Paul On the Gospel, the Romans, and Evangelism (preaching resource for 12/18/22)
This post exegetes Romans 1:1-17, providing context for the 12/18/22 (Advent 4) RCL Epistles reading. This exegesis draws on various resources, including John Stott's "The Message of Romans."
As was common in first century letters within the Roman Empire, Paul begins his letter to the churches in Rome by introducing himself. He then quickly turns to the main themes of his letter: the gospel, the Romans, and evangelism.
Paul and the gospel (1:1-6)
1 Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God-- 2 the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures 3 regarding his Son, who as to his human nature was a descendant of David, 4 and who through the Spirit of holiness was declared with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord. 5 Through him and for his name's sake, we received grace and apostleship to call people from among all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith. 6 And you also are among those who are called to belong to Jesus Christ.
Paul characterizes himself as both a ‘servant’ (slave) and ‘apostle.’ There is quite a contrast here. First, 'slave' is a title of great humility; it expressed Paul's sense of personal insignificance, without rights of his own, having been purchased to belong to Christ. 'Apostle', on the other hand, was a title of great authority; it expressed his sense of official privilege and dignity by reason of his appointment by Jesus Christ. Secondly, 'slave' is a general Christian word (every disciple looks to Jesus Christ as their Lord), whereas 'apostle' is a special title (reserved for the Twelve and Paul and perhaps one or two others such as James).
As an apostle, Paul had been *set apart for the gospel of God*. Just as Jeremiah had been set apart as a prophet (Jer. 1:5), Paul had been set apart by Christ to be an apostle to preach Christ to the Gentiles (Gal.1:15f.). Paul's Damascus road encounter with Christ was not only his moment of conversion but also of commissioning ('I send you' = 'I make you an apostle', Acts 26:17). *Called to be an apostle* and *set apart for the gospel of God*, thus belong inseparably together. As an apostle, it was Paul's responsibility to receive, formulate, defend, maintain and proclaim the gospel and so combine the roles of trustee, advocate and herald.
Paul then proceeds to give a six point analysis of this gospel to which he has been set apart:
1. The origin of the gospel is God
Everything Paul touches in this letter he relates to God, and thus the gospel is *the gospel of God*. The apostles did not invent it; it was revealed and entrusted to them by God. This is still the first and most basic conviction which underlies all authentic evangelism. What we have to share with others is neither a miscellany of human speculations, nor one more religion to add to the rest, nor really a religion at all. It is rather *the gospel of God*, God's own good news for a lost world.
2. The witnesses to the gospel is Scripture
This gospel is *the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures* (2). That is to say, although God revealed the gospel to the apostles, it did not come to them as a complete novelty, because he had already promised it through his prophets in the Old Testament. There is, in fact, an essential continuity between the Old Testament and the New. Jesus himself was clear that the Scriptures bore witness to him, that he was the son of man of Daniel 7, and the suffering servant of Isaiah 53, and that, as it had been written, he had to suffer in order to enter into his glory. In Acts we hear Peter quoting the Old Testament in reference to Jesus' resurrection, exaltation and gift of the Spirit. We also watch Paul reasoning with people out of the Scriptures that the Christ must suffer and rise, and that he was Jesus. He similarly insisted that it was 'according to the Scriptures' that Christ both died for our sins and was raised on the third day (1 Cor. 15:3f.). It was thus that both the Law and the Prophets of the Old Testament bore witness to the gospel. We have reason, then, to be thankful that the gospel of God has a double attestation, namely the prophets in the Old Testament and the apostles in the New. Both bear witness to Jesus Christ, and this is what Paul comes to next.
3. The substance of the gospel is Jesus Christ
If we bring verses 1 and 3 together by omitting the parenthesis of verse 2 we read that Paul was set apart for the gospel of God *regarding his Son*. The gospel of God is 'the gospel of his Son' (9). God's good news is about Jesus who Paul goes on to describe with two contrasting clauses: *who as to his human nature was a descendant of David (3), and who through the Spirit of holiness was declared with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord* (4). Here are references to the birth (descended from David), death (presupposed by his resurrection), resurrection from the dead, and reign (on David's throne) of Jesus Christ. These words are carefully constructed (perhaps quoted from an early creed?) in order to contrast two titles, two verbs and two clauses.
