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.”
There are only two ultimate concerns in life. One is how to display God in our lives. The other is how to be happy in God forever. These are the great concerns in the world for every person and every people group, whether we are conscious of it or not. How shall a person think and feel and act so as to show the glory of God? And what must we think and feel and do so as to be fully happy in God for all eternity? And not just us, but all the peoples. Romans 1:16–17 deals with these great concerns — as does the whole book.
Verse 16 is about God’s power to save us. That deals with concern number two: our longing to be happy in God forever. “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.” The power of God for salvation — that means, at least, the power of God to make us happy in him forever. Romans 14:17 says, “The kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” That is what salvation includes. So the gospel is the power of God to bring believers into the eternal experience of “righteousness, peace and joy.”
Verse 17 is about the revelation of the righteousness of God in the gospel. So this verse deals with our first great concern: how to display God in our lives. Verse 17 explains how the gospel —the good news about the death and resurrection of Jesus — saves believers. The gospel is the power of God to give believers eternal joy, it says, “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.’” What stands out here is that the gospel has power to save us because it reveals something of God. And that’s what the first great concern in the universe is: the revealing or showing of God.
So verse 16 deals with the great concern of our eternal joy (called “salvation”) and verse 17 deals with the issue of the manifestation of God (in particular his righteousness). Things don’t get any bigger. They don’t get any more important than this. If you think you have bigger issues in your life than this, you are not seeing reality.
“I am already forgiven. I already have the gift of God’s righteousness.”
If you think the Clinton scandals are bigger or the missile reprisals are bigger, you need to turn off the TV and think for a moment. Henry VIII made Bill Clinton look like a Puritan, and he is dead — barely a blip on the screen of history (died 1547), where Bill Clinton will be very soon. And the terrorism of Genghis Khan, wiping out whole peoples, makes today’s terrorist assaults seem like recess squabbles; but he is gone, and who even knows what century he lived in (AD 1162–1227)?
What seems great and all-important now may, in fact, be very small. But whether God is shown and known, and whether you will have eternal joy, these are truly great and ultimate concerns. So I am praying earnestly that God will open your eyes and give you a passion for the gospel which is the power of God to save believers, and for the revealing of God’s righteousness which is the way the gospel brings believers to eternal life and joy.
Saved from the Wrath of God
This is our sixth message on these two verses. And the main point I have been making is that these verses are not mainly about how people become believers, but about how believers are saved — how we escape the wrath of God at the end of the age and enter into eternal life and joy. Verse 16 says that the gospel is the power of God to save believers. And verse 17 says that the way it works is that in the gospel the righteousness of God is being revealed.
Both the believing in verse 16 and the revealing in verse 17 are present tense continuous action verbs in Greek. “The gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who continues to believe, because in that gospel the righteousness of God continues to be revealed.”
From our side, the key to our being saved from the wrath to come is to go on believing and trusting God. The key, from God’s side, to our being saved is that he goes on revealing to us the righteousness of God in the gospel, month after month and year after year.
The issue in these verses is how God saves believers from his final judgment and brings them safely into everlasting righteousness and peace and joy. Romans 13:11 says, “Salvation is nearer to us now than when we [first] believed.” Full and final salvation is future. Romans 5:9 says, “Having now been justified by his blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through him.” That is what is at stake in these verses. How does God bring a believer through life so that in the end he is saved from wrath and has eternal life and joy?
In fact, Romans 5:9 is an exact restatement of Romans 1:16–17 with the order of thought reversed. Let’s reverse the order of the two halves of Romans 5:9 so they match the order of Romans 1:16–17. Instead of “Having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through him,” turn it around and let it say, “We shall be saved from the wrath of God through Christ, because we have been justified by his blood.” That is exactly the structure of Romans 1:16–17.
Justification Grounds Glorification
The gospel is the power of God unto salvation because in it the righteousness of God is revealed, that is, God reveals righteousness as a free gift that we need and don’t have. That, we have seen, is the meaning of verses 16 and 17: our final salvation (verse 16) is based on God’s giving the righteousness to us that he demands from us (verse 17). The way Paul says it in Romans 8:30 is: “Those whom he justified, he also glorified.” Justification (God’s righteousness completely imputed to us) is the foundation of glorification (God’s righteousness completely imparted to us).
