Exposition of Romans 1:17, The righteous-by-faith will live

The Bible reveals some awesome scenes, but none more remarkable than the circumstances of the final judgment. On that day there will be no cell phones, no career, no sporting events, no meals to fix, no homework to do, no war to wage, and no decisions to make. Instead, the Apostle John tells us, Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. From his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them (Rev. 20:11).

The only thing that remains is the one on the throne and all of humankind from all the ages standing before him. The Judge is ready to make his final decisions.

On that awesome day only one thing will matter: do you have the righteousness of God or not?

(NET) Romans 1:17

For the righteousness of God is revealed in the gospel from faith to faith, just as it is written, The righteous by faith will live.

In the estimation of most scholars, Romans 1:16-17 contains the theme of Romans.[1] However, within these two verses the focus may shine on different points. I agree with Douglas Moos view that the gospel is the only theme broad enough to embrace the diversity of the entire letter (page 29), but notable scholars believe that justification by faith is the theme of the letter. The second view certainly looks attractive in chapters 1-4, where faith occurs 25 times and the justify-righteousness family of words occurs 23 times. But Romans has sixteen chapters, not four.

But, there is no necessity to pick a horse in the thematic race by eliminating one of the prospects. Instead, we will find Pauls meaning verse by verse. For those of you who assembled models at some point in your life, we will follow the same approach in unlocking the meaning of this profound verse.

“the righteousness of God”

The first phrase — “the righteousness of God” — presents issues typical of Romans. That little word “of” can mean so many things! Of course, the difficulty actually goes back to the underlying Greek text. The Greek text has the phrase dikaiosune [righteousness] . . . theou [of God], where the final word is in the genitive case. Since the genitive is a descriptive or limiting case as to kind[2], we are roughly speaking here about a God-kind-of-righteousness. If that sounds weird, think how it contrasts with a man-kind-of-righteousness such as that practiced by the Pharisaic Jews, who were zealous about keeping the law and their Pharisaic vows.

How exactly does God relate to this righteousness? And what does this righteousness have to do with us? Moo gets to the point: “For Paul, as in the OT, righteousness of God is a relational concept. . . . We can define it as the act by which God brings people into right relationship with himself.”[3] The beauty of this definition is that it combines the saving action of God with the resulting status we have in his sight. Through faith in Jesus Christ, we are acquitted before God by his saving action. In other words, through faith in Jesus Christ, we receive the righteousness of God.

“is revealed in the gospel”

The gospel unveils something that humankind had never imagined —the way for people to attain a God-wrought salvation. The verb (“is revealed”) is present tense — suggesting that the revelation is ongoing. The verb is expressed in passive voice — suggesting that God is the one doing the revealing. C.E.B. Cranfield says, “The choice of the verb [is revealed] underlines the fact that, though the gospel is proclaimed by human lips, the revelation of [the righteousness of God] in the proclamation is Gods doing.”[4]

“from faith to faith”

This phrase has been discussed for centuries, but Moo once again sends us on the right path: “The combination is rhetorical and is intended to emphasize that faith and nothing but faith can put us into right relationship with God.”[5]

“The righteous by faith will live”

The easiest way to understand this clause is to translate it with hyphens: “The righteous-by-faith will live.” We will consider several translations of Romans 1:17 below:

NLT: This Good News tells us how God makes us right in his sight. This is accomplished from start to finish by faith. As the Scriptures say, It is through faith that a righteous person has life.

NET: For the righteousness of God is revealed in the gospel from faith to faith, just as it is written, The righteous by faith will live.

ESV: For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, The righteous shall live by faith.

Here is the problem: in Greek word order, the final clause says, “the righteous by faith will live.” The key question is whether the italicized phrase modifies the righteous or alternatively modifies will live. Moo correctly prefers the former choice: “Of greatest significance is the way Paul in Rom. 1-8 consistently links faith with righteousness (cf. the summary in 5:1) and shows how life is the product of that righteousness (cf. 5:18 and 8:10). These connections favor the translation the one who is righteous by faith will live.”[6]

If you study the English versions carefully, you will see that NET and NLT agree with Moo that by faith modifies the righteous, while ESV prefers the idea that by faith modifies will live.

Romans 1:17 provides an excellent illustration of how translation approaches differ. Because Romans 1:17 contains some rare and idiomatic phrases, it offers the opportunity for a more interpretive translation like the NLT to shine, and NLT does shine here. NET is somewhat more conservative than NLT in its approach; notice that NET leaves the final Greek verb as a verb when it translates it as “will live,” but NLT makes the Greek verb into a noun “has life.” Similarly, note the interpretive Good News (NLT) in comparison to the more cautious gospel (NET) or the grammatically correct it (ESV). ESV strives to be scrupulously neutral, sometimes succeeding, whereas NLT risks misinterpretation to produce clarity, and NET is somewhere in between.

But all of these translations share a single purpose: to help us accept and enjoy the righteousness of God that comes through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ!

The issue on the last day

There have been many who initially set out to find a righteousness of their own but then got lost in the endless maze of diversionary human experiences.

1. Since God and all humankind are the only entities present at the final judgment, how important is your car, your education or your luncheon at the club? What do you want for your children on that day?

2. Preparation for the final judgment is so simple. John 3:16 says, For this is the way God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. (NET). How have you personally prepared for the final day?

Of course, this world offers the opportunity to make the wrong decision too. In 1995, Timothy McVeigh bombed the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City killing 168 people. His final statement before execution consisted of the poem “Invictus” (Latin for “Unconquered”) by a British poet. The last stanza says:

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

Timothy McVeigh now knows that he was mistaken about that. What about you?

Copyright 2012 by Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from materials developed for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.

[1] Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1996) 64.

[2] Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996) 76-77.

[3] Moo, Romans, 74.

[4] C.E.B. Cranfield, The Epistle to the Romans, The International Critical Commentary (Edinburgh: T.&T. Clark Limited, 1975) 92.

[5] Moo, Romans, 76.

[6] Moo, Romans, 78.