The Text That Changed the World
January 26, 1992
Certain texts of the Bible are so familiar to the Christian that they require almost no introduction. They are the texts we learned from our very first days in Sunday School. We know them, we love them, their words are etched on our hearts. They are the “Great Texts” of the Bible. John 3:16 certainly falls into that category, as does Romans 8:28, and all six verses of the 23rd Psalm. One might add to that Psalm 103:1 and Isaiah 53:6. You would certainly include Romans 3:23 and 6:23. But if you drew the list out long enough, you wouldn’t go very far until you came to our text—Romans 1:16-17. Without a doubt, it is one of the best-known and most-often repeated passages in the New Testament.
Although I first learned about this verse when I was a child, it made no impression on me until I was a student at Tennessee Temple College. Dr. Lee Roberson, the president of the college, had a daily radio broadcast called “Gospel Dynamite.” During the yearly Bible Conference, the program was broadcast live from the huge auditorium filled with 3,000 people. I remember the thrill of listening to the stirring sounds of “Power in the Blood,” followed by Dr. Roberson (or his associate Dr. J. R. Faulkner) as they introduced the program with these words, “Welcome to Gospel Dynamite, a radio ministry of Highland Park Baptist Church.” Then Dr. Roberson would quote Romans 1:16, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God unto salvation, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” So strong is the memory in my mind that to this day even if I am reading this text from the New International Version, I will quote it from the King James Version because that’s what Dr. Roberson always used.
Martin Luther’s Highway to Heaven
Our title is no exaggeration. This is the text that changed the world. It first changed a man, and that man changed the world. It is impossible to over-estimate the importance of this text in the history of western civilization. Martin Luther, reflecting back on what this text meant in his life, offered this testimony:
When by the Spirit of God, I understood these words—”The just shall live by faith”—then I felt born again like a new man. I entered through the open doors into the very paradise of God.
When Martin Luther found this text—or more accurately—when this text found him, it turned his life upside down. No longer was he willing to remain a simple monk at the monastery in Erfurt. Once the blazing truth of justification by faith set a fire burning in his soul, he set himself to igniting a fire that eventually spread throughout Europe and eventually to the ends of the earth.
All because of this text—Romans 1:16-17. If there were no other reason, then, this text would be worthy of careful consideration. But wholly apart from Martin Luther, it demands our attention because this text—these words—form the theme of the book of Romans. Like most good writers, after making his words of introduction, Paul immediately states his theme. This is it! This is what the book of Romans is all about. If you don’t grasp this passage, the rest of the book will make little sense to you. It is the quintessence of Paul’s theology, it is the reason he wants to come to Rome. More than that, it is the heart of evangelical theology. This is the text that launched the Protestant Reformation and it is this text that most clearly explains the difference between evangelical Christianity and the Roman Catholic Church.
Paul begins by making an amazing statement … “I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ.” Think about his past. He had been imprisoned in Philippi, chased out of Thessalonica, smuggled out of Berea, ignored in Athens, laughed at in Corinth, stoned and left for dead in Lystra. Paul, how can you even dare to come to Rome with a record like that?
Rome! The heart of the empire.
Rome! City of philosophers and poets.
Rome! Home to every conceivable idol.
Rome! Seat of emperor-worship.
Rome! Center of intellectual arrogance.
Rome! City built on war.
Rome! Greatest city in the world.
Paul, what makes you think you can survive in such a place? The answer to that question is wrapped up in one word.
The Power of the Gospel
The gospel is power! The Greek word is dunamis, from which we get the English words “dynamic,” “dynamo,” and “dynamite.” The gospel contains the dynamic power of God. That’s why Paul felt no need to apologize for coming to Rome. He knew that in the gospel there is a power that can overwhelm anything the proud Romans might throw up against it.
How does this power work? The apostle provides three answers.
A. Power to save 16a
“For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God for salvation.” What does the gospel do? It saves sinners. What else will save sinners? Not science, not education, not religion, not moral reformation, not fame and fortune. The gospel, and only the gospel, saves sinners.
Sometimes when we see the word “salvation,” we think only in the past tense. But here Paul is thinking of salvation in all three tenses—past, present and future. The gospel has the power to …
—Forgive sins (past)
—Impart new life (present)
—Admit into heaven (future)
No other power on earth can do that!
