Three Great I Am's - Romans 1:14-16

I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish. So, for my part, I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome. 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 1:14-16).


There is a sacred stewardship that has been entrusted to each and every one of us in the gospel, and we must invest it aggressively. The message of salvation in Jesus Christ is like money that has been given to us. We have to invest it into the lives of people. We cannot hide the good news in a jar and bury it in the ground. We have to put it out in the marketplace. We have to get it into the lives of people. We cannot be a hoarder of the gospel, but be an investor of this sacred message, and see it yield a great rate of return for eternity.


Part of our accountability when we stand before the Lord on the last day will be: What did we do with the gospel? We will not be asked what our pastor did with the gospel. Nor what our elders did with it. Each of us, individually, will have to give an account to the Lord on how we invested or how we hoarded the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is not enough to come to a Bible study and take notes. It is not enough to be able to articulate what the gospel is. Rather, it must be invested. The gospel must be proclaimed to this lost and perishing world so that people may to come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ.


We are continuing to investigate the opening prologue of Romans, which is all about the gospel. This is the good news of salvation that is found in the person and work of Jesus Christ. We looked at the specifics of the gospel in the first seven verses. In verses 8-13, we looked at some of the defining qualities of the servant of the gospel in Paul himself. Now, we want to look at Romans 1:14-16. The thrust of these verses is very simply, it is not enough to know the gospel. It is not enough to just have it in your head. It is not enough to be able to answer questions about it. You have to share the gospel with others.


Obligated, Eager, and Excited

As we look at Romans 1:14-16, these verses are known as Paul’s “Three Great I Am’s.” The apostle begins verses 14, 15, and 16 with the strong resolve of “I am.” They reveal Paul’s compelling sense of obligation regarding the distribution of the gospel. These three “I am’s” reflect eagerness with and excitement for the spread of the gospel. It is as if we are lifting the hood and looking down into the engine of the apostle Paul. Here is what drives and accelerates him. Here is the burning passion of his soul. Here is what motivates him. Here is what propels him forward. Here are the three great “I am” statements of Paul. That which fuels Paul must fuel us as well.




Paul begins by saying, “I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish” (verse 14). Notice how this begins, “I am.” Not, “I will be.” Not, “I once was.” Paul uses a present tense verb, “I am.” He is referring to the state of his life, every moment of every day. No matter when Paul would say this – whether he had just become a believer on the Damascus road, whether he is on his first, second, or third missionary journey, whether he is in a prison cell in Rome about to have his head severed – no matter where Paul is, he is always under obligation.


This is a constant state of obligation. Paul is not saying, “I am under obligation on Sunday morning.” Nor is he saying, “I am under obligation when I am teaching on Monday.” It is not simply, “I am under obligation on Tuesdays.” This is not a multiple choice, and he gets to pick and choose when he wants to be under obligation with the Lord. This sacred duty is twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Right now, you and I are under this same constant obligation.


“Under Obligation”

When Paul says, “under obligation,” the King James and New King James versions say, “I am a debtor.” That is very much the idea, though, obligation works as well. It is hard to go from one language to another language, but the word and its background speak of a financial obligation. It is as if you are in debt to someone, and you have an obligation to pay off the debt.


This should initially strike us as surprising for two reasons. The first reason is that salvation is a free gift. How can Paul be a debtor if he received grace as a free gift? Paul will talk about salvation as a pre-paid gift, “Being justified as a gift by His grace” (Romans 3:24). Likewise, he writes, “For by grace you have been saved through faith” (Ephesians 2:8). How did Paul end up in debt after he received a free gift for which he paid nothing? How could Paul say he has gone into debt for a free gift? How did that work? Those are the questions we need to think about.


The second reason this is surprising, if you think about it, is that Paul has never been to Rome. Neither has he bought anything in Rome. He has never even met these believers. He claims to be in debt with people he has never been to see. How does this work? You can be in debt two ways. One way to be in debt is if someone was to lend you $100. As long as that $100 is in your pocket, you are a debtor to the lender. You need to give it back to him at some point. The other way would be if someone gave you a $100 bill and said, “When you see a certain person, give him the $100 bill.” This results in a two-way debt. As long as this $100 is in your pocket, you are in debt to the lender and to the person to whom you are to give it. That is the second way this debt works.