The two titles ('Son of David' and 'Son of God') contrast Jesus’ humanity and divinity. The two verbs ‘was’ (the son of David) and ‘declared’ (the Son of God) contrast Jesus’ weakness and humility in his humanity (being descended from David) with the power and glory of his divinity (being the Son of God). There is also a contrast here of Jesus’ life before and after his resurrection. Before he was seen primarily in lowliness, but through and beyond his resurrection he was seen clearly and declared openly to be the Son of God in power (cf. 2 Cor.13:4). The two clauses 'according to flesh' and 'according to spirit of holiness' probably contrast Jesus’ pre-resurrection and post-resurrection ministries. His first ministry emphasized his human frailty and the second the power of the Spirit (who was referred to commonly by the Hebraism, ‘the spirit of holiness’). It was the Holy Spirit who exalted Jesus by raising him from the dead (Rom. 8:11) and it was the Spirit that Jesus poured out in power on his followers (Acts 2:33), inaugurating the age of the Messiah, which is the age of the Spirit.
In these three contrasts we have a balanced statement about Jesus, which declares his humiliation and his exaltation; his weakness and his power; his human descent traced to David and his divine Sonship-in-power established by the resurrection and the gift of the Spirit. Moreover, this unique person, seed of David and Son of God, weak and powerful, incarnate and exalted, is *Jesus* (a human, historical figure), *Christ* (the Messiah of the Old Testament Scripture), and *our Lord*, who owns and rules our lives. All praise to his glorious name!
4. The scope of the gospel is all the nations
Paul now returns to his apostleship: *Through him [the risen Christ] and for his name's sake, we received grace and apostleship to call people from among all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith* (5). It is unlikely that by using the plural 'we', Paul is wanting to associate the other apostles with him, since he nowhere mentions them in this letter. Probably it is an editorial 'we', or the 'we' of apostolic authority, by which in reality he was referring to himself. What then did he 'receive' from God through Christ? He calls it *grace and apostleship*, which in the context seems to mean the undeserved privilege of being an apostle. For Paul always attributed his apostleship to God's gracious decision and appointment (Rom. 12:3; 15:15).
As Paul goes on to state the purpose of his apostleship, he discloses further aspects of the gospel. He defines its scope as *all the Gentiles*. This seems to imply that the Christians in Rome were predominately Gentile, since he specifically mentions them: *And you also are among those who are called to belong to Jesus Christ* (6). Yet Paul will shortly describe the gospel as 'the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes, first the Jew, then for the Gentile' (1:16). What he is affirming is that the gospel is for everybody; its scope is universal. He himself was a patriotic Jew, who retained his love for his people and longed passionately for their salvation (Rom. 9:1, 10:1). At the same time, he had been called to be the apostle to the Gentiles (Rom. 11:13; 15:16). We too, if we are to be committed to evangelism, will have to be liberated from all pride of race, nation, tribe, caste and class, and acknowledge that God's gospel is for everybody, without exception and without distinction. This is a major theme of Romans.
5. The gospel leads to obedience
Literally, Paul writes that he has received his apostleship 'to call people from among all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith.’ ‘Obedience that comes from faith’ speaks to the response which the gospel demands. It is a particularly notable expression, coming as it does at both the beginning and the end of the book of Romans (see Rom. 16:26), since it is in Romans that Paul insists more strongly than anywhere else that justification is 'through faith alone'. Yet here he speaks of 'obedience that comes from faith'. Is this a contradiction? The answer is a resounding no.
‘Obedience that comes from faith’ reminds us of Abraham who 'by faith...obeyed' (Heb. 11:8). Indeed, the proper response to the gospel is faith alone. Yet a true and living faith in Jesus Christ both includes within itself an element of submission (cf. Rom. 10:3), especially because its object is 'Jesus Christ our Lord' (4) or 'the Lord Jesus Christ' (7), and leads inevitably into a life of obedience. This obedience is grounded in faith in Christ (not in the Law of Moses) and is a grateful response of total, unreserved commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord. Paul knows nothing of accepting Jesus as Savior without surrendering to him as Lord. Certainly the Roman Christians had believed and obeyed, for Paul describes them as being *among those who are called to belong to Jesus Christ* (6).
6. The goal of the gospel is the honor of Christ's name
The words *for his name sake*, which NIV places at the beginning of verse 5, actually come at the end of the Greek sentence and so form something of a climax. Why did Paul desire to bring the nations to the obedience that comes from faith? It was for the sake of the glory and honor of Christ's name. For God had 'exalted him to the highest place' and had given him 'the name that is above every name', in order that 'at the name of Jesus every knee should bow... and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord' (Phil. 2:9ff.). If, therefore, God desires every knee to bow to Jesus and every tongue to confess him, so should we. We should be 'jealous' (as Scripture sometimes puts it) for the honor of his name - troubled when it remains unknown, hurt when it is ignored, indignant when it is blasphemed, and all the time anxious and determined that it shall be given the honor and glory which is due to it.
