Saint Paul says that he is obligated both to Greeks and non-Greeks. “Obligated” means that he owes them a debt. To whom did Paul owe this debt? To both “Greeks and non-Greeks” means those who are not Greeks. The word is literally “barbarians,” those whose words seems like babbling to the Greeks. The Greeks considered anybody besides them a strange babbler, even Jews. So Paul is saying that he owes an obligation to everyone.
What is this debt that he owes? Regarding his debt he says, “That is why I am so eager to preach the gospel also to you who are in Rome.” So the debt is preaching.
A preacher has a duty to preach. He cannot decide that he will not preach and that his work is in other tasks.
If he is frustrated in his preaching work, he cannot say, “There is no use preaching because these people are foolish and won’t listen!” Paul says he is obligated to preach to both wise and unwise. Those who hear and appreciate the gospel need it no more and no less than a foolish person without faith, or a foolish person who has faith but does not understand preaching. Besides, a wise person always has something to learn from the Word, and so eagerly receives it. To all, the preacher flings out the Word, as a sower scatters seed on every kind of soil he can find.
We leave the results to God. He will work His wisdom in those who hear when and where He chooses. Meanwhile, the preacher’s words must be both sweet and bitter to him. He loves the Word, and therefore the preaching of the gospel is sweet to the tongue, like honey. Yet when it is rejected, the words become bitter to him, since he wishes that all would hear and find wisdom. Yet, in spite of the bitterness he may taste on his tongue, he must continue using that tongue to preach. He is obligated.
So a preacher must not be ashamed of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Paul was not ashamed of it. He would suffer many things for the sake of this gospel. He would be stoned, shipwrecked, scourged with whips, put on trial, and eventually killed. We have not suffered so much for the gospel, nor likely will. So why should we, who suffer so little, be ashamed of it?
The gospel is our glory, not our shame. In the gospel, we are declared righteous in God’s sight. We are saved from sin, satan, death, and hell. For it is not any old gospel, some good news that is not rooted in hard reality, like an optimistic pithy cliché that someone throws at you when you are in distress. No, the gospel is rooted in Christ our Lord. It is His gospel, because it is the good news that He has done all for us. He lived righteously, and He suffered punishment He did not deserve, and died the death we deserved. He rose to show that God had vindicated Him as His true, eternal Son, and to show that we, also, have resurrection as a sure and certain promise. In these realities, Christ has earned for us salvation.
Yet it is received by faith. The gospel is powerful, indeed, it is the very power of God for salvation. But it is not received by those who do not believe. To believe does not mean that you must make a conscious effort of will, or make a decision to give yourself to Christ, or something like that. No, to have faith means that you trust in the promises of God. He has promised that in Christ you have salvation. If you trust that promise, then you have faith.
In that simple act of believing, you receive all the gifts of Christ that He has earned.
Even this little bit of faith is impossible to sinners. Yet the Holy Spirit gives faith as a free gift. So we receive all things from God’s grace. None of it is our action. That’s what makes this gospel so sweet and wonderful. That is why there can never be a good reason to be ashamed of it. God has done all for you, and will complete all His promises on the last day. None of it can be earned or worked for. So He did all the earning and all the work.
We rest secure in this free gospel. Yet we do not rest and do nothing. Although our conscience is at peace in Christ, yet we work very hard in this life. We live by faith in the sense that our lives are filled with the hard work of sanctification. The Holy Spirit is constantly prodding and pushing and enticing us to do good works and to resist the bad. So we will be active and busy as Christians at the same time that we are free and need do nothing, since salvation is freely ours.
Yet the fullest sense of the words, “The just shall live by faith,” is that you are alive by faith. You are just, that is, justified by grace, through faith, on account of Christ. When, in faith, you first received His benefits, you became alive. Where once you were dead, you were raised to new life. It is not that faith is a magical power that makes you alive, as if you could believe in anything at all. No, you specifically believed in Christ our dear Lord, the crucified and risen One. From Him, life came to you. Faith was simply the way you received His gifts.
So the righteousness is “from faith to faith,” as Paul literally says. Our translation says, “by faith from first to last.” This is a bit of a mysterious phrase from Paul. Perhaps it means that there is no salvation apart from faith, so that faith begins you in the new life, and faith continues with you to preserve you until the resurrection and eternity. Or perhaps it means that the faith, or faithfulness, of Christ is what purchased the salvation of God, and the faith in you receives the benefits. Or perhaps it means something else. In any case, we know that faith is central to salvation. There is no separating faith from salvation. We should imagine no righteousness of God that comes from Christ to eternal life that does not involve faith.
There is no mention here of our good works. Good works should not be involved in any way with earning eternal life. Our old Adam would love to insert good works somewhere in the equation, perhaps in a subtle way, just so long as there is some sense of our work getting us salvation.
But let us stifle such thoughts from our sinful nature. Instead, let us cling to Christ alone. He is our glory and righteousness. He is our salvation. His gospel is the power of God in our midst, for we trust alone in His spoken grace. Salvation comes from nowhere else.
In His Name and to His glory alone. Amen.
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