Lesson 2: Paul and the Christians in Rome (1:8-17)


After his introduction to the letter, Paul directly addresses the Christians in Rome. He is eager to explain how he feels about them.  And he wants them to know more about what it means for him to be a “servant [slave] of Christ Jesus” and an “apostle” to them as well.  He has quite a lot to say.  He mentions twelve things about himself concerning his relationship to God, the gospel, and the Roman Christians.

Pauls Thanksgiving and Prayer (1:8-10)

v. 8

First,[1] Paul wants them to know he thanks his “God through Jesus Christ for all” of them. Paul’s possessive pronoun “my” indicates his personal relationship with God.   Although Paul had not started the church and could not take any credit for their spiritual development, he is still grateful to God for them. As mentioned already, it is clear from the end of the letter Paul personally knew quite a few of them. His love for them is evident here and at the end of the letter.

Paul’s relationship with them is “through Jesus Christ.” This is the ground and foundation of Christian love.  Jesus Christ has created access to God, allowing Paul to express his thanksgiving. As Jesus himself taught his disciples:

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. (John 13:34-35)

Later, Jesus expands on this in his special prayer for the whole church, including all congregations throughout the world until his return.  Amazingly, in this prayer, Jesus’ desire for his church is to be “one” just as God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit are One. And just as amazing, the Father loves the church as he loves his Son! Our union with Christ is not just as individual Christians but corporately as a church.

“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. (John 17:20-23)

Paul thanks God because their “faith” is now “proclaimed in all the world.” The reference to the “world” is the known Roman empire. Rome was the capital and home of Caesar. The city of Rome represented imperial pride and power. People throughout the empire venerated Rome and Caesar. Although Paul had no part or responsibility in bringing the gospel to Rome, nonetheless, he was delighted and grateful for their public faith in Christ.

vv. 9-10a

Paul calls on God himself to be his “witness.” The term “witness” also means God knows Paul’s heart.  Here, Paul is appealing to God’s perfect knowledge of the truth.  This was not unusual for Paul when he wrote letters (2 Corinthians 1:23; Galatians 1:20; Philippians 1:8). The God who is called as a witness is the God “I serve with my spirit.”  This declaration refers to Paul’s first statement in the letter, “Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus.”  Once again, Paul is making it clear to the Rome Christians, Christ Jesus and God are the same, for he goes on to refer to the “gospel of God” as the “gospel of his Son.”

The phrase “with my spirit” is likely a reference to the Holy Spirit in union with Paul’s spirit. Paul serves Christ Jesus through God’s own Spirit.[2]

Paul is calling God to be his witness to tell the Christians how much he has been praying for them. Even though he does not know most of them personally, he still prays for them, mentioning them constantly or “without ceasing.” This is not a superficial promise. Even though he cannot be with them, Paul expresses his deep love for them by faithfully praying for them. William Barclay, commenting on prayer, writes, “It is always a Christian privilege and duty to bear our loved ones and all our fellow Christians to the throne of grace.”[3]  He also quotes Gregory of Nyssa, an early pastor (ca. 370 ad) from the region of Cappadocia mentioned in Acts 2:9 and 1 Peter 1:1:

The effect of prayer is union with God, and, if someone is with God, he is separated from the enemy. Through prayer we guard our chastity, control our temper and rid ourselves of vanity. It makes us forget injuries, overcomes envy, defeats injustice and makes amends for sin. Through prayer we obtain physical wellbeing, a happy home, and a strong, well-ordered society … Prayer is the seal of virginity and a pledge of faithfulness in marriage. It shields the wayfarer, protects the sleeper, and gives courage to those who keep vigil … It will refresh you when you are weary and comfort you when you are sorrowful. Prayer is the delight of the joyful as well as the solace of the afflicted.

v. 10b

One of Paul’s consistent prayers is, by “God’s will,” he might “at last succeed in coming to” them.  Paul has desired to come to Rome, but, as yet, it has not been God’s will. Paul's desire was not wrong; rather, it was not God’s timing. Paul is submissive to God’s will despite his longing to visit Rome. However, it appears to Paul that he will soon succeed in visiting Rome.  Recall, Paul wrote this letter in Corinth just before his last visit to Jerusalem, where he was arrested and imprisoned. However, it would not be for another two years, and then in chains, that he would finally be able to come to Rome.

