How Does the Gospel Save Believers?
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 to faith; as it is written, “but the righteous man shall live by faith.”
Verse 16 says that “the gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” Back on June 21, I argued that what this means is not that the gospel is God’s power to convert people to faith (although that is indeed true!), but that it means the gospel is God’s power to bring those who keep on believing to everlasting safety and joy in the presence of God.
Saved from God’s Wrath
One of the things we did not make plain in that message was why we need salvation. Salvation from what? What’s the problem? The answer in the book of Romans is resoundingly this: we need to be saved from the wrath of God. Look at Romans 1:18: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness.” This is given as the reason why we need saving. God is very angry at our unrighteousness and the way we suppress and distort the truth to justify ourselves.
Or look in the next chapter, Romans 2:8, to see another glimpse of this. Paul says that “to those who are selfishly ambitious and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness (notice those two words again, as in Romans 1:18 — “truth” rejected and “unrighteousness” embraced), [God will render] wrath and indignation.” This is our problem. God is indignant and wrathful toward us in our unrighteousness and our untruthfulness.
“The gospel is mainly the good news that God himself has rescued us from the wrath of God.”
Or back up just three verses to Romans 2:5: “Because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God.” God’s wrath is a righteous judgment. When we are unrighteous, God’s righteousness blazes out with wrath and indignation. He is not to be trifled with.
This is what we need saving from in the end. This is our ultimate problem: God’s final wrath that separates us from himself and casts us into hell. If you ask the book of Romans, “What do we need to be saved from?” the answer comes back — yes, from sin; and yes, from guilt; and yes, from disunity and bad relationships; and yes, from destructive habits and harmful ways — but mainly the answer is: We need to be saved from God’s wrath. Our ultimate problem, though very few today see the problem, is that we are sinners in the hands of an infinite, omnipotent, angry God.
The gospel is mainly the good news that God himself has rescued us from the wrath of God. Not mainly from ourselves and the mess we make of our lives, but from his own anger and his own righteous judgment. The gospel is the power of God for salvation from the wrath of God — the power that brings us to eternal safety and joy in the presence of God.
You see it perhaps most clearly of all in Romans 5:9: “Much more then, having now been justified by his [that is, Jesus’s] blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through him.” In the end, it’s all about escaping the wrath of God, or, having the wrath of God turned away from us, so that he becomes a friendly King and not an enemy.
So when verse 16 says, “The gospel is the power of God for salvation,” it means that the gospel is God’s power to rescue believers from the “wrath of God,” or from “the righteous judgment of God” (Romans 2:5).
Now the question in today’s sermon is, How does the gospel save believers? How is the gospel God’s power for salvation? And the answer is given in verse 17. Maybe we can feel the force of this verse by translating it incorrectly and making it say what we might expect it to say, but what it does not say, and then go back and do it correctly. Let’s read it incorrectly. Starting at verse 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. For in it [the love] of God is revealed from faith to faith.”
Now that is not what it says. But that is where the emphasis for many of us falls, when we think about the gospel. The gospel is the good news, we say, because in it the love of God is revealed. And indeed it is. Romans 5:8 says, “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” That too is the gospel. The gospel of Jesus is a demonstration and revelation of the love of God for sinners. But that is not what verse 17 says.
Now there are two simple reasons that I put it this way — why I start with a wrong translation. One is to make plain that the love of God could not just sweep the unrighteousness of man and the wrath of God under the rug and pretend all is well. The love of God had to deal with man’s unrighteousness and had to deal with God’s wrath. The love of God is not a sentimental thing that can just say, “I feel nice to you, and so I will now be nice to you.” If that were true, the book of Romans would have been a lot shorter than it is. Indeed, the Bible would have been a lot shorter, and we could have skipped the gruesome story of the death of the Son of God.
The love of God is a love full of wisdom and a love full of justice and a love full of truth. It is a love that upholds all the other attributes of God, rather than blotting them out. The love of God is worked out wisely and legally and justly and truthfully — nothing hidden, nothing suppressed. It takes our unrighteousness and God’s righteousness into account, and deals with them in the death and resurrection of Jesus. How it does that is what this book is mainly about.
The other reason I begin by mentioning what Paul does not say is to stress that Paul must want Christians to understand how they will be saved from the wrath of God. He must want us to know more than just that God loves us and sent Jesus to die for us. Think about this! It is so simple and so plain. Evidently it matters to Christ and to his inspired apostle, Paul, that Christians learn how the gospel is the power of God for salvation. Because he tells us how — in verse 17, and then for sixteen chapters he tells us how!
Why do I stress this? I stress it because it is simply unbiblical that so many Christians today have such a weak grasp — a weak understanding — of what our human condition is without grace, how God planned our redemption, what God did in Christ to save us, how the Holy Spirit worked in us to convert us, and how God goes on working (by the gospel!) to keep us and purify us and fit us for heaven. These are the things that the New Testament (especially Romans) is at pains to teach Christians, and it is stunning how many Christians simply do not care to know these things and therefore do not know them.
“This is our ultimate problem: God’s final wrath that separates us from himself and casts us into hell.”
