NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER ONE (Part XVI)
Now we look at the context in which this message of the “Just” living by faith was delivered. In Habakkuk, this phrase is used at the end of God’s answer to Habakkuk’s complaint about those things that were going on in Israel in contrast to what was going on with Israel’s enemies. God says: “Write down what I will show you. Write it clearly on a sign so that the message will be easy to read by a runner. This message is about a special time in the future. This message is about the end, and it will come true. Just be patient and wait for it. That time will come; it will not be late.”1 Then God tells Habakkuk: “This message cannot help those who refuse to listen to it, but those who are good [the Just] will live because they believe it.”2
So, in what context does Paul use this phrase? Paul had just written: “I am proud of the Gospel because it is the power God uses to save everyone who believes—to save the Jews first, and now to save those who are not Jews. The Gospel shows how God makes people right with Himself. God’s way of making people right begins and ends with faith.” In other words, the end times that were spoken of in Habakkuk had now come. Therefore, says Paul, “The one who is right with God [the Just] will by faith live forever.”3
Paul repeats this same phrase in his letter to the Galatians. There, he is talking about how the Jews expect to be saved by works instead of grace. He writes: “People who depend on following the law to make them right are under a curse. As the Scriptures say, ‘They must do everything that is written in the law. If they do not always obey, they are under a curse.’4 So it is clear that no one can be made right with God by the law. The Scriptures say, ‘The one who is right with God [the Just]will by faith live forever.’5”6 So again, Paul states that remaining true to one’s confession of faith in Christ as Savior will be the power that guarantees eternal life.
Finally, this phrase is repeated in the Message to the Hebrews. This gives us even more reason to believe that Paul wrote this message to scattered Jews who had become followers of Christ. There, he is speaking about keeping one’s courage and patience in their struggle while living under persecution and suffering. He writes: “Don’t lose the courage that you had in the past. Your courage will be rewarded richly. You must be patient. After you have done what God wants, you will get what He promised you. He says, ‘Very soon now, the one who is coming will come and will not be late. The person who is right with me [the Just] will live by trusting in me. But I will not be pleased with the one who turns back in fear.’7”8 So, from the first mention to the last the context reveals that every believer must stick to their confession, conviction, and crusade of living for Christ in this world no matter what the cost.
Early church bishop Theodoret has an interesting commentary on this verse: “The righteousness of God is not revealed to everyone but only to those with the eyes of faith. For the holy apostle teaches us that God foresaw this for us from the beginning and predicted it through the prophets, and even before the prophets, had it hidden in His secret will. Paul quoted Habakkuk for the benefit of the Jews because he wanted to teach them not to cling to the provisions of the law but to follow the prophets. For many centuries before they had predicted that one day there would be salvation by faith alone. Then departing from his admonition to the Jews, he accuses everyone else of having brazenly departed from the natural law which the Creator had placed in them. For when God made them, He did not allow them to live like beasts but honored them with reason and gave them the ability to know the difference between good and evil. Those who lived righteous lives before the time of Moses confirm this by their witness.”9
On this same subject, Martin Luther speaks to a problem in his day on how the church understood and taught the imparting of righteousness: “God’s righteousness is that by which we become worthy of His great salvation, or through which alone we are righteous before Him. Human teachers set forth and inculcate the righteousness of men, that is, who is righteous, or how a person becomes righteous. Both in his own eyes and those of others. Only the Gospel reveals the righteousness of God, that is, who is righteous or how a person become righteous before God, namely, alone by faith, which trusts the Word of God.”10
In light of what Luther says, think of this illustration: Imagine a towering mountain, like Mt. Everest, and let’s call it Mt. Righteousness. From the beginning, people tried to climb this mountain because it was said that whosoever reached the top would find the fountain of everlasting life. Yet, no one, not one, was able to make it to the top. Then comes a man sent from God who is able to make it to the top. Not only that, but He clearly marks the path for others to follow. Yet, they insist on doing it their way, following their own path, so that they will owe nothing to Him for their success. Such is the case with the righteousness of God. Only Christ was able to achieve it, and only by following His path can anyone reach that pinnacle. There is no other way.