Paul’s three purposes for visiting Rome (1:11-12)

v. 11 The First Purpose:  to give them a spiritual gift

 The first reason he “longs to see them” is to bring “some spiritual gift” so they might be “strengthened.”  There has been much speculation about what this gift might be.  It is unlikely it is one of the charismatic gifts (12:6; Ephesians 4:11; 1 Corinthians 12:11) since God only gives those gifts. Most likely, then, he is referring to his preaching and teaching of the gospel since the gift is “to strengthen” the church.[4] To be strengthened means that their commitment to Christ and the gospel would mature despite all the opposition they were experiencing (1 Thessalonians 3:2; Ephesians 3:16).  However, it would be a gift “derived from the Spirit” in grace and power; in other words, a spiritual blessing (15:27).

v. 12 The Second Purpose: for mutual encouragement

Paul also recognizes the Roman Christians have much to offer him. He describes this “spiritual gift” as “mutual encouragement.” Paul, the great apostle to the Gentiles, had seen and had been personally sent by Jesus. He was the greatest preacher, evangelist, pastor, and thinker of the fledgling Christian church. Through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, much of our New Testament Scripture comes from his pen.  Yet, he is not too proud to realize he has much to receive in encouragement from their faith.  Again, these are not just platitudes. The great apostle knows God has worked in the lives of these Romans just as God has worked in his own life.  And so, he recognizes he can receive a blessing from them as well.  Paul fully expected to be spiritually refreshed by his fellowship with them. This is what he desired.  John Calvin, impressed by this response from Paul, writes:[5]

See to what degree of modesty his pious heart submitted itself, so that he disdained not to seek confirmation from unexperienced beginners. He means what he says, for there is no one so void of gifts in the Church of Christ, who is not able to contribute something to our spiritual progress.

Such a great teacher of the early church could be encouraged by those with much less knowledge than him. This faith has its basis in a personal relationship with God and is not simply based on theological knowledge.

v. 13 The Third Purpose: to reap a harvest

Paul also wants them to know he has been prevented from coming to Rome before this.  He seems particularly concerned they will feel he is avoiding or ignoring them just because he had not founded the church. Paul may be addressing some criticism of him for not coming to Rome earlier. He tells them, “I do not want you to be unaware[6] for he has “often intended to come to” them. He has already told them that he has been praying for a long time to come to Rome. While Paul was in Ephesus during his third missionary journey, Luke quotes Paul saying, “I must also see Rome” (Acts 19:21).  But so far, he has not been able, not because he did not want to or lacked the will to come.  The most likely reason is, he had not completed his missionary work in Asia (15:22ff).  It was, therefore, not God’s timing.

He gives a further reason for coming to Rome: “in order to reap some harvest.” This “harvest” refers both to the mutual spiritual gift (“among you”) he had just been talking about; and “as well as” to the evangelistic work “among the rest of the Gentiles” – those who had not yet put their faith in Christ.[7]

Pauls reasons to preach the gospel in Rome (1:14-16a)

Paul also gives three reasons for his desire to preach the gospel in Rome, where he hopes to reap a harvest for Christ. He states first that he is “under obligation” to preach, he is “eager to preach,” and he is “not ashamed” to preach the gospel.  Paul’s main emphasis in preaching the gospel is evangelism for the glory of God.

First, Paul’s sense of obligation or duty comes from the fact he has been called to be an apostle of Christ and has been set aside for the gospel of God.  Jesus had entrusted him with the gospel. This obligation was told to him by Ananias who was given a vision of Paul as God’s chosen instrument (Acts 9:15). Paul’s obligation is clearer in his letter to the Corinthian church. There he writes:

For if I preach the gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting. For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! (1 Corinthians 9:16)

Therefore, Paul was indebted to fulfill this obligation to the “Greeks and barbarians” and the “wise and the foolish.”  These four designations include all categories of Gentiles.

Secondly, Paul is not just obligated but is “eager” to preach the gospel.  It is not simply a duty commanded by Christ but his joy and delight. It is worth noting Paul did not distinguish between duty or obligation and delight.  Both these were evident in his service to God. This is a distinction we also should not make ourselves.  Our service ought to be both a duty and a delight, even though one of these may be more pronounced than the other.

And thirdly, Paul is “not ashamed” to preach the gospel. We will say more about this third reason in the next section.

The Theme of the Letter (1:16-17)

In verses 1 and 9, Paul states he was set apart to preach “the gospel of God”; that is, the “gospel of his Son.”  In 1:3-4, he states this gospel is the gospel of Christ, the descendant of David and who is now, as the risen Lord, the Son-of-God-in-power. In vv. 14-15, Paul stated he is “under obligation” and “eager” to preach the gospel. In verses 16 and 17, he explains this power in four statements. This explanation is a central theme of the entire letter. 

He emphasizes that he is “not ashamed” of the gospel and then gives additional reasons why he is not. Paul says, “the gospel is the power of God.” And the reason “the gospel” is the power of God is because it is “salvation for everyone who believes” and because it is the “righteousness of God.” He concludes by stating that this righteousness is “from faith to faith.” What does Paul mean by these four statements?

1. I am not ashamed of the Gospel (v. 16a)

Paul first states he “is not ashamed of the gospel.” It seems strange that Paul would begin such an important truth about the gospel this way.  Jesus Christ had called and set Paul apart to proclaim the gospel to the Gentiles (1:5; 11:13; Acts 9:15). Paul had taught that this gospel proclaimed salvation as a gift of grace through faith alone. As a result, he became a very contentious preacher among the Jews who remained loyal to the Mosaic law. Many Jews had accepted Jesus as their Messiah but also felt a Gentile must come under the Mosaic law to be saved.  This would require Gentiles to be circumcised, follow the food laws, and keep the Sabbath.  Paul would appear to be a traitor to Judaism (3:8). 

