The Gospel Reveals God's Righteousness

September 12, 2021 Speaker: Ben Janssen Series: Romans: Real Hope for the Righteousness of God

Scripture: Romans 1:1–1:17

1 Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, 2 which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, 3 concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh 4 and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, 5 through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations, 6 including you who are called to belong to Jesus Christ,

7 To all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

8 First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed in all the world. 9 For God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in the gospel of his Son, that without ceasing I mention you 10 always in my prayers, asking that somehow by God’s will I may now at last succeed in coming to you. 11 For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you— 12 that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine. 13 I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that I have often intended to come to you (but thus far have been prevented), in order that I may reap some harvest among you as well as among the rest of the Gentiles. 14 I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish. 15 So I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome.

16 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. 17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”

You probably should know some of the reasons why we have chosen to preach through the book of Romans right now. We could of course choose any text of Scripture to study, so why Romans? And why now? There are motivations and reasons and hopes that I and the other elders have for why we choose what passages of Scripture to preach. I could share many of those reasons, but let me instead share a story from my life that will illustrate some of my motivations for preaching through Romans.

In the last week, I made two different round trips to Kansas City. The first trip was to attend a wedding of a family member. Anytime you go to a wedding, you find an interesting assembly of people, a lot of people you know but also a lot of strangers. And this creates some awkwardness particularly during the wedding reception, when the dance floor opens up and you can’t dance. So what do you do at a wedding, how do you celebrate, when you feel awkward and surrounded by a bunch of strangers?

The second trip was for a funeral. One of my two closest friends from high school died unexpectedly. When you go to a funeral, you again encounter an assembly of both familiar faces and complete strangers. And it can be really awkward. How do you act at a funeral? What do you say to a brother and sister who have lost their brother? What do you say to a mom and dad who now have to bury their child? What do you say to a widow, and to two children, who have lost their husband and father? What do you say, and how to do you act, in a time of such grief?

In Romans 1:16, Paul says he is not ashamed of the gospel. My hope is that in studying Romans we will come to see that in the midst of the greatest joys of life (like a wedding) and in the times of deepest grief (like a funeral), the gospel gives us something to say. If we are not ashamed of the gospel, we will have a power at our disposal for the greatest joys and sorrows of life and everything else in between. I’m excited about studying Romans because there is a power in the gospel that I want all of us to have. A power to speak light and life, a power to share in joy even if we can’t dance, and a power to enter into the deepest grief. The gospel is the power of God for salvation, whether we are celebrating or mourning.

So today, as we get going in Romans, I want us to ask, “How is it that Paul is not ashamed of the gospel?” And in these first several verses, we start to get our answer as we consider the goal of the gospel, the enjoyment of the gospel, and the promise of the gospel.

Gospel Goal

First, Paul writes to the Romans in order to see the goal of the gospel realized. The goal is, according to verse 4, the obedience of faith.

Paul the Apostle

The author of the letter to the Romans is, of course, Paul. He identifies himself in three other ways. He says he is a servant of Christ Jesus, that he has been called to be an apostle, and that he has been set apart for the gospel of God. He’ll come back to his apostolic designation in verse 5, but it is the mention of the gospel which brings elaboration in verses 2-4.

When Paul says he has been “set apart” for the gospel, he is saying that the gospel is what his life is entirely devoted to.[1] If you think of Paul as a missionary or pastor, that would make sense. If you think of him as an apostle, holding some ecclesial office, we understand his point. But I’m guessing Paul would want every Christian to see their life’s work in this way, regardless of vocation or any leadership role they may hold in the church. For once we start to see the breadth of the gospel, what it promises and what it delivers, everything else we might do in life could only be a supporting element to gospel devotion.

The Gospel Focus

The “gospel of God,” Paul says in verse 2, is that “which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures.” The gospel is not something new, but that which fulfills the Old Testament promises.

But the most important thing we can say about the gospel is found at the beginning of verse 3. The gospel is “concerning his Son,” his name emphatically stated at the end of verse 4, “Jesus Christ our Lord.” The gospel centers on Jesus the Son of God. The gospel is about Jesus. It’s all about Jesus.

So what about Jesus? The fact of his incarnation is spelled out in verse 3, but the important aspect to be noted here is that this Jesus was a descendent from David. This was the expectation for anyone who could rightly claim to be Israel’s Messiah.

