Open almost any commentary on Romans and you will find the suggestion that the thesis of the letter is found in 1:16-17.
But these verses raise as many questions as they answer: What is “the gospel”? What is “the power of God”? What does “the righteousness of God” mean, how does the gospel reveal it, and what does all this have to do with faith?
In ancient letter writing, it was customary to signal the main topics in the opening lines. So we are going to step back into the first seven verses of Romans 1 to see what kind of guidance they might provide for understanding Paul’s perspective on these themes that are crucial not only for Romans, but for the Christian life as a whole.
Paul’s gospel according to Romans 1:1-7
One of the first things we discover in Romans 1 is that the gospel Paul proclaims is part of a larger story. It is an act of God that God had previously promised in scripture. Before the gospel is about our faith toward God, it is about God keeping faith with us. The content of this message is Jesus Christ (v. 3).
Paul delineates two specific aspects of his message about Jesus, perhaps drawing on an ancient creedal formula. First, Jesus is of the line of David; but more importantly (because there were untold numbers of Davidic descendants in the first century), Jesus was “appointed” (v. 4, NIV) son of God through his resurrection.
The translation “appointed” is better than the NRSV’s “declared.” Paul is thinking about Jesus as a human being, and claiming that Jesus’ resurrection is the time when Jesus is enthroned to rule over the world on God’s behalf. This draws on a rich biblical tradition in which the Davidic king was adopted as God’s son at his enthronement (see Psalm 2:7; 2 Samuel 7:14).
The promise of a Davidic messiah has been fulfilled through God’s raising Jesus from the dead and enthroning him as Lord over all.
The gospel, then, is not the human response to the Christ event, but the Christ event itself.
Obedience of faith
The gospel commission Paul receives is to bring about “obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for his name’s sake” (v. 5).
For those of us who are heirs of the Reformation tradition, it is important to note that Paul does not separate faith and works. On the contrary, his mission is to bring about the works (obedience) that flow from faith. Perhaps “trust” comes closer to the mark of capturing the active nature of faith than the word “faith” does for many of us.
The inclusion of the Gentiles is a crucial component of Paul’s message. Human obedience to God must be as broad as Jesus’ lordship. It is not enough for God to save Israel, as fulfillment of God’s promise in scripture; instead, both Gentiles and Jews must live into the new reality that has begun with Jesus’ resurrection-enthronement.
Rereading the thesis: Romans 1:16-17 in light of 1:1-7
By paying careful attention to vv. 1-7, we have put everything on the table we need to work our way through vv. 16-17.
First, Paul says he is not ashamed of the gospel. We now know that the gospel of which he speaks is the announcement that David’s heir has been raised from the dead and thereby enthroned as king at God’s right hand.
Second, Paul says that this gospel is the “power of God unto salvation.” We have seen what this power looks like — it is resurrection power, by the Spirit (1:4). As we will see in two weeks (Romans 6:1-14), Paul expects that God’s people live lives of resurrection power, now, by the Holy Spirit.
Third, Paul says that this power is available to all who believe, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. The Gospel of Jesus as resurrected Lord comes “to the Jew first” because God had made this promise of salvation through a Davidic Messiah through Israel’s scriptures. It is “also to the Greek” because Jesus is Lord over all.
Fourth, this gospel manifests the righteousness of God. “Righteousness” is a loaded theological word, but generally speaking it means to do what is right. “The right” varies depending on the relationship. For God, this means making good on God’s promises to Israel. The resurrection of Jesus manifests God’s covenant faithfulness, God’s righteousness.
We are now in a position to see how “faith” fits into the picture. It is not human faith, our response to the gospel, that puts God’s righteousness on display. Instead, it is God’s own act in raising Jesus from the dead. This is the likely meaning of the scripture citation from Habakkuk. When Paul quotes the verse that says, “The one who is righteous will live by faith” (v. 17) the reader already knows who this “one” is who “lives” by faith: it is Jesus who was raised from the dead (v. 4).
The faith (perhaps, better, faithfulness) through which Jesus is made alive is his own faithfulness to God in going to the cross, and God’s faithfulness in raising Jesus from the dead. When Paul says that the righteousness of God is put on display “through faith,” he is referring to the Christ event.
God’s faithfulness must then be met with a human response of faith (“for faith,” v. 17). This is the charge to which Jesus has called Paul, to bring about the obedience of faith among the Gentiles.
Before all else, the gospel is about God: what God has done in sending God’s son, what God has done in raising Jesus from the dead, what God has done in enthroning even the human Jesus as God’s right hand.
This gospel is mirrored in the human sphere. Because the story is one of God’s faithfulness to the faithful Christ, God’s people are now defined as those who are faithful to the resurrected messiah.