There also would have been gentile Christians who thought he had not gone far enough in distancing himself from the Jews.  Antisemitism was alive at this time.  Since the Roman church contained Jews and Gentiles, he might have been aware or concerned he was being judged for the gospel he was preaching. To the non-believing Jew and Gentile, the gospel also appears as “folly to those who are perishing” (1 Corinthians 1:18; cf. 1:21, 23; 2:14; 3:18; see also 2 Corinthians 2:15-16). 

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.  For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.  For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. (1 Corinthians 1:20-25)

So, Paul makes a point right at the beginning, the gospel he preaches is true. He will not back away from it to please the loyal Jew or the radical Gentile.  Paul continues to preach a gospel of grace first given to Jews and then Gentiles. The relationship between the gospel to Jews and Gentiles and the relationship between Jews and Gentiles are addressed throughout the letter.[8]

Although Paul was not ashamed of the gospel, he was undoubtedly shamed for the gospel by wicked men.  In other words, to be shamed is what others do to the believer, but to be a-shamed is what a believer does to Christ and his gospel.  Jesus was shamed for the gospel by the Roman soldiers and the Jewish leaders. In Hebrews 12:2, the writer tells us:

Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy[9] that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:2)

Jesus predicted this when he told his disciples:

For he [Jesus] will be delivered over to the Gentiles and will be mocked and shamefully treated and spit upon. (Luke 18:32)

And this is what happened when the Roman soldiers shamefully treated him:

And they clothed him in a purple cloak, and twisting together a crown of thorns, they put it on him.  And they began to salute him, “Hail, King of the Jews!”  And they were striking his head with a reed and spitting on him and kneeling down in homage to him.  And when they had mocked him, they stripped him of the purple cloak and put his own clothes on him. And they led him out to crucify him. (Mark 15:17-20)

Jesus “despised” this shaming but he was never a-shamed. Paul too was shamed for the gospel in the same manner.  He relates to the Christians in Corinth:

Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one.  Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. (2 Corinthians 11:24-27)

Jesus also had strong words for those who were ashamed of him and the gospel.  Speaking to the crowd and the disciples, he said:

For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” (Mark 8:38)

But rather than being ashamed, Paul looked to the power of God, which is Christ. Paul would not alter, modify or water down the gospel to be more acceptable.  There is no clearer statement than in his letter to the Galatian church. There he writes:

For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ. (Galatians 1:10)

Paul also instructs Timothy about being ashamed.  Being ashamed is connected with a fear of suffering and harm. 

Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God, […] which is why I suffer as I do. But I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that he is able to guard until that day what has been entrusted to me. (2 Timothy 1:8, 12)

This is as true for us as it has been true for Christians who have experienced shame, suffering and harm over the last two millennia. Only the gospel can bring true salvation and restoration.  Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and even Judaism have no Saviour who can save us from the wrath of God. Only one gospel can do that; the one true gospel of Christ.

            Certainly, Paul and many Christians have been shamed but they have not been ashamed. We, like Christ, are to “despise” the shame for the glory awaiting us in heaven (8:18; Hebrews 12:2; 1 Peter 1:3-9). Paul now gives the reasons he is not ashamed: “it is the power of God for salvation” and “it reveals the righteousness of God.” 

2. The Gospel is the Power of God for Salvation (v. 16b)

The second statement in v. 16 explains why Paul is not ashamed. It is because the gospel has at its foundation Jesus Christ who “was declared to be the Son-of-God-in-power” (v. 4).  Christ is “the power of God” who mediates our salvation. The word “power” refers to the Old Testament teaching that only God is powerful (Exodus 9:16, cited in Romans 9:17; Psalms 77:14-15). Although the Old Testament has many verses relating to the power of God, here in Paul’s letter, the emphasis is on the power of God “for salvation.

This power is both effective and transforming. Therefore, the gospel is not simply a message and is certainly not a religious philosophy. Instead, God works through his Word (John 1:1-5, 15; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 Corinthians 2:4; 4:20).

As Isaiah prophesied about Jesus:

      “For to us a child is born,

                  to us a son is given;

       and the government shall be upon his shoulder,

                  and his name shall be called

       Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,

                  Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” (Isaiah 9:6)

The New Testament's use of the word “salvation,” and the way Paul uses it, often refers to the last day of judgment (5:9-10, and Hebrews 2:13). However, Paul also understands this salvation is already enjoyed in the present by those who put their hope and trust in Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord (8:24; 2 Corinthians 6:2).  In these references, salvation is the absence of condemnation (8:1).  Although we were once sinners under his wrath, all that has changed. We are no longer under his judgment.  He has saved us from sin, Satan, everlasting death and hell. In other words, he has saved us from his wrath. He has saved us from the judgment and punishment reserved for all who are in the kingdom of darkness.  God’s salvation means we have been rescued from the kingdom of darkness and transferred into the kingdom of light (Colossians 1:13).

