“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.” (Romans 1:16)
Paul’s letter to the Romans is arguably the most masterful piece of writing in the New Testament. Martin Luther even declared that this letter was more important to the Church than the four Gospels. And that’s understandable, considering it was Paul’s words in Romans 1:16-17 that first made the doctrine of justification through faith alone, clear to him.
Paul starts off his correspondence to the Romans by telling them how badly he desires to travel there to encourage and preach the gospel to them (Romans 1:11-15). Yes, Paul honestly thinks preaching the gospel to Christians (people who already believe the gospel) is paramount. He then follows that up with a statement nearly every Christian knows.
“I am not ashamed of the gospel…” (1:16)
The implication of this statement is that some people are in fact—ashamed of the gospel—the message of God becoming flesh, assuming the world’s sin to himself and having that flesh stripped naked and nailed to a cross. It’s all rather scandalous, even shameful.
The idea that you and I have done things, which require such an action, is very jarring. The notion that we cannot add a single thing to that cross other than our sin is an assault on our pride and perceived goodness.
But the easiest way to de-shame the gospel is to tame the law, to make it achievable. Paul studied under the Pharisees and is well acquainted with the skill of relaxing the law. When God’s Law is doable, you aren’t as damnable. Knowing this, Paul makes a dramatic turn after his bold, unashamed affirmation of the gospel.
Romans 1:18–3:20 is Paul taking the law—cranking it up to nuclear option levels—to blow apart any ideas which may be floating around anyone’s hearts or heads, thinking they aren’t the kind of sinner who requires such a shameful gospel. It’s 63 relentless verses of worldwide condemnation. Everything from idolatry and sexual immorality, to gossip and talking back to your parents; it is all placed under the categories of ungodliness and unrighteousness.
Then like a prosecuting attorney he says those who do these things are deserving of the death penalty. Don’t think that’s you? Maybe he’s just referring to those other bad people? No, he nails us for that too.
“For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things.” (2:1)
Do you think maybe because you affirm certain things about the law that it will help you? Perhaps you can lean your weight on your orthodox articulation of the law? Nope, nailed again!
“For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified.” (2:13)
The loud hammering of the law ends with one final thunderous blow in verses 11-20 of chapter 3, where he says this:
“None is righteous, no, not one;
no one understands;
no one seeks for God.
All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
no one does good,
not even one.”
“Their throat is an open grave;
they use their tongues to deceive.”
“The venom of asps is under their lips.”
“Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.”
“Their feet are swift to shed blood;
in their paths are ruin and misery,
and the way of peace they have not known.”
“There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
“Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.”
“None… not one… all… worthless… every… the whole world…” those are the words Paul uses, and with them, he blows apart the “righteousness” of every person who has every lived. It’s harsh, unrelenting, and completely necessary.
The law is unyielding. It gives no second chances. It hears no promises of doing better or trying harder. It audits and condemns us, and the rest of the world along with us, full stop.
Only after we’ve been laid bare in our sin will we ever see God naked and bloody on a filthy Roman cross, bearing the sin and wrath we justly deserve—not as a god we’re too good for, but rather, as the only God worthy of our worship.
I love the law. Not because I can do it. Not because it can save me. I love it because the law shows me my need for a Savior. I will not tame it. I will not neuter it. I will not relax it. I am not ashamed of the law; for it is the prophet of God proclaiming my need for a shameful gospel, which alone is the power of God for salvation to sinners like me.