The Gospel Reveals the Righteousness of God
The Gospel Reveals the Righteousness of God
I spent the first part of this past week tinkering with an antique sewing machine that wasn’t working. This is the second time I’ve done this. Meredith gave Alexandra a very nice antique Singer last year and Alexandra and Veronica liked it so much I found a second for Veronica. That second machine hadn’t been used in decades. Everything was gummed up and stuck, so I took it apart, cleaned and oiled everything, and put it all back together. And then I took it to a professional, because it still wasn’t working right. The sewing machine tech who worked on it explained that the one of the pieces in the thread tensioning mechanism was backwards. “I wonder how that could have happened,” I said innocently. The mechanism in question is made up of a series of screws and discs and springs. When I took it apart I made sure to lay everything out in the order it needed to go back, but I hadn’t taken care to note the orientation of each piece and I ended up putting one of them in backwards. What would have been nice is an exploded diagram of the whole assembly, but the Internet failed me on that count. This week I found myself tinkering with another antique sewing machine that had to be torn down, cleaned, and oiled. This time I made a point of photographing the whole tension assembly before I took it apart and as each piece came off. I also took careful note not just of the order the pieces went back together, but how each was oriented in relation to the others. I put it back together and this time it worked.
I say all this because if we take apart our passage this morning, Romans 1:16-17, it serves as a sort of exploded diagram of St. Paul’s core theology. These are two of the most important verses in the entire Bible. Verse 17, in particular, had an enormous influence on Martin Luther and what he gleaned here drove much of the Protestant Reformation. Paul begins by saying that he’s not ashamed of the gospel and then he goes on to explain why. He uses the Greek word “for” or “because” several times to connect each statement to the next. He’s not ashamed for or because of “A” and then “A” is true for or because of “B” and then “B”, well that’s true for or because of “C”. There’s actually one more “for” that takes us into verse 18. That’s important too, but we’ll save it for next week. The point is that each of these builds on the next and Paul explains how it all goes together. But if we get one of these pieces wrong, it won’t work right—like my sewing machine with the backwards tension disc.
I say that because it’s not an uncommon thing for Christians to get a part out of order or put in place facing the the wrong way in this part of Romans. When I did that with my thread tensioner the machine’s stitch was all messed up. It worked to a point, but not like it was supposed to. This typically happen because we fail to understand the words that Paul uses here. Think back to verse 1, where Paul wrote that he was set apart for the gospel of God. What he says after that depends on what that word “gospel” means, but over the years gospel has come to mean a lot of things that Paul didn’t have in mind. As I said then, it’s common for Christians today to think of the gospel in terms of what you have to do to be saved—something like: believe this, pray this, then do this. But that’s not the gospel. That’s the response to the gospel. It’s vitally important we understand that the gospel is the announcement that Jesus, who was crucified and then raised from the dead, is Lord. This is why the gospel is “good news”—that’s literally what “gospel” means. But when we confuse the response with the announcement, good news often becomes merely good advice. It loses its power.
Now, here’s what Paul writes following that in verses 16 and 17:
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.”
You might have noticed that Paul uses a lot of theological “churchy” words. They’re words freighted with a lot of baggage, words that have been used to mean a lot of different things down through the years. That makes it easy to get what Paul’s saying here wrong. Maybe not totally wrong, but like my thread tensioner, we get one part in the wrong way and it still works, but not the way it was supposed to. In verse 16 he writes again about the “gospel”. He also uses this word “salvation”. And then in verse 17 he uses the words “righteousness” and “faith” or “faithfulness”. These are all hugely important words. It’s just two short sentences, but it’s really easy to get lost in them because Paul packs so much into them and a lot of that is with these words that have such important meaning. Some of the most influential interpretations or understanding of Paul and of Romans have tended to chop up the letter into pieces—usually chapters 1-4, 5-8, 9-12, and 13-16—each with its own theme. There’s a jolt as you go from one section to the next. But if we get this first bit right it serves as a unifying theme for all sixteen chapters. Paul addresses different ideas and issues, but if we get this right, what we see is one elegant argument that flows smoothly from here right to the end.