Salvation is not only from condemnation, but it is to glory. We are filled with the Holy Spirit the moment we receive Christ as our Saviour. Chapter 8, as we will see, is the most significant exposition on the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. And as a result, we know God uniquely and personally – this is ‘heart’ knowledge. Our relationship with God was broken but is now restored.  God initiates this restoration and indwelling understanding. We know him only because he first knew us (1 Corinthians 8:3; Galatians 4:9).  This is what it means for us to have eternal life (John 17:3). We can never truly know God on our own, even though all people have an inborn desire for God. 

The indwelling of the Holy Spirit is also our union with Christ. Christ is in us, and we are in him. Salvation also means we have been adopted as his children. Adoption means that God is now our Father and fellow believers are our brothers and sisters in Christ (Galatians 4:5). Surprisingly, even shockingly, Scripture says Jesus the Son of God is our brother![10] Since we are adopted children, we are fellow heirs with Christ. And this adoption is not just a legal statement; it initiates a Father-child relationship through his Spirit of adoption so that we can call him “Abba! Father!” (Galatians 4:6). We are no longer under God’s wrath but under his love; instead of experiencing his anger, we experience his love.

This present and future salvation are for “everyone.” This means there is nothing ruling anyone out. It does not matter which race, social class, family background or language; even more importantly, no one is excluded by any sin – all are included!  However, it is essential to note there is a condition for this salvation.  Salvation is only for those “who believe.” So, there is only one ‘rule’ excluding anyone from salvation. Believing or faith is strongly emphasized in these verses. Notice, the verb “believes” is in the present tense. Belief must be ongoing.  Our present and future salvation depend on our abiding faith in Christ.  This is not just a one-time event.  That saving faith must be continual and active is taught throughout the New Testament (1 Corinthians 15:1-2; Hebrews 3:6, 14; James 2:17, 26). Faith that does not persevere to the end is not saving faith (11:22). Yet we also know this faith is not something we can produce on our own; faith itself is a gift from God (Ephesians 2:8; John 6:28-29, 44-45; Romans 12:3; Acts 3:16; Philippians 1:29; 2 Peter 1:1). Believing is not something we do (as work) but a response to God’s grace.[11]  And when God grants us faith, we can be sure he will carry us through until the final day (Philippians 1:6).

Because of the issues most likely existing between the Christian Jews and Gentiles in Rome, Paul also states that this gospel is “to the Jews first and also to the Greek.[12]  But exactly what does he mean when he says the Jews are first? How are they first?  John Piper points out that there are six ways in which Jews have priority and three ways concerning the gospel they do not:[13]

1.      First, the Jews are God’s special chosen people.  In Genesis 12:1, the Lord chooses to only and specifically bless the individual Abram from all the pagans in the world.  This was not because Abram was uniquely gifted or pious; it depended on God’s sovereign choice (Nehemiah 9:7; Amos 3:2). Later in the letter, Paul, speaking about the Jews, writes, “As regards the gospel, they [Jews] are enemies for your [Gentiles] sake. But as regards election, they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers. For God's gifts and calling are irrevocable” (11:28-29). Jews have priority over Gentiles simply because it is God’s sovereign will.  God decided to set his love and favour on them and separated them from all other nations and peoples.  This was God’s free choice (Deuteronomy 7:7-8).

2.      Jews are given guardianship of God’s special revelation in the Old Testament (3:1; 9:4).

3.      Jesus, as the son of David and the Son of God, was himself a Jew and came first to the Jews (1:3; 9:5; Matthew 10:5-6; 15:24).

4.      As such, salvation itself is from the Jews. Jesus himself said to the Samaritan woman, “You worship what you do not know; we [Jews] worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22).  All salvation is through God’s covenant with Abraham (Galatians 3:7).

5.      Recognizing this, Paul always began first preaching the gospel to the Jews. In Antioch of Presidia, he tells the Jews there, “it was necessary that the word of God be spoken first to you” (Acts: 13:46).

6.      Amazingly, Jews also have priority over Gentiles in their final blessing as well as judgment.  Again, in Paul’s letter to the Roman church, he writes, “There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honour and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek” (2:9-10).

Jews were, are, and remain God’s chosen people. Yet, when it comes to the gospel itself, Jews do not have a priority.

1.      Jews do not have a priority in righteousness or merit (3:9-10). Paul clarifies this when he says, “There is no distinction; for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (3:22-23).

2.      Jews are not saved from God’s wrath differently from Gentiles (3:29-30; 10:12; Galatians 3:26-29).

3.      Jews do not have a special participation in God’s covenant blessings (Ephesians 2:12-13; 18-19; 3:4-6).

Jews and Gentiles depend equally on God’s faithfulness and mercy; neither are they exceptional in and of themselves. No race can state they have special access to God’s grace. As he chose Abram, a pagan, entirely out of his mercy, love and grace, he now chooses us to be his children.

