Fundamental Thesis of Romans
Salvation By Faith
Gospel is the Power
Romans 1:16-17.
Cecil N. Wright

These verses read: "16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek. 17 For therein is revealed a righteousness of God from faith unto faith: as it is written, But the righteous shall live by faith." Setting forth, as they do, the fundamental thesis of the epistle, it is exceedingly important to understand what they mean.

1. It is obvious that verse 17 explains how and why the gospel is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth, as stated in verse 16. But what do its various phrases mean? What is meant by "righteousness of God"? Or "from faith unto faith"? Does "from faith" modify "revealed," or does it modify "righteousness of God"? Is "from faith unto faith" to be taken as expressing only one thought and, if so, what is that thought? Or does it represent two thoughts, "from faith" and "unto faith"? If it does the latter, what does "unto faith" signify?

2. It is also obvious that the principle of salvation by believing, or living by faith, as set forth in the gospel, is not a new concept, but finds expression in the Old Testament scriptures. In fact, the terms "salvation," "righteousness," and "faith," in the above text, which have been underscored for emphasis in the above quotation, all have their counterparts also in the Old Testament, particularly in Psalms and Isaiah, some of them containing predictive elements and possibly looking forward to the New Testament era. So, it seems in order to acquaint ourselves with these terms in the Old Testament scriptures, as Paul's first readers would have thus been acquainted, as well as to note how they are employed in the New Testament, and particularly in the writings of Paul. That would give us a double check on what he most likely meant when he used them in setting forth the thesis of his Epistle to the Romans.

3. Note, then, the following Old Testament passages and some of their characteristics.

a. A triple combination of "salvation," "righteousness," and "revealed" (or its equivalent), similar to the above, occurs also in Psalms and Isaiah, as follows: "Jehovah hath made known his salvation: His righteousness hath he openly showed in the sight of all nations" (Psalm 98:2). "Thus saith Jehovah, Keep justice, and do righteousness; for my salvation is near to come, and my righteousness to be revealed" (Isa.56:1).

b. Also, a number of other passages combine "righteousness" and "salvation,": as the following: "He shall receive a blessing from Jehovah, and righteousness from the God of his salvation" (Psalm 24:5). "I bring near my righteousness: it shall not be far off, and my salvation shall not tarry; and I will place salvation in Zion for Israel my glory" (Isa.46:13). "My righteousness is near, my salvation has gone forth" (Isa.51:5). ". . . my salvation shall be for ever, and my righteousness shall not be abolished" (Isa.51:6).

c. Then, of course, "faith" is cited by Paul's statement in the text of Rom.1:17 as being an Old Testament word, and "righteousness" by "faith" as being an Old Testament concept. Paul quotes Habakkuk 2:4, "But the righteous shall live by faith." Or, as some prefer to translate it, "The righteous by faith shall live." And "shall live" is equal to shall be saved -- an important fact to remember.

4. Note further that in the foregoing passages "God's righteousness" and his "salvation" seem to be equated or nearly so; at least, they are inseparably connected. It is the "righteous," as God counts "righteousness," who shall be saved by him. Jehovah likewise speaks of both "my righteousness" and "my salvation" (Isa.46:13; 51:5,6; 56:1). Also, they are a "blessing from Jehovah" (see Psalm 24:5). So, God's righteousness is these passages is more than his righteous character, though expressive of it. It is therefore to be expected that in the New Testament "righteousness of God" may often likewise mean more than God's righteous character, yet be expressive of it.

a. Observe accordingly that Psalm 119:172 (in the Old Testament) says: "For all thy commandments are righteousness." They are not only more than God's righteous character though expressive of it, but men become righteous to the extent that they obey them. That is, their character is molded after God's righteous character to the extent of obedience to his commandments. "Keep justice, and do righteousness," are commanded by God in Isa.56:1, quoted above, and are equivalent to obeying his commandments. Also, in the New Testament we read: "He that doeth (that is, practices) righteousness is righteous" (John 3:7).

