Paul introduces his good news of God’s righteousness (faithfulness) in 1:1-17, which is good news for the whole of humanity (1:5, 13b-17). Note that the word “gospel” occurs six times in these opening verses. Paul certainly used texts to explain and present his message but he preached “the gospel” rather than a host of verses. The centrality of the “good news” Why did Paul write the book of Romans? Scholars continue to debate that question and they come up with differing answers. Perhaps there is no one single reason for Romans. There certainly isn’t one that stands out so plainly that scholars can agree on it. That’s the trouble with and the beauty of rich literature. It carries our minds in so many directions that we find it hard to stay with one profound insight. This is especially true when the writer himself hasn’t offered a single purpose for writing. And even if a writer has a single purpose in mind, if the material is very rich he or she will be saying more than they consciously mean to say. This is because truths exist in a network of truth rather than standing in complete isolation from one another; so one truth leads to another. Humans, though individuals are not solitary beings; they are shaped by the community and culture they live in and experience life within the network of shared convictions and thought and speech patterns. I say a word that has many related uses and you experience one that I am not consciously thinking of. In any case, it’s always helpful and sometimes critically important to discover the overall reason for the book. Just the same, sometimes we can understand how some of the pieces work together even if we can’t determine where it is going as a whole. Something like a jigsaw puzzle I suppose. We can piece together some of the sections and still not know what the whole is about. But if we can piece a significant number of pieces together we can get a sense of the kind of scene we’ll find in the end. We may adjust our educated “guess” but we’ll not be simply groping in sheer ignorance.
Paul introduces his good news of God’s righteousness (faithfulness) in 1:1-17, which is good news for the whole of humanity (1:5, 13b-17). He uses the word “gospel” 4 times in these opening verses that act as an introduction to the entire letter; that should affect how we view the book as a whole. However somber some of the parts of Romans are we need to remember that Paul sees himself as a preacher and teacher of “the gospel of God” (1:1) and it’s that good news he wants to bring to the Romans.
The truth and authority of the “good news”
An inscription discovered in Priene in northern Turkey is dated 9 B.C. and it gives us an insight into what the word “gospel” means. Here’s a piece of what it says.
“Whereas the Providence which has ordered the whole of our life, showing concern and zeal, has ordained the most perfect consummation for human life by giving to it Augustus, by filling him with virtue for doing the work of a benefactor among men, and by sending in him, as it were, a saviour for us and those who come after us, to make war to cease, to create order everywhere and whereas the birthday of the God [Augustus] was the beginning for the world of the glad tidings that have come to men through him. Paulus Fabius Maximus, the proconsul of the province has devised a way of honoring Augustus.”
From this it’s clear that the “gospel” is glad tidings. It’s also clear that the gospel is an announcement, a proclamation rather than just an invitation to share the joy inherent in the good news. This inscription isn’t saying that Augustus is lord if only the people would let him into their hearts. It claims that the power that governs the universe had established Augustus as lord of the world and he is its instrument to bring peace and security to that world. Individualism is such a part of our culture and religious decision is so stressed that we forget this aspect of the gospel. When Paul preached Jesus as King he wasn’t inviting people to faith in a new religion, he was proclaiming a change in the entire creation because a new King had risen! Nothing is now to be seen in the same way. So he warns them as he approaches the gates of Rome, the world’s center of Caesar power, that he is coming with a gospel that is God’s power to save anyone who believes it! Even the Roman historian Tacitus, quotes Calgacus, saying that Rome by force of arms created a desert and called it peace; but Paul insists that he was not on a destroying mission; he was coming with a gospel of salvation and life. It is this gospel he wants to lay before the Romans and see it bear fruit among them.
