What is the best understanding of Romans 1:16-17?
It sure is hard to debate issues when there’s so much to preach about! Yet, when we preach, it is important to know where our source of power lies and to understand how God does his transforming work in the lives of his people. This is the topic of Romans 1:16-17. “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.” (NIV)
The Gospel, the Power of God
Paul begins – “I am not ashamed of the gospel.” What is this gospel? The word means good news, the kind one would announce in the public squares. But what is to be announced? In Romans 1, Paul does not specify the content of his “gospel.” As S. Lewis Johnson says, “The interpreter, however, is upon reasonably safe ground in assuming that [the details] are found in I Corinthians 15:1-5” (“The Gospel that Paul Preached,” Bibliotheca Sacra Volume 128, p. 331). That summary mentions the death, burial, resurrection and post-resurrection appearances of Christ, all “according to the Scriptures.”
The gospel proclamation, summarized in I Corinthians 15, is fully spelled out for us, four times over, in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The gospel, which Paul says is “the power of God for salvation” is proclaimed the same way much of the grand truth of the Old Testament is presented, in historical narrative – story!
So, in Romans 1:16, if the gospel is the story of Christ – the proclamation of Christ—then how is the gospel the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes? The gospel itself suggests the following answer. Just as people who met Jesus Christ were healed, encouraged, forgiven, fed, taught, delivered from evil spirits, resurrected, convicted (if they responded in faith) or were hardened in rebellion and self-righteousness (if they rejected Christ), even so people who hear the story of Jesus Christ will be healed, encouraged, forgiven, fed, taught, delivered from evil spirits, resurrected, convicted (if they respond in faith) or hardened in rebellion and self-righteousness (if they reject Christ).
Johnson puts it well, from the vantage point of Paul’s boldness in the gospel: “If the gospel in its momentous significance buoyed up the apostle’s spirit with supernatural boldness, it does even greater things for lost men. It does what the power of nature, the power of the mind, the power of science and the power of demonic forces cannot do. It saves the soul, for its power is divine” (ibid).
The two basic elements of this point are (1) the gospel is the full story of Jesus Christ expressed in the four Gospels and (2) meeting Christ through his Word empowered by the Spirit has the same impact as meeting Christ in person.
Most people agree with the claim that the elements of I Corinthians 15:3-4 are essential parts of the gospel. So how can we say that the gospel really includes all the stories of Christ’s life on this earth? First reason, of course, is the word “gospel” as it is used to describe the four Gospels. Second, is the fact that the death, burial, resurrection and post-resurrection appearances of Christ constitute an excellent summary of the climax of the four Gospels. And third, Paul’s accounting of the source of his gospel suggests that his gospel was also an account of the life story of Jesus Christ.
Paul declares that the source of his gospel was Jesus Christ (Galatians 1:11-12). No man told Paul the gospel. He received it by revelation from the risen Jesus himself. Paul further states that the content of his gospel was Jesus Christ. “God was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles” (Galatians 1:15-16). And Paul described his apostleship in the same terms as the other apostles, “who were apostles before I was” (v. 17). What was the function of an apostle? To be a testimony to the very things that are recorded for us in the four Gospels. Since this definition of an apostle is important to this argument, we’ll look at it in more detail, seeing how “apostle” was defined by the apostles, by Christ, and by Paul.
The apostles defined what an apostle is in Acts 1:21-22 when they needed to replace Judas with another who was qualified for the task. The qualification was a person who had been witness of what Jesus did, beginning from John’s baptism to Jesus’ ascension.
Jesus clarified what an apostle was in Mark 3:14, when he selected twelve and called them apostles “that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach and to have authority to drive out demons.” Later, when Jesus taught of the Holy Spirit’s divine work of testifying about Jesus, he gave the apostles a parallel responsibility to testify “because you have been with me from the beginning” (John 15:27).
Paul fit the same definition of apostle. God was pleased to “reveal his Son” in Paul so that Paul might testify (“preach”) about Christ. Comparing the dynamics of Paul’s preaching to Jesus’ commission of the other apostles in John 15:26-27 is striking. According to I Thessalonians 1:5-10, Paul’s gospel was proclaimed “not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit, and with deep conviction.” After hearing Paul’s gospel, the Thessalonians knew so much about Jesus that they became imitators of the Lord. They broadcast “the Lord’s message,” waiting for Christ to return from heaven, knowing about Jesus’ resurrection and his promises to rescue from the coming wrath. Therefore, I believe that Paul’s message was essentially the same message we would read in one of the four Gospels.
So, the dynamic impact that people experienced when they personally met Jesus Christ was continued as the apostles (including Paul) testified about Jesus Christ’s life and ministry, climaxing in the death, burial and resurrection. Hearing the story (when empowered by the Holy Spirit) was as life-changing as being there. Don Garlington is very poignant on this topic of the power of the gospel: “’Power’ in the OT is specifically God’s creation-power as concentrated in his word (Gen 1 and many passages). The Judaism of Paul’s day was certainly aware that the word of God is the embodiment of God’s power, because such is the teaching of the OT itself …. But for Paul the word of God is specifically the gospel” (‘A “New Perspective” Reading of Central Texts in Romans 1-4,’ http://www.thepaulpage.com/Rom1-4.pdf).
