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Don't Be Ashamed

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Romans C. Paul: Convinced of the Power of the Gospel (1:16–17)

Paul now comes to the climax of his introductory greeting to the church at Rome, and in it states what is for him the theme of the letter and his life. We have said in this commentary that the theme of Romans is the power of the gospel. By that, we mean that it is the controlling idea in Paul’s approach to the grand scheme of salvation. Without the gospel, and without the power that the gospel is (not the power that the gospel has), there can be no salvation, no deliverance, no life. Everything that God wants for us is to be found in the gospel, and Paul is going to spend the rest of his letter explaining every facet of it.

So far, the apostle has said this: “(1) I am called by God to spread the gospel; (2) I am thankful for and encouraged by what the gospel has produced in the lives of you in Rome; and (3) I want to come and join you—for your benefit and mine—as we continue to proclaim the gospel in Rome and as I prepare to push ahead into the nations beyond you.” Then, he gives them the reason for his unquenchable confidence and energy in his calling—a confidence he wants to spread among the Romans as well: “(4) Am I ashamed to come to the most powerful city in the world and proclaim our gospel? No, because the power of God will cast in stark relief the “power” of man; the gospel will reveal the righteousness of God amidst the unrighteousness of man. And everyone now lost in Rome and the world that embraces the gospel will be saved—as we have been! That is why I am not ashamed of the gospel!”

1:16–17. John Stott recounts a comment made by Scottish theologian James Stewart concerning this passage: “There’s no sense in declaring that you’re not ashamed of something unless you’ve been tempted to feel ashamed of it” (Stott, p. 60). We think of Paul as invincible, yet he was human. Jesus anticipated that his followers might one day be ashamed to identify with him (Mark 8:38), and Peter soon confirmed that prediction by denying him three times in one night (Matt. 26:75). Even Paul himself confessed to arriving in Corinth in “weakness and fear, and with much trembling” (1 Cor. 2:3) so plainspoken did he see himself as compared to the eloquent and sophisticated Greeks. And yet Paul, in truth, was never ashamed of his Savior. He spoke before royalty, rabbis, rulers, and rabble—to him, it made no difference. As he is about to demonstrate to the Romans in subsequent chapters, all are in need of the gospel.

Paul’s confidence turns on three occurrences of gar (“for” or “because”) in these two verses. The first is untranslated in the NIV, but should be, as it provides the transition from his earlier statement of eagerness: “I am so eager to preach the gospel also to you who are at Rome [for] I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God … for in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed (vv. 15–17; emphasis added).

Paul is giving the Roman believers a paradigm for life that the contemporary church desperately needs to understand: nothing will display the righteousness of God (and thereby his person and glory) to a needy world like the message of the gospel. Not surprisingly, it is a paradigm that Paul drew from the Old Testament and applied to the believers in Rome. We can draw on both instances and apply it to our benefit today.

So much has been written by commentators and theologians on these verses that “it is not easy to summarize, let alone to systematize, the debate” (Stott, p. 61). What is the meaning of the righteousness from God—attribute, action, or advantage? And what does it mean that righteousness is by faith from first to last? And does ho de dikaios ek pisteos zesetai mean the righteous will live by faith or “the one who is righteous by faith will live”? Good questions all, and best answered with a look at the context from which Paul draws his final phrase (the righteous will live by faith), and the context to which he is applying and addressing it (the believing community of Christians in Rome).

In verse 17, Paul quotes something God said to the prophet Habakkuk (Hab. 2:4; also quoted in Gal. 3:11; Heb. 10:38–39). God’s statement was one of comfort to Habakkuk, who was at his wits’ end with God. First, wickedness was rampant in Israel and God seemed oblivious to it, moving Habakkuk to rail against God in a series of complaints (Hab. 1:2–4). Second, when God said he was going to use a nation more wicked than Israel (the Babylonians) to punish Israel, this produced cries and complaints of injustice from the prophet (Hab. 1:12–2:1). It might be said that Habakkuk was embarrassed, ashamed of God’s inaction and his choices.