Aspects of the gospel
He says it is the “gospel of God” (1:1). This phrase may mean it is a gospel that comes from God, a gospel that God himself makes known. It may also mean it is a gospel “about” God. There is no need to choose between these two because Paul might have had both in mind. Both are certainly true and it is important in the book of Romans to see that both are true. The gospel isn’t about less) important things like the weather, or the economy of the Greco-Roman world or how to get along with our neighbors. The gospel is about God Himself and how He relates to His sinful creation as He works to bless a human family that still resists Him.. And the gospel comes from God Himself.
It isn’t good advice or a philosophy that Paul or others have dreamed up—it comes from God. All this means that the Romans (and we) should pay close attention to his message. He says the gospel concerns God’s Son (1:1-4, 9) who is Jesus the Messiah (Christ). Paul insisted that God had made Himself and His purposes known in and as Jesus Christ in a way that never happened before. When we think of the Son of God Paul insists that He had come to the world as a son of David’s line but that He was also marked out as God’s unique Son by His resurrection out from among the dead. The phrase “according to the spirit of holiness” suggests that there was more to Jesus than His “fleshly” (human) nature. Viewed from His “fleshly” side he is David’s son and viewed from His “spiritual” side He is God’s Son. Many scholars think we should understand that Christ was David’s son according to the flesh but that he was shown to be God’s Son by the Holy Spirit (“the spirit of holiness”). That is, they think, and they may be correct, that here Paul isn’t speaking about the Godhood of Jesus but is particularly interested in His resurrection and glorification via the Holy Spirit. He says the gospel is God’s power to save (1:16). We’re tempted to think of God’s “power” as merely “divine muscle” but it’s a mistake to think of it like that in this context and most others. Even when speaking about human power we know the difference between the power to move a huge stone and the power to “move” a person. A person “saved” in Paul’s sense means God brought that person back into relationship with himself and so saved him/her from sin and loss. This kind of “saving” isn’t done with “divine muscle.” Since God saves us in and by the crucified Christ it’s clear that he doesn’t bully us into life and doesn’t save us by force. To be saved by God’s “power” means God set himself the task and was able to complete it. The gospel, or good news, is the message that a faithful God did that very thing and that he did it through the crucified (and resurrected) Jesus Christ. There are some places naked powers or force can’t enter and one of them is the human heart. Paul comes to the most powerful city of the world armed with nothing but a GOSPEL about God. He says the gospel is God’s power to save all who believebecause in the gospel God’s righteousness (faithfulness) continues to be revealed (1:16-17). God’s righteousness is God’s covenant faithfulness. He keeps His commitments and when He created humanity He made a commitment to humanity. Despite our rebellion against Him He didn’t utterly destroy us He was faithful to his word and that’s part of what we mean when we say God is “righteous”. His faithfulness is to all people and not only those who are Jews. The gospel message that proclaims God’s faithfulness draws people to God in response to that faithfulness and they put their trust in Him. So the gospel is “from” faith (God’s faithfulness) “unto” faith (the faith of those who hear). The relationship between the righteous God and those who are declared righteous by faith is a dynamic one if salvation is to be experienced finally in glory. It isn’t just God keeping faith with man; it is man trusting himself to that God who keeps faith. He says the gospel of God’s righteousness in Jesus Christ was promised in the Old Testament scriptures (1:2). Paul will make the point repeatedly that the Old Testament scriptures (including the covenant Torah itself) pointed to the gospel he was preaching about Jesus Christ, God’s Son (see also 3:21 with Acts 26:22-23). So, in some senses Paul’s message might be surprising but the truth is, Israel had been given fair warning of how the good news would be worked out in Jesus the Messiah (see Luke 24:25-27,44-47). Many in Israel, eager to establish their own national connection with God missed what the Old Testament taught about God’s righteousness toward and for the whole human race (see Romans 9:30 -10:4 in light of 1:16). GENTILES were and are to take note. In addition, the OT scriptures spoke of these glorious coming things as promises to Israel. Paul stresses again and again that the good news had special significance for Israel and then through them to Gentiles. But it’s “to the Jew first” [Romans 1:16; Acts 3:26; 13:46 and elsewhere].