B. Power to save those who believe 16b
Paul now explains how this gospel saves sinners. “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God unto salvation to everyone who believes.” The word “believe” means to make a personal commitment, to trust by an act of the will. That means that the gospel always demands a personal response. It’s never enough simply to hear the gospel; eventually you have to respond to it one way or the other.
The African Cheesecake Virus
Let us suppose that you aren’t feeling well so you decide to go to the doctor for a check-up. He says, “Let’s run a few tests and see what we can find.” When the results come back, the doctor says, “I’m sorry, but I’ve got some very bad news. You’ve contracted a very rare disease—the African Cheesecake Virus. You evidently got hold of a bad batch of cheesecake. Unfortunately, the disease is fatal. There is one cure. This medicine has just been developed but you have to take it immediately to have any chance of surviving.” You agree and take the medicine from the doctor. Then you go home, put the bottle on the shelf and promptly forget about it.
What will happen to you? Before you answer, consider this: You’re sick, you’re dying, and you know it. The medicine will cure you. All you have to do is take it. You’ve got the medicine in your own cabinet. The healing power is only a few inches from your lips. What will happen if you don’t take the medicine? You will surely die. The medicine by itself does you no good. It’s not even good enough to personally own the medicine. It’s not good enough to think to yourself, “I’ll take that medicine someday.” You’ve got to personally take the medicine now. If you don’t, we’ll be having your funeral in just a few days.
It is the same with the gospel of Christ. You are sick with the disease of sin. You’ve been sick for a long time, and maybe you didn’t even know it. The gospel of Christ is the medicine you need. It has the power to save you from sin. But what good will it do if you never “take the medicine?” What hope is there for you? Answer: There is no hope at all! For the gospel has the power to save you, and that power is found nowhere else but in the gospel.
C. Power to save without regard to human distinctions 16c
“For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” The last phrase introduces the universal dimension of the gospel. The Jews were God’s chosen people. Although most of the Jews said No to Jesus, the gospel still has the power to save them if they will only believe. The “Greeks” were the Gentiles, that is, all non-Jews. No wonder Paul was not ashamed. The gospel has the power to save people without regard to the distinctions that divide us. It has the power to save without regard to:
This truth was driven home to me last Sunday in a very dramatic way. As many of you know, Marlene and I just returned from an 11-day trip to St. Petersburg, Russia, where we attended the dedication services for the Temple of the Gospel. It turned out to be the most ecumenical event (in the good sense) I have ever attended. Pastor Nikolaev has an amazing ability to attract support from across denominational lines. There were Baptists, Reformed, Lutherans, Pentecostals, Charismatics, Independents and Evangelical Christians, to name only a few groups. People came from Korea, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Germany, Switzerland, Ireland, America, the Baltic republics, the Ukraine, and Belorus. People came from all over Russia, including representatives from the national TV network.
On Sunday morning we dedicated the building in a marathon four-hour service. I’ll never forget the prayer of dedication. There were 12 of us (plus Pastor Nikolaev) spread out around the auditorium—three across the front, four on one side of the balcony, four on the other side and two across the back. When the time came to pray, we stood, stretched out our hands toward heaven and prayed one by one—in 12 different languages! There was Russian, Belorus, Ukrainian, Korean, Swahili, Spanish, Danish, Swedish, Finnish, Norwegian, English, and one other language I can’t remember right now.
What an amazing moment—to pray together in so many different languages. Although I couldn’t understand any of the other prayers, I knew exactly what they were saying. It was a demonstration of the universal power of the gospel to reach across the barriers of race, language, culture and geography.
That’s why Paul wasn’t ashamed to preach the gospel in Rome. He knew it had the power to save anyone who would believe it.
In verse 17 Paul reveals the second reason why he wasn’t ashamed of the gospel.
The Power in the Gospel
This is the verse that changed Martin Luther’s life. “For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written, ’The righteous will live by faith.’”
Why is the gospel so powerful?
A. Because it reveals a righteousness which comes only by faith. 17a
The key word is righteousness, which means to have a right standing in God’s eyes. It’s a legal term taken from the courtrooms of the ancient world. It means to declare “not guilty” and to declare “innocent of all charges.” The one who is righteous in God’s eyes is the one who can stand before him and be declared “not guilty.”