Paraphrased, God’s answer to Habakkuk was this: “I am about to reveal something to you, Habakkuk, that I want you to record so that a herald may go and proclaim it (Hab. 2:2). It is a revelation of my righteousness, and will put to rest your fears of inaction and injustice. In the meantime—until my righteousness is revealed—you who are righteous are to trust me, to live by faith. There is nothing you can do to ‘fix’ the situation. You will have to live by faith, not by sight, until what I have written is accomplished” (Hab. 2:4).

Now, fast forward to A.D. 57. Paul is writing to a community of Christian believers living in the most powerful city in the world. Just three years prior to his letter, the reign of the Roman Emperor Claudius (ruled A.D. 41–54) had ended. Claudius had banished all Jews from Rome around A.D. 49–50 because of the continuing disruptions “instigated by Chrestus” (a misspelling of “Christ,” scholars agree; recorded by the historian Suetonius in Claudius, 25). Obviously, the disruptions were not led by Christ in person, but were perhaps instigated by debates over his person. Claudius ended the disruptions by driving all Jews (including those who had come to believe in Christ; see Acts 2:10) out of Rome. Paul met Aquila and Priscilla for the first time in Corinth, where they settled as expatriates from Rome (Acts 18:1–2). Supposedly, when Claudius’s reign ended, Jews were allowed to return to Rome. But the banishment no doubt had an unsettling, disruptive, and persecutorial effect on the young body of believers in Rome.

Unfortunately, this was just a foretaste of what Rome would give to the church in years ahead. Paul himself would suffer a martyr’s death at the hands of Nero along with multitudes of believers during Nero’s reign. Could the believers in Rome have wondered where God was in the midst of their suffering under Claudius? Could they have been embarrassed, even ashamed, as Habakkuk had been, that God was seemingly doing nothing to rescue them? Could they have felt powerless to act, wanting to do something but not knowing what to do?

Paul had read Habakkuk, and he knew that the Roman believers needed a revelation from God—some good news in the midst of their confusion. And so he writes verses 16 and 17 to them: the gospel is God’s good news and Paul is the herald who is not ashamed of the circumstances or of God. Why? Because God’s righteousness is revealed in the gospel! The pagan power of Rome (like the pagan nation of Babylon in Habakkuk’s day) is no match for the power of God which is the gospel, Paul says. Do not think that God’s power is absent—it is here in the gospel! And God’s righteousness will be revealed against all manner of sin everywhere. In the meantime, the righteous must live by faith. Rather than thinking you are powerless to change Rome, the gospel gives you the power of God to change lives.

Now fast forward to the end of the second millennium A.D. In a day when Western civilization is said to be in its “post-Christian” phase, believers can feel powerless to effect the cultural trends and tides that bring constant pressure to bear. What the church needs today is what Habakkuk needed in 600 B.C. and oppressed believers needed in A.D. 50—a herald with a revelation of good news from God! The gospel is that revelation, and Paul’s letter to the Romans is the tablet upon which it is written. But where are the heralds? They are meant to be every believer who knows that the righteous will live by faith regardless of the circumstances.

As Paul will soon explain, every person whom you pass on the street today is in need of the good news of the gospel. Whether an unbeliever oppressed by sin who is trying to create his or her own salvation, or a believer oppressed by the world who feels powerless living amidst unrighteousness. For both, the righteousness of God is revealed in the gospel, and for now, those who would be righteous will find life by faith.

(1:16, 17) In introducing the theme of Romans, Paul uses gar (γαρ), “for.” Vincent says, “marking the transition from the introduction to the treatise, ‘I am ready to preach at Rome, for, though I might seem to be deterred by the contempt in which the gospel is held, and by the prospect of my own humiliation as its preacher, I am not ashamed of it.” Alford comments, “Yea, to you at Rome also, for though your city be mistress of the world, though your emperors be worshipped as deities, though you be elated by your pomps and luxuries and victories, yet I am not ashamed of the apparently mean origin of the gospel I preach.”

