A Problem You Can’t Solve

The Point:  You can’t meet God’s standard on your own.

The Power of God for Salvation:  Romans 1:16-17.

[16]  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.  [17]  For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”  [ESV]

[16-17]  These two verses have an importance out of all proportion to their length. The weighty matter they contain tells us much of what this epistle is about. These two verses give us the thesis of the epistle: they sum up for us what God has done to bring us salvation. Paul declares his adherence to the gospel and points out that God’s power is at work in it. It is a revelation of God’s righteousness. Verse 16 is introduced by For, indicating that this verse links what follows with what precedes and gives a reason. Why should Paul feel it necessary to write I am not ashamed of the gospel? He gloried in the gospel [5:2,11; 2 Cor. 10:17; Gal. 6:14; Phil. 3:7]. But it may be that there were people in Rome who despised the simplicity of the message. Such people would look down on the Christians and their unusual gospel of a crucified savior. Whatever be the case with others, Paul emphatically stands by the message. It had brought him neither ease nor comfort. But the gospel had proved adequate for the needs both of himself and his hearers, and Paul was far from being ashamed of it. The gospel is the power of God for salvation. The gospel is not advice to people, suggesting that they lift themselves. It is power. It lifts them up. Paul does not say that the gospel brings power but that it is power, and God’s power at that. When the gospel is preached, this is not simply so many words being uttered. The power of God is at work. When the gospel enters anyone’s life, it is as though the very fire of God had come upon him. There is warmth and light in his life. The power of God of which Paul writes is not aimless but directed to salvation. It issues in salvation. This is the general term of which justification, redemption, and the like are particular aspects. Salvation is a very positive affair; it brings a rich variety of blessings from God. But it also has negative aspects. People may be saved from wrath [5:9], from hostility to God [5:10] or alienation from Him [Eph. 2:12], from sin [Matt. 1:21], from being lost [Luke 19:10], from futility [1 Peter 1:18]. Salvation has many facets. There is a sense in which it has already been achieved [Eph. 2:5], and another in which it is a present, on-going process [1 Cor. 1:18; 2 Cor. 2:15], but often the New Testament writers see it as future [13:11; 1 Cor. 5:5; 2 Tim. 4:18]. The scope of salvation is universal. It is open to everyone who believes. Paul brings this out further by saying that it is to the Jew first and also to the Greek. The combination stands for the totality of mankind. The gospel is for all and knows no limitation by race. But if everyone marks the universality, a restriction is indicated by who believes. The powerful salvation of which Paul writes is not the possession of any unbeliever. Each person must make it his own by his act of faith. This does not mean that faith is like another kind of law, but easier, as though God and man were cooperating to bring about salvation. It is not man’s faith that gives the gospel its power; quite the contrary, it is the power of the gospel that makes it possible for one to believe. Paul is not saying that people achieve power by their own believing effort. He is saying that the power of God is at work in the gospel. Paul proceeds in verse 17 to an explanation (For), giving the grounds for what he has just said. The statements of verse 16 are seen to be true because of what Paul now affirms. In this passage it is not completely certain whether we should understand the righteousness of God in the sense of a quality or attribute of God or of a right standing which God gives. The following reference to faith seems to show that the righteousness that God gives is primarily in mind, as does the quotation from Habakkuk. Here Paul is saying that in the gospel God has acted decisively for our salvation and in a way that is right. The “rightness” of the way of salvation will be further brought out in this epistle as Paul develops the concept of justification. We should further notice that the righteousness of God is here said to be revealed in the gospel. That is to say, it is something new, not simply a repetition of Old Testament truth (important as that is). Since this righteousness is revealed, it is not something that people know naturally or can find out for themselves. Unless God makes it known they will never discover it. From faith for faith means literally “out of faith into faith” or “from faith to faith”. It seems likely that Paul is simply emphasizing the place of faith here. The centrality of faith is important and must be clearly seen. For Paul faith is that attitude in which, acknowledging our complete insufficiency for any of the high ends of life, we rely utterly on the sufficiency of God. It is to cease from all assertion of the self, even by way of effort after righteousness, and to make room for the divine initiative. Following his custom Paul drives home what he is saying with a quotation from Scripture. On this occasion he quotes from Habakkuk 2:4 the words, the righteous shall live by faith. A number of reasons may be urged for taking the words in the sense “the one who by faith is righteous shall live” (see ESV footnote). This translation emphasizes the connection of faith with righteous instead of live. First, there is the context. Paul is talking about that righteousness which is from faith for faith, and he is citing the prophet in support. He is not talking about the way God’s people should live. Second, there is the point that in chapters 1-4 the faith words occur at least 25 times and the life words twice, whereas in chapters 5-8 the figures are exactly reversed. The inference is that at this stage of the epistle Paul is concerned with the fact that it is by faith that God saves people rather than with how they live. Third, the whole teaching of Romans is such as to lead us to connect righteous with faith. Paul keeps insisting that a person is righteous only by faith [3:20,22,24,28; 4:2-3,13]. There is no corresponding emphasis on the righteous as living by faith. It is quite clear that Paul is stressing the primacy of faith. He is telling us that God’s righteousness is shown in the gospel, that gospel which tells us that people must come to God in faith. It is this that he cites Habakkuk to support. Paul is speaking of the way a person is made righteous, namely by faith, and assuring us that it is the one who is made righteous in this way who will live.

