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.”
We are asking the question, How does the gospel save believers? not, How does the gospel get people to be believers? When spoken in the power of the Holy Spirit, the gospel does have power to open people’s eyes and change their hearts and draw them to faith, and save them. That’s what is happening on Tuesday nights and Wednesday nights this summer. People are being drawn to Christ through the power and beauty of the gospel.
But I am stressing what Paul says here in verses 16 and 17, namely, that “the gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” Believers need to be saved. The gospel is the instrument of God’s power to save us. And we need to know how the gospel saves us believers so that we make proper use of it.
Notice the link between verses 15 and 16: “So, for my part, I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome.” Who is this “you”? Verses 6–7 tell us: “among whom you also are the called of Jesus Christ; to all who are beloved of God in Rome, called as saints.” So he says in verse 15 that he is “eager to preach the gospel” to these called, loved, saints whose “faith is being proclaimed all over the world” (verse 8). Why? Verse 16: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (literally: who is believing) namely, you. And, namely, you Bethlehem believers.
I say it with Paul: I, John Piper, am eager to preach the gospel to you who believe — exactly to you who believe — because this gospel, which is laid out in the book of Romans, is the power of God to save you. You believers need to hear the gospel in order to be saved. And Paul labors mercifully for sixteen chapters to tell us the gospel and how it works to save believers.
Depend on the Gospel Every Day
And I fully believe that the reason he does is that when believers know and love and live on the meat of the gospel, we will be so gospel-filled and gospel-shaped and gospel-dependent and gospel-driven and gospel-hoping and gospel-joyful that no one will need to tell us why we need to share the gospel or how to share the gospel. We will be so thankful and so desperately, day-by-day dependent on the gospel for our own hope of eternal life, and our own sanity, and our own stability, and our own marriages or singleness, that it will be impossible not to know that people need the gospel and why they need it and how it relates to their biggest needs — because we know we need it, and why we need it, and how it meets our biggest needs day by day.
“People are being drawn to Christ through the power and beauty of the gospel.”
One of the great reasons Paul was so eager to preach the gospel to believers (verse 15) and why I am so eager to preach his gospel to you, is that, if we thrive day-by-day on the meat of the gospel — if the gospel becomes a day-by-day, hour-by-hour instrument of God’s power in our lives to save us — then our witness to family and friends and strangers will not be an artificial scheme but the very heartbeat of the way we think and feel and fight the fight for faith and love every day.
Paul was utterly convinced — and we should be too — that preaching the gospel to believers would bear fruit. Look back at verse 13: “I do not want you to be unaware, brethren, that often I have planned to come to you (and have been prevented so far) so that I may obtain some fruit among you also, even as among the rest of the Gentiles.” When the gospel is preached among believers there will be fruit! All kinds of fruit. Righteousness, peace, joy (Romans 14:17) — and converts who hear and see the gospel from the people of God.
God Gives What He Demands
So I am focusing on verse 17 for three weeks because verse 17 answers the question: How does the gospel saves believers? If we believers are going to live on the gospel, this is how we do it. We learn from God’s word how the gospel is going to save us, and then we believe it, and yield to it, and cherish it, and follow God’s design day by day for how he plans to save us from everything that would destroy us, especially the “righteous judgment of God” (Romans 2:5) and the wrath to come (Romans 5:9). That’s what “salvation” refers to mainly in verse 16: “The gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” Those who go on believing, year after year, will be saved from wrath by the power of God in the gospel (see Mark 13:13).
How? How does the gospel save believers from the wrath to come, and bring us safely into the joy of our God (Matthew 25:21,23)? Verse 17 says it works like this: “The gospel is the power of God unto salvation to everyone who believes because in it — in the gospel — the righteousness of God is revealed.” We saw last week that Martin Luther at first hated this verse because he thought the revelation of God’s righteousness was not good news, but more bad news. It’s the righteousness of God that creates our problem: we are unrighteous and suppress the truth (Romans 1:18). So we are under condemnation by the righteousness of God.
