The Power of the Gospel
Studies In Paul’s Letter to the Romans
by Bob Burridge ©2011
Lesson 6: Romans 1:16-17
Long ago, a lone prophet sat waiting for God to answer him.
God’s prophet had become terribly confused and troubled. He wondered about the terrible times God’s people were going through. It was more than 600 years before the birth of Jesus Christ.
The northern tribes of Israel had been taken away as captives by Assyria over 100 years before. The remaining tribes of Judah were struggling with growing immorality in their nation. Their leaders were corrupt and self-seeking. Foreign nations were invading their cities. The Prophet Jeremiah warned that God would soon judge them with another captivity. The troubled prophet wondered why God was letting this happen.
So this prophet, broken hearted and perplexed, asked the Lord to explain this to him. He called out his questions to God, then he wrote in Habakkuk 2:1, “I will stand my watch And set myself on the rampart, And watch to see what He will say to me, And what I will answer when I am corrected.”
We don’t know if he stood gazing off at the sky or horizon from a literal guard tower. Very likely this was figurative language the prophet used of his vigilance, waiting for God’s reply. What could he tell the people to assure them? What would ease his own soul?
The answer he received was not exactly what he had asked for. In verses 2-4 he got his reply, “Then the LORD answered me and said: ‘Write the vision And make it plain on tablets, That he may run who reads it. For the vision is yet for an appointed time; But at the end it will speak, and it will not lie. Though it tarries, wait for it; Because it will surely come, It will not tarry. Behold the proud, His soul is not upright in him; But the just shall live by his faith.’ ”
Instead of explaining all the secret complexities of why he was allowing his people to suffer, instead of telling why he was allowing heathen nations to seem to prosper, instead of just dealing with the details of that particular moment in history, God gave Habakkuk a general principle that applied to all situations in all times.
God explained that there are two different groups of people. On the one hand there is the proud. He is the arrogant and self-important person. He imagines he has control of everything, and that he can figure it all out if he just had more information. He presumes some special right to know what’s going on and why it was happening. However, he is unsettled within. There is no inner comfort. His soul is not “straight” but misshapen. The more he demands to know why everything happens, the more frustrated he becomes.
Then there is the person who is called “just”, or as some translate it, “righteous”. He is a child of God. He lives by a powerful and comforting principle; “The righteous will live by his faith.”
The Hebrew word used by Habakkuk to describe this person is tsadiq (צדיק). It means that something or someone is “just” or “righteous”. It is an adjective based upon the noun tsedeq (צדק) which according to the Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew Lexicon is something “right, just, normal”. It is used of fair weights and measures, a just government and fair judiciary, and being right ethically. The adjective used in Habakkuk 2:4 applies these qualities to the person who is unlike the proud ones. He is right in God’s eyes.
However, God is perfectly holy. Habakkuk writes about God just a few verses later in this chapter, “You are of purer eyes than to behold evil, and cannot look on wickedness. …” (Habakkuk 1:13).
The righteous person knows he cannot measure up to that standard. Habakkuk tells us more about the characteristics of this person who is just. He will “live by his faith.”
The word for “faith” in Habakkuk 2:4 is actually the word for “faithfulness”, ‘emunah (אמונה). This is an adjective often used to describe God’s faithfulness in his promises to his people. Here it is used to describe the way righteous people are to live. It literally says, the one who is righteous will live by his “faithfulness” or “steadfastness”.
Instead of relying upon himself and his own rights or merits, instead of living as if he has to know the reasons for everything, instead of imagining that everything centers on his own comfort and idea of what is best, he lives by his faithfulness to God, trusting his Sovereign Lord.
His hope is anchored in the Sovereign power and sure promise of God himself, and he strives to live accordingly. He satisfies himself with what God has commanded and explained, and he trusts God’s wisdom and ultimate goodness in the things that confuse him.
Paul builds the whole book of Romans on this text from Habakkuk.
In setting up his main theme, the Apostle explains the gospel in Romans 1:16-17, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, ‘The just shall live by faith.’ ”
The word “gospel” is central in what Paul is presenting in this first chapter. From our study so far we have shown that the word “Gospel” literally means “good news”, “good message,” or “a good announcement”.
