The Main Message in the Book of Romans

The Main Message in the Book of Romans

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Romans 1:16 (NIV) For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile.

Then finally we come to verses 16–17, which are the propositio, or thesis statement, of this entire Roman discourse. It will require some close attention as the major theme of what follows is announced here. It is interesting that this thesis statement begins with a remark about what Paul is not ashamed of: the gospel. Why does he put it this way? Likely it is because of the content of this good news message, namely that a Jewish crucified manual worker from Galilee had been raised from the dead and was now the risen Lord of all!

Many Gentiles would have thought that suggesting a Jew might be a world savior was laughable if not shameful. But more, certainly many more, perhaps most Gentiles’ instinctive reaction to the idea of a crucified man being the savior was a shameful and ridiculous notion. Crucifixion was the most shameful way to die in antiquity, and no one thought it had any redeeming value. Thus it is that Paul says he is not ashamed of this message, and proclaims it boldly.

Why is he not ashamed? Because in fact this message has power, life-changing power, power to save “everyone who believes,” the Jew first, and Greeks as well. The emphasis on the word translated here as “everyone” will be echoed in various places later in the discourse, for instance in Romans 6:10. Jesus did not come to die for and to redeem just some prechosen elect group of people, whether Jewish or Gentile. He came to die for all, and salvation comes to all who believe, without pre-screening. This is precisely why this message is good news for all persons with whom Paul shares the message.

The Second Part of the Thesis Statement

Romans 1:17 (NIV) For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”

Verse 17 is a controversial and much-debated verse so we will unpack it carefully. Paul insists that “the righteousness of God” has been revealed. This verse is clearly connected to the previous one by the word gar, translated as “for.” What is this “righteousness of God”? In the first place it likely refers to God’s moral character, which has been revealed in the Scriptures and more clearly in the death of Jesus for all sin. This word righteousness and its cognates—righteous, to make righteous, to set right, justice, to be just, and so on—will be the constant theme throughout the following discourse. The righteousness of God, however, refers not only to his justice (an example of which we see in Romans 1:18–32), but to his work of redemption as well. God is not merely interested in meting out justice in a wicked and sinful world, but he is also interested in redeeming that world. And so paradoxically we can talk about God’s redemptive judgments. He chastens those he loves, and any judgments prior to the final judgment are meant to be disciplinary, not punitive.

The next phrase literally reads in the Greek “from faith” or “the faithful one unto faith.” This is the phrase that Martin Luther surprisingly and wrongly translated “by faith alone.” More likely Paul means “from the faithful One (either God or Jesus) unto those who have faith.” This makes verses 16–17 more nearly parallel, both referring to the benefits that come from the gospel for those who have faith in it. This reading makes better sense, too, of another controversial phrase to be found and discussed later in Romans: “the faith of Jesus Christ,” which turns out to likely mean “the faithfulness of Jesus” (even unto death on the cross). That’s what the obedience of faith meant for Jesus.

But then finally, Paul offers a somewhat edited proof text from the Old Testament, which in this case comes from Habakkuk 2:4. As we have the quotation here the Greek reads “just as it is written ‘but the righteous from faith (or faithfulness) shall live’” (author’s translation). There are several possible ways to interpret this: (1) but those who are righteous by faith shall live; (2) but those who are righteous shall live by faith; (3) but those who are righteous shall live from faithfulness; (4) but the righteous one shall live from (his) faithfulness. This last interpretation would be the one closest to the Hebrew text of Habbakkuk 2:4, which simply says, “but the righteous person shall live by his faithfulness” (author’s translation). One possible reason to prefer option number four is because Paul will go on in Romans 4 to tell the story of Abraham who “believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness.” That is, both the faith and the righteousness were Abraham’s. There was no substituting of someone else’s righteousness for Abraham’s. Abraham’s faith was reckoned as Abraham’s righteousness.

In terms of the Greek word order, most scholars think that the phrase “by faith” modifies “the righteous” rather than “shall live,” and I would suggest this is probably correct. If the example of Abraham is already in mind then the point would be that one has right standing with God like Abraham by trusting God, as Abraham did. The verb “[shall] live” here then would refer to everlasting life, not physical life without trouble or trauma. In other words, salvation and everlasting life are gifts that come to the believer who trusts in God and in the good news about Jesus Christ. Having established the theme of the following discourse, Paul will then show how this truth plays out for Jews, Greeks, and even “barbarians.”

Questions for Reflection

  1. Why does Paul start by telling the audience what he is not ashamed of?
  2. What might have been seen as shameful about the gospel message?
  3. Have you ever been ashamed of being a Christ-follower? What was the source of that shame?
  4. What does Paul mean by “the righteousness of God”?
  5. Why is “the righteousness of God” such a crucial concept for Paul?
  6. Consider this statement: “He chastens those he loves, and any judgments prior to the final judgment are meant to be disciplinary, not punitive.” How might this comment shape your understanding of God?
  7. Have you ever wondered if God was punishing you? What might be the difference between being punished versus being disciplined in love?

Did you enjoy this entry? Discover our OneBook: Daily-Weekly Bible studies, of which this entry is a part. The OneBook: The Letter to the Romans by Ben Witherington study leads learners to grow in knowledge and faith as they begin to discover the enormous breadth and depth of the scripture contained therein. Over the course of twelve-weeks, this poignant study will guide students toward holy love, revealing more of Christ through deeper understanding. Order the book and video studies from our store here.


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