Guests: Bruce Johanson and Zdravko Stefanovic
Are you ashamed of the Gospel?
While some people in Paul’s day may have been ashamed of the gospel, Paul was not. The gospel for Paul was something to boast about? Why? Because the gospel is the power of God for salvation. But what is it about the gospel that makes it some powerful? In stating the reason in verse 17 Paul introduces us to a key phrase in Romans—the righteousness of God (1:17; 3:5, 21, 22, 25, 26; 10:3).
When Martin Luther first came across this phrase in Romans, he became discouraged. He interpreted God’s righteousness to mean that the gospel was the good news that God was a just and righteous God. While that might be good news for some, it was ultimately bad news for Luther because he knew he was a sinner. Knowing that God was righteousness simply meant that God would punish him for his sins. Romans did not become good news for Luther until he realized that he has misunderstood what God’s righteousness was all about.
In the OT “righteousness” is a relational word that can apply to both the behavior of God and humans (cf. Ps. 97:2; Gen. 38:26). As a relational term it involves the assessment of an individual’s behavior—whether that person has acted in an appropriate manner. Thus in the most basic sense of the term a “righteous” person is someone who does the “right” thing. What Luther finally realized, however, was that the dominant use of righteousness in the Old Testament is in connection to God’s promise to restore the world from its fallen condition (cf. Gen. 3:15). God outlined his plan to bless the whole world most fully in the covenant he made with Abraham and his descendants (Gen. 12:1-3; 15:5-6, 13-21; 17:7). Within this context, God’s righteousness refers to his faithfulness to his covenantal promises. God acts “righteously” by keeping his word and bringing salvation and redemption to his people (Isa. 45:8; 46:12-13; 51:5-6, 8; Ps. 71:15; 98:2). Although Israel had failed to be faithful to God, God has acted righteously to his promise through sending Jesus, the one faithful Israelite, to overcome both Israel’s unfaithfulness and to atone for the sins of the entire world.
Paul’s statement, “I am not ashamed of the gospel,” implies that some people were ashamed of the gospel. An indication of the ridicule Christians faced in response to their belief in Jesus can be seen in the earliest known drawing of the crucifixion of Jesus. The inscription was discovered in Rome and dates to the 1st or 2nd century A.D. It is referred to as the Alexamenos graffito. It depicts an individual being crucified on a cross. The victim, however, has the head of a donkey and the body of a man. Beside the cross is a young man kneeling in worship with the following phrase scratched in Greek: “Alexander worships [his] god.” The point is obvious—Christians are foolish.
Questions for Discussion:
- How, in Paul’s day or today, might a person be tempted to be ashamed of the gospel? What reason does Paul give for why he is “not ashamed of the gospel”?
- Paul says the gospel contains the “power of God for salvation.” What power have you seen the gospel exercise in your life?
- In Romans 1:17, Paul says, “The righteousness shall live by faith.” In practical terms, what does it mean “to live by faith”? Since this passage is a quotation of Habakkuk 2:4, how might the historical event associated with Habakkuk inform our understanding of this phrase?
The subject of God’s wrath for many people is a troubling topic. For some it conjures up the image of a vindictive God dangling sinners above the fiery pits of hell—similar to the picture painted by Jonathan Edwards in his notoriously famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Others go to the opposite extreme claiming that claim God has no wrath at all.
- How does Paul describe God’s wrath in Romans 1:18-28? How is this view different from the two views expressed above? How do Paul’s comments in 1:20 and 2:4 demonstrate that God’s wrath is not vindictive?
- According to Paul, on the basis of what kinds of sin are Gentiles and Jews condemned? Are these sins still a problem today?
- In Romans 3:9 Paul states that “all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin.” To prove his point, Paul then cites a collection of Old Testament Scriptures. How do these texts indicate the problem of human sinfulness is not isolated to an occasional mistake, but is universal and pervasive in its extent? Here’s a hint: What phrase is repeated four times and how many different parts of the body are mentioned.