b. Therefore, under the law of Moses, men would have been righteous by their works, and said to "live" by them, had they kept the law perfectly. "For Moses writeth that the man that doeth the righteousness which is of the law shall live thereby" (Rom.10:5). And again: "He that doeth them shall live in (or, by) them" (Gal.3:12b). As it is, however, "all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God" (Rom.3:23). As a result, all have come under the "curse" of the law instead of its approval and pronouncement as being righteous. "For as many as are of the works of the law [depending on them for righteousness and salvation, yet not doing them fully] are under a curse: for it is written [in Deut.27:24], Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things that are written in the book of the law to do them" (Gal.3:10). Consequently, "by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified in his sight" (Rom.3:20). And, if man is to be justified at all before God, it will have to be on some basis other than the works of the law of Moses. So, God not willing that any should perish, has offered justification , and therefore salvation, on the condition of "faith." Hence, Paul again says: "Now that no man is justified by the law before God, is evident: for, The righteous shall live by faith; and the law is not of faith" (Gal.3:11-12a).

c. A most significant fact, therefore, is that "Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us; for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree" (Gal.3:13). And the law -- the law of Moses, that is -- was abrogated at the cross of Christ (see Eph.2:13-16; Col.2:13-15). So Christ became "the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth" (Rom.10:4). Though it might still be observed as a matter of custom, and was by many Jewish Christians, it was no more than a human law so far as salvation is concerned. In fact, for Christians to observe it for the purpose of salvation was to fall from the grace of God. "Ye are severed from Christ," warned the apostle Paul, "ye who would be justified by the law; ye are fallen away from grace" (Gal.5:4).

d. However, abrogation of the law of Moses -- that particular ministration of divine law that was given to Israel at Sinai till Christ should come and bring in a system of righteousness (or justification) by faith in himself (see Gal.3:15-27) -- did not release man from obligation to God and therefore from divine law as such. This Paul states in Rom.3:31,

saying: "Do we make (the) law of none effect through faith? God forbid: nay, we establish (the) law." (The word "the" is not in the Greek text, and the law of Moses is evidently not meant, the context being what it is.) And in 1 Cor. 9:20-21, we have the following from the pen of Paul; "And to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain Jews; to them that are under the law, as under the law, not being myself under the law, that I might gain them that are under the law; to them that are without law, as without law, not being without law to God, but under law to Christ, that I might gain them that are without law." Accordingly, we also have from his pen the expressions "law of Christ" (Gal.6:2), "law of faith" (Rom.3:27), and "obey. . . the gospel of our Lord Jesus" (2 Thess. 1:8).

5. In the New Testament the all-embracing commandment of God is belief or faith in Jesus Christ. It is an "obedience of faith" that is contemplated (Rom.1-5; 16:26), but it is faith nevertheless and preeminently -- faith "made perfect" by obedience being the kind of faith that is reckoned for righteousness (James 2:22-23). Though obedience is sometimes called "works," as in James 2, just cited, and in some other passages as well (as in Gal.5:6 and Phil.2:12 from the pen of Paul), it is not the works of the law of Moses, and is not contemplated as earning or meriting a favorable standing with God, as perfect obedience under the law of Moses would have done before that law was abrogated. So, if we read of being justified by the works of faith, and we do, it is because we are justified by faith and these works are simply a part of, and an expression of, the faith by which we are justified -- faith in Christ. And the works by which we are not justified are the works of the law of Moses or of some other sort than obedience unto Christ. So, it is the gospel, not the law of Moses which has been abrogated, that is "the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth . . . . For therein is revealed a righteousness of God from faith" (Rom.1:16-17). This concept is repeated and expressed more fully by Paul elsewhere, as follows:

a. "But now apart from the law a righteousness of God hath been manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets [the Old Testament scriptures]; even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ unto all them that believe [whether Jews or Gentiles]; for there is no distinction for all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God" (Rom.3:21-23).

b. "What shall we say then? That the Gentiles, who [in times past] followed not after righteousness [made on effort to be righteous], [have now] attained unto righteousness [since the gospel was preached to them], even the righteousness which is of faith: But Israel, following after a law of righteousness [the law of Moses, which they never kept fully and was abrogated at the cross of Christ], did not arrive at that law [that is, they did not keep it fully, and therefore were not justified by it even before it was abrogated at the death of Christ]. Wherefore [did they not attain unto righteousness]? Because they sought it not by faith [in Christ], but as it were by works [of the law of Moses]. They stumbled at the stone of stumbling and a rock of offense: And he that believeth on him shall not be put to shame" (Rom.9:30-32).

