Good News, Bad News: Romans 1

Edited in Prisma app with Femme

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

TODAY, IN THE DAILY OFFICE, THE CHURCH BEGINS READING ST PAUL’S magnum opus, the Epistle to the Romans. I thought I’d take this opportunity to orient our reading with some commentary on chapter one.

The Good News

You know jokes that begin, “I have good news, and I have bad news.”

A teenage boy walks into the living room and says to his dad: “Dad, I have good news and I have bad news. The good news is that the airbags in the Volvo work beautifully.”

The Gospel is no joke, but it does contain both bad news and good news. There is a problem — the bad news — to which the Gospel, the good news, is the answer. Paul presents both in Romans 1, first the good news of the Gospel which forms the thesis statement, the very heart of the letter.

Romans 1:16–17 (ESV): 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. 17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”

Paul says he is not ashamed of the Gospel. Does that strike you as odd? Why would anyone think otherwise — that Paul might be or should be ashamed of the Gospel? Consider the introduction to 1 Corinthians:

1 Corinthians 1:18–31 (ESV): For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written,

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,

and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”

20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

26 For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, 29 so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. 30 And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 31 so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

In Paul’s world — the world of Jews and Greeks (everyone else) — the Gospel was a shameful thing: a stumbling block, folly. The idea of a crucified Messiah was incredible to the Jews, an obstacle they simply couldn’t get over or around. The idea of a crucified Jew being the savior of the world — not to mention that foolishness about resurrection — was incomprehensible to the Greeks. So, in his world, the Gospel was considered a shameful thing by all but the relative handful who were convicted of its truth.

It was shameful also because the cross stood right at the center of it, and the cross was designed specifically to shame and humiliate those executed on it and the people they represented. No Jew or Greek would even mention the cross in public conversation.

So why isn’t Paul ashamed? Because he sees God’s own power in the Gospel: power in the events themselves — the birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus — and power in his own proclamation of the events. God accomplished something powerful in and through the Gospel — Paul uses the shorthand term “salvation” to describe that powerful accomplishment — and the continued proclamation of the Gospel brings that power to bear in people’s lives. So, Paul can say without shame that the Gospel is the power of God for salvation.

Paul goes even further to insist that the Gospel is for everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek, to those who formerly were ashamed of the Gospel. The Gospel comes through the Jews, because they were the elect of God, the bearers of the covenant. In these last days, God, in his righteousness, has been faithful to that covenant and has fulfilled it through the one, true Jew, the representative of all Israel, Jesus Christ. Since the covenant was always intended to address the problem of sin and death for all men, salvation has now come not only to the Jews, but also through the Jews to the Greeks. So, Paul says that in the Gospel, the righteousness of God — God’s faithfulness to the covenant — is revealed “from faith for faith,” that is, coming from the faithfulness of God and being received by the human response of faith. And later he will say, “The righteous shall live by faith.”

Who is this Paul who tells a good news / bad news story to the Romans? He introduces himself in the salutation.

Romans 1:1–7 (ESV): Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, 2 which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, 3 concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh 4 and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, 5 through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations, 6 including you who are called to belong to Jesus Christ,

7 To all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

How do you generally introduce yourself to strangers? Perhaps with your name and your occupation. Perhaps with where you live and with possible common acquaintances. All of it is small talk, probably forgotten the minute it’s spoken. If we are ever called upon to introduce a guest speaker at an event, we give a litany of his or her credentials, expertise, and accomplishments. Paul does both of these things, but with a twist. Paul says, “I am a slave of Christ Jesus.”

There is a certain humility inherent in the word slave, but it is not abject humility, not worthlessness. Think here of Abram’s slave who was entrusted with the vital mission of finding a wife for Isaac. Think of Joseph who, as Potiphar’s slave, was second only to Potiphar himself in authority over the household. The key to Paul’s self identification as a slave of Christ Jesus follows these lines, I think: as a slave, Paul acts in the name of and with the authority of his Master, Jesus Christ. He is worth listening to because the message he carries is from the Lord. He emphasizes that when he moves from “slave” to “apostle.” An apostle is one who is sent bearing a message. And Paul says he has been set apart for that purpose, specifically to bear the message of God’s good news — the Gospel — to the Gentiles:

…we have received grace and apostleship to bring bout the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations, including you who are called to belong to Jesus Christ (Rom 1:5-6).

What is this good news about? A better question — a first question — is this: Who is the good news about? It is about God’s Son, Jesus Christ our Lord:

who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by this resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord (Rom 1:3-4).

