I believe Romans 1:16,17 could be considered theme verses for this great epistle - "For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes. For the Jew first and also for the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith, as it is written, 'The just shall live by faith.'"
Let us spend time together in this lesson breaking these verses apart phrase by phrase, trying to understand their meaning.
"FOR I AM NOT ASHAMED OF THE GOSPEL OF CHRIST"
This is a deliberate understatement for emphasis. Paul had just stated in the prior verses that he was eager to preach to those who were in Rome. Paul is proud of the gospel and counts it a special honor to proclaim it.
For Paul to affirm that he is not ashamed of the gospel is a revealing statement when we think about all that Paul has had to suffer and contend with, just for the privilege of preaching it. He had been chased out of Antioch, smuggled out of Damascus, and laughed at in Athens. He wrote in Philippians 3:8 - "Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish that I may gain Christ." According to I Corinthians 4:13, Paul was regarded by many as not much better than sewage, but still he was proud of the gospel! To be proud of something and to stand up and contend for it, when it seems no one else will, is not easy. But, this is precisely what Paul was doing.
"FOR IT IS THE POWER OF GOD TO SALVATION"
Here is the reason why Paul is not ashamed of the gospel. Carefully note the verb tense. Paul says the gospel is (and continues to be) God's means of saving man. The gospel is not simply the content of early Christians' sermons, for God is still at work through the preaching of the cross. God works through His gospel message to try to woo and win the listener to Himself. He works through the word to convert and save men.
The fundamental concept of salvation is deliverance. Wonderful deliverance from the power and penalty of sin and death is made possible through the gospel. Salvation has both present and future aspects to consider. In the present, there is forgiveness, reconciliation, and liberation from a life of slavery to sin. In the future, we look forward to an immortal, resurrected body and heavenly glory around God's throne.
"FOR EVERYONE WHO BELIEVES"
The salvation that God provides is not bestowed on all humanity indiscriminately. It is given by God to those who believe. Belief is (and has always been) the ultimate condition man must comply with before God will save him. The verb form in the Greek here is very clear. It is present participle which means continuing action. In other words, the one who continues to believe is the one who will be saved. This is not a one-time thing. The text could properly read: "The gospel is God's power to salvation for everyone who continues to believe."
God does not limit who may meet the condition--anyone may believe. God is no longer working in a special way with certain families (as in the Patriarchal Age) or a certain race of people (as in the Mosaic Age). This salvation is available to anyone!
"FOR THE JEW FIRST AND ALSO FOR THE GREEK."
Isn't that exciting? Salvation is available to anyone regardless of their race (or gender or economic status, etc.). It is perfectly acceptable to have any ancestry imaginable. The fact that you may or may not have Jewish blood in your family is irrelevant to God.
But, that still leaves the question: Why did Paul say salvation was available to the Jews first? The answer is simple: Because God had been preparing them for 1500 years (and the Messiah came through them). They should have been better prospects for conversion to Christianity than the heathens, since the Old Law--when properly understood to be fulfilled in Christ--logically leads to obedience under the New Covenant (cf. Gal. 3). This is why evangelism in the early church typically began in the synagogues of each city and concentrated first upon the Jews (e.g., Acts 13:14-52).
However, regardless of who received it first, the gospel was designed by God for all! Christianity is the only religion in the world designed for all times and places. The gospel is universal in scope.
"FOR IN IT THE RIGHTEOUSNESS OF GOD IS REVEALED FROM FAITH TO FAITH"
Although righteousness is one of God's attributes, I don't believe that is Paul's point here. Paul is not talking about an attribute but an action of God. The phrase is perhaps better rendered like this: "For in it (the gospel) the right doing of God is revealed."
"Revealed" suggests that before the time when the gospel was preached in full (i.e., before Pentecost in Acts 2), God's way of saving man was not as clearly defined. In other words, it was a mystery until it was divinely revealed.
So, what is Paul saying? Simply this: The gospel proclaimed unleashes God's power to save. It does this by revealing the plan (or process) designed by Him by which men may be counted (judged) as just or righteous (not guilty) in His sight. The gospel is God's plan for man's righteousness, and it is activated by obedient faith!
The justification that God provides is revealed from a system of faith into personal faith. Personally, I think this is what Paul means by the phrase "from faith to faith" (cf. Eph. 4:5).
Salvation is not (and has never been) based on law keeping. Salvation is (and has always been) based on living faith. This is a condition that man must meet. And remember, God wants us to be saved!
"AS IT IS WRITTEN, 'THE JUST SHALL LIVE BY FAITH.'"
Paul quotes here from Habakkuk 2:4. The background of this passage is this: Habakkuk is perplexed by the seeming ease of the wicked, as though some wicked men in Judea were getting away with their wickedness, and he asks God about it. God replies that the Babylonians are coming as His means of punishing the wicked Hebrews. Then the prophet wants to know why God will allow the wicked Babylonians to punish His people (since the Hebrews were more righteous than the Babylonians overall). God's answer is that all sinners, whether Hebrew or Babylonian will be punished. It is only the ones who are righteous by faith that shall live.
"The just shall live by faith" simply means the just shall be saved by faith. In Romans 1:17, living by faith is not a reference to being governed by faith in daily living (although Paul does talk about this elsewhere in his writings). Paul is not here discussing: By what are men to be governed? Paul is discussing: By what are men justified or saved? The answer is faith, and this principle has always been true! It is true under any age of the history of the world (i.e., the Patriarchal, Mosaic, & Christian dispensations).
As proof of this claim, let us briefly consider Hebrews 11. In that chapter, a number of godly men and women are mentioned who demonstrated great faith by their actions; indeed, their faith was alive! It is certainly true that their lives were governed by faith in God. But, more significantly for our present focus, their faith justified or saved them! Their faith will ultimately yield a heavenly home for them. Physically, we know that Enoch's faith saved him from death (cf. 11:5), Noah's faith saved him from the destruction of the global flood (cf. 11:7), Moses' faith saved him from the "passing pleasures of sin" (11:25), Rahab's faith saved her from annihilation at the hand of the conquering Israelites (cf. 11:31), etc. But, there is more to it than this!
Each one desires "a better, that is, a heavenly country. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them...And all these, having obtained a good testimony through faith, did not receive the promise" (Heb. 11:16,39). These faithful ones (and countless others) are saved by faith, though the ultimate blessing of faith is not realized or fully embraced here on Earth. Eternal life (salvation) is the ultimate promise of an obedient faith!
The book of Romans sets forth the theme of justification (cf. 5:1) through the gospel (cf. 1:16) by means of an obedient faith (cf. 1:5; 16:26). In other words, God works through the gospel to save men and women. It is through God's message that the way of salvation is explained, and deliverance is conditional. The condition is--and has always been--a genuine, living faith. Dear friends, the just shall live by faith--are you of that number?
Thank you for listening, and may the Lord bless you as you strive to do His will.