Romans

Part A.
Sin

Paul sees God bringing his salvation to the nations of the world—the nation of Israel and the Gentile nations. This salvation is necessitated by the 'sin' of both Gentiles and Jews and remedied by the sacrifice of Christ made known in the preaching of the gospel. Paul systematically prosecutes both Gentiles and Jews before the bar of God's judgement where he is found to be entirely just in condemning all. All—both Jews and Greeks—are 'under sin' (3:20) and in dire need of his redemption.

1.
The Apostle, the Gospel and the Romans

In this the first part of his letter Paul follows a familiar pattern from his earlier letters, though with some special elements. There is the typical 'writer to receivers, greetings' (vv. 1-7), followed by a thanksgiving and prayer (vv. 8-12), and concluded by his 'narrative' about himself in relation to them (vv. 13-15). The section concludes with a short 'bridge' passage that both 'rounds off' his reference to 'the gospel' (in v. 1) and which also serves as a threshold to the remainder of the Letter (whose subject is the gospel).

1. Paul to the Roman Christians, Greeting (1:1-7)

In this Paul's most expansive letter we are not surprised to find his most expansive opening section. Two or three verses were sufficient for other letters; but not Romans. Here we find no less than seven verses. They are packed full of critical detail, including the introduction of major teachings that will be developed throughout the letter, two of which are Paul's 'apostleship' and 'the gospel of God', both of which appear in the first verse.

Greek letters of those times had a basic two-part format. A letter began with the name of the sender followed by the names of the receivers with prayers for them. Paul usually adopted that outline, but not in this letter. The novel element in Romans is the lengthy creed-like section about the gospel that comes between the sender and the receivers.

A. The Sender, Paul (v. 1)

Paul alone is the sender; unlike his earlier letters no other name is bracketed with his. This is probably because the letter is to serve as a substitute for his own extended presence in Rome. Because 'another' has 'laid' an apostolic 'foundation' there (possibly Peter) Paul does not feel free to 'build upon' it (15:20). This letter must suffice instead of his own personal ministry. This is something for which subsequent generations, including our own, should be thankful since otherwise this letter would not have been written.

Paul qualifies himself as (1) 'a slave of Christ Jesus,' (2) 'called to be an apostle,' and (3) 'set apart for the gospel of God'. These three are connected and flow from what happened to Paul near Damascus twenty-five years earlier. The risen and glorified Messiah 'called' Saul (as he then was known) to be his 'apostle' (or ambassador), whose whole life as his 'slave' was henceforth 'set apart' to proclaiming 'the gospel of God' to the nations (that is, to the Gentiles or non-Jews). Here Paul describes his 'call' in terms of an Old Testament prophet (cf. Isa. 49:1; Jer. 1:5), though in a sense his vocation was greater since it fulfilled the promises of those and other prophets.

Unlike a 'servant' (diakonos) who was free to serve a master, a 'slave' (doulos) belonged to an owner. Paul's 'slavery' was his apostleship, his work for Christ as his 'ambassador' to the nations (2 Cor. 5:20). It was a bondage in which he rejoiced.

Paul was not the only 'apostle of Christ'. We must not forget 'the Twelve' who had accompanied Jesus as disciples, who had witnessed the risen Christ and been commissioned by him (1 Cor. 15:5; Acts 1:12-26). To that number must be added James, the Lord's brother, who, along with Paul, had also seen the risen Jesus (Gal. 1:19; 1 Cor. 9:5; 15:7). The 'apostleship' of these fourteen undergirded the authority and authenticity of the gospel and ultimately of the New Testament canon.

In addition, the term 'apostle', meaning 'missionary' or 'evangelist', was applied in a lesser sense to co-workers of Paul, for example, Barnabas, Timothy and Silas/Silvanus (Acts 14:14; 1 Thess. 2:7). Beyond that, there were 'all the apostles', a wider number of men and women to whom the risen Lord had appeared and who, most likely, engaged in the work of evangelism (1 Cor. 15:6; Rom. 16:7). In a lesser sense, the word 'apostle' is used of envoys or messengers representing a church or churches (Phil. 2:25; 2 Cor. 8:23).