So, when Paul states “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes” the gospel he refers to is the story of Jesus Christ. When “gospel” is mentioned in the epistles it has this primary meaning. The epistles add to the meaning and understanding of who Christ is and what he is doing and will do, but they do not change the basic message, which is testifying to the life, death, burial and resurrection of Christ.
The fact that Paul could tell the complete story of Christ without having been a witness to the events was a supernatural verification that he indeed had been taught by Jesus Himself. In Galatians 2, Paul laid out his gospel before the “eyewitnesses” and there was nothing they could correct.
It is the life and ministry of Jesus, then—the gospel—that is the foundation for all New Testament doctrine. For instance, in none of the Gospels is there teaching from Jesus requiring circumcision. Therefore, that became the basis for Paul insisting that Titus not be circumcised. He did this, “so that the truth of the gospel might remain with you” (v. 5). Similarly, in Galatians 2:14, Paul recognized that Peter’s hypocrisy was not consistent with the teaching, life, death and resurrection of Christ (the gospel).
Focusing on this simplicity of what the gospel is (the good news of Christ) clarifies the meaning of other Scriptures. For instance:
• In 2 Corinthians 11:1-6 Paul describes his own ministry as “preaching Jesus.” On the other hand, he describes the Corinthians’ experience of his preaching as receiving the Spirit and receiving the gospel.
• In I Corinthians 3:11, Paul claims to have laid the proper foundation for a church, which is Jesus Christ. In other words, the proper foundation for any church is the gospel story of the life, death, burial, resurrection and ascension of Christ.
• Jesus recognized that the story of his ministry would constitute the gospel. So he promised that the story of the woman who anointed his feet would be proclaimed wherever the gospel was proclaimed (Matthew 26:13). Why? Because it is part of the gospel, the story of Christ.
A Righteousness from God is Revealed
If the gospel is the historical story of Jesus Christ, as preserved for us in the four Gospels, then how is a righteousness from God revealed in that gospel? Or, in other words, what do the Gospels teach us about the righteousness of God, and specifically a righteousness that is by faith.
There is much that can be gleaned from the Gospels about righteousness. For instance:
• Jesus was introduced by John the Baptist as the “Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).
• When Jesus was anointed by a sinful woman, he proclaimed “her many sins are forgiven – for she loved much” (Luke 7:47). And to the woman directly, Jesus said, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace” (v. 50).
• Jesus summarized his own life: “The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem” (Luke 24:46-47).
• Jesus Christ is the sinless righteous one from God.
• To the woman taken in adultery, Jesus said, “neither do I condemn you, go and sin no more” (John 8:11).
• Jesus turned his anointing at Bethany (which some characterized as a sinful waste of valuable resources) into a heroic tale of virtue (Matthew 26:13).
• There was a dramatic effect in the lives of Jesus’ disciples, which they recognized as salvation “through the grace of our Lord Jesus.” In Acts 15:7-11, Peter recognized true salvation in others by the giving of the Holy Spirit and the purification of hearts by faith, “just as God did to us.”
• Jesus’ authority to forgive sins was very important and emphasized in the gospels. He purposely did miracles just to prove that he “had authority on earth to forgive sins” (Matthew 9:6).
• Jesus taught that if we forgive others’ sins, then the Father will forgive us (Matthew 6:14).
• Jesus taught that his blood would be poured out for the forgiveness of many (Matthew 26:28).
• Our reception in the future kingdom depends on our reception of Christ now (Mark 8:38). Whoever loses his life now for Christ and for the gospel, will save his life (Mark 8:35).
• The path to salvation is through the forgiveness of sins (Luke 1:77).
• Jesus claimed “if you do not believe that I am the one I claim to be, you will indeed die in your sins” (John 8:24).
There are various views about what is the “righteousness of God” in Romans 1:17. David Dockery (“Romans 1:16-17” in Review and Exposition Volume 86, I, 89) defines justification as “an eschatological declaration that believers stand righteous before God.” Dockery further explains this righteousness (justification) as having two sides and two perspectives. The first side is pardon, forgiveness, and remission of sins. This was seen often, when Jesus spoke of individuals as being forgiven. “Your sins are forgiven. Go and sin no more.” The second side is granting the privileges and status of one who is righteous. This includes the blessings of the covenant, adoption in God’s family and the assurance of eternal life. Jesus often spoke of these blessings for those who followed him. To the repentant thief on the cross, he said, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” To the twelve, “you will sit on thrones in my kingdom.”
The two perspectives are history and eschatology. Dockery makes a distinction between our “declared righteous” state (not realized until the eschaton) and our present reality (still in sin). Jesus did in fact talk about the future kingdom saying that if people lost their lives for him now, they would save it later. Our reception of Christ now determines our reception in the coming kingdom. But that did not keep Jesus from declaring the present forgiveness of sin, nor to insist on righteous living now. I am not persuaded that Dockery’s two perspectives accurately reflect Scripture.
Dockery also emphasizes the point that our righteousness is not granted to us because of our faith (p. 89). If faith is somehow construed (against all reason, I believe) as a meritorious work that earns one justification, then Dockery is correct. But in fact, this can never be the case, and, there should be no hesitation to say, as Jesus did, “Your faith has saved you” (Luke 7:50).