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Paul’s Gospel & the Theme of Romans

by Mark Horne

copyright © 2003

Paul, a bond-servant of Christ Jesus, called as an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which He promised beforehand through His prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning His Son, who was born of a descendant of David according to the flesh, who was declared the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead, according to the Spirit of holiness, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles, for His name’s sake (Romans 1.1-5).

Richard Gaffin, in his excellent Resurrection & Redemption (p. 105) writes of this passage

Inasmuch as syntactical lines put verses 3 and 4 [of Romans 1] within the orbit of “gospel” (v. 1), they function as a capsule statement of the gospel, a summary declaration of “the Christ that Paul preached,” to employ Warfield’s own language. Indeed, Warfield has given this point its most forceful emphasis (p. 105).

In a footnote Gaffin quotes Warfield,

“In doing this [Paul] is led to describe briefly the Gospel which had been committed to him, and that particularly with regard to its contents.” Here is “one of the chief sources of our knowledge of Paul’s conception of Christ.” “Nowhere else do we get a more direct description of specifically the Christ that Paul preached.” (‘Paul’s Christ,’ pp. 236, 237; cf. pp. 238, 239, 252).

John Murray’s commentary on Romans contains the same idea:

These two verses [3 and 4] inform us of that which the promise had been concerned. But since that which had been promised is the gospel of God we must infer that these verses also define for us the subject matter of the gospel unto which the apostle had been separated; the gospel concerned with the Son of God [emphasis added].

Likewise, John Calvin, in his commentary on Romans, says of “concerning his son” in verse 3:

This is a remarkable passage, by which we are taught that the whole gospel is included in Christ, so that if any removes one step from Christ, he withdraws himself from the gospel. For since he is the living and express image of the Father, it is no wonder, that he alone is set before us as one to whom our whole faith is to be directed and in whom it is to center. It is then a definition of the gospel, by which Paul expresses what is summarily comprehended in it.

What is remarkable about this last affirmation is that Calvin thought Paul was simply setting forth Christ’s two natures apart from any statement about the resurrection. Yet, even so, he recognizes from the context–“gospel… concerning his son”–that Paul must have been summarizing the content of his Gospel message.

All four of these men saw Romans 1.3, 4 as a description of the content of Paul’s Gospel. Warfield followed Calvin in thinking that the reference to being “declared the Son of God with power by the resurrection” was a claim about Christ’s divine nature, which was demonstrated to all by the resurrection. Gaffin and Murray argue convincingly that the title, “son of God” in this passage refers to Christ’s human nature (c.f. Luke 20.36; 3.22, 38; Act 2.24 [“putting an end to the birth pangs of death”]). Verses 3 and 4 give us a two-stage life of Christ. The content of the Gospel is the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Besides the grammar of the passage itself, there is a great deal in Paul’s other letters that buttresses the notion that he gives us here the content of his Gospel. Consider his letter to the Corinthians:

Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep; then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles; and last of all, as it were to one untimely born, He appeared to me also (First Corinthians 15.1-8).

Likewise, he reminds Timothy of his gospel using a less elaborate statement than Romans 1.3, 4 but one with an identical two-stage structure: “Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, descendant of David, according to my gospel…” (Second Timothy 2.8). Luke, in his first summary of a Pauline sermon, records for us a passage that is quite reminiscient of Romans 1.1-4:

And we preach to you the good news of the promise made to the fathers, that God has fulfilled this promise to our children in that He raised up Jesus, as it is also written in the second Psalm, “You are My Son; today I have begotten You” (Acts 13.32, 33).

Paul gives us as the content of his gospel, a two-stage life of the Messiah–life in the flesh and then life in the Spirit once he is raised from the dead.

What about Romans 1.16, 17?
John Murray, in his commentary in 1958, wrote that Romans 1.3, 4 were verses that “define for us the subject matter of the gospel.” On the other hand, he says of verses 16 and 17,

The apostle tells us first why he is ready to preach the gospel at Rome–he is not ashamed of the gospel. then he tells us why he is not ashamed of the gospel–it is “the power of God unto salvation.” And then, finally, he tells us why it is the power of God unto salvation–therein the “righteousness of God is revealed.”

The contrast here is quite stark. Verses 3 and 4 tell us what the Gospel is, while verses 16 and 17 explain what the Gospel does and thus why Paul wants to preach it. The preaching of the death and resurrection of the promised Messiah is the power of God for salvation to all who believe without distinction because it reveals the righteousness of God.

One need not agree with every nuance of Murray’s interpretation to appreciate this basic point. My own present opinion is that “from faith to faith” is a deliberate wordplay indicating that God’s faithfulness is revealed to believers. I also take the righteousness of God that is revealed to mean the fulfillment of God’s promise of salvation, which proves his faithfulness (Psalm 98.2; Isaiah 62.1, 2). But even on Murray’s view, the “God-righteousness” revealed in the Gospel would be embodied in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (Murray references Romans 5.17-19–p. 30). Thus, his point still stands no matter which exegetical options one finds most persuasive. While verses 16 and 17 explain to us why Paul preaches the Gospel, verses 3 and 4 give us the subject matter that is preached by him.

Which Is the Theme?
A more interesting question is which passage, if either, sets the theme for Paul’s epistle to the Romans? According to Murray’s heading on page 26, verses 16 and 17 give us the theme for his letter.

A case can be plausibly argued either way, but the evidence is better accounted for if we treat verses 3 and 4 in the context of the salutation of vv. 1-6 as the theme-setting passage. The reason for this is that 3-5 explain 16 and 17 as well as much else in the rest of the epistle. Verses 16 and 17 do not explain verses 3 and 4 however.