Or to see the same order of salvation in different language, look at Romans 8:32: “He who did not spare his own Son, but delivered him over for us all, how will he not also with him freely give us all things?” In other words, the foundation for all our future hope of life and joy and salvation is based on God’s giving his Son to die as a substitute for us so that our sins could be on him, and his righteousness could be on us. It’s the same pattern of salvation in Romans 8:30,32 and Romans 5:9 and Romans 1:16–17. This is the great theme and structure of this book.
Our Hope for Salvation
All our hope for salvation (verse 16) hangs on beholding and believing the revelation of God’s righteousness as a gift to us (verse 17). The book of Romans is going to demand many things of us as believers, but we are not to do any of them in order to take away our guilt or forgive our sin or get for us the gift of righteousness. God accomplished that once for all in the death of Jesus in our place; and he gave it to us freely through faith the very moment we truly believed.
This is why justification is treated as a past event in our lives and is the foundation and security of everything else: “Having now been justified by his blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God” (5:9). The past grace of justification secures the future grace of salvation.
“Spiritual life is responsive to the gospel and is confirmed and preserved for eternal life.”
The power that will bring believers to that salvation is the revelation of that justification. That’s the meaning of the connection between Romans 1:16 and 17. To fulfill all that is required of us to enter heaven, we must see it over and over again — the ongoing revelation in the gospel that the righteousness of God is given to us freely through faith. If we don’t know ourselves acquitted and forgiven and counted righteous now, we will not be able to walk the path that leads to life. Either we will despair and turn to worldliness; or we will try to earn our way into God’s favor with moral and religious performances.
Everything God requires of us as believers assumes that we are justified —accepted, forgiven, acquitted, counted righteous with his righteousness, not ours. From that secure position we must fight sin and unbelief. And the one who fights like that — as a justified sinner — will live.
“The Righteous Man Shall Live by Faith”
Now that is exactly what I think the last half of verse 17 means. Let’s look at this quote from Habakkuk 2:4: “In the gospel the righteousness of God is being revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “But the righteous man shall live by faith.” In the context of the book of Habakkuk the meaning of this sentence is just what it is here. The unrighteous nations are in great peril before the judgment of God. For example, Habakkuk 1:5–6:
Be astonished! Wonder! Because I am doing something in your days — You would not believe if you were told. For behold, I am raising up the Chaldeans [Babylon], that fierce and impetuous people who march throughout the earth to seize dwelling places which are not theirs.
But Judah herself is not exempt from judgment. The wickedness and idolatry of some is about to be tried in the wrath of the Babylonian invasion. The crucial question here is: How can a person be saved? How can they gain their lives and not be destroyed in God’s judgment? That’s the same question addressed by Romans 1:16 – who will be saved from the wrath of God?
Live by Faith
The answer of the book of Habakkuk is given in 2:4: “Behold, as for the proud one, his soul is not right within him; but the righteous will live by his faith.” There are two crucial truths in this verse that are relevant for Paul’s argument.
1. Rescue depends on faith.
One is that rescue from the judgment of God depends on faith. That’s what Habakkuk 2:4 promises: “the righteous will live by his faith.” That is, it’s by faith that you gain your life. By faith you will not be swept away utterly in the wrath of God. By faith you will live. So “living” in Habakkuk 2:4 and here in Romans 1:17b (“the righteous will live”) refers to salvation from the judgment of God.
And that is tremendously important for Paul’s point in verse 16. There he says, “salvation [is] to everyone who believes.” Rescue from God’s wrath and the gift of eternal life is given freely to those who trust God. Then he sees this same truth in Habakkuk 2:4 and quotes it to give further support to that part of his point. The words, “will live by faith” in verse 17b correspond to “salvation to everyone who believes” in verse 16.
We are saved from judgment and inherit life by trusting God. (See Habakkuk 2:18 and 3:16, 18–19 for what the “faith” of 2:4 looks like. And see Habakkuk 3:13 for the word “salvation” as reference to the promise of life.) That’s one truth in Habakkuk 2:4 that is relevant for Paul’s argument.
2. Life is gained by faith.
The other is that it is a righteous person who gains his life by faith. “The righteous shall live [the righteous person shall gain his life and be saved from God’s wrath] by faith.” Now that is crucial for what Paul is saying about the righteousness of God. Habakkuk 2:4 doesn’t say in so many words that we get God’s righteousness by faith, which is what Paul teaches in this book and in Romans 1:17.
