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. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.” —Romans 1:16-17
The phrase in Romans I love the most is “newness of life” in Romans 6:4. There’s also “the new way of the Spirit” in 7:6 and “the renewal of your mind” in 12:2. Why are we here in church today? Because we want God to do something new in our lives and in our city. We long for revival. It’s what God does. One of the last things God says at the end of the Bible – he wants this to be our take-away thought as we close the book – is his declaration, “Behold, I am making all things new” (Revelation 21:5). God takes worn-out second-hand lives – God says to us, “Here’s what you must know about me: I am making all things new. Not only am I able to do that, I am doing that. I am the world’s greatest expert in turning your old ways that have never worked into newness of life. It’s my professional business. And I want to give my gift to you.” As long as God is God, our past is no measure of our future. He always has more blessing for us than we’ve seen before. If that weren’t true, then what would be the point? If that weren’t true, we’d shut this church down. And we’d go out and binge on self-centered, short-lived, others-disregarding, mind-numbing, guilt-intensifying fraudulent momentary pleasures. But God is making all things new. We don’t have to be capable of it. God is capable of it, and he’s doing it. He’s doing it for us through Romans.
Martin Luther discovered newness of life here in this passage. He felt the way many people do. He thought God despised him. He looked at his sorry life, he looked at the righteousness of God, and he thought God would be wrong not to hate him. He tried to do his best. He fasted and prayed and took on the dirty work at his monastery, hoping to get God to like him more. But Luther knew there was something wrong with him deeper than he could fix. So for him, “the righteousness of God” here in verse 17 was a nightmare. Who can satisfy that standard? Sure, Luther knew about the merit of Christ. But he thought the merit of Christ was like a matching grant. Christ provides his grace, and then we put something up of our own, to qualify. Luther knew he didn’t qualify, and he hated God for being so impossible. His father confessor told him, “God isn’t angry with you; you’re angry with God.”
In 1510 Luther made a pilgrimage to Rome. There was a stone stairway there that was supposed to have come from Jerusalem and once used by Jesus. The devout would crawl up these stairs on their knees, kissing each step, praying as they went, hoping it would make a difference with God. Luther did it. But as he climbed those steps, he was in two minds – faith and fear. He knew the words “by faith” in verse 17, but he was stuck in fear. So there he was, one step after another, “By faith” said Paul, “By fear” said Luther, “By faith” “By fear” “By faith” “By fear,” step after step. Many people are stuck there today, especially religious people. They’re driven by fear – fear of reprisals from God if they don’t keep at it and measure up. If you know what I’m talking about, these verses today are for you. You can be set free. You can step from fear about yourself to faith in Christ.
Here is what made the difference for Luther. The righteousness of God in verse 17 – Luther finally understood. The righteousness of God is not his arsenal for condemning us; it’s his righteous way of saving us. God found a way to make forgiveness the right thing for God to do. He never lowers his standards. He never cuts corners. God has a conscience. But the all-holy God found a way to smile on sinners and uphold his standards. That’s the righteousness of God in the cross of Christ. Luther began to realize he could live before God by new ground-rules – not fearfully on the basis of what he deserved but confidently on the basis of what Christ deserves. Christ satisfied God’s conscience for us. So now, we can live by faith before God, meaning, we don’t qualify for his grace; we just receive it. We can have real peace of mind without denial, a peace with “the righteousness of God” written all over it. When that sank in for Luther, he later wrote, “I felt myself to have gone through open doors into paradise.” That’s what Romans is for – to lead us through the open doors of the gospel into a God-approved paradise for bad people. Every conscience here is like Noah’s dove: “It found no place to set its foot” (Genesis 8:9). But God wants us to find rest in the finished work of Christ on the cross for us.
In these two verses, I want you to see how “salvation” is relevant to you (verse 16), and how you can “live by faith” (verse 17). Then I will ask you to shift your faith from yourself to Christ at your point of need today.
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. —Romans 1:16
Paul is going to the lead culture of the world there in Rome, and those sophisticated people aren’t waiting to be enlightened. Paul is walking into the face of massive indifference. But he’s pumped. Why? Because in the gospel there’s a voice from beyond this world surprising us with grace: “We are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us” (2 Corinthians 5:20). So whenever we make the gospel clear, we can almost feel we have an unfair advantage. The gospel is the power of God for salvation. It actually works. That’s why Paul is unashamed.
But that raises the relevance question. Martin Luther, for example, really cared about getting saved. Not everyone does. How is salvation relevant to people who don’t care about salvation? Here’s what we need to know. The salvation the Bible is talking about touches the deepest yearnings of all our hearts. We long to feel that we’re worth something, that our lives matter, that our experience is real and not fatal and not futile. We long for our existence to be justified. And we go to great lengths to prove ourselves. I can track the phases of my earlier years as one attempt after another to lock onto a feeling of personal finality, starting with high school football. To me, high school football was no game at all. It was an existential crisis. And I succeeded. But it still didn’t work.
Here’s another place people pin their hopes: romance. Somebody needs me. Somebody thrills me. My lover and I generate this experience called romance with its intensity and mystery and majesty: “Baby, you’re my everything. I can’t live without you. You make me feel alive.” What is that but salvation? Ernest Becker in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Denial of Death – and Becker was not a Christian – he wrote about our romantic ideal, “What is it that we want when we elevate the love partner to the position of God? We want redemption – nothing less.” Every one of us is asking salvation-questions every day, whether or not we use the word “salvation” to think about it. But nothing in all this world can save us at the level of our deepest desires. We are so empty, so often frustrated and angry and tense. This is why. But the gospel actually delivers what every form of self-salvation is attempting, whether it’s breaking records in sports or making a name in business or proving yourself through your kids or being so gorgeous you turn heads. Every one of us is magnetized for salvation. The question is, do our projects of self-salvation work? Do they have power? Do they fill us with newness of life? The gospel is God announcing that there is a power to heal the sorrows of our success and the ugliness of our pride and the death in our self-centered lives.
