For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, ‘But the righteous man shall live by faith’ (Romans 1:17).
This is the key verse for the entire book of Romans. To understand this verse is to understand the book of Romans. It is the highest mountain peak in this epistle, the loftiest summit, and finds itself at the end of the opening prologue, Romans 1:1-17. Everything thus far has been building up to this verse. We now find ourselves standing at the top of this towering pinnacle of truth. This was the explosive text that ignited the Protestant Reformation 500 years ago. This was the dynamic verse that God used to convert an Augustinian monk, a professor of Bible at the University of Wittenberg, whose name was Martin Luther.
In response to the sale of indulgences throughout the region of Saxony in Germany, Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the front door of the church in Wittenberg. The date was October 31, 1517. This public act was a protest against the trafficking of indulgences that were sold for the forgiveness of sins on behalf of deceased loved ones who were perceived to be in Purgatory. The posting of Luther’s theses was a call for a public debate regarding how a man could be right before God. At that time. Luther was unconverted. But he, nevertheless, knew that this practice was grossly wrong.
Two years later, in 1519, Luther, at last, was converted to Jesus Christ while in the tower of the Castle Church, meditating on this very verse, Romans 1:17. He had mistakenly assumed that meeting the perfect standard of the righteousness of God was what He required of him. He knew he could not meet that standard or moral perfection, and grew angry with God. In fact, he confided that he hated God. In his mind, God had set a mark of required righteousness so high that he could never meet it. The impossible standard that God set is absolute sinlessness. God does not grade on the curve or lower the bar to come down to fallen man’s level. So, he can never get over the bar of God's own holiness.
Luther understood that, and pushed himself to the breaking point by fasting and praying. He would punish his own body in order to find acceptance with Him. He was trying by His own self-righteousness to achieve a right standing before God. Luther even slept outside in the freezing cold without a blanket in order to pummel his own body. Surely, this self-flagellation would commend himself to God. But in all of these efforts, he was growing further and further away from God. He realized that there was nothing he could do to gain acceptance with holy God, who required sinless perfection.
Luther was well taught in the Bible’s original languages, especially in the Greek language. As he was meditating on Romans 1:17, searching for acceptance with God, it was like a ray of light suddenly flashed into his darkened soul. In a moment, he saw the truth that had been previously veiled from his eyes. He discerned that this righteousness of God is not what God requires, but what comes from God. “The righteousness of God” is the free gift of God to those who believe in Jesus Christ. What God requires, He gives without cost or merit in the gospel.
Righteousness from God
This word “righteousness” (diakaiosune) means a perfect conformity to a standard. It is used thirty-five times in Romans, and it means to have right standing before God. In the divine act of justification, the believing sinner is declared to be righteous before a holy God in heaven. That is not something that we can earn or deserve. It is something that comes down from above, from God Himself, that He gives freely without cost. In the gospel, God provides His own righteousness in Jesus Christ that every person desperately needs to find acceptance with Him. If we do not have the righteousness of God, we are not right with Him and are under His just condemnation.
The next verse asserts the need for the perfect righteousness of God, "For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men" (Romans 1:18). This all-inclusive statement includes every person who is outside of Jesus Christ. This wrath of God is His unmitigated, holy vengeance against unholy sinners. It is the smoldering fury of God against sinners. It is the ignited anger of God by which He justly condemns and damns sinners forever in the eternal punishment in a real place called hell. Rightly so, because God is a holy God.
As Luther meditated on this text, Romans 1:17, he, at last, understood the gospel. In that moment, he said, "It was as if the gates of paradise were swung open to me, and I was born again." This is what it is to be a genuine Christian. Suddenly, Luther was birthed from above, and he entered into the kingdom of God. Immediately, this German professor was justified by God and credited with His righteousness in Christ. The same must be experienced by all who would be made right with God. The only way to receive the righteousness of God that has been secured for us is through faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ. It was by the sinless life and substitutionary death of Christ that this perfect righteousness was secured. He completely obeyed the law of God in our place, and He died upon the cross for our sins in our place. Those two aspects come together to achieve this perfect righteousness. By His sinless life and substitutionary death, Christ secured this righteousness on our behalf.
