Unashamed of the Gospel
Somewhere in Indonesia, a seamstress is putting the final touches on a t-shirt with “Romans 1:16 I’M UNASHAMED” sprawled across the front. If she doesn’t read English, she has no idea what it says. And unfortunately, there is a good chance that the person who just bought it on Amazon doesn’t really understand it either. He will get it in the mail and put it on. Maybe he’ll skate around downtown, go to a coffee shop, or walk to class in it.
Of course he understands it isn’t the gospel, but it is really close. Maybe if he makes sure everyone knows they are a Christian, someone will come ask about his faith. He has failed to understand that it is the gospel, not a t-shirt, that is the power of God unto salvation.
Misunderstanding Romans 1:16
“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 (NASB)
This widespread misunderstanding of Romans 1:16 has led to a, perhaps, greater misapplication. In certain contexts today, Paul is twisted to say, “Do not be ashamed that you are a Christian. Scream it loud and proud. Make sure others know it and don’t shy away from telling others when they ask.”
This verse is turned into an argument for wearing Christian t-shirts, mentioning where you go to church in irrelevant conversations, and making it a point to post your open Bible and journal on Instagram. When someone who needs Jesus is nearby we make sure to let them have it, but only subtly. Reading Romans 1:16 in this way allows us to be a Christian in front of others, but it makes sure we don’t feel obligated to preach the gospel vocally.
During my high school years, I was surrounded by something I call “silent evangelism”. Many a t-shirt with “Preach the gospel, use words if necessary,” walked around the town in which I grew up. Silent evangelism proclaims nothing, heralds nothing, preaches nothing vocally. When it occasionally opens its mouth, it is an invitation to a church event, Sunday morning worship, or maybe, at best, a proclamation that “Jesus loves you and will help you with your problems.”
One of the hallmarks of the silent evangelist is the Christian twitter bio. “Daughter of the KING,” “Jeremiah 29:11,” or “[insert favorite worship song chorus here]” they read. The sophisticated Christians usually have an esoteric quote about Jesus being enough for them.
And while none of these are necessarily wrong, I have often found them to be a self-perceived, illegitimate form of evangelism. It is not really evangelism at all. In reality, it serves as a check off box because we know deep down that we don’t evangelize as often as we think we should. This is how I used to think.
Understanding the Gospel
Rather, Romans 1:16 teaches us that the gospel is the way in which God has decided to bring sinners to faith in Christ. Paul is addressing the “power of God unto salvation,” which is the instrument (power unto), through which sinners are saved (salvation). Hear John Calvin on this verse:
“And thus he prepares them for bearing the reproach of the cross of Christ, lest they should esteem the gospel of less value by finding it exposed to the scoffs and reproaches of the ungodly; and, on the other hand, he shows how valuable it was to the faithful.
But observe how much Paul ascribes to the ministry of the word, when he testifies that God thereby puts forth his power to save; for he speaks not here of any secret revelation, but of vocal preaching.”
— John Calvin
He explains that Paul wants the Romans to continue to preach the gospel even when the unbelieving world calls it offensive or shrugs it off. Why? Because God has chosen the gospel to be the vehicle through which He brings faith to individuals.
Paul is essentially saying that we have no other message or method to use. The vocal preaching of the gospel is God’s official, standard, verified method of bringing salvation to the lost. Paul even speaks in Romans about this specifically:
“For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, abounding in riches for all who call on Him; for ‘Whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved.’ How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’”
— Romans 10:14-15 (NASB)
For Paul, where the gospel is not preached, the gospel cannot be believed.
What, then, is the gospel? As we saw in Romans 1:16, it is the power of God unto salvation. But what is its content? Acts 2 is one of the most succinct, potent scriptural sermons. Peter, seeking to convert the crowds at Pentecost, stood up and preached the gospel. Let’s follow his reasoning through the passage, starting in verse 22:
“Men of Israel, listen to these words: Jesus the Nazarene, a man attested to you by God with miracles and wonders and signs which God performed through him in your midst, just as you yourselves know— this man, delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put him to death. But God raised him up again, putting an end to the agony of death, since it was impossible for him to be held in its power. For David says of him,
‘I saw the Lord always in my presence; for He is at my right hand, so that I will not be shaken. Therefore my heart was glad and my tongue exulted; moreover my flesh also will live in hope; because You will not abandon my soul to Hades, nor allow Your Holy One to undergo decay. You have made known to me the ways of life; You will make me full of gladness with Your presence.’
Brethren, I may confidently say to you regarding the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. And so, because he was a prophet and knew that God had sworn to him with an oath to seat one of his descendants on his throne, he looked ahead and spoke of the resurrection of the Christ, that he was neither abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh suffer decay. This Jesus God raised up again, to which we are all witnesses.
Therefore having been exalted to the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured forth this which you both see and hear. For it was not David who ascended into heaven, but he himself says: ‘the Lord said to my lord, sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.’ Therefore let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ —this Jesus whom you crucified.”
— Acts 2:22-36 (NASB)
The crowd hears first of their sinfulness. He presents to them the great calamity in which they find themselves by doing two things: proving, using King David’s prophecies, that Jesus the Nazarene was from God (v22-35), and reminding them that they were the ones who killed him (v36). This is big, bad news; they killed their Messiah and their God. Luke, the author, then describes their reaction in verse 37:
“Now when they heard this, they were pierced to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Brethren, what shall we do?’ Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself.’”
— Acts 2:37-39 (NASB)
The bad news brought the crowd to its knees searching for the good news. Contrary to postmodern Christian thought, preaching the gospel always includes an acknowledgement of sin and wrath. But, to answer their request, Peter offers them forgiveness of sins and a relationship with God through the Lord Jesus Christ.
So, we learn from Acts 2 that the gospel always includes the acknowledgement that our sin is an affront to a holy, righteous God and yet, there is forgiveness and reconciliation with Him through the Lord Jesus Christ. Where either one of these things is absent, the gospel is absent also.
A Reformed Understanding
So, with that foundation firmly in place, what is the Reformed understanding of Romans 1:16? The Reformed hold that God elects, predestines, and ultimately regenerates men unto salvation. The Reformed also understand Scripture to teach that men in their natural state are unable of their own free will and volition to turn to Christ in repentance and faith. Rather, it is only when the Holy Spirit regenerates them — changes their hearts by giving them repentance and faith — that they may turn to Christ for salvation. This understanding should inform our evangelism.
Rather, it is only when the Holy Spirit regenerates them — changes their hearts by giving them repentance and faith — that they may turn to Christ for salvation. This understanding should inform our evangelism.
By these doctrines, we know that we are not the effective force when we share the gospel. However convincing, winsome, or nice we are does not determine the effectiveness of our gospel presentation. You may have the most amazing personality, the highest eloquence, or greatest preaching skills, but if the Holy Spirit does not regenerate people, nothing will happen.
Romans 1:16 says that the gospel is “the power of God unto salvation”. It is powerful because God has ordained it to be the method He uses to convert and regenerate sinners. When we partake in silent evangelism, we are really just partaking in silence. When the gospel is preached, it must always be vocal.
Romans 1:16 is the declaration that God uses His people to share this vocal gospel to convert His sheep. It is not our power. Simply put, we do not convert people; the Holy Spirit converts people. The power unto salvation comes from God. This is why Paul is not ashamed of preaching the gospel; he knows God uses it.