The gospel tells us two things. First, the gospel looks us square in the eye and tells us we’re not okay and we don’t measure up and we’re worse than we even know – and after death comes the judgment. The gospel is not playing games with us. Secondly, the gospel points us to Someone Else. Someone Else did measure up – for us. Someone Else lived so well he fulfilled the highest human destiny – for us. Someone Else died the death we deserve – for us. Someone else rose again to open up our future – for us. God changes the subject from our self-idealization with all its exhausting demandingness, to that Someone Else in all his fullness. And as our fearful hearts refocus on him, a door to paradise opens up.
God wants this for you, for me, for everyone: “to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” To the Jew first, because God called Abraham first, but no less to the Gentile. The gospel is both ancient and inclusive. And as people of all cultures come into Christ, they can bring their cultures with them. Jewish people stay Jewish. Gentile people stay what they are. All that matters now is who Christ is for us. So whoever you are, bring it on. Bring it to Christ. All you stand to lose is your damnation. That’s all. And what you stand to gain is the power of God for the newness of life you crave. Here’s how it actually works:
For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.” —Romans 1:17
I used to think these two verses were a quick summary of the gospel. Then I noticed something. Jesus isn’t mentioned here. What then are these verses here for? Paul is explaining why he isn’t ashamed of the gospel anywhere he goes. He isn’t ashamed, because the gospel reveals new ground-rules for living. That’s what these verses show us – gospel ground-rules for sinners living happily in newness of life under the righteousness of God. How do we live and thrive there? By drawing upon the good that Someone Else deserves. That is the key to life: living moment by moment not on the basis of what I deserve but on the basis of better than I deserve – what no one less than Jesus Christ deserves. He is my Substitute, both at the moment of conversion and every moment thereafter forever. Paul highlights the practical key to it: “The righteous shall live by faith.” That’s a quote from the Old Testament. So Paul isn’t changing anything. He’s reaffirming very ancient wisdom. Three times in verse 17 we see the word “faith.” God’s power comes down as we learn to live by faith not by fear, by Christ-focus nor by self-focus. Salvation gets practical as we stop demanding what we deserve and learn to satisfy ourselves with who Christ is for us. It really is another way of negotiating life. And God says, it’s the right way: “The righteous shall live by faith.”
At conversion we step over a line from resisting Christ to drawing upon Christ. That’s when we begin the journey into faith. And it’s how we live 24/7 from then on. Another translation here makes the centrality of faith clear: “This is accomplished from start to finish by faith.” If you’re not a believer, you can stop living by fear and you can start living by faith today. And if you’re a believer already, you have a growth-edge too. You’re learning to live by faith at your point of need today. Let me illustrate living by faith.
I have here some Monopoly money and some real money. I go to the grocery store. I’m hungry. I push my cart around and gather up the things I want. I go to the checkout lane. The lady rings it all up and I hand her a hundred dollars in Monopoly money. She laughs politely and waits for the real money. I say, “Oh, that’s not enough? Well, here’s $500.” More Monopoly money. She is not amused. I hand her $10,000 in Monopoly money. But no matter how much I fork over, Monopoly money won’t work. It has no value in the real world. But this real money – it says here, “This note is legal tender for all debts, public and private.” With this, I can buy to my heart’s content. I can fill my cart with groceries and go to the checkout and they can’t refuse me. When you go to God, what do you have that counts with him?
Paul himself had spent his life amassing a fortune in the Monopoly money of self-validation. And he succeeded. But it made him an oppressive man, because every moment of every day was about him. But then he saw Christ. He looked at his phony Monopoly self, he looked at Jesus Christ crucified for sinners, and he said, “I know now what’s really worth something – both to God and to me.” That first view of Christ was when Paul began his adventure in newness of life.
When you’re hungry for the good things only God can give, what do you have that God should value? You have nothing. Even your goodness is play money, no matter now much you can come up with. But Jesus Christ is for you in your poverty. The real righteousness God demands he also gives through Christ to everyone who believes. You can receive all you need from him moment by moment. When you’re sad and guilty and angry and tempted to try to squeeze what you need from some other poor sinner – at that very moment Christ has something to say to you. Here it is:
Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for what is not bread, and your labor for what does not satisfy? Listen to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourself in rich food. —Isaiah 55:1-2
Will you throw away the Monopoly money you’ve scraped together, and will you receive from God the intense and endless and gracious and happy approval which Christ lived and died to give you? Every other form of okayness is fraudulent. You know it. God knows it. We all know the game. When we ask ourselves serious questions, we’re not satisfied with even our best. How can God be satisfied? But in great mercy, he is offering us his righteousness through Christ as our own personal worth. He is offering us everything on terms of grace. That’s how we come into Christ, it’s how we live in Christ, and everything else is self-inflicted death. Will you look up to Christ and say, “Lord, I have nothing to impress you. And my emptiness is a guilty emptiness. But you have said, ‘Come to me, all who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.’ Lord, I come.” An old hymn puts it this way:
Weary, working, burdened one, wherefore toil you so? Cease your doing; all was done long, long ago. Cast your deadly doing down, down at Jesus’ feet; stand in Him, in Him alone, gloriously complete.