How Righteousness is Received
How is this divine righteousness received? The Giver of righteousness sets the terms. We see that this righteousness of God is received by faith alone, apart from any works. It is not faith and works that saves, but by faith alone.
Paul begins verse 17 with the word "for," which introduces an explanation for what he wrote in verse 16, which stated, “It is the power of God for salvation.” Verse 17 is the explanation for why the gospel is “the power of God for salvation.” Paul continues, “For in it,” referring to the gospel. By this saving message, "the righteousness of God is revealed." This word, “revealed” (apoklupto), is from what we derive the English word apocalypse, meaning ‘an unveiling.’ Something that was hidden becomes uncovered. Take, for example, a museum that commissions an artist to construct a statue of a famous person. There would be a public ceremony, and the statue would be placed before the front door of the museum with a canvas draped over it. A gathering of people would assemble and at the proper moment, the canvas would be removed and the statue would unveiled. In that moment, what had been previously concealed would be revealed.
This is what this word “revealed” means. It is the unveiling of how sinful man can be made right with holy God. God must reveal this truth, because man could never discover it on his own. No one could ever find it except God take the initiative to disclose it. That is, this manifestation is by God's initiative. You will note, “reveal” is in the present tense, meaning this gospel is being continually revealed as the word of God is taught and proclaimed. It is the unveiling of this saving message that is being revealed in the book of Romans.
In the second half of verse 17, Paul emphasizes the necessity of faith in order to receive the righteousness of God. The apostle writes that the righteousness of God “is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, ‘But the righteous man shall live by faith.’” Three times in this one verse Paul uses the word “faith.” This is a rare verse in which the same word is used three times, and it draws our attention to what Paul is stressing. This righteousness from God is received exclusively by faith. Given this importance, what can we say about faith? We are going to examine this word, “faith.” In doing so, I want to set before you eight headings that will help us better understand what it is.
I. The Meaning of Faith (1:17)
First, I want us to consider what faith means. The word “faith” (pistis) means ‘a commitment to, a trust in, a reliance upon.’ Those are synonymous statements that describe what true saving faith is. A comprehensive understanding of faith recognizes that it involves the mind, heart, and will. With the mind, a person must know the essential truths of the gospel. He must then be persuaded of its truthfulness in his heart. He must be convicted of his need for the righteousness of God. Finally, he must make the decisive commitment of his life to Jesus Christ with his will.
This is the meaning of the faith that saves. A person must entrust all that he is to the Lord Jesus Christ. No one else can make this decision for him. It is a personal commitment that only he can make. His wife cannot make it for him. His parents cannot make it for him. His children cannot make it for him. This is the commitment that everyone must make. Such a step of faith occurs at a fixed point in time. This is the defining moment when one enters through the narrow gate. One moment, he is outside the kingdom, and the next moment he is on the inside. By faith alone, he comes to Jesus Christ and receives His righteousness. Faith is the eye that looks to Christ, the feet that run to Him, the hand that grasps Him, and the mouth that devours Him.
True faith does not sit still in one’s sin. Faith does not sit back passively. Faith does not simply think about Jesus Christ and the salvation He offers. Faith does not merely have warm religious feelings about Christ. True faith actively goes to Christ and embraces Him. It looks to Him and receives Him.
II. The Object of Faith (1:2-5)
Second, earlier in this prologue, Paul stated the object of faith. Faith by itself is impotent to save. Faith is no more powerful that the object of its trust. It is the object of faith that saves, which is stated in Romans 1:2-4. Faith in what is written in the Holy Scriptures must be exercised (verse 2), specifically, what it testifies concerning Jesus Christ (verses 3-4). The Bible teaches that He is the eternal Son of the living God, who was born or a woman and became the Son of David. He was the God-man, truly God and truly Man. The whole Bible clearly teaches that Jesus is the only Savior of the world.
Any faith that we place in ourselves does not save. Faith in a church cannot give a right standing before God. Faith in a religious ritual or moral activity is a misplaced faith. We must exercise faith exclusively in the person of Jesus Christ. Any faith in anything or anyone else leaves a person under the wrath of God. Even faith that is in faith is not true faith. Faith must be placed in Jesus Christ as He is presented in the word of God. Jesus Christ must be the sole object of saving faith.