In the last section we looked at, Paul was talking about his obligation to proclaim the gospel to Greeks and to barbarians—to everyone in the Gentile world. Jesus met him personally on the road to Damascus and commissioned him for this. The gospel isn’t just good news for Paul. The gospel isn’t just a message to turn Paul’s life around and make him a better person. The gospel is the good news that this Jesus who was crucified has been raised from the dead and proved by God himself to be the world’s true Lord. That’s the gospel announcement and it’s not just meant for everyone in the world—a royal decree that there’s a new King to whom we owe our allegiance—but it’s good news that in his resurrection from the dead, this King Jesus has already set in motion the renewal of God’s whole Creation. It’s for Jews, it’s for Greeks, and it’s for everybody else who wishes they were Greek. It’s even for Caesar. And Paul’s not ashamed to proclaim it. Even in Rome itself, right under Caesar’s nose, Paul isn’t ashamed to announce the good news about Jesus. I expect that he had Psalm 119:46 in mind. The Psalmist writes, “I will…speak of your testimonies before kings and shall not be put to shame.” He was probably thinking of Psalm 71 as well: “In you, O Lord, do I take refuge; let me never be put to shame! In your righteousness deliver me and rescue me; incline your ear to me, and save me!” As he writes in Chapter 14, Paul knew that as a result of this good news, one day every knee will bow before Jesus and every tongue will confess that he is Lord.
Shame was what many of Paul’s fellow Jews felt when they thought of their oppression by the Romans. The world wasn’t supposed to be this way, they thought. They were the Lord’s chosen. They were supposed to be on top of things. They believed that somehow and in some way the Lord would act, but in the meantime the nations mocked their belief in a God who let them be humiliated by foreigners. But, you see, this is exactly why Paul was not ashamed. The Lord had acted. He acted in Jesus. In Jesus he saved and vindicated his people. In Jesus the Lord was faithful to his promises, just as the Psalmist had prayed he would be.
Paul draws on this Old Testament idea of “righteousness” in everything he writes. Righteousness is another of these words that can be a tricky. Some people think of it in a negative light, in the sense of “self-righteousness”, but that’s not what Paul has in mind. The most common way we think of it as Christians today is probably that righteousness is something God has or Jesus has that we don’t have and that we need. We’re sinners and he is holy and righteous. The key issue in the Protestant Reformation was this idea of righteousness. Everybody agreed that Jesus has it, but Rome had come to teach that in our baptism his righteousness is infused into us, enabling us to do good works. God, Rome teaches, then judges us on those good works as evidence that we are in Christ. In response the Protestant Reformers condemned that idea. It leads to faith in works instead of Jesus, they said. They argued instead that Jesus’ righteousness is imputed to sinners who repent and believe and that, while his grace certainly transforms us, we’re not judged by our works, but by the righteousness of Jesus being accounted to us in a sort of legal way. But when Paul writes about “righteousness” he’s not thinking of something that God has that we need or that’s somehow transferrable to us. I think Paul would look at these debates and scratch his head a bit and say, “That’s all well and good, but you’re looking for the right answer to the wrong question. You’re not necessarily wrong, but that’s not what I meant when I wrote about ‘righteousness’.” What Paul did have in mind was this Old Testament idea of God’s covenant faithfulness. It’s what we see in the Psalms and in the prophets and especially in Deuteronomy. When Paul writes about the righteousness of God he’s writing about God’s faithfulness to the promises he has made to his people down through the ages. God is righteous because he does what he promised. Again, this is vitally important: God’s righteouness is embodied in his covenant faithfulness. God’s righteousness is embodied in his faithfulness to do what he has promised. This is why the Psalmist cried out to God, “In your righteousness save me.” He knew God’s promises and he knew God would do what he said. This is God’s righteousness.
And this is why Paul is not ashamed to announce the good news of the gospel, even in Rome itself. Paul is not ashamed of the gospel for or because it is the power of God for salvation for everyone who believes. The announcement that Jesus, crucified and risen, is Lord is the power of God for salvation for everyone who believes. It’s not accompanied by God’s power. It doesn’t somehow possess God’s power. It is the power of God for salvation. Paul had seen it for himself time and time again in city after city. He announced the good news about Jesus, this news that was blasphemy to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks, but it had power. It moved men and women to repentance, to radically reorient their lives around Jesus as King, and it brought them salvation.
