It is Tuesday and we’ve begun reading the Epistles. Hopefully, Monday’s notes will help to understand the differences in reading the narrative books and the Epistles. Today’s reading is Romans 1:16 - 2:1. I would urge you to read it slowly, pick up the words, and look carefully at them. I invite you to return and we’ll look at it together.
The letter to the Romans opened with Paul’s greetings, his affections for the Roman Christians, and his desire to visit them someday. The reason was his commitment to spreading the message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to Rome and beyond. Paul’s statement in vs 16 is clear - The Gospel is not something to back away from because Jesus Christ is the only means for God’s salvation that is given to everyone who believes in Jesus. By “believe”, Paul uses a word that means to “put one’s complete trust in”. Believing is not mere intellectual assent - as in I believe in gravity. To believe is to agree with something, and then orient behavior and life around it. For example, I believe in gravity, therefore I won’t step off a high building. Believing in Jesus Christ is to completely trust in Him alone as Savior and Lord.
What does believing in Christ alone attain? The message of the Gospel is that “in” Christ, and “from” Christ, God’s righteousness is revealed, received, and lived out. The revelation of God’s righteousness is crucial to what will follow. What we read in the word - “righteousness” - is THE key concept of the necessity of our faith in Christ alone. Righteousness comes from the word “dikaiosune” (die-ki-a-soon-a), whereby God is perfect, completely right in word, action, choices, desires, etc...eternally so.
God is righteous and we are not. The gulf that exists between God and our own nature, our own self, is huge...unable to be crossed over. God’s righteousness is derived from his own Holy character. God is perfect in being - he never makes a mistake, he never does not know, he never has to learn, or gain understanding.
This righteousness is mandatory for salvation but impossible in our own self to achieve it. Paul describes God’s righteousness as being “revealed” - where? How? The answer preceded this revelation. It was revealed in Jesus Christ’s perfect, sinless, obedient life. A life that led him to die for us and be raised from the dead, for us. Then Paul says this righteousness is “received” - not earned. Where? How? It is received by faith. Paul says in vs 17, “the righteousness of God is revealed - a righteousness that is by faith from first to last”. Literally, he writes, “in the good news, the righteousness of God is revealed ‘out of faith into faith’. He is saying that faith is “from beginning to end” the means of receiving this righteousness.
“So, Elliott, there is something I must do. I must have faith!” Not so fast, the argument is not complete and in the end, we will see that even that faith we need is impossible without God’s gift of grace to us. Paul is beginning to describe why Jesus alone has to be the means of how we receive salvation and this has not changed since the Gospel first began to be proclaimed. “The righteous man (person) shall live by faith.” One receives right standing before God by belief, complete trust in Christ Jesus alone, and not in their works - no matter how nice or good they may be.
This discovery of God’s righteousness “GIVEN” to us instead of earned by us (which is what Roman Catholicism, among others teaches) is the great discovery of Martin Luther. Luther entered the Monastery, becoming an Augustinian monk because he feared for his salvation. He thought he needed to earn righteousness by various means of graces the church taught. The sacraments, confession, fasting, prayers, vigils, etc... were all necessities to earn God’s righteousness. Yet the harder he tried the more he realized he fell short of perfection. When Luther began to read Romans he was exasperated by the notion of achieving God’s righteousness, and at one point said, “I hated God...I hated his demand that His righteousness is necessary”. In Luther’s background, the Catholic Church taught God’s righteousness is given in order to do good works that then justify the person doing them. It is achieving righteousness through the works of the church.
R.C. Sproul described the “awakening” in Luther’s study when teaching the book of Romans.
“Luther was looking now at the Greek word that was in the New Testament, not the Latin word. The word dikaios, dikaiosune, which didn’t mean to make righteous, but rather to ‘regard as righteous, to count as righteous, to declare as righteous’. And this was the moment of awakening for Luther. He said, ‘You mean, here Paul is not talking about the righteousness by which God Himself is righteous, but a righteousness that God gives freely by His grace to people who don’t have righteousness of their own.’"
And so Luther said, “Whoa, you mean the righteousness by which I will be saved, is not mine?” It’s what he called a ‘Justitia Alienum’ (Latin for), 'alien righteousness'; i.e., a righteousness that belongs properly to somebody else. It’s a righteousness that is ‘extra nos’ (again Latin for), 'outside of us'."
We now understand what he is saying. We don't earn righteousness by our deeds, religious affections, good works; but we receive the righteousness of Christ that he earned in his perfect life. And Luther said, "When I discovered that, I was born again of the Holy Ghost. And the doors of paradise swung open, and I walked through."
I’ve spent a long time on this, so I’ll be brief. What followed in our reading (vss 18 - 32) is the beginning of the proof for the necessity of God’s righteousness being received instead of earned. Paul introduces us in vs. 18, to the “wrath of God that is also revealed against all ‘ungodliness and wickedness’.” A natural question emerges - Who are these ungodly wicked people? We are tempted to say - “them”. That would be wrong. Paul now sets out to prove that ALL of us fit into that label. Degrees or comparisons of goodness among us are natural, but before God, the standard is His Perfect Righteousness, not our human comparisons.
God is holy, he is perfect, and all human beings are Sinful. This is SIN in capital letters...because he is not saying we have made mistakes once in a while, but rather that the very nature of our being outside of God is Sinful. It is not our "sinning" that makes us sinners, it is that we are by nature sinners, thus we sin. God has revealed himself in countless ways (vss 19-20). Our response to God as human beings is to rebel, substitute, and defy (vss 21-22). It might sound strange, but God’s wrath is the other side of the coin of his love. Paul is describing God’s loving reaction to humanity’s rebellion.
Remember, while this all describes the human nature of Sin, God did something about it. One of the key things he did follows. In vss 24, 26, and 28, Paul says each time, “God gave them over” - to what? To their Sinful nature. The judgment of God is real - his hatred for sin is real - and his decision to not pretend, but instead confront it was also real. In our modern world Sin has largely been removed from our vocabulary. Mistakes happen. No one is perfect. We all fail. That humanity "Suppresses the truth" (vs 18) about God's hatred of Sin only serves to prove the indictment that is on all humanity. We might excuse it, but tolerating our Sin nature is not the answer. Paul says God is not willing to make Sin an excuse that we can live with.
Humanity’s record of sinful behavior needs no defense. It is obvious every day on so many levels. God’s reaction to this human condition is not to abandon humanity - us - but rather to do something about it. What is obvious from where we began is that WE cannot do anything about it ourselves. On our own, without Christ, without his Holy Spirit, we justify evil behavior. God does not. This is Paul’s beginning argument. It is not over. What about being religious, doing good works? Doesn’t that matter for something? We will see that next.