And then he gives the reason why he is not ashamed of it. Coming to the city where power is the keynote, the power of the Roman empire, its military might, the apostle says that the good news he brings is “the power of God unto salvation.” Of the six words for “power” in the Greek language, Paul chooses dunamis (δυναμις) to describe the effectual working of the good news of salvation. Dunamis (Δυναμις) is power, natural ability, inherent power residing in a thing by virtue of its nature, or, power which a person or thing exerts or puts forth. The gospel is the inherent, omnipotent power of God operating in the salvation of a lost soul that accepts it. “Unto” is eis (εἰς), a preposition often signifying result. The gospel is God’s power resulting in salvation to the one who believes. The definite article is absent before “power,” “The gospel is a power of God.” Denney says, “It does no injustice to render a ‘divine power.’ The conception of the gospel as a force pervades the epistles to the Corinthians; its proof, so to speak, is dynamical, not logical. It is demonstrated, not by argument, but by what it does; and looking to what it can do, Paul is proud to preach it anywhere.” Vincent says that the gospel is “not merely a powerful means in God’s hands, but in itself a divine energy.” It is the good news of salvation energized by the Holy Spirit. Our word “dynamite” is the transliteration of this Greek word but not its translation. Dunamis (Δυναμις) does not refer to an explosive powder. The Greeks knew nothing about gunpowder. The gospel is not the dynamite of God. It is a sweet and loving message of mercy and grace which the Holy Spirit in sovereign grace makes operative in the heart of the sinner elected to salvation before the foundation of the universe.

The words “of Christ” are not in the best texts. Paul says, “For I am not ashamed of the good news, for a power of God it is resulting in salvation to every one who believes, not only to the Jew first but also to the Gentile.” Paul wrote this letter before he had, after Israel’s repeated rejection of the good news, pronounced the fateful words, “Be it known therefore unto you, that the salvation of God is sent unto the Gentiles, and that they will hear it” (Acts 28:28). Until then, the apostle had given the Jew the priority in the hearing of the Word of God, but with that decision, the Jew was put on the same footing as the Gentile.

Then, the apostle informs his readers what it is that makes the gospel a power of God, or what it is that makes it effectual in the saving of a believing sinner. He says, “A righteousness of God (or God’s righteousness) in it is revealed.” The word “righteousness” is a key word in Romans, and demands a careful and detailed treatment. The noun is dikaiosunē (δικαιοσυνη), and the adjective, dikaios (δικαιος). Cremer, in his Biblico-Theological Lexicon of New Testament Greek in which he specializes in the important doctrinal and theological words of the Christian system, is most helpful. He defines dikaios (δικαιος), “what is right, conformable to right, pertaining to right.” He says, “The fundamental idea is that of a state or condition conformable to order, apart from the consideration whether usage and custom or other factors determine the order and direction.” In other words, that which is righteous in the biblical sense is not determined by man nor by any external consideration but by God, and that by divine fiat. Cremer continues: “As to the import of the conception in a moral sense, there is a decisive difference, not to be mistaken, between the profane, and especially the Greek usage and the biblical, and this difference arises from the different, nay, opposite standards by which it is estimated in the two spheres. Righteousness in the biblical sense is a condition of rightness the standard of which is God, which is estimated according to the divine standard, which shows itself in behaviour conformable to God, and has to do above all things with its relation to God, and with the walk before Him. It is, and it is called, a righteousness of God (Rom. 3:21, 1:17)—righteousness as it belongs to God and is of value before Him, Godlike righteousness; with this righteousness, thus defined, the gospel (Rom. 1:17) comes into that world of nations, which had been wont to measure by a different standard. Righteousness in the Scripture sense is a thoroughly religious conception, designating the normal relation of men and their acts, etc., to God. Righteousness in the profane mind is a preponderatingly social virtue, only with a certain religious background.”

