God’s Power for Salvation

Chatswood Baptist Church https://www.chatswoodbaptist.com.au

Romans 1:16-17

Ashamed of the gospel

I still remember the first time I felt truly alienated and ridiculed for being a Christian. In my second year of university, after attending the mid-year conference with the Christian student group, I had been profoundly challenged about the wonder and grace of the gospel. I had wanted to get more involved in sharing this amazing news with my friends and the rest of the campus. And when the group of Christian engineering students planned an outreach event, I asked one of my lecturers if I could make a short announcement about it. He was perfectly happy for me to, and before the lecture started, I got up with the ministry trainee of our faculty group, who was really doing most of the talking. But after only about 5 seconds, someone in the class started yelling out for us to get off the stage. He was swearing loudly and abusing us, saying that they weren’t here to learn about God and to get off the *%#@ stage! It happened so suddenly and I was in shock. Luckily I wasn’t the one speaking at the time, as I don’t think I could have gone on, and I don’t know how the Ministry Trainee did. 

I was pretty shaken up by the experience, and I have to admit that I don’t remember making any more announcements for Campus Bible Study at the start of lectures. Of course, I had known that many people have no interest in the message of the Bible, and that some are passionately opposed to Christianity. But it was a very personal awakening to the reality of being ridiculed and abused for trying to promote the gospel. I had stuck my neck out for the gospel and felt like I got my head ripped off. I experienced public shame for trying to bring the gospel into my ‘secular space’, and it was tempting to retreat – to distance myself from the gospel and from the Christian group. I needed a reason to continue to stand with the gospel and with the people associated with this message. I needed a reason not to be ashamed of the gospel.

A silly and dangerous faith

And of course I’m not alone in this. You may not have stood in front of a lecture hall full of students whilst someone yells abuse at you, but we’re all well aware of the typical attitudes in our culture and society towards Christianity. We can be ashamed of the gospel, because we’re embarrassed to be associated with the way it is belittled and ridiculed. Belief in God and in miracles and the resurrection from the dead are all seen as simple minded and ignorant. Faith is described as a crutch for those who need it. Talking about being ‘saved’ from your sins and going to heaven is old fashioned and irrelevant. It’s all a silly distraction from making a real difference in this world. Economics, education, science, technology and the power of human cooperation are what matter. Christianity is associated with the dark ages of ignorance and the gospel can be seen in our culture as an invitation to go back there…

But of course, the real issue these days is the way the Christian message and faith are seen as dangerous. The gospel isn’t just taking us back to the dark ages of superstitious and unscientific beliefs according to our society, it takes us back to dangerous social ethics that our culture has rejected. 

Many of you will be well aware of the ongoing saga with the Rugby player Israel Falou over sharing a post on Instagram. The image he shared stated that drunks, homosexuals, thieves, atheists and fornicators would go to hell unless they repented, and called such people to turn to Jesus as their only hope. I’m not getting into the debate about whether all Christians should be jumping up to stand with ‘Izzy’, or whether his post was even helpful or wise. What I am saying, which is beyond doubt, is that this whole saga reveals just how decisively our culture has rejected biblical ethics and the idea that people could possibly experience God’s judgement for expressing their own sexuality, just because it’s not in line with what the Bible says. Basically you just can’t say things like that in public, and if you do, there will be consequences. The gospel and the Christian faith are seen as not just ignorant, but dangerous for society, and it’s easy to shrink back and be ashamed of it.

Many Christians are finding this reality particularly hard to come to terms with because things used to be so different. In a podcast by Tim Keller I was listening to, he told a story about the management guru from the 20thCentury, Peter Drucker, who had moved to the US from Europe in the 1930s to teach at University. He was trying to get a bank loan to buy a house in NYC, and the bank manager asked him where he went to church. When Peter Drucker asked what did that have to do with getting a loan, the bank manager replied, “Why would we give you a loan if you don’t go to church or synagogue? Why would we trust you?” In the space of 80 years, our culture has gone from expecting you to be a Christian – there was social pressure to be a Christian – to deeming you a danger to society and tearing up contracts if you publicly espouse biblical teaching.

But whilst it can be hard for some of us to come to terms with these changes, it’s helpful to appreciate that our relationship with our surrounding culture now is actually more similar to the situation of the early church in Ancient Rome. The Apostle Paul was all too familiar with his message about Jesus being ridiculed as ignorant, pathetic and futile, and worse, being demonized as dangerous for society. The Jews saw it as a threat to the core of Jewish identity, because it was a message of justification before God apart from the Law of Moses. And the Romans saw it as a threat to the social order because Christians would not worship the Emperor or the roman gods. Unlike the Jews, who kept to themselves in family units, Christians could pop up everywhere, part of trade guilds and families and in the army, and these strange people would not bow and worship the gods. They were seen as a threat to society in the same way that Christians are viewed in strict Muslim countries today and to some extent, in China. 

