The Shame of the Gospel
For I am not ashamed of this Good News about Christ. Is the power of God at work, saving everyone who believes — Jews first and also Gentiles. (NLT) Romans 1:16
I love to read this verse in the colloquial paraphrase of the New Living Translation. It’s not that there is a deficit of clarity in the NIV or the KJV; both are very clear in conveying the message. What makes this translation of the verse stand out is the use of the term ‘good news’ in place of the well-known word gospel. I’m stopped short to immediately ask why a person might possibly be ashamed of good news.
Living as a Christian for any length of time means that you have had the experience of antagonism to some degree about your belief. Not unexpected from the modern atheists such as Sam Harris but less so from the humanist forces of modern culture, the flying–spaghetti–monster contingent. Family and friends may be subtler in their disregard or disdain for your faith in Christ, but ultimately the objective of these forces is to call you into questioning your belief.
When Paul records this verse he is facing a much more sophisticated attempt to shame him into silence. To one group of addressees the good news contradicted their belief in salvation by behavioral control. To a deeper level it challenged their assurance in being the chosen people. To the other group, the gospel made no philosophic sense. Why would God require the death of his beloved son in order to atone for the sins of total strangers? That is a weak god who cannot make the problem simply go away and who demands such a high price of expiation.
The gospel is both blindingly clear and wrapped in subtleties. Shame or embarrassment at believing in the power of the gospel unto salvation is often rooted in a weakness in our discipleship. How many of us can explain the gospel of Jesus Christ with clarity? How many of us are prepared to place that gospel in the context of our loved ones or even a stranger? Am I prepared to lovingly explain why a self-sufficient neighbor is in ‘need’ of the Savior?
To be a disciple is to understand why the gospel is offensive. It is to test our own beliefs about the good news. Consider for example that we must accept that salvation is free and undeserved. This means that there is nothing good in us worthy of this gift. This means that we cannot earn this gift. This means that we are so lost that the only means of salvation is via the God provided Son of Man dying. The gospel offends by informing us that we cannot be good enough or spiritual enough or anything enough. Salvation is out of our hands.
Even within the family of God the true gospel is offensive. It is not a promise of prosperity and perfect health. Instead, as Bonhoeffer famously states, Christ bids a man to come and die. The gospel is an invitation to suffer, to die to self and to serve a new lord and master, Jesus Christ. The offense of the gospel to modern culture is that it demands that we leave self behind and become servants of God.
Paul had every cultural reason to be ashamed of the gospel as he prepared to journey to Rome. There is much similarity between the culture of Rome and that of the modern-day. Christians are tolerated so long as they remain in their sanctuary and butt out of cultural issues. But that’s not the gospel. The good news is that because of the sacrifice of Jesus, his righteousness is credited to us. In accepting that credit, we commit ourselves to him as Lord and Savior. He is clear in his command that is servants engage the world, that we not shirk this responsibility because we are ashamed. Buried in this verse is a challenge: to whom will you pledge your allegiance?
For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 1 Cor 1:18