Getting the Gospel Right, Part I - Romans 1:1-2

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 (Romans 1:1-2).

 

The imminent theologian and author R.C. Sproul taught Systematic Theology in seminary for many years. He began each semester by asking his students this simple question: What is the gospel? As he listened to the answers, he was amazed at how few men aspiring to the ministry could give a correct answer to this basic question. What an important question to answer correctly. You cannot be wrong about the gospel and be right with God. To be right about the gospel is to be right about everything that truly matters. Getting the gospel right is that important.

 

There is no better place to acquire a right understanding of the gospel than in the book of Romans. This is the apostle Paul’s magnum opus, his greatest work among the thirteen epistles that he wrote. Romans was intentionally placed first among the twenty-one epistles in the New Testament, not because it was the first epistle written, because it was not. The letters of James and Galatians were written first. Romans was placed first, immediately after the four Gospels and Acts, because it towers in importance over the rest of the epistles. To understand the message of this book is to understand the gospel.

 

The great German Reformer, Martin Luther, said of Romans, it is “a gateway to heaven,” “an open door into paradise.” He claimed it is “the chief part of the New Testament,” and “the very purest gospel.” Luther also stated, “Every Christian should know [Romans] word for word, by heart…[and should] occupy himself with it every day, as the daily bread of the soul.” According to Luther, Romans “can never be read or pondered too much. The more it is dealt with, the more precious it becomes, and the better it tastes.” This book is that important to every single individual, whether they recognize it or not.

 

The Gospel of Jesus Christ

The central theme of the book of Romans is found in its opening verses. In reality, the entire book of Romans is found in condensed form here in this opening prologue. There is no doubt what this chief of all books is about. It is about the gospel of Jesus Christ. I cannot think of a better study for us to undertake than for us to deepen our understanding of and commitment to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

 

In the opening prologue, Romans 1:1-17, we see the gospel directly mentioned five times. In verse one, “the gospel of God.” In verse nine, “the preaching of the gospel of His Son.” In verse fifteen, “I am eager to preach the gospel.” In verse sixteen, “for I am not ashamed of the gospel.” In verse seventeen, “for in it,” referring to the gospel. This book is all about the gospel of Jesus Christ. As we look at these verses, I want to set before you several headings that will help us in getting the gospel right with great precision.

 

I. The Messenger of the Gospel (1:1)

 

First, we note in verse one the messenger of the gospel and author of this book, “Paul, a bond-servant of Christ Jesus, called as an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God” (verse 1). Never had anyone more opposed to the gospel become its strongest exponent. “Paul” had previously been Saul of Tarsus, a devout Jewish Pharisee, who was hardened in external religion and self-righteousness. He was determined to eliminate Christianity from the face of the earth as its chief persecutor. But then the risen Christ appeared to him on the Damascus road and he was suddenly converted to faith in the Lord Jesus. Once an avowed enemy, he was now the leading preacher of the gospel he once opposed.

 

A Slave of Christ Jesus

So humbled was Paul by this dramatic change that he first identified himself as “a bond-servant of Christ Jesus.” The word “bond-servant” is better translated as “slave.” There is a noticeable difference between the two designations. A bond-servant was hired by a master, who paid him wages for the services rendered. But a slave was owned by his master, who has paid a price to purchase him. While a bond-servant still retained some degree of personal rights and freedom, a slave was much like an acquired piece of property by his master.

 

All the needs of the slave were met by the master. What the slave owed his master was unwavering obedience. As he served in his master’s house, he was to give unwavering devotion to his desires and pleasures.

 

This is precisely how Paul saw himself, as a slave in the employment of his master, Jesus Christ. Paul recognized that his life was no longer his own. He now belonged to Jesus Christ, who had bought him at the cross with the high price of his shed blood. Paul gave himself entirely to the cause of Christ, which was centered in the gospel. For the rest of his life, he was devoted to the preaching and teaching of the truths of the gospel.

 

“Called as an Apostle”

Further, Paul identified himself and one who was “called as an apostle.” He had certainly not sought this position. Nor had he signed up for it. Paul had been sovereignly chosen and “called” by God Himself for this ministry position. He would state, “God…set me apart even from my mother’s womb and called me through His grace, was pleased to reveal His Son in me so that I might preach Him among the Gentiles” (Galatians 1:15-16). This was the work of the gospel to which Paul had been called from before the foundation of the world.