But what matters most about Jesus is the fact that he “was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead” (v. 4). Paul will refer to the resurrection of Jesus several times throughout this letter. As one commentator observes, “Squeeze this letter at any point, and resurrection spills out; hold it up to the light, and you can see Easter sparkling all the way through.”[2] Here we see Paul stressing resurrection as the incontrovertible proof that Jesus is indeed “the Son of God.”

Now to follow Paul’s logic, we must not hear the phrase “Son of God” here and think that Paul is trying to say that the resurrection proves the deity of Jesus, that the phrase “the Son of God” means that Jesus is God incarnate. No, the phrase here refers instead to Jesus’s identification as Israel’s long-awaited Messiah. We must remember that whatever messianic claim Jesus might have made for himself, it all seemed a sham on Good Friday. A dead Messiah is a failed Messiah. But by his resurrection from the dead, this Jesus, God’s Son, was proven to truly be “the Son of God in power,” the one who has now taken on an even more powerful position in relation to the world.[3] The Christian gospel depends entirely on this reality, for if Jesus has not been raised from the dead then our faith is in vain and we are still in our sins (1 Cor 15:17). If Jesus was not raised from the dead, never to die again—raised, that is, immortal, not just resuscitated—then Jesus has no good news to offer us.

Believing in Jesus

But what if he really did raise from the dead, as he said he would and as his disciples said he did and as no one was ever able to debunk? If it’s true, then something quite strange has happened. Jesus has opened up to us a brand new world, something we can only call a new creation. There now exists an immortal human being. And if Jesus has been raised out of the realm of the dead ones, then he possesses a power that demands our attention.

Thus, when Paul says that it is through Jesus that he (the “we” is a “writer’s plural”) has received “grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith,” he is saying that the way he carries out his life’s devotion to the gospel is by seeking to bring people into “the obedience of faith.” To “obey” the gospel is simply to believe it, and since the gospel is “about Jesus” then to obey the gospel is to believe Jesus. The goal is not to believe my version of Jesus or anyone else’s version of Jesus, but to believe Jesus. Not what you think about Jesus, but who Jesus really is. And the response the gospel of God about his Son requires is to simply believe in Jesus, not as a single act, but as a continuing and deepening lifelong commitment.[4] For, if the gospel is true, then the power that is encapsulated in the confession, “Jesus is Lord,” has profound implications for every reality and experience of life.

Gospel Enjoyment

Paul knows this to be true, which is why he speaks, next, about his great desire to meet these Christians in Rome and reap a harvest of faith among them. He is not ashamed of the gospel because he enjoys the gospel.

The Believers in Rome

Pastor Darrell mentioned last week that we must not read Romans, a book as doctrinally rich as you will find in the Bible, as if Paul sat down to write out a systematic theology. Romans is a letter to a community of Christians in a certain place and, like all other letters, there is an occasion or purpose for the letter that motivated its composition. In verses 8-15, the apostle emphasizes again and again how much he wanted to come to Rome and meet the believers there.

What we know about these Christians in Rome is that it was a composite of Jews and Gentiles, and this created all sorts of practical problems in the early church. The question was always in the air as to how Jewish Christians were to be, given that Jesus was himself a Jew and was accepted as the long-awaited Jewish Messiah, the one who brought Israel into the promised kingdom of God. We cannot ignore the Jewishness of Christianity—remember, the gospel is that which God “promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy [Old Testament] Scriptures” (Rom 1:2). So if Christianity does not do away with Judaism, but is meant rather to be the fulfillment of it, then the question that is always running behind the scene in the New Testament (and sometimes running front and center) is the question of who are the true people of God and how might they be identified.[5] The question brought a lot of tension between Jewish and Gentile Christians. Paul believed the gospel came with answers not only to the question of how one might be reconciled to God but also of how people might be reconciled to each other. It was a very practical question for the believers in Rome, and it remains so for believers in our day as well.

A Spiritual Gift to Strengthen

In verse 11, Paul states clearly one of his primary motivations for wanting to come to Rome. “For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you.” He does not mean that he possesses some supernatural power to perform signs and wonders and intends to bestow this power on the believers in Rome. In the next verse, Paul seeks to correct any misunderstanding of what he has just said, and this brings clarity to what he has in mind.