Although there was some fluidity in the application of the term 'apostle' in the New Testament, this office was generally limited to those who had 'seen the Lord' (1 Cor. 9:1), and, therefore, to the generation immediately after Christ.

B. The Gospel (vv. 2-6)

Paul's third qualification to write to them, 'set apart for the gospel of God,' is his bridge into a lengthy section about that gospel (1:1-16).

The word 'gospel' and the verb 'gospelling' is critical in the first sixteen verses of the letter. Paul 'serves' God 'in the gospel of his Son' (v. 9) and 'is eager' to 'gospel' the believers in Rome (v. 15) because he is 'not ashamed of the gospel' (v. 16), a statement that brings him to the threshold of the main argument of the letter. Furthermore, 'gospel' and 'gospelling' will reappear in important passages later in the letter (10:15-16; 11:28; 15:15-20).

Furthermore, if we turn to the end of the letter we find a striking similarity between the final paragraph and the one that now follows. Both are about the gospel, (1) that it is in fulfilment of the prophetic writings, (2) that it is focused in Jesus Christ, (3) that it is now proclaimed, and (4) that it is a message to be obeyed (by believing it). In other words, the entire letter is 'framed' with references to 'the gospel', indicating that Romans is, first and foremost, about the gospel.

Returning now to our passage in the opening greeting, we note four observations Paul makes about 'the gospel'.

(i) The gospel is 'from God' and 'about God'.

When Paul writes that he was 'set apart for the gospel of God' he could mean either 'the gospel which is from God' or 'the gospel that is about God'. We do not have to choose. 'The word from God' is 'the word about God,' his character and his saving acts. And this 'word of God' is the 'gospel of God' spoken by ordinary humans beings.

Other references tell us that some who spoke 'the word of God' were twisting and changing the message (e.g. 2 Cor. 2:17; 4:2). This means that the 'gospel' or 'word of God,' though spoken, had a 'given' content that (with appropriate adaptation for the needs of the hearers) must be spoken faithfully and with great care. Paul calls this message 'the kerygma' or 'the proclamation' (16:25; 1 Cor. 1:21; 2:4; 15:14). From Paul's letters we are able to reconstruct the items he included when he preached the gospel (e.g. 1 Cor. 15:1-7, 11).

The challenge to us is clear. When we preach (or share) the gospel we must remember that this is God's word which we must submit to, be true to and not take liberties with so as to make it something we would prefer it to be. Discipline and humility are required.

(ii) God promised the gospel in the Holy Scriptures.

Paul now expands on 'the gospel of God' as that

which [God] promised beforehand... in the Holy Scriptures

By 'Holy Scriptures' Paul means the Old Testament Scriptures which he narrows here to the writings of '[God's] prophets'. Those writings were part of the canon of sacred writings used in the synagogues. But they were 'pregnant' with expectation of God's great and final act. They have been likened to an Agatha Christie detective mystery, but without the final chapter where all is revealed based on earlier dues. People in Jesus' day reflected on those clues and looked for a great 'someone' to come. For example, Simeon was 'looking for the consolation of Israel' (Luke 2:25), Anna was 'looking for the redemption of Israel' (Luke 2:38) and Joseph of Arimathea was 'looking for the kingdom of God' (Luke 23:51). Paul is saying, 'Look no more. God has acted. His day has come. He has kept his promises. The mystery is now explained and is to be proclaimed from the roof tops.'

But this means Jesus Christ is no last-minute appearance on the scene. He came by God's appointment as the fulfilment of promises and hopes that went back to the very beginning of the Bible, with the failure of Adam. Thereafter, on page after page of its unfolding story, those Scriptures point onwards to the Coming One. Paul comments, 'For no matter how many promises God has made, they are "Yes" in [Christ]' (2 Cor. 1:20).

(iii) The gospel 'concerns [God's] Son'

God's 'promises' set forth in those prophetic writings were 'concerning his Son'.

concerning his Son
who came from the seed of David
    according to the flesh
who was set apart as the Son of God in power
    according to the Spirit of holiness
by his resurrection from the dead
Jesus Christ our Lord.

