The Power of God for Salvation

A sermon preached at Covenant Presbyterian Church of Fort Smith, Arkansas on June 13, 2021.

First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed in all the world. For God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in the gospel of his Son, that without ceasing I mention you always in my prayers, asking that somehow by God’s will I may now at last succeed in coming to you. For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you—that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine. I do not want you to   be unaware, brothers, that I have often intended to come to you (but thus far have been prevented), in order that I may reap some harvest among you as well as among the rest of the Gentiles. I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish. So I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome.

For I am 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. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith” (Romans   1:8–17).[1]

As defined, power is “the ability to do something or act in a particular way.”[2] In modern American conception, we often think of it as closely related to freedom. But the Greek word dynamis translated “power” in verse sixteen is more functional in meaning, a potential might, strength, or force.[3] Think of the cognate of dynamis: power is dynamite!

Yet, when we think of this to-be-ignited power we likely do not think, often or ever, of the gospel, do we? I wonder: Is it because the gospel is conveyed with words? Yet, who doesn’t believe in the power of words? Who would argue that “with his mouth the godless man would destroy his neighbor” (Prov. 11:9) or deny that “A gentle tongue is a tree of life” (Prov. 15:4)? Certainly, everyone would agree that “Gracious words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body” (Prov. 16:24). Words are indeed powerful, but the gospel is more than words.

What then does Paul mean when he says that the gospel is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes”? What Paul does not mean is that the words of the gospel are powerful in themselves. Nor does he mean that the gospel is made powerful by those who believe. No, the gospel is the power of God for salvation, as it is the revelation of God’s sovereign act of redemption in the work of Jesus Christ. It is a revelation proclaimed in word, worked by Spirit, received by faith, powerfully accomplishing the miraculous — resurrecting the spiritually dead to new life in Christ. I say without hyperbole or hesitancy: The gospel is the most powerful force in the universe. It’s also the least regarded and acknowledged. The gospel is seemingly impotent to those who heed it not.

This was certainly what Paul explained to the church at Corinth when he said, “the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18). As he knew from experience, “Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom” (1 Cor. 1:22). Neither Jew nor Gentile consider the gospel as divine power but instead “a stumbling block” and “folly” (1 Cor. 1:23). But those called by God, whether Jew or Gentile, through the life-giving work of the Holy Spirit, hear the gospel and see Christ for who he is, the power and wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1:24). Therefore, Paul could confidently tell the Roman church that the gospel is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.”

What then is the substance of this Good News that is folly to the perishing and the power of God to the saved? Its substance is “the righteousness of God,” which is less a statement of moral quality and more a statement of legal standing. Indeed, God is morally righteous, but the Hebrew conception of the word connotes being “in the right,” in contrast to the biblical word “wicked,” or “in the wrong” (Smith quoted in Bruce, 83). Therefore, when Paul describes the substance of the gospel as “the righteousness of God,” he means that God is both the standard and judge over right and wrong, righteousness and wickedness.

If this sounds to you like new news about the Good news, consider what this tells us. The gospel first tells us that we are sinners before God, the standard of righteousness. The gospel implies that in our sin we have been judged as wicked before God. The gospel tells us that God has acted on our behalf in sending his one and only Son to become sin for us “that we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). And we receive this righteousness not by doing better or trying harder but through faith in the Son of God, Jesus Christ.

For this reason, Paul could say that “the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’” That which God has done in us by his grace through faith carries on from the new birth throughout life. We live out our gospel-empowered lives, so to speak, in the legal standing of God’s righteousness, living out that righteousness, as the prophet Habakkuk declared, “by faith.” Our lives are lived from faith for faith.

What are examples of this in our daily lives? Consider Paul’s example in our passage, in which we see evidence of gospel-empowered praise, prayer, and proclamation.

Empowered Praise

Paul offers thanksgiving to God for his work in the Roman church and specifically the testimony of their faith. To be clear, Paul is not directing thanks to the church. He is not a spectator applauding their performance. He is thanking God for what he is doing in Rome, as evidenced by their faith.

Interestingly, Paul does the same in writing to the Corinthians, the Philippians, the Thessalonians, and even Timothy and Philemon among others. It seems that Paul had developed the Christian discipline of thanking God for his evidential, divine work in the life of individual believers, local churches, and the life of the church at large. Of course, this should come as no surprise from the man who commands us to “give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thess. 5:18).

Yet how often are we prone to look at, or even obsess on, the evidence of the Fall in our daily lives rather than the redeeming work of God in our midst? How quickly we complain, embrace anxiety, even encourage conflict, as if we are glorifying God by saturating our hearts and minds with the trite, trivial, and temporal. Now before you begin to think that I am adding shame to your guilt for not giving thanks in all circumstances, let me offer this helpful observation: I think we are not consistent in our thanksgiving to God because we do not look to the gospel to empower our praise. Praise is not an obligation accomplished but a response enjoyed.