III. The Evidence of Faith (1:5)
Third, Paul describes the evidence of faith in verse five of the opening prologue. Paul describes the necessity of “the obedience of faith.” This means ‘the obedience that comes from faith.’ In other words, genuine faith always produces obedience to the Lord Jesus Christ. Simply put, obedience flows from true faith. Conversely, disobedience is the result of unbelief. The Bible asserts elsewhere that “faith without works is dead” (James 2:26). That is, an inactive faith is not real faith. Faith without works is mere empty profession. Genuine faith is an obedient faith. The one who truly believes in Jesus Christ comes under the authority of His lordship and walks in obedience to His word. As soon as he comes through the narrow gate, he is under a new authority that is stated in the written word of God.
An ongoing lifestyle of obedience to the Lord Jesus is not something that begins five years after conversion. It is not something that starts ten years later. To the contrary, this obedience starts at the outset of the Christian life. The moment anyone takes the step of saving faith and enters through the narrow gate into the kingdom, he is immediately in submission to the higher authority of the word of God. We must understand that the gospel is more than a free offer. It is more than an invitation. The reality is that the gospel is an imperative command in which we are divinely-ordered to repent and believe in Jesus Christ. Either we are obedient to the gospel, and we repent and believe. Or we are disobedient and refuse to obey this demand. Whenever we hear the gospel, it makes a demand upon us. In that moment, we must make the choice to be obedient to the command of the gospel. Faith obeys God and believes upon His Son, Jesus Christ.
This initial step of obedience to the gospel continues throughout the entirety of our Christian life. It does not involve merely the first step of obedience. Saving faith leads to many steps of obedience for the rest of a person’s life. Does a true believer ever disobey God? Of course! But when he disobeys, he confesses it and repents. He then continues on the journey of the obedience of faith.
IV. The Source of Faith (1:6)
Fourth, where does faith come from? Faith does not originate within the one who believes. Before conversion, the sinner was spiritually dead in trespasses and sin. By way of this analogy, dead men cannot exercise faith. In order to believe, God must resurrect one who is dead. In that moment, God must give the gift of faith and enable the sinner to believe. Saving faith comes from God, the Creator and Giver of faith. Faith does not originate within man, but comes down from God.
I will never forget the day I was in seminary, when we were studying the preaching of the great evangelist George Whitefield. The professor asked this simple question, "What can a dead man do?" No one answered, and the silence was deafening. Finally, a fellow student on the back row said out loud, "Stink." With that one question, my entire understanding of salvation was disarmed and came crashing down. It was like one rock thrown into a glass window that shatters the whole plate of glass. In that pivotal moment, I saw that there is nothing that a spiritually dead sinner can do. Dead men cannot come to Christ. Dead men cannot believe. Dead men can only stink. In reality, dead men can only run away from Christ. God must first give the gift of faith before anyone can believe the gospel.
In verse 6, Paul identifies those who believe as "the called of Jesus Christ." This designation refers to the effectual call of Christ that summons and apprehends the one called. In reality, this call is a divine subpoena that arrests the one called and brings him to faith in Christ. When Jesus effectually calls, He overcomes all human resistance. When Jesus stood before Lazarus' grave and called, "Lazarus, come forth," Lazarus was raised from the dead and came to Christ. His call is so powerful that it raises the dead. In the day that Jesus calls, we come to faith in Him.
When Jesus calls, He grants the gift of repentance and saving faith. The sinner is enabled to repent and believe. To exercise faith in the gospel is all of grace, the direct result of God working in the one called. Paul writes, "From Him and through Him and to Him are all things" (Romans 11:36). Even the faith to believe in Jesus Christ is from God. The source of faith is God Himself.