 

Specifically, Paul had been called to be “an apostle.” This word (apostolos) means ‘one who is sent’ or ‘a sent one.’ It referred to a delegate or messenger who has been officially commissioned on a mission. An apostle in New Testament times was one who received direct revelation from God and was given a delegated authority from Jesus Christ to preside over the affairs of the church. Paul makes this designation so that the believers in Rome will know that he writes with infallible and binding authority over the affairs of the church. Everything that follows in this letter is the unvarnished truth that directly proceeds from Jesus Christ Himself.

 

“Set Apart for the Gospel”

Moreover, Paul makes known that he is “set apart for the gospel.” This is to say, he has been singled out and separated by God for the service of the gospel. All else was secondary, and this was primary. This word “set apart” (aphorizo) means ‘to mark off by boundaries to set apart for a special purpose.’ It carries the idea of separation to a specified assignment. Paul understood that he had been set apart by God for the specific purpose of spreading the gospel far and wide. This was his God-chosen mission upon the earth. He had been sovereignly separated to the propagation of the gospel.

 

By these three designations – slave, apostle, and one set apart – Paul is wanting there to be no misunderstanding about who he is. He is merely a messenger of the gospel, not its author. He is simply a servant of the gospel, not its originator. He has been dispatched by God to bring this saving message with greater clarity to his readers. But let there be no mistake. He is only the messenger of a much higher authority, God Himself. In turn, his readers must receive the truths that follow as from the throne of God.

 

II. The Source of the Gospel (1:1)

 

Second, we note the source of the gospel at the end of verse one. Who is the author of the gospel? From whom does it come? Paul says in verse one, “Paul, a bond-servant of Christ Jesus, called as an apostle, set apart…” Paul wants us to know that he is only the messenger. He is not the author, but simply one who has been sent as an ambassador to bring this gospel message. It does not originate with him.

 

When Paul says at the end of verse one, “for the gospel of God,” it means not only that the gospel is about God – meaning His holiness, His love, His wrath, and His righteousness – but also that this gospel is God’s gospel. It has come down from the throne of God above. It means that God is the source of the gospel. He is the author of the gospel. He is the architect of the gospel.

 

The gospel is God’s solution to our dilemma. It is the good news that has come down from the infinite genius of God.  If we divided up into small groups today and met nonstop for the next ten thousand years brainstorming a plan of salvation, we could have never designed the gospel message. It could have only come from the sheer infinite genius of God.

 

Who but God could have designed this gospel message? That God would send the second Person of the Trinity, His only Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, into this world to rescue us. Who but God could have designed this? That He would be born of a virgin. That He would live under the Law, and with perfect obedience keep the Law that you and I have broken day after day. Who but God could have designed this? That He would go to the cross and be lifted up to die. That all of the sins of all the people who would ever believe in Him would be transferred to Him, and that He would bear our sins in His body upon the cross. Who but God could have designed this? That He would be taken down from the cross, buried in a borrowed tomb, and on the third day be raised from the dead. That He would ascend on high and whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved. Who but God could have designed this gospel message?

 

No denomination could have designed it. No church could have crafted it. No seminary could have scripted it. No board of elders could have ever come up with this plan. Only God could have come up with this solution. The source of the gospel is God Himself. That is why to receive the gospel is to receive God Himself. To reject the gospel is to reject God Himself. God is the source of the gospel. That is why there is a zero tolerance policy for any tampering with the gospel. No church, theologian, or pastor may add to the gospel, take away from the gospel, or try to tweak the gospel. This is the gospel of God.

 

III. The Meaning of the Gospel (1:1e)

 

Third, we note the meaning of the gospel. We see it at the end of verse one, “the gospel of God.” It begs that we ask the question: What does the word “gospel” mean? “Gospel” a compound word in the original language, meaning two words that come together as one. It is the Greek word euangelion. The eu at the beginning means ‘good.’ Someone might give a eulogy, which means ‘a good word,’ at a funeral. You can hear the Greek word angelion in the word angel, meaning a ‘messenger or message.’ When those two Greek words come together, the word gospel simply means ‘the good news, the good tidings, the glad tidings.’

