Right in the Eyes of God Romans 1:16-17

Lessons from the Reformation Regarding How a Person Becomes Right in the Eyes of the Holy God

Romans 1:16-17


One of the significant doctrines reclaimed during the Protestant Reformation is the Biblical teaching that justification is by faith alone – Sola Fide.


We might express this concept with the question, how are sins forgiven? Or, how can a person be right before the holy God? This is the very core of the gospel itself. I don’t know of a more important and personal question. This is THE question!

The Bible is crystal clear about this question. Men can be right in the eyes on God by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. NAU Galatians 2:16 nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified. So, the Bible’s answer to how a man is saved is by sovereign grace through faith in Christ’s substitutionary death alone.

In contrast, payment for forgiveness of sins through the sale of indulgences was the Catholic Church’s answer to this critical question during the Reformation era 500 years ago. This is an outgrowth of the larger teaching that man must contribute to his salvation by performing good works which would be added to Christ’s works (contrast with the work of Christ alone). This is still the teaching of the church. This is a blatant denial of the Bible, as in NAU Romans 3:28 For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.

Rome’s solution to this contradiction between Scripture and church dogma was and is that church teaching is of equal authority with the Scripture. So even today, the question of how a person is forgiven of sins, shielded from the wrath of the holy God, and reconciled with that same God, is still erroneously answered by the Roman Catholic church as well as many Protestant churches.

Rome’s teaching on the issues of being right with God and the authority of Scripture were challenged during the Reformation era. In 1505, a 22-year-old by the name of Martin Luther became a monk and began serving in Erfurt, Germany. When he was sent to Rome on church business (probably 1510), he also visited several sacred sites including the Lateran church (the church of the stairs). There he observed pilgrims climbing the 28 stairs on their hands and knees in hopes of winning forgiveness of sins for themselves or others. These steps were supposedly the very steps Jesus climbed after his appearance before Pilate in Jerusalem (several soruces). So, Luther joined them saying the Lord's Prayer as he ascended. At the top, he experienced emptiness rather than peace.

While in Rome he also observed the dishonesty of many of the most powerful men in the Church. He came back to Germany with two things he had to do. He had to put right the many wrong practices of the church. And he had to find the way to be sure he was right with God. Therefore, this was a very personal matter for Luther.

Back at Erfurt, he asked for help from the monk who was his spiritual adviser (Johann von Stuapitz). This man told him to read Augustine’s writings. In turn and in God’s providence, this suggestion led Luther to begin reading the New Testament.

Subsequently, he was sent to Wittenberg to become a professor (probably 1512). Here, after several years, he was to find the answer to his question about being right with God. He encountered the words "The righteous will live by faith" found in Romans 1:17. He became convinced that people become "right with God" through faith in Christ alone, not by penance or good things they do. ReQuest.org.uk accessed 8/20/12

So, let’s explore the text that exploded into Martin Luther’s mind and heart a half millennium ago and inflamed the Protestant Reformation.

NAU Romans 1:16 For 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. 17 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."

These verses “state concisely and with unusual clarity a fundamental tenet of the Christian faith” (Mounce p 70). It is helpful to understand the context. From v 1 it is apparent that the gospel is the central topic of discussion. Paul claims that he is “…set apart for the gospel…” that is built upon Jesus Christ. (v 3-9) So, Paul acknowledges that he is under obligation to minister the gospel whenever and wherever he has opportunity (14). But, he wants the readers to know that he considers this obligation a great privilege that he is “eager” to undertake. (15).

This is followed by a concise explanation as to why he is so eager to present the gospel rather than man contrived dogma (16-17). The cues are the three uses of “for” (gar) in v 16 (2x) and v 17. In fact, given the recurrences of “for” in vs 18-23 it may be that these verses are part of the explanation as well. However, we will deal with v 16-17 only.

{Note: An obvious question is, “what is the gospel?” Much could be said about this and perhaps should be. But for now, let’s understand that the gospel is the good news about the historical fact of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ that accomplished deliverance from sin on behalf undeserving people who could not rescue themselves.}

Given that vs 16-17 must be understood in light of Paul’s eagerness to preach the gospel described in v 15, my two main points will reflect this.

Also, I am taking the liberty of framing the teaching points in the first person (I or We) rather that the third person (Paul or He).

Like Paul, we should be passionate about the gospel because the gospel is an incredible and nearly incomprehensible demonstration of God’s power 16 (note – not the gospel plus something else such as church dogma)


On the one hand, the gospel is not a disgrace to us16a “For…”

When Paul declares that he is “not ashamed” (ἐπαισχύνομαι from epi + aiscunomai) he means he is not embarrassed or dishonored or disgraced. The middle requires that we add “by” or “of”. The net effect is that we should openly identify with the gospel!

