The Theme of Romans

Text: Romans 1:16

During our study of this pivotal portion of Scripture I will be interacting (and critiquing) what I consider to be the greatest threat to the Reformation’s understanding of sola fide since the Council of Trent (1545-1563).[1] The “New Perspective on Paul” especially as advocated by N. T. Wright and those who follow him (John Armstrong and Rick Lusk)[2]; Norman Shepherd, who was dismissed from the faculty of Westminster theological seminary for his aberrant views on justification[3]; and what goes by the name the “Federal Vision” (Doug Wilson and those associated with Credenda/Agenda)[4] These groups, despite minor differences, do share a number of things in common: (1) They seek to redefine sola fide in a way that was foreign to the Reformers and their theological heirs. “Faith” they say includes “faithfulness” or “continual obedience.” (2) Justification is in two parts. The first is the result of God’s grace in Christ—but the second is based on our good works (which they are quick to add are “non-meritorious”). This implies that justification is never final but is conditioned on personal sanctification and as such can be lost. (3) They are mono-covenantal. With the possible exception of Doug Wilson, they deny the covenant of works and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. (4) Finally they share what can only be called incipient Sacramentalism, contending that the Sacraments (especially baptism) communicate (EX OPERE OPERATO) grace apart from faith.  We alluded in the beginning of this series to the fact that God is the principal subject of this epistle. Having stated that, we recognize that Romans 1:16-17, gives us the central thesis of Romans—these verses “sum up for us what God has done to bring us salvation.”[5] These theologically dense verses, as Douglas Moo has referred to them,[6] are made up of four subordinate clauses (this refers, as you all will remember from your earliest introduction to English grammar, to a clause that is dependent on another clause for its meaning—it doesn’t make sense by itself. It is commonly preceded by a particle, conjunction or adverb to form a main clause or a complex sentence). Each of these subordinate clauses support or illuminates the one before it. Note how Paul’s pride in the gospel (verse 16a) is the reason he is so eager to preach the gospel in Rome. In turn, this pride stems from the fact that the gospel alone contains, or mediates, God’s salvific power to all who believe (verse 16b). Why the gospel does this is explained in verse 17a—it manifests God’s righteousness—which is based on faith alone. Finally, verse 17b provides Scriptural confirmation for the connection between righteousness and faith. In this lesson we will devote our attention only to verse 16.

I.          The Apostle’s Conviction:  Paul was driven to preach the gospel. He tells us that he was under divine obligation to do so and failure to preach the gospel would be ruinous for him (cf. I Corinthians 9:16).

A.        The Greatness of the Gospel:  Paul states this first by placing his words in a negative—I am not ashamed of the gospel. We know from other passages that Paul gloried in the gospel (II Corinthians 10:17; Galatians 6:14; Philippians 3:7) so why does he frame his words in a negative? It has been pointed out that Paul is resorting here to a literary convention known as a litotes—a negative statement used to make a strong affirmative statement—e.g., that was no small storm we had last night—meaning it was an enormous storm (cf. Acts 14:28; 15:2). The KJV properly conveys the litotes of the text; the NIV and NASB do not. The word for ashamed is EPAISCHYNOMAI which implies contempt. It hints, as Shedd has observed, at the scornful treatment which Christianity—as defined by the message of the cross—had received at Athens, Corinth and Ephesus, the seats of Grecian culture.[7] Paul plainly tells us that the Gospel was foolishness to the Greeks (I Corinthians 1:18-31). The Apostle Paul, however, was not ashamed of this message (cf. II Timothy 1:8), and those today who seek to tailor the gospel so as to make it more attractive by removing important doctrines like nature of sin, judgment, wrath and the concept of propitiation are not following the pattern set down by the Apostle Paul. He is not ashamed of the Gospel because of what it is and does.