The highest of all motives for evangelism is neither obedience to the Great Commission (important as that is), nor love for sinners who are alienated and perishing (strong as that incentive is), but rather burning and passionate zeal for the glory of Jesus Christ. The earliest Christians, John tells us, went out 'for the sake of the Name' (3 Jn. 7)—the incomparable name of Jesus.
To sum up, Paul here gives us six fundamental truths about the gospel. Its origin is God the Father and its substance Jesus Christ his Son. Its attestation is Old Testament Scripture and its scope all nations. Our immediate purpose in proclaiming it is to bring people to the obedience that comes from faith, but our ultimate goal is the greater glory of the name of Jesus Christ. Or, to simplify these truths by the use of six prepositions, we can say that the good news is the gospel *of* God, *about* Christ, *according to* Scripture, *for* the nations, *unto* the obedience that comes from faith, and *for the sake of* the Name.
Paul and the Romans (1:7-13)
7 To all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. 8 First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is being reported all over the world. 9 God, whom I serve with my whole heart in preaching the gospel of his Son, is my witness how constantly I remember you 10 in my prayers at all times; and I pray that now at last by God's will the way may be opened for me to come to you. 11 I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong-- 12 that is, that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other's faith. 13 I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that I planned many times to come to you (but have been prevented from doing so until now) in order that I might have a harvest among you, just as I have had among the other Gentiles.
Paul now addresses his readers. Though Rome was full of idolatrous worship, God had his people there, who the apostle describes in three ways. First, they are *loved by God*, his own dear children. Secondly, they are *called to be saints*, as also they are 'called to belong to Jesus Christ' (6). 'The saints' or 'the holy people' was a regular Old Testament designation of Israel. Now, however, the Gentile Christians in Rome were also 'saints'. For all Christians without exception are called by God to belong to Christ and to his holy people. Thirdly, the Roman Christians are the recipients of God's *grace and peace*. The Aaronic blessing in the Old Testament was a prayer that Yahweh would both 'be gracious' to his people and give them 'peace' (Nu. 6:25f.). Although he does not use the word 'church' (perhaps because the Roman Christians met in several house groups), he nevertheless sends his greetings to them *all* (7) and gives thanks for them *all* (8), irrespective of ethnic origin. Since 'beloved', 'called' and 'saints' were all Old Testament epithets for Israel, it seems probable that Paul deliberately uses them here to indicate that all believers in Christ, Gentiles as well as Jews, now belong to the covenant people of God (cf. Rom. 9:24f). After this introduction, the apostle tells his Roman readers frankly of his feelings towards them. He makes four points:
1. He thanks God for them all (8)
Wherever the church has spread, the news that there were Christians in the capital had spread also. And although Paul had not been responsible for bringing the gospel to them, this did not inhibit him from giving thanks that Rome had been evangelized.
2. He prays for them (9-10)
He assures them that, even though most of them are unknown to him personally, he yet intercedes for them *constantly* (9) and *at all times* (10a). This is no pious platitude. He is telling the truth, and calls on God to witness his statement. In particular, he prays that *now at last by God's will*, that is, if it is God's will, *the way may be opened* for him to come to them (10b). It is a humble, tentative petition. He presumes neither to impose his will on God, nor claim to know what God's will may be. Instead, he submits his will to God's. We learn in chapter 15 how his prayer was answered.
3. He longs to see them and tells them why (11-12)
His first reason is this: *so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift (charisma) to make you strong* (11). Since it is God alone who gives the spiritual gifts listed in 1 Corinthians 12, Romans 12 and Ephesians 4, these gifts given by Paul must be such things as his own teaching and exhortation which he hopes to give them when he arrives. But Paul understands that such giving is not one-sided, and so he corrects himself: *that is, that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other's faith* (12). He knows about the reciprocal blessings of Christian fellowship and, although he is an apostle, he is not too proud to acknowledge his need of it.
4) He has often planned to visit them (13)
Exactly what has foiled him he does not say. Perhaps the most likely explanation is the one he will mention towards the end of his letter, namely that his evangelistic work in and around Greece had not yet been completed (15:22f). Why had he tried to visit them? He now gives a third reason: *in order that I might have (RSV 'reap') a harvest among you*. 'Harvest' is literally 'fruit'—Paul hopes to win some converts in Rome, *just as...among other Gentiles* (13).
