A Commentary on Romans — The Righteous Shall Live By Faith (1:16-17)

[For other essays in this commentary series, click this link.]

16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. 17 For 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 will live by faith.”

Not Ashamed of the Gospel

Verses 16-17 is the climax of Paul’s introduction, and serves as a thematic statement of the entire epistle. As James Edward notes, “These verses rise like a majestic summit of Paul’s gospel. This is not simply a high plateau of thought reflecting the terrain of what lies below, but a massif of bold and powerful words and ideas, each one like a shimmering peak.” [1]

Paul begins this section by stating emphatically that he is not ashamed (ἐπαισχύνομαι) of the gospel (v. 16a). Indeed, Paul was not ashamed of the fact that a carpenter from Nazareth was God’s chosen instrument of bringing salvation to the world. Particularly in Rome, it surely took immense courage to not be ashamed of such a proposition that seemed, on the face of it, to be an absurdity: that a crucified Jew, who had suffered a disgraceful death by crucifixion on the eastern fringe of the Roman empire, should be proclaimed as the saviour of mankind – indeed more than that, as God in human flesh. Indeed, as Paul writes in an earlier epistle, “For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men,” (1 Cor 1:21-25). As Bruce Bartin et al. comment, “Paul was not intimidated by the intellect of Greece nor the power of Rome. Paul was not ashamed, because he knew from experience that the gospel had the power to save everyone who believes and then to transform their lives.” [2] It may also be noted that verse 16 begins with γὰρ (“for”), thereby linking these verses with the preceding text, in which Paul has just expressed his eagerness to visit Rome, though he has hitherto been prevented from coming. William Hendriksen remarks, “Has the apostle perhaps delayed his coming to Rome because he was ashamed of meeting these highly educated individuals? His answer amounts to, ‘No, indeed!’ When he writes, ‘I am not ashamed,’ etc., he probably means, ‘I am proud and overjoyed to receive the opportunity to preach the gospel.’ And why should he not be eager to proclaim the message of salvation through Christ, the news concerning ‘Christ Crucified … the power of God and the wisdom of God’ (1 Cor. 1:23, 24)?” [3]

James Dunn observes that the Psalms frequently use the idea of shame to denote the idea of having acted on misplaced confidence or on a faulty assumption (c.f. Ps 35:26; 40:14-15; 69:19; 71:13; 119:6). [4] Paul also uses the idea of shame in this way elsewhere. For example, in Romans 5:5, he writes, “and hope does not put us to shame (καταισχύνει), because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” In Romans 9:33, likewise, Paul cites Isaiah 28:16: “as it is written, “Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense; and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame (καταισχυνθήσεται).” The word used for shame in these verses derives from the same root (αισχρος, meaning “shameful”) as ἐπαισχύνομαι, used in Romans 1:16. Paul’s meaning, then, most likely includes the idea of not being put to shame by the gospel, since when the gospel is preached, the gospel is efficacious for the salvation of everyone who believes, whether Jew or Gentile (v. 16b).

There is possibly an echo in Paul’s words of Jesus’ statement in Mark 8:38 and Luke 9:16 that “whoever is ashamed (ἐπαισχυνθῇ) of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” If this is so, then it may reflect an awareness on Paul’s part of the tradition of Jesus’ teaching. There is independent support that Paul was familiar with portions of Luke’s gospel, or at least source material underlying Luke’s gospel (1 Cor 11:24; 1 Tim 5:18). This is consistent with the author of Luke-Acts being a travelling companion of Paul, which also enjoys independent support.