Here is where the greatness of the gospel is clearly seen. It provides for us what we could never provide for ourselves. On our own merits we all stand condemned before the Almighty. Who is there who would dare to say, “I am good enough to go to heaven.” As someone has said, “A clear conscience is the result of a poor memory.” The only people who think they are good enough to go to heaven are the people who don’t know how bad they really are!
Righteousness is what we need but do not have. Therefore God, knowing that we could never be righteous on our own, has provided a righteousness which comes down to us from heaven above. It’s not earned or deserved, but is given to us by God as a free gift.
Charles Hodge, the great Princeton theologian of the last century, gives us an extended explanation of what the “righteousness from God” is all about:
The righteousness for which we are justified is neither anything done by us or wrought in us, but something done for us and imputed to us. It is the work of Christ, what he did and suffered to satisfy the demands of the law. Hence not merely external or ceremonial works are excluded as the ground of justification; but works of righteousness, all works of whatever kind or degree of excellence. Hence this righteousness is not our own. It is nothing that we have either wrought ourselves, or that inheres in us. Hence Christ is said to be our righteousness; and we are said to be justified by his blood, his death, his obedience; we are righteous in him, and are justified by him or in his name, or for his sake. (Epistle to the Romans, p. 31. Italics mine.)
In this we come to the essential difference between evangelical Christianity and the Roman Catholic faith. We believe that salvation comes simply and only as a free gift of God, received by faith alone. It is not earned or merited by anything we have done or ever could do.
That brings us to the second reason why the gospel is so powerful.
B. Because the righteousness that is in the gospel is received only by faith. 17b
The key word here is faith. In the Greek, it literally reads, “is revealed by faith unto faith.” It has the idea of “faith from first to last.” Everyone who is saved, is saved the same way: By faith. It is faith alone and faith always.
This answers the great question: How can I be right with God? The answer is simple: By receiving the righteousness of God that comes only by faith.
Compare that truth with the following question and answer from the Catholic Twin Circle (Sunday, January 5, 1992, p. 19):
Q: Our priest seems to put out the doctrine or at least the strong implication that baptism is nothing more than a ceremony of the dedication of an infant to God. Has the Church changed her doctrine about this?
A: The church has not changed her teaching about baptism; she cannot because her teaching is based on divine revelation.
Vatican II reaffirmed this in the Constitution on the Church by teaching us that Jesus “explicitly asserted the necessity of faith and baptism,” (see Mk. 16:16 and Jn. 3:5).
The famous “Creed of the People of God” of Pope Paul VI (June 30, 1968) reaffirmed that baptism is necessary for salvation, wipes away sin and infuses the divine life of grace into the recipient, who also becomes a member of the Catholic Church and an heir to heaven.
This is a completely different view of salvation than the one presented by the Apostle Paul in Romans 1:17. If one is right, the other cannot be right. Paul is teaching salvation by grace through faith alone; the “Creed of the People of God” is teaching something else entirely.
God Doesn’t Make Deals
In one of his sermons Dr. Barnhouse discusses how unfair it would be if God set a condition for entrance into heaven that could only be met by a small portion of the human race. “If God demanded a certain degree of intelligence, it would be unfair to morons. If he demanded wealth, it would unfair to paupers.” That may sound encouraging, but wait till you hear the rest of the story. God demands perfection and he will not accept anything less. If you want to go to heaven, you’ve got to be perfect. If you think about that, you’ll soon realize it basically rules out the entire human race.
So let’s suppose that God demands 100%. A convict might have fulfilled 20% of what God demands, while an ordinary law-abiding citizen perhaps as much as 50%. Who knows? There may be some extraordinary person who has been perfect 80% of the time. “No man who has ever lived has achieved the one hundred per cent.”
Our problem is that we tend to look at what we’ve already done and say, “God, I’ve provided 20% but I need you to provide the other 80%. Or we say, “Lord, let’s go halves. I’ll put in 50% and you put in 50%.” And the man who thinks himself to be especially good says, “Lord, you see I’ve done 80% so I won’t trouble you for more than the extra 20% I need to get into heaven.”