John Calvin speaks about the righteousness of God by saying: “Now this righteousness, which is the groundwork of our salvation, is revealed in the gospel: hence the gospel is said to be the power of God unto salvation. Thus he reasons from the cause to the effect. Notice further, how extraordinary and valuable a treasure God bestows on us through the gospel, even the communication of His own righteousness. I take the righteousness of God to mean, that which is approved before His tribunal; as that, on the contrary, is usually called the righteousness of men, which is by men counted and supposed to be righteousness, though it be only vapor. Paul, however, I doubt not, alludes to the many prophecies in which the Spirit makes known everywhere the righteousness of God in the future kingdom of Christ.”11
John Bengel (1687-1752), the father of modern biblical scholarship, has much to say about this subject of the righteousness of God and man. In Bengel’s mind, God’s righteousness is how He acts and what He does through grace and mercy to justify His saving the sinner while He is clearly condemning the sin in their lives. This then is what is called, “justification.” Therefore, any righteousness a believer may have is a derivative of God’s righteousness, by which a person (through the gift of God, See Matthew 6:33) becomes righteous and lives righteously. And laying hold of that righteousness is done by receiving and accepting Jesus Christ, through faith, as their Lord and Savior (see Romans 3:21-22). So it is not man who originated and designed righteousness, it is God who reveals and bestows it, approves and crowns it (See 2 Peter 1:1) on those He calls and chooses. This then makes it easier to see the difference between God’s righteousness and man’s righteousness.12
Bible scholar and teacher H. A. Ironside gives us this to think about: “This gospel had been demonstratively proven to be the divine dynamic bringing deliverance to all who put faith in it, whether the religious Jew or the cultured Greek. It was the power of God and the wisdom of God unto salvation. It met every need of the mind, the conscience, and the heart of man, for in it the righteousness of God was revealed faith-wise. This I take to be the real meaning of the somewhat difficult expression translated ‘from faith to faith.’ It is really ‘out of faith unto faith.’ That is, on the principle of faith to those who have faith. In other words, it is not a doctrine of salvation by works, but a proclamation of salvation entirely on the faith principle. This had been declared to Habakkuk long centuries before when God said to the troubled prophet, ‘The just shall live by faith‘.”13
Charles Hodge has much to say on the subject of being right with of God, but here is a part of what he says: “The reason why the gospel has the effectiveness ascribed to it in the preceding verse, is not because of its pure morality, or because it reveals and confirms a future state of retribution, but because the righteousness of God is therein revealed. As this is one of those expressions which are employed to convey ideas peculiar to the gospel, its meaning is to be learned not merely from the signification of the words, but from parallel passages, and from the explanations given in the gospel itself of the whole subject to which it relates. That ‘justice’ cannot here be understood of a divine attribute, such as rectitude, justice, goodness, or veracity, is obvious, because it is a ‘righteousness which is by faith’, i.e., attained by faith, of which the apostle speaks. Besides, it is elsewhere said to be without law,14 to be a gift,15 not to be our own,16 to be from God.17 These and similar forms of expression are inconsistent with the assumption that the apostle is speaking of a divine attribute. The righteousness of God, therefore, must mean either the righteousness of which God is the author, or which he approves.”18
Adam Clarke also has a very interesting comment on the term “righteousness.” He writes: “There are few words in the sacred writings which are taken in a greater variety of acceptations than the word ‘tsedakah‘ in Hebrew, and ‘dikaiosynē’ in Greek, both of which we generally translate as ‘righteousness.’ Our English word was originally ‘rightwiseness,’ from the Anglo-Saxon justice, right, and to know; and thus the righteous man was a person who was allowed to understand the claims of justice and right, and who, knowing them, acted according to their dictates. Such a man is thoroughly wise; he aims at the attainment of the best end by the use of the best means. This is a true definition of wisdom, and the righteous man is he that knows most and acts best. The Hebrew ‘tsadak,’ in its ideal meaning, contains the notion of a beam or scales in equipoise, what we call ‘even balance;’ and it is well-known that in all the personifications of Justice, both ancient and modern, she is represented as a beautiful female with a bandage on her eyes, and a beam and scales in her hand, so perfectly poised that neither end preponderates. The Greek word ‘dikaiosynē’ has been derived from ‘dikazo’ to divide; and hence justice because it is the property of this virtue to divide to each his due… Both the noun ‘dikaiosynē’ and the verb ‘dikaioō’ (justify), have a great variety of meaning in the New Testament; but they are all reducible to this original idea, acting according to the requisitions of justice or right.”19
1 Ibid. 2:2-3
2 Ibid. 2:4
3 Romans 1:17
4 Genesis 15:6
5 Habakkuk 2:4
6 Galatians 3:10-11
7 Habakkuk 2:3-4
8 Hebrews 10:35-38
9 Theodoret of Cyr: Interpretation of Romans, loc. cit.
10 Martin Luther: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., pp. 40-41
11 John Calvin: On Romans, loc. cit.
12 John Bengel, op. cit., loc. cit., pp. 212-213
13 Harry A. Ironside: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
14 Romans 3:21
15 Ibid. 5:17
16 Ibid. 10:3
17 Philippians 3:9
18 Charles Hodge: On Romans, loc. cit.
19 Adam Clarke: On Romans, loc. cit.