A Two-Way Debt

As this related to Paul, he understood that the riches of the gospel had been deposited into his account the moment he became a believer. He is now the recipient of the free gift of salvation. But he is charged to give it to others. He must share the gospel with unbelievers. He must talk to people about Jesus Christ and the way of salvation. The same is true for us. As long as I withhold talking about Christ to someone else, whether it is in my office, in my family, at school, or someone I sit next to on an airplane, I am in debt to them, because God has given me the gospel to give to them.


However, in a more primary way, I am in debt to God, not to pay for this gift, but with a sense of accountability before Him. On the last day, I am going to have to stand before God and see if I invested the gospel into the lives of others or if I hoarded it and kept it to myself. It is my responsibility to share the gospel with others, and I am accountable to God for whether or not I do this.


A Watchman on the Wall

In the Old Testament, the imagery of being under obligation was presented with a different metaphor than being a debtor. The prophet Ezekiel said he was like a watchman on the wall, and there were people going about their day-to-day business behind the wall. If the watchman sees the enemy coming, he must blow the trumpet in warning. If the people do not respond, and the enemy comes and destroys them, then their blood is on their own hands. That is to say, their death was their own fault. If the prophet blew the trumpet, but they chose to turn a deaf ear to the warning, they will die because of their own refusal to act upon the truth. On the other hand, Ezekiel says that if he sees the enemy coming and chooses not to blow the trumpet, and the people are destroyed, their blood is on his hands. He was charged to warn them, but if he failed to do so, he was culpable for their death.


In Acts 20, when Paul met with the elders at Ephesus after he had been with them for three years, he was about to say his farewell. They were going to hang on his neck with tears and say goodbye to him. Paul said, “My hands are free from the blood of all men.” I have spoken up both publicly and house to house, both in big groups and small groups, and I have not failed to blow the trumpet. Therefore, my hands are free from the blood of all men. If any turn a deaf ear to the gospel I preach, their destruction is due to their own unbelief. That is what Paul is saying in Romans 1:14 when he says, “I am under obligation.”


The same is true with you and me. Just like the watchman on the wall, we will each give an account on the last day for whether or not we shared the life-saving message of salvation. We are under obligation to do something with the message of the gospel. We must give it to others as the opportunities arise. I want you to think about who you will cross paths with today. You must have this predetermined mindset that if God gives you the opportunity to witness for the Lord, you are resolved to capture the moment. You are going to talk to them about Jesus Christ. You are not going to have to pray about it, because you have already decided to testify for Him. You are looking for these opportunities.


“Both to Greeks and to barbarians”

Notice to whom Paul is under obligation. He says, “both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish” (verse 14). Here, Paul is using a literary method called “parallelism.” There is an A line and a B line, which is a way to say the same thing, but with different words. We will look closer at both lines and the meaning behind Paul’s words. When Paul says, “to Greeks,” he refers to those who are at the top of society’s ladder. They were the cultured and the educated of the ancient society. The Greeks were refined and polished. They loved the arts. They had been trained in social graces and social skills. The Greeks were those who had arisen to the top of the social and cultural scene of the day. The Greeks had read the philosophers of Athens. The Greeks were very conversant with people on many learned subjects, as though they had an advanced liberal arts education. They had ascended to the highest levels of society.


But Paul also writes that he is under obligation “to barbarians.” The barbarians were the total antithesis of the Greeks. If the Greeks were at the top of the social ladder, the barbarians were in the basement. You could not be any more base than the barbarians. The barbarians were crude and rude, lacking in any social graces. They were without any cultural polish. They had no learning, they could not even read. The word “barbarian” was a derisive term used by the Greeks who looked down upon them. To the Greek mind, when the barbarians spoke, their accent and pronunciation of words was so rough that they abused the language. They could not even be understood in what they were saying. When they spoke, it sounded as if they were saying, “Bar, bar, bar, bar, bar.” That is where the word ‘barbarian’ comes from. It is not even a word, but a mocking of people who have never been taught how to read, write, or speak with elegance.


