Verses 16 and 17 form the third section of the Introduction and they also introduce one of the very important themes of the epistle.
In 1:16 Paul states that he is not ashamed of the gospel “for it is the power of God for everyone who believes” There were reasons why one could possibly be ashamed of the gospel. In the Hellenistic world which emphasized wisdom or logos, the gospel was foolishness. Indeed, in 1 Corinthians 1:18 Paul writes, “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing…”
Today too, expressions, for example, about small-town people clinging to religion, disparage the gospel. In other words, it is the weak who seek the gospel for help while the tough have the backbone to face up all challenges.
No, the gospel is not weakness, Paul declares. “To us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18). The Greek word translated power is dunamis from which we get the word dynamite. Actually, in 1863, when the Swedish industrialist and engineer Alfred Nobel invented the Nobel patent detonator or blasting cap for detonating nitroglycerin, he coined the word dynamite from dunamis.
People in recovery are familiar with the power of addiction. They are familiar with the futile wars waged and resolutions made and even recovery program after another and without success. The gospel, on the other hand, is indeed the dynamite that one needs to blast any addiction.
Paul continues to state in verse 17 that in the gospel “the righteousness of God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith”
A couple of things to note here: First, the gospel, or the Good News, is a revelation of the righteousness of God. This is one kind of righteousness, and it is by faith. There is another kind of righteousness, and that is the righteousness of men (and women). This one is not by faith but by the works of the law.
The second point is the expression: “as it is written”. Where is it written? In this verse, it is from Habakkuk 2:4. Whether it is “as it is written” or “scripture says” or simply a quotation, Paul quotes extensively from the Old Testament. Scripture, in the New Testament, is the Old Testament.
There are as many as 105 references to the Old Testament in Romans and around 57 direct quotations. The question is why?
First, Paul was a former Pharisee. He was familiar with scriptures. Secondly, his audience was part Jewish and they would have been familiar with their scriptures. Third, it was for provenance. In 1:2 Paul stated that the gospel “was promised beforehand through the prophets in the holy scriptures”.
Finally, how should we understand “the righteous shall live by faith”? It means, those who are declared righteous – or credited with righteousness (since it cannot be earned), as we shall see shortly – respond to that righteousness by faith. It is important to stress here that righteousness comes first, before faith. Without this understanding, faith becomes just another work of the law.
This is why this verse (verse 17) was so important to the Reformers and became the rallying point – one of many – for the Reformation.