by Keith Paulus
I suspect most Christians would like to see a powerful work of God in their church. Indeed, what faithful church member doesn’t want to see hearts converted, lives changed, and Jesus’ church flourishing! Yet, despite such good desires, there often seems to be much confusion over how such powerful events take place, as revealed perhaps in the plethora of church growth books advocating varying techniques and strategies. For example, does such power for ministry come through a special work of the Holy Spirit that we need seek through just the right formula? Does it come through some ‘silver bullet’ ministry strategy that promises to revolutionize our churches? Is the answer to be found in a charismatic leader who can draw in a crowd through the sheer force of his personality? Or in abandoning all modern techniques and returning to an ‘ancient’ form of being the church? How about a kind of well-ordered worship service – with the music perfectly timed, the liturgy carefully crafted – that creates a moving experience for the worshipper? Such well-worn answers reveal I fear how easy it is to sometimes miss (or simply forget) the Bible’s clear message about where it is our ministries are to be focused.
After all, if we were to sharpen the question and ask it in this way, as the Bible essentially does: what is the power of God for salvation? I trust many of us would immediately know the answer. The gospel, of course! For this is indeed the straightforward claim that the Apostle Paul makes regarding, not only his ministry, but all genuine ministry. It is the famous declaration from Romans 1:16, For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it [meaning, the gospel] is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.
So, again, asking the question: where do we find the extraordinary power needed for the kind of ministry in which sinners are converted, lives are transformed, and the church is built up? Well, only from God. It must be the very power of God Himself that brings about such wonderful realities. But – and this is the critical question for us in this writing – how do we unleash (if we may be allowed to put the matter that way) the power of God in our churches to that end? The Apostle’s answer: through the preaching of the gospel.
For those of us to whom this is a new idea, or for those of us who, in all the ups and downs of church ministry, have simply forgotten the truth of the matter, Paul’s letter to the Romans is the reorienting message we need.
Romans is all about gospel ministry
In the sixteen chapters of Romans, the word ‘gospel’ is used by the Apostle on eleven different occasions (1:1, 9, 15, 16; 2:16; 10:16; 11:28; 15:16, 19, 20; 16:25). To take a sample of his usage, he opens his letter by identifying that, as a servant of Jesus, he has been set apart for the gospel (1:1). This work of gospel ministry is how he has gone about serving God with his whole being (that is the meaning intended with the phrase in the ESV in 1:9 that he has served God with my spirit in the gospel of his Son). He is eager to preach the gospel to those who are in Rome (1:15; cf. 15:20). As we have already noted in 1:16, he is not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation. Towards the end of the letter, he can even make the claim that, because of the far reaches of his travels and preaching, I have fulfilled the ministry of the gospel of Christ.
Indeed, we can summarize the point and purpose of Paul writing this letter to the Romans in terms of gospel ministry. 1:5-6 is his clear statement about what he aims to accomplish among the Christians at Rome – it is to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of [Jesus’] name among all the nations through, as we have seen above, his eagerness to preach the gospel to them (1:15). That this is his purpose is made even more clear by the fact that he restates it at the end of the letter, thus providing a ‘top and tail’ to his letter in order to indicate his intention. Observe this restatement both in 15:16-20 and also in his closing doxology, Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ… to bring about the obedience of faith – to the only wise God be glory forevermore through Jesus Christ! Amen (16:25-27).
For Paul, Christian ministry was gospel ministry. He knew he had been set apart for the gospel to preach the gospel to all the nations and that through the preaching of the gospel God would powerfully accomplish His purposes in the lives of His people – from the initial gift of saving faith all the way through to their completed sanctification. Which, again, is why I contend that Romans is the reorienting message that some of us may need for our church and ministry today.
What is the gospel in Romans?
So now we have said that the gospel is the power of God, and that Christian ministry is gospel ministry. But we must be clear about what we mean by the gospel. If Romans is all about the gospel, how does it go about defining the gospel message? This of course is a vital practical question because if we today are going to preach the gospel with the prayerful aim of having the power of God at work amongst us for the salvation and sanctification of sinners then we need to be very clear about what exactly that gospel message is that we are to be preaching and sharing with others.
