Commentary on Romans 1:16-17

Notes (NET Translation)

16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is God’s power for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.

Honor and shame were extremely important matters in Paul’s world. Within his social context, Paul should have been ashamed to preach the gospel of Christ crucified. In 1 Cor 1:18-25 he says:

For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and I will thwart the cleverness of the intelligent.” Where is the wise man? Where is the expert in the Mosaic law? Where is the debater of this age? Has God not made the wisdom of the world foolish? For since in the wisdom of God the world by its wisdom did not know God, God was pleased to save those who believe by the foolishness of preaching. For Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks ask for wisdom, but we preach about a crucified Christ, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. But to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.

In saying that he is not ashamed, Paul is saying that he is prepared to publicly confess the gospel and that he is not afraid of the possible hardships that may result (cf. Mt 10:33; Mk 8:38; Lk 9:26; 2 Cor 11:23-27; 2 Tim 1:8, 12).1

The reason Paul is not ashamed of the gospel is because it is the power of God that results in salvation. The proclamation of the gospel effects salvation in those who believe.

To “believe” is to put full trust in the God who “justifies the ungodly” (4:5) by means of the cross and resurrection of Christ. Though intellectual assent cannot be excluded from faith, the Pauline emphasis is on surrender to God as an act of the will (cf., e.g., 4:18; 10:9). Pauline (and NT) faith is not (primarily) agreement with a set of doctrines but trust in a person. Though not explicit here, another focus of Romans is the insistence that faith is in no sense a “work.” Therefore, although we must never go to the extreme of making the person a totally passive instrument through whom “believing” occurs–for Paul makes clear that people are responsible to believe–we must also insist that believing is not something we do (in the sense of “works”) but is always a response, an accepting of the gift God holds out to us in his grace (see especially 4:1–8).2

In this verse, the “Greeks” are Gentiles. According to Acts, when Paul arrived at a location he shared the gospel with the Jews first (13:4-5, 14-44; 14:1; 16:13-15; 17:1-4, 10-12, 16-17; 18:1-4; 19:8; 28:16-24) before turning to the Gentiles (13:46-47; 18:16; 28:24-29). But, given the theological context, Paul must be speaking of something more than historical circumstance. For Paul, Jewish priority rests upon the place God himself had given the Jews in the plan of salvation. The Jews were entrusted with the words of God (3:2). They had the covenants, the law, temple worship, promises, and the Messiah (9:4-5).

To Israel the promises were first given, and to the Jews they still particularly apply. Without in any way subtracting from the equal access that all people now have to the gospel, then, Paul insists that the gospel, “promised beforehand . . . in the holy Scriptures” (1:2), has a special relevance to the Jew.3

17 For the righteousness of God is revealed in the gospel from faith to faith, just as it is written, “The righteous by faith will live.”

The “righteousness of God” can be understood in a forensic sense or a transformative sense. The forensic sense takes the righteousness of God to refer to the believer’s status before God. Righteousness is a gift from God that renders or declares the believer, who is still a sinner, acceptable in God’s sight. The transformative sense takes the righteousness of God to be God’s act of justifying or transforming the believer. The two positions are not mutually exclusive and both apply in this verse.

The evidence for the forensic position is:4

  1. The terms “righteousness” and “faith” appear together frequently in passages that suggest a person’s righteousness before God is due to faith (Rom 3:21-22; 4:3, 5-6, 9, 11, 13, 22; 9:30-31; 10:3-6, 10; Gal 2:20-21; 3:6, 21-22; 5:5; Phil 3:9).
  2. Faith is said to reckon the believer as righteous, which suggests righteousness is a status ascribed to the believer because of faith (Rom 4:3, 5-6, 9, 11; Gal 3:6).
  3. Rom 5:17 speaks of “the gift of righteousness”, making it clear that righteousness is a divine gift granted to the believer.
  4. 1 Cor 1:30 says that the Corinthians’ righteousness is “from God”; God is the origin of their righteousness.
  5. Phil 3:9 contrasts the righteousness that comes from the law with the righteousness which is through faith. That which is through faith is a divine gift. This position is consistent with the argument in Rom 1:18-4:25 that man is righteous by faith and the argument in Rom 5:1-8:39 that the man who is righteous by faith will live. The terms “faith” and “live” are present in v 17.
  6. The verbal form of “to justify” regularly bears the forensic sense in Paul (e.g., Rom 8:33).

The evidence for the transformative position is:5

  1. The verb translated “revealed” in v 17 refers to the activity of God invading history. It is more natural to speak of a divine action being revealed than it is to speak of a new status being disclosed. Rom 3:21 says the righteousness of God has been manifested, which also suggests a description of God’s activity.
  2. Verses 16-18 speak of the power of God (v 16), the righteousness of God (v 17), and the wrath of God (v 18). Just as the power of God and the wrath of God refer to divine actions so to does the righteousness of God.
  3. The OT and other Jewish literature often speak of the righteousness of God as God’s saving action (Ps 22:31; 31:1; 35:24, 28; 40:10; 69:27-29; 71:2, 15-16, 19, 24; 88:12; 98:2-3; 119:123; Isa 42:6, 21; 45:8, 13; 46:13; 51:5-8; 63:1; Mic 6:5; 7:9; 1QS 11:12).
  4. Rom 6 shows believers are changed by the grace of God.