God demands righteousness from us. That’s his nature and what his law demands. He is righteous. But we don’t have it to give. So we are guilty and condemned and perishing, alienated from God and without hope in the world. So what’s the good news? What’s the gospel? The good news is that the righteousness which God demands from us, he gives to us. That was last week’s point. That is what verse 17 means: the gospel is the power of God to save believers because, day by day, all through our lives, we see revealed in the gospel of Christ’s death and resurrection the gift of divine righteousness that supplies to us what God demands from us.
What does “The Righteousness of God” Mean?
Then I asked at the end, What does this gift of God’s righteousness refer to? I mentioned the three possibilities that seem most likely to me. So today I want to show you which of these I think Paul means and why. Does the righteousness of God mean:
the vindication or demonstration of his own righteousness in forgiving sin because he punishes that sin in our substitute, Jesus?
Or does he mean our right standing with God as forgiven and acquitted sinners without guilt in his presence?
Or does he mean the moral change in us that actually makes us obedient, righteous children of God?
Now we are going to see over time in Romans that all three of these are, in fact, true meanings of God’s righteousness, and that it is part of the gospel that all three of them are free gifts for us, obtained by the death of Jesus in our place. And it may be that Paul has all of them in mind in verse 17: the righteousness of God — in all these ways — is being revealed in the gospel to faith; and that is why it is the power of God to save believers.
It’s true that we see in the gospel, day by day, all that is needed for God to be righteous, and to declare us righteous, and to progressively make us righteous. That’s what the gospel reveals to us day by day. That is what we grasp hold of by faith. That is what keeps us believing and helps us fight the fight of faith and persevere to the end and be saved.
Right Standing Before God
But there are several reasons why I think Paul’s main intention in verse 17 is the “righteousness of God” in the sense of our right standing before him as forgiven, acquitted sinners without guilt — in other words, as people who are justified, or declared righteous because the righteousness of God has been imputed to us. In Christ, we now have a right standing with God. God imputes to us his own righteousness even while we are still ungodly. He counts us as having his righteousness. That’s what I think verse 17 mainly refers to. That’s what is revealed in the gospel. Here are my reasons:
1. God credits his righteousness to man.
Notice the connection between the first part of verse 17 and the last part, the quote from Habakkuk 2:4. “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith.” Then comes an Old Testament quote introduced with “as it is written.” In other words, what he has just said about the righteousness of God being revealed in the gospel is as — is like — what he is about to quote from Habakkuk 2:4, namely, “But the righteous man shall live by faith.”
Do you see what has happened to the word “righteousness” (or “just,” which is the same in Greek)? In the first half of the verse, the righteousness is God’s (“the righteousness of God is revealed”), but in the second half of the verse the righteousness is man’s (“the righteous man shall live by faith”). How can Paul give an Old Testament quote to illustrate his point if there is such a huge difference in the use of the very words he wants to compare?
“Our sins have once for all been condemned in the death of Christ.”
The answer is that there is not a huge difference. This quote from the Old Testament shows that what Paul has in mind when he speaks of the gospel revealing “the righteousness of God” is not mainly that God himself is righteous, but that he imputes or credits his righteousness to man so that man can be called “just” or “righteous.”
“The righteous man,” he says — the one who is now righteous because of the gift of God’s righteousness — “shall live by faith.” So what verse 17 means is that, in the gospel, the righteousness of God is revealed in the sense that we see it being given to sinners so that we are justified; we have a right standing with God. What we can’t provide on our own, God imputes to us so that we are forgiven and acquitted and justified before him. Now, there is another reason to see verse 17 this way. So add to this one the following one.
2. God’s righteousness is manifested through faith.
Here’s my second reason for thinking that this is what Paul has in mind in verse 17. Turn with me to Romans 3:20. The parallel between these next verses and Romans 1:17 is so close that I can’t help letting these verses guide how I fill out the shorthand of 1:17.
Romans 3:20: “By the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in his sight; for through the law comes the knowledge of sin.” So you see that the issue here is how sinners are “justified.” That is, how do we get a right standing with God when we have no righteousness of our own? How do we get acquitted in the courtroom when we are guilty sinners?