3. The Gospel is the Righteousness of God (v. 17a)

As mentioned, salvation (v. 16) is from the wrath of God on all who are rebelling against him.  But how exactly does the gospel show us how believers are saved?  We know it does, so we rejoice in the salvation of the gospel.  But the question remains: How does the gospel provide the plan to save us from God’s wrath and bring us into an eternal relationship with him?

The answer to this question is in verse 17, “for in it [the gospel] the righteousness[14] of God is revealed.”  Martin Luther struggled with understanding the phrase “the righteousness of God” for a long time.  He thought it was terrible news because he understood “righteousness” only to be the justice of God.  The Greek word for righteousness is also the same word for justice.  He knew he was unrighteous and under God’s wrath, so he also understood he was under God’s condemnation by the justice or righteousness of God. God demands godly righteousness from us; that is, perfect obedience to his law.  We are to be holy because he is holy (Leviticus 11:44-45; 19:2; 20:7; 1 Peter 1:16).   But we are not. Not only that, there is nothing we can do to make ourselves righteous before God. So we stand condemned, guilty and alienated without hope of salvation since we are unrighteous (3:20, 23). Luther was right to be overwhelmed by his alienation from God in this sense.

However, the gospel, the good news, changes everything.  The amazing good news is this absolute holiness and righteousness God demands of us – a righteousness that we can never attain for ourselves – is given to us as a free gift of grace. He himself gives what he demands. God declares us righteous (i.e., just) before him.  We are no longer guilty in his sight.  The “righteousness of God[15] is a righteousness that comes from God (genitive of source); rather than bad news, as Luther first thought, it is good news.  When this truth dawned on him, he was overcome with joy.  As Charles Hodge writes, “the righteousness by which we are justified is not due to anything done by us, but something done for us and imputed to us. It is the work of Christ, what he did and suffered to satisfy the demands of the law.”[16] This way of understanding the phrase – that God is the source, or author, of the righteousness imputed to us (Philippians 3:9) – has been the primary interpretation of the Protestant church.

However, the “righteousness of God” in this verse has been understood in other ways. There has hardly been a phrase more discussed and argued over.  For example, some have said the phrase could mean God’s righteousness, in forgiving our sin, is in placing sin’s punishment as a substitutional atonement on Jesus.  This way of understanding views “righteousness” is an attribute of God.[17]  This emphasizes God’s faithfulness to his own righteous nature and transforming power to accomplish our salvation.  Of course, this is undoubtedly true. However, Paul’s emphasis in this passage is not just on God’s righteousness as a description of who God is, but on a righteousness imputed from God to us.

Recently other interpreters have argued the phrase means God’s covenant faithfulness with Israel. God’s righteousness and his covenant faithfulness are closely linked.  However, defining the phrase this way cannot be the central truth “the gospel” reveals. God’s righteous character toward Israel has already been revealed fully in dealing with Israel and the law.[18]

We agree, then, with Luther’s interpretation. Because Paul emphasizes the gospel, the phrase means “the righteousness from God”; that is, our right to stand before God without condemnation in his presence (8:1). This is the same emphasis in Paul’s letter to the Philippian church, where he explicitly uses the word “from”:

Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— (Philippians 3:8-9; see also Romans 3:21-22; 4:3-22; 9:30-31; 10:3-10; Galatians 2:20-21; 3:6, 21-22; 5:5)

And again, in Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth:

For your sake, he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21)

This “righteous” is God’s righteousness, a righteousness imputed to us.  Although we have no righteousness of our own, God credits or imputes his righteousness to us through faith so we, too, can be called righteous (4:3).[19] All those who put their hope and trust – the active understanding of “believe” – in Christ receive the gift of God’s righteousness. This is what justification by faith means and how the phrase has been understood throughout the Protestant reformation.  When viewed within all of salvation history, beginning with Adam, “the righteousness of God” is God’s plan of salvation being worked out to put his people into a right relationship with him.

But we might ask: how is it possible God can give us the gift of his Son’s righteousness when we are sinners under God’s wrath? We deserve condemnation, yet God’s free gift to us is his own righteousness.  The only way this is possible is because of the cross. Before we could receive Christ’s righteousness, Christ received our condemnation.  He took our sins and wickedness upon himself so justice would be done. For our sins justly deserve death. This is the Great Exchange: our sins are put on Christ Jesus, and his perfect righteousness is put on us. This is grace – an undeserved gift from God – so we can now have peace with God; that is, in a loving relationship with him.