Not Ashamed

And in the face of these kinds of attitudes towards the gospel, different but so similar to the way our own culture views Christianity, Paul declares in our passage today, in this key statement at the beginning of his letter to the roman church, that he is not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for salvation for all who believe. And what Paul shares here about the gospel, and why it is the power of God for salvation is what we need to absorb deep into our hearts and minds if we are to stand with the gospel and embrace our task of proclaiming it to a world that will often ridicule it as pathetic or worse, demonize it as dangerous. Romans 1:16-17 is the thematic statement, the headline banner, to this whole letter, which helps us celebrate the gospel and trust in it as good, relevant and sufficient for us and for this world – to  embrace it as the power of God for salvation – rather than shrink back and be ashamed of it.

Romans 1:16-17: the gospel & revelation of God’s saving righteousness

So the plan is to step through the logic of these two densely packed verses, appreciating how their message fits into the background hope and expectations of the Jewish scriptures, and how they relate to what comes in the rest of the letter. And as we do, to see how they give as a profound vision of the goodness, relevance and power of the gospel for us and for this world.

God’s power for salvation because…

The key to understanding these two verses, and what drives Paul to celebrate the gospel rather than be ashamed of it, is to appreciate the relationship betweenthe two verses. You see Paul is not ashamed of the gospel, he wants to take every opportunity to proclaim it, because he is convinced it is the power of God that brings salvation to all people who believe (both Jew and Gentile). And he believes it’s the power of God for salvation becauseby means of the gospel, God’s righteousness is revealed fromfaith and forfaith (ESV). The gospel is God’s power for salvation, because by it and from faith, God is revealing his righteousness.

The Righteousness of God

Now there’s a few phrases and ideas that need unpacking, and most significant of all is this phrase, ‘the righteousness of God’. This phrase and what Paul means by it has generated libraries full of books. To save you going and reading those libraries, I’ll give you the short story. The three main options are that it refers i) to a characteristic of God – i.e. his righteous nature and character, or perhaps his faithfulness to his promises, or ii) to an action of God, i.e. his action to save or establish justice, or iii) to a status conferred on humans from God, i.e. a righteousness given to us which is ‘of God’, rather than ‘of ourselves’. Hopefully if you’ve read Romans and have some familiarity with this letter you can immediately see how all three could be good options, and why there would be lots of debate about the meaning of it.

What I am convinced of is that in a sense, the phrase refers to all three, but it’s the second one – God’s saving action – that is the core meaning. I think Paul’s saying that God, motivated by his righteous characteras the good, faithful and just God of creation, is actingrighteously in the world here and now, saving his people, keeping his promises and establishing justice, by grantingpeople his own righteousness through faith in Christ. So his righteous charactermotivates his righteous action, which is expressed in grantingrighteousnessof his own to us through faith, by means of the gospel.

Echoes and Allusions

To appreciate that this is what Paul is saying, we need to first of all ‘hear’ the phrase ‘God’s righteousness is revealed’ against the backdrop of the OT scriptures. We need to appreciate the ideas and hopes that this phrase would have brought to mind for those familiar with the Old Testament.

You know how a certain phrase can bring to mind a whole movie, or book, or character, or even a whole set of ideas associated with that phrase in its context? Like, if I say, “with great power comes great responsibility”, most of you don’t need any more context to know where that phrase comes from and the implications of it. Or if I say “I have a dream!”, many of you will immediately have images of Martin Luther King outlining his vision of racial equality in a pivotal moment in American civil rights. Sometimes a key phrase brings with it a rich, wider meaning, and you use it deliberately to bring to mind all those ideas. 

You see Paul is echoing a key phrase from the Psalms and the Prophets that looked forward to the great intervention of God to save his people and establish his justice in this world. And from these references, it is clear that the revelation of God’s righteousness is the action of God to redeem and establish justice, as the outworking of his righteous character.

Psalm 98 & the Righteous Salvation of God

Earlier, before reading these two verses from Romans, we also read Psalm 98. This Psalm is a song celebrating the promised salvation of God, who comes to establish justice on earth as the good King of creation and save his people. Verses 4-9 invite the whole of creation to shout for joy at the coming of the LORD, because he comes to judge the earth in righteousness and fairness. It looks forward to the great hope of the Jewish people – this hope that God would intervene once and for all in the history of the world and establish his good and just kingdom. And the opening verses, 1-3, celebrate this hope as if it has already happened. Perhaps celebrating some particular expression of God’s salvation as a foretaste of this great hope. 

