A Freedom We Did Not Deserve – Romans 1:17
By: Alistair Brown
In Les Miserables, by Victor Hugo, Jean Valjean finds himself starving and without help. He has been released on parole after nineteen years as a prisoner for stealing bread and attempting to escape. But no one will give any comfort or support to a former prisoner.
In the city of Digne, Bishop Myriel takes in Valjean and shows him great kindness. But Valjean steals silver items from the Bishop and runs off in the night. He is caught by the police and taken back to Bishop Myriel so he will confirm the silverware was stolen. Instead the Bishop insists they were a gift to Valjean, and he makes Valjean take two silver candlesticks as well, saying surely he must have left them behind. The police go away and leave a stunned Valjean overcome that someone should give him freedom he did not deserve.
A freedom we did not deserve is exactly what Paul describes in Romans 1:17.
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.”
Many commentators on this verse get very detailed in their analysis. But there are two core messages Paul writes here, both of them about God.
1. The God who makes us right with himself.
I have memories from childhood of walking into the house after tramping through wet and dirty fields, my mother taking one look at my muddy boots, and shouting: “Stop – no further – you cannot come into my clean kitchen like that.” And I dared not take one step more until I was cleaned up.
Other than being a trivial example, that is not wholly unlike the situation Paul has in mind when he writes Romans 1:17, except he’s thinking about coming close to God.
Here is the biblical background in Paul’s mind. God is holy, but we are not. Our lives are not pure, not blameless, not righteous, and a sinful person would be destroyed in the presence of a sinless God. That’s why Moses hid himself in a cleft in the rock when God went past beside him (Ex. 33:19-23). Isaiah saw God seated on his throne and heard the angels singing “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty,” but Isaiah didn’t rejoice. “’Woe to me!’ I cried. ‘I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty’” (Is. 6:1-5).
These men had serious fear. Unholy people die in the presence of a holy God. Unless, that is, their sins are taken away.
But as a seven year old standing at the back door to the house, I had a problem: I was dirty from head to foot. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t clean myself up. My feet were caked in mud, so even one step would mess up the floor. My clothes were covered in mud, and I could not have taken off my coat or a sweater without spreading the mess. My hands were muddy at least up to my elbows, so even turning a door handle would also add to the mess. Anything I did would only spread the dirt more, so I could do nothing to clean myself. In the end my mother rescued me. If she hadn’t, I might have spent the rest of my childhood standing at the door to the kitchen.
So when it comes to our sinfulness and God, how do we put ourselves right with him? Do we plead that we tried hard not to go wrong? Do we argue that we did ten virtuous things each day for the last year? Do we prove we’ve been to church at least fifty out of fifty-two Sundays each year for the last decade? Do we make promises to live better in the future?
The instinct in all of us is to try several things like these in hope that at least one of them might work. We have to do something. The old saying is that the Lord helps those who help themselves. So how can we save ourselves? How can we make ourselves righteous?
The answer is ‘we can’t.’ Like me as a muddy seven year old who would only go on contaminating things whatever he did, we are in no position to save ourselves. We can’t remove what has gone wrong in our past. We can’t make our lives perfect now. We can’t keep new year resolutions for two days never mind the rest of our lives. We can’t save ourselves; we need someone else who will save us.
God is that someone else. He comes right alongside, cleans up our lives, forgives every sin, pours the power of his Spirit into our lives, and gives eternal life as his gift. And he has done all that and more through Jesus, his Son.
That is why Paul writes in Romans 1:17 that “in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed.” God has acted rightly, justly, mercifully. The gospel is not about extended time or a second chance for us. It’s about the righteousness of God, a phrase which describes God’s own nature and also describes what he has given to us.
That’s it. God gave his Son into this world and to death on the cross for our sin so that we could be set free and live for God. What we could not do for ourselves, God has done. And the result is that we have been made righteous. He has cleaned up our lives, and not just on the outside. We have a new heart inside us, and we have been born again into his kingdom.