The flavor of this word is seen in other passages:

NAU Mark 8:38 "For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will also be ashamed of him when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels. 

NAU 2 Timothy 1:8 Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony of our Lord or of me His prisoner, but join with me in suffering for the gospel according to the power of God,"

We might ask, “Why is Paul not embarrassed by the gospel?” I think the answer is in the next phrase and is played out in the rest of the letter as well. It is simply that the gospel has rescued him from the eternal damnation of his sin! This is what Luther came to understand.


On the other hand, the gospel is divine power in action for us 16b “For…”

Of the words translated “power” in the NT this one (δύναμις) means explosive power or force rather than authority or strength (see Synonyms of Greek NT). It sounds like dynamite. Illust: in old school military artillery lingo, the forward observer calls for spotting rounds, adjusts as needed, more spotting rounds until in range and then calls for fire for effect that unleashes devastating firepower on the target. So, the gospel is the “fire for effect!” But the emphasis is not that it blows up error; rather that it is power in effect; it accomplishes its purpose

There are several additional didactics:

The gospel is power that belongs exclusively to God (“of God” – possessive genitive). He is in charge of it; he can unleash or withhold it however and wherever he wishes. Men cannot dictate to Him any terms regarding its use. Nor can men take any credit for its success. Keep this in mind next time you hear a Christian guru make arrogant and self-serving claims.


The gospel alone is God’s power. It is not and never has been the gospel in tandem with anything else. This was the error of the Roman Catholic church. NAU 1 Corinthians 1:18 For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.


The gospel alone delivers us. Paul says it is the power of God “for” salvation. “For” is “into” (eij). I note two giant thoughts. First, the Gospel propels us from the slavery of our sin and eternal damnation into the freedom of eternal life. Salvation is the result of gospel power. Second, “salvation” is the standard and vivid term for deliverance or rescue. We could not rescue ourselves; the only way it was going to happen is if an outside force did it. Hence the gospel has been defined as, “God at work” (and thus it is) “not simply a display of power but the effective operation of God’s power leading to salvation. It has purpose and direction” (Mounce 70-71). When the gospel is present, God is present! Something is happening!


Each one who believes is rescued by gospel power. “Everyone who believes” (παντὶ τῷ πιστεύοντι) nails down the truth that wherever there is genuine faith, there is salvation. And salvation is not accomplished apart from faith. To be sure, faith itself is not meritorious and is created in us by God as His sovereign gift. However, without faith salvation is impossible. So, for Luther, faith was everything.


The gospel is non-discriminatory. (“to the Jew first and also to the Greek”) Even though the Jews had the inside track on gospel truth, non-Jews are included on equal footing. Culture, ethnic background, gender or any other external element are all non-factors when it comes to dispensing the gospel. This is great news. Don’t worry about who you are; the question is, “have you repented of you sins, and believed the gospel of Jesus Christ?”

Like Paul, we should be passionate about the gospel because the gospel is a disclosure of the righteousness of God 17 “For…”


The righteousness of God claims center stage 17a 


The identity of this righteousness 

An obvious question is, “what is the righteousness (δικαιοσύνη) of God”? There is legitimate and ample debate on this question. I do not believe that it here is a reference to the attribute or character of God, namely God is righteous (this would be possessive genitive – righteousness that God possesses).

Rather, it is a reference to the action of God (a subjective genitive – righteousness of which God is the subject; that is, “the righteousness produced by God”). It is something that God does! Specifically, he justifies us (declares us righteous). Consider NAU Romans 5:17, For if by the transgression of the one, death reigned through the one, much more those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ. (Also see 3:25-26). This righteous has a saving effect!

So, the focus is on what has happened to wretched sinners (the effect) as a result of God’s justifying action. They are now declared righteous – ie the “righteousness of God”. The emphasis is on the justified person. But again, we must note that this righteous state is something only God can accomplish; something we cannot accomplish ourselves even though it is bestowed by faith. So, Luther discovered that being right with God was the result of God’s act, not man’s acts or works.

Thus, I take the righteousness of God to here refer to both the activity of God in declaring humans righteous as well as the result – Christians clothed in the righteousness of Christ – becoming new persons!

Just so there is no misunderstanding regarding what I am saying: Biblical justification is forensic or legal, not actual. We are changed but we are still sinners. In contrast, the Roman Catholic official dogma is that justification is an inner transformation – that when humans are justified they are actually made righteous. The problem is that the term is never so used in the NT (Godet95-96). This was one of the great issues of contention of the Protestant Reformation. (see the YouTube video clip on Romans 1:17 by RC Sproul for an excellent summary)

Illustration of someone who was a recipient of this act of God: Abraham trusted God for salvation while he was in Ur as seen by the statement in Hebrews 11:8, “by faith Abraham, when he was called…obeyed…not knowing where he was going…” which refers to the account in Gen 12:1-4. It was not until later that God chose to proclaim his justification in conjunction with Abraham’s trusting God’s promise that he would have a son as recorded in ESV Genesis 15:5 And he brought him outside and said, "Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them." Then he said to him, "So shall your offspring be." 6 And he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousnessFurthermore, Paul alludes to this event, ESV Romans 4:9 “…For we say that faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness. So, becoming right with God is always accompanied by faith!