Special Topic: The Righteousness of God

The righteousness of God is a very significant theme in Paul's letters. In Romans, the nouns "righteous" or “justification" (these are the same word in Greek) are used thirty times and the equivalent verb "justify" another twenty times. As we have seen in 1:17, Paul uses the phrase "righteousness of God" to refer to the saving redeeming righteousness from God. God's saving righteousness is a gift of grace given to those who put their hope and trust in his Son, Jesus Christ. However, elsewhere, Paul also uses the phrase to mean God's judging ethical righteousness, behaviour pleasing to God (6:13, 16, 18-20). Those who obey the law of God (either the Mosaic law for Jews or the natural law given to every person) are righteous.  That is, they have a right to stand before God. Those who break the law are unrighteous. Scripture is also clear no one can attain this righteousness (3:20, 23).  Therefore, since God demands perfect obedience, no one is justified, i.e., righteous before God (James 2:10; Galatians 3:10; 1 John 1:8, 10).  Human beings need his saving righteousness (grace) because of God’s judging righteousness (justice).

Unfortunately, we often separate these two aspects of God’s righteousness as two independent attributes of God.  They are not.  God’s justice demands his saving mercy and love, and, at the same time, his compassion and love demand his ethical justice.  Within the Protestant church, and particularly reformed theology, God’s ethical and moral justice has been contrasted with his redeeming love.  However, we must not separate them in this way but see them as one perfect whole; the holiness of God.

When we look at God's saving righteousness, it includes two great gifts: the forgiveness of our sins (4:6-8) and Christ's own righteousness imputed to us (3:21-22; 4:3; 5:19; Isaiah 61:10).  This is what Jesus did for us on the cross. We are guilty of sin and deserve the punishment of death.  Jesus took this punishment upon himself, paying the debt, once and for all, of our sin: past, present and future.  As Paul wrote elsewhere:

And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by cancelling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. (Colossians 2:13-14)

And again:

For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith (Philippians 3:8b-9)

The apostle Peter states the same truth:

For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God (1 Peter 3:18)   

This means no matter what it is, every sin is forgiven by the saving sacrifice of the Son of God for those who put their hope and trust in him.  This even includes murder.  Apostle Paul knew this truth as an experienced reality since he was a murderer of Stephen (Acts 7:58).  Some people believe anyone who dies with unconfessed sin will not go to heaven based on verses such as Mark 13:13 or Hebrews 3:14. Christian endurance to the end of life is a serious matter and must not be reduced in importance. Yet, God knows our hearts and knows who his own children are. If our salvation depends on our confession of every sin, then heaven would be an empty place for almost everyone dies with unconfessed sin. Thanks be to God this is not the case. Our salvation does not depend on us but only on the gift of righteousness, which is received through faith. Christ’s death on the cross paid the price for all our sins. As Paul will say later in this letter:

For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)

There is absolutely nothing separating a child of God from the love of their Father. In this love, we can take great comfort for ourselves and our loved ones.    

            But not only does Christ forgive all our sins, he also gives us his own righteousness. Because of this, we are declared – in a judicial sense – to be righteous in Christ Jesus. At the last judgment, we will stand without fear because our sins are forgiven and because we have been given Christ’s righteousness. The shocking, amazing, and wonderful truth of the gospel is that we imputed our sins and penalty to him on Christ's cross. And he, in turn, imputed his perfect righteousness to us. As it is often called, this Great Exchange occurred at the moment of our conversion. We will never be more righteous than at that moment of salvation, no matter how much we have grown in spiritual maturity, because, at the moment of conversion, we receive the gift of Christ’s righteousness. This gift of righteousness is a permanent judicial declaration of our righteousness status before God based on Christ's own righteousness. This Great Exchange is the most incredible, surprising and wonderful gift of all. It is where God’s love and justice meet. The earliest Christian pastors taught this amazing truth.  Mathetes, a faithful disciple of Christ, writes in his “Epistle to Diognetus” around the 2nd century:

O sweet exchange! O unsearchable operation! O benefits surpassing all expectation! That the wickedness of many should be hid in a single righteous One, and that the righteousness of One should justify many transgressors!

It can hardly be said better! This is what justification means; this is what righteousness of God means. 

            Of course, there is an ongoing need to grow in maturity in Christ.  The process of such maturity is referred to as sanctification.  Although sanctification has as its foundation justification, these must not be confused.  We are not justified because we are sanctified; we are sanctified because we are justified. During this time between our justification and entire sanctification, we retain our sinful condition and continue to struggle with sin.  However, our justification in Christ Jesus is fixed and permanent. It is the basis by which we come before the judgment of God with confidence and assurance, “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (8:1).


4. From Faith to Faith (v. 17b)

Paul has also stated that this righteousness is “revealed from faith to faith.”  This phrase has also been discussed often within the church.  What could Paul mean by this double reference to faith? The early church fathers understood it to mean “from the faith in the law to the faith in the gospel.” Calvin and others thought it meant growing or maturing in the faith of the individual Christian. However, Paul is more likely that he is simply placing a strong emphasis on faith.  In other words, the phrase means “from faith and nothing but faith.”[20]  This faith is only possible if it is “revealed” to us by the Holy Spirit.  Apart from God’s revelation to us, we cannot comprehend the truth of the gospel.