B.        The Power of the Gospel:  The message of the cross is not simply a religious statement, nor is it merely a theoretical definition of the Gospel—it is, in fact, the power of God. (Cf. I Corinthians 2:4, 4:19-20; II Corinthians 12:4; Ephesians 3:20; Colossians 1:11; I Thessalonians 1:5; II Timothy 1:7. These texts all revolve around the power of God in the Gospel.) Paul, writes Calvin, “is not speaking here of any secret revelation, but of preaching by word of mouth. It follows from this that those who withdraw themselves from hearing the Word preached are willfully rejecting the power of God and repelling His hand of deliverance far from them.”[8]

C.        The Purpose of the Gospel:  The power of God in the gospel brings salvation. What is salvation? The word SOTERIA refers to deliverance. It was used in classic Greek to express prosperity and happiness, but in its Biblical usage it refers to salvation from sin and judgment. In II Corinthians 7:10 it is contrasted with eternal death. In I Thessalonians 5:9 it is contrasted with wrath, and in Philippians 1:28 it is contrasted with destruction. In Romans 8:1 it is contrasted with condemnation. Paul begins this long section in Romans by declaring that the gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek (Rom. 1:16). The gospel is the power of God for salvation. Salvation from what? Romans 1:18 tells us: “For the wrath of God is revealed.” The problem that sets up Paul’s exposition of the great, powerful gospel in Romans is the wrath of God. It is the wrath of God from which we need salvation through the gospel. It is not a theodicy, in which God and his covenant faithfulness are on trial. Those on trial are human beings exposed to the wrath of God because of their sins.

This is important to note in light of the claims of N. T. Wright and his followers who contend that the gospel is not about how a person can be saved, but about the Lordship of Christ and our badge of covenant membership. Here is how Wright puts it; “‘Justification’ in the first century was not about how someone might establish a relationship with God. It was about God’s eschatological definition, both future and present, of who was, in fact, a member of his people. In Sanders’ terms, it was not so much about ‘getting in,’ or indeed about ‘staying in,’ as about ‘how you could tell who was in.’ In standard Christian theological language, it wasn’t so much about soteriology as about ecclesiology; not so much about salvation as about the church…What Paul means by justification, in this context, should therefore be clear. It is not ‘how you become a Christian,’ so much as ‘how you can tell who is a member of the covenant family.’”9 What difference does Wright’s redefinition of justification make? I think it risks minimizing the importance of sin and of the atoning significance of Christ’s death. I’m not saying he denies the atoning significance of Christ’s death. But when you minimize the central importance of sin, you necessarily call into question the centrality of Christ’s atoning death. The whole coherency of justification as meeting the problem of the wrath of God against sin, and therefore as being absolutely grounded in substitutionary atonement by Christ which diverts that wrath from us, is lost or obscured in the New Perspective interpretation of N. T. Wright. These things may not yet be denied by Wright, but there is no intrinsic connection between them and justification, and results in a very distorted gospel10

D.        The Universality of the Gospel:  The gospel is effective to everyone without exception, be they Jew or Gentile, Greek or barbarian, educated or uneducated. It is to all who will exercise faith or trust in the Gospel.11

Conclusion: Paul boasted in the Gospel because it was God’s message. It is the power of God unto a glorious salvation. The Apostle was not ashamed of the message of a crucified Christ because it is the true and only way of deliverance from our sin and the penalty our sin deserves. You see, we stand in desperate need to be delivered from the power of sin. We not only are guilty of sinning against a holy and righteous God, we are under the dominion of sin and its dreadful consequences, and only the power of God can save us from sin. The power is found only in one place—in the good news of Christ’s atoning death.



