that God credits freely by His grace to people who don’t have righteousness of their own.
The righteousness by which one is saved is not their own. It is an alien righteousness; a righteousness that belongs properly to somebody else. A righteousness outside of us; the righteousness of Christ.
It is important to note that we are not MADE righteous, but righteousness is credited to us. None of us, even after coming to faith in Christ, live without sin. We are not righteous in ourselves. But the righteousness of Christ is credited to us by God as if it were our own righteousness. God looks upon as and sees the holy Christ instead of our terrible sins.
You’ll hear other words in this connection as well. I like the word “credited” but others will say “imputed” or “ascribed.” That is, God’s righteousness is imputed to His people, or God’s righteousness is ascribed to his people. These are all acceptable terms.
It is not altogether different from having money credited to your bank account for work you have not done, but finding that money has shown up in your account one day as a gift from a friend. Likewise, Christ did the work of our salvation, but credits it to our account, despite the fact that we did not do the work. And it is precisely because of this that we can refer to what Christ has done as a gift of God. But what Christ has given us is greater than any monetary sum in one’s bank account.
Luther’s interpretation, that God’s righteousness is credited to us in the Gospel, is evidently correct when we look at other verses in the Book of Romans:
3:24 “[we are] justified freely by his grace.”
4:3 “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”
4:8 “Blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.”
10:3-4 “For being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and seeking to establish their own, they did not subject themselves to the righteousness of God. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.
These verses tell us that the righteousness of God is something He credits us in faith. We are declared righteous not of our own doing, but because of what Christ has done. God provides us with the very righteousness that he demands.
All orthodox Reformed and Presbyterian ministers and theologians agree with Luther’s interpretation. When Paul speaks of the revealed “righteousness of God” in the Gospel, he is speaking of the righteousness of Jesus Christ credited to God’s elect.
Luther’s insights were a virtual rediscovery of the Gospel, which had almost laid dormant in the church, save for a few believers through the centuries. With the rediscovery of the Gospel and the Reformation of the church, millions of people came to know of love of Christ and the righteousness obtained through faith.
But, there is a troubling movement in the world of modern scholarship. There are some who disagree with Luther’s interpretation and so return the errors of Rome. Ironically, they call their view “The NEW Perspective on Paul.”
Now, as a general rule, if you hear of anything called “new” in theology, RUN. Run away. But here particularly, beware of the “New Perspective on Paul” and its primary spokesman N. T. Wright.
B. A warning against the “New Perspective on Paul”
I wouldn’t usually want to bring up an issue like this in a sermon. That is, an issue of arguing against a false interpretation. Usually we want to focus on the correct interpretation. But, the false interpretation is here so prevalent in modern times that I think it necessary to warn you about it. It has taken me some years of study to understand this movement even at a basic level.
What is the New Perspective on Paul?
The New Perspective began sometime in the late 1970s and early 1980s with the work of various non-Christian scholars. Since then it has been adopted and modified by various others.
The New Perspective, among other errors, corrupts the meaning of Romans 1:17 by saying that the “Righteousness of God” is not something that God imputes to the Christian believer but rather is solely that quality of righteousness that belongs to God.
The New Perspective on Paul, championed by the Anglican Bishop (one of the most well-known theologians in Europe) N. T. Wright, has been calls heresy by well-known orthodox theologians including R. C. Sproul and Michael Horton.
This charge of heresy is a serious charge. But it is a correct charge. For the New Perspective denies the very heart of the Gospel, that the righteousness of God can be credited to a believer through faith. The proponents of the New Perspective explicitly deny substitutionally atonement, the substitution of Christ on the cross for sinners, and the substitution his righteousness for our sinfulness in the eyes of God. Rather, the New Perspective proponents fall back into the works righteousness of Rome by declaring that our righteousness is not credited by faith (God’s gifts to us) but by one’s FAITHFULNESS, one’s own ability to stay in the covenant.
We are warned in the Bible that such other Gospels are no Gospels at all. And so I warn you that the New Perspective on Paul is “another Gospel” and therefore not the true Gospel.
How do we know that the RIGHTEOUSNESS OF GOD refers to that righteousness which God credits to us for Jesus’ sake rather than the property of righteousness within God himself? (as Rome contends and as the New Perspective contends?)
In the immediate context the verse itself explains “The righteous shall live by faith.” Here, “The righteous” are the people of God. And just as “the righteousness shall live by faith” the next verse tells us “the righteousness of God is revealed in faith.” There is a parallel here. Those who by faith are called “righteous” are called so because they have credited to them “the righteousness of God.”
And the rest of the book of Romans bears witness to this; this righteousness which God credits to us.
3:22 – The righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.
4:3 – Abraham believe God and it was counted to him as righteousness.
And, consider 2 Corinthians 5:21. It doesn’t get much clearer than this. 2 Corinthians 5:21 “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
III. The Righteousness of God is through faith.
So we know that the Gospel is the power of God for salvation, and that it saves us by revealing the righteousness of God credited to the elect. But how does God apply this righteousness? This is answer in the third point of our sermon today. – “The righteousness of God is through faith.”
We read in the passage that God’s righteousness is revealed FROM FAITH FOR FAITH.
A. What does this mean?
One commentator, William Hendrickson interprets this phrase “From Faith to Faith” as meaning that “From start to finish this righteousness is sola fide; that is, by faith alone.” So for Hendricksen “from faith to faith” emphases the “Alone” of salvation by faith alone.
But for John Calvin, the phrase means something more like “the Gospel gives us faith, so that we may advance in knowledge and sanctification.”
These views may both be correct. Salvation is certainly by FAITH ALONE, and it is also true that part of the Good news of the Gospel is that our very faith is itself a gift from God leading towards sanctification.
But what is Faith? What is that by which God applies this righteousness of His to the elect? Faith is not some jump into the unknown. This is not, and never has been, the Biblical definition of faith. Faith, rather, is simply belief. That is, as Paul later says, if you believe in your heart that God raised Jesus from the dead, you shall be saved.
B. Paul was not the first to say that righteousness comes through faith.
He says “As it is written” and then essentially quotes from Habakkuk 2:4 which reads “Behold, his soul which is lifted up is not upright in him: but the just shall live by his faith.”
Salvation through Faith was therefore not a new doctrine, but one that had been taught in the Old Testament.
And not just in Habakkuk.
But also in Genesis (15:6) – “And Abram believed the Lord, and the Lord counted it to him as righteousness.”
So Paul was not creating some new doctrine, some new idea of his own, but reviving that idea of salvation by faith which existed in the Old Testament.
So to summarize our three points. The Gospel is the power of God; through it the righteousness of God is credited to the elect, and this is done so through Faith.
It was the happiest day in Luther’s life when he discovered that ‘God’s righteousness’ as used in the book of Romans means God’s verdict of righteousness upon the believer.’ That is, God has declared us NOT GUILTY because of Christ. Luther says that it was like opening Paradise to him, that he at once ran through the Scripture with ecstasy, seeing everywhere how this righteousness opened salvation and heaven to him.
The Apostle Paul experienced this joy.
Martin Luther experienced this joy.
And this joy is ours today. For all who believe.