Most likely these words originated as a creed about the 'Son of God'. We note (1) two 'legs', each beginning ['the Son of God] who...'; (2) each is qualified by 'according to' but balanced by opposites ('flesh' against 'Spirit'); (3) the former is the historic earthly Jesus ('from the seed of David') while the latter that follows chronologically is the heavenly 'Son of God,' ('set apart... in power... by his resurrection from the dead'). This creed may have originated in the brief period between the resurrection and Paul's conversion.

Important teaching about 'the Son of God' is found in this gospel 'creed'.

1. The 'Son of God' is portrayed in successive modes of existence, first (on earth) as 'who came of the seed of David,' and then (in heaven) as 'who was set apart as the Son of God in power'.

This 'Son of God' who 'came' did not come into being at the time of his birth; he must always have pre-existed and 'come' from another 'state of being'. In short, Paul is teaching that the Son of God was always there, in an absolute and eternal sense. Using his own language Paul is teaching the same 'eternity to eternity' doctrine of Christ as found across the writers of the New Testament, whether John, Peter or the author of Hebrews.

2. This 'Son of God,' who pre-existed eternally before God made his promises through the prophets, 'came' as the man Jesus of Nazareth, God's Messiah.

According to the promise of Nathan the prophet 'great David' was to have 'a greater son,' the Lord's anointed, his Messiah (2 Sam. 7:11-16; cf. Ps. 2). This 'messianic' hope focused on a 'second' David was reiterated generation after generation by the succession of prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel to the end of the era of the Old Testament and beyond. It was a hope that burnt in the hearts of Israelites in Jesus' own day.

Jesus was descended from King David, 'according to the flesh' as the writings of the New Testament make clear. The apostles proclaimed Jesus to be the Messiah, the son of David, according to the flesh.

The man Jesus from Nazareth, was a Jew, a son of Abraham and specifically 'the son of David', as Peter speaking for the Twelve confessed (Mark 8:29) and (ironically) blind Bartimaeus 'saw' (Mark 10:48).

In short, Jesus was, by descent from David and in fulfilment of the words of the prophets, the rightful anointed king of Israel. When he rode up to David's city and temple to find due recognition as Messiah he found only rejection. Yet out of Israel's rejection of her king God provided for the salvation of that nation and all peoples and a king for all peoples (see on 15:7-13).

3. Jesus is 'Son of God in power' by his resurrection from the dead.

As resurrected from the dead, he has poured out 'the Spirit of holiness' in demonstration that he has been 'set apart' as 'the Son of God in power'. The Son of God incarnated as the Messiah Jesus of Nazareth was subject to weakness, hunger, thirst, fatigue and the spiritual distress of the 'testing' in the wilderness and at Gethsemane. These sufferings and 'testings' were real, as was his eventual death. But raised from the dead, Christ as 'Son of God in power' suffers no more, nor shall we who belong to him.

At this time there is a 'crisis of Christology' which has two related parts. One is the assertion that Jesus was merely a 'charismatic' kind of man, in the way some politicians, gurus or entertainers have a kind of 'star quality'. In his case, however, Jesus is seen by many as a 'remarkable' prophet or rabbi—but nothing more. His Davidic descent is disputed and with it his messianic status. The other aspect of this crisis is the denial of his genuine bodily resurrection and exaltation. The net result of these two views is that Jesus was, after all, just another man, whose remains are still decomposing somewhere in Palestine. Notwithstanding this revisionism of the Gospels some theologians seek to create a kind of myth that says, despite Jesus' ordinariness of identity and life, and his non-vicarious death from which he did not rise again, we do nonetheless worship him as the 'risen Lord'. But this is mere projection, nothing more than words, nothing more substantial than a mirage and a metaphor.

How different Paul's little gospel 'creed' is from this kind of 'revision' of theology. The One who was always the 'Son of God,' in fulfilment of the promises of God made through the prophets, 'came' historically as Jesus the Christ and after 'three days' was raised alive historically as the powerful Son of God. Seamlessly, the 'same' eternal Son was born, lived and died as the historical Jesus and without discontinuity and was made the risen and exalted Lord (cf. Acts 2:22, 24, 32, 36).

(iv) Paul proclaims this gospel to the Gentiles.

The gospel of God is 'concerning his Son' and it is propagated by means of Paul's apostleship.

... the gospel of God... concerning his Son... through whom we received grace and apostleship for the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for his name's sake among whom are you also the called of Jesus Christ.