The Jew First and Also to the Greek

Paul goes on to give the reason why he is 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,” (v. 16b). The idea of God’s power is a common concept in Paul’s writings (c.f. Rom 1:20; 9:17; 1 Cor 1:18, 24; 2:5; 6:14; 2 Cor 4:7; 67:13:4). Here, Paul evidently has in mind a force that produces a marked and transformative effect on those who receive the gospel. This power is especially manifested in conversion (1 Cor 2:4-5; 1 Thess 1:5), resurrection (1:4; 1 Cor 6:14; 15:43; 2 Cor 13:4; Phil 3:10), and spiritual growth and perseverance in the faith (1 Cor 1:18; 2 Cor 4:7; 6:7; 12:9; 13:4; Col 1:11, 29; 2 Thess 1:11). The power and efficacy of God’s word in producing the effects God intended is a theme throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. For example, God spoke through the prophet Isaiah, “so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it,” (Isa 55:11). Furthermore, the Psalmist writes, “He sent out his word and healed them, and delivered them from their destruction,” (Ps 107:20).

It is of note that Paul uses the present rather than the aorist tense: παντὶ τῷ πιστεύοντι, “to all who believe.” James Dunn remarks concerning this that “The significance presumably is that…he wishes to focus not solely on the initial act of faith but on faith as a continuing orientation and motivation for life.” [5] Indeed, “The significance presumably is that in such passages he wishes to focus not solely on the initial act of faith but on faith as a continuing orientation and motivation for life.” [6]

What does Paul mean by the expression, “to the Jew first and also to the Greek”? On initial inspection, this seems to be at odds with the universal nature of salvation that is expressed in the first part of the verse. Two main interpretive approaches for understanding this statement have been proposed. The first view, adopted by Robert Mounce, is that the phrase “to the Jew first and also to the Greek” alludes to the fact that “Historically God worked through his people Israel. They were first. Now the message goes out to everyone everywhere.” [7] Charles Hodge, who also takes this view, comments, “To render first here as “especially” would make the apostle teach that the Gospel was specially adapted to the Jews or specially designed for them. But he frequently asserts that this is not the case (3:9, 22, 29; 10:12). First, therefore, must refer to time: ‘To the Jew in the first instance, and then to the Gentile.’ Salvation, as our Saviour said to the woman of Samaria, is from the Jews. From them the Messiah came, to them the Gospel was first preached, and through them it was preached to the Gentiles. The apostle often, as in the present instance, says ‘Jews and Greeks’ for Jews and Gentiles, because the Greeks were the Gentiles with whom, at that period, the Jews were most familiar.” [8]

The second view suggests that verse 16 reflects the Jews’ privileged status in God’s salvific plan. Thomas Schreiner, for example, suggests that “When Paul says that the gospel is to the Jew πρῶτον, he may be reflecting on his missionary practice of using the synagogue as a starting point for the preaching of the gospel since his missionary practice was rooted in his theological conviction that the Jews were specially elected to be God’s people… The priority of the Jews was not merely a historical reality that had now lapsed for Paul. The place of the Jews in the outworking of salvation history was still crucial, and Paul attempts to work out this issue in chapters 9–11.” [9]

The Righteous Shall Live by Faith

Verse 17 concludes this section: “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’” The phrase “the righteousness of God” is a central theme throughout this epistle, and is a concept rooted in Old Testament promises. The “last days”, which the prophets spoke of as a time when God would intervene to procure the salvation of His people, were foretold to be a time when God’s righteousness would be revealed (c.f. Isa 46:13; 51:5-6, 8). The expression itself occurs eight times in Romans (Rom 1:17; 3:5, 21, 22, 25, 26; 10:3), though related phrases are utilized throughout the epistle. The precise meaning of this expression has been the subject of much scholarly discussion, which I cannot possibly do justice to in the present essay. For a review of the various arguments, I refer interested readers to Charles’ Cranfield’s remarks on this phrase, [10] as well as the helpful survey of the competing views in the Lexham Research Commentary on Romans. [11] In brief, though, the interpretations that have been offered of this expression can be classified into three categories: those that maintain that the “righteousness of God” is something that God does, those who maintain that it describes God’s attitude, and those who contend that it refers to an attribute of God (of course, those views are not mutually exclusive). The first view understands the phrase “the righteousness of God” to refer to the believer’s standing before God. William Hendriksen comments, “That this position is correct becomes clear when Paul is allowed to be his own interpreter. In Phil. 3:8, 9, in discussing the same subject, he writes, ‘… that I may gain Christ, and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own, legal righteousness, but that (which is) from God (and rests) on faith.’ It is clear then that also here in Rom. 1:17 the term in question should be rendered ‘righteousness from God,’ meaning that God, its Author, imputes this right standing to the sinner, who accepts it by faith. From start to finish this righteousness is sola fide; that is, by faith alone. This also explains the expression ‘from faith to faith.’ See Rom. 3:28. And even that faith is God’s gift. It is all a matter of sovereign grace, not of works.”  [12]