If God would do that for us, it tells us how much he loves us and wants us. God was under no obligation to do anything good for us. We were sinners. We failed him. We rejected him. The only thing we’d earned or deserved was his judgment. But God proved his love, God showed his love, because “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).
For seventeen years we had Sally, our lovely, family dog. She was as far from being a pedigree as any mutt could get, but her multi mixed breeding gave her a great nature and good health. During the time our children were growing up she was a wonderful family pet. We’d throw a ball for Sally and off she’d run at top speed, retrieve the ball from the bushes, and race back with it so it could be thrown again. That dog was so fit!
But not in her last couple of years. Sally probably had arthritis and moving about was slow and difficult. Her eyesight began to fail and her hearing had nearly gone. Then control over other natural bodily functions began to fail too, and there were a few ‘accidents.’
One night, after it was dark, I let Sally out into the back yard for a few minutes for the chance to relieve herself before she settled down for the night. It was dark and cold, but I hung around outside while Sally disappeared behind a bush. A moment later I heard a splash, and I knew what had happened. We were digging a garden pond, and earlier that day we’d filled it with water. In the dark and with her bad eyesight Sally would not have seen the hole, nor realized that it was now a sizable pond filled with water. I rushed over, and despite the dark I could see old Sally desperately trying to stay afloat and scramble out, but the sides were steep and she didn’t have the strength.
In an instant I knew I was going into that pond after her. There was no inner debate, no hesitation. She was just a dog, but she was our dog. I was scrambling to get my jacket and shoes off when Sally got near the edge again, and in an instant I reached out, caught her by the back of her neck, got another hand under her, and dragged her out of the water. She was safe! We dried her off and she had a peaceful night’s sleep while I tried to get my heart rate back down to normal.
I would have gone into that water for her. There was no doubt. But later I asked myself ‘Why?’ She was seventeen years old, stiff and sore, half blind, ninety percent deaf, losing control, and clearly not going to live long. But she mattered. She was important to us. As far as you can love a dog, we loved our dog, and the measure of that love was what I would do for her.
The measure of God’s love is also what he would do for us. And that meant not stopping at simply judging us for our sin, not wringing his hands over our wretchedness, not handing down new laws with which we would fail, but coming to this earth, becoming human, taking our sins, and giving us righteousness. The perfect One became sinful and the sinful ones became perfect. In 2 Corinthians Paul writes about Jesus: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). Hence Paul writes here in Romans “in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed” (v. 17). It certainly is, and there is the proof that God loves us and wants us.
2. The God who calls us to respond to his love.
In two verses here in Romans 1 Paul uses variants of the same word four times, a word which at its root means ‘to believe,’ ‘to have faith.’ In verse 16 Paul says salvation comes to “everyone who believes.” That’s the first mention of belief or faith. In verse 17 he uses a curious phrase that the righteousness of God is revealed “from faith to faith” (NIV alternative translation). That’s two more uses of the word. He then quotes the prophet Habakkuk that “The righteous will live by faith” (Hab. 2:4). And that is faith emphasis number four, all in two verses.
It’s impossible to escape the conclusion that, for Paul, the wonderful news of the gospel has to be believed, has to be received by faith. Tom Wright says: “God has been faithful to his purposes and promises; if you want to benefit from this, you must have an answering faithfulness, that ‘believing obedience’ he spoke of in verse 5.”
No one could miss Paul’s emphasis on faith at this early stage of writing to the Romans. He gives strong teaching that the gospel reveals God’s righteousness and immediately follows it with all these references to faith.
There is one dominant reason why faith is so important. It centers on the fact that God does not just bring us into a new status (of being righteous), he invites us into a new relationship. He invites. He does not impose or bully or blackmail. He loves and seeks our love in return. God longs for our trust, our loyalty, our devotion to be given freely to him.
Let me illustrate with a romantic story told to me some years ago.
Tom and Elaine have had a happy marriage for many years. Anyone might assume they fell in love as soon as they knew each other, and everything went forward from there like in all the best romantic novels. It wasn’t exactly like that.
