Recently Added
to Exposition of Romans:

3:9–20—Conclusion: OT confirms that humanity is under sin’s power
(January 26th 2019)
Romans 1:16–17—The gospel reveals God’s righteousness (part 2).

16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation
to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.
17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith,
as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”

So powerful is the gospel that its preaching saves everyone who believes, as we saw in the previous message that focused on verse 16. Now we discover the gospel’s dynamic ingredient. It is the revealing of God’s righteousness. But we must figure out what exactly Paul means by “the righteousness of God” in this context.

“The righteousness of God”
Gospel preaching requires clarity, so let’s hope for a clear understanding of this phrase. There are two likely possibilities: (1) righteousness as a gift of God that he bestows on those who believe or (2) the righteous activity of God in his saving of believers. God either shares his righteousness with others or exercises his righteousness in saving others.

The case for either interpretation can be defended on the basis of grammar, context, and theology. And both find support in other Bible passages. For an example of the first option, in Philippians 3:9 Paul contrasts his own righteousness with the righteousness that comes through faith. Support for the second option can be found in the immediate context where God exercises his saving power for salvation (verse 16).

Since both interpretations are biblically sound, why not affirm both. That seems the best solution to Colin Kruse: “We could say that the righteousness of God is his saving action whereby he brings people into a right relationship with himself.” And to Douglas Moo: “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” (his emphasis).

Paul repeats this phrase in 10:3, and Moo argues both meanings apply there as well. In each passage righteousness has to do with legal standing before God. The believer is declared righteous, acquitted of guilt for all sins, past, present, and future.

Ethical righteousness comes later through sanctification. Declared righteousness precedes lived righteousness. Those of us who have heeded the gospel know of its power to do both, and as Robert Utley points out, justification leads to sanctification. God wants us to know that we are righteous in status before he commands righteous behavior (see 6:11 and 6:12–14). My book Dead to Sin, Alive to God is a guide for living out what God has declared to be true about our position in Christ.

“From faith for faith”
This puzzling phrase has had multiple explanations, and all scholars can do is suggest Paul’s most likely intent. Moo regards the expression as probably rhetorical: “faith and ‘nothing but faith’ can put us into right relationship with God.” Likewise Charles Cranfield: God grants “a righteous status which is altogether by faith.” NIV translates the phrase along this same line: “a righteousness that is by faith from first to last.”

Richard Longenecker, admitting the notorious difficulty of the phrase, notes on the basis of the Hebrew background of the word faith that it can also mean faithfulness. So he sees Paul referring to divine faithfulness and human faith. The following quote from Habakkuk, in its OT context, supports this view, Longenecker argues, by calling for a human response of faith to the Lord’s faithfulness. However, Paul uses the quote with a different meaning, as we’ll see below.

Kruse views the expression “from faith to faith” (as NASB translates) as an idiom of growth. Adding to a suggestion by John W. Taylor, Kruse sees a connection with “first to the Jew, then to the Gentile” in verse 16. Paul would then be saying faith begins with the Jews and spreads through Paul’s ministry to the Gentiles.

Righteousness by faith in Habakkuk
Paul’s application of this line from Habakkuk 2:4 varies from the OT context, but its spirit does not. Judah was on the verge of disaster from Babylonian oppression, and the prophet wants to know why God does not act to rescue his people. The Lord exhorts Habakkuk to wait patiently and trust God, for “the righteous shall live by his faith” (ESV; NIV “the righteous person shall live by his faithfulness”). This is not the meaning Paul intends his readers to draw from the quote.

In Habakkuk, the person is already righteous and is told to trust that God will respond in due time. Paul, on the other hand, applies the passage to round out his thesis that the gospel grants God’s righteousness to everyone who believes. This is the same meaning Paul gives the identical quote in Galatians 3:11 where he contrasts faith and law as means to righteousness. Perhaps Paul liked the irony in his transformation of the passage’s meaning. Joseph Fitzmyer explains,
He thus takes from the OT a key passage that summed up the value of observance of the law for the Jew. But Paul not only quotes it; he makes it the pillar of his thesis about salvation through faith, thus wresting it from the clutches of the law.

Another key difference is that Habakkuk means “live righteously” in the present and Paul means “live eternally.” Faith characterizes the way a person lives in Habakkuk, whereas faith is the basis for righteous standing before God in Paul. As Fitzmyer comments, Paul means by live not deliverance from invasion and death, but “a share in the risen life of Christ.”

For clarity of translation, Moo favors “the one who is righteous by faith will live.” Clearer still is Everett Harrison: “The one who is just by virtue of faith shall live.” Why didn’t Paul alter the wording of the quotation to make his meaning clearer? Harrison says, “Apparently he was not desirous of disturbing the form of a familiar quotation.”

Moo warns against magnifying these differences. Habakkuk and Paul share the concept of faith as “absolute reliance on God and his Word rather than on human abilities, activities, or assurances.”

Justified by faith
Not altogether clear in these verses but conclusive nonetheless, Paul’s theme thunders mightily throughout salvation history: The unrighteous person is made righteous through faith in Jesus Christ.

Luther characterized justification by faith as God’s bestowal on the believer of a “foreign righteousness,” a righteousness that comes from the outside as a gift. It is a status conferred, not a reward earned. By reaching out the empty hand of faith, the sinner is granted immediate right standing before God.