The second view is that the expression “the righteousness of God” alludes to God’s saving power. On this view, the phrase δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ is taken as a subjective genitive that describes “God’s upright being and of his upright activity, and not as a gen. of author or origin.” [13] James Dunn understands the “the righteousness of God” to be Paul’s “way of explicating ‘the power of God for salvation.’” [14] Furthermore, Dunn notes, “This understanding of Paul’s language largely removes two issues which have troubled Christian theology for centuries. (1) Is ‘the righteousness of God’ subjective genitive or objective genitive; is it an attitude of God or something he does? Seen as God’s meeting of the claims of his covenant relationship, the answer is not a strict either-or, but both-and, with the emphasis on the latter.” [15]

The third possibility is that the expression refers to an attribute of God. On this view, θεοῦ is probably a possessive genitive, meaning, “God’s own righteousness.” This may be taken to refer to God’s justice or his faithfulness, particularly to his covenant with Israel. Though the phrase in 3:5 and 3:25-26 is most often interpreted along those lines, a minority of scholars suggest that 1:17 can be understood in this way as well.

These alternatives are not mutually exclusive, and it is not necessary that we choose between them. Indeed, Douglas Moo notes, “In both the OT and in Paul, ‘the righteousness of God’ is a broad concept, embracing both the act of giving (on God’s part) and the status of those who receive the gift (on our part). God’s righteousness is revealed, then, as the gospel is preached and people respond to the message in faith. For in that moment, God acts to bring the sinner into a new ‘right’ relationship with himself.” [16]

From Faith for Faith

The expression ἐκ πίστεως εἰς πίστιν (“from faith for faith”) could be paraphrased, “By faith from first to last.” The idea here is that one may experience God’s righteousness by faith and only faith. Paul supports this with a quotation from Habakkuk 2:4: “The righteous shall live by faith.” Technically, the Hebrew word used here, אֱמוּנָת֥, means “faithfulness, trustworthiness, steadiness, entrusted, i.e., a state or condition of being dependable to a person or standard.” [17] In the original context, the Lord God is responding to the prophet’s complaint concerning the ongoing oppression of Judah. God contrasts the Chaldean invaders with Judah, whose deliverance conditional on their faithfulness to Yahweh. Thus, the upright man or woman of Judah will find life through fidelity to God. Some commentators interpret Paul to be using the Greek word πίστις in a similar sense. [18] Indeed, “faithfulness” is included in the range of meanings of πίστις, and it is sometimes translated this way, such as in Romans 3:3 and Galatians 5:22. Thomas Schreiner remarks that “it would be rash to conclude that Paul perverted the historical intention of Hab. 2:4. His emphasis is doubtless on faith, on trust in and reliance on God as the way to righteousness and life. The Pauline conception of faith, however, also involved obedience, as we have already seen in the phrase ὑπακοὴν πίστεως in verse 5. Authentic faith expresses itself in obedience and faithfulness. Thus a wedge should not be driven between Paul’s understanding of faith and Habakkuk’s emphasis on faithfulness.” [19] I am inclined to agree with this view. 