It is almost universally recognized that 1:16-17 is Paul’s thesis statement, if you will, for this letter. Here is Paul’s central summary statement that is then unpacked throughout Romans:
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”
Building to this central statement, Paul has already introduced us to some critical statements regarding the gospel. 1:1, it is fundamentally God’s gospel – the gospel of God. 1:2, it was promised beforehand in the holy Scriptures. 1:3 – it is about Jesus the Son of God who descended from David according to the flesh, and who was then powerfully declared to be who He has been from all eternity. It was in His resurrection specifically that Jesus was declared to be the Son of God in power. The gospel is all about this Lord Jesus.
Furthermore, as we’ve seen in 1:15, Paul is eager to preach the gospel. That declaration sets up a series of reasons then progressively given in verses 16-17 for why Paul believes and does what he does in ministry.
- Why is Paul so eager to preach the gospel? Because he is not ashamed of it (v.16a).
- Why is he not ashamed of it? Because it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes (v.16b).
- Why is it the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes? Because in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith (v.17).
What an amazing two verses! What majestic truth tightly packed in a small space!
First, the very fact that Paul is not ashamed of the gospel is itself noteworthy. The Greco-Roman world with all of its pretensions to wisdom and power could be an intimidating place where the pressure to conform could be immense, not unlike NYC where, for many of you reading this, is the place where you live and work and do ministry. I personally have lived in NYC for the past 12 years and have felt something of that pressure with all the displays of human wealth and learning that surround me. No doubt, almost every Christian no matter where they live will feel something of this. And yet Paul is not ashamed of his crucified and risen Lord who saves humble and broken people. Now, perhaps we might think Paul could have said something stronger in favor of the gospel than merely that he is not ashamed of it. But we shouldn’t discount the powerful emotion of shame when confronted with the allurement of human sophistication. As such, it is in fact a strong declaration of faith for Paul to declare to such a Roman audience that he is not ashamed of the gospel.
Second, the reason he is not ashamed of the gospel is because, though it may not fit the definitions of human power and wisdom, it is in fact powerful – the very power of God in fact to save all people. To be clear, this is not a salvation that is universal, but rather one that depends on faith. It is for those who believe. But, indeed, so powerful is it that it is for everyone who believes – no matter their origin of birth or ethnic identity or cultural context. The gospel is that powerful. Thus, let us be sure we understand clearly what Paul is saying here. In saying the gospel is the power of God for salvation, he is saying that God saves those who believe through the message of the gospel. That is how this power of God that Paul is describing becomes operative in our lives. It is the gospel – the gospel message, revealed in the Scriptures concerning Jesus the Son – as it is preached and taught and communicated to people – that is God’s power for salvation. In light of such truth, the idea that a person of genuine faith could be ashamed of such a gospel is nothing short of absurdity.
Third, what makes this gospel message so powerful for salvation is that in it the righteousness of God is revealed. If, for the sake of brevity in a short article like this, we can take the learning of many biblical scholars and summarize the amazingly rich statement that is the righteousness of God in one sentence, we might do so with this: the righteousness of God is not only that attribute of God which speaks of His justice, but (and here we get more to the specific meaning of this term in Romans 1:17), as an aspect of His covenant faithfulness, is also His saving activity on behalf of ruined sinners in order to bestow on them a righteous status by which He might justify them. It is this righteousness which is powerfully revealed in the preaching of the gospel. It is the very salvation of God in which He savingly works to bring people into a right relationship with Himself by bestowing on them His own righteousness as a gift, and in such a way that He becomes the very righteousness of His people (Jeremiah 23:5-6, 33:16; cf. Isaiah 45:24, 54:17). That this righteousness is a gift is implicit in the fact that the emphasis at the end of verse 17 mirrors the emphasis at the end of verse 16 – namely, that the saving righteousness of God becomes effectual for a person only through faith. It is from faith for faith, which is intended to say something along the lines of – faith at the beginning, faith at the end, faith always. For in fact this is the message of all the Scriptures, hence Habakkuk 2:4, “The righteous shall live by faith.”
Now, again, this is Paul’s summary thesis statement which he then unpacks throughout the rest of Romans. Therefore, as we seek to gain increasing clarity about what exactly is this gospel message which unleashes the power of God in our ministries, we can look for clarification to other parts of this letter, the most important of which are Romans 3 and 10.
Romans 3:19-31 (cf. Romans 10:3-13)
Romans 3 unpacks for us the truth that when Paul speaks earlier of the righteousness of God and of salvation, what he specifically has in mind is what Christian theologians refer to as justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. In other words, the righteousness of God is a justifying righteousness that comes to us through the work of Jesus Christ. And, as we have already noted, this righteousness is a gift of grace which is only effectual for all those who put their faith in Jesus the Son. Thus, we do not receive it through anything we do, rather we receive it only by faith. Therefore, justification (acquittal, acceptance, being set right with God) is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.
