Not Ashamed of the Gospel

Why does Paul make this claim in Romans 1:16?  And what does he mean by it?  And why does he say this in this letter to this audience?

Many interpreters consider Romans 1:16-17 as Paul’s thesis or thematic statement for the entire letter.  I’m not convinced that this is the case.  I agree with Daniel Kirk’s contention in Unlocking Romans that Paul states it earlier.  While “the summative nature of these two verses is undeniable . . ., Paul declares his intentions and themes in Rom. 1:1-7” (pp. 6-8).

In reading vv. 16-17, however, we must keep in mind vv. 1-15 and Paul’s intentions in writing to Rome.  When we do, we see that Paul’s statement in v. 16 is likely not a triumphal or defiant claim.  We should not be thinking of dramatic historical moments like Luther before the Diet of Worms.  Paul is not playing the role of a lone faithful disciple before a hostile audience.

We don’t know exactly what was happening in the Roman churches or how much Paul knew about the situation.  We can, however, read Romans carefully and take into account what we know historically.

I had said previously that Romans is a pastoral letter written to a multi-ethnic church that is struggling with racial tensions.  Since the founding of the church and for about twenty years, there had been a pretty clear power arrangement.  Jewish Christians formed the backbone of the Christian community and were well-established in the leadership of the churches.  The mode of life in the Christian community was thoroughly Jewish and the lines between the Christian churches and Jewish synagogues may have been very blurry.  Converts among gentiles over the years adjusted to these patterns of community life.

With the expulsion of the Jews from Rome in 49 CE, things changed.  Gentiles took responsibility out of necessity and likely filled leadership roles with growing confidence.  The communal patterns of life changed, too, in ways that reflected a non-Jewish membership.

In 54 CE, Jews were allowed to return to Rome with the death of Claudius and the rise of Nero.  As anyone in ministry knows, five years is a very long time in the life of a church or network of house churches.  The community has changed.

With the return of Jewish Christians, there is tension and perhaps even some isolated open conflicts.  Those who had formerly enjoyed roles of leadership expect to speak once again with the voice of authority and resume their previous positions of prominence.  Jewish Christians would have noticed that many particular communal practices that make up a Jewish mode of life have been neglected.  Certain feasts and holidays no longer orient the rhythms of life.

The Jewish Christians likely stressed the need to restore faithfulness to the Jewish Law.  They would have associated the particular practices of a Jewish mode of life with obedience to Jesus.  They would have seen the larger issue of community practices in terms of faithfulness to God.

There is tension, then, between Jewish Christians insisting on renewed Law observance that involved the particulars of a Jewish mode of life and non-Jewish Christians who have grown comfortable with how community life had evolved over five years’ time.

The former community leaders among the Jewish Christians were asserting their ethnic priority as God’s historic people.  They had the priority in God’s saving work in the world and thus the privilege, and not the gentiles, to determine the shape of community life.  They may have adopted the mantra, “to the Jew first and also to the Greek.”

The community tensions have produced widespread discouragement.  A formerly thriving community with a clear mission had adapted to the loss of leadership with the expulsion of the Jews.  With their return, what was envisioned as a shot in the arm has produced discouragement.  There is hopelessness in the community and resentment between community leaders.

Even more distressing is that the situation is being exacerbated by the renewal of attention to the Law.  How can this be?  How does renewed attention to God’s word produce bad fruit?  Getting ahead of ourselves, I think this is the question Paul answers in Romans 7.

But just to say here, Paul’s tone in Rom. 1:16-17 is far more compassionately pastoral than defiantly triumphant.  He’s speaking to a community that has lost hope in the work of God to unite Jew and gentile in God’s new family in Christ.

He says in v. 15 that he’s eager to come to Rome to see the gospel bear fruit among them.  He wonders if their response might be, “Why?  What’s the point?  To see us further discouraged and put the final nail in the coffin of our formerly thriving community?”