Paul and evangelism (1:14-17)
14 I am obligated both to Greeks and non-Greeks, both to the wise and the foolish. 15 That is why I am so eager to preach the gospel also to you who are at Rome. 16 I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. 17 For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: "The righteous will live by faith."
Paul now makes three strong personal statements about his anxiety to preach the gospel in Rome: 'I am obligated...' (14), "I am...eager...' (15), and 'I am not ashamed...' (16). If some Christians today see evangelism as optional, Paul saw it as an obligation, which he approached with eagerness and enthusiasm. Of course, Paul had many reasons to feel reluctant about evangelism. According to tradition, he was an ugly, short and bald, with a hooked nose, bad eyesight and no great rhetorical gifts. What could he hope to accomplish against the proud might of imperial Rome? Would he not be wiser to stay away? Or, if he must visit Rome, would it not be prudent for him to keep silent, lest he be laughed out of court and hustled out of town? Paul did not think so, for he was driven by three essential convictions concerning the gospel:
1. The gospel is a debt to the world (14-15)
The NIV *I am obligated* should properly be translated 'I am (a) debtor' (AV). But what was the nature of this debt? There are two possible ways of getting into debt. The first is to borrow money *from* someone; the second is to be given money *for* someone by a third party. It is in this second sense that Paul is in debt. Jesus Christ made Paul a debtor by committing the gospel to his trust. He was in debt to the Romans. As apostle to the Gentiles he was particularly in debt to the Gentile world, *both to Greeks and non-Greeks* (literally 'barbarians'), *both to the wise and the foolish* (14). Both couplets may denote the same contrasting groups, or the first may allude to differences in nationality, culture and language, the second of intelligence and education. Either way, these expressions together cover the whole of Gentile humanity. It was because of his sense of debt to them that he could write: *That is why I am so eager to preach the gospel also to you who are at Rome* (15). As Christians, we are debtors to the world. Because we have heard the gospel we are under obligation to make it known to others. Such was Paul's first incentive. He was eager because he was in debt. It is universally regarded as a dishonorable thing to leave a debt unpaid. We should be as eager to discharge our debt as Paul was to discharge his.
2. The gospel is God's power for salvation (16)
Paul now gives a second reason for being eager to preach the gospel, and not ashamed of it: *I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile* (16). Jesus warned his disciples against being ashamed of him and Paul no doubt had wrestled with that problem. He told the Corinthians that he came to them 'in weakness and fear, and with much trembling' (1 Cor. 2:3). He knew that the message of the cross was 'foolishness' to some and 'a stumbling block' to others (1 Cor. 1:18, 23). Whenever the gospel is faithfully preached, it arouses opposition, often contempt, and sometimes ridicule. But Paul rose above the temptation to be ashamed of the gospel by remembering that the very same message which some people despise for its weakness, is in fact *the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes*.
How do we know this? In the long run, only because we have experienced the saving power of the gospel in our own lives. Has God reconciled us to himself through Christ, forgiven our sins, made us his children, put his Spirit within us, begun to transform us, and introduced us into his new community? Then how can we possibly be ashamed of the gospel? Moreover, the gospel is God's saving power for *everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile*. Saving faith, which is the necessary response to the gospel, is the great leveler. For everyone who is saved is saved exactly the same way, by faith--specifically the faith of Christ himself (see Galatians 2:20 KJV along with Rom. 3:22; 4:11; 10:4, 11). This goes for Jews and Gentiles equally. There is no distinction between them in respect of salvation (Rom. 10:12; cf. Gal. 3:28), though the offer of that salvation came first (historically) to the Jews.
3. The gospel reveals God's righteousness (17)
Paul tells us that the gospel is the power of God for salvation, *For (gar, because) in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed...* The reason the gospel is God's saving power is that in it God's righteousness is revealed. Moreover, this righteousness is 'from faith to faith' (AV), in fulfillment of Habakkuk 2:4: 'the righteous will live by his faith'. Many commentators have called verses 16-17 the 'text' of which the rest of Romans is the exposition. They are certainly crucial to our understanding. But three basic questions confront us. First, what is 'the righteousness of God'? Secondly, what is the meaning of 'from faith to faith' (AV) or 'through faith for faith' (RSV) or ‘by faith from first to last’ (NIV)? Thirdly, how should we interpret the Habakkuk quotation and Paul's use of it?
a. The righteousness of God
The meaning of the expression *dikaiosyne theou* (‘righteousness of - or from – God’) can be thought of in three ways: First as a divine attribute—God’s character and behavior. It can also be seen as a divine activity—God’s saving intervention on behalf of his people. And thirdly it can be seen as a divine achievement—a righteousness that is from God (which is how the phrase is rendered by the NIV in both 1:17 and 3:21), which God requires if we are ever to stand before him.