Elaine went first with their story: “Before we even started dating, Tom told me he knew God planned for our lives to be together.”
“Oh,” I asked, “that won you over?”
It was Tom who shook his head. “Maybe telling her we were always meant to be together wasn’t the best opening line.”
“Oh no, it certainly wasn’t,” Elaine said. “It was just weird, and in any case I didn’t really like Tom. So he was welcome to think he could spend his life with me, but I had no wish to spend my life with him!” Both of them roared with laughter at the memory.
“So how did it all change?” I asked.
“That is really Elaine’s story to tell,” Tom said.
So she continued. “You know, I still don’t understand how anything changed. It just did. I got to know Tom better, and decided he was not only quite a good looking guy he was actually interesting. He was a bit more than interesting. He listened, he cared, and he was a good man. And over the next few months something very positive grew deep inside me and eventually I realized that was love.”
“So did you ask him to marry you?” I teased Elaine.
“No, I did the asking,” said Tom. “And this time I did it in a very traditional, romantic way, down on one knee. And she said ‘Yes!’ Six months later we made our vows before a large congregation in our home church.”
“And it has been constant bliss ever since?” I asked Elaine.
“I wouldn’t say that. But it’s a wonderful relationship, and it keeps getting stronger as the years go by.”
I have remembered Tom and Elaine’s story because it was different from most. Elaine was so sure that she didn’t even like Tom at the start. But he was very sure of his commitment, and in time that was matched by Elaine’s commitment.
The only parallel to be drawn from the story of Tom and Elaine is that love can’t be forced. Tom was very sure right from the start. Elaine was not just unsure, she was against the relationship. What was Tom to do? He could never make her love him. He couldn’t and wouldn’t have done it by mind control, emotional or psychological pressure, and certainly not by physical force. Love cannot compel a loving response. Instead, Tom stayed faithful in his love for Elaine. He never gave up. In time, his steady love won Elaine’s heart. They committed themselves to each other, and that marriage continues on strongly today.
Despite rejection God goes right on loving us, and calls for our love in return. Some can return it immediately. Others can’t do that. In theory, God could make us respond to him. But would those actions be love? And would our response be love?
What God doesn’t do is give up. On and on he faithfully seeks to win us. And he longs for us to have faith toward him, to recognize the greatness of his love, to realize his goodness and surrender our lives to him, to commit ourselves for now and for ever to him for his will to be done in us.
Jean Valjean, in Les Miserables, was not instantly transformed by a priest’s forgiveness and his grace in giving him candlesticks as well as the other silver he had already taken. There was a long way to go yet in Valjean’s story. Nothing could be done to hurry that along for Valjean had to want to be different. But that moment – that gift – was the beginning. The priest’s goodness and kindness brought light into a dark and sad heart. In time Valjean would be a changed man. He would show kindness and goodness as great as Bishop Myriel had shown to him. It would take time but Valjean would make his own decision.
God requires a free response of love. God could grab hold of any of our lives and compel any words or actions. But that would not be love, not from him or from us. God does not spend his time collecting robots, manufactured and programed people who can do only what they are made to do. Rather, God seeks a people for himself:
- People who will love him as he has loved them.
- People who will pour out their lives for him as he poured out his life for them.
- People who will joyfully spend eternity with him as he longs to spend eternity with them.
- People who will have faith in him even as he has shown faith to them.
God makes us right with himself. He is a good and wonderful God and that has been shown supremely in the gift of his Son, in the gospel that brings salvation (v. 16).
God invites us into a relationship. He faithfully, constantly gives his love to us, seeking a heart-felt response, a decision at the deepest level to entrust everything about our lives to him, to truly and utterly place our faith in him.
Only the Lord our God deserves love and faith like that. May that faith be ours today, tomorrow and forever.
 Ezek. 11:19; 18:31; 36:26.
 John 3:7
 N.T. Wright, Paul for Everyone: Romans Part 1: Chapters 1-8 (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2004), 14.