By this phrase, “both to Greeks and to barbarians,” Paul uses a figure of speech known as inclusion, where the author states the two extreme sides. What is implied is that he is also addressing everyone in-between. It would be like saying this, “From the east coast to the west coast of America.” That means not just New York and California, but implies every flyover state in-between – Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, and everywhere else. When Paul says, “I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians,” he means not only to those on the top rung and the bottom rung of life, but to every rung on the ladder in between. In other words, he is under obligation to everyone. If a person is breathing, he is under obligation to them before God to talk to them about Jesus Christ, as God gives him the opportunity.


“Both to the Wise and Foolish”

Paul then says, “Both to the wise and to the foolish” (verse 14). This is another way of saying the same thing. It is another layer of parallelism. “The wise” does not refer to those who are wise in the things of the Lord. The reference is to those who are wise in the things of this world (1 Corinthians 1:18-25). These are those who are wise in their own eyes, those who have excelled to the highest level of school and society. They are wise in the philosophies and ideologies of this world. But the sad fact is, they are unaware that they do not know the most important thing in life. They are not wise in the things of God. Rather, they are wise in the things of this world, which is spiritually bankruptcy. “The wise” refers to the Greeks.


“The foolish” match up with the barbarians. They have never been to school. They grew up on the wrong side of town. They have not had the advantages and privileges that have been afforded to the wise. They are not just foolish in the things of the Lord, but are even foolish in the things of the world. Paul knows he is under obligation to the foolish as well as to the wise, and everyone in-between. Paul cannot say, “My ministry is only to upper-class people.” According to Paul, that kind of smug attitude is wrong. Whoever God providentially brings across his path as he travels the road of life, he is under obligation to talk to them about the gospel, as God gives an open door. By and large, he is meant to bloom wherever he is planted, according to God’s sovereign providence. He is going to talk about Jesus Christ to the people who are the closest around him.


We Are Under Obligation

There are a lot of Christians today that I hear saying, “We are all under grace. There is no such thing as duty or obligation. There is nothing laid on me. If you talk about obligation, you are a legalist. You are under the law. I am free. I can do what I want to do.” Let me say, that is sheer fool’s talk. The fact is, as believers, we are under obligation to God, we are under obligation to Christ, and we are also under obligation to others. Paul makes that abundantly clear in this text.


Wherever the Lord sends you, you are under obligation to speak to people about Jesus Christ as God opens doors of opportunity. I am not talking about being a wild-eyed fanatic, standing on a street corner, and intimidating people with the gospel. I am talking about building bridges towards people, befriending them, getting to know them, and as God gives you the opportunity, talking to them about the gospel. We have been building bridges with people for years. At some point, we have to carry the gospel across that bridge to others and talk to them about Jesus Christ in order to discharge our responsibility.


When the apostle Paul says, “I am under obligation,” we must understand that what he says applies to us as well. What is true of Paul is true for every one of us. Paul is not standing in a special line by himself, while the rest of us are in a different line. Paul is not the only one under obligation. He is speaking for every believer.


In witnessing, the easiest thing to do can be to get on a plane and go to a far-away foreign country to witness to people you will never see again. It is easier for us to be bold with them than with people we see everyday in our daily lives. Short-term missions is easy in that regard. You want to know what is hard? It is to be a witness for Christ in your own family. That is tough, because you are going to see them next Christmas, during summer vacation, and next Thanksgiving. It can be equally hard to witness to the person with whom you work. When you speak to them about the gospel, it can be offensive to them. Being bold with them is much harder than talking to a stranger. We must talk about the gospel on an ongoing basis with those to whom we are the closest. The Lord has sovereignly placed you in their lives to point them to Jesus. Just like Paul, we, too, are under obligation to all men.


