Not Ashamed of the Gospel – Romans 1:16

By: Northern Seminary

Verse 16 of Romans 1 is the John 3:16 verse of Paul’s writings. Maybe the “God so loved the world” verse of John’s gospel can’t be rivaled for being memorable and loved, but this verse comes close.

Romans 1:16

16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile.

Paul very clearly says five things here.

1. He is not ashamed of the gospel.

“I am not ashamed of the gospel” are the opening words of the verse and the obvious question is: ‘Why would he be?’ Paul was not ashamed, not even close to being ashamed, but there were reasons some Christians might be.

One was the fear of persecution. Just one verse earlier Paul stressed how eager he was to get to Rome and preach there, and three verses earlier said he was looking for a harvest for the gospel in Rome. When people evangelize, persecution often follows. The book of Acts has many stories of people being so angry with Paul’s preaching of Christ that he suffered and Christians who stood with him also suffered.[1]

I was in a country in Asia where Christians are a persecuted minority. Someone told the church leaders that a local evangelist was seeing great success bringing people who belonged to the majority religion to faith in Christ. I thought the church leaders would rejoice. They didn’t. Their response was: “Keep away from that man. We don’t want to be associated with him.” They were afraid. If that evangelist was leading people to faith in Jesus, trouble would follow and they wanted to protect themselves.

The instinct to self-preservation is strong. It is hard to put your life on the line, and even harder to do that to your family. It is not surprising that some people choose to keep quiet about their faith.

Paul didn’t keep quiet and did not want the Roman Christians to keep quiet either. Paul knew that persecution would follow bold witness, and he needed to steel the Christians for hard times ahead, so he wrote to them about not being ashamed of the gospel.

Another reason the Romans might be ashamed of the gospel was because the Christian message sounded ridiculous in some people’s ears. The message that the Messiah had come sounds like good news, but a Messiah who was sentenced to death as a criminal and died in agony from crucifixion…? Jews could not believe it and non-Jews thought it crazy. Paul knew that was how many reacted, and he said so to the Corinthians: “…but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles…” (1 Cor. 1:23).

Among the sophisticates of Greek culture, Paul was laughed at for his message. In Athens he was brought before a court of philosophers, probably on a hill overlooking the city. He preached a great sermon, and some were interested. But when he spoke about Jesus being raised from the dead, the response of others was very different: “When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered…” (Acts 17:32).

Few people can endure being thought foolish. Children want to fit in with their peers, and so do most adults. When your ideas are treated with contempt and people laugh at you, it’s hard to stand firm. The temptation is to give in to the crowd, or at least to keep your faith private.

Paul wouldn’t. Whether in the face of persecution or ridicule he would not be quiet about Christ. Jesus had never disappointed him, never let him down, never abandoned him. No matter how bad his sins had been – and Paul saw himself as the “chief of sinners” (1 Tim. 1:15) – Jesus had always been faithful. Paul would now be faithful to him.

Paul would not be ashamed of the gospel.

2. The gospel is the power of God.

The antidote against being ashamed of someone or something is to have complete confidence in that person or that cause. Paul has that confidence about the gospel. The gospel is so much more than an excellent set of ideas. The gospel of Jesus Christ is how God changes lives.

Paul’s own life was changed by that gospel. The Pharisee who hunted down Christians was turned inside out and became an apostle for the faith. And wherever Paul has gone on his missionary travels and preached this gospel, people have been transformed.

So, Paul says, this gospel has power. Beliefs are changed. Bodies are healed. Demons are cast out. Sinful lives are forgiven. Relationships are restored. Eternities are altered. That is powerful!

And this power, he says, is the power of God. Paul is not doing magic tricks. He doesn’t bring a smart new philosophy. He isn’t a clever orator. He is not playing on people’s emotions. Paul is simply telling the good news of Jesus, and God, by his power, is changing people.