Cremer, discussing the noun dikaiosunē (δικαιοσυνη) says, “Thus it appears how new, and yet not unprepared for, was the introduction of the Pauline righteousness of God into profane soil. That righteousness must be a righteousness of God; that God is the goal and standard of integrity, this is one of those unexpressed presuppositions, and underlying thoughts of Holy Scripture to which Paul in this and other instances, with peculiar acuteness and clearness which distinguish him in apprehending the ethic-religious contrast, has devoted the word. At the same time, it is a presentiment at attaining clearness, yet often felt and asserting itself in the Greek and, indeed, in the human mind which is inalienable so long as there exists in man the presentiment or the consciousness and intelligence more or less clear of a highest and final judgment (cf. Acts 17:31).”

Romans The Thesis 1:16

The Thesis 1:16

Paul introduces the thematic statement in a strange way, saying that he is not ashamed of the gospel. Why should he be ashamed? Most commentators explain these words psychologically saying Paul did not have a negative attitude toward the gospel. But that reading misses the radical point Paul is making.

Honor-shame Language

The Roman world was an honor-shame culture, not a guilt-forgiveness culture [Essay: Honor-Shame]. Society was ordered according to a strict social status ladder that defined a hierarchy of honor. To violate the social order was to be shamed. I am not ashamed of the gospel is addressing questions of honor and shame in a caste society, a major theme in Romans (e.g., 1:21, 22, 24, 26, 31; 2:7, 19, 23; 6:21; 9:33; 10:11; 12:10; 13:7; 14:6). Christians among the Roman churches are ashamed of each other. They are calling each other names, like “circumcised penis” and “foreskin” (ch. 2), “weak” and “strong” (chs. 14–15), because they do not believe the gospel redefines social and religious status.

Paul’s advice here, and in chs. 2, 14–15, is shocking to a society ordered by a hierarchy of honor. To say that circumcision is meaningless is revolutionary for both Jews and Romans, or to ask the strong to “bear” the weak, even to “welcome” them, is very problematic in a caste culture. For the strong to accept the weak is to make them equals and therefore to lose honor for themselves. To accept people from a different rung of the status ladder violates the standard social boundaries.

So to begin the thesis statement with I am not ashamed of the gospel is to assert at the outset that Paul expects the gospel to disrupt the established values of an honor-shame society. Paul’s opening statement is polemical. He is arguing a point.

The Power of God

Paul is so confident about the transforming nature of the gospel, because it is the power of God to salvation. Power language is frequent in Paul (he uses power [dunamis] 48 times, eight times in Romans). The power of God (dunamis theou) describes the nature of God in OT covenant language. God exercises power in history on behalf of God’s people because of the covenant relationship. The great models of God’s power in the OT are the exodus event (Exod. 15:6, 13; Deut. 3:24; 9:26, 29) and the creation of the world (Jer. 34:5; 39:17). In Jewish apocalyptic literature the phrase “the power of God” is redefined eschatologically. That is, the end of history will be characterized by a worldwide demonstration of God’s mighty power, known previously only by Israel. Paul has already referred to the exercise of this power in the present age in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead (1:4). Now he says the gospel is also the end-time, world-transforming power of God.

The gospel as the power of God is as polemical as I am not ashamed. According to 15:1 the different Christian groups are calling each other strong (dunatoi) and weak (adunatoi), all from the same root as power (dunamis). They are putting each other down instead of letting the power of God transform their cultural categories. Paul is eager to preach the gospel in Rome, because he knows the end-time, world-transforming power of God changes the honor-shame values.