Now, “salvation”. That’s another loaded word like “righteousness” that has taken on a lot of meanings that Paul didn’t necessarily have in mind. People today tend to think of salvation as going to heaven when you die or something like that. But Paul had a much deeper understanding of what salvation meant. For Paul, being a Jew, the idea of salvation took him back to the Exodus. The Israelites were slaves in Egypt, they cried out to God, and he saved them from their slavery. When they were exiled by the Babylonians they prayed for salvation again. They weren’t asking to go to heaven. They were asking for deliverance from their enemies and deliverance from their exile. This theme crops up over and over in the Old Testament and in Jewish thinking. It came up again when the Greeks brutally ruled Judea and the Maccabees led a revolt and then again in the late 60s of the First Century when the Jews revolted against the Romans. This was what salvation meant to them. In slavery or in exile, the people cried out to the Lord. This wasn’t how the world was supposed to be. The Lord had promised better. And so they cried out for salvation knowing that the Lord is righteous, that he is faithful to his covenant promises.
Paul saw that Jesus had come to bring salvation. Jesus had come to rescue God’s people from their bondage to sin and to death, Jesus died himself and was resurrected from the dead as the firstfruits of God’s new creation. In Jesus God is finally setting his creation to rights. In his resurrection Jesus is the prototype, not just for those who believe in him and live in faith of being raised from death one day ourselves, but as Jesus was raised and made new, so God will make all of Creation new. For Paul this is what “salvation” means. And this is why it’s tied to the gospel announcement about Jesus. The good news is that in Jesus, God’s salvation is finally breaking into the world.
And Paul says this is to the Jew first and then to the Greek. This is going to be a major theme in Paul’s letter to the Romans, but in mentioning it here, he’s building towards this idea of God’s righteousness being his covenant faithfulness. God began his work of redemption by calling Abraham and making promises to him and to his family. Those promises weren’t just for Abraham benefit. They weren’t just for Israel’s benefit. Through Israel, the Lord intended to restore a knowledge of himself to a world that had first rejected and rebelled against him and that had eventually forgotten him almost entirely. Through Israel the Lord would make himself known and eventually bring salvation to all. This is why it was essential for Jesus to come to Israel. In him God’s promises to Abraham and his descendants were fulfilled. Jesus truly was Israel’s Saviour, but in saving Israel, Jesus transformed what it meant to be Israel. He embodied Israel himself and in doing that he opened the promises of God’s salvation to everyone who will believe. In Jesus a new Israel was formed, this time composed of both Jews and Gentiles.
And this leads to the next “for” or “because” in Paul’s argument. Paul is not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for salvation to all who believe, because in it the righteousness of God is revealed—because in the gospel announcement about Jesus, God’s covenant faithfulness is revealed and made known. Here’s what Paul is saying. He’s saying that Jesus’ resurrection from the grave was the unveiling of, lifted the curtain on what God had been up to all along. Think back to our study of Luke and to that first Easter Sunday. The disciples were confused. They saw the empty tomb, but they couldn’t wrap their heads around what happened. But then Jesus met two of them on the road to Emmaus and, Luke says, he walked them through the Scriptures, through the Old Testament. Jesus walked them through not just Israel’s story, but he walked them through the promises God had made to Israel down through the ages and he showed those two disciples how he had fulfilled those promises and particularly in his death and resurrection. Jesus showed them how God is faithful, how he is righteous. The result was that they believed. Jesus showed them the big picture and it suddenly all made sense. This is what God had been up to all along. They ran back to Jerusalem to tell the others. And now the same thing happens every time the good news is announced. The gospel open eyes to what the Lord is doing and has been doing all along. It shows the Jews how their story has been fulfilled by Jesus and it announces to Gentiles that there is one true God, the God of Israel, who is setting his Creation to rights and who welcomes everyone to be a part of it. Its announcement makes sense of the pain and suffering we see around us. God isn’t ignoring it. God is not unjust. Just the opposite: in Jesus he is fulfilling his promises to set everything right. When we see pain and evil, the problem isn’t God, it’s our resistance to the lordship of Jesus.
And this is what Paul’s getting at with this loaded statement about “from faith for faith” or “from faithfulness to faithfulness”. The gospel announces that God is faithful and the human response should be faithfulness to our faithful God in return. Here’s what that means: The gospel about Jesus dramatically reveals that God is good and faithful and if we know that God is good and faithful, the logical and proper response is put our faith in him, to trust him, to follow him, and to obey him. This is that “obedience of faith” that Paul talked about back in verse 5. Because we know God is faithful, we can set aside our own agendas for life, our fears, our anxieties, our false gods and sources of security, and follow him in grace and peace. The world may be filled with turmoil, but we can trust God because he has proved his faithfulness in Jesus and his resurrection.