V. The Priority of Faith (1:8)
Fifth, the priority of faith is also evident in the opening prologue of Romans. Paul writes, "First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for you all, because your faith is being proclaimed throughout the whole world" (verse 8). Here, Paul establishes the priority of faith as he, first and foremost, commends the believers in Rome for their faith. This was number one on his list. In other epistles, he will focus upon faith, hope, and love. That triad of Christian virtues is often mentioned as the priority in the Christian life. But the letter to the Romans is such a gospel-centered book that he mentions only faith. This is because it is the dominant theme running through this opening prologue. For that matter, faith is prioritized throughout the rest of the letter to the Romans.
Their faith in Jesus Christ is what was being proclaimed throughout the known world. While living in the most immoral, pagan, wicked, foul city, these believers stood out like sparkling diamonds in a dark coalmine. Their faith was shining brilliantly in this dark place. Their faith in Christ prevented them from being squeezed into the mold of the evil world system. They are not trying to imitate the godless culture. They were not blending in with the environment around them. Instead, their strong faith caused them to live in a distinctively Christian manner. Their faith was contagious and spreading throughout the Roman Empire.
The importance of faith is stressed in Hebrews 11:6, which says, "Without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him." In simplest terms, faith diligently seeks after God and lives for His reward. There must be this priority of faith in our lives. There must be an aspect of our lives that cannot be explained apart from our faith in God. It should cause us to be inexplicable to those who observe us. It cannot be explained by our intelligence, natural gifts, or abilities. There should be no explanation for our lives apart from our faith in God.
VI. The Power of Faith (1:12)
Sixth, I want you to see the power of faith. The next time faith is mentioned is in verse 12, when Paul says, "that is, that I may be encouraged together with you while among you, each of us by the other’s faith." He wants to have fellowship with them so that they can encourage each other in the faith. When we come together as believers, we encourage each other to trust God even more. Faith is contagious. One person’s faith affects others with whom he comes in contact. True believers strengthen other’s faith. We build up the faith of others by our faith. Conversely, when our faith is not strong, we can have an adverse effect upon other believers. But when I am living strong in faith, when I am sold out to Christ, when I am pressing on to live for God, that kind of commitment has a positive effect with others who are around me.
I need your faith to be strong so you can strengthen me. You need my faith to be strong so that I can strengthen you. The Bible says, ‘Iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17). The picture is two swords rubbing against each other, sharpening the cutting edge of their blades. This is what Paul desired in his anticipated trip to Rome. He wanted their faith to rub off on him and vice versa. Even the apostle Paul needed the faith of the Romans to strengthen him. We all need other believers to stoke the flames of our heart in our mutual fellowship with one another. This is the power of faith as it impacts other believers.
VII. The Necessity of Faith (1:16)
Seventh, Paul also addresses the necessity of faith. The next time we see the same root word for faith is verse 16. It is the word "believes" (pisteuo), which is the verb form of the noun, “faith” (pistis), found in verse 17. So, believe and faith come from the same Greek word. Paul writes, "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" (verse 16). The necessity of faith is found in that no one can receive the salvation of God, except by faith in Jesus Christ. There is no other way to have divine righteousness except by faith. Salvation cannot be received by faith and anything else. The hymn by Augustus Toplay rightly says, "In my hands no price I bring, simply to thy cross I cling." Faith brings nothing in its hand. Only with the empty hand of faith can we receive the gift of righteousness. We must believe in Jesus Christ to be right with God. Otherwise, we are doomed to perish eternally. There is no other way to find acceptance with God except through faith in Christ.
This begs the question, "Have you believed in Jesus Christ? Have you committed your life to Christ?" It is entirely possible to have this truth in your head and even have warm feelings in your heart, yet not truly believe. In conversion, you come to the Lord Jesus Christ, like a bride committing herself to her groom in a wedding ceremony. You commit your life to the only Savior of sinners. You must take the decisive step of faith, as an act of your will, and entrust your soul to Jesus Christ.
VIII. The Perseverance of Faith (1:17)
Eighth, we note the perseverance of faith, when Paul writes, "For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith" (verse 17). There are numerous ways to interpret that statement, “from faith to faith.” Great men have differed on this, but I am convinced that when Paul states, "from faith to faith," he is saying, "It is faith from start to finish." In other words, the Christian life is begun by faith. But having entered the kingdom of God, we continue to live by faith. In fact, we will conclude our Christian journey by faith. That is, ‘from faith’ addresses saving faith. Then, when Paul says "to faith," that is living daily by faith. That is walking by faith moment-by-moment to the end of the Christian life.