c. "I count all things to be loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I suffer the loss of all things, and do count them as refuse, that I may gain Christ, and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own, even that which is of the law, but that which is through faith in Jesus Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith" (Phil.3:8-9)

6. From the foregoing, the following significant facts are also evident:

a. The ‘righteousness of God" which is "through faith in Jesus Christ" is also "righteousness from God by faith." That is, it is a gift of grace, not a matter of debt or obligation on the part of God. And Paul says: "For this cause it is of faith, that it may be according to grace: to the end that the promise [to Abraham that in him and his seed should all the families of the earth be blessed] may be sure to all seed; not to that only which is of the faith of Abraham [though they be Gentiles], who is the father of us all" (Rom.4:16) -- that is, the father of all Christians, whether Jews or Gentiles.

b. "The righteousness of God" which is "through faith in Jesus Christ," being also a "righteousness from God by faith" and therefore a matter of grace rather than of debt (which it would be were it of works meriting a favorable standing with God), involves forgiveness of sins, and is therefore a righteousness for those who by their works have been sinners. This is emphasized by Paul in Rom.4:4-8, as follows: "Now to him that worketh, the reward is not reckoned as of grace, but as of debt. But to him that worketh not [so as to merit the favor of God], but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is reckoned for righteousness. Even as David also pronounceth blessing upon the man, unto whom God reckoneth righteousness apart from works, saying, Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, And whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not reckon sin."

c. If we were not sinners, but righteous because of perfect keeping of the works of law (which none of us are), that righteousness would be our own, per Phil.3:9. But, being sinners who believe in Christ, and for that reason God forgives our sins and does not reckon them against us, but our "faith is reckoned for righteousness," (a righteousness which God offers to man)," that righteousness is not our own, but "of God" or "from God" -- hence a gift of his grace, so that we are said to be "justified by his grace" (Titus 3:7). "For by grace have ye been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is a gift of God; not of works, that no man should glory" (Eph.2:8-9) -- another of Paul's statements.

d. Moreover, for God to "justify the ungodly" (as per Rom.4:8) is to declare him righteous because of forgiveness. Hence, "righteousness of God" for sinners, or "righteousness from God," is the same as justification by God, or at least the result of it. So, the terms "justification" and "righteousness" are used somewhat interchangeably. And those who are justified or declared righteous by God are also saved, so that "salvation" and "justification" are almost equated, and likewise "salvation" and "righteousness." That is why the gospel is the power of God unto "salvation" because in it is revealed the "righteousness of God from faith" (Rom.1:16-17).

7. Now, in light of all the above from both Old and New Testaments, we are in position to answer more confidently the questions posed in "1" with reference to Rom.1:16-17, and more particularly with respect to verse 17. It has already been noted that verse 17 explains why and how the gospel, not the law of Moses, is the "power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth," as stated in verse 16: "For therein is revealed a righteousness of God from faith unto faith." In other words, the gospel is the power of God to save sinners because of what it reveals or makes known to them, namely, "a righteousness of God from faith unto faith." But what is the "righteousness of God" revealed in the gospel?

a. "Righteousness of God" does not here refer to God's righteous character, but rather to his reckoning of righteousness to men, and to his way of doing it. It refers to his standard of righteousness in contrast with that of the unbelieving Jews, or Israel. Of the latter, Paul wrote: "Brethren, my heart's desire and supplication to God is for them, that they may be saved. For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For being ignorant of God's righteousness [of his reckoning men righteous by faith in Christ], and seeking to establish their own [by observing the law of Moses], they did not subject themselves to the righteousness of God" (Rom.10:1-3). In other words, they refused "obedience of faith" in Christ and "the righteousness of God" therefrom, as revealed in the gospel. In still other words, they "obeyed not the gospel of our Lord Jesus" and would suffer the penalty of everlasting destruction when Christ comes to be glorified in his saints (2 Thess.1:8-10).