So I am stressing that in verse 17, instead of saying, “God saved us by his love and that’s all you need to know,” Paul begins to explain for us how the gospel saves believers. He does not just say, “It shows the love of God.” Paul gets inside the love of God and shows how God deals with the real problems of the universe. We begin to learn what the real issues of the universe are. And they are deeper than we think they are — not the bombing of embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam — but far deeper than that. There is an enmity against God and a suppression of truth and a deep unrighteousness of soul and the almighty wrath of God behind such things that only one power in the universe can overcome — the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Starting at verse 17, Paul moves inside the love of God and inside the gospel to show us how the gospel is that kind of power. And he writes this way because we Christians need to know these things. I’m not asking you to take a course in theology. I’m asking you to read and care about the inspired word of God in Romans 1:17. Christ sent his apostle to teach us how the gospel saves believers and brings them safe to heaven.
This is what you are going to want to know when the doctor says, “We’ve done all we can do.” And you say, “How long do I have?” And he says, “A week? Maybe two” — and then face to face with the Maker and Judge of all the universe, infinite in holiness and unswerving in justice. O my beloved Bethlehem, this is what you are going to want to know. How can I persuade you and win you to care about the most important things in the world?
I plead with you to get serious about growing in the knowledge of God (Colossians 1:10) and how he saves the unrighteous. If God inspired Paul to tell us, we ought to want to know. And what a privilege to know! And a comfort to know! What a joy to know! This series on Romans is a golden opportunity — a precious window of time. We are moving slowly so that you can think and study and read and discuss and review and check things out and pray over what you hear. This series has the potential of taking you deep into the heart and mind of God — if you want to go there. I plead with you: Do not be passive, don’t coast. Make the thought of this letter the thought of your mind. Build your whole way of thinking and feeling out of the building blocks in this great letter.
So this morning, would you ask with me this question: How does the gospel save believers? How does the gospel powerfully bring us to eternal safety and joy in the presence of God when what we really deserve is God’s wrath, which verse 18 says is already being revealed from heaven? How will the gospel triumph in those last two weeks of your life to rescue you from despair and terror, and bring you home to God?
The answer of verse 17 is this: the gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes because “in it [that is, in the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith.”
Now here is the puzzle. How can this be good news when the righteousness of God is our problem? The fact that God is righteous and I am unrighteous is the problem. His wrath is being revealed against the unrighteousness of man, verse 18 says. Martin Luther said he hated Romans 1:17 before he figured this out. He wrote,
I had . . . been captivated with an extraordinary ardor for understanding Paul in the Epistle to the Romans. But . . . a single word in Chapter 1 [verse 17], ‘In it the righteousness of God is revealed,’ stood in my way. For I hated that word ‘righteousness of God,’ which . . . I had been taught to understand . . . is the righteousness [with which God] punishes the unrighteous sinner. (11)
Given the Righteousness We Lack
So how is this good news — that the righteousness of God is revealed in the gospel? Here’s the answer: God demands righteousness and we don’t have it, so the only hope for us is that God himself would give the righteousness that he demands. That would be good news. That would be gospel. And that is what he does.
What is revealed in the gospel is the righteousness of God for us that he demands from us. The reason the gospel is the power of God for salvation — the way that the gospel saves believers — is that in it God reveals a righteousness for us that God demands from us. What we had to have, but could not create or supply or perform, God gives us freely, namely, his own righteousness, the righteousness of God.
“God demands righteousness and we don’t have it. The only hope for us is that God himself would give the righteousness he demands.”
This is how the gospel saves us from the wrath of God. You see in verse 18 that “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men.” So what is our rescue? What is our hope to escape this wrath when we are ungodly and unrighteous? The answer is that God would intervene and supply us with a righteousness that is not our own. That he would give to us the righteousness he demands from us. If God would do that, then his wrath would be averted and we could be reconciled to him. And that is, in fact, what he did. And that is the gospel. That is the way it saves us.
“The gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes,” because in it God offers to us what he demands from us, namely, his own righteousness. He reveals as a gift in Christ Jesus what was once only a demand. This is how he saves: in the gospel of Jesus’s death and resurrection, God gives to us the righteousness that he demands from us.
Now there is two more Sunday’s worth of good news in this verse. Next Sunday, we need to ask, What is this gift of God’s righteousness? (1) Is it the vindication of his own justice in the punishment of our substitute, Jesus? (2) Or is it our right standing with God as forgiven and acquitted sinners without guilt in his presence? (3) Or is it the moral transformation in us that actually changes our nature into obedient, righteous children of God? Or is it all three?
And the Sunday after that, we must ask how faith figures into this saving revelation of the righteousness of God. What does the phrase “from faith to faith” (verse 17) mean? And how does the quote there from Habakkuk 2:4 help us embrace all this great truth by faith?
But to close today I want to go back to Martin Luther. Maybe God will use his testimony to bring some of you from mere hearers this morning to those who love and live on this gospel reality of God’s gift of righteousness. You remember he said he hated Romans 1:17. But he goes on explaining his struggle with his own guilt and fear before the righteousness of God.
Thus I raged with a fierce and troubled conscience. Nevertheless, I beat importunately upon Paul at [Romans 1:17], most ardently desiring to know what St. Paul wanted. At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words, namely, “In it the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.’” There I began to understand [that] the righteousness of God is . . . righteousness with which [the] merciful God justifies us by faith. . . . Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates. (11–12)
Oh, how I pray that many of you will find this verse a pathway into paradise.