The power language in the thesis statement also sets the stage for the discussion of Sin as power. The problem in the world, according to Romans, is the overwhelming reality of Sin as a cosmic power that enslaves all people and all creation. What is needed is an alternative power that can defeat the power of Sin. The gospel is the power of God that created the world, liberated Israel from Egypt, and raised Jesus from the dead. That power means something for the church.


The power of God creates salvation (sōteria). In Hellenistic Greek and in the Septuagint (LXX), the Greek translation of the OT, “salvation” means deliverance from danger and death. It also is used in the LXX to describe God’s great deliverances of Israel, e.g., the Exodus and the release from Babylonian captivity. This meaning was intensified in Jewish apocalyptic literature where it means God’s end-time deliverance of Israel from the powers of Satan, death, and final judgment. That future power of deliverance is already present and operative in history through the death and resurrection of Messiah Jesus. That is why Paul is so confident in preaching his gospel. The gospel will effect end-time deliverance already now from whatever form of bondage exists in the church.

The gospel is the end-time power of salvation to everyone [who is] being faithful. The word everyone introduces another central theme of Romans, the universal scope of God’s salvation. Everyone is more than a positive assertion; it is another polemical statement. The gospel includes all people. All or everyone (pas) occurs 71 times in Romans. It is used 25 times in such weighty expressions as salvation to everyone who believes (1:16), all have sinned (3:23), that he might have mercy on all (11:32), and five times with Jews and Gentiles (1:16; 2:9, 10; 3:9; 10:12). Paul is addressing partisans in Rome who are drawing the circle of inclusion too narrowly. The Christian church includes everyone, irrespective of ethnic origin or social status.

But the gospel is also exclusive. It is for those being faithful, those who respond appropriately to the good news of God’s salvation [Essay: Faith in Romans].

To the Jews first and also to the Greek explains everyone. And also indicates the fundamental equality of Jew and Gentile in the gospel. The word first denotes the historical reality that the Jews have precedence for the sake of God’s plan. The letter insists there is no distinction (3:22; 10:12) yet supports the continuing validity of the Jew first. The thrust, on the one hand, is not to claim superiority for the Jew, but to argue for the equality of Jews and Gentiles. But, on the other hand, discrimination in Rome against Jews and Jewish Christians requires a reminder that God called the Jews first, and that God is and will be faithful to them. The tension between the priority of the Jew in salvation history and the equality of all people in the gospel is an issue to which Paul will return in the letter (see chs. 3, 9–11).

1:16 not ashamed Expresses a high degree of confidence in the gospel. Paul is confident that the hope he has placed in the gospel message will not be disappointed (see 5:5 and note).

power The Greek word used here, dynamis, often refers to miraculous works (e.g., Matt 7:22; 11:20; Mark 6:2). Here, it refers to God’s ability to deliver His people from sin and future judgment (compare Exod 9:16; Rom 8:2–3; 1 Cor 1:18; note on 2 Tim 3:5). God’s power also relates to the power of the Holy Spirit (see Rom 1:4).

salvation The Greek word used here, sōtēria, refers to deliverance from the final judgment. It also might refer to deliverance from sin and the results of sin: death and alienation from God.

Jew first and also to the Greek Paul uses references to both Jews and Greeks (or Gentiles) to encompass all of humanity. Although the gospel message applies to all people, Paul describes it as being directed first toward the Jew because God gave the Jews the covenants and promises to which the gospel refers (9:4). The priority of the Jews in God’s plan of salvation also anticipates the discussion of Israel’s future role in chs. 9–11.

1:17 righteousness of God This is one of the key phrases in Romans and Paul’s other letters (e.g., 3:5, 21, 22, 25, 26; 10:3; see 2 Cor 5:21). It could refer to righteousness that comes from God—that is, the righteous status or right standing that God grants to those who have faith in Jesus Christ. Alternatively, it may refer to God’s own righteousness and His saving work. It’s also possible to combine these possibilities: Righteousness is an attribute of God that is manifested in His provision of salvation. As a result, those who believe are granted righteous status before God, who is himself righteous.