Remember that Caesar had a gospel message too. Caesar was lord. Caesar’s heralds went out to announce to the empire that he was the king. And everyone had better submit to his lordship, because if you didn’t he had armies that would make sure you did or you died. And an entire empire submitted to Caesar as a result. But Caesar was only playing at what Jesus truly is. Caesar was a mockery of the true lordship of Jesus. The gospel is the announcement that Jesus is the true Lord, even lord over Caesar. The gospel is the sovereign call of the King, calling for our allegiance. But where the gospel call of Caesar is enforced with violence that reveals Caesar’s unrighteousness, the gospel call of Jesus reveals the righteousness of God, the covenant faithfulness of God, it reveals his love for his people in that this Lord, this King gives his own life for his rebellious enemies in fulfilment to God’s promises.
This is why Paul wraps up this passage with a quote. “It is written”, he says, “The righteous shall live by faith.” This is a quote from the prophet Habakkuk. When Habakkuk wrote the Chaldean armies were ready to sweep down and wipe out Israel. The people were afraid. It was tempting to look for alliances with neighbouring nations that the Lord had forbidden. It was easy to trust in horses and chariots. But the Lord had called his people to trust in him and him alone. That was a crazy thing to ask of his people. But that was the Lord’s message through Habakkuk: the just or the righteous shall live by faith. It’s interesting that there are two different versions of this Habakkuk passage. The Hebrew text has the sense of the righteous living by faith in the Lord, but the Greek translation of Habakkuk has the sense of the righteous living because of God’s faithfulness to them. Paul will have more to say about this later, but he would have known of both of these variants and it seems like he actually uses the ambiguity to push his argument along here. If someone asked if he meant that the righteous will live by their faith in the Lord or if they will live because the Lord will be faithful to his covenant promises, Paul simply would have said “Yes”.
Paul brings the covenant faithfulness of God, his righteousness right into the midst of the fear and turmoil that faced the Christians in the middle of the First Century. This was something the Roman Christians could fall back on a few years later when Nero’s persecution began. And, Brothers and Sisters, we can fall back on it, too, as we face our own difficulties today. We can live in faith knowing that God is faithful and we know he is faithful because of Jesus.
So here’s Paul’s line of thinking again: Even though the gospel announcement about Jesus was blasphemy to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks, Paul was not ashamed to proclaim it, becausethat announcement itself is God’s power for salvation. It’s the announcement that in his death and resurrection, Jesus has set in motion the renewal of all things. Paul also stresses that the good news about Jesus proves the faithfulness of God to his covenant promises, that the Lord does what he says he will do, and because of that righteous, those who believe, can live through literally anything, in obedient and trusting faith because we know that God himself is faithful, not just to us, but to his entire Creation.
Brothers and Sisters, how often are we ashamed of the gospel? Ashamed to proclaim it loudly, but also ashamed sometimes to even live it quietly but openly? We’re afraid because we know that it’s foolishness to the world. We’re afraid because we don’t know how to answer the objections. We tell people about Jesus and they point to everything that’s wrong in the world and ask how we can believe in a good God. Dear Friends, Paul reminds us not to be ashamed. If we understand what the gospel truly is, we should have every confidence. The gospel is the sovereign announcement from God that Jesus is King and that in his death and resurrection he is setting the world to rights. The gospel is the announcement that God is and always has been faithful to his promises and that Jesus is their fulfilment. Brothers and Sisters, you and I have been entrusted with God’s sovereign good news that in Jesus every principality and power, every earthly ruler and system that stands opposed to God, that even sin and death themselves, all have been defeated. The gospel is summons to allegiance to the Lord Jesus, but it is also a joyful summons that announces that we come not to a violent lord like Caesar, but to a lord who is good and faithful, a lord who is also is also a shepherd who gave his own life for his sheep. Let us never be ashamed. Here is the power of God for the world’s salvation.
Let us pray: Gracious Father, in the Collect we acknowledge that sometimes our natures are so frail that we find it hard to stand. When we realise that it is foolishness to the world around us, we often find it hard not to be ashamed of your gospel. Remind us, we ask, that this gospel, this announcement about Jesus, is your power for salvation and that it reveals your righteousness and covenant faithfulness. Take away our shame, we pray, that we might stand in your strength and proclaim the good news about Jesus, our crucified and risen Lord. Amen.