God’s Righteous Judgment:  Romans 2:5-11.

[5]  But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. [6]  He will render to each one according to his works; [7]  to those who by patience in well-being seek for glory and honor and immortality; he will give eternal life; [8]  but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. [9]  There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, [10]  but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. [11]  For God shows no partiality.  [ESV]

[5-11]  Paul points to what the impenitent are doing to themselves and goes on to the general principle involved. Judgment means that those who have acted in accordance with God’s will will be rewarded, whereas those who have opposed God will be punished. But is an adversative conjunction; meaning what follows stands in contrast to the preceding. Instead of repentance there is hardness and impenitence. Because of makes a causal connection. In the case of those Paul has in mind in verse 5 the inner life is directed away from God. There is a hardness, a refusal to forsake sin and take God’s way. In this context storing up is a picturesque word. It is connected with the idea of “treasure” and means “to lay up a treasure.” The person Paul has in mind is laying up for his treasure – the wrath of God! Wrath signifies God’s settled opposition to all that is evil, and not some irrational passion. We should not miss Paul’s point that sin will inevitably reap its due reward, and that God will be active in the process. The day of wrath refers to the Day of Judgment and views that day from the aspect of the punishment of evil. Many things might be said about that day, but one is certainly that then God’s settled opposition to evil will reach its consummation. That day will be not only one of wrath but of revelation. Revelation is another typically Pauline word; it signifies the making known to people of something previously existent, but not known. God’s righteousness in judgment was always a fact, but people have not always appreciated it, nor will they until the day of revelation. Then it will be clear beyond all doubting. With a quotation from Psalm 62:12 Paul sums up what judgment means [6]. To each one makes this judgment personal; recompense is an individual matter, not a collective punishment. And this just requital, this paying back of what is due, will be done to each according to his works. It is the invariable teaching of the Bible and not the peculiar viewpoint of any one writer or group of writers that judgment will be on the basis of works, though salvation is all of grace. Works are important. They are the outward expression of what the person is deep down. In the believer they are the expression of faith, in the unbeliever the expression of unbelief and that whether by way of legalism or antinomianism. The Jew held that salvation was bound up with the law. Very well. Let him look at what this means. It means that a person’s works, not his claims to belong to a favored group, are of the greatest significance, for God will render to each according to those works. The Jew cannot rest in any fancied security of privilege but must look to the day when his works will be subjected to the divine scrutiny. Paul is inviting him to consider how those works will stand up on the Day of Judgment. Paul proceeds to particularize and to divide those being judged into two classes [7]. His word for patience denotes an active, manly fortitude. It is used of the soldier who, in the thick of a hard battle, gives as much as he gets; he is not dismayed by the blows he receives, but fights on to the end. Linked as it is here with well-doing, Paul’s meaning is perseverance in doing what is right. Paul is certainly not speaking of law works as so many ways of acquiring merit. He is speaking of an attitude, the attitude of those who seek certain qualities, not of those who keep certain laws or try to merit a certain reward. Their trust is in God, not in their own achievement. He refers to those whose lives are oriented in a certain way. Their minds are not set on material prosperity or the like, nor on happiness, nor even on being religious. They are set on glory and honor and immortality, qualities which come from a close walk with God. The bent of their lives is towards heavenly things. This linking of glory, honor, and immortality points to a search that is not done from selfish motives (as the worldly-minded seek their favorite pleasures). It springs from a sense of values that arises from the conviction that nothing can compare with these qualities and that these are attained only as the gifts of God. God gives eternal life, the adjective being characteristic of Paul and John. We should not overlook the fact that life in the age to come is characterized by much more than longevity. It is life of a special quality, life lived in the very presence of God. To believe on Jesus Christ is to enter an experience so transforming that one can be said to live only then. And since this new quality of life is eternal, it is permanent. As Paul turns to those who do not seek the things of God, he uses the word But to introduce the contrast [8]. The word translated self-seeking denotes an attitude of self-centeredness coupled with a contentious spirit. People who are motivated by this spirit do not obey the truth. How can they obey it? They have put themselves in the opposite camp; they have given their allegiance to evil, not to God. Out of their wrong motive they disobey the truth and give their obedience to unrighteousness. The linking of wrath and fury gives emphasis to the reality of the wrath that will be poured out on sinners. Tribulation [9] is a strong word, with a meaning like pressure to the point of breaking; it is thus used of dire calamity. Distress conveys the idea of being cramped for lack of space, and thus of extreme affliction. The combination of these two words adds up to rather severe trouble, and this Paul tells us is for every human being who does evil. In view of the Jewish expectation that it was the Gentiles who would be judged by God, while they themselves would escape, it is noteworthy that Paul sees the Jew as the first recipient of judgment. The combination of Jew and Greek here embraces the whole of mankind. Once again but introduces a contrast [10]. Paul is turning from those who do evil to those who are right with God. The combination of glory and honor and peace points to a totality of bliss and blessing. As with the troubles of the previous verse, the blessings of this verse are not restricted, as is brought out in their application to both Jew and Greek. God’s judgment is impartial [11]. The word translated partiality is made up of two words meaning “to receive” and “face”. It thus signifies giving someone a gracious reception, but in the New Testament it is always used in the bad sense of showing partiality or preferring someone without good reason. In the ancient world it was far from axiomatic that justice would be done in the law courts. In fact the opposite would be expected. Why would anyone think that a judge would treat a rich and important person in the same way as a poor and insignificant person? There are many exhortations to just judgment in the Old Testament. It is this kind of evenhanded justice that Paul ascribes to God. He will not weight things in favor of the rich or the poor. Nor will he favor any one nation, be that nation Jew or Greek. In the end we can rely on the fact that justice will be done. And for the sinful that is very frightening.

