Topic: Expository Passage: Romans 1:16-17
(Read vv. 13-17) Verses 16–17 are two of the most important, wonderful verses in Scripture. To help us appreciate them, I want to look at them from the perspective of two of the most influential men in church history and, frankly, in world history.
The first is Martin Luther. Luther was born in Germany in 1483 into a very different world from our own. It was the Dark Ages, and the RCC dominated a dark religious scene. Yes, everyone claimed to believe in God, but people knew little about him. It was illegal to read the Bible in a common language, and even if you could read the Latin Bible, the church taught that you couldn’t understand it without their help. So, most people and even priests hardly knew the Bible.
Even the church services were in Latin, so most people had no idea what was being said, and they learned little about God. And the God they heard about was more of a distant judge than a benevolent Father.
Yes, people believed in grace, but it was a different grace from ours. A common slogan of the day was, “God will not deny grace to those who do their best.” This slogan was intended to give reassurance, but it still placed the responsibility on people to merit grace taking the Mass, going to confession, and living a righteous life.
Martin Luther was raised on this theology, and he became a monk in hopes of earning God’s favor, but he couldn’t find peace. The more he tried to please God, the more he realized how far he fell short.
But in 1512 he was sent to Wittenberg University to teach Bible exposition. He began studying Romans and Galatians, and God began transforming his understanding of God and man’s relationship to him. God especially used our text to revolutionize Luther’s thinking. His story will bring a wonderful perspective to our text.
A second essential perspective for our text is Paul’s story. Verses 13–15 say that he was preparing to preach the gospel in Rome, and vv. 16–17 to explain why he was not ashamed to do so. You might think, “Of course, Paul wasn’t ashamed. He was Paul.” But we must understand how foreign the gospel was to Roman culture and how intimidating Roman culture would have seemed.
For example, Rome saw itself as the seat of power, salvation, blessing, deliverance for all people, therefore, Caesar demanded that all people worship him as “lord” and “savior.” Rome also saw itself as the seat of wisdom and knowledge. And Rome was built on firm power structures. The people on the top prided themselves on their status, and they used it to stand over and above and to oppress everyone else.
But the gospel declares that Jesus is the exclusive Lord and Savior and that he became Lord and Savior through a humiliating death on a cross and resurrection from the dead. The Romans couldn’t fathom a sovereign lord being crucified, and resurrection was absurd in their dualist worldview. The gospel also defied the Roman thirst for power by calling for the unity and equality of all people at the foot of the cross.
So, the gospel seemed absurd to the Roman worldview. But Paul refused to be ashamed. Verses 16–17 explain why Paul was not ashamed and why we shouldn’t either. They also lay out the glorious message that wonderfully transformed Luther. So, I’d like to highlight 4 glorious reasons we must not be ashamed of the gospel. The 1st reason is…
I. The gospel has power to save (v. 16a).
To appreciate this fact, we must first answer the question…
Why do we need to be saved? The answer to this question begins with the fact that…
God is righteous. Verse 17 mentions the “righteousness of God,” and Romans 1–4 use this concept repeatedly to declares that God is without sin. 1 John 1:5 adds, “God is light and in Him is no darkness at all.” Therefore, he is holy or separate from sin. Habakkuk 2:13 states, “You are of purer eyes than to behold evil, and cannot look on wickedness.” God’s absolute purity is incomprehensible for us because…
We are sinners. Notice how Paul describes all humanity in 3:10-18. Those verses are hard to stomach, but we know they are true. No one can measure up to the righteousness and holiness of God. But very few people would argue with that. We all understand that we aren’t perfect and that we fall short of God’s glory. But many people have a hard time accepting God’s response to our sin (1:18).
God’s justice demands that he judge our sin. That’s a hard verse for most people to stomach. They would say, “Yes, I know I’m not perfect, but I can’t possibly deserve God’s wrath.” But the Bible is clear that a just God cannot ignore a single sin. He must punish every one of them.
Luther’s Struggle: Martin Luther became more and more troubled by this reality during his time as a monk. When he read of the “righteousness of God” in v. 17, he assumed Paul meant he must perfectly achieve God’s righteousness if he had any hope of avoiding God’s wrath.
Therefore, he worked tirelessly to make himself righteous, sometimes taking extreme steps. He would fast for days at a time, sleep without blankets during the winter, and spend hours trying to confess every sin and every wrong motive. He later said “I kept the rules so strictly, that I may say that if ever a monk got to heaven by his sheer monkery, it was I. If I had kept on any longer, I should have killed myself with vigils, prayers, reading, and other work.”
But the more he tried, the more he realized that God’s righteous is unattainable. He felt defeated and angry. Luther’s superiors tried to sooth his conscience but to no avail. When one of them urged him to love God, Luther cried out, “I do not love God! I hate him!”