Again we hear echoes of the momentous event near Damascus when, 'through God's Son,' Paul 'received grace and apostleship,' the 'call to be an apostle' to bring about the 'obedience of faith among all the Gentiles'. In the gospel God commands the hearers to believe in the Son of God. Along similar lines Paul told the Galatians that

God... set me apart from birth and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles (1:15-16)

Paul's apostleship to the Gentiles was special. To no other apostle was there so specific or individualized a 'call' to take the message of Christ to the Nations.

True, the risen Christ sent his disciples to 'make disciples from among the nations' (Matt. 28:18-20) but there was little initial inclination to do so, as far as we know. The original apostles, led by Peter, concentrated on evangelizing the Jews of Palestine for the first twenty years, with some contact with Samaritans and God-fearers but little or any with outright Gentiles. Paul, however, from the time of his 'Damascus call' began pressing the claims of Christ on Gentiles, beginning in Damascus, Arabia and Syria-Cilicia. In the later forties, he and Barnabas intentionally set out westwards from Antioch in Syria for a series of missionary tours in which he planted the gospel in the Roman provinces Galatia, Macedonia, Achaia and Asia. Thus, Paul was a 'special' apostle of Christ planting the gospel among the Gentiles as no one else did.

Few things speak so powerfully about Paul's conversion as his complete turnaround regarding the Gentiles. Saul of Tarsus, the pre-Christian Paul, was a former persecutor of Stephen and other 'Hellenist' believers of Jerusalem, a fanatical Jewish 'zealot' who preached circumcision to block Gentiles entering the ranks of God's people. Now, however, Paul as Christian and apostle crossed land and sea to bring salvation to the Gentiles. He vehemently rejected any requirement that Gentile believers submit to the 'works of the Law'.

Paul did not see himself as the only preacher of the gospel to the Gentiles. Among his readers in Rome are Gentile believers (vv. 5b-6; 11:13; cf. Acts 28:14-15). To our knowledge these did not become Christians through Paul's ministry.

C. The Receivers of the Letter: Saints in Rome (v. 7)

Paul addressed his letter to

All who are in Rome beloved of God called to be saints.

There is no mention of the receivers as 'church' as in most other letters by Paul (but see Philippians 1:1). Most likely this omission reflects the unusual origins and history to date of Christianity in the Eternal City.

The first believers were probably those Jews who responded to Peter's preaching at the Feast of Pentecost a quarter of a century earlier (cf. Acts 2:10) who, on returning home, would have remained members of the various synagogues. In the year 49 Claudius expelled the Jews from the city because of disturbances among them due to Chrestus (a misspelling of Christus?). Between Claudius' decree in 49 and his death in 54, as well as later, Gentile believers were probably in the majority.

The absence of the word 'church' (ekklēsia) here points to the non-existence of a specifically Christian assembly in Rome. Most likely Jews continued to gather with fellow-Jews in the synagogues as well as in distinctly Jewish house groups. Gentile believers appear to have gathered in their house groups. This would explain Paul's address to the Christians in Rome merely as 'beloved' and 'saints'. Paul's teaching about the roles of Jews and Gentiles in the purposes of God (chs. 9-11) and his appeal to both groups to find unity in one assembly (chs. 14-15) may point to a major reason for the writing of this letter, that is, to create a 'church' in Rome.

2. Thanksgiving and Prayer (vv. 8-12)

His greeting finished, Paul, following his usual custom, launches into thanksgiving and prayer for his readers. He was, indeed, a devout man. From no other New Testament writer do we have anything approaching the sense of prayerfulness as we do from Paul. He prays for his readers, many of whom like most of the Roman Christians he had never seen. Reciprocally, he urges his churches repeatedly, 'pray for us' (e.g. 15:30).

Prayer in this passage consists of both 'thanksgiving' and 'intercession'. The two go together. Prayer is no mere ritual or mantra. Paul is praying to a person, his Father, who is there, who hears and will answer prayer. Intercession expresses true and personal faith, while thanksgiving acknowledges the confidence that God has heard and has answered, is answering or will answer our requests. Whether thanksgiving follows or precedes intercession, as here, the two should be kept together.

