Paul here enters upon a large discourse of justification, in the latter part of this chapter laying down his thesis, and, in order to the proof of it, describing the deplorable condition of the Gentile world. His transition is very handsome, and like an orator: he was ready to preach the gospel at Rome, though a place where the gospel was run down by those that called themselves the wits; for, saith he, I am not ashamed of it, Rom. 1:16. There is a great deal in the gospel which such a man as Paul might be tempted to be ashamed of, especially that he whose gospel it is was a man hanged upon a tree, that the doctrine of it was plain, had little in it to set it off among scholars, the professors of it were mean and despised, and every where spoken against; yet Paul was not ashamed to own it. I reckon him a Christian indeed that is neither ashamed of the gospel nor a shame to it. The reason of this bold profession, taken from the nature and excellency of the gospel, introduces his dissertation.
I. The proposition, Rom. 1:16, 17. The excellency of the gospel lies in this, that it reveals to us,
1. The salvation of believers as the end: It is the power of God unto salvation. Paul is not ashamed of the gospel, how mean and contemptible soever it may appear to a carnal eye; for the power of God works by it the salvation of all that believe; it shows us the way of salvation (Acts 16:17), and is the great charter by which salvation is conveyed and made over to us. But, (1.) It is through the power of God; without that power the gospel is but a dead letter; the revelation of the gospel is the revelation of the arm of the Lord (Isa. 53:1), as power went along with the word of Christ to heal diseases. (2.) It is to those, and those only, that believe. Believing interests us in the gospel salvation; to others it is hidden. The medicine prepared will not cure the patient if it be not taken.—To the Jew first. The lost sheep of the house of Israel had the first offer made them, both by Christ and his apostles. You first (Acts 3:26), but upon their refusal the apostles turned to the Gentiles, Acts 13:46. Jews and Gentiles now stand upon the same level, both equally miserable without a Saviour, and both equally welcome to the Saviour, Col. 3:11. Such doctrine as this was surprising to the Jews, who had hitherto been the peculiar people, and had looked with scorn upon the Gentile world; but the long-expected Messiah proves a light to enlighten the Gentiles, as well as the glory of his people Israel.
2. The justification of believers as the way (Rom. 1:17): For therein, that is, in this gospel, which Paul so much triumphs in, is the righteousness of God revealed. Our misery and ruin being the product and consequent of our iniquity, that which will show us the way of salvation must needs show us the way of justification, and this the gospel does. The gospel makes known a righteousness. While God is a just and holy God, and we are guilty sinners, it is necessary we should have a righteousness wherein to appear before him; and, blessed be God, there is such a righteousness brought in by Messiah the prince (Dan. 9:24) and revealed in the gospel; a righteousness, that is, a gracious method of reconciliation and acceptance, notwithstanding the guilt of our sins. This evangelical righteousness, (1.) Isa. called the righteousness of God; it is of God’s appointing, of God’s approving and accepting. It is so called to cut off all pretensions to a righteousness resulting from the merit of our own works. It is the righteousness of Christ, who is God, resulting from a satisfaction of infinite value. (2.) It is said to be from faith to faith, from the faithfulness of God revealing to the faith of man receiving (so some); from the faith of dependence upon God, and dealing with him immediately, as Adam before the fall, to the faith of dependence upon a Mediator, and so dealing with God (so others); from the first faith, by which we are put into a justified state, to after faith, by which we live, and are continued in that state: and the faith that justifies us is no less than our taking Christ for our Saviour, and becoming true Christians, according to the tenour of the baptismal covenant; from faith engrafting us into Christ, to faith deriving virtue from him as our root: both implied in the next words, The just shall live by faith. Just by faith, there is faith justifying us; live by faith, there is faith maintaining us; and so there is a righteousness from faith to faith. Faith is all in all, both in the beginning and progress of a Christian life. It is not from faith to works, as if faith put us into a justified state, and then works preserved and maintained us in it, but it is all along from faith to faith, as 2 Cor. 3:18; from glory to glory; it is increasing, continuing, persevering faith, faith pressing forward, and getting ground of unbelief. To show that this is no novel upstart doctrine, he quotes for it that famous scripture in the Old Testament, so often mentioned in the New (Hab. 2:4): The just shall live by faith. Being justified by faith he shall live by it both the life of grace and of glory. The prophet there had placed himself upon the watch-tower, expecting some extraordinary discoveries (Rom. 1:1), and the discovery was of the certainty of the appearance of the promised Messiah in the fulness of time, not withstanding seeming delays. This is there called the vision, by way of eminence, as elsewhere the promise; and while that time is coming, as well as when it has come, the just shall live by faith. Thus is the evangelical righteousness from faith to faith—from Old-Testament faith in a Christ to come to New-Testament faith in a Christ already come.
II. The proof of this proposition, that both Jews and Gentiles stand in need of a righteousness wherein to appear before God, and that neither the one nor the other have nay of their own to plead. Justification must be either by faith or works. It cannot be by works, which he proves at large by describing the works both of Jews and Gentiles; and therefore he concludes it must be by faith, Rom. 3:20, 28. The apostle, like a skilful surgeon, before he applies the plaster, searches the wound—endeavours first to convince of guilt and wrath, and then to show the way of salvation. This makes the gospel the more welcome. We must first see the righteousness of God condemning, and then the righteousness of God justifying will appear worthy of all acceptation. In general (Rom. 1:18), the wrath of God is revealed. The light of nature and the light of the law reveal the wrath of God from sin to sin. It is well for us that the gospel reveals the justifying righteousness of God from faith to faith. The antithesis is observable. Here is,
1. The sinfulness of man described; he reduceth it to two heads, ungodliness and unrighteousness; ungodliness against the laws of the first table, unrighteousness against those of the second.
2. The cause of that sinfulness, and that is, holding the truth in unrighteousness. Some communes notitae, some ideas they had of the being of God, and of the difference of good and evil; but they held them in unrighteousness, that is, they knew and professed them in a consistency with their wicked courses. They held the truth as a captive or prisoner, that it should not influence them, as otherwise it would. An unrighteous wicked heart is the dungeon in which many a good truth is detained and buried. Holding fast the form of sound words in faith and love is the root of all religion (2 Tim. 1:13), but holding it fast in unrighteousness is the root of all sin.
3. The displeasure of God against it: The wrath of God is revealed from heaven; not only in the written word, which is given by inspiration of God (the Gentiles had not that), but in the providences of God, his judgments executed upon sinners, which do not spring out of the dust, or fall out by chance, nor are they to be ascribed to second causes, but they are a revelation from heaven. Or wrath from heaven is revealed; it is not the wrath of a man like ourselves, but wrath from heaven, therefore the more terrible and the more unavoidable.