It’s very sad to hear of Luther’s struggle, and yet the fact is that he was absolutely right. No matter what he did, he was still a sinner who deserved wrath. And so are you. You can never be good enough to earn a relationship with God. And you will never appreciate your need of salvation or gospel’s power until you come to grips with the fact that you are a hopelessly condemned sinner who stands under the wrath of God. But with this background, you can rejoice that…
The gospel has power to save. I said earlier that the gospel was foolish to the Romans. They valued strength and power, but the gospel is about a common man (from a human perspective) who died a humiliating death as a criminal. It may be a moving story of compassion, but it did not appear powerful. But the resurrection changes everything. Jesus conquered sin and death.
Therefore, the gospel is infused with God’s power. Specifically, it has the power to save sinners. But what does that mean (5:9)? God says that the blood of Christ is the solution to the wrath of God that we saw in 1:18. The gospel is “the power of God for salvation” from God’s wrath.
That’s a good reason not to be ashamed of the gospel. Sometimes we try to sell the gospel as if it’s a beat-up car that we hope someone will take off our hands. We nervously share hoping they don’t laugh. We must remember that we aren’t selling junk; we preach the power of God to salvation. It can rescue any sinner, and it can change any life because it is built on the resurrection life of Jesus. Don’t be ashamed. A 2nd reason not to be ashamed is that…
II. The gospel is available to all people (v. 16b).
I already said that this fact was absurd to the Romans who built their culture on strict power structures. And it was also a problem for the Jews because before Christ, salvation was only available through the Jewish nation.
But Jesus changed everything. The gospel is available “to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek (which means all nations).”
And Paul will argue in chapters 1–3 that it’s not just that it is for all nations; it is for all kinds of sinners. The gospel has the power to save religious people who have lived a relatively good life, but it is also able to save pagan people who have committed terrible sins. No one has strayed so far or sinned so badly that they are beyond the reach of the gospel’s power.
That may sound too good to be true. You have a really hard time believing that God would ever accept someone as bad as you. But Romans 5:8 states, “But God demonstrates his own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” God didn’t wait for us to clean up our act; he loved us in our sin. The gospel can save any who believe including you.
That’s another great reason not to be ashamed of the gospel. Sometimes we act as if certain people are outside the reach of Christ. “They’ll never respond, so why even try?” And there are other people that we simply don’t like. We would never say it, but we think, “Why would I open myself up to the pain of sharing Christ with that jerk?”
But Jesus died for all people, and he can save all people. Therefore, we need to share the gospel with all people unashamedly expecting God to work. A 3rd reason not to be ashamed is that…
III. The gospel offers the righteousness of God as a gift (v. 17a).
We must talk about this phrase, “the Righteousness of God,” because it is very important. Remember that I said earlier that in his younger years, Martin Luther assumed that this phrase referred to God’s attribute of righteousness and that he was obligated to meet this standard if he had any hope of avoiding God’s wrath.
But as Luther studied Romans during his time at Wittenberg, he came to understand v. 17 very differently. Specifically, the good news of the gospel is not that I am responsible to achieve the righteousness of God. Rather, the good news of the gospel is that God imputes or credits his perfect righteousness to my account. It was a revolutionary realization.
Luther reached this conclusion through his continued study of Romans. Notice 3:20. God is clear that I can never be justified before God or declared “not guilty” by my own good works. But notice vv. 21–22. “The righteousness of God” is clearly more than an attribute of God. It is something God credits to “all those who believe.” He applies his righteousness to us.
But you might wonder how God could do this and remain just? The answer is in vv. 24–26. Propitiation means that Jesus became our sacrifice. He bore the punishment for my sin in his body. He endured God’s just wrath against my sin and yours.
In so doing, v. 26 states that God did not only justify us; he also declared his justice. That’s important, because the greatest demonstration of God’s justice is not that sinners go to hell. No, do you want to know how just God really is? Look at the cross. There God demonstrated his justice by pouring out his wrath against my sin on his only Son. It’s a steep commitment.
But because God punished Christ, the cross makes it possible for God to also demonstrate grace. Verse 26 says that God isn’t only just; he is also “the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” Justification recalls a courtroom. There is no way my righteousness can earn me a declaration of “not guilty” in God’s courtroom.
But the glory of the gospel is that I am no longer judged on my righteousness. Instead, I am united with Christ. I stand in his righteousness. Therefore, God does not judge me based on my sin but by the righteousness of Christ. Therefore, he will declare me “justified,” or “not guilty.”
Now, I want to be clear, that I am still a sinner. Romans 4:5 states that God “justifies the ungodly.” I’m far from perfect. And Paul will go on to say that once I am saved, I must work to obey God and to become godly. But those works do not make me a Christian, and they never could, because I will be a sinner until the day I die. But I am secure be because I stand in the righteousness of Christ.
Folks, this is the good news of the gospel, and when Luther discovered the true meaning of the phrase “the righteousness of God” it changed everything for him. He later recounted, “I greatly longed to understand Paul’s Epistle to the Romans and nothing stood in the way but that one expression, ‘the justice of God,’ because I took it to mean that justice whereby God is just and deals justly in punishing the unjust. My situation was that, although an impeccable monk, I stood before God as a sinner troubled in conscience, and I had no confidence that my merit would assuage him. Therefore I did not love a just and angry God, but rather hated and murmured against him. Yet I clung to the dear Paul and had a great yearning to know what he meant.
Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the justice of God and the statement that ‘the just shall live by his faith.’ Then I grasped that the justice (i.e., righteousness) of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise. The whole Scripture took on a new meaning, and whereas before the ‘justice of God’ had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in greater love. This passage of Paul became to me a gate to heaven…
If you have a true faith that Christ is your Saviour, then at once you have a gracious God, for faith leads you in and opens up God’s heart and will, that you should see pure grace and overflowing love. This it is to behold God in faith that you should look upon his fatherly, friendly heart, in which there is no anger or ungraciousness. He who sees God as angry does not see him rightly but looks only on a curtain, as if a dark cloud has been drawn across his face” (quoted in Bainton, Here I Stand, p. 48).
Amen! Praise God that he isn’t only righteous and just. The cross reconciles God’s justice with his grace and mercy. And praise God that I can have a relationship with him based on grace! That’s the best news ever told. It’s certainly not something to be ashamed of. A 4th reason not to be ashamed…
IV. The gospel is applied by faith (v. 17b).
Romans is very clear that everyone is not saved. Otherwise, God would not have wrath toward sinners, and Paul wouldn’t need to preach the gospel in Rome. So, maybe you are wondering, “How can I go from being under God’s wrath to enjoying the grace of the gospel? Do I need to buy it? Is there something I must do?”
Well, notice that v. 16 declares that salvation does not belong exclusively to a particular race, nation, social class, or even to good people. Instead, it belongs to “everyone who believes.”
And v. 17 adds, it is “from faith to faith.” There’s some debate about why Paul adds the second prepositional phrase, but the simplest interpretation is to take it as an emphatic statement. We are saved “by faith and by faith alone.” My works add nothing to what Jesus already accomplished. So, the only way that man can be saved is to place his trust solely and completely in what Jesus already accomplished.
I want to be clear that this faith is not a saving work. You are sitting in a chair. When you sat down, you trusted that chair to hold you up, and then you just rested. And you aren’t working right now; you are resting. And that’s what saving faith is. To be saved, all I must do is rest in Christ.
This requires trusting in him alone. After all, if you are still using your legs to to bear part of your weight, you aren’t truly resting in your chair, are you? And Galatians is clear that if I try to trust in the gospel plus my works, I lose the gospel entirely.
This is the fundamental problem with every religion in the world except gospel Christianity. Most religions subscribe to some form of that slogan of Luther’s day, “God will not deny grace to those who do their best.”
They believe that we need grace, but man is ultimately saved through a combination of grace and works. However, God says this is a denial of the gospel. If you believe you can add something to what Jesus accomplished on the cross, you dishonor Jesus and reject the true gospel.
Maybe you are understanding the gospel today like you never have before. You see the justice of God and that you deserve judgment. But you also see the love and mercy of God in the fact that God judged your sin in Christ. And you want to be saved. Our text is clear. All you must do is believe. Confess your sin and rest in Christ.
Or maybe you think your sin is too great for God to ever love and forgive a sinner like you? Believe what God saves. The gospel has power to save “everyone who believes.” Just rest in Christ. You can pray to God right now and say, “Lord, I am a sinner and my sin is so wicked that it put Jesus on the cross. I acknowledge that I cannot save myself, but I believe that Jesus’ paid for my sin and that he is sufficient to save me. I want Christ to be my Savior, and I want to live my life for him.”
Romans 10:13 promises, “Whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” If you seek God with true faith, he will save. I pray that no one will leave today without knowing that he or she has been forgiven and that Christ is your Savior.
In conclusion, the gospel truly is good news. It has power to save, it is available to all people, it offers the righteousness of God as a gift, and all of this is available simply by faith. These are four convincing reasons not to be ashamed of the gospel.
Yes, Rome was an intimidating city, and Paul knew that when he began preaching the gospel in Rome, some would mock it as ridiculous and foolish. But he also knew that the gospel was too good to keep quiet. People had to hear this incredible news. And he also knew that God has purposed to save people from every corner of the world by this gospel and that the gospel is powerful to save them. If Paul just set the gospel before them, it would convict, open eyes, and save. So, Paul refused to be intimidated by the power, glory, and philosophical assumptions of Rome. He refused to be ashamed of the gospel; instead, he was determined to preach.
And so should we. We have the best news that’s ever been told. The gospel alone truly answers the human longing for a clean conscience, and absolute acceptance and security. It’s for all people without discrimination, and it possesses real power. People need to hear it.
Yes, not everyone will accept it, and some of them will get hostile. But who cares what people think? Ambassadors of the king don’t worry about such things because they go with royal authority.
So, build gospel relationships this week. Invite people to church and fill this place up for VBS. Plant seeds wherever you can. Share the gospel with those that you know. Be bold. And do with confidence that the Lord of the harvest will save some.