The sovereign God has chosen to make known this righteousness “Revealed” means to uncover or disclose (apokaluptw) – apocalypse = The book of Revelation.

This truth of right standing before God as a work of God rather than human endeavor is out of step with human thinking. Thus, it had to be “revealed”. This is new and drastic thinking for the human mind.

Thankfully this is an ongoing reality (present passive indicative). It is constantly happening.


The righteousness of God is fundamentally His salvation 17b (reminder: “the righteousness of God” includes both the action and result of God declaring people right with him; thus we could clarify by saying “… produced by God” here and following)


The righteousness of God has its greatest expression in the gospel

The “In it” that begins v 17is a reference to the gospel; note that the NIV translates; “For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed” Thus we may have the reason why the gospel is God’s power. The gospel is the vehicle which God uses to break the chains of sin and bring men unto Himself. The activity of God in justifying humans and their resultant state cannot be explained outside of the gospel (“in it” ἐν αὐτω).


The righteousness of God is closely allied with faith (“from faith to faith”)


The righteousness of God flows from faith. Ek + genitive of faith means out of, thus origin. The righteousness of God is never divorced from faith. Faith is the origin of justification (the righteousness of God). Perhaps this would be less confusing if we said faith is the basis of justification or clarified by saying that faith is the immediate source of justification understanding that god is the ultimate cause.


But also, the righteousness of God leads to faith. Eij + accusative of faith means into faith. A statement that justification leads to faith; that is that it leads to a strengthening faith over time. Both “out of” faith and “unto” faith. Or living out your faith as well as initial faith. (The last phrase shows this.) Being declared righteous, if genuine, is not static. It grows into an ever-increasing sanctifying faith as a way of life. So, we are justified out of faith resulting in faith!

A similar statement in NAU Romans 3:21 But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, 22 even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction.” So, the righteousness of God is through (dia) the channel of faith. And the righteousness of God is toward (eij) all believers. Every believer is declared righteous. Emphasis on all; cheer up!

Here is the deal. Three things are important when it comes to being right with God: faith, faith, faith!

In contrast, when it comes to the issue of how a person gets right with God, the Roman Catholic is unchanged.... It is Rome's own confession in "The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent" that justification and salvation depend also upon man's works and merits, and that they are anathema who preach justification by faith only. The Second Vatican Council of 1963-1965 reiterated Rome's doctrine that, in addition to Scripture, tradition is authoritative in the church ("Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation"). In the same "Constitution," this Council stated that "The task of authenticity interpreting the word of God…has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church," that is, to the Pope….” (prca.org/pamphlet by David Engelsma accessed 8/9/11


Faith animates righteous persons  (“the righteous man shall live by (ek) faith)


Righteous men “live by faith” is an allusion to NAU Habakkuk 2:4 "Behold, as for the proud one, His soul is not right within him; But the righteous will live by his faith.

The verb “shall live” (ζάω) could refer to spiritual life. However, it normally refers to daily life and thus so here (Friberg 12570).

Elsewhere, Paul uses the same quotation to argue that it is impossible to be justified by law keeping; ESV Galatians 3:11 “Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for "The righteous shall live by faith." (Compare Hebrews 2:4.)

So, a genuine believer, one who has been converted by the power of the gospel will go about daily life based on faith rather than works. Daily righteousness comes by faith. This is diametrically opposed to the Roman Catholic system of works righteousness from top to bottom.




Because you may be thinking that justification by faith alone is no longer an issue today I share my personal experience. Several years ago, I was part of a team that travelled to Italy for a short-term mission trip. As a bonus, we spent a couple of days in Rome under the tutelage of a veteran missionary.

Among other sites, we stopped at the Church of the Stairs; the very place where Martin Luther first became troubled about the question of how to be right with God. While there, we observed pilgrims climbing those stairs on their knees in hopes of gaining pardon for their sins and a quicker exit from Purgatory. It was both painful and sad to watch.

I went to the top and couldn’t help but notice the pitiful countenances of the pilgrims as they were helped up from their arduous climb. No joy, no hope, no confidence that it worked!

So, how is a man right in the eyes of God? The simple answer is, Sola Fide – by faith alone. 

© Copyright. Joseph Flatt. 2017. All rights reserved. May be used for educational purposes without written permission but with a citation to this source.