Jesus is a descendant of David. Why is that important? Because it means Jesus is of royal Jewish lineage and is the fulfillment of God’s promise to build David a house, a dynasty, and to appoint over it one whose rule would be everlasting. This roots the good news in Israel’s story and in covenant, this time a covenant between God and David. And how do we know that this Jesus is indeed the Son of God who fulfills the covenants? His resurrection from the dead. Paul does not shy away from this claim of resurrection or of the centrality of the cross. There is power in this good news: in the events themselves and in the proclamation of those events. Notice also the trinitarian nature of the good news: It is focused on the Son of God (the Father) and revealed in the power of the Holy Spirit — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit acting together in the Gospel.

The good news is to all people, not least to those in Rome, those who are loved by God and called to be saints: holy ones, ones who are set apart as God’s own. Through the Gospel comes grace and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

So much for the good news of the Gospel. What about the bad news?

The Bad News

Let’s start with a question: How do we know about God?

We have many sources of knowledge: Scripture, Creeds, the teaching of the Church, the Sacraments. Good Anglicans might even appeal to Richard Hooker’s threefold means of knowing: Scripture, Tradition, and Reason. Good. These are all examples of special revelation, examples of God taking the initiative to make himself known in very particular, covenantal and gospel ways. But what about people who have never heard of the Gospel, never heard of either the Old Covenant or the New Covenant. How are they to know about God?

Well, God has not left them without a witness, a witness we call general revelation. Look around at creation. Look at a specific tree. Now, go make one. Oh, you can plant a seed or a seedling and grow a tree, but that’s not what I mean. Go make one from scratch — starting with nothing but your own power. Or a mountain. Or a star. So where did all this come from? Well, not from nothing and not from us. There must be a creative power beyond us that is responsible for all creation, and it must be a power almost beyond our imagining. And it must be a power that has existed from the beginning. If not, then something made it, and that something would be a greater power. But there must be a first in this sequence, a power greater than which none can be conceived, or else nothing would ever be actualized. That is the external witness of general revelation: a nearly inconceivable creative power existing beyond time.

But, there is more; there is an internal witness that tells us something about the character of this power. Here, I am indebted — once again — to C. S. Lewis and his writings about such things. All people — sociopaths excepted, I suppose, though one wonders if they really should be counted as people — all people have a concept of right and wrong. And while cultures differ in some minor ways about the details of what we might call the moral law, no culture is without the moral law. That seems to suggest that morality is an inherent part of humankind, that we were created with it. And, now we are back to that eternal power that created all things, ourselves included. The moral law must come from that power. And what about love and joy and creativity and an appreciation for beauty? Again, though we might differ slightly on details, these things, too, seem to be common to mankind. Perhaps they, too, originate in this eternal power that created all things. Now, the argument behind this reasoning is really more complex and subtle than I’ve let on; you can read the first few chapters of Lewis’s Mere Christianity for a more thorough presentation. But this is enough to say that even those people without special revelation can know a lot about what we call God: eternal, powerful, moral, relational, and more.

Here is the really important conclusion: whether we are operating from special or general revelation, we know that we are not god, and we know that no other created thing is either. These truths are self-evident. And that is the beginning of the bad news. Knowing this, humankind has rejected that truth, suppressed that truth, and embraced false worship.

Romans 1:18–23 (ESV): For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.

Suppression of the truth about God leads to idolatry. Humans were created to worship and we will worship something, either the truth or a lie. And that has consequences, because we become like that which we worship. Worship the true God in Spirit and in truth, and he transforms you into his likeness in Christ. Worship creatures and become beastly.

Sin begins with a lie, with a rejection of the truth about God, and with the refusal to worship Him. It was so in the Garden and it is so today. All sins — small “s” and plural — all sins like aberrant sexuality, envy, murder, strife — the whole litany that Paul provides here — stem from Sin — capital “s” and singular — the Sin of the lie, the Sin of the rejection of God, the Sin of idolatry.

And, Paul convicts all mankind of Sin. That is the bad news for which the Gospel, the good news, is the remedy.

Romans 1 ends on this bad news, but don’t forget that Paul has already told us the good news, about which we learn much more later in our Daily Office readings of the whole of Romans:

Romans 1:16–17 (ESV): 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. 17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”

Amen.

About johnaroop

I am a husband, father, retired teacher, lover of books and music and coffee and, as of 17 May 2015, by the grace of God and the will of his Church, an Anglican priest in the Anglican Church in North America, Anglican Diocese of the South. I serve as assisting priest at Apostles Anglican Church in Knoxville, TN, and as Canon Theologian for the Anglican Diocese of the South.
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