II. I am Eager (1:15)


Next, Paul writes, “So for my part, I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome” (verse 15). In other words, no matter what everybody does, for my part, he is eager to preach the gospel. “Eager” (prothumos) is a compound word that pictures the forward lean of a runner. He is pressing forward with the gospel. The main root word for “eager” is the same word (thumos) for passion. It literally means ‘heavy breathing.’ The word gives the picture of a horse that is heavily breathing, ready to charge ahead in the day of battle. The word passion even carries the idea of the heavy breathing of a husband and wife’s intimate, physical relationship. There is a heated excitement to press forward in the pursuit of something. It pictures charging ahead. That is the word here for “eager,” and it has a prefix (pros) in front of it that intensifies the word. When it comes to the gospel, Paul is leaning forward to preach its truths to all people. If everybody is in on this or if nobody is in on this, for my part, I am eager to do this. It is like the coach talking to the kickoff team saying, “Listen, you cannot wait for Fred to make the tackle. You cannot wait for Kent to get off the bench. For your part, you must make the tackle.” Paul is owning up to his personal obligation in preaching the gospel.


Every one of us needs to be able to say, “For my part, I am eager.” It is one thing to have an obligation to pay a debt, but it is something else to be eager to pay it off. Anyone can be under obligation and drag their feet to discharge their duty, thinking, “Can I just get this over with?” However, it is something else to be spring-loaded, sitting on ready, eager, and wanting to do it. Just like Paul, we must have a mindset that it is a privilege to tell others about Christ. It is a joy. It is fulfilling the purpose of why we are breathing on planet earth.


“To Preach the Gospel”

Paul says, “I am eager to preach the gospel.” He is not just eager to live the gospel in front of people, as important as that is. If he only lives the gospel, people around him will go to hell merely thinking he is a good person. What did that get them? In fact, it would be rather self-serving that he is only living as a good person in front of them, but not speaking the gospel to them. It is taking the easy road, keeping a comfortable distance, so that their feelings will not be hurt by the offense of the gospel. Nobody is going to heaven because they think he is a good person. He must open his mouth and speak the gospel to others.


The words “to preach the gospel” is one word in the Greek (euangelizo). We derive the English word ‘evangelism’ from it. The one Greek word comes to us as three or four words in English, “to preach the gospel.” You can almost hear evangelism in euangelizo. The word “also” clearly implies he has been preaching with eagerness wherever he goes. That means whether Paul is in Corinth, or Ephesus, or wherever, he is eager to preach the gospel, no matter where he is. For the apostle, his strongest passion is to reach Rome with the gospel.


Hardest to Reach

This is an amazing statement. The toughest place in the known world to preach the gospel would have been Rome. This was the capital of the Roman Empire. There was flagrant depravity everywhere in Rome. It was a cesspool of inequity as the most idolatrous, most immoral, most incestuous place on the planet. Yet Paul declares that he is eager to go to Rome, the toughest place, to share the gospel. He has the mindset that the darkness cannot expel the light, but the light will always expel the darkness. Paul is ready and eager to go to Rome.


Paul’s own conversion is a prime example of one who was the hardest to reach with the gospel. No one was further away from Jesus Christ than Saul of Tarsus. Paul understands that if he can be brought to faith in Christ, anybody can. If the Lord can capture him, the Lord can capture anyone, because he was the chief of sinners. He was one who would be labeled as “hardest to reach” with the gospel. Yet he was the one who the Lord saved.


This begs the question: What is your Rome? What is your hardest place to witness? Is it with your closest relationships? People you work with? Family members? Who are those people that you have almost written off as the hardest people to reach with the gospel? Paul is challenging us. We have to be ready, but we also have to be eager to reach those who are the furthest away from the Lord. Paul is eager to go to Rome. He is like Caleb going into the Promised Land, who wanted the biggest mountain with the biggest giants. We must be ready and eager to go to the hardest places to reach the hardest people with the gospel.




There is one more “I am” statement that Paul asserts. Not only does Paul say, “I am under obligation” and “I am eager,” but he also says, “I am not ashamed” (verse 16). Please note again the full impact of these two words, “I am.” He does not say, “I will be,” as if one day he will finally be this. He does not say, “I am hoping to achieve this.” Nor does he say, “One day I will arrive at this.” No, Paul declares, “I am,” in the present tense. “This is my constant state.” In other words, “This is my habitual lifestyle.”