[1]           This was the official Roman Catholic response to the Protestant Reformation. The council decisively affirmed that tradition is as equally inspired and as equally binding as Scripture (contra Sola Scriptura). Conflicting interpretations of either Scripture or tradition are left to the ultimate authority of the pope. The church was certified as the sole authority for interpreting Scripture, and all individuals had to submit to the opinion of the church. The council also sanctioned the Apocrypha as having canonical standing, a retaliation against Luther’s challenge of the Apocrypha in 1534. The Latin Vulgate translation by Jerome was adopted by the council as the Catholic Church’s official translation of the Bible. In compact summary, the council established religious authority as residing in the Old Testament, the Apocrypha, the New Testament, and the unwritten traditions, all equally inspired, as translated by Jerome, and as interpreted by the church, with the final voice residing in the pope. The council then, with this perspective of authority, began to confront and dispose of every significant Protestant challenge. While it used Protestant language in speaking of justification by faith, it clearly specified that faith does not save unless it is given reality by love and good works, thus a principle of “faith cooperating with good works” (contra Sola Fide). The council also affirmed (1) that one can never know with certainty that he has obtained the grace of God except by special revelation, and (2) that there is no such thing as predestined, irresistible grace (contra Soli Deo Gloria). It came out strongly in defense of the doctrine of purgatory (contra Solus Christus) and for merits earned by good works (contra Sola Gratia). The Protestant position on the number of sacraments (baptism and the Lord’s Supper) was rejected and the council decreed there were seven and that they conferred grace EX OPERE OPERATO. Cf. Austin’s Topical History of Christianity (Tyndale, 1987), p. 303 and The New International Dictionary of The Christian Church ed. T. D. Douglas, 1978), p. 985.


[2]           Cf. N. T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? (Eerdmans, 1997). John Armstrong has come out strongly in support of Wright in the pages of his journal Reformation & Revival Review (Vol. 11, No. 2, Spring 2002) and in his monthly newsletter Viewpoint and in his Weekly Messenger (April 5, 2004) where he simply regurgitates Wright’s position on the Gospel i.e., the good news is not about how sinners can be justified but about the Lordship of Christ; a denial of the Covenant of Works made with Adam and fulfilled by Christ, and finally justification is defined as vindication and occurs twice, the second based exclusively on the believer’s works (covenantal nomism).


[3]           Norman Shepherd began teaching systematic theology at Westminster Seminary (Philadelphia) in 1963. In the mid-1970’s, controversy over Shepherd’s teaching broke out in the Westminster community and in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, in which Shepherd was serving as a minister at the time. Though Shepherd’s teaching on a number of related theological issues was called into question, the key point of debate was whether he held to the Reformation’s doctrine of justification by faith alone, as expressed in the Westminster Standards, or had, in one way or another, lapsed into teaching that justification was by faith and works together. Shepherd had both defenders and detractors in the institutions in which he served, and only after a protracted series of events was he finally dismissed from his teaching post in 1981. Shepherd taught that both faith and works were instruments of justification. Justification accordingly could be lost. Shepherd recently was the keynote speaker at one of John Armstrong’s conferences entitled, Trust and Obey: A Symposium on Law and Gospel (March 11-13, 2004). Other speakers included Roman Catholic priest Thomas A. Baima, eastern orthodox priest Patrick H. Readon as well as Federal Visionist Steve Schlissel. The stated purpose of the conference, was in the words of Armstrong “Protestant Christian Theology Teaches that individuals are saved fully by the grace of God on the ground of Christ’s atoning death and victorious resurrection, and that they appropriate this salvation by faith, apart from any merit or law-keeping. It has also taught that obedience and good works in the believer’s life are the inevitable effect of this salvation and, in fact, that faith itself is an act of obedience. How is it possible then to safeguard the fully gracious character of salvation without diminishing the necessity of obedience and good works, apart from which none will be saved? This symposium will address such questions, from within the confessional traditions of Protestant Christian faith, as well as from Roman Catholic and Orthodox perspectives. The goal is to listen, to dialogue and to better grasp the message of the Bible and the Christian Church.” For extended analysis of Shepherd cf. O. Palmer Robertson The Current Justification Controversy (Trinity Foundation, 2003) Robertson was on the faculty at Westminster during this time and I was a student.