A. Thanksgiving (v. 8)

We should immediately notice Paul's words, 'I thank my God through Jesus Christ.' Our access to God is not in our own right, nor is it direct and immediate. It is only 'through' our mediator Jesus Christ, who is Son to God and Lord to us. This is humbling (reminding us of our inherent unworthiness to approach the holy and good God) but also reassuring (reminding us that we will be welcomed and heard in that name). The God of the universe is our God, because Jesus his Son is our Lord.

So why does Paul thank God? It is because 'their faith is being declared (present tense) in the whole world' (v. 8). Paul is deeply grateful for the fact of their faith in Christ but equally that that faith is being made known (presumably in the worldwide network of churches). Clearly, others yet will become believers through this 'proclamation' by Roman Christians.

B. Prayer (vv. 9-12)

Paul now tells them of his prayer for them. He solemnly promises that God is 'witness' to the truth of his words, for which he will answer one day. He adds immediately that he 'worships' God 'in the gospel of his Son,' that is, in every 'gospel activity' whether preaching, catechizing new believers or ordering church life. This is the worship of God.

Reference to the 'gospel' picks up the two main themes of the Greeting (vv. 1-7), and therefore of the letter as a whole. These are, first, his divine call to become an apostle (vv. 1, 5), and second, the centrality of 'the gospel' in Paul's ministry (v. 1; cf. vv. 15, 16). As noted earlier 'the Son of God' is the centre of that gospel (vv. 3-4).

Paul's prayer for them is no perfunctory thing, a mere formality, as prayers we find in the pagan letters of that time tended to be. Paul prays for these Romans, most of whom he had never met, 'unceasingly.'

So what is his prayer for them? It arises out of his thanksgiving that their faith is being declared across the world. It is that,

'if somehow at some time in the will of God I may be able to come to you' (v. 10; cf. 15:32).

His words, 'if somehow at some time in the will of God' express uncertainty. He knew from experience that it was one thing to make plans, but another for those plans to be realized. Paul had 'often' attempted to come to them, but without success, as he will soon explain (v. 13; 15:22). He knew that his hoped for 'coming' was neither immediate nor, indeed, assured (see on 15:31).

Even the great apostle must accept 'the will of God'. It was not as if his prayer was for personal pleasure, for example, to see the sights of the Eternal City. Paul had but one goal; he wanted to come for gospel ministry to them. Neither his prayers, nor ours—even our most noble—are always answered in ways that seem best to us. As it happened, Paul did come to Rome, but as a prisoner. In that city he met his death at the decree of the emperor. Not even the greatest of God's servants always find protection in this life. But then neither did the Son of God.

Paul explains why he had 'prayed without ceasing' that God would 'prosper' his plan to come to them in Rome. He had 'longed' to see them 'to share with them some spiritual gift' (v. 11; cf. 15:23—'I have longed to come to you for many years'). Paul taught the Corinthians that God's 'gifts' (charismata) are for 'sharing' with others for their 'upbuilding' (1 Cor. 12-14).

His hoped-for coming would be, he says, 'to strengthen you' (v. 11). This is the same word (stērizō) we find in his final doxology where he declares that 'God is able (that is, 'powerful') to strengthen you' (16:25). God's 'power' for their 'strengthening' is released as Paul 'shares' his 'spiritual gift' with them, that is, his apostolic gospel (see on vv. 1 and 5). Implied here is Paul's sense that there is a deficiency or 'weakness' in Roman Christianity that needs buttressing. Ever the pastoral diplomat, however, Paul does not say this directly. Since he is not able to remain in Rome it is likely that he planned his letter as the way to 'strengthen' the Roman Christians. This letter, Romans, is Paul's gospel, his comprehensive exposition of the Christian faith (cf. 2:16 where he speaks of 'my gospel').

Paul is quick to acknowledge that the 'sharing' of 'spiritual gifts' is a two-way street (v. 12). He 'longs to see them' to give but also to receive. They, too, are people of 'faith'. They will be encouraged by him and he by them. Some preachers and leaders isolate themselves from 'rank and file' Christians so that they often 'give' but seldom 'receive'. Paul's greatness, however, included his humility in learning from and being encouraged by ordinary folk. It did not matter to Paul that their doctrine needed 'strengthening'. He looked for encouragement from them as fellow-believers.

