Today we begin Romans (1:1-3:20), one of my favorite books in the Bible. Paul has not yet met the believers in Rome but writes this letter in anticipation of a future visit. In it, we are given deep insights into the gospel of Jesus Christ. If you have questions about the gospel, this is the book to read.
The theme of Romans is the righteousness that comes from God: “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. 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.’” (1:16-17)
What is righteousness? I once watched a movie in which a man was falsely accused of a crime. He escaped from jail so he could prove his innocence. At the end of the movie, as he descended the courthouse steps after being exonerated, he commented that it felt so good that he had finally been “made righteous.” In a legal sense, he was now free from condemnation and declared innocent. But his comment illustrates our human condition. We are born with a need to be validated. We seek it in many ways (education, success, possessions, position, power, influence) but at its core, we want the world to know we are enough, that we measure up. We need to know we are righteous.
Every religion in the world except the gospel has something in common. They all tell us what we must DO in order to achieve “righteousness.” Whether it’s a prescribed list of rules to follow to please a deity or achieving a level of self-awareness (our higher self) or spiritual nirvana, all religions are works-based efforts to reveal our own righteousness. In contrast, the gospel of Jesus reveals the righteousness of God, and that we will only ever be righteous by faith, as a gift from God. We can never earn it or achieve it. That’s why the gospel is hated and rejected: it reveals our unrighteousness, the very thing we fight so hard to hide and deny.
Paul illustrates man’s unrighteousness in 1:18-32 as he describes the downward spiral of the depravity of the human heart. It starts as man rejects what is plainly revealed about God in creation. Our world is too complex, too beautiful, too ordered, to exist by chance. God’s intentional design is obvious to everyone. Rejecting God as Creator leads to the worship of the work of our hands, which leads to humanism, which leads to impurity and immorality as the sinful desires of our hearts are exposed. Immorality leads to unnatural passions, which opens the door to unchecked depravity. A quick review of America’s history follows this path exactly.
The good news is found in the gospel. Righteousness is attainable, but it is God’s righteousness, and it is a gift. The gospel is the “power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” Every other god (including yourself) will fail you by leading you to believe you can achieve righteousness. Jesus is the only One who fulfills that promise because He did it for us.