Paul expresses his confidence that God’s saving power is indeed currently working through the gospel–God’s new move to unite Jews and non-Jews in Christ by the power of God’s Spirit.  Despite their current discouragement, the gospel does indeed have the power to transform them and produce among them a harvest of righteousness.  His letter is pastoral counsel on how they can see this happen.

8 thoughts on “Not Ashamed of the Gospel

  1. S Wu

    I would agree with you there, Tim. I think Gordon Fee says that Paul’s argument is driven by his ecclesiology rather than soteriology (in his Pauline Christology, page 237). To me, Romans 12:1-15:13 and the language of Jew/Gentile throughout Romans 1-4; 9-11; 12-15 provide plenty of evidence for that. I want to add three comments/questions.

    (1) Robert Jewett’s commentary places a lot of emphasis on Paul’s intended visit to Spain. If he is right, then there is a “missional” purpose in the letter. I am not sure whether I am convinced by Jewett (but then I am not qualify to disagree with him). Jewett’s argument seems to be very compelling. I wonder what your thoughts are?

    (2) The expulsion and return of the Jews seems to be a reasonable assumption. But then is it in the text of Romans? I have been asking myself how confident we can be with using that as the starting point of the reconstruction. My lack of confidence is the reason why I used the word “reasonable” above. I wonder whether it is better to use Romans 12:1-15:13 as the starting point? That is, there is inter-communal conflict in the Christ-community in Rome, and that drives the letter – and hence it is pastoral.

    (3) The more I read Romans, the more I think that the underlying theology of Paul is Christological and eschatological, which is evidenced in Romans 5-8 (and other places as well). What is also clear to the audience is Paul’s extensive use of Israel’s Scripture, which serves to affirm Paul’s Christological and eschatological view of his world at his time. The letter is, however, driven by pastoral/ecclesiological concerns (with the missional purpose of going to Spain not far away). In between all these are of course the story of Israel and the question about God’s covenantal faithfulness to Israel.

    Okay, I am not making myself very clear – not a very good writer. But those are my thoughts.

    1. timgombis

      Hey S. I haven’t read Jewett as thoroughly as I should, but I don’t think that the mission to Spain should figure so prominently. Paul certainly does want the Roman church to serve as a launching point for his mission westward, but the extent to which this factors into his presentation may be overcooked.

      The expulsion and return certainly can’t be proved, but it does seem to make good sense and it resonates with chapters 12-15 being the point of Paul’s letter. I just think it makes sense that that series of events is the background cause for the community instability that elicits Paul’s letter. You’re exactly right — there is communal conflict and Pastor Paul writes pastorally to bring the divided community together.

      On point 3 — I hear you! I think his aims are pastoral-ecclesial, and his counsel is theologically oriented. Good stuff, S.!!

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  4. Rodney TeSlaa

    No shame? It is a strange phrase to use about the gospel, given his assumed Christian audience. Any chance it is referencing Adam and Eve’s lack of shame at “creation” and Paul’s lack shame it light of the gospel’s “new creation” and Christ’s “re-creation”.

    Got a slew of questions about creation for another time. Like, could evil have a “true presence” in the garden? Was creation “made” to be good or “declared” as good. Did goodness leave with God, but the truth that God spoke stood unchanged, so creation continued to stand but no longer as good because God’s presence was necessary for them to have his goodness reflected on them? Would the lie (sin) against that truth have a real existence because it would no longer be…it would no longer be true and in that sense, not real, not a true reality but a false one? It would then have no real power…except to the extent as it was believed. Even then, a lie is not real and would require an agent, something real, of which God can only create, but something no longer true, as to be able to fall for doing things outside of or in the absence of that truth. Was the fall then based on the act of sin (which could not exist in a world that was all good and only true), or was the fall based on Adam and Eve’s being untrue, believing the lie? Was God’s warning true? “The day you eat of it, you’ll die”. Did they cease to exist in truth that day?…cease to live in reality but only in the absence of it?

    Sorry. What I really need to ask is if you have any recommendations for a book on Christology, preferably on my level of scholarship, meaning 5th grade.

    Miss your insights. I need another 8 hour walk through Genesis.

    Rodney TeSlaa

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