Think about this: When you consider that you were dead in your sins and trespasses without any hope but for the mercy of God (Eph. 2:1-2); when you consider that your righteousness before God was as filthy rags (Isa. 64:6); when you consider that for nothing in you but all according to God’s gracious favor in Christ, you were saved from the wrath of God and in turn made a child of God and heir of the kingdom of heaven with Christ (Rom. 8:17), how can you help but praise God in thanksgiving for his mercy and grace? The gospel empowers praise.

Such gospel-empowered praise is not limited to your personal circumstances either. As you begin to see evidence of God’s work through the lens of the gospel, you begin to thank him for his work in the lives of others; you begin to see his work in the church as a catalyst for praise. Paul thanks God “always” for the grace of God given in Christ Jesus to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 1:4). He thanks God, with constant remembrance, for the Philippians’ partnership in ministry (Phil. 1:3-5). He thanks God for the Colossians’ faith in Christ and love for one another (Col. 1:3-4), and for the faith, love, and hope of the Thessalonians (1 Thess. 1:3). Like Paul, the gospel empowers us to praise the Lord, thanking him for his work in us and in his church. When you look at life through the lens of the gospel, you will inevitably praise the Lord.

Empowered Prayer

The gospel also empowers our prayers, which we see in Paul’s confession: “For God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in the gospel of his Son, that without ceasing I mention you always in my prayers.” This is not salutation hyperbole—God is his witness. Paul, in service to his calling, consistently prays for the church in Rome. Every time he prays, he remembers a church he has never met.

Paul’s physical presence is irrelevant; his prayers are not empowered by proximity. His brothers and sisters in Rome are recipients of the same grace that Paul received, trusting in the same Lord Jesus Christ that Paul believed, proclaiming the same gospel that Paul preached. The church in Rome is Paul’s spiritual family, worthy of his love and unceasing prayers.

Yet, for many Christians, prayer seems like a graceless burden or a weekly worship occasion. Such is the gospel-less prayer life of the frustrated Christian. In contrast, consider Paul’s example.

First, he thanks God for his gracious work in the church. Second, he asks God to enable him to physically fellowship with the church. Third, he asks God to enable him to serve the church. Fourth, he asks God for mutual edification within the church.

What is so revealing about Paul’s prayer is how God-glorifying, Christ exalting, and church-focused it is. It is not cluttered with the arbitrary or the meaningless. It’s refreshingly simple, like the Lord’s Prayer.

Don’t make prayer a chore. Don’t make the delightful drudgery. Look first to the gospel, and let it direct your prayers.

Empowered Proclamation

As the gospel is the power of God for salvation, Paul knows that he is an unworthy recipient of God’s grace, that his life is governed by this gospel, he is not ashamed of it. In fact, his vocation is its proclamation. He is a preacher of the gospel and eager to proclaim it. Whether it be folly to the Greeks or indecipherable to barbarians, whether they be wise or foolish, the gospel will be preached to all without discrimination.

Perhaps it even sounds foolish to the entertainment-obsessed evangelical church of our day, but God has chosen to reveal his power for salvation not through culturally-relevant performance but the preaching of the gospel. This is part of the reason Paul desires to be physically in Rome—to preach the gospel. He knows, as the multicultural capital of the empire, Rome is a field ready for the harvest. He knows that even among those who know not the name of Jesus, God uses the preaching of the gospel to draw sinners to himself that they may receive the Savior of sinners by faith.

Paul also desires to minister to the church, to strengthen them in the gospel. Whether through preaching or teaching or otherwise, Paul seeks to “impart” or convey a “spiritual gift” to the church. While we do not know the gift, we know that Paul desires to impart it and for the church to receive it. We also know that both the church, as the recipient, and Paul, as the giver, will be edified. This is not a trivial desire of Paul’s isolated to first-century Rome. God continues to bless his church with spiritual gifts through ministers of the gospel.

In this sense, the church receives a spiritual gift every Lord’s Day in the preaching of the Word. As the Word is preached the Holy Spirit works on those with ears to hear, using the Word as a living and active double-edged sword to pierce the soul and spirit, “discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb. 4:12). The listener comes, just as prepared as the preacher, to be edified through the spiritual gift of the preached Word. Preaching imparts the gift.

As Christ’s church, we are not merely spectators but recipients of God’s grace through faith, hungry hearers of God’s riches bestowed upon sinners like you and me. As the gospel is faithfully preached, we rejoice in it, hearing the righteousness of God revealed in the gospel, the power of God for salvation. Because, the gospel is for sinners, like you and me.

[1] Unless referenced otherwise, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2001).

[2] Angus Stevenson and Christine A. Lindberg, eds., “power,” in New Oxford American Dictionary, 3rd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 1371.

[3] Frederick William Danker, ed., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2000), 262.

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