When we come into the presence of God, it is his Son’s perfect righteousness that the Father sees.  This is only possible if we receive this perfect gift through faith in Christ Jesus. This is why there is such a strong emphasis on faith in Paul’s letters.  Paul now points out the requirement of this faith by quoting the Old Testament prophet Habakkuk: “The righteous [person] shall live by faith.” Paul has used this quote before in his letter to the Galatians.[21]  There, he writes:

So it is clear that no one can be made right with God by trying to keep the law. For the Scriptures say, “It is through faith that a righteous person has life.” (Galatians 3:11 nlt)

So “shall live” refers to our ongoing life of faith and that our life of faith results in eternal life. But the emphasis is on the latter. This is “obedience of faith” (1:5; 16:26). As John Stott writes, “Paul’s concern here is not how a righteous person lives, but how sinful people become righteous.”[22]  Habakkuk’s promise of ‘life’ is fulfilled in the resurrection of Christ.

Verses 16 and 17 refer to four aspects of the gospel: the power of God for salvation, expressed as the righteousness from God, which is received by faith, resulting in eternal life. Paul is not ashamed of such a great gospel. Instead, Paul is proud and eager to preach it to everyone, both Jews and Gentiles.

Overview of vv. 16-17

We may now summarize these verses as follows:

Paul is not ashamed of the gospel. 

      Why are we not ashamed?

                  Because the gospel reveals the power of God for                                                                                                     our salvation.  This salvation is available to every-                                                                                                          one but is first given to Jews and then to others.

      When is this power of God for our salvation revealed? 

                  It has been revealed to us that God’s own righteousness

is given to us when we put our hope and trust in his Son.

      How do we receive this righteousness? 

                  Only by faith and nothing but faith. 

      What is the result of receiving this righteousness by faith? 

                  We are given eternal life!


Special Topic: Why does God save us?

It seems reasonable to ask why God would grant his people saving righteousness since the cost of this gift was so great to him. A good answer is that he loves his people (Deuteronomy 4:37; 7:7-8; John 3:16; Romans 5:8). But before he could love people, people had to exist.  Why did he create humans in the first place, and why did he call a special people for himself from all the people in the world? To answer these questions, we need to begin with the creation account in Genesis:

So, God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them (Genesis 1:27)

That humanity was created in the image of God means we were created to reflect God’s glory.  In other words, we were created to glorify God.  This is what an image does.   However, it did not take long for humans to fail miserably in honouring and glorifying God (Genesis 3; 6:5).  So God tells us that he called out Israel, a people for himself for the glory of his name:

The Lord will not forsake his people, for his great name’s sake, because it has pleased the Lord to make you a people for himself. (1 Samuel 12:22)

And in Isaiah, the prophet:

And he said to me, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.” (Isaiah 49:3)

And again, in Isaiah:

I will say to the north, Give up, and to the south, Do not withhold; bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the end of the earth, everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.” (Isaiah 43:4-7)

So, God created Israel as a people for the glory of his name.  This is revealed ultimately in God’s preservation of Israel:

Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver; I have tried you in the furnace of affliction. For my own sake, for my own sake, I do it, for how should my name be profaned? My glory I will not give to another. (Isaiah 48:9-11; see also Jeremiah 13:10-11)

The New Testament agrees with this, for Paul, writing to the Corinthian church, states:

As grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God. (2 Corinthians 4:15; see also Ephesians 1:6, 12, 14)

So both God's ethical and saving righteousness are foundational to his desire to glorify his name. All God’s people – whether Jew or Gentile – now exist to honour and glorify God; that is, to love the Lord our God with all our hearts, souls, and might. The fundamental sin of the Gentiles and the Jews was their failure to glorify and honour God’s name (1:21; 2:24).  Instead, they glorified themselves.


Questions for Reflection

Study it

1.     [vv. 8-15] Why does Paul give such a lengthy introduction highlighting that he has not visited them?

2.     [v. 8] How does Paul know their faith was “proclaimed in all the world”?  What does “world” mean?

3.     [v. 9] What do you think Paul means by saying, “my spirit”? And what does it mean that Paul prays “without ceasing”?

4.     [v. 10] There was likely nothing physical preventing Paul from going to Rome. Paul clearly desired to go to Rome. So how do Paul’s will (his decision not to go) and God’s will work together?  (Hint: What was Paul’s greatest desire?)

5.     [v. 12] How would Paul be encouraged by being in Rome?

6.     [vv. 14-16a] Identify the reasons Paul gives for preaching the gospel.  Are any of these your reasons?

7.     [v. 16] Why does Paul say he is “not ashamed”? Why is salvation first for the Jews?  Is this still the case today?  Will it still be the case in the future? 

8.     [v. 17a] What does “righteousness of God” mean in this verse?  Why did Martin Luther have such a hard time with this phrase?  Was Luther right in having a hard time with it?

