The Verses That Changed Luther

Romans 1:16-17


Audio Version

These verses in Romans 1:16-17 have a fair claim to be the most important verses in the entire Bible. I can think of only one other passage that might rival these verses in importance, and that is John 3:16. But for us, Romans 1:16-17 can easily make the claim that they are more important. We would not be Reformed Christians today without Romans 1:16-17, for these verses changed Martin Luther. Without Luther’s transformation, there would have been no John Calvin. And if there had been no John Calvin, then there would have been no Reformation in Holland. And if there had been no Reformation in Holland, there would have been no Dutch Reformed immigrants to the United States. In a way, we can well say that theses two verses are our origins. They are the reason why we are Reformed. I need hardly add, then, that this sermon might very well be the most important sermon I will ever preach, since it is a sermon on perhaps the two most important verses in the entire Bible. I will certainly say that what I will attempt to say in this sermon will be the most important thing I hope our churches will ever get from my ministry. You might think I am exaggerating. But I do not think I am. All of God’s Word is important. However, some verses are more central in importance. There can be no verses more central in importance than these two verses. These are the verses that changed Martin Luther. May they change us as well.

In these two verses, Paul is giving us an outline of everything that he is going to say for the rest of the letter. Here is the whole of Romans in a nutshell. Notice how many themes of Romans are present here: gospel, power of God, salvation, faith, Jew/Gentile, righteousness of God, revelation, righteousness by faith, and eternal life. That is a lot of themes!

Paul starts by saying that he is not ashamed of the gospel. There were plenty of reasons to be ashamed of the gospel. After all, who wants to believe in someone who was crucified? That is the very height of humiliation and shame! And who would believe in the resurrection from the dead? Everyone knew in those days that people don’t come back to life. When Paul preached the resurrection to the philosophers on Mars Hill in Athens, many of them laughed and ridiculed what he said. But there is more. The gospel includes the idea that all people are sinners. How many people do you know who love to be told that they are sinners? And how often are we tempted to downplay those aspects of the gospel, because we are ashamed of them? But Paul did not fall into those temptations. He was not ashamed of the gospel, in spite of all the reasons why he could have been. I wonder if we are ashamed of the gospel? Do we fear to tell people about it, because of so many things that we are simply not comfortable telling other people? Well, fear no longer, for there is good reason not to be ashamed.

The main reason why Paul is not ashamed of the gospel is because it is the power of God for salvation. Notice that Paul does not say that the gospel tells us about the power of God. Nor does he say that the gospel introduces us to the power of God. Rather, Paul says that the gospel IS the power of God for salvation. We may think of it in terms of the power of the Word. Isaiah 55 tells us that the Word of God is powerful, always accomplishing that for which God sends it. Hebrews tells us that the Word of God is sharper than any two-edged sword. We must stop thinking of the power of God for salvation as if it resided somehow outside the gospel. God has infused His Holy Spirit into the gospel, as it were, so that the power of God resides in the good news itself. We can illustrate it this way: when we write a normal check, the money is not in the check itself. If we write a check, it is the same as a written promise that the money will be transferred from our account to the other person’s account. That is not what the gospel is like. Instead, the gospel is more like a cashier’s check. When you get a cashier’s check, the money is in the check itself. It does not take a day or two to clear the bank. The bank has invested the money in the check itself. It is possible to cash immediately a cashier’s check. That is what the gospel is like. The power is inside the gospel itself. God has put His Holy Spirit in the gospel of the Word of God just as a bank has put the money into the cashier’s check. When we give the gospel to other people, it is like having a cashier’s check in hand.

The power of God mentioned here is the power of God for salvation. The power of God is manifested in many ways throughout Scripture, but the most amazing form God’s power takes is the power of salvation. This is nothing less that God justifying the ungodly, resurrecting dead souls, bringing them from death to life, infusing His Holy Spirit into the person from the Word. The power that God has put into His Word is the same power that changes people.

How do we get that power? We get it by faith. Notice that Paul does not tell us that the saving power of God goes out to everyone. Rather, it goes to everyone who believes. Faith is the way we grab hold of God’s power. It is the conduit through which God’s power comes to us. The power is not in the faith. The power is the power of the Holy Spirit acting through the Word of God, the gospel. But we lay hold of that power through faith. Do we have that faith? Faith is here said to be belief. Belief in whom? We might notice that there is one major theme that is missing from these verses, and that is the theme of Jesus Christ. But Paul has already told us what the gospel is. Verses 2-3 of chapter one tell us of this gospel, which is concerning the Son of God, who was humiliated and exalted on our behalf. It’s that gospel that Paul is talking about in verse 16. We are supposed to remember verses 2-3 when we come to verse 16. This is another reason why it is helpful to preach through books of the Bible. Having already studied the first verses, we are in a better position to know what Paul means when uses the term “gospel.” He means what Christ has done on the cross and in the now empty tomb. The gospel then comes to us when we believe it. That is, when we believe that it is for us that Jesus did these things, that is when the power of God for salvation comes to us.

It is of faith from first to last. Notice that is how the NIV translates that part of verse 17. A righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last. This is directly opposed to any idea that we can get this righteousness by works at any time in our lives. The righteousness which we acquire by our works is the righteousness of sanctification, which follows from our justification. But when we are made right with God, it is completely Christ’s righteousness. And it is always His righteousness that keeps us right with God. We do not start out by grace, and end with works. It is by grace through faith from first to last. Our sanctification is vitally important, but our justification never depends on it. It is rather the result of justification. We do not stay justified by our works. Rather, our works come because of our justification.