b. But, while the "righteousness of God" in the passages just considered is not primarily God's righteous character, his righteous character is nevertheless manifested and reflected by his providing for man a way of salvation notwithstanding his sinfulness-- of righteousness from faith in the crucified and risen Christ -- forgiving men of their sins and therefore counting them righteous, as if they had never sinned. That is why the apostle John could and did write, saying: "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9). Moreover, God had "set forth" Christ as "a propitiation, through faith, in his blood, to show his righteousness because of the passing over of sins done aforetime, in the forbearance of God; for the showing, I say [declares Paul], of his righteousness at this present season: that he might himself be just [or, righteous] and the justifier of him that hath faith in Jesus" (Rom.3:25-26). In other words, Christ had been set forth as a "propitiation" (an expiatory sacrifice) for our sins (1 John 2:2), thus paying for us the penalty of violated law, so that God could be "just and the justifier of him that hath faith in Jesus, "forgiving our sins, as per above.

c. Not only was Christ a propitiation for sins committed since his death, but for those committed prior to it as well, as indicated above in Rom.3:25-26. Accordingly, we read of his death as "having taken place for the redemption of the transgressions that were under the first covenant, that they that have been called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance" (Heb.9:15). This was because the death of animals slain by them is sacrifice to God for sins had not actually taken them away (Heb.10:1-4). For only the death of Jesus, "the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sin of the world" (John 1:29), could do that. So, the animal sacrifices for sins before the death of Christ only prefigured his death and, upon their being sacrificed, God only tentatively or temporarily and provisionally passed by the sins of those for whom they were offered, in anticipation of the death of Christ later. Therefore, the setting forth of Jesus as a propitiation for sins committed previously as well as subsequently, demonstrates the justice, or the righteousness, of God in his dealing with sin regardless of when committed.

8. Next, and lastly, we can now more intelligently answer the question posed in "1" above about the expression "from faith unto faith." The "from faith" part means that the "righteousness of God" revealed in the gospel is reckoned from faith -- that is, from faith in Christ -- not from the works of the law of Moses (or any other works by which man might think to earn or merit a favorable standing with God.)

a. Some take "from faith unto faith" as expressing a single thought, not two. But those who do so are not agreed upon what that thought is. Some say it is simply an expanded expression to emphasize the importance of faith by repeating the word itself; some, that it means from one degree of faith to another on the part of the believer, that is, and ever-increasing faith; some, that is from the faith of the Old Testament to the faith of the New Testament; some, that it means from the faith of one person (the communicator) to the faith of another person (who accepts it); and others, that it means through faith from first to last, or from beginning to end. One version, styled Good News for Modern Man, in its early printings rendered it "through faith alone, from beginning to end," but in later editions dropped the word "alone."

All such renderings, however, make the expression mean something it does not itself say -- as if it were (1) an idiom with an established meaning all its own, or else that (2) its literal meaning would be out of harmony with either context or known fact. For, in the absence of one or the other of these situations, it is a rule of language that the literal meaning should be understood. In this case, neither of the aforementioned conditions exists.

b. The nearest linguistic and objective justification for a single meaning is for the increasingly popular rendering "through faith from beginning to end" or its equivalent. But the case for it is more apparent (at first sight) than real (upon close examination). It is base upon the similarity of ek pisteos eis pistin, literally "from faith unto faith," Rom.1:17, to a grave inscription in Greek that reads ek ges eis gen ho bios outos. Literally this is "from dust unto dust the life this," and is represented as being equal to "dust is the beginning and end of human life." (See Arndt and Gingrich, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, p. 667.) Hence, it is suggested that as ek ges eis gen equals "dust is the beginning and end," so ek pisteos eis pistin equals "faith is the beginning and end." That is, as "dust is the beginning and end" of this life, so "faith is the beginning and end" of the "righteousness of God" revealed in the gospel.

Plausible as that appears at first sight, however, it does not bear up under close scrutiny. "End" as used in the above paraphrase, but not occurring in the Greek text, represents the terminus of this life. Can "faith" be said to be the terminus of the "righteousness of God"? Does justification, or the "righteousness of God," have a terminus? In case it should have, there would no longer be justification or righteousness before God, and without such there would be no salvation! So the two expressions above are not equal.

The grave inscription is an allusion to what God said to Adam after he had sinned: "In the sweat of thy face thou shalt eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken," for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return" (Gen.3:19). Man's body is taken from the dust; that is its origin. And when the body dies, it returns to dust: that is its end, its terminus.

