I think Romans 1:16 is the key to unlocking all the deep secrets of the letter to the Romans.
In that verse Paul says he is not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ. But why does he say that?
There are three reasons he says that. Two are directly stated, and one is implied.
- Because he was being questioned about his Gospel.. (This one is implied.)
- Because it is the power of God to salvation.
- Because in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith.
If you understand those three things, you will not be confused about Romans any more, nor ever again use it to justify unrighteous living.
Let’s go backwards through those issues …
In the Gospel the Righteousness of God is Revealed
Due to misunderstandings that have prevailed since the Reformation (not during; Luther and Calvin did not make this mistake), many Protestants believe that Romans is about going to heaven without having to do any good works.
This contradicts the main point of Romans, which is that Paul’s Gospel is nothing to be ashamed of. The reason it’s nothing to be ashamed of is because the righteousness of God is revealed in it … and that from faith to faith.
In other words, when people believe Paul’s Gospel, the righteousness of God is seen in their lives. That’s how it’s revealed.
As Paul says later:
For [the Jews], being ignorant of God’s righteousness and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves to the righteousness of God. (10:3)
God’s righteousness is revealed in those who believe and thus submit themselves to it. It’s a righteousness that is different from our own righteousness, but it is a real, tangible, visible, and experienced righteousness, not merely an imputed one.
The apostle John tells us that only those who actually practice the righteousness of God can claim to have imputed righteousness.
Little children, don’t let anyone deceive you. He that does righteousness is righteous just as [Christ] is righteous. (1 Jn. 3:7)
Notice that John warns us not to be deceived about this! He’s not the only one who warns us …
Don’t Misunderstand This
It’s amazing that people can read Romans 1:16-17 and think that it could possibly mean that you can live however you want and go to heaven. The very next verse—yes, verse 18— says …
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness.
Or maybe you believe that Paul disagrees with John when John tells us that only those who do righteousness are righteous as Christ is righteous?
Paul doesn’t disagree with John. He issues almost exactly the same warning …
Don’t you know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived … (1 Cor. 6:9)
After spending verses 19 through 32 castigating those who hold the truth in unrighteousness, Paul then starts on the Jews who oppose his Gospel, upbraiding them for their hypocrisy …
Therefore you are inexcusable, oh man, whichever of you judges someone else … for you that judge do the same things. But we are sure that the judgment of God is according to truth against them who commit such things. Or do you think, oh man, you who judge those who do such things yet do the same, that you will escape the judgment of God? (2:1-3)
The fact is that yes, a lot of us Protestants think that we can do the same things as the world and yet escape the judgment of God.
Paul has something to say to such people …
After your hardness and impenitent heart you store up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath and the revelation of the righteous judgment of God, who will repay every man according to his deeds. (2:5-6)
This is not the only place Paul says this …
Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things [in context, this is uncleanness, immorality, and greed] the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore, do not be partakers with them. (Eph. 5:6-7)
Clear enough, don’t you think?
And he even issues another warning not to be deceived about this. It’s as though he knew what was coming.
The Power of God to Salvation
The Gospel is the power of God to salvation. As we have seen, it is a salvation that can be seen.
Later in Romans, Paul gives a very clear—almost amazingly clear—description of salvation. We miss it because we don’t understand it, and some of us simply don’t believe it, but it’s a wonderful description of just what the power of God to salvation is.
In Romans 7, Paul describes what we need to be saved from. We are powerless to obey God. We may love righteousness, but we can’t perform it.
Jesus died to change that.
Romans 7 explains that the Law was powerless to change that. It could not empower us to obedience.
But Jesus can …
For what the Law could not do, God did. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, as an offering for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh so that the righteous requirement of God might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit. (Rom. 8:3-4)
Notice something there. Jesus’ death accomplished something, but it only accomplished it in those who do not walk according to the flesh but choose a spiritual walk instead.
What did he mean by that? Did he mean that the choice of which to do was up to us?
Just a few verses later, he answers those questions.
So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh to live according to the flesh, for if we live according to the flesh we will die. But if by the Spirit we put to death the deeds of the flesh, then we will live. (Rom. 8:12-13)
Those sure seem to say something clearly, don’t they? Do you really want to bank your hope on the possibility that the choice of which to do is entirely up to you?
Again, this isn’t the only place where Paul says this. Look up Gal. 6:7-9. Peter says it, too. Try 2 Peter 1:5-11 for that.
Sin will not have power over you, for you are not under Law, but under grace. (Rom. 6:14)
That verse sounds a lot like Romans 8:3-4 that we just looked at, doesn’t it?
Romans 8:3-4 is a description of real grace. Grace is not a license to sin. Grace is the power of God delivering you from the power of sin so that you can make the choices given to you in Romans 8:12-13; Gal. 6:7-9; and 2 Pet. 1:5-11.
You can find a terrific description of the grace that brings salvation in Titus 2:11-14.
Answering Jewish Questions About Paul’s Gospel
Romans is all about Paul defending his Gospel.
He gets to drop that by chapter twelve. In the first eleven chapters he dispenses with any objection that any lover of the Law could have to his Gospel, and then in chapter twelve and afterward he gets to move on to exhortation and encouragement.
3:8 specifically says that negative things were being said about Paul and his Gospel, but the whole tenor of the first eleven chapters makes it clear that he’s defending himself.
Romans 1:16 is the beginning of that: "I am not ashamed of the Gospel."
But note, the reason he is not ashamed, as we saw above, is because the Gospel is producing righteousness. It is producing people whose lives are to be admired; not like the Jews who are powerless to do good (re: all of ch. 2).
What About Me?
Now comes the biggest question of all. What about you? What about me?
Have you believed the Gospel and found no change? Has the Gospel failed to be the power of God for salvation to you?
Gratefulness for the death of Christ is not going to be sufficient. It is by the Spirit that we put to death the deeds of the body, not by gratefulness. The death of Christ is effective for those who "do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit."
How do you obtain that power?
Truly, it is only by believing, but is what you have believed the truth?
Jesus said that you cannot be his disciple unless you hate family, possessions, and even your own life (Luke 14:26-33).
You have to despise everything and everyone and follow Christ. You do this not by treating them badly, but by making Christ your sole influence in life.
This is the Gospel. Jesus doesn’t know about another one.
That Gospel will bring you the Spirit, and you will receive the Spirit just for believing it.
Know, however, that Jesus is serious about that Gospel. He is the author of eternal salvation to those who obey him (Heb. 5:9).
Will you become his disciple? Will you forsake everything to have him as Teacher, Guide, and Lord?
Everything else comes later. Theology doesn’t matter. Christ will teach you your theology. Will you follow the One who is risen, who is Lord, and who will judge everyone on the last day according to what they have done?