But the one who is righteous by faith Paul quotes Habakkuk 2:4 to support his position that righteousness before God is only by faith (see note on Gal 3:11).

Romans is distinctive among Paul’s letters for having a thesis that will be argued throughout the letter (see K. Grayston, “ ‘Not Ashamed of the Gospel’: Rom 1:16a and the Structure of the Epistle,” Studia Evangelica 2 [1964]: 569–73). The language of the statement is appropriately dense; it will require the rest of the letter to explicate what it contains in compressed form. For the moment, it is important mainly to identify the elements in the statement and their relationship to each other.

Paul begins by stating, “For I am not ashamed of the good news.” The connective “for” (gar) indicates that the entire argument to follow provides the basis for Paul’s expressed eagerness to “preach the good news to you also who are in Rome” (1:15). This is the message he is recommending in order to recommend himself as an apostle. “I am not ashamed” is actually litotes, a form of emphasis by understatement. As we shall see, the good news is in truth the ground on which Paul stands to boast (3:27; 5:2–3), in contrast to any human accomplishment (compare 1 Cor 1:31; 2 Cor 10:17; Gal 6:13–14).

Present-day readers who find any talk of boasting offensive (and who sometimes find Paul off-putting because of the amount of it he seems to do) should remember the cultural context of the letter. The Mediterranean world was one in which honor and shame were pivotal values that required recognition (see B. J. Malina, The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology [Louisville: John Knox Press, 1981]). The issue was not whether or not one would boast, but whether there were appropriate grounds for boasting. Thus, Paul will shortly complain that humans did not give God the “glory” that God deserved. Preaching a crucified messiah was not obviously an honorable role (see Heb 12:1–3). Paul is deeply aware of the shock to Hellenistic sensibilities provided by the cross (see 1 Cor 1:18–25; and M. Hengel, Crucifixion in the Ancient World and the Folly of the Cross, trans. J. Bowden [Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977]). He therefore begins with the deliberate assertion that his boast is in this paradoxical message of strength in weakness.

It is the dimension of strength or power that Paul next addresses. The “good news from God” is not simply verbal. It is what we would call a performative utterance, one that has the capacity to change and transform lives. Paul calls this a “power” (dynamis). We all know that a verbal message can have a transforming effect, as when someone declares to us, “I love you.” But the power Paul attributes to this message from God is deeper and more pervasive than any words exchanged between humans. The claim to have experienced power is one of the most characteristic and distinctive made by the first Christians, who saw themselves possessed by the personal and transforming presence of God through the resurrection of Jesus (see L. T. Johnson, The Writings of the New Testament: An Interpretation [Philadelphia: Fortress, 1986] 91–97). The power in this message, Paul says, is to “effect salvation” (eis sōtērian). His formulation is close to that in 1 Cor 1:18–21 and 2 Cor 1:15.

The theme of salvation is central to Romans. Paul here asserts that it is the entire goal of the message he proclaims (see 5:9–10; 8:24; 9:27; 10:1, 9–10, 13; 11:11, 14, 26; 13:11). The pertinent question is, What does he mean by salvation? Here is a case where later Christian understanding—derived from a variety of sources in addition to all the canonical witnesses—should not be allowed to obscure Paul’s own. There is no sign in Romans itself that Paul conceived of “salvation” as something that pertained mainly to individuals or to their respective eternal destinies (“heaven or hell”). I am not suggesting that such a perception would be utterly incompatible with Paul. Indeed, he has clear statements concerning a future life shared with God and Christ (2 Cor 5:1–10; Phil 1:21–26; 1 Thess 4:17). The issue is only whether this is what he means in Romans by sōtēria. Careful analysis of his usage in this letter suggests that Paul thinks of salvation here in social rather than individual terms, and that it is something that occurs in this life. In effect, as we shall see especially in Romans 9–11, “salvation” in Romans means something close to “belonging to God’s people” (see L. T. Johnson, “The Social Dimensions of sōtēria in Paul and Luke-Acts,” in SBL Seminar Papers 1993, ed. E. H. Lovering [Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1993] 520–36]).