For Paul, as in the OT, “righteousness of God” is a relational concept. Bringing together the aspects of activity and status, we can define it as the act by which God brings people into right relationship with himself. With Luther, we stress that what is meant is a status before God and not internal moral transformation–God’s activity of “making right” is a purely forensic activity, an acquitting, and not an “infusing” of righteousness or a “making right” in a moral sense. To be sure, the person who experiences God’s righteousness does, necessarily, give evidence of that in the moral realm, as Paul makes clear in Rom. 6. But, while “sanctification” and “justification” are inseparable, they are distinct; and Paul is badly misread if they are confused or combined. To use the imagery of the law court, from which righteousness language is derived, we can picture God’s righteousness as the act or decision by which the judge declares innocent a defendant: an activity of the judge, but an activity that is a declaration of status–an act that results in, and indeed includes within it, a gift. In this sense, the noun “righteousness” in this phrase can be understood to be the substantival equivalent of the verb “justify.”6

The meaning of “from faith to faith” is debated. In ancient Greek literature the formula “from A to A” always has “A” denote the same thing in both cases.7 In this verse “faith” refers to human faith, not the faithfulness of God or Christ. This accords with v 16, where salvation is for those who believe, and the citation of Hab 2:4 in v 17, showing people are justified by faith. The phrase “from faith to faith” is used to emphasize the centrality of faith: faith and nothing but faith can put us in right relationship with God.

The quotation, “the righteous by faith will live”, is taken from Hab 2:4 but its form differs from that found in both the MT and the LXX. Its meaning cannot be determined on grammatical grounds and must be decided on the basis of Pauline usage and context. Paul’s citation of Hab 2:4 in Gal 3:11 is used to show that people are justified by faith, not works of the law. The context of Romans 1:17 is that of the righteousness of believers, not God or Christ. We should understand the phrase to mean that the righteous are given eternal life through faith.

Did Paul use the Habakkuk citation accurately? The Qumran community applied it to the observance of the law, a view that appears to fit quite well with the intention of the MT. The righteous in the OT are those who faithfully carry out the obligations of the covenant by keeping God’s commandments. The word emuna (faithfulness) focuses not on faith but one’s faithfulness and reliability. Nonetheless, it would be rash to conclude that Paul perverted the historical intention of Hab. 2:4. His emphasis is doubtless on faith, on trust in and reliance on God as the way to righteousness and life. The Pauline conception of faith, however, also involved obedience. . . . Authentic faith expresses itself in obedience and faithfulness. Thus a wedge should not be driven between Paul’s understanding of faith and Habakkuk’s emphasis on faithfulness.

In addition, a canonical reading of Habakkuk itself suggests that faithfulness and faith are inseparable. The message of the prophet was that Yahweh would use the ungodly Chaldeans to inflict judgment upon his covenant people. The prophet questioned the justice of such a judgment since the ungodliness of the Chaldeans was infamous. Yahweh promised that the Chaldeans would eventually be the recipients of judgment as well. The righteous person believes that Yahweh is the supreme God, that he is sovereign over Marduk, the chief god of the Babylonians. In the meantime the righteous remnant in Israel would have to await a fierce judgment from the Babylonians. Those who would live would do so by their faithfulness to the covenant. But this faithfulness to the covenant is rooted in faith, as the conclusion of the book indicates. Here the author functions as the paradigm for the people of God. Even though a judgment is coming that will bring economic devastation (Hab. 3:17), nonetheless he pledges, “I will exult in the Lord, I will rejoice in God my savior” (3:18). This vow should be understood as an expression of faith and trust in Yahweh. Despite the ominous future predicted, the righteous will not turn to other gods for security. Thus even in Habakkuk there is an indication of a vital connection between faith and faithfulness.8

Comment

Verses 16-17 state the main theme of the letter. Schreiner identifies the theme as “the gospel is the saving power of God in which the righteousness of God is revealed.”9

These theologically dense verses are made up of four subordinate clauses, each supporting or illuminating the one before it. Paul’s pride in the gospel (v. 16a) is the reason why he is so eager to preach the gospel in Rome (v. 15). This pride, in turn, stems from the fact that the gospel contains, or mediates, God’s saving power for everyone who believes (v. 16b). Why the gospel brings salvation is explained in v. 17a: it manifests God’s righteousness, a righteousness based on faith. Verse 17b, finally, provides scriptural confirmation for this connection between righteousness and faith.10

Bibliography

Kruse, Colin G. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Kindle Edition. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014.

Metzger, Bruce M., ed. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. Second Edition. Hendrickson Pub, 2005.

Moo, Douglas J. The Epistle to the Romans. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996.

Schreiner, Thomas R. Romans. Kindle Edition. Baker Academic, 1998.

Witherington III, Ben, and Darlene Hyatt. Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Kindle Edition. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2004.


  1. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 1549-1562 
  2. Moo 1996, 67 
  3. Moo 1996, 69 
  4. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 1605ff. 
  5. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 1647ff. 
  6. Moo 1996, 74–75 
  7. Kruse 2014, 72, 75-78 
  8. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 1856-1874 
  9. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Location 1543 
  10. Moo 1996, 63–64 
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