Paul’s hope was that there would be a mutual encouragement between him and the believers in Rome. He wanted to share something with them, but he also expected them to share with him. Because they shared a common faith, Paul understood that from this one faith would come various perspectives that, if shared with one another, would be the sharing of a gift from the Holy Spirit himself. And the result would be mutual edification.[6] The gift would not be a one-way street, the apostle to these ordinary believers. Because it is a spiritual gift, it would run both ways.

Now, what if we believed this, Crosstown? What if we believed, each one of us, that because we possess a common faith, we also possess various gifts that can be shared with one another? And that ought to be shared with one another, for the result would be the strengthening of faith in the gospel of Jesus? If you feel weak in faith, you need your brothers and sisters to share their faith with you, and it just might be that God intends you to strengthen your brothers and sisters with your weak faith as well.

Reaping the Harvest

So why did Paul want to come to Rome? In verse 13 he says it this way: “in order that I may reap some harvest among you as well as among the rest of the Gentiles.” In verse 14, he speaks of being “under obligation” to everyone, to Greek-speaking people and to non-Greek speaking people, to upper and lower classes, to the wise and to the foolish. The obligation comes from his calling mentioned in verse 1. But it is not mere duty that drives him, for as he says in verse 15, he is “eager to preach the gospel” to the Roman believers.

Preaching the gospel, then, involves much more than aiming at initial conversion of the unconvinced.[7] If the gospel is about Jesus reigning as Lord over the kingdom of God that has been inaugurated already, then the gospel impacts literally every part of our lives.[8]

Do you see how the gospel implications for all of life? No, you can’t. That’s why you need the encouragement, the strengthening, from the sharing of your fellow Christian’s faith.

And when we share the gospel with one another, we can expect their to be much fruit, like the reaping of a harvest.

Gospel Promise

This preaching of the gospel is what Paul has in mind when he pens the theme of Romans in verses 16-17. The gospel has as its goal the obedience of faith and is meant to be enjoyed—a harvest of faith. And it’s all because the gospel carries with it the promise of righteousness, righteousness by faith.

The Gospel: The Power of God for Salvation

Paul says he is “not ashamed of the gospel.” He is not ashamed “to preach the gospel.” He is eager to do so. After all, Paul says, the gospel “is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” We can say that God is powerful, but if you want to see his power, then you ought to busy yourself with gospel proclamation. Because, Paul says, if you preach it and anyone—yes, anyone—believes it, you will witness the power of God to save.

Now the word “salvation” here can give us quite a bit of difficulty if we are thinking in terms of only final salvation, something to be experienced only after death or at final resurrection. But “salvation” in the Bible “makes itself known and felt in the present”[9] even if its full force will not be known until the future. To be saved should not make us think, first about going to heaven when we die. It should not make us think first about escaping hell, final judgment, and the wrath of God. To be sure, the gospel promises this and not less than this, but it promises so much more than this. And perhaps way too many of us are ashamed of the gospel and of preaching the gospel because we do not know how much more the gospel promises to those who believe it.

When we talk about God’s power to save, we are talking about what God has done to restore fallen humanity and the entire fallen cosmos back to its original glory. It is something which is future, but this salvation “reflects its splendour back into the present of those who are to share it.”[10] So if you are “saved,” then you should see glimpses of future glory in everyday life, glimpses which do not disappoint but encourage further gospel proclamation, belief, and application. Salvation is not a mere transaction occurring between you and God, it is the participation in what God has already brought about in the gospel of Jesus. To be saved is not a ticket you possess that gets you a ride from earth into heaven. It is a reality you live in now even as you wait for heaven to arrive in its fullness here on earth. If you say, “I am saved,” and I ask, “how do you know?” then you ought not say, “Because I know I am going to heaven when I die.” The correct answer would be something more akin to, “Because my entire life now is transformed by who Jesus is and what he has done.” The gospel you believe, the gospel that saves you, is the power of God. So you must be different if you’ve encountered this power.

In what way ought we to be different? The answer is “the righteousness of God.”

The Righteousness of God

To be saved means to have encountered the power of God in the gospel, a power that does something to us and in us. You simply cannot be the same if you’ve been saved. “For,” verse 17 explains, it is in “it,” that is, in the gospel, that “the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith.”