That Paul conceives of salvation in social terms is suggested also by his following statement, that it is for “the Jew first and also the Greek,” since these are designations not of individuals but of peoples or ethnic groups. The use of “the Greek” here and in 1:14 is perhaps a bit startling, since we have grown accustomed to think of the distinction as one between Jew and Gentile (as in Romans 9–11 and 15), but in fact the Jew-Greek distinction is common in Paul (see 2:9, 10; 3:9; 10:12; 1 Cor 1:22, 24; 12:13; Gal 3:28; Col 3:11). Still, as his later argument will show, Paul does have in mind the extension of salvation (or inclusion within God’s people) for all nations. But in addition to the note of universality, this phrase suggests a rootedness in historical particularity: it is to the Jew first, and then the Greek. The tension between universality and particularity lies at the heart of the problem Romans addresses, or, better, at the heart of the mystery of God’s will that Romans seeks to discern.

The next phrase in the thesis provides the qualifier for inclusion in the saved people: “to everyone who has faith.” The several dimensions of what Paul means by faith will be discussed in the course of this commentary. For now we need only note that it is a specifically human response to the action and power of God.

The reason the good news itself is a “power for salvation” is that it reveals or manifests or makes known something about God, or, better, makes God known under some aspect. We note that Paul defines the good news not in terms of information about Jesus but in terms of power shown by God. The message of good news not only is from God but is about God. What has happened (within the past twenty-five years!) in the death and resurrection of Jesus reveals the very character of God.

The aspect of God that Paul will argue here is that of righteousness or justice. The Greek noun dikaiosynē is polyvalent. In the context of Greek political and ethical theory, justice denoted the proper relationship between members of the city-state and the virtue on the part of the individual that worked for such proper relationships (see G. Schrenk, “dikaiosynē,” TDNT 2:192–210). Paul’s readers, therefore, could correctly hear him as discoursing about God’s virtue or attribute of being “just.” That it was appropriate for God so to be designated is well attested by the LXX (see, e.g., LXX Pss 7:11; 10:8; 118:137; Jer 12:1; Tob 3:2; 2 Esdras 9:15). Indeed, God’s “fairness” is an important part of Paul’s argument, spelled out in terms of God’s being “without favoritism” in judging humans (see 2:11; 3:22; 11:33–36).

Readers of the LXX could pick up another nuance in Paul’s expression “the righteousness of God,” which is God’s will to “do justice” on the earth by intervening actively in human affairs to establish right relationships where they do not yet exist because of human sin or folly. The translators of the LXX used the word dikaiosynē to translate such Hebrew words as ṣĕdāqâ and mišpāt that have those connotations. Thus the Psalmist says of God, “You have done justice in Israel” (Ps 98:4), meaning not simply that God has judged “fairly,” but that God has intervened on the side of the poor and lowly against the rich and wicked. Again, the Psalmist says, “in your righteousness give me life” (Ps 118:40). Paul brings these two aspects of dikaiosynē together in 3:26 when he says, “he himself is righteous and he makes righteous.” In Romans, then, God’s righteousness is both an aspect of God’s being and a work to which God is committed (see E. Käsemann, “The Righteousness of God in Paul,” in New Testament Questions of Today [Philadelphia: Fortress, 1969] 168–82).