Then he continues in Romans 3:21 with words that are very close to Romans 1:17, “But now apart from the law the righteousness of God [same phrase as in 1:17] has been manifested [very close to the word “revealed” in 1:17], being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets.” So he explains “justification” (verse 20) as a “manifestation of the righteousness of God” (verse 21). And he continues to do so in verses 22–24, which shed bright light on the “revealing of the righteousness of God” in 1:17.
He says (please try to see all of verses 22–24 as one piece) that this righteousness that is now manifested is “even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by his grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus.” In the flow of Paul’s thought, the phrase “being justified as a gift by God’s grace” in verse 24 is a restatement and explanation of what he meant in verse 22 by “the righteousness of God through faith.”
So we have God’s act of justifying sinners in verse 20 and again in verse 24 and in between we have two references to God’s manifesting his righteousness through faith (verses 20, 22).
So I take Paul to be saying this: In the death of Jesus (verses 24–25), God has manifested his own righteousness by imputing or crediting that righteousness to sinners and pronouncing them righteous or just with his own righteousness. This is called justification. This idea of manifesting his righteousness now apart from the law (verses 21–22) is so close to the revealing of the righteousness of God in 1:17, that I think they are the same.
This is my second reason for saying that Romans 1:17 refers to the righteousness of God given to man in the act of justification — the act of declaring sinners righteous through faith in Jesus.
Canceled Sin Is Broken
But I don’t want to press artificial separations here between these ways of looking at God’s righteousness. The gospel does reveal that God demonstrates his attribute of righteousness in justifying sinners who trust Jesus (Romans 3:25–26); that’s why Jesus had to die: to show that sin was dealt with righteously, to show that God was “both just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (3:26).
And the gospel does reveal that the death of Jesus purchased not only a declaration of our right standing before God, but also a development of our right living before God. Romans 8:3–4 says, “Sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, [God] condemned sin in the flesh.” That’s what happened at the cross: sin was punished, executed.
Now here is the purpose that the cross enables: “so that the [just] requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” Because our sins have once for all been condemned in the death of Christ, we now have new power and freedom to make real progress in fulfilling the moral law of God by the power of his Spirit. “He breaks the power of cancelled sin,” as Charles Wesley wrote (“O For a Thousand Tongues”).
The Gospel Reveals God’s Work for Us
But for all that, which we will see fully in the weeks to come, don’t miss the glory of the main point in verse 17. How does the gospel save believers? How does it save you? The gospel is the power of God to save everyone who believes (Romans 1:16), because in it is being revealed for our encouragement and for our endurance in faith the precious truth that God gives to us what he demands from us, namely, his own righteousness. And he does this mainly in the sense that he declares believers to be righteous with his own righteousness.
He counts us as righteous with a perfect righteousness, namely, his own. He forgives us, acquits us, justifies us by our faith. This is how the gospel saves us. It reveals these things for us to see and believe.
“So everyone who believes in Jesus receives the gift of God’s goodness.”
What we need day in and day out, in order to make our way to heaven, is to see and receive and feed on this gift of imputed righteousness. This is the way God saves believers. This can be and should be grasped by children. Let me try to say it simply. We all do bad things and we all are bad in the sense that the bad we do comes from a deeply rooted badness. Our bad deeds come from a bad heart. But God says that we should be good or he cannot accept us, because his own goodness would be ruined by our badness. So what we need is for God to take our badness and punish it in the death of Jesus, and then take the goodness of Jesus — his own goodness — and make it ours.
That’s what he did. So everyone who believes in Jesus receives the gift of God’s goodness, God’s righteousness. That is called justification by faith.
Feed on the Gospel Daily
Look to it daily in the gospel. Be relieved by it daily from the gospel. Be encouraged by it daily from the gospel. Be emboldened by it daily. Be empowered daily. You live by an alien righteousness. Not by your performances, but by God’s.
This is the gospel we live by and this is the gospel we will share this week with family and friends. And this is the gospel that will save us and bring us safely home to God.