On arrival Paul will only see them in passing, as he is sent on by them for his mission in Spain (15:24). He assures them that he is not coming to 'build upon' the 'foundation' that has been laid by 'another' (15:20). His visit will be too brief for that. His letter will be his abiding legacy (his 'spiritual gift') to them (v. 11), to minister to them, by substitution. The brevity of his stay will prevent the 'building up' of the church in Rome by his direct personal contact. The letter would fulfil that purpose and that, indeed, appears to have been Paul's primary objective in writing.

Whatever the case, whether by his personal presence or by his letter, his apostolic authority and teaching will be brought to bear on them (cf. 2 Cor. 10:9, 11; 13:10).

3. Narrative: Paul longs to come to them (vv. 13-15)

Based on his practice in other letters (see e.g. 1 Cor. 1:10-17; 2 Cor. 1:8-11), Paul now begins a personal 'narrative' of his recent experiences with some statement of immediate intentions.

Paul's 'I do not wish you to be unaware' (v. 13) usually points to information that is new to his readers. They may not have known that he had 'often planned to come' to them but 'until now' had been 'prevented' (see also 15:22). From the year 47 when James, Peter and John agreed that Paul should 'go' to the Gentiles he set out on a number of missions from Antioch that took him westwards, towards Rome. Any plan to come to the world capital of the Gentiles, however, was frustrated by a far-reaching decree of the Roman emperor Claudius. In 49 Claudius expelled the Jewish community from Rome 'preventing' Paul the Jew from coming there. He must await the death of the emperor five years later to come to the city.

Why had Paul been so keen to come to Rome? It was, he declares, to 'have a harvest (literally, 'some fruit') also among' them just as he has had 'among the rest of the Gentiles'. That remains Paul's hope.

Although earlier he probably expected to lay an apostolic 'foundation' and build a church at the heart of the Gentile world a new development has made that impossible. In the meantime a 'foundation' has been laid already by someone else, possibly Peter (see on 15:20). Paul may now only 'pass through' Rome, helped by them on his way to Spain (15:24). Nonetheless, he still looked for 'some harvest' in response to his gospelling among the Gentiles in Rome (see on 15:17-19). Paul's stated aim of preaching 'where Christ has not been named' (15:20) is not contradicted by his hope of seeking some 'harvest' in Rome. These are general statements and not intended in a legalistic sense.

In verse 14 Paul expands on the 'the Gentiles' of the previous verse calling them 'Greeks and barbarians' as representing the totality of the peoples of the nations, apart from the Jews. Centuries earlier when Greeks first heard the stammered guttural speech of foreigners, sounding as it did to them as 'bar bar bar', they called such people barbaroi, 'barbarians.' In time, however, because of the spread of Greek philosophy, literature and science among other peoples 'Greek' also came to mean 'wise' or 'cultured' and 'barbarian' to mean the 'ignorant' or 'uneducated'. Because the Romans were 'educated' and 'cultured' they came to be included among 'the Greeks' although Latin was their primary language.

But Paul is no intellectual snob; he will preach to both Greeks (the 'wise') and barbarians (the 'foolish'). Indeed, as he says, 'I am debtor to both,' referring to God's commissioning of him on the Damascus Road (see also 1 Cor. 9:16—'Necessity compels me'). He is the apostle to the Gentiles, whoever they are, 'Greek' or 'barbarian,' 'educated' or 'uneducated'. Unlike Paul, however, some Christian people feel drawn to minister only to the educated middle and upper classes. But Paul's zeal for 'barbarians' as well as 'Greeks' expresses the mind of God who so loved all the peoples of the world that he gave up his only Son for them (cf. John 3:16).

It goes without saying, then, that Paul is 'eager also' to 'gospel' the believers who are in Rome. Of interest is Paul's expressed eagerness to 'evangelize you,' a reference to Roman readers who are already Christian (v. 7—'beloved of God... saints'; v. 12—men and women of 'faith'). Is Paul loosely referring to these believers as belonging to the wider Gentile community of the city of Rome whom he hopes to evangelize when he comes? Or, more probably, by 'evangelize you' does he mean a deeper ministry to those who are, indeed, Christians but who need to be 'strengthened' in faith (see on v. 11)? In this case, to 'gospel' (or 'evangelize') means more than initially proclaiming the Christian message, but includes providing solid 'building up' of those who have made an initial response (see on 15:20). This letter is Paul's gospel for the Romans and, more broadly, for the Gentiles.