In 1:16, Paul said that salvation was for all “who believed/had faith.” Now, in 1:17, he further qualifies the revelation of God’s righteousness through the good news. Unfortunately, he uses an extraordinarily cryptic phrase to do so. The RSV (Revised Standard Version) renders the Greek phrase ek pisteōs eis pistin as “through faith for faith.” A more literal translation is “out of faith for faith.” But what does it mean? Several possibilities can be identified, but it will require the rest of Paul’s argument to explicate the phrase adequately. It could be taken as adverbial, “thoroughly faithwise,” or “beginning and ending in faith.” Read this way, it expresses Paul’s conviction that the good news is about faith throughout—it never becomes something else. The problem with this reading is that it reflects what might be called a particularly Protestant fear that “faith” might become “works” (as some erroneously suppose happens in the Letter of James 2:21–24). But that problem is not at issue here; in fact, Paul is eager to show how faith “becomes” a way of life expressed in deeds, without ever ceasing to be faith.

Besides, it is likely that Paul intends a more precise differentiation by the distinction of prepositions, “out of” (ek) and “to/for” (eis). One possibility is that he is pointing to the dynamic of gift and response. The revelation of God’s righteousness begins “out of” God’s faithfulness to humans and is adequately answered by their obedient acceptance of that gift. This dialectic of offer and response, we shall see, fits the balanced restatement of the thesis in 3:22 (see K. Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, 6th ed., trans. E. C. Hoskyns [London: Oxford University Press, 1933] 41–42).

Building on this gift/response pattern, there is still a third possibility. Paul may be suggesting that God’s righteousness is being revealed “out of the faith of Jesus” and “leads to the faith of Christians.” I will try to show later that “the faith of the messiah” Jesus is an essential part of God’s free gift to humans (see 3:25–26; 5:12–21). It is Jesus’ faithful response to God that enables others to respond in the same faithful and obedient way (see 5:18–19).

The thesis statement is concluded by Paul’s first citation from Scripture. The text is from the LXX version of Habakkuk 2:4. It is introduced to provide scriptural warrant for the phrase “from faith to faith,” because it contains the Greek phrase ek pisteōs (“out of faith”). A literal translation of the Hebrew of Habakkuk is, “the righteous shall live by his faith,” meaning the person who has faith. The LXX itself, however, has “the righteous one will live out of my faith,” meaning God’s fidelity. Paul uses the Greek text, but his understanding seems to be closer to the Hebrew. What does the quotation signify in its present context? The RSV translates, “He who through faith is righteous shall live,” making the phrase “out of faith” an adjective describing the righteous person. It is also possible to translate ek pisteōs adverbially, describing the means by which life is gained: “the righteous person shall live out of (= on the basis of) faith.” Whichever rendering seems better, it is clear that Paul’s use of the citation here (as in Gal 3:11) establishes a thematic connection between life, righteousness, and faith.

It remains to ask who Paul might have had in mind by “the righteous one.” It could be read as a general statement about righteous people. But it is intriguing that he should use the definite article and that Jesus was known in some early Christian circles as ho dikaios (“the righteous one”; see Luke 23:47; Acts 3:14; 1 John 2:1), a title that seems to be echoed in Paul’s own reference to him in 5:19. If Paul argues that the faith of Jesus is in fact the means by which God makes relationships right between himself and humans, and if it is true that Jesus is the righteous one who “lives” truly with the life of God by virtue of the resurrection, then the Habakkuk citation may not unfairly be taken as a reference to Jesus (see D. A. Campbell, “Romans 1:17—a Crux Interpretum for the pistis Christou Debate,” Journal of Biblical Literature 113 [1994]: 265–85).

Much of Paul’s thesis statement would have sounded familiar to any Jewish readers (or hearers). The connection between human righteousness, faith, and life, after all, is contained in the text of Torah Paul cites and is found in other Jewish literature (see, e.g., 1QpHab 8:1–3, and b. Mak. 24a). But there are other elements that would have sounded new. Paul attaches life, faith, and righteousness to a “message of good news from God” that is a “power of salvation” not only to Jews but also to Gentiles. Both the potential inclusiveness of salvation and its being attached to a message about a crucified messiah would at the very least have made some Jewish listeners uneasy. But only the rest of Paul’s argument will reveal just how radical and world-transforming his thesis truly is.

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