Paul puts this statement in the negative by using a rare figure of speech known as litotes, which is a deliberate understatement that involves using a double negative. He combines the word “ashamed” with “not” in front of it. This means the total opposite of being ashamed. He states dramatically that he is unashamed. Isaiah 55:11 says that God’s word will not return to Him void. That means, it will powerfully perform all that He intends. This figure of speech known as litotes uses two negatives to make one positive. This form of expression communicates a truth with an especially strong effect. It carries an extra punch that lodges what it asserts into the reader’s mind. Paul could have simply said, “I am fired up for the gospel. I am excited and eager to preach it.” But there is a far greater impact to put it in a double negative. “I am not ashamed” is an even stronger expression than saying, “I am excited” or “I am enthusiastic.”


“The Power of God”

Paul is not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ. When he states, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation,” “it” refers to the gospel. This is why Paul is so eager as he stated in verse 15. This is likewise why he is not ashamed in verse 16. It is because the gospel has the power to liberate anyone who believes in Jesus Christ from their bondage to sin. It does not matter how sinful a person is with their life. It does not matter into what deviant lifestyle they have fallen. It does not matter what their sin has been. It does not matter if you are a Greek or a barbarian. It does not matter if you are wise in your own eyes, or if you are foolish. It does not matter who you are, what you are, or where you are. The gospel is far more powerful than your sin. The gospel is far more powerful than any hardened resistance against God. The gospel is far more powerful than whatever lifestyle in which anyone has been entrapped.


This word “power” comes from a Greek word (dunamis) that translates into the English language as ‘dynamite.’ The gospel is the explosive dynamite of God. There is no more powerful message in the entire world than the gospel of Jesus Christ. No message has a greater life-changing, eternity-altering impact than the gospel. No message makes a deeper effect upon a person’s life. No message has the power to change them from the inside out than the gospel. Every other message is mere behavior modification. Mere religion is simply an outward face life of a person’s life. Only the gospel has the divine power to revolutionize a person’s life so that they are no longer the same. When the gospel explodes in their life, they are not the same person any longer. Paul writes elsewhere, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come” (2 Corinthians 5:17).


A Total Transformation

No one can receive the gospel, and it not dramatically impact their life. When you believe the gospel, you are radically transformed at the deepest level of your being. The gospel is not just painting the outside walls of your life. This is a total reconstruction process. The old things within you are torn down. New things are put in place. You are totally rewired and restructured. You have a new mind, a new heart, and a new will. You have a new disposition. You have a new standing before God. You have a new priority. You have a new pursuit. You have a new life direction. You have a new destiny.


There could not be a more dramatic makeover of your life than what happens when you receive the gospel of Jesus Christ. This is not just a box you check on a religious survey card. This is the total transformation of your life from the inside out such that you will never be the same again. That is the supernatural power of the gospel of Jesus Christ. I want to say this emphatically. If this dramatic change has not happened in your life, then you have never received the gospel. The gospel explodes in a believer’s life like an erupting volcano.


The person who wrote this verse could not have been anymore in opposition to the gospel. He was hell-bent on apprehending Christians and dragging them back to Jerusalem. He was intent on putting them to death, like Stephen had been put to death. He believed that the gospel was blasphemy against God for saying that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. But in one life-changing moment, Paul was taken down by the power of the gospel. He was knocked off his high horse, and His entire life was rerouted in the opposite direction. He was transformed from death to life, from darkness to light.


“Unto Salvation”

Paul says that the gospel is the power of God “unto salvation.” The word “salvation” (soteria) means ‘deliverance from great danger, rescue from ruin.’ What is this danger from which the gospel saves? The answer is, from the wrath of God. Romans 1:18 states, “The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all unrighteousness and ungodliness of men.” God’s steaming-hot vengeance and fiery hatred of sin is right now bearing down upon every unbeliever. Those outside of Christ are but a heartbeat away from this soul-damning wrath. There is much more to the gospel than, “Smile, God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” On the contrary, it is as Jonathan Edwards said in his famous sermon, all without Christ are sinners in the hands of an angry God. Edwards got it right out of the Bible.