Paul's eventual arrival will give little opportunity for this 'building up' since he is only 'passing through' Rome. It is likely, therefore, that Paul has written this letter to provide that solid grounding in the gospel which his sustained presence would have afforded but which now is not possible.

4. The Gospel: the Power of God (vv. 16-17)

By his words, 'For I am not ashamed of the gospel' Paul is rounding off his references to 'the gospel' and 'gospelling' first introduced in his opening sentence and reintroduced in verses 9 and 15. This makes verses 1-17 a unit (called an inclusio) in which the dominant idea is 'the gospel of God,' which he had explained in such detail earlier (see on vv. 2-3).

We are surprised that Paul writes, 'I am not ashamed of that gospel.' Why not say positively, 'I am immensely proud of the gospel'? In effect, Paul does mean just that but he says so obliquely by an ironical understatement (called litotes). This letter is Paul's gospel.

Did he deny 'shame' for the gospel because of the pressure he felt to hold back from proclaiming it? Paul may well have shrunk from the gospel just as a man pulls his hand from a naked flame. The gospel had been a source of suffering for him. And the reason? Rejection of Christ's claims meant the rejection of the bringer of the message. Being 'ashamed' of Jesus and the gospel, however, is a serious matter. Paul knew well the consequences of 'being ashamed' of Jesus (1 Cor. 9:16—'Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel').

Possibly, too, Paul's denial of 'shame' may be directed to the 'objectors' and 'deceivers' in the Roman house churches who opposed Paul's grace-based, Law-free gospel.

Paul proceeds to state three closely related positive reasons why he is 'not ashamed of the gospel'.

First, the gospel is 'the power of God for salvation'. 'Salvation' (sōtēria) in everyday language meant 'rescue from dire peril' or 'recovery of health from life threatening illness'. For the apostles, however, 'salvation' pointed to 'deliverance from the wrath of God at the Judgement Day' (13:11; 1 Pet. 1:5, 9).

That unique deliverance was won by the death and the resurrection of Christ (5:9—'We are saved from the wrath of God through him'). Therefore, although that 'salvation' properly belongs to the future it is a present reality to those who belong to the Messiah, Jesus, crucified and risen (10:13: 'every one who calls on the name of the lord will be saved').

While that 'salvation' is 'through' Jesus Christ at the First Easter, a specific moment in history, it is mediated at other places and other times by 'a word'. That word is 'the gospel of God' or 'word of God,' 'the power of God unto (eis) salvation.' That special and unique 'word,' though spoken by ordinary and fallible people, is the 'word' from God that brings those who believe it 'into salvation'.

That 'word' is spoken so as to elicit 'faith' from those who hear it. Its 'power for salvation' becomes effective in and for those who believe, for men and women of faith (see on vv. 8 and 12). 'Faith' is one of the great themes of this letter. It is by faith, not 'works of the Law', that we are 'justified' before God (3:30; 5:1) and 'saved' (10:9: 'if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead you shall be saved').

At various times throughout history, however, this 'word of God' has been belittled and disparaged. It is only a 'word,' an invisible thing, and what is that next to a miracle, something you can see? Miracles of themselves do not mediate salvation which is by only one means, the gospel of God. Only 'the word of the cross' is the wisdom and power of God (1 Cor. 1:18).

Second, the gospel reveals 'the righteousness of God' (v. 17). Paul's word, 'righteousness' belongs to a group of words much used by him. The correct way to discover word meaning is to begin with an author's own use of the word. In 2:13, where the context is the judgement of God, those who are 'righteous with God' are also said to be 'justified', that is, pronounced 'righteous' by God. Similarly, in 1 Corinthians 4:4 the word 'declared righteous' (dedikaiomai) is best understood as 'acquitted' (as translated by RSV). Again, in Philippians 3:9 Paul states that he does not have 'righteousness' of his own 'from law' but 'righteousness from God', a righteousness 'based on faith in Christ'. Paul is saying that the 'righteousness of God' is God's gracious verdict, 'righteous' (see Matt. 25:37).