Now, it doesn’t matter what state or race or gender we are, salvation comes to all who believe. That is the point of saying “first for the Jew, then also for the Gentile.” Paul is not saying here that the Jews are more saved than the Gentiles. The Greek construction here plainly puts Gentiles on the same level as Jews when it comes to salvation. What Paul is saying here is that salvation came from the Jews, and came to the Jews first in time. It is a simple statement regarding time. Salvation came first to the Jews, and then afterwards came to the Gentiles. Paul will explain this more fully in chapters 9-11.

It is in verse 17 that we come to the real heart of our obtaining the gospel. This is the verse that plagued Martin Luther until he finally understood it. Particularly, it is this phrase “the righteousness of God” that was crucial to Luther. Luther was a monk. He desired to obtain salvation by what he did. Luther not only held to the rules rigidly, but he confessed all his sins. In fact, he confessed so much and for so long every day that his confessor told him to stop confessing until he had done enough sin to confess! It wasn’t enough for Luther. He asked this question, “how can I stand before the holiness of my Judge with works polluted in their very source?” When he looked at this phrase “the righteousness of God,” he understood it to mean the righteousness of God as judge, by which He condemns all sinners to everlasting torment. Now, the righteousness of God does do that to all who will not believe, but that is not what this verse is talking about. It was when Luther finally realized what this phrase meant that he was born again. Luther finally came to realize that here in Romans 1:17, the righteousness of God does not mean God’s condemning righteousness, but rather the righteousness of Christ that is given to us as a free gift when we exercise faith in Jesus Christ. Instead of being our condemnation, the righteousness of God is instead our salvation. He got there by looking at the last part of the verse, which quotes Habakkuk 2:4. The one who is righteous by faith will live. You see, it is not the righteousness of the law that will save us. Instead, it is the righteousness that we can have by faith in Jesus Christ that will save us. It is what Luther called “an alien righteousness.” What he meant by that is that it is a righteousness that is completely outside of us. It is not a righteousness to which we contribute at all. It is the righteousness which Jesus acquired throughout His life, and in His death. It is that perfect righteousness, answering in every respect to that righteousness which we need before an infinitely holy God. And it is just that righteousness which we can have as a free gift. That is what the righteousness of God means in this passage. We should probably translate the Habbakuk quotation slightly differently than the NIV. It should say, “The one who is righteous by faith shall live.” The meaning here is that we are righteous by faith, and not by works. The one who has that righteousness by faith and not by works is the one who shall live. When Luther came to understand this, he tells us that it was as if the very gates of heaven itself had opened up to him. He went and reread the whole Bible with this in mind, and everything was different. It changed everything for Luther. That transformation of his understanding is what sparked the Reformation. So we may say truly that this is not only Luther’s text, but it is the text of the Reformation.

This righteousness is continually being revealed to us. Here we have the theme of revelation. It is a continual revelation of God’s righteousness to us. Herein we see the love of God! For God did not hide this method of salvation, and tell us to search diligently for it as for an answer to a riddle. No, He revealed it and is revealing it now plainly in the Word of God. What is revealed is God’s righteousness in Christ, that is given to us as a gift.

However, the gift does not end there. The end is eternal life. Look once more at the quotation from Habakkuk. The one who is righteous by faith shall live. It is not just present life that Habakkuk is talking about. He is talking about eternal life. How do we pass from death to eternal life? By faith in Jesus Christ, whose righteousness is then given to us. Then we have eternal life, when we believe that Jesus Christ is our salvation.

Of what practical value, then, is this gospel? It is difficult to know where to start, actually. For this gospel reaches out its tendrils into absolutely every aspect of our lives. It changes everything. It changes how we react to God and His work in our lives. It changes how we treat one another. It changes how we think, what we say, what we do. It changes our prayer lives. It changes our relationships. It changes our behavior. There is nothing more practical that this doctrine of justification by faith alone. How then can a person remain unchanged when they come to believe this gospel? For instance, how can a person remain enslaved to sin when they have died to sin, as Paul will say in Romans 6? How can we not offer our bodies as living sacrifices to God, as chapter 12:1-2 say? How will we not recognize that our freedom of conscience does not give us liberty to trample the consciences of others, as chapter 14 says? If we remember that these verses contain the message of Romans in a nutshell, then we will also realize that everything practical in chapters 12-16 is based on these verses. Not least of the applications that we can make is that we must connect practical things to doctrine. They must never be separated. For the reason why we live for God is because Jesus died for us. What I would encourage us all to do is to use our imaginations this week and see how this doctrine of justification by faith applies to us in so many different areas of life. It is almost limitless in its application. Even in most sermons, the applications are only suggestive, not exhaustive. But that is especially true here. The applications of this doctrine can never be exhausted, for they encompass all of life. Let us live our lives, then, knowing and holding firmly to what these two most important verses have to say to us: that the power of God in the gospel reveals the righteousness of God given to us freely and obtained by faith alone. That is a gospel of which we should never be ashamed.

You Need to Read This

My brother Jason Stellman has now written what I think is the very best article on the Strategic Plan available. Read it. He gets at the fundamental problems of how the SP views the church versus how we need to view the church.