Text: 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.”
October 31st commemorates the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the Castle Church door in Wittenberg. Interestingly enough, this year is the 499th anniversary of it. Lots of anniversary celebrations and big blowout conferences are in order, and these are well and good if, but only if, we understand the gospel foundation under it all. You see, Luther and the other Reformers, were interested in the gospel above all else, and they would be the first to object if we celebrated them and their cultural-historical achievements without faithfully preaching the gospel that they preached. So we turn to Romans 1 and the proclamation that the gospel is “the power of salvation for everyone who believes.”
These famous verses in Romans were some of the most important for Martin Luther. In fact, he said that they were something of a turning point for him, where he understood the gospel for the very first time. Seeing that the “righteousness of God” came to us through faith, Luther said, “This passage of Paul became to me a gateway to heaven.” Indeed, commentators agree, these two verses summarize the rest of the Epistle to the Romans, and they explain the main idea of the gospel.
So what is that gospel, that good news? It is this. The righteousness of God is what saves us. But how? The answer to that will be the topic of our sermon this morning. I would like for us to see the three ways that the righteousness of God may be understood and then the significance for placing our trust in all three for salvation.
“The Righteousness of God”: 3 Interpretations
Now this expression “the righteousness of God” is one that scholars argue over. What does it mean? There are at least three interpretations. I don’t want to confuse you with too much explanation, but I do think it’s important to know the full picture.
The first interpretation is that “the righteousness of God” is God’s own righteousness, one of His attributes. He is just and righteous, and therefore all that He does is also just and righteous. The gospel reveals this. God is a just judge and He will judge the world with righteousness and in equity (e.g. Psalm 98:9).
This is probably the most natural meaning of the words, at least on a surface reading. Paul goes on to parallel it with “the wrath of God,” an obvious reference to God’s own wrath (Rom. 1:18), and the argument of the first three chapters of Romans all has to do with God’s fairness and justness in dealing with sinful people. Romans 2 says,
Therefore you are inexcusable, O man, whoever you are who judge, for in whatever you judge another you condemn yourself; for you who judge practice the same things. But we know that the judgment of God is according to truth against those who practice such things. And do you think this, O man, you who judge those practicing such things, and doing the same, that you will escape the judgment of God?”
…For there is no partiality with God. (Rom. 2:1-3, 11)
Indeed, “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” (Rom. 3:23). God is exactly just to judge this sin with His truthful word. “Let God be true but every man a liar. As it is written: ‘That You may be justified in Your words, and may overcome when You are judged’” (Rom. 3:4).
But how is this good news? That’s precisely what troubled Luther so. If the “righteousness of God” is being revealed, then shouldn’t that strike terror into our hearts? If God’s true and upright character compels Him to judge all sin equally, then shouldn’t we cry out in despair?
This quest sent Luther to a deep study of Romans, as well as the rest of Paul’s thought. He concluded that “the righteousness of God” in these verses is not God’s own character trait of justness, but rather the righteousness that God gives us in Christ, by imputing Christ’s own righteousness to us and judging us on that basis. We are considered righteous, even though we have sinned, because of what Christ has done for us.
Luther found this meaning of “the righteousness of God” in the conclusion of Romans 3. After all, Paul basically asks the question how a just God could justify the ungodly, and then offers his answer:
But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed, to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. (Rom. 3:21-26)
Isn’t that incredible? God maintains His own righteousness even while justifying the ungodly. He made a propitiation for that justice in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, and that propitiation allowed Him to remain just while justifying all who have faith in Christ. Chapters 4 and 5 of Romans expand upon the logic of this, using the example of Abraham and the covenant of Grace, as well as the ways in which Christ is a second Adam, fulfilling the Adamic covenant and redeeming us from its condemnation. God keeps both covenants, even when it seems that they should contradict one another.
The third interpretation is more recent but very intriguing. It says that the “righteousness of God” is a transformative activity, something like a creation power, and it actually accomplishes salvation. Basically, God’s righteousness is the reason and the tool by which God delivers His people. There are a lot of sophisticated arguments for this to work. The terms “justice” and “deliverance” are actually the same in Hebrew. Interestingly, the word for “judge” and the word for “savior” are one and the same, as well, and God’s “judgment” is very often salvific.