No doubt all this sounds like Christianity 101 to most of us. And, yes, precisely so, as it should be. But that is exactly what makes it so strange that so often we leave the gospel behind in our lives and ministries. Perhaps we have forgotten just how joy-inducing this message is. More tragically, perhaps we have grown ashamed of it. Even more tragically, perhaps we have come to believe – consciously or not – that it is not really all that powerful. Perhaps it might do some of us some good to go back through Romans 3 and hear once again the glory of the gospel proclaimed in this section of God’s Word. As you read through these verses, listen again clearly to what the written Word of God is proclaiming to you.
- There exists a righteousness that is apart from the law (i.e., apart from any of our works of obedience). Thus, if you sense – as God’s commands in Scripture lead us to sense – that you cannot possibly through your own efforts achieve the perfect righteousness of God or in yourself live up to the very glory of God, then there is hope for you, because the righteousness that Paul is so on about here comes to us apart from what we are able to do or not do (3:19-21; 10:3-8).
- This righteousness is the very righteousness of God (again, His saving activity in which He imputes to us His righteousness) (3:22).
- This righteousness becomes effectual for us through faith, not through works (3:22).
- It is for all who believe (3:22).
- The object of this faith through which God’s saving activity becomes effectual for us is Jesus (3:22; 10:9).
- The result of all this is that we are justified (that is, declared to be righteous in God’s sight and thus no longer need to bear the condemnation our sin deserves) (3:24).
- This justification is by God’s grace (3:24).
- In case we missed the emphasis on grace, we are then somewhat redundantly told that it is by grace as a gift (3:24).
- And yet, despite the glorious fact that it is a gift to us, there is nonetheless a price for this justification we receive – the price for our gift that is the righteousness of God by which we are justified is the very blood of Jesus (3:24-25). (In other words, the truth about justification is not that it is merely by grace alone through faith alone, but that it is also justification through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.)
- Thus, the medium through which the free gift of justification comes to us is the work of Jesus, of which Romans 3 speaks of three aspects.
- Redemption (3:24) – Jesus has ransomed us through the payment of His death on the cross.
- Propitiation (3:25) – Jesus, through His blood, has turned away the wrath of God from us that our sins deserve (cf. 1:18).
- Vindication of God’s righteousness (3:25-26) – all of this fulfills the extraordinary plan of God through which He can both maintain His justice as one who righteously punishes sin, but also as one who mercifully justifies the sinner.
- So that we do not miss the point, it is emphasized once again (for the third time in this section!) that all of this is by faith, not by works, with the result that God gets all the glory (3:27-31; 10:3-8).
Now, all these things really are true, you see?
Grace! Amazing grace!
Faith! Not works! It’s a gift; nothing for us to ever pay for here.
A God-righteousness (and, thus, a perfect, holy, divine righteousness) which is dramatically contrasted with both human unrighteousness, as well as a presumed human righteousness.
Justification! (Have we forgot – perhaps we have never known? – the supreme reality that is justification: “the truly dramatic transition from the status of a condemned criminal awaiting a terrible sentence to that of an heir awaiting a fabulous inheritance.”?)
The blood of our Savior securing all this for us.
It is for anyone and everyone who will believe. A message of salvation that applies to all people at all times and all places!
It is this gospel message – in all of its simplicity yet richness, and in all of its beauty and truth – that is the very power through which God saves and sanctifies a people for Himself. A people that includes you and me, if we have put our faith in Jesus Christ. Perhaps now is a good moment to consider to what degree we truly trust this message and then to perhaps reaffirm our commitment to it.
Preach the gospel!
In fact, we would do well to consider just how eager we really are to preach this gospel and share it with others. Do we share the Apostle’s eagerness? Our eagerness (or lack thereof) will no doubt evince something of whether or not we believe it is powerful. For this is the sense of Paul’s meaning that in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed. He does not mean merely that information about it is conveyed to us through the gospel message, but that the gospel message actually releases the saving activity of the righteousness of God to us.