Paul is very honest about that in his First Letter to the Corinthians:

When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power. (1 Cor. 2:1-5)

The gospel we believe as Christians is no small thing, no trivial thing, no impotent thing. This gospel overcomes all the evil and folly that man and the devil could combine to create, and lives that were hell bent become heaven bent.

R.H. Mounce writes:

Much religious discourse is little more than words and ideas about religious subjects. Not so the gospel. The gospel is God at work. He lives and breathes through the declaration of his redemptive love for people. To really hear the gospel is to experience the presence of God. The late evangelist Dwight L. Moody commented that the gospel is like a lion. All the preacher has to do is to open the door of the cage and get out of the way![2]

As Paul says, the gospel is the power of God.

3. The gospel brings salvation.

When I was young and being taken to evangelistic meetings, I was told many times I needed to be saved. I wish now I’d asked those speakers to explain what they meant. Here is how I think that conversation would have gone.

“So I need to be saved?”

“Yes, that is your greatest need in life.”

“How will I be different?”

“Well, all your sins will be taken away.”

“And then?”

“And then you will go straight to heaven when you die.”

“So, what do I need to do to be saved?”

“All you have to do is believe in Jesus, bow your head, and ask Jesus into your life.”

“That’s all?”

“Yes, that’s all. But after you have prayed that sinner’s prayer you can be sure you won’t go to hell but to heaven.”


It may not surprise you that not one of those evangelists got through to me, and I made my commitment to Jesus all alone one night in my tiny room.

What interests me now is that the dominant message of all of those evangelists was much the same: that I needed to be saved, and to be saved I needed to give my heart to Jesus, and then my sins would go away and I would spend eternity in heaven.

And in many ways they were right. Yes, my sins would be gone, and yes my eternity would be with the Lord in heaven. But because that was all they preached it was dangerously inadequate.

Their message was dangerous because they changed the supremely important laying down of my life to Jesus into a transaction like buying a fire insurance policy – as if the one-time transaction of bowing my head and saying a prayer guaranteed I escaped the fires of hell, secured me a blissful eternity, and what I did with the rest of my life meanwhile was up to me. It seemed as if I could live any way I pleased because my soul was sorted out. I had prayed the prayer. That is not what salvation is about.

Their message was inadequate because when we have talked about being saved from sin and going to heaven we have only begun to describe all that salvation is about. It is much bigger.

The word Paul uses is sōtēria. If you looked it up in a lexicon, you would find a meaning like ‘to rescue and restore.’ And, fundamentally, that is exactly what Paul means.

For example in chapters 3 and 5 of this letter, Paul will show how the gospel deals with sin. All of us are sinful, but God’s grace sets us free from our wrongs. We are powerless so we could never have saved ourselves, but we are rescued by a powerful God because of his great love.[3]

Then in chapter 8 Paul pictures a frustrated creation which will be liberated one day and will enjoy the freedom and glory of the children of God. This is a bigger and greater salvation than just individuals turning back to God. God’s whole creation is affected. And this transformation, this salvation, is not just ahead of us. It is also now, as God helps us in our weakness, as God is continually at work for good in our lives, as God assures his people that nothing, no matter how great or how dreadful, can ever separate us from his love.[4]

Adam did great harm with his sin. God is doing great good through his Son. And we have only begun to see the rescuing and restoring that God has in mind. God’s salvation is a very big matter indeed.

4. This is for everyone who believes.

Now Paul’s words do parallel John 3:16. The gospel refers to “whoever believes” and Paul says the gospel brings salvation “to everyone who believes.”

What is in common? The need to believe.

Years ago, while studying theology, I found myself discussing heaven and hell with people from other Christian traditions than mine. Not one of them thought God would ever turn anyone away. No matter what they believed, no matter if they had accepted or rejected the gospel, God would take them into heaven. That view is sometimes called Christian Universalism, or the doctrine of universal reconciliation.

I didn’t agree with them and they gave me a hard time. They asked: “Surely a loving God will save everyone, no matter what?”