But does justification or righteousness have a terminus as well as a beginning? Not if there is salvation to the "uttermost" (Heb.7:25). Yet, if not, then "from faith unto faith" in Rom.1:17 (the only place that the expression occurs in Holy Writ) cannot mean either (1) "through faith from beginning to end: or (2) "the beginning and end" of righteousness. Therefore, the only viable alternative left is the literal meaning, which includes two ideas -- ek pisteos, from faith, and eis pistin, unto faith.

c. One prominent use of eis as correctly cited by Arndt and Gingrich, is "to denote purpose in order to, to," and they give us an example "eis aphesin hamartion, for forgiveness of sins, so that sins might be forgiven Matt.26:28; cf. Mark 1:4; Luke 3:3; Acts 2:38 (p.228). Goodspeed renders the phrase as "for the forgiveness of sins" (Matt.26:28); "in order to obtain the forgiveness of sins" (Mark 1:4; Luke 3:3); "in order to have sins forgiven" (Acts 2:38).

Thayer's Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament likewise says of eis that one of its uses is to indicate "the end which one has in view, i.e. object, purpose," and cites as his first example ek pisteos eis pistin, where he says eis (with pistin) means "to produce faith, Rom.1:17" (p.185). And, of the fuller expression dikaiosune ek pisteos eis pistin, he says it means righteousness (dikaiosune) "springing from faith (and availing) to (arouse) faith (in those who as yet have it not)" (p.513).

Moreover, Paul affirmed such to be the actual effect, saying: "We being Jews by nature [and therefore having the law of Moses], and not sinners of the Gentiles [to whom the law was not given], yet knowing [because of what is revealed in the gospel] that man is not justified [not reckoned by God as righteous] by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, even we believed on Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by the works of the law: because by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified" (Gal.3:15-16).

In other words, knowledge through the gospel that righteousness as reckoned by God is from faith, availed to arouse faith in the Jews who had become Christians. That (the arousal or producing of faith) is the precise end or purpose Thayer says is expressed by eis pistin in Rom.1:17.

d. Therefore, those translations that render ek pisteos ek pistin in said text as "from faith unto faith" (American Standard Version and others), "from faith to faith" (King James Version and others), "through faith for faith" (Revised Standard Version),"resulting from faith and leading to faith" (Twentieth Century New Testament), "from faith and leading to faith" (Berkley Version), or similarly, all express the viewpoint exemplified by Paul in Gal.3:15-16 as well as the literal meaning of the Greek text itself. This gives them the virtue of both (1) being true to the Greek text in Rom.1:17 and (2) having corroboration elsewhere in scripture -- which no other type of rendering has -- and which affords an unimpeachable rationale for recommending it. In briefest summary, then, of Rom.1:16-17, we may say the gospel is the power of God unto salvation to every on who believes, because in it is revealed a righteousness of God from faith, for the purpose of producing faith.

P.S.: As a footnote to all the foregoing, we can say that it shows how that baptism cannot be eliminated from the plan of salvation by faith in Christ on the ground of its being a "work" as some seek to do. (1) It is no part of the works of the law of Moses. (2) Instead, it is associated with the faith of the gospel and is expressive of it: "Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to the whole creation. He that believeth [what is preached] and is baptized shall be saved" (Mark 16:16). (3) It is not performed by the candidate (for salvation) himself, but by another who serves as an agent of God. (4) We read: "Not by works done in righteousness, which we did ourselves, but according to his mercy he saved us, through the washing of regeneration [generally conceded as referring to baptism] and renewing of the Holy Spirit" (Titus 3:5). Hence, (5) we do not save ourselves by baptism, except in the sense that we submit to it as an expression of our faith, so that God is said to save us "through the washing of regeneration" or baptism. (6) It is in this sense, and in this sense alone, that baptism is said to "save" us (1 Peter 3:21), and that it is commanded "unto remission of sins" (Acts 2:38) or to "wash away" our sins (Acts 22:16). (7) Baptism is therefore a matter of "obedience of faith" as spoken of in Rom.1:15; 16:26, and is in no wise to be divorced from it.

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