But Habakkuk does link the righteous person and faith. The least we can say —and maybe we should say more — is that the thing about righteous people that brings them to life and salvation is their faith. It is a very small step then to say: Well then, faith is the essential thing about being righteous before God.
In fact, if it is by faith that we escape God’s judgment, and if, as Habakkuk 1:13 says, “[God, your] eyes are too pure to approve evil, and you cannot look on wickedness with favor,” then faith must somehow be counted by God as righteousness, because otherwise we could never be rescued by him and given life by him, because we are all sinners and he could never look on us with favor.
So, if God can’t look on any evil with approval (Habakkuk 1:13), and yet saves us and gives us life by our faith (Habakkuk 2:4), then our righteousness that has a standing with this holy God must be a righteousness by faith and a gift from him. And that is the other reason this text is so crucial for Paul’s argument.
So in summary, we see two things in Romans 1:16–17 that are confirmed in the Old Testament quote.
One (verse 16) is that the gospel is the power of God to save believers. If we have faith in him we will live and not perish.
The other is that the way God saves believers is by revealing (in that gospel) the righteousness of God as a gift “from faith to faith.” The righteousness he demands from us (Habakkuk 1:13) he freely gives to us. This is what God reveals “from faith to faith.”
“From Faith to Faith”
So the last thing I want to ask in these verses is, What does “from faith to faith” mean in verse 17? There are two or three keys to this.
First, the only real parallel to this phrase in the New Testament is in 2 Corinthians 2:15–16. (But see also Psalm 84:7 and Jeremiah 9:3.) Paul says, “We are a fragrance of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing; to the one an aroma from death to death, to the other an aroma from life to life.” “From death to death,” and “from life to life” are identical in wording to “from faith to faith.”
The most natural interpretation seems to be: when Paul’s message and sufferings meet with death in the soul, that leads to the final death of the soul. And when his message and sufferings meet with spiritual life, that leads to final life. Death is unresponsive to the gospel and is confirmed in its deadness forever. Spiritual life is responsive to the gospel and is confirmed and preserved for eternal life.
“Our acceptance with him is based on the gift of his own righteousness, not ours.”
So here in Romans 1:17 it says, “The righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith.” That is, when the revelation of the gift of righteousness meets with faith it leads to future faith. Faith is the initial window of the soul that lets the light of the revelation of righteousness in. And when the light of God’s gift of righteousness comes in by faith, it powerfully works to awaken and sustain and engender more and more faith for the years to come.
Second, the other key to understanding “from faith to faith” is to see how well this meaning meets the demands of verse 16. Verse 16 says that the gospel is the power of God unto salvation for all who go on believing — present tense continuous action. So we must go on believing.
In 1 Corinthians 15:1–2, Paul says, “Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain.” So if we give up on our faith and throw it away, our supposed faith will prove to have been vain, empty, dead.
Don’t Stop Believing
What saves is persevering faith (Mark 13:13; Colossians 1:23). If that’s true, now it makes clear sense why verse 17 explains how God saves believers by saying that in the gospel God reveals a righteousness for us that is first perceived and embraced by faith, and then has the effect of awakening all the necessary future faith that we need in order to be saved. The gospel saves believers because the gospel keeps believers believing. (See 1 Peter 1:5)
In Romans 8:13, Paul says, “If you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” But the problem is, we all know that in our war with sin we do not win often enough to have peace in our consciences. So if our life hangs on perfect winning in the war with sin, we are going to despair and not persevere to the end. We will simply give up, because there is no use trying.
What then will keep us going and fighting so that we will live? Romans 1:16–17answers: The gospel is the power of God to save believers because in the gospel we can see revealed every day that our standing with God is not based on our own righteousness but on God’s, freely given to us by faith. And when we see that over and over in the gospel, day after day, as long as we live, our faith is renewed and sustained, and we press on in the fight. Our confidence that God will help us in life and save us from the wrath to come is based on our ever-renewed assurance that our acceptance with him is based on the gift of his own righteousness, not ours.
So every time the Bible demands you to do something do not think, “I must do this to take away my guilt or to get forgiveness or to get a right standing with God.” Rather think, “I will do this because my guilt is already removed, I am already forgiven, I already have the gift of God’s righteousness, and so I know that God is for me and will help me. So I will trust him and obey him and display by my radical, risk-taking obedience the glory of God’s grace. And I will draw nearer and nearer to him in the fellowship of his sufferings and the joy of his companionship.