What is the Gospel?: The Gospel of the Risen King in Paul’s letter to the Romans, Part 1

Today I am going to do something that I have not done in a while. Last year I re-posted a series of old blogs from 2012 in which I began exploring what the New Testament writers say about “the gospel,” testing the hypothesis that fundamentally the NT gospel is the proclamation the Jesus really is Israel’s Messiah and therefore the world’s true Lord. (See here, here, here, here, and here.) Today’s post, however, is not a re-post. I never finished this series back in 2012 and today I pick up where I left off with a brand-spanking-new post on Paul’s gospel in his letter to the Romans.

I am going way out on a limb here today, folks. There is probably no single writing in the New Testament over which more ink has been spilled than Paul’s epistle to the Romans. Moreover, of all the many academic and ecclesiastical controversies surrounding this epistle, there is almost certainly none more controverted than the question as to what precisely Paul’s gospel is. I cannot hope to do the debates justice, so I hope you will allow me simply to state the positive case for why I read Romans as I do, making minimal asides engaging other interpreters of the letter.

6. Paul’s gospel is the announcement that God has declared Jesus to be the world’s true Lord by raising Him from the dead.
Paul both begins and ends his letter with brief summaries of his gospel. He starts his letter by greeting the saints in Rome and identifying himself as an apostle of “the gospel of God”  which he briefly describes as follows:

the gospel (or “good news” or “announcement”) of God (euangelion theou),
which (ho) he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures,
concerning (or “about”; peri) His Son,
who was descended from David according to the flesh
and was declared (horisthentos) to be the Son of God in power
according to the Spirit of holiness
by his resurrection from the dead,
Jesus Christ our Lord… (1:1-4)

The “good news” for which Paul is an ambassador is the good news that Jesus of Nazareth has been identified by God Himself as God’s Son, the long awaited heir of David, Israel’s King who is the King of kings. At a minimum, the title “Son of God” would have connoted Davidic royalty, that is to say messianic status. (See, e.g., 2 Sam 7:14; 1 Chron 17:13; Psalm 2:7, 12; 82:6-7; 89:26; 4Q246) That the “prophets in the holy Scriptures” promised that once again one from the line of David would be anointed as King would not have been news to first century Jews. That the Christ, the Anointed One, ho Christos was the controversial, crucified prophet from Galilee would have been news to just about everyone.

P46, a manuscript dating to circa 200 C.E. includes some of the earliest extant fragments of Paul’s letter to the Romans

A word about Jesus being “declared to be the Son of God in power…by his resurrection from the dead.” Within a first-century Jewish worldview God’s raising Jesus from the dead could only signify Jesus’s vindication. Resurrection from the dead was to be the final (eschatological) reward of the righteous (ho dikaios), those who had proven faithful to YHWH, Israel’s God. (See, e.g., Daniel 12:2-3; Wisdom 3:1-8; 2 Macc 7:1-23, etc.) If Jesus’s unexpected resurrection signaled God’s approval of his life and ministry, a ministry in which, as I have argued, he claimed to be the bringer, indeed, the very embodiment of God’s Kingdom, then the only inference available to a first century Jew such as Paul was that Jesus was indeed the the Messiah. And this, I would suggest, is the central declaration of Paul’s gospel.

What about Romans 1:16-17? Martin Luther identified these verses rather than 1:1-4 as being Paul’s summation of the “gospel” and this identification has profoundly shaped the Protestant interpretive tradition to this day. For many commentators, these verses are supposed to both epitomize Paul’s gospel and, moreover, to identify Paul’s gospel with the doctrine of justification by faith.The text reads:

For I am not ashamed of the gospel (to euangelion), for it is the power of God for salvation to all the faithful (panti to pisteuonti), to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed (dikaiosune gar theou en auto apokaluptetai) from faith to faith, as it is written, “The righteous one (ho de dikaios) shall live by faithfulness.”

While I have the utmost respect and affection for both Luther and for the long tradition of exegetes who have followed his lead, it is not at all clear to me that Paul intended these verses to summarize his gospel, much less to equate his gospel with his doctrine of justification. For one thing, from  a purely grammatical point of view, in these verses Paul seems to be saying things about the gospel rather than saying what the gospel itself is about. Compare the structure of verses 1:1-3 with that of 1:16-17. Whereas in the former Paul outlines what the gospel is about, namely, that it is “the gospel of God…concerning/about (peri) His Son…,” in the latter he merely tells us a few things about that gospel (namely, that he is “not ashamed” of it, that “it is the power of God for salvation,” and that “in it the righteousness of God is revealed”).  That’s a big difference. I can tell you a lot about, say, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address (e.g., that it was a relatively short speech; that it was powerful; that it has become part of the American political canon, etc) without telling you what the Gettysburg Address was about (namely, the consecration of the battlefield at Gettysburg, the honoring of fallen soldiers, and the resolution to continue working for the cause for which they died). So it is In Romans 1:16-17: Here Paul tells us not so much what his gospel is about, but rather about his gospel’s efficacy and scope, and about his confidence in it.

None of what I have said is meant in any way to diminish Luther, or the import of Romans 1:16-17, or the doctrine of justification. It is just to say that Paul’s doctrine of justification is an implication of the gospel of the crucified and risen King, rather than the gospel itself–it is an instance of what I have elsewhere called “gospel-logic.” The gospel itself is the naming of the Christ (Romans 15:20); it is identifying Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah, the bringer of God’s Kingdom. It is “the proclamation of Jesus Christ” (to kerugma Iesou Christou; 16:25) and of God’s Kingdom. The gospel is that which we celebrate in the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ of Handel’s Messiah:

The kingdom of this world is become
the Kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ,
and of His Christ;
and He shall reign for ever and ever
and He shall reign for ever and ever
and He shall reign for ever and ever
and He shall reign for ever and ever

King of Kings,
for ever
and ever. Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
and Lord of Lords,
for ever
and ever. Hallelujah! Hallelujah!

Next week, the gospel of the Kingdom and the “obedience of faith”…

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