[4]           The Federal Vision is also called the Auburn Avenue Theology. Their views first came to public notice at a conference held at The Auburn Avenue Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Monroe, Louisiana in 2002. In addition to Doug Wilson, they include Steve Schlissel, Steve Wilkins, Rick Lusk, Peter Leithart, and John Barach. This group is something of a mixed bag, Rick Lusk, for example is an avid follower of N. T. Wright and Norman Shepherd while Doug Wilson is more reserved in his assessment of Wright and continues to affirm traditional categories when speaking of justification (i.e., unlike Lusk, Wilson still speaks of the covenant of works and the imputation of Christ’s active and passive obedience. Cf. Credenda/Agenda (Vol. 15, No. 5, 2004), pp. 22, 23. Nevertheless, Wilson is at times guilty of ambiguity or carelessness in the way he expresses himself. These will be pointed out as this series progresses. For extended analysis and critique of this position cf. The Auburn Avenue Theology: Pro’s & Cons: Debating The Federal Vision ed. E. Calvin Beisner, (John Knox Seminary, 2004).


[5]           L. Morris, The Epistle to the Romans (IVP, 1988), p. 66.


[6]           D. Moo, The Wycliffe Exegetical Commentary on Romans 1-8 (Moody, 1991), p. 59.


[7]           W. G. T. Shedd, A Critical and Doctrinal Commentary on the Epistle of St. Paul to the Romans (rpt. Klock & Klock, 1978), p. 10.


[8]           Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries VIII, ed. D. W. Torrance and T. F. Torrance (Eerdmans, 1973), p. 26.


9           Wright, op.cit., p. 119, 122.


10         See the very good critique of Wright by Charles Hill (prof. of NT at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando) “N. T. Wright on Justification” IIIM Magazine Online, (Vol. 3, No. 22, May 28 to June 3, 2001).


11         The priority of effectual calling and of regeneration in the ORDO SALUTIS [the order of salvation] should not be allowed to prejudice this truth either in our thinking or in the preaching of the gospel. It is true that regeneration is causally prior to faith. But it is only causally prior and the adult person who is regenerated always exercises faith. Hence the salvation which is of the gospel is never ours apart from faith. This is true even in the case of infants, for in regeneration the germ of faith is implanted. There is order in the application of redemption, but it is order in that which constitutes an indissoluble unity comprising a variety of elements. It is salvation in its integral unity of which the apostle speaks and this is never ours without faith—we are saved by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8). The person who is merely regenerate is not saved, the simple reason being that there is no such person. The saved person is also called, justified, and adopted. It is not only pertinent to the apostle’s doctrine of salvation that he should lay such emphasis upon faith but also particularly appropriate to what is the leading theme of the early part of this epistle, namely, justification. It is preeminently in connection with justification that the accent falls upon faith. John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans (Eerdmans, 1980), p. 27. For a complete analysis and explanation of the ORDO SALUTIS see B. B. Warfield, The Plan of Salvation (rpt. Simpson, 1989).


The Truth of the Cross

In this book, Dr. R.C. Sproul surveys the great work accomplished by Jesus Christ through His crucifixionthe redemption of Gods people. Dr. Sproul considers the atonement from numerous angles and shows conclusively that the cross was absolutely necessary if anyone was to be saved.

Opening the Scriptures, Dr. Sproul shows that God Himself provided salvation by sending Jesus Christ to die on the cross, and the cross was always Gods intended method by which to bring salvation. The Truth of the Cross is an uncompromising reminder that the atonement of Christ is an absolutely essential doctrine of the Christian faith, one that should be studied and understood by all believers.

“The gospel is a message of good news that something extraordinary has happened. At the heart of that message is that Jesus, God the Son incarnate, has atoned for the sins of all His people, turning away the righteous wrath of God. The gospel is a cross-shaped message. Sadly, in our day, this message is being re-shaped into other forms, and the results are not happy. We can give thanks for this volume by R.C. Sproul, however, because in it he steps into the breach once more to provide a clear, concise, and thoughtful case for the biblical and historic Christian gospel of the cross.”
Dr. R. Scott Clark, Associate Professor, Westminster Seminary California


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