Isaiah spoke of the gospel long before God revealed himself in Jesus Christ. In Isaiah 52:7 he wrote, “How beautiful upon the mountains Are the feet of him who brings good news, Who proclaims peace, Who brings glad tidings of good things, Who proclaims salvation, Who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!’ ”
Paul’s message was that the good news promised in Eden and expected all through the ages had in his time come to completion in Jesus Christ.
The gospel is the power of God for salvation. It sets people free from their moral guilt before God. It really changes lives. Not all individuals will remain separated from God because of sin. There is a real promise of grace based upon the real sacrifice of the Savior in the lost person’s place.
Salvation does not come to all. The gospel is a promise that only causes hope in some. In all who are believing God’s promises, the gospel is a firm assurance. Faith is the major factor that distinguishes the two groups God told Habakkuk about. It distinguishes the two classes of men that are spoken of all through Paul’s letter to the Romans.
The promise was first made known to the Jews as God’s chosen people in ancient times. It was through them that the promises were explained and the Messiah was born. Now it was time, as Paul explained to the churches as he traveled, that the gospel was being extended to the other nations as well.
The heart of that gospel message is summarized by Paul in Romans 1:17
In Romans 1:17 he writes, “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, ‘The just shall live by faith.’ ”
By this gospel, this good announcement, the righteousness of God was made known. God is holy. His law shows us what that holiness demands. In Deuteronomy 6:25 God said through Moses, “Then it will be righteousness for us, if we are careful to observe all these commandments before the LORD our God, as He has commanded us.”
The word used for “righteousness” is a noun form from that same root word used later by God to Habakkuk. The word is tsedeqah (צדקה).
We know we are not that holy. We all fall short of full obedience. No one is righteous when compared with this perfect standard.
Any righteousness that we have comes to us as a gracious gift of God. We are declared to be holy in God’s eyes, not by what we have done or decided, but by what Jesus did in our place; both by his perfectly moral life, and by his death on the cross to pay for our existing guilt. The evidence of this work of righteousness in us is our confidence (faith) in God’s promise.
Faith is a badly distorted idea today. This is partly why so many misunderstand Paul and the Book of Romans. It is partly why there are so many ideas about what Christianity is or should be.
The Bible makes it clear that faith is not present as a natural part of us. Paul wrote to the Thessalonian believers about the wicked ones who had come in among them. He said of them, “… not all have faith.” (2 Thessalonians 3:2). Jesus said to his followers in John 6:44, “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up at the last day.”
This faculty of resting upon the true God and upon his word is absent from us in our fallen condition. Our spiritually dead nature cannot understand this principle of true faith which comes from God. Given this faulty perception of reality, the kind of “faith” people look to for their deliverance from their guilt is understood as simply having some kind of “trust”.
Fallen humans trust in things for one of two reasons. Most often they trust in something because of their observations and reasonings. We examine chairs before we trust them to hold us up. From our past experience with chairs we decide to trust certain ones to sit upon them, and to not rely upon others. We may decide that a certain medicine works because we have heard testimonies from people who have used it and found it effective. Someone may decide to believe in alien visitors to the earth in flying saucers based on some book , movie, or testimonies he hears. That reasoning may or may not be sound, and the evidence may or may not be reliable. These kinds of choices are not what the Bible means here by “faith”.
In contrast with that trust based upon experience and scientific evidence, some trust in things irrationally by taking a blind leap into the unknown. They may commit to the idea that all men are basically good simply because they choose to believe that. They may decide to believe in fairies just because they are nice things to believe in. People may decide to believe in some kind of god because they want hope. But mere irrational desperation and wishing are not the ingredients of a true redeeming type of faith.
The rational method will fail because our fallen hearts will prejudicially deduce a different god than the one who really made all things. Only fools leap blindly to rest in something with no reason to believe it is reliable. These kinds of trust are possible even in the fallen mind, but they are not what the Bible tells us to do in these verses.
God reveals in Scripture that true faith comes in a completely different way. In his letter to the Ephesians (2:8-10) Paul tells about this living kind of faith. Those verses say, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.”
This God-implanted confidence comes to us only by grace as a divine gift. We are re-created in Christ. Our separation from God is repaired because our Savior suffered and died in our place and removes our offensiveness before God. Our re-born spirits are restored to fellowship with God, and are able truly and confidently to rest in his promises. That is the kind of faith spoken of in these passages.