And here in verses 1-3, we see a whole bunch of strong parallels to Romans 1:16-17, and we also see that the revelation of God’s righteousness is clearly a way of speaking about God’s salvation being enacted and made known to the nations. In verse 1, the language of God’s right hand and holy arm are a way of speaking about the power of God, which have worked salvation for him, just as Romans 1:16 speaks of ‘the power of God for salvation’. And verse 2 then, speaks of God’s righteousness being revealed, just like Romans 1:17, and it’s clearly paralleled with the LORD making his salvation known. And finally, in verse 3, the Psalmist draws together the ideas of God being faithful to Israel and displaying his salvation to the nations. Just as in Romans 1:16, Paul explains that the gospel is God’s power for salvation, first to the Jew, and also to the gentile. You can see the strong parallels can’t you? You can see how the phrase ‘God’s righteousness is revealed’ would conjure up these kinds of ideas… 

Because it’s not just one phrase in one random Psalm. This Psalm is celebrating the central hope of the Jewish religion – the claim that God is the true King, and that he’s coming to establish his good kingdom. And there are other instances of this kind of language. In Isaiah 51:4, to give another example, the message of the prophet Isaiah is directed to the Jews languishing in exile in Babylon, under the oppression of a violent and proud people. And here God speaks through the prophet, promising Israel that ‘My righteousness draws near speedily, my salvation is on the way, and my arm will bring justice to the nations.’ You can see the parallels can’t you, to Psalm 98 and with what Paul says in Romans. 

Revealed by the Gospel, through faith, for faith

So when Paul speaks of the power of God for salvation for Israel and the nations, and then speaks of the revelation of God’s righteousness, he’s alluding to texts like Psalm 98 and Isaiah 51 and evoking all these hopes and expectations about God’s powerful intervention in the world. 

Now, naturally, the Jewish people expected these promises and hopes to be fulfilled in a dramatic, tangible and (for want of a better term) a political manner. They were suffering under the idolatrous and oppressive rule of pagan nations such as the Babylonians, the Greeks and then the Romans. And they were expecting God to turn up in a big way and, basically, beat up the bad guys and establish them, the good guys, in their own kingdom – the kingdom of God. The Messiah would come to reveal God’s righteousness by overthrowing the wicked and vindicating the righteous.  

But Paul’s saying something very different. He’s evoking all these ideas and hopes about God’s justice and salvation, and he’s saying that all this is being manifest or revealed here and now by means of the gospel. It’s like someone giving a speech today, campaigning for some form of greater justice or equality, and opening their speech with those same words as Martin Luther King, ‘I have a dream!’ It brings up all the rich meaning of the original context, and says, “That’s what’s going on here!”

Paul’s saying that God’s powerful intervention in this world to save his people, to vindicate them from oppression and evil and to establish justice amongst the nations, promised for hundreds of years, it’s being realized in the present through the gospel being proclaimed and believed. That dynamic of sharing and trusting in the gospel is the means by which God is displaying and working his powerful salvation in the world. 

It doesn’t mean that there won’t be a dramatic, tangible, physical, and in a sense, political manifestation of God’s saving righteousness in the world one day. The final realization of the vision of the Psalms and the Prophets is still to come. That’s part of the good news of the gospel of Jesus. One day justice and peace will flow like rivers over this world, renewed and free from corruption.

But in the present, right now, this great hope, this power of God for salvation is being realized in the world through the gospel, as this message is shared and believed. God’s righteousness is revealed as God justifies sinnersthrough faith in Jesus, in a way that satisfies and expresses his own righteousness and faithfulness, and is ultimately aimed at establishing a world of justice and peace. God is actually achieving the finalrealization of a world of peace and justice by first of allworking through the gospel here and now.

From Faith, For Faith

Now there’s a lot more to say about how and why God has manifest his saving righteousness in this way, and why it hadto be in this way, and that’s what he goes on to argue in the rest of chapters 1-4. But now, he simply captures it all by saying that God’s righteousness is revealed by the gospel, fromfaith, forfaith. That’s the literal phrase in the Greek, which I think would be best translated as ‘through faith, for faith’. What he’s saying in this very compact sentence, is that faith is the essential means of God working his salvation in the life of an individual through the gospel, which of course, is why it is the power of God for all who believe.It is from or throughfaith and thus forfaith. The message of the gospel and the response of faith go hand in hand, and through this dynamic, God works his powerful salvation in the world.

And this is what the Scriptures promised and anticipated all along according to Paul. Just as it is written, he writes, the righteous will live by faith. This phrase is from the prophet Habakkuk (there’s a good baby name for you!), and in this quote Paul sees the anticipation of God’s righteousness being revealed bythe gospel throughfaith. What Paul’s doing here is bringing up the hopes and expectations of passages like Psalm 98, and saying that they are actually realized through this realityanticipated in Habakkuk 2:4. He can see that the Scriptures themselves proclaimed that in the end, the righteous would be declared righteous and thus live on account of their faith in God’s promise, not because they were righteous in and of themselves. 