This truth is important, because faith is not merely repeating a scripted prayer, walking an aisle, raising a hand, and joining the choir, and then assuming that a person is automatically in the kingdom of God. If they fail to move forward and live by faith, that is not the mark of true, saving faith. If such a person goes back to the world system and lives in sin the same way they previously did, that is not the mark of true, saving faith. If such a person goes that is not a true faith in Jesus Christ. True faith perseveres. That is a false faith of self-deception. True conversion begins with genuine faith, and it continues day by day in a walk of faith, a life of faith.
“Live By Faith”
The second reason that I am convinced that this is the proper interpretation is at the end of verse 17, when Paul quotes Habakkuk 2:4, "But the righteous man shall LIVE by faith.” This “righteous man” is justified by faith in Christ. That is rightly assumed from verse 16 and the beginning of verse 17. But here, the prophet states that the onw ho is declared righteous by faith will also live by faith.
When Paul says "the righteous man," he is referring to the man who has been declared righteous by faith in Jesus Christ. He is right before God under the law, because of Christ and what He has done for him. But he not only stands by faith. He now lives by faith. This is the daily reality of a new life with a new direction. True faith involves not just the initial step of commitment to Jesus Christ. Saving faith also includes living by faith throughout the entirety of one’s life.
A justified believer lives by faith regardless of the temptations and persecution he will face. He lives by faith in this lifelong journey of following Christ. This is the perseverance of faith that never stops trusting in Him.
Faith that Perseveres
Saving faith is the gift of God. When God gives this divine enablement to believe in Jesus Christ, it is a steadfast faith that will never stop believing. It may weaken at times and surely will. It may slow down at times, but it will never cease believing. A true believer will never become an apostate unbeliever. A God-given faith in Jesus Christ never becomes unbelief. Such is theologically impossible. Jesus is both “the author and perfector of faith” (Hebrews 12:2). The faith that He authors, He matures and perfects to the end.
Paul writes that true faith is always "from faith to faith" (verse 17). That is, it is impossible for faith to go from faith to no faith. Faith can only move forward. Faith can only advance from faith to faith. It is impossible to go from faith to apostasy. It is impossible to go from faith to unfaith. True faith can only go in one direction, because it s a powerful work of God in the soul. Faith is exercised in us, but it is what God does in us. “It is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure" (Philippians 2:13). Saving faith that God authors (Philippians 1:29) can only move forward from faith to faith.
Charles Spurgeon once quipped, "Noah fell down many times in the ark, but he never once fell out of the ark." That is true of genuine faith. We will trip and fall down in the Christian life. But we will never fall away from Christ. It is not a matter of our holding onto God. It is a matter of Him holding onto us. God keeps our faith active and upheld by His grace.
When my sons were young, we would cross the street. Though they would pull away from my hand, I never let go of their hand. We would step off the curb together, but if they tripeed, I will still have them in my grip. They would be swinging in mid-air, because I would never let go of them, even if they let go of me. That is the way it is in genuine, true salvation. God gives us a faith that goes from faith to faith. Even when we weaken, God will never let go of us.
As we can see, this major theme of faith runs throughout this entire opening prologue. The importance of faith is clear. We cannot be saved apart from faith. We cannot be sanctified apart from faith. We cannot be what God desires you to be without faith. We cannot experience the abundant life that Christ has come to give you apart from faith. Faith is the fountain from which your daily life of active faith flows, as we live “from faith to faith.”
Every area of our Christian life is to be lived by faith. This refers to not just our church lives, but to our business lives, our family lives, and our recreational lives. Every component part of our lives is to be lived by faith. We are not meant to be self-reliant. None of our lives should be lived in self-dependence. We should always be anchored to God in every aspect of our lives. We need God, not just to go to heaven, but to go to work. We need God, not only for our relationship with Him, but in all of our relationships upon the earth. Every aspect of our lives is to be lived by faith.