I think, there is no time in the history of the Church that the Gospel has undergone so many reinterpretations and different emphases than this era. The word Gospel has been interpreted and used in different contexts. For example, to those going through fear of witchcraft in Africa, message of deliverance is their gospel. To others who are victims of the caste system in India, message of liberation could be their gospel. To others who are human right activists, all policies that protect the right of humanity such as gay rights, lesbians’ right and children’s right could also be a form of gospel. To some living in poverty who just need a message of hope, a prosperity message is taken to mean a kind of Gospel. To some others, policies protecting the right of animals is also a kind of Gospel. The list goes on and on. And depending upon one’s understanding of the Gospel, one could be described as conservative, liberal and fundamental or orthodox in theological orientation. But what does the Gospel actually mean from Pauline perspective especially as we read romans?
Explaining the passage
In Romans 1:16-17: Paul announces the theme of the letter: the Gospel of Christ reveals the righteousness of God – righteousness based on faith and not works, and available to all, both Jews and Gentiles. The word ‘righteousness’ is used in one way or the other over sixty times in this letter (righteous, just, and justified). What does the Gospel mean? In simple terms, Gospel means the Good News. It is the message that Christ died for our sins, was buried and rose again, and now is able to save all who trust Him (1 Cor.15;1-4). It is the Gospel of God (Rom. 1:1) because it originates with God and humans did not invent it. From the perspective of Pauline theology, 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. And so 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 justifier (Rom. 3: 26).
Why does Paul say he is not ashamed of the gospel at all? On the negative note, and on one side, I think that Paul was suffering from a reasonable inferiority complex as he contemplated his trip to Rome. For unlike other of his letters where his critics had questioned his authority, it is not so in this letter. Once a story is told about the animal Kingdom. That all animals met and they were considering that the ugliest animal would have to carry a big barrel full of water. Then suddenly the monkey got up and started shouting, “as for me I can’t carry it o..” Then the lion, who was the king said, monkey but who has said that you are the one to carry the barrel?. I think the character of the monkey is the example of what inferiority complex can sometimes do. In the letter to the Romans, Paul could be understood to be writing a letter to a church he has not planted or visited before. Yet Paul writes that he is not ashamed of the gospel. In any way, why was Paul tempted at all to be ashamed of the Gospel?
First, the Gospel was identified with a poor Jewish carpenter who was crucified. The Romans had no special appreciation for the Jews, and the crucifixion was the lowest form of execution given a criminal. Why put your faith in a Jew who was crucified?
Second, Rome was a proud city, and the Gospel came from Jerusalem, the capital city of one of the little nations that Rome had conquered. The Christians in that day were not among the elite of society; they were common people and even slaves. Rome had known many great philosophers and philosophies; why pay any attention to a story about a Jew who arose from the dead? (1 Cor. 1:18-25).
Thus, to think of a little Jewish tentmaker, going to Rome to preach such a message, is almost humorous.
On the other side and Positively, Paul was not ashamed in that he was confident in his message, and he gives us several reasons that explain why he was not ashamed. To begin, Paul was not ashamed of the Gospel because of its origin. It is the Gospel of Christ (v. 16a and 1.1). The message of the Gospel is from and about the very Son of God! In his opening sentence, Paul called this message the Gospel of God (Rom. 1:1). How could Paul be ashamed of such a message, when it came from God and centred in His Son, Jesus Christ? I have ever lived in a village where although the gong man (that is the public announcer of the message from the Chief) is not well of, yet he or she is never afraid and all take him serious because everyone knows he carries messages from the king. He is never afraid or ashamed, because he knows where his messages came from.
Second, Paul was not ashamed of the Gospel because of its operation. It is the power of God (v. 16b). Paul was not ashamed of the Gospel because he knew it was the one message that had the power to change people’s lives! He had seen the Gospel work in cities such as Corinth and Ephesus; and he was confident that it would work in Rome. It had transformed his own life, and he knew it could transform the lives of others. I come from Africa where some people who are so much deeply rooted in Traditional religion, some of which are fetish priests, upon hearing the Good News about Jesus, are able to give up their fetishism.
Third, Paul was not ashamed of the gospel because of its outcome: It is the power of God unto salvation (v. 16c). The word salvation carried tremendous meaning in Paul’s day. Its basic meaning is deliverance, and it was applied to personal and national deliverances. The Gospel delivers people from the penalty and power of sin. Salvation is a major theme in the letter to Romans. It is also seen as the great need of the human race (see Rom. 10:1, 9-10). If men and women are to be saved, it must be through faith in Jesus Christ as proclaimed in the Gospel.
Fourth, Paul was not ashamed of the gospel because of its outreach. It is for everyone who believes (vv. 15-17). This was not an exclusive message for either the Jew or the Gentile; it was for all people because all need to be saved (Mark 16:15). To the Jew, first does not suggest that the Jew is better than the Gentile; for there is no difference in condemnation or in salvation (Rom. 2;6-11; 10:9-13). The Gospel to the Jew first was seen in the ministry of Jesus Christ (Matt. 10:5-7) and the Apostles (Acts 3:26). How marvelous it is to have a message of power that can be taken to all people!
Conclusion and Application
As we go through the period of lent, let us continue to reflect through what the gospel means. And that demands openness of heart and mind. Well, may be as an African Christian, having personally experienced transformed life just by hearing the gospel in simple terms, I will agree with Paul that the Gospel, and for that matter, the Good News about Jesus has not lose its transforming power. Although many contemporary Pauline exegetes have come to disagree with Luther’s interpretation of Paul, yet it is undoubtable fact that it is this same Gospel, that transformed Luther’s life. So also it did to John Wesley. We are therefore called upon to trust in this Gospel and in simple terms tell it to others. Like Paul did, we are not to be ashamed of the Gospel. The past mistakes of the early propagators of this Gospel should not make us ashamed. Neither should one’s cultural background serve as a barrier. For the Gospel knows no cultural limitations.
Presented by Rev. John Kwasi Fosu
As a devotional message, presented at the joint programme of Missionsakademie and Bossey Ecumenical Institute on 01/04/17