READ : Romans 1:1-17
What is the “good news” of Jesus Christ and what does it do for people? Today Words of Hope’s president emeritus Dr. William Brownson explores Paul’s letter to the Romans for an explanation of what the gospel is really about. It’s a powerful message that we should never be ashamed of.
It’s such a joy to be speaking again on Words of Hope. Welcome to this first in a series I’m calling, “The Heart of the Christian Faith” on the first eight chapters of the letter to the Romans. Here’s the text for today, “I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Gentile.”
Now Jesus Christ himself is the heart of the Christian faith and the four gospels are clearly fundamental. But Paul was the great Apostle to the peoples beyond the Jewish communities. Nowhere else in the Bible do we encounter such a brilliant exposition of what the gospel means, and all it brings to those who believe, both Jews and non-Jews. So it is not surprising that this letter has had such profound effects in the history of God’s people. It has again and again been a powerful word – an awakening, life-giving, transforming, joy-bringing word.
Think of the man St. Augustine. In his early life, he was not at all saintly. Though he was brought up by a Christian mother, he pursued other philosophies, and non-Christian movements. Morally he was dissolute, and consumed by sexual lust. But his praying mother, Monica, was told by Bishop Ambrose at one time when she was worried about her son’s salvation: “It’s impossible that a son of such tears should be lost.”
One day in the midst of his false belief and hateful conduct, he was sitting in a garden and heard a voice saying, “Take and read. Take and read.” Nearby was a copy of the New Testament. He opened it and read from Romans 13:13-14 (ESV):
Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.
He heard that word and his life was transformed. He became a teacher and preacher of the faith for the ages. Augustine wrote The City of God, and his famous Confessions, a wonderful devotional book. All Christian scholars since, both Roman Catholic and Protestant, are in his debt and turn to him for understanding.
All right, now move forward to the 16th century. Here is a monk named Martin Luther, always striving to be holy, always feeling condemned, never finding peace. In the midst of his struggles he began to study and preach this letter to the Romans. He had always thought of the righteousness of God as that which justly condemned him for his sins, but he learned in Romans that the righteousness of God is God’s way of making things right with us. His guilty fears were gone. He entered into the freedom and joy of God’s forgiveness, and became a mighty witness in his time. He became the pioneer of a great spiritual awakening that has greatly shaped our world today.
Then think of John Wesley. He was such a godly man, such a holy man. His Holy Club at Oxford University was always abounding in good works. But Wesley lacked peace and assurance. On a trip across the Atlantic he saw the faith of some Moravian Christians in a violent storm and was ashamed because he didn’t have the same confidence. But one night in a place called Aldersgate, he listened to the introduction of a commentary on Romans by Martin Luther. His heart was “strangely warmed.” He became absolutely confident of his salvation in Jesus Christ. Then he became God’s agent in a wonderful awakening, both in the British Isles and the American colonies.
In the day when humanistic optimism was very popular, early in the last century when religion was seen as only subjective feelings, Karl Barth startled the scholars of Europe and the U.S. with his Romerbrief – emphasizing the awesome revelation of God in the real world through Jesus Christ. And still today, Romans has powerful effects. I may tell you a little more in this series about how I’ve seen college students awakened, filled with joy, and changed greatly by this letter to the Romans.
The Gospel Messenger
Paul introduces himself in this letter as a servant of Jesus Christ. That’s the first thing he says about himself. The title “servant” expresses his total belonging to Jesus, utter allegiance, recognizing Jesus’ complete authority and ownership of his life.
And then having described who Jesus is, now he says what Jesus does. He relates just what Jesus is in the world to do. Remember Paul’s conversion? The first question Paul asked was, “Who are you, Lord?” And the second was: “What do you want me to do?” And Jesus told him, “You will be my witness.” Paul is called. What he does is not by personal ambition or self-appointment. He is a man under orders. He is called to Christ and then sent by him. Apostle means “one sent forth.” He’s a man on a mission, sent by God, by Jesus. He is set apart, removed from every other activity and work for this mission, sent by God, by Jesus, for the gospel. That’s the wonderful story of Paul’s life and what he lived out until his death.
What Is the Gospel?