In the chapters that follow Paul will bring the Gentiles and the Jews in turn before the bar of God's judgement where, for different reasons, each will be found guilty and subject to the just condemnation of God. In the gospel, however, God declares his acquittal of the guilty, his gracious recognition of them as 'righteous' in Christ, whether Gentile or Jew, despite their sinfulness.

Of particular interest is the verb, 'is being revealed'. The present tense ('is being') and the passive ('revealed') tell us that through the gospel God is presently revealing his just and merciful verdict upon the guilty. Paul uses exactly this word in the next verse where, however, it is 'the wrath of God' that 'is being revealed' by God 'from heaven'.

The revelation of that verdict properly belongs to the Last Day. Many have waited anxiously a 'verdict', whether from a jury, a medical report or a university examination. A period of waiting is usual in those circumstances. With God, however, there is no waiting and no uncertainty. Those who reject him are already guilty and condemned and those who belong to Christ are already acquitted and righteous in his sight. The preaching and hearing of the gospel is an eschatological moment, anticipating the End. The 'salvation' of the future is 'now'. This is the 'Day of salvation' (2 Cor. 6:2). Yet, as we shall see in verse 18, God is also declaring his 'wrath'—his negative judgement—now, ahead of the end-time.

The response of 'believing' the gospel is critical, though there is debate over the words, 'from faith to faith.' One possible way to understand this is that the preacher declares the word of God 'from' his faith 'for' the faith response of the hearer. Involved in God revealing his righteous acquittal is the 'faith' of both the speaker of the gospel and the hearer of the gospel.

Third, the gospel is the means to 'life,' that is, eternal life in God's coming age, which is another way of referring to the two previously mentioned blessings from the gospel, 'salvation' and 'righteousness from God'. Paul justifies this teaching about 'life' from Habakkuk 2:4:

He who is righteous from faith will live.

As the gospel is spoken and believed the believing respondent is declared 'righteous' (acquitted and accepted) by God and will 'live' in God's kingdom.

Verses 16-17 'round off' the first part of the letter. At the same time they serve as a 'bridge' into the main part of the letter where Paul will explain his gospel (his exposition of Christianity) to the believers in Rome.

5. Apostle and Gospel: The Romans and Us

The apostle Paul operated under a number of restrictions (15:20). He would only proclaim Christ in virgin territory, where Christ was not already 'named'. He would not 'build upon' a 'foundation' laid by 'another'. This meant that his long-awaited visit to Rome must be brief.

At the same time, however, Paul was concerned about the gaps in the understanding of the Roman Christians including the failure of Jewish and Gentile believers to 'welcome one another' (15:7) in a common assembly. Accordingly the letter must serve in place of his sustained residential ministry.

But Paul may not have been well-known in Rome and, indeed, may have been the subject of negative report (from his Judaizing opponents in Palestine). For his letter to be well received he needs to establish his apostleship at the outset. This is one reason he is so careful to do so in the first main section of the Letter.

His credentials stated, Paul expands on the gospel in the first part of the letter so as to point to it as the great theme of the letter. By 'gospel' and 'evangelizing' Paul means both the proclaiming of Christ and the 'building up' of his people in Christ. If Paul will not have the opportunity to preach the gospel at length when he comes he will use the letter to do so, in his place, both as to proclaiming Christ and also for 'strengthening' the faith of the Roman Christians.

If the original Roman readers needed to know the gospel based on the authority of the apostle to the Gentiles then so too do we today. Thus the opening section of Romans is vitally important. Our salvation depends on it. For as we read Romans God addresses us by his gospel word, by which, as we believe it, we are saved and brought to spiritual adulthood.

Study questions

  1. Do I know or understand God's call upon my life?
  2. Why is it so important to Paul to go to great lengths to uphold Christ? Do I uphold Christ?
  3. What does this say about Christ—not eternal life—being the center of the gospel?
  4. Paul was dramatically changed by the gospel—a complete turnaround toward the Gentiles. What has the gospel caused in my life to be turned-around?
  5. There is a 'now' and 'not-yet' to gospel. What does this mean?
  6. Paul accepted the will of God in his life. How am I able to accept the will of God?