9.     [v. 17b] What does “from faith to faith” mean?  Why can it only be “revealed”? And how is it revealed?

10.  [v. 17c] Why does Paul quote Habakkuk here?  Why is this such an important verse in the New Testament?

Live it

1.     How comfortable are you in speaking about the gospel to others?  Have you ever been ashamed?  Have you ever been shamed because of it? Do Paul’s reasons for not being ashamed help you?

2.     How important is the doctrine of ‘union in Christ’ to you?

3.     How much do your prayers include thanksgiving? Do you remember answered prayers and thank God for them?

4.     Do you think Paul’s sense of obligation to evangelize applies to us (1 Corinthians 4:16; 11:1)?

5.     How are evangelism and discipleship related?  Is maturing in Christ and “obedience from faith” (1:5) equally important?

6.     Paul never waters down the gospel. He taught that following Jesus will bring emotional and physical pain.  But this has not always been taught in the church.  What about you personally and your church corporately?

7.     What does “saved” mean to you? What do “the righteousness of God” and “justification” mean to you personally? Are they just theological words, or do you rejoice in this Good News? What reason does Paul give for salvation?

8.     Have you ever thought about what would happen if you suddenly died with unconfessed sin?  On what grounds are you still saved?

[1]First” is not followed by a “second, “third” etc. Most likely it refers to Paul’s thankfulness to God for their faith which had become known throughout the world rather than first in a list.  So “first” means most important. There was nothing more important to Paul than God being glorified through his church. And for this he gives thanks to God.

[2] Fee, 484-486.

[3] Barclay, 19-20.

[4] Stott, 56.

[5] Calvin, 58.

[6] This is a quote that Paul often used to introduce an important personal statement (11:25; 1 Cor. 10:1; 12:1; 2 Cor. 1:8; 1 Thess. 4:13).

[7] Osborne, 30.

[8] It should be noted, however, other commentators have a different understanding of this phrase. They understand the phrase “I am not ashamed” to be a figure of speech called a litotes. What this means is Paul is actually saying the opposite: he really believes that it is a great honour to proclaim it (Bruce, 85; See also TEV translation).  It is certainly true Paul takes great pride in proclaiming the gospel of Christ (v. 15). The reason for this pride is yhe gospel contains the message of God’s saving power for all who put their hope and trust in his Son.  However, this way of understanding the phrase is unlikely.

[9] The “joy” that was set before Jesus was his exaltation to the right hand of the Father (Hebrews 1:3).

[10] When we are “born again,” as Jesus tells Nicodemus (John 3:3), we become sons of God, and God becomes our Father (8:4; Galatians 4:4-6; 2 Corinthians 5:17). This is not just a nice metaphor; it is a physical and spiritual reality.  Nowhere is this clearer than in the letter to the Hebrews.  “For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one source. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brothers” (Hebrews 2:11).  In this letter to the Romans, Paul also says, For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, so that he might be the firstborn among many brothers (8:29). This last reference certainly does not mean Jesus was the first adopted son.  He was always the eternal Son of God, and we can only call him our brother if we are in union with him.

[11] Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, 67.

[12] Throughout the book of Acts, we see, whenever Paul comes into a new town, he always begins preaching in a synagogue.  This is not just a tactical move or convenience but it relates to God’s promises in Scripture for the descendants of Abraham.  Even though Paul was anointed to be an apostle to the Gentiles, he was also a Jew for the Jews so he might “win the Jews” (1 Corinthians 9:20). We should never diminish the ‘Jewishness’ of Paul.  He remained a Jew and understood the gospel to be a fulfillment (not a replacement) of the earlier covenants of Abraham and Moses (3:28-29).  Gentile Christians were “grafted” into Israel and do not replace Israel (11:17-21).

[13] John Piper, To the Jew First, and Also to the Greek, Sermon, July 5th, 1998.

[14] The word “righteousness” is a very important word in this letter.  It is used at least thirty times.  It is used in different ways.  Each time our understanding must be based on the context in which it is used.

[15] The phrase occurs eight times in Romans (1:17; 3:5, 21, 22, 25, 26; 10:3 2x) and only in Romans, making it part of the special message of the letter.

[16] Hodge, 31.

[17] God is understood to be the subject and righteousness the object.

[18] Stott, 62. See also Schreiner, Romans, 69.

[19] There is also a parallel set of verses in 3:21-26 where the righteousness of God is mentioned four times.  In 3:24-25 it is the blood of Jesus that is a propitiation for us which we receive by grace.  “This shows God’s righteousness.” Therefore, God is revealing his own righteousness by crediting his righteousness to us sinners when we put our faith in his Son.  His righteousness becomes our righteousness. 

[20] Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, 76. See also 2 Corinthians 2:16 for a similar emphasizes this as well.

[21] The reference to Habakkuk highlights the harmony of Paul’s teaching with the prophets.  The writer to the Hebrews also quotes this verse.

[22] Stott, 65.