27 June 2018
A Commentary by John Stott
Romans 1:14-17. Paul and Evangelism.
The apostle now makes three strong personal statements about his anxiety to preach the gospel in Rome:
‘I am bound…’ (RSV ‘under obligation’)
‘I am not ashamed…’
The reason these affirmations are so striking is that they are in direct antithesis to the attitude of many in the contemporary church. People nowadays tend to regard evangelism as an optional extra and consider (if they engage in it) that they are conferring a favour on God; Paul spoke of it as an obligation. The modern mood is one of reluctance; Paul’s was one of eagerness or enthusiasm. Many of us today would have to confess, if we were honest, that we *are* ashamed of the gospel; Paul declared that he was not.
Mind you, Paul had just as many reasons to feel reluctant or embarrassed as we do. Rome was a symbol of imperial pride and power. People spoke of it with awe. Everybody hoped to visit Rome at least once in their lifetime, in order to look and stare and wonder. But who was this fellow Paul who wanted to visit the capital city not as a tourist but as an evangelist, and who believed he had something to say which Rome needed to listen to? What folly and presumption was this? According to tradition, Paul was an ugly little guy with beetle brows, bandy legs,a bald pate, a hooked nose, bad eyesight and no great rhetorical gifts. So 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 his big mouth shut, lest he be laughed out of court and hustled out of town?
Evidently Paul did not think so. On the contrary, ‘I am under obligation’, he wrote; ‘I am…eager… I am not ashamed.’ What, then, were the origins of his evangelistic enthusiasm? They were two.
1). The gospel is a debt to the world (14-15).
The NIV *I am bound* and the RSV ‘I am under obligation’ should properly be translated ‘I am (a) debtor’ AV. It is perhaps puzzlement over how and why the gospel could be a debt which has led translators to write more generally of ‘obligation’. There are, in fact, 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. For example, if I were to borrow 1,000 pounds from you, I would be in your debt until I had paid it back. Equally, if a friend of yours were to hand me 1,000 pounds to give to you, I would be in your debt until I had handed it over. In the former case I would have got myself into debt by borrowing; in the latter it is your friend who has put me in your debt by entrusting me with 1,000 pounds for you.
It is in this second sense that Paul is in debt. He has not borrowed anything from the Romans which he must repay. But Jesus Christ has entrusted him with the gospel for them. Several times in his letters he writes of having been ‘put in trust with the gospel’ (E.g. 1 Cor.4:1f.; Gal. 2:7; 1 Thess. 2:4; 1 Tim. 1:11; Tit. 1:3). It is true that this metaphor is one of stewardship (or trusteeship) rather than indebtedness, but the underlying thought is the same. It is Jesus Christ who has 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). It is not certain how we are meant to understand this classification. 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 xpressions 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).
Similarly, we are debtors to the world, even though we are not apostles. If the gospel has come to us (which it has), we have no liberty to keep it to ourselves. Nobody may claim a monopoly of the gospel. Good news is for sharing. 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 dishonourable thing to leave a debt unpaid. We should be as eager to discharge our debt as Paul was to discharge his.
Tomorrow: Romans 1:16. 2). The gospel is God’s power for salvation.