It doesn’t work that way. “The convict must learn to curse his twenty per cent of human righteousness, abandon all hope of salvation by means of it, and come to the cross of Jesus Christ to receive the one hundred per cent of a totally different righteousness which is provided by the Lord Jesus Christ on the basis of his atoning death for sinners.” Barnhouse goes on to point out that the 80% man must do that which is much harder, to curse his 80% righteousness, to call it nothing but filthy rags in God’s sight, and come to the Lord Jesus Christ to receive the 100% righteousness which comes only from God (Illustration from Man’s Ruin, pp. 181-183).
If you want to go to heaven, learn this lesson: God Doesn’t Make Deals With Sinners. You can come to God on the basis of your own limited righteousness, in which case you will be turned away because you miss the mark of 100% perfection. Or you can come to God on the basis of the 100% righteousness provided by the Lord Jesus Christ, in which case you will be accepted.
There is a third and final reason why the gospel is so powerful.
C. Because by the righteousness in the gospel men and women are declared just in the eyes of God. 17c
To prove his point Paul includes a quotation from Habakkuk 2:4, “The just shall live by faith.” It was this text—quoted by Paul in Romans 1:17—that ultimately shook Martin Luther to the core and brought him to saving faith in Jesus Christ. On this point, I quote from a letter by Dr. Paul Luther, the reformer’s youngest son:
In the year 1544, my late dearest father, in the presence of us all, narrated the whole story of his journey to Rome. He acknowledged with great joy that, in that city, through the Spirit of Jesus Christ, he had come into the knowledge of the truth of the everlasting gospel. It happened this way. As he repeated his prayers on the Lateran staircase, the words of the prophet Habakkuk came suddenly to his mind, “The just shall live by faith.” Thereupon he ceased his prayers, returned to Wittenberg, and took this as the chief foundation of all his doctrine. (Quoted in A Bunch of Everlastings, by Frank Boreham, pp. 19-20.)
From that unlikely beginning came the Protestant Reformation. And with it the battle-cry sola fide, “by faith alone.”
Faith alone! Not by works of the law.
Faith alone! Not by obedience to the Church.
Faith alone! Not by human righteousness.
Faith alone! Not by baptism.
Faith alone! Not by good intentions.
Faith alone! Not by the sacraments.
Faith alone! Not by penance or almsgiving.
Faith alone! Plus nothing and minus nothing!
What does it mean to have “faith alone” in this sense? If you know what it means to believe a doctor when he says, “You need surgery,” you know what it means to have faith. If you know what it means to step into an airplane entrusting your safety to the captain in the cockpit, you know what it means to have faith. If you know what it means to ask a lawyer to plead your case in court, you know what it means to have faith. Faith is complete reliance upon another person to do that which you could never do for yourself.
How much faith does it take to go to heaven? It depends. The answer is not much and all you’ve got. If you are willing to trust Jesus Christ with as much faith as you happen to have, you can be saved. But if you’re holding anything back, thinking that maybe you need to do something to help save yourself, forget it! Saving faith is putting your trust in Jesus Christ and him alone. In order to do that you have to stop trying to save yourself.
Good News, Bad News
Let me say it as plainly as I can. There is good news and bad news from this text. The bad news first: You have no other hope of heaven outside of Jesus Christ. Good works cannot save you. Church membership cannot save you. Baptism cannot save you. Giving money cannot save you. Keeping the Ten Commandments cannot save you. Nothing you can do will make the least bit of difference concerning your eternal salvation. If you are trusting in your good life or in your religion to get you to heaven, someday you will be sadly (and eternally) disappointed.
Now for the good news. Those who put their trust in Jesus Christ are saved forever. “Christ’s sacrifice in blood and cross, received by faith, brings salvation to the believing heart, for it alone reveals the righteousness of God.”
Would you like to receive the righteousness of God? You can. The righteousness of God is wrapped up in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
That leads me to a very simple conclusion: Never be ashamed of the gospel. Don’t be ashamed to preach it, to teach it, to share it with those you meet. It alone has the power to meet the deepest needs of mankind. It can do what mere philosophy can never do. It has the power to wipe away the darkest stain of sin. No one is beyond the reach of the life-changing gospel of Jesus Christ.
Would you like to go to heaven? You can. There are three things you need to know:
You are a sinner.
Christ died for you and rose on the third day.
You can be saved by trusting in Christ alone.
I am not ashamed to tell you this because I know the gospel can do for you what it has done for millions of people across the centuries. What happened to Martin Luther can happen to you. Those who trust in Christ alone will never be put to shame, not in this life or in the life to come.