Objecting to this interpretation, Mark A. Seifrid comments that “in contrast with Jewish tradition…Paul does not understand ‘faith’ as a human quality or virtue. The context makes this clear. In proclamation (‘from faith’) God’s saving righteousness is revealed and thus effects faith (‘unto faith’ [1:17a]). The righteousness of the one who believes (1:17b) is found in the righteousness of God revealed in the gospel (1:17a). Furthermore, as a citation of Hab. 2:4, it is clear that ‘living by faith’ signifies ‘sharing in salvation,’ participating in the gospel, not merely the faithful living of an individual (or community).” [20] However, it is clear from a great many Scriptures, both within the Pauline corpus and elsewhere, that good work is a necessary expression of saving faith, though those good works are not meritorious for salvation, and indeed are wrought in us by the transformative power of the Holy Spirit. In like manner, one can understand salvation to be conditional upon the believer’s faithfulness and perseverance, though God fulfils this condition for all those who have truly been born again. This view makes sense of why so much of the New Testament, including within the Pauline corpus, uphold the idea of guaranteed perseverance of those who are born again as well as warning against apostasy. For example, Paul writes to the Colossians, “And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister,” (Col 1:21-23). Paul also writes to the Corinthians, “For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness,” (1 Cor 10:1-5). The affirmation of eternal security, together with an affirmation that salvation is conditional upon perseverance, is something also found in Hebrews, as we shall see, as I discuss in detail here. Paul appears to hold those two apparently conflicting ideas together. He writes of the gospel “by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you – unless you believed in vain,” (1 Cor 15:2). In other words, while salvation is indeed conditional upon perseverance in the faith, a true believer will not fail to persevere. Of course, this raises a question about the purpose of the warning passages against apostasy: Why does one need to be warned if there is no danger of falling away? For a detailed discussion, I refer readers to this essay where I attempt to answer this question.


Romans 1:16-17 encapsulate the thesis of Paul’s entire treatise – the gospel of Jesus Christ – which will be further expounded and elaborated upon in the chapters that follow. Paul is never put to shame by the gospel, since when it is preached, people are saved. This is why he has been so eager to preach the gospel in Rome. Salvation begins with the Jew first, in view of their privileged position of possessing the law, prophetic promises, and Messianic lineage. The gospel was also preached first to the Jew, and then to the gentile. The righteousness of God is obtained through from beginning to end, and salvific faith is necessarily accompanied by faithful allegiance to God.


[1] James R. Edwards, Romans, Understanding the Bible Commentary Series (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2011), 39.

[2] Bruce Barton et al., Life Application New Testament Commentary (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 2001), 581.

[3] William Hendriksen and Simon J. Kistemaker, Exposition of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, vol. 12–13, New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1953–2001), 58–59.

[4] James D. G. Dunn, Romans 1–8, vol. 38A, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1988), 38.

[5] Ibid., 40.

[6] Ibid., 40.

[7] Robert H. Mounce, Romans, vol. 27, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1995), 71.

[8] Charles Hodge, Romans, Crossway Classic Commentaries (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1993), Ro 1:16.

[9] Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans, vol. 6, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1998), 62.

[10] C. E. B. Cranfield, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, International Critical Commentary (London; New York: T&T Clark International, 2004), 91–99.

[11] Derek R. Brown and E. Tod Twist, Romans, ed. Douglas Mangum, Lexham Research Commentaries (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2014), Ro 1:1–17.

[12] William Hendriksen and Simon J. Kistemaker, Exposition of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, vol. 12–13, New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1953–2001), 62–63.

[13] Joseph A. Fitzmyer S.J., Romans: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, vol. 33, Anchor Yale Bible (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2008), 257.

[14] James D. G. Dunn, Romans 1–8, vol. 38A, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1988), 41.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Douglas J. Moo, “Romans,” in New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition, ed. D. A. Carson et al., 4th ed. (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994), 1121.

[17] James Swanson, Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains: Hebrew (Old Testament) (Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997).

[18] Joseph A. Fitzmyer S.J., Romans: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, vol. 33, Anchor Yale Bible (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2008), 264–265.

[19] Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans, vol. 6, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1998), 75.

[20] Mark A. Seifrid, “Romans,” in Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI;  Nottingham, UK: Baker Academic;  Apollos, 2007), 609.