And we do see this theme in Romans, particularly in Romans 5:18, which says, “through one Man’s righteous act the free gift came to all men, resulting in justification of life.” In chapter 6 Paul asks whether we are to continuing sinning and responds that we have now been transformed by being united to Christ.
Our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin. For he who has died has been freed from sin. Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him. (Rom. 6:6-8)
Perhaps most of all, we see the transformative power of the gospel in us, allowing us to also fulfill “righteousness” in Romans 8:
What the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin; He condemned sin in the flesh, that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” (8:3-5)
Thus, we see that all three “options” have support within Romans, and in other parts of the Bible. The righteousness of God, which is revealed in the gospel, is all of these. It is God’s attribute of righteousness, the righteousness from Christ which is given to us, and the transformative power which delivers us and empowers us to be righteous. All three elements work together to promote “the power of salvation,” and we believe that God is doing all of this together. The righteousness of God saves us by maintaining God’s righteousness, enabling us to be forgiven and accepted by Him, and delivering us from the power of sin and the bondage of our sinful flesh.
The Just Shall Live by Faith
Now, if we take this all in, it should be a little bit overwhelming. God is able to do all of this, and He is able to do it consistently, without contradiction or partiality. We ought to stop and wonder. We ought to worship.
But we have to apply it to ourselves, and this is what Paul does when he quotes Habakkuk, saying, “the just shall live by faith” (Rom. 1:17). We will live by faith, that is, we will trust God all of our life. But it also means that trusting God is the way in which we will be able to live. It is how we are saved from destruction, and thus how we find eternal life, and it is how we are to live in this life until the end. Because of what we believe about God and what He has done for us, we are able to live a transformed life. As the old-Christian saying goes, our credenda, what we believe, is our agenda.
Consider those three meanings of “the righteousness of God.” We have faith in all of them. We trust that God is a good and righteous God. He always acts in accordance with His character, and so we can trust Him. The judge of earth will do right (Gen. 18:25). God will be faithful to His word, and so He will keep His covenant.
But because the content of that word is that He will deliver us, we trust that God’s righteousness allows Him to find us righteous when we are judged. How is this possible? Not by our own works, and therefore not by what our eyes see. We do not live by sight. We do not believe that the world is simply what it appears to be. No, we live by faith. We trust that—somehow, some way—we will be accepted by God. And the gospel explains this. It is because of the work of Christ. “God loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10). Christ “has appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself… Christ was offered once to bear the sins of many” (Heb. 9:26, 28).
And finally, because of what the righteousness of God does, its creative and salvific power, we believe that “the righteous requirement of the law will be fulfilled in us” (Rom. 8:5). “Now all things are of God, Who has reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ. …For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor. 5:18, 21). We will truly be what God has said we are because of what God does in us through His grace. And this will be righteous. We trust this. We believe that “He who is in [us] is greater than He who is in the world” (1 John 4:4). God has defeated Satan, and God is defeating sin and death in us, even now.
This all holds together in Christ. The gospel of Christ shows us the power of salvation, both how it is we are saved, through Christ’s work, and what salvation does, the fruit of Christ’s work. It reveals God’s righteousness from faith to faith. We see God’s faithfulness by our faith in Christ.
In conclusion, let’s consider what believing in the righteousness of God means. It means believing something about God. We trust that God is a certain kind of God, a just god. Since we believe that God is just, we are humble. We are fearful because we understand our own sin. But we also love justice and we learn to hate our own sin as well, because it is objectively evil. We love righteousness because God is righteous.
And, gloriously, we believe that God considers us just and right in Christ. Because of His love for us, He sent Christ to die for us and to be raised for our justification. We rejoice. We are grateful. Because of this righteousness, we always cling to the cross for our hope.
We believe that God is making us just through His power. We believe that we should live holy lives. More than that, we believe that we will. We believe that even our best works now are God at work in us, thus we trust Him more and give Him the glory.
This is our faith. This is how we live. All because of the righteousness of God.
Let us pray.