John Calvin saw this in Scripture and defined this biblical faith as, “a firm and sure knowledge of the divine favor toward us, founded on the truth of a free promise in Christ, and revealed to our minds and sealed on our hearts by the Holy Spirit” (Institutes 3.2.7).
It is not something we figure out by experience or after hearing testimony. It is not a blind leap into the irrational and unknown. It is an assurance implanted into us by God himself. That implanted faith generates confidence in the things we learn that God has made known. So it moves “from faith to faith” as Romans 1:17 tells us.
Faith is not the cause of regeneration in Christ. It is the sure and efficacious evidence of regeneration. It is a means by which God works in our souls. By exercising that faith God gives us, he uses it to help us grow in faith and to be blessed.
This was not a new idea Paul was introducing. It is the same principle that has always made believers out of sinners. Paul appeals directly to the greatest authority of all, the word of God. He says ” … as it is written.”
What Paul says has a firm Old Testament foundation. In fact, Romans is filled with support from the Old Testament Scriptures. There are about 60 quotes from the Old Testament in the 16 chapters of Romans (an average of almost four per chapter).
Here Paul bases his advice on this text from Habakkuk, as he does also in Galatians 3:11. The writer of Hebrews 10:38 also quotes this same text. Martin Luther often used this text from Habakkuk to show how he came to understand the gospel. It was one of the banner texts of the Reformation. It is a key principle for Christians.
What Habakkuk wrote relates to our New Testament gospel. We too have a tendency to become anxious when we don’t understand why bad things occur. The world surrounding us teaches us to worry that everything might be out of control. Seeing only what our five senses can take in, everything seems random and meaningless. We crave to be able to explain it all, and to know the reasons why things are as they are. We imagine we can make things different by our own efforts if we could just figure it all out.
We too cry out to God and demand an answer as to “Why?” Job asked why God took away all he had, including the lives of his loved ones by horrible tragedies. David cried out asking why the heathen prospered while God’s people suffered. Habakkuk waited on his tower for God to explain it all to him. Humble but confused hearts call out in prayer every day to God, “Lord why? Why do these bad things happen?”
The answer was given a long time ago. It is a sign of pride to feel you have to have an answer, or that God owes you an explanation. The righteous person learns to live faithfully, confidently living by what God has made known, and trusting him for what remains a mystery. We don’t need to know more than what God has determined to tell us in his word.
God guided Moses to write in Deuteronomy 29:29 “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but those things which are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.”
God’s word assures us that our Creator is Sovereign over all things. We ought to trust in his infinite wisdom and goodness. There is no justification for our fears and anxiety about the unknown. There is no foundation for doubts that arise from our inability to explain things.
Specially, when it comes to our own salvation through Christ, rather than doubting, worrying that we may not have done enough, or done the right thing, we ought to make sure we are resting with full trust upon the provision of Christ and the work of grace.
This verse doesn’t say the righteous shall “come alive” by faithfulness. It says he shall “live” by their faithfulness. There is a lot more in our Bibles than just how to become a Christian. Our faithful living must include all that God makes known. That is the evidence he produces in us to show the change he made in us.
Every week we hear about terrible acts of violence. We have watched depraved killers surrounded by police and swat teams as they hold terrified hostages. We are horrified at the deaths of law enforcement officers and defenders of our country. There are terrorist massacres by deranged fanatics. Scandals and accusations continued to disgrace our nation.
People cry out “Why?” But somewhere, hidden in the secret counsels of God, there is a reason we need not know.
A better question is “Lord, what should I do?” We ought to love and teach our children, encourage our spouses and friends, live faithfully within the boundaries of God’s word, tell others about the good message, and trust God with unshakable confidence even for what we cannot understand.
As for your eternal salvation and standing before God, there are no grounds for anxiety either. If the Holy Spirit is convicting your heart of sin, and you know you ought to rest in Christ, then set all other vain hopes and efforts aside and thank God for his work of grace.
Regarding your daily struggle in this world, the same solution applies. When tragic things happen, and we don’t know why God lets them, rather than fret or doubt, the person who has been declared to be righteous by grace ought to live faithfully, taking God at his word and being satisfied with that.
This is truly good news! This confidence in God’s grace through Christ is the foundation for the whole of our Christian life.
(The Bible quotations in this lesson are from the New King James Version of the Bible unless otherwise noted.)