28 June 2018
A Commentary by John Stott
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).
Some commentators are so offended by the thought that Paul could feel ashamed of the gospel that they pronounce his statement a case of litotes, that is, an understatement made for rhetorical effect, especially the use of the negative in place of a positive (as when someone says, “I am not amused”, meaning ‘I am upset and angry”). So Moffat renders the phrase, ‘I am proud of the gospel.’ But surely this attempt to tone down Paul’s statement, though grammatically permissible is, psychologically misguided. Jesus himself warned his disciples against being ashamed of him, which shows that he anticipated they might be (Mk. 8:38), and Paul gave Timothy a similar admonition (2 Tim. 1:8, 12). I once heard James Stewart of Edinburgh, in a sermon on this text, make the perceptive comment that ‘there’s no sense in declaring that you are not ashamed of something unless you‘ve been tempted to feel ashamed of it’. And without doubt Paul knew this temptation. 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), because it undermines self-righteousness and challenges self-indulgence. So whenever the gospel is faithfully preached, it arouses opposition, often contempt, and sometimes ridicule.
How then did Paul (and how shall we) overcome the temptation to be ashamed of the gospel? He tells us. It is 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 its saving power 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 leveller. For everyone who is saved is saved exactly the same way, by faith (cf. Rom. 3:22; 4:11; 10:4, 11). That goes for Jews and Gentiles equally. There is no distinction between them in respect of salvation (Rom. 10:12; cf. Gal. 3:28). The priority of the Jews (‘first for the Jew’) is both theological, because God chose them and made his covenant with them, and therefore historical (‘We had to speak the word of God to you first’) (Acts 13:46).
Reflecting on the apostle’s three personal affirmations in verses 14-16, we have seen that his eagerness to evangelize in Rome arose from his recognition that the gospel is an unpaid debt to the world and the saving power of God. The first gave him a sense of obligation (he had been put in trust with the good news), and the second a sense of conviction (if it had saved him, it could save others). Still today the gospel is both a debt to discharge and a power to experience. Only when we have grasped and felt these truths shall we be able to say with Paul, ‘I am not ashamed…I am under obligation… So I am eager to share the gospel with the world’.