Now what is the “one thing” to which he is set apart? (verses 1-2). What is the gospel (the
euangelion)? It meant good news, good news that is public. It’s the kind you could shout across the street. As: “The war’s over!” or “The operation was a success!” or “It’s a baby!” or “It’s a girl!” The kind of thing you could tell to anybody with a loud voice anywhere you were: that is the gospel. The Old Testament is seen as describing it, as pointing toward it. That’s what you learn in Romans that the gospel is the fulfillment of what was prophesied in the Old Testament.
Now listen to what the gospel is about. It’s the gospel “concerning God’s Son,” concerning Jesus. Jesus is set before us as the Son of the one true living God. There is a real continuity of nature, and a shared identity between God and the incarnate Jesus. He is just as much God as the Father is. Just as our children, humanly, are as much human as we are, so Jesus is the Son of the living God. That is who he is.
Paul’s Purpose in Proclaiming the Gospel
Now Paul talks about how he sees his calling. How does he feel about this mission to be an apostle? To be set apart for the gospel? You know people who like what they do. I always love to talk to people who really enjoy their work. To say that Paul enjoys what he does is a huge understatement. He says, “I magnify my ministry.” He says again “to me who am less than the least of all saints is this grace given, that I should preach among the nations the unsearchable riches of Christ” (Ephesians 3:8). He feels deeply privileged.
Paul has a tremendous sense of obligation. He’s a debtor, both to the wise and the foolish, both to Greeks and non-Greeks (that takes in everybody). He’s a debtor. He owes it. You know you’re a debtor if you borrow something from someone. You need to pay it back. Or you’re a debtor if a person entrusts something to you for another person. Then you’re responsible to see that the debt gets paid to that person for whom you hold something in trust. And Paul sees himself as holding the gospel in trust to be preached to the whole world. That lays upon him a great sense of obligation.
What the Gospel Does
Now to get to the heart of this great passage: The verse I quoted at the start (v. 16) “I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ. It’s the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” This is the wonderful thing about the good news of Jesus Christ. It’s not just words. It doesn’t only possess power. The gospel is power. We don’t have to defend it. (Charles Spurgeon said that would be like defending a lion. You don’t have to do it. Just let him out of the cage!)
The gospel is a special kind of power, not a force to overwhelm and destroy but the power of God for “salvation.” That’s a great biblical word with a double meaning. To save means to rescue from danger or distress. Like a lifeguard pulling you out of deep water as somebody did for me once. And it’s also restoration. It’s healing. It’s renewal of life. It’s the recovery of a lost fullness. Salvation is deliverance both from sin’s guilt and its condemnation, from its power and its bondage. And this is what the apostle Paul celebrates so richly.
It’s a salvation freely given to everyone who believes – Jews, Gentiles, all people who trust in Jesus and his saving work. It’s by faith from beginning to end. It has nothing to do with our conduct or character. As we’ll see later, none of us can possibly be right with God on the basis of our performance. We all fail. We all fall short. What saves us is our simple trust that receives God’s gift in Christ – the empty hand held out to God, relying entirely on Christ and his work, and not in the least on any work or worthiness of ours.
For in this gospel, Paul goes on, something is revealed?”the righteousness of God. What this phrase means is not what Luther originally thought. “The righteousness of God” is not God’s perfect justice that condemns us. Rather, it is, as Luther came to understand, God’s way of making things right between us and himself – God’s way of saving us through Jesus.
And Paul takes us back to the ancient prophecy of Habakkuk 2:4 to show that the faith way has always been God’s way of salvation. “The just shall live by faith.”
Celebrating the Gospel
What a gospel! Is it any wonder that Paul says, “I’m not ashamed of the gospel”? There are many reasons why he might have been ashamed, speaking about it to imperial Rome. This Jesus was a member of a colonial people, condemned to death by Roman authorities, dying the most horrible, shameful death imaginable. Jesus is declared by Paul to be the Lord of all Caesars and the world’s one hope. No wonder he wasn’t ashamed of it! He knew its power to save. He knew what it could do. So, instead of being reticent, apologetic about it, he was eager to preach it – in Antioch, Asia Minor, Greece, Rome, Spain – anywhere. He would never stop, as long as he had breath and life, as long as there were those who had not heard the good news of Jesus.
Far from being ashamed of the gospel, he saw that Jesus alone was to be honored and praised in. May that be true for you and me!