To be saved by God means to be rescued from His wrath. The gospel does not save from surface felt needs like loneliness. It does not deliver from a bad job. It does not rescue from personal insecurities. The gospel saves from God Himself. There is only One who can save from God, and that is God Himself. Only the power of God can rescue from His wrath. If God does not rescue, God will damn all sinners. They will suffer the torment and affliction of eternal hell. Hell cannot be hot enough for the person who is outside of Christ, who has risen up in rebellion against the holy God of heaven and earth. Every one of us desperately needs to be rescued from the imminent danger of the vengeance of His wrath. Hebrews 10:31 tells us, “It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”


There is only one way to be saved, and that is through the gospel of Jesus Christ. That is another reason why Paul is so eager to go to Rome, because people there are under the wrath of God, who need to be delivered from eternal destruction. There is only one way for them to be saved, and that is through the gospel.


“To Everyone Who Believes”

Paul continues that the power of God in salvation is “for everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” This gospel is for “everyone,” whether Greek or barbarian, wise or foolish. Paul will now distinguish the world religiously. In verse 14, he distinguished the world culturally, by seeing it as comprised of Greeks and barbarians, wise and foolish. In verse 16, he distinguishes the world religiously, as Jews and Greeks.

Whether you are a Jew or a Greek, salvation is only through the gospel of Jesus Christ. There is not one way for a Jew to be saved and a different way for a Gentile to be right with God. There is only one narrow gate that leads into the kingdom of God, and that is through the gospel. When Paul says the Jew first, he is picturing the spread of the gospel like a ripple effect caused by tossing a pebble into a pond. The ripple begins where the rock first hits the water and subsequently moves out from the center to the perimeter. The gospel came initially to the Jews, and they were to take it to the world. However, they hoarded the saving message to themselves.


In fact, when the prophet Jonah was commissioned to go to Nineveh, he ran in the opposite direction. He did not want the Gentiles to be saved, but wanted the gospel to stay inside Israel, the way it had always been. He did not want foreigners to receive this salvation. He wanted to keep the gospel to himself. So he boarded a ship and headed to Tarsus, which is modern day Spain. That is like being in Dallas, when God calls you to go to New York, but you get on a plane and fly to Los Angeles. Jonah was trying to go as far away from what God wanted him to do as he possibly could. He did not want anyone else to have this salvation that had been given to the Jews.


What a miserable mindset. What a selfish, self-absorbed, self-consumed way to live on planet earth. But it is not just Israel who acted this way. It can be also the church. We can act as though we want to keep the gospel to ourselves. We can become inward focused as if we do not want anyone else to have this salvation. We can act as if we do not want anyone else to have this glorious grace of God that we have received. How contrary to what Paul says of the Jews, “We are going to take the gospel to them, but then we are going to take it to the Gentiles, to the Greeks. We are going to go to everyone with this gospel.”


The Powerful Message of the Gospel

One way we overcome it is what Paul says in verse 16, the realization of what the gospel can do in a person’s life. We often forget how much power the gospel has. We think the power has to be in our presentation, but nothing could be further from the truth. God works through weak people to spread a powerful message. The power is in the gospel. We do not have to make it powerful. It is powerful. All we have to do is present the gospel as God gives us opportunities. Then we pray that God will work into their souls to receive it. The gospel is a supernatural message with supernatural power. It is come from God with the power that God possesses. 

Dr. Steven J. Lawson

Dr. Steven J. Lawson is President and founder of OnePassion Ministries, a ministry designed to equip biblical expositors to bring about a new reformation in the church. Dr. Lawson hosts The Institute for Expository Preaching in cities around the world. Dr. Lawson is also a Teaching Fellow for Ligonier Ministries, where he serves on its board. Moreover, he is Professor of Preaching and oversees the Doctor of Ministry program at The Master’s Seminary, where he also serves on its board. Dr. Lawson is also Professor in Residence for Truth Remains, a work designed to promote and proclaim God’s written Word. Further, Dr. Lawson serves as the Executive Editor for Expositor Magazine published by OnePassion Ministries.