This righteousness of/from God is contrasted with our own righteousness (Phil. 3:9; cf. Rom 10:3) which we are tempted to establish instead of submitting to God's righteousness (10:3). God's righteousness is a gift (5:17) which is offered to faith (3:22) and which we can have or enjoy (Phil. 3:9). Charles Cranfield paraphrases 1:17 in this way: 'For in it (i.e. in the gospel as it is being preached) a righteous status which is God's gift is being revealed (and so offered to men) - a righteous status which is altogether by faith.' Further, in 2 Corinthians 5:21 Paul has written that in Christ we actually 'become the righteousness of God'; in Romans 4 he will write about righteousness being 'credited' ('reckoned' or imputed') to us, as it was to Abraham (verses 3, 24); and in 1 Corinthians 1:30 it is Christ himself 'who has become for us...our righteousness'. We are righteous because, having been incorporated into Christ, we share his righteousness.
Thus 'the righteousness of God' can be thought of as a divine attribute (our God is a righteous God), or activity (he comes to our rescue), or achievement (he bestows on us a righteous status). It is at one and the same time a quality, an activity and a gift. It seems legitimate to affirm, therefore, that 'the righteousness of God' is God's righteous initiative in putting sinners right with himself, by bestowing on them, in Christ, a righteousness which is not their own but his. 'The righteousness of God' is God's just justification of the unjust, his righteous way of pronouncing the unrighteous righteous, in which he both demonstrates his righteousness and gives righteousness to us. He has done it in and through Christ, the righteous one, who died for the unrighteous, as Paul will explain later. And he does it by faith when we put our trust in him, and cry to him for mercy.
b. 'From faith to faith'
The righteousness of God, which is revealed in the gospel and offered to us, is (literally) 'out of faith into faith'. There are a number of ways to translate and thus to understand Paul’s words here. Here are four options:
- The first speaks to faith's *origin* as being from the faith (faithfulness) of God in Christ, who makes the offer, to the faith of men who receive it. God's faithfulness always comes first, and ours is never other than a response. Similar to this interpretatioon is the recognition that the first faith mentioned in this couplet is Christ's faith--Christ manifested the righteousness of God by His faith (Romans 3:22, KJV), and we come to see and believe in that righteousness (and that one great act of righteousness which Christ did in laying down His life on the cross to justify many by His blood) through faith, by which we share in Christ's faith.
- The second option concerns the *spread* of faith by evangelism from one believer to another.
- The third option concerns faith's *growth* from one degree of faith to another (cf. 2 Cor. 3:18, RSV).
- The fourth option speaks to faith's *primacy* as it is rendered in the NIV: *by faith from first to last* or 'by faith through and through'.
c. The righteous will live by faith
The apostle now confirms his emphasis on faith from Scripture by quoting Habakkuk 2:4: *the righteous will live by faith*. The prophet had complained that God intended to raise up the ruthless Babylonians to punish Israel. How could he use the wicked to judge the wicked? Habakkuk was told that whereas the proud Babylonians would fall, the righteous Israelite would live by his faith, that is, in the context, by his humble, steadfast trust in God.
Many scholars, however, like the RSV, translate Paul's quotation of Habakkuk differently: 'he who through faith is righteous shall live'. There are strong arguments in favor of this translation. First, Paul has already used this text, in Galatians (Gal. 3:11) written some years earlier, as biblical support for justification by faith, not law. So it seems to be how he understands it. Secondly, the context almost demands this rendering, being an endorsement from Scripture of 'from faith to faith'. Paul's concern here is not how righteous people live, but how sinful people become righteous. Thirdly, this translation fits the construction of the letter where in Romans 1-4 'faith' occurs at least twenty-five times and 'life' only twice, whereas in Romans 5-8 'life' occurs twenty-five times and 'faith' only twice. These statistics indicate that the theme for chapters 1-4 is "he who through faith is righteous" (the indicative of grace) and for chapters 5-8 "he shall live" (the imperative response, also by faith).
Whichever translation is correct, Paul’s emphasis here and throughout this letter is on the importance of faith and the understanding that righteousness and our life in Christ are both by faith. Those who are righteous by faith also live by faith. Having begun in faith, they continue in the same path. The ‘bottom line’ of the gospel is thus this: the Christian life is by faith in Jesus Christ, and thus involves, from beginning to end, reliance on (trust in) the faithfulness of Christ himself.