I answered: “Look, it seems to me that a loving God would never force anyone into heaven. Love does not compel. If people do not want anything to do with God, he will not impose himself on them.”

No one converted anyone else to their point of view that day. But two or three came to me afterwards and thanked me. No one else, they said, had ever put forward a rational argument for a heaven and a hell.

Decades later I have not changed my view. I know it does not satisfy universalists. And I know many Christians have such a strong belief in God’s irresistible grace[5] that they cannot accept that salvation involves human choice.

But I also know that God will not drag the unwilling into heaven, and I know that Romans 1:16 says the gospel brings salvation “to everyone who believes.”

That is good news and bad news. The good news is that everyone can have salvation. It’s about believing – wholehearted believing – giving your life over to Jesus Christ in its entirety. It’s not about who your parents are, not about the culture or tradition you come from, not about your education or intellect, not about how good your life has been, or anything like that. It’s about believing, about trusting, about committing, about following.

And anyone can do that.

The bad news applies only when people refuse the gospel. When they will not accept the truth told to them. They will not surrender their lives to God. They will not let God rule their choices. They will not follow the teaching of Jesus. They will not believe.

Around the coast near where I grew up were many lifeboat stations. They housed the kind of lifeboats that are launched from shore when ships are in distress, probably being destroyed on rocks. Those who take them out in dreadful storms are remarkably brave.

Those rescuers could tell some strange and dramatic stories, but none more heart-breaking than to come alongside a sinking ship and find only some on board will leave. The others think their ship will survive. They will stay where they are and take their chances.

No matter how the lifeboat crew plead that the ship is breaking up and will sink, still they refuse. Eventually the lifeboat must detach and head back to land with those who had allowed themselves to be saved. They must at least save some. But the crew of the lifeboat are in tears for those who would not be saved and will be lost.

God cries for those who refuse his love, who refuse the gift of his Son, who refuse to let him save them.

Salvation is for everyone who believes. Oh that more would believe.

5. The gospel is for every Jew and Gentile, in other words for all people everywhere.

Paul speaks in verse 16 of the Jew first and then the Gentile. Naturally that is historically and theologically correct, that God chose Israel before any others, but now the gospel is for everyone.

In chapter 10 of Romans Paul will write: “For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him” (Rom. 10:12).

To the Galatians he will write: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28).

There is only one gospel. Jesus the Messiah came for both Jews and Gentiles, and entry into God’s salvation is the same for all people and all kinds of people. At the foot of the cross, kings must kneel beside farm laborers, Nobel prize winners beside those with no schooling, the richest in the world beside beggars. All may come, but none come with special privileges other than the mercy of God and that is equally available to all.

In Romans 1:16 Paul celebrates the gospel:

1) He is not ashamed of it.

2) It is the power of God.

3) It brings salvation.

4) It is for everyone who believes.

5) It is for all people everywhere.

Paul has an overwhelming confidence in that gospel. It is important. It is powerful. It is life and eternity changing.

This world is a hard place, and we struggle with many pains and difficulties. Our lives are less than they should be, and we need help. The future looks bleak, and we despair. Will God meet our need with sympathy, or with comfort, or with optimism for better days ahead?

We need sympathy but more than sympathy, comfort but more than comfort, hope but more than hope. We need rescue. We need our lives changed, the past forgiven, the future assured and the present a transformed experience.

And that, says Paul, is what the power of God through the gospel will bring, a salvation which deals with the whole of our lives, beginning, middle, end and even beyond the end, and a gospel which is open to all who will believe.


[1] For example, Acts 13:50; 14:5-7; 14:19; 16:19-24; 17:5-9; 17:13; 18:6; 19:23-31; 20:23; 21:27-36; 23:12-15.

[2] R. H Mounce, Romans (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1995) 70.

[3] Rom. 3:23-24; Rom. 5:6-8.

[4] Rom. 8:18-39

[5] ‘Irresistible grace’ is one of the five points of Calvinism.

March 25, 2014

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