1. Paul’s Inclusio

To begin with, however, one should note that Paul ends his epistle with the language of his salutation, not his declaration in verses 16 and 17.

Paul, a bond-servant of Christ Jesus, called as an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which He promised beforehand through His prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning His Son, who was born of a descendant of David according to the flesh, who was declared the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead, according to the Spirit of holiness, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles, for His name’s sake…

Now to Him who is able to establish you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery which has been kept secret for long ages past, but now is manifested, and by the Scriptures of the prophets, according to the commandment of the eternal God, has been made known to all the nations, leading to obedience of faith; to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, be the glory forever.

Anyone can read these two statements and see all the correlations both in direct wording and in concepts. The correlation is even more noticeable if one remembers that “Gentiles” and “nations” are exactly the same word in the original Greek. This gives us a prima facie reason to see 1.1-5 as thematic. Certainly much would have been made of it if Paul had ended Romans by referring to “the righteousness of God” or used the phrase, “from faith to faith.”

2. Death and Resurrection, Flesh and Spirit

Romans 1.3, 4 gives us a fundamental two-phase life, the first according to the flesh and the second according to the Spirit (see Resurrection & Redemption by Gaffin). This turns out to be a key to much of what follows. Some highlights:

In this context, Paul’s beginning salutation looks quite planned. The death and resurrection of Jesus structures much in this letter.

3. Romans 1.16, 17 as elaboration on 1.1-5

The constant references in Romans to the righteousness of God and to faith (and, perhaps, the faithfulness of God) leave no doubt that Romans 1.16, 17 is a pivotal passage that begins an important theme. However, it seems quite likely that Paul was elaborating on some of the implications of his saluation when we wrote that important statement.

Thus, Paul writes, “we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles” (v. 5). That is his distinctive calling by which he was “set apart for the gospel of God” (v. 1). Given the fact that Paul was continually persecuted for being obedient to his calling, and that he was specifically rejected by many of his countrymen for carrying it out, it makes sense that he would declare that he was “not ashamed of the Gospel.” Further, having stated that he was to be used to bring about “the obedience of faith among the Gentiles” he unfolds the importance of faith so that the distinction between Jew and Greek is immaterial. The Gospel saves believers from either group.

As mentioned above, “the righteousness of God” which is “revealed” in the Gospel is, on any account, the death and resurrection of Jesus. God’s righteousness is an important theme in Romans, but it is a description of the content of the Gospel message–that God has sent His son to die for us and raised him from the dead. Again, it is much easier to see how 1.16, 17 elaborates on 1.1-5 rather than vice versa. Furthermore, it is not obvious how all of Paul’s uses of death and resurrection as a motif can be explained by 1.16, 17. They seem much more directly dependent on 1.3, 4.

Paul goes on to argue in Romans that faith, not one’s status of Jew or Gentile, is what determines whether or not one is justified. Indeed, he also makes a point of stating that “God justifies the ungodly,” so that there is no level of righteousness (however that is measured) one must achieve in order to be received by God (v. 5). All of these arguments can be seen as flowing from Romans 1.16, 17. It obviously sets up an important theme.

Nevertheless, as crucial as this statement is, it is probably an elaboration on 1.1-5, Paul’s salutation which he deliberately evokes in his closing.

Yet, it is hard to know, though, what Paul would say about this if we asked him. Higher critical scholars (especially those in the Lutheran tradition) have sometimes insisted that Paul’s greeting is simply some pre-Pauline formula that he felt obligated to use while 1.16, 17 is his real concern. Obviously, we must reject that kind of construction out of hand–in which Paul is virtually accused of not really caring about Jesus’ messiahship or his resurrection–but it may be the result of some purpose in Paul’s letter that is not easy to articulate. Perhaps Paul considered Romans 1.1-5 to be his common ground with the Church in Rome, whereas 1.16, 17 contains his first move toward educating them in new directions and stretching them from what they know to what they haven’t yet fully considered.

Some possible evidence of this would be the fact that he simply refers to Gentiles in v. 5 while explicitly naming Jews in v. 16. N. T. Wright has argued in his lecture on “Romans in a Week” that Paul was concerned with the possibility of a Gentile-Christian anti-semitism.

Perhaps demanding a firm conclusion about what passage in a letter as complex and long as Romans is somewhat unrealistic. On a broader level, however, there can be no doubt that the death and resurrection of Jesus was crucial to Paul’s theology and central theme of his ministry. Readers are invited to read Gaffin’s Resurrection & Redemption for an introduction to this topic. “Justification only by faith” is also an essential Pauline theme, but it is hard to see how it could be “central” because it does not explain everything else in Paul’s theology. The death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah, on the other hand, explains both Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith and virtually everything else in Paul’s writings.

copyright © 2003


  1. The confusion behind Paul’s gospel is because he was the wolf in sheep’s clothing that Yahshua warned about. He deceived the Bride of Christ just like the enchanter/serpent deceived Eve in the Garden. Read Song of Solomon, he explains what happened in the Garden very clearly.

    Read Blueprint for Bondage (blueprintforbondage.com)

    Issues with Paul:
    Paul vs Jesus – A list of contradictory Statements
    By Edgar Jones

    Editor’s Note: Huge cut and paste removed. Please refer to links in comment for content

    Comment by LW — August 19, 2008 @ 3:53 pm

  2. If Paul was a wolf so was David….. as well as Jeremiah. I think you are the wolf.

    Comment by jeff — December 11, 2009 @ 4:54 pm

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