Romans 1:17 is the key verse of the letter. In it Paul announces the theme: “the righteousness of God.” The word righteousness is used in one way or another over sixty times in this letter (righteous, just, and justified). God’s righteousness is revealed in the gospel; for in the death of Christ, God revealed His righteousness by punishing sin; and in the resurrection of Christ, He revealed His righteousness by making salvation available to the believing sinner. The problem “How can a holy God ever forgive sinners and still be holy?” is answered in the gospel. Through the death and resurrection of Christ, God is seen to be both “just, and the justifier” (Rom. 3:26).
The gospel reveals a righteousness that is by faith. In the Old Testament, righteousness was by works, but sinners soon discovered they could not obey God’s law and meet His righteous demands. Here Paul refers to Habakkuk 2:4: “The just shall live by his faith.” This verse is quoted three times in the New Testament: Romans 1:17; Galatians 3:11; and Hebrews 10:38. Romans explains “the just”; Galatians explains “shall live”; and Hebrews explains “by faith.” There are more than sixty references to faith or unbelief in Romans, because the only way a sinner can become just before God is “by faith.”
When you study Romans, you walk into a courtroom. First, Paul called Jews and Gentiles to the stand and found both guilty before God. Then he explained God’s marvelous way of salvation—justification by faith. At this point, he answered his accusers and defended God’s salvation. “This plan of salvation will encourage people to sin!” they cry. “It is against the very law of God!” But Paul refuted them, and in so doing explained how the Christian can experience victory, liberty, and security.
Chapters 9—11 are not a parenthesis or a detour. There were Jewish believers in the Roman assemblies, and they would naturally ask, “What about Israel? How does God’s righteousness relate to the Jews in this new age of the church?” In these three chapters, Paul gave a complete history of Israel—past, present, and future.
Then he concluded with the practical outworking of God’s righteousness in the life of the believer. This begins with dedication to God (Rom. 12:1–2), continues with ministry in the church (Rom. 12:3–21), and then obedience to the government (Rom. 13:1–14). He also told Jews and Gentiles, strong and weak, how to live together in harmony and joy. In the closing section (Rom. 15:14—16:27), Paul explained his plans and greeted his friends.
When you sum it all up, the book of Romans is saying to us, “Be right!” Be right with God, with yourself, and with others. The righteousness of God received by faith makes it possible for us to live right lives. Rome needed this message, and we need it today: Be right!