Which, quite astoundingly, means that when we preach the gospel it is the power of God that is at work. And by preaching the gospel, I do not mean merely preaching a formulaic presentation of the gospel that is simply rote and out of context. Rather, I mean opening up the Word of God of which Jesus the Son is the subject from beginning to end. And, thus, showing people the riches of the gospel that are to be found in all the Scriptures. For as Romans 10:17 so clearly states: Faith comes by hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. And then, yes, clearly presenting the truth that the justifying righteousness of God is for all who will humble themselves and believe, and calling on sinners to do just that – to forsake their own efforts at self-justification and to receive the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.
John Murray, in the preface to his commentary on Romans, compels us in this manner. “The epistle to the Romans is God’s Word. Its theme is the gospel of his grace, and the gospel bespeaks the marvels of his condescension and love. If we are not overwhelmed by the glory of that gospel and ushered into the holy of holies of God’s presence, we have missed the grand purpose of this sacred deposit… Profound humility should always be ours. The excellency of the power is of God and not of us and to him alone be all praise and glory.”
No matter whether you serve as an elder in the church or as a children’s Sunday School teacher or as a community group leader or as just a faithful member of the church, perhaps we could all use a healthy dose of ministry evaluation.
Are there things we do when we gather for worship that actually obscure instead of accentuate the gospel?
Is the way we relate to God in our own lives shaped by the truth of the gospel?
How clearly do we communicate the truth of the gospel when we tell others about Jesus?
Do we share the gospel with joy and humility as those who have personally experienced the power of God in our own lives and thus have been brought to a place of overwhelming delight in the presence of our Savior?
Do we in fact preach the gospel at all, or are we looking for power and fruitfulness in all the wrong places?
The reorienting message of Roman is that if you would know the power of God at work in your church and ministry (not to mention your own life), preach the gospel!
 J. I. Packer’s words, originally written back in 1979, may painfully still be true today. “For at no time, perhaps, since the Reformation have Protestant Christians as a body been so unsure, tentative and confused as to what they should believe and do. Certainty about the great issues of Christian faith and conduct is lacking all along the line. The outside observer sees us as staggering on from gimmick to gimmick and stunt to stunt like so many drunks in a fog, not knowing at all where we are or which way we should be going. Preaching is hazy; heads are muddled; hearts fret; doubts drain our strength; uncertainty paralyses action.” God has Spoken (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1979), p.25.
 “It functions as the propositio, that is, a statement of the proposition that will be argued and defended in the rest of the letter.” Colin Kruse, Paul’s Letter to the Romans (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2012), p.66.
 This fuller definition of ‘the righteousness of God’ as both our new status and God’s work – thus emphasizing both what it is we receive from God as well as the saving activity of God – is defended by Kruse, Romans and Thomas Schreiner, Romans (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1998). While C. E. B. Cranfield, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, Vol. 1 (Edinburg: T&T Clark, 1975) keeps more strictly to ‘the righteousness of God’ as the righteous status bestowed by God on the sinner, his summary statements of the matter are helpful and indeed essential. Regarding 1:16-17, Cranfield writes, “What Paul is saying here is that the gospel is God’s effective power active in the world of men to bring about deliverance from His wrath in the final judgment and reinstatement in that glory of God which was lost through sin” (p.89). And, “For in it (i.e., in the gospel as it is being preached) a righteous status which is God’s gift is being revealed (and so offered to men) – a righteous status which is altogether by faith” (p.100).
 “When Paul says ‘without the law’ [i.e., ‘apart from the law’ – ESV 3:21] the absoluteness of this negation must not be toned down. He means this without any reservation or equivocation in reference to the justifying righteousness which is the theme of this part of the epistle. This implies that in justification there is no contribution, preparatory, accessory, or subsidiary, that is given by works of the law. This fact is set forth here both by the expression itself and by its emphatic position in the sentence. And it is borne out by the sustained polemic of the epistle as a whole. To overlook this accent is to miss the central message of the epistle. To equivocate here is to distort what could not be more plainly and consistently stated.” John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans (Glenside: Westminster Seminary Press, 2022), pp.118-119.
 J. I. Packer, Knowing God (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1973), p.133.
 “…in the gospel the righteousness of God is actively and dynamically brought to bear upon man’s sinful situation; it is not merely that it is made known as to its character to human apprehension but that it is manifest in its saving efficacy. This is why the gospel is the power of God unto salvation – the righteousness of God is redemptively active in the sphere of human sin and ruin.” Murray, p.46. Further consider the equally dynamic way that the term ‘revealed’ functions in 1:18 when it comes to a very different matter as far as sinners are concerned – namely, the ‘wrath of God.’
 Ibid., p.7.