So what is “the righteousness of God”? Here is a phrase we will find 5 times in Romans (and only 2 other times in the NT) that is not so easy to comprehend. First, the word “righteousness” itself is sometimes translated in English as “justice,” but these two English words are not usually thought of as the same thing. We tend to think of “justice” as fairness, impartiality, or recompense while “righteous” is usually used to describe good moral conduct.[11] So when we encounter a phrase like “the righteousness of God,” are we to think of how God relates to us (that is, justly) or how we relate to God (that is, righteously)? Does the gospel bring us into a saving encounter with God because in the gospel we see how God acts in justice toward us or because in the gospel we see how we come to be righteous before him? Do you see the difference? Does it even matter? Before you say that it doesn’t, you should know that this is the kind of question that has split Roman Catholics and Protestants for more than 500 years!

An important point here is to see that in the Old Testament the “righteousness of God” is almost an equivalent expression for the salvation of God. [Bird, 14] For example, in Isaiah 46:13, God says, “I bring near my righteousness; it is not far off, and my salvation will not delay.” It seems best, then, to understand this phrase in Romans 1:17 as referring not to what happens to us in the gospel, but what empowers the gospel and ensures it will have its effect. [Bird, 16, taking the phrase as a subjective genitive rather than objective] It is in the gospel that God shows his own righteousness, his own justice, his own power. How do we know God is great? In the gospel. How do we know God is just? In the gospel. How do we know that God is powerful? In the gospel. Keeping in mind that the “gospel” is “concerning his Son, Jesus Christ,” we understand that it is in what God has done for us in the death and resurrection of Jesus that we can see God’s righteousness revealed. We can actually see how God is great, just, and powerful. And if you can see that, then you will have the motivation you need to preach the gospel.

To Everyone Who Believes

The motivation comes from the fact that when we take a really good look at the gospel, at the story of Jesus, then we will see something quite remarkable. We will see God’s own righteousness. We will see his power, a power that truly saves. A power that shows that God is there (here?) and that he has not abandoned us with the problems we see and experience in the world today. In fact, he has done something about it. He has not tried to console us by telling us of some consolation prize—some “heaven” that we can enter into with our disembodied soul after we finally cave to the power of death. No, rather, through Jesus the Messiah he has overcome death and with it the very real hope of seeing his glory shining in the darkness we will certainly find ourselves in throughout our mortal lives.

If you say, “Tell me more about this,” then you’ve come to the right place, for here Paul has just given us the theme of the entire letter to the Romans.[12] What is the theme of Romans? It would be hard to say it succinctly, unless verses 16-17 are succinct enough. But of course, there is quite a breadth of subjects brought up in these two verses, and it will take 16 chapters for Paul to address them all.

But let us consider the key term “faith” in verse 17. God’s righteousness is revealed in the gospel “from faith for faith.” It is not clear what precisely Paul meant with this expression (no less than a dozen different possibilities have been suggested). But that faith is necessary in order to see God’s righteousness is obvious. Paul cites from Habakkuk 2:7 as defense for this: “as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’” Faith will become the central topic of Romans 4, but for now, note the connection faith is meant to bring between righteousness and life. It is by faith that the righteous live. Who are the righteous? We will find out. But the result of righteousness, the goal it aims to achieve, is life.

This is why Paul is not ashamed of the gospel. If you believe it, you will not end in death. Your end will be life from the dead, resurrection. It is what God has brought about in and through Jesus of Nazareth. It is the power of God for salvation for everyone who believes.

_____

[1] Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996), 43.

[2] N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, Christian Origins and the Question of God (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2003), 241.

[3] Moo, Epistle to the Romans, 48–49.

[4] Ibid., 52.

[5] Michael F. Bird, The Saving Righteousness of God: Studies on Paul, Justification and the New Perspective (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2007), 32.

[6] Moo, Epistle to the Romans, 60.

[7]  Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, vol. 6, ed. Moisés Silva (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1998), 53.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Walter Bauer, Frederick W. Danker, W.F. Arndt, and F.W. Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 986.

[10]  C. E. B. Cranfield, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, vol. 1, The International Critical Commentary (New York: T&T Clark International, 2003), 89.

[11] Bird, Saving Righteousness of God, 6–7.

[12] Moo, Epistle to the Romans, 64.

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