No One is Righteous:  Romans 3:9-12.

[9]  What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, [10] as it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one; [11]  no one understands; no one seeks for God. [12]  All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”  [ESV]

[9-12]  Paul rounds off this important opening section of his letter with a series of quotations from Scripture that hammer home his point that all people are sinners. For him it is important that his readers be clear about this. Unless there is something to be saved from, there is no point in preaching salvation. Paul’s argument has been that all people, Jew and Gentile alike, are sinners, and he now shows that this is no private opinion but one well grounded in Holy Writ. Together Jews and Greeks make up all mankind, so that Paul is speaking of universal sinfulness in verse 9. He speaks of charging them all with being under sin. He is regarding sin as a tyrant ruler, so that sinners are under it, under sin’s dominion; they cannot break free. Characteristically Paul reinforces what he has to say with an appeal to Scripture. He follows here a common rabbinical practice of stringing passages together like pearls. He indicates their authority by introducing them with as it is written, and by linking passages of similar import he drives home his point that Scripture consistently stresses the fact that we are sinners all. The first quotation is from Psalm 14:1-3, though it is not exactly as in our texts. This is especially true of the words in verse 10, and these may well be Paul’s summary of what the passage is all about rather than part of his quotation. The differences, however, are minor. The point of the quotation is that there is not one righteous person, no, not one, a sentiment with which this section begins and ends. In between we read that no one understands, for surely no one would really choose sin if he fully understood what he was doing. The lack of understanding is coupled with a failure to seek God. Sinners do not look for God; their interest is elsewhere. They have turned aside, a verb that often conveys the idea of deliberate avoidance. Perhaps we cannot press this here, but the word is a strong one and certainly means more than that they accidentally missed their way. Together they have become worthless or useless. This, of course, is to be understood in an ethical sense, a point further brought out with the following no one does good, not even one. The barrenness of this landscape is underlined with the melancholy not even one. There is nothing to lighten the picture. The six negatives make a striking and impressive sequence.

Questions for Discussion:

1.         Why are people ashamed of the gospel? But why was Paul not ashamed of the gospel? Have you seen and experienced the power of God in the gospel?

2.         How does verse 17 explain how the power of God is active in the gospel? What is the righteousness of God? What is the relationship between the gospel and faith?

3.         In 2:5-11, Paul clearly sets forth the teaching of God’s righteous judgment. At the heart of his teaching is the “either/or” of God’s judgment. There are two, and only two, groups involved. What does Paul say about these two groups as to their works and their final outcome?


Romans, volume 1, James Boice, Baker.

The Epistle to the Romans, Douglas Moo, Eerdmans.

The Epistle to the Romans, Leon Morris, Eerdmans.

Romans, John Stott, Inter Varsity.

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