You see, that’s the problem with the expectations the Jewish people had of how God would turn up and reveal his righteousness, beating up the bad guys and vindicating the good guys. The problem was and is that there areno good guys. The Jews, the people of God, were no better than anyone else. If God had turned up to destroy the wicked, we would all have been swept away. Jew and Gentile, the cultured and the barbarians, the polite and the rough… all alike have fallen short and would be swept away in God’s justice. The good guys are the bad guys, and the bad guys are the good guys. That’s why God’s righteousness is revealed in the present through the gospel, by faith. It’s by the gospel and through faith that God does the impossible – he turns up to punish the bad guys and rescue them at the same time. By the gospel, God justly punishes sin, whilst at the same time, declares sinners righteous through faith in Christ, destined to share fully in his righteousness. We couldn’t have the world we want without the gospel. We couldn’t be a partof the world we want without first being saved through the gospel.

This is why Paul is not ashamed of the gospel. This is why we revels in it as the power of God for salvation for all who believe, first the Jew, in keeping with God’s promises, but also for the Gentile, as God has always planned. It’s because, by the gospel, God’s righteousness is revealed through faith for faith, just as it is written.

Good, Relevant and Sufficient

So in light of all this, I want us to appreciate how the gospel is indeed good, relevant and sufficient for us and for this world. 

Our society might say that exclusive religious truth claims are dangerous and unloving, and that dogmatic claims about ethics and God’s judgement are hate speech. And of course, we need to appreciate the context and manner in which we share the gospel. But I hope we can see that the gospel is profoundly goodfor our world. That sharing the gospel and helping people come to repentance and faith in the gospel is to draw them in to the powerful saving righteousness of God being manifest in this world. You might get your head ripped off (metaphorically) if you stick your neck out to be identified with the Christian gospel publicly. But there’s no real reason to be ashamed of it. 

When you know how good something is, you’re able to stick with it and keep urging people to embrace it, even if they’re not there yet. When we know how good the gospel is, when we grasp that through the gospel, God’s incredible power for setting this world to rights is being manifest; when we grasp that by sharing, even in our humble, stumbling words, the hope we have in Jesus and the reason we follow him, that God is revealing his saving righteousness to a world groaning under sin and corruption… when our hearts and minds are captured by these truths, it doesn’t matter how many times people write off our faith is silly or dangerous. We know it is good for us and for them.

And secondly, I hope we can see how relevantthe gospel is for doing good and effecting change in this world. Over the past 100 years, many Christian organisations have abandoned the idea that God is at work in the world primarily through the ministry and teachings of the church. The trend has been to turn outwards to the world to see what God might be doing ‘out there’ and take our agenda from the world. So Christians move on from the idea that the world needs to hear what we have to say from the Bible, and instead get on with the real work of social action in partnership with people of all faiths. 

Of course, working for social change, loving people practically and being a good listener are very important. But we do these things knowing that ultimately the focal point of God’s powerful work of redemption in this world here and now is the gospel. Social justice should be an outworking of God’s kingdom being realized through the gospel as people are transformed in Christ. But God’s Kingdom is not established through social justice. Profound, complete and lasting change for good in this world is achieved first and foremost through holding out the gospel of Jesus Christ, seeing people come to faith, and teaching them to obey him.

And finally, we want to remember in light of these amazing, rich verses at the beginning of Romans, that the gospel is utterly sufficient. It is sufficient for us as individuals in being reconciled and transformed – experiencing the saving power of God; and it is sufficient for us as a church – we can and should build our ministry essentially on proclaiming and promoting trust in the gospel. Paul was aware that some saw his gospel of free justification by grace through faith as weak and insufficient for realizing God’s purposes in the world. But he knew they were wrong. He knew that by the gospel and by faith in this message, God was working powerfully to save and execute his good plans for this world and for his people. 

We are so often tempted to look to external means of justifying ourselves before God. We fall into ‘religious thinking’ of wanting to measure ourselves against lists of rules and pleasing God by maintaining rituals. And likewise we be tempted to think that real success and real change in ministry will ultimately come down to everything other than the gospel itself: the personality of leaders, the beauty and functionality of buildings, strategic plans, programs and structures… Fun will grow the youth group, therapeutic conversations will change our friends at Bible study, and better music will grow the church. All of this stuff is good and important. But it’s the gospel that saves and that changes people. The gospel is God’s power for salvation for all who believe. 

By the gospel, God’s saving righteousness is revealed from faith, for faith. Don’t be ashamed of the gospel. Trust in the goodness, the relevance and the sufficiency of the gospel.