 

The gospel is the good news of salvation through the Son of God, the Lord Jesus Christ, to rescue us from the wrath of God. Romans 1:18 says, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men…” God is angry with the wicked every day. It is through the gospel that sinners like you and I are delivered and rescued from the wrath of God. You will never hear anything better than the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is not just good news, it is the greatest news that will ever enter your ear and come into your heart.

 

Martin Luther said:

 

Evangel (gospel) is a Greek word that means a good message, good tidings, good news, a good report, which one sings and tells with rejoicing. So when David overcame the huge Goliath, the good report and the comforting news came among the Jewish people that their terrible enemy had been slain, that they had been delivered, and that joy and peace had been given to them; and they sang and danced and were happy because of this.

 

So the evangel (gospel) of God…is also a good message and report. The gospel has resounded in all the world, proclaimed by the apostles. It tells of a true David who fought with sin, death, and the devil, overcame them, and thereby delivered, without any merit of their own, all those who were held captive in sin, were plagued by death, and were overpowered by the devil. He made them righteous, gave them life, and saved them.

 

This is what the gospel means. It is the good news of our deliverance from destruction, of our rescue from wrath. It should cause our hearts to rise up with joy and bless the name of the Lord.

 

IV. The Exclusivity of the Gospel (1:1)

 

Fourth, we note the exclusivity of the gospel. As we look at verse one, note the last four words: “the gospel of God.” You see the definite article, “the” in “the gospel.” This speaks to the exclusivity of the gospel, meaning there is no other gospel. The gospel is never couched as “a” gospel, as if it is one of many paths that lead up the proverbial mountain that leads to God. There is only one gospel, and it is God’s gospel, which He has revealed to us. The definite article “the” is not in the original language here, but neither is the “a.” It is to be understood that “the” is implied by the reader. It is found in verse nine and verse sixteen. Every time the gospel is mentioned, it is mentioned as “the gospel,” implying the one and only gospel.

 

1 Corinthians 15:1 refers to that which is of first importance, “the gospel.” Galatians 1:7 speaks of “the gospel.” The only time “a gospel” is ever mentioned in the Bible, it refers to “a gospel contrary to what you received” (Galatians 1:9), for which men who preach or believe it will be eternally damned. “The gospel” is spoken of in Ephesians 1:13, Ephesians 6:15, Philippians 1:5,7,12,16,27, Colossians 1:5,23, 1 Thessalonians 2:2, 2 Thessalonians 1:8, 2 Timothy 1:10, etc. and etc. It runs rampant throughout the entire New Testament. The gospel is always presented as the one and only gospel.

 

We need to understand that there are many roads to hell, but only one road to heaven. Proverbs 14:12 says, “There is a way which seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death.” Every self-conceived way to God, whether by human religion, wisdom, or morality, leads to eternal death. Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me” (John 14:6). Jesus claimed an exclusive monopoly on how to come to God. Peter, as he stood before the Sanhedrin, said “There is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). 1 Timothy 2:5 says, “For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.” There are as many mediators as there are gods. There is one God and, therefore, one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus.

 

We live today in a world that strives for political correctness, that is tolerant of every religion as having some part of the truth. It is claimed that every religion makes some contribution to the overall body of knowledge about God. The fundamental core value today is tolerance. I fear this spirit of the age has crept into the church. It has lulled us to sleep into accepting this worldly philosophy. Everybody is right, it seems, and nobody is wrong. Let me be crystal clear. There is only one way to God – not two or three ways –  and that one way is through Jesus Christ the Lord. Every other religion is a path to hell. We are not just dogmatic about this, we are bull-dogmatic about this. I trust that your faith is in the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, for there is salvation in no other name.

 

V. The Antiquity of the Gospel (1:2)

 

Fifth, as we come to verse two, I want you to note the antiquity of the gospel. What Paul wants us to know is that the gospel is not a trendy new message that has only recently come onto the scene in New Testament times. Paul asserts that the gospel is rooted and grounded in the fertile soil of Old Testament Scripture. The gospel is as old as the world itself, even longer.

 

“Promised Beforehand”

In verse two, Paul begins, “which He [God the Father] promised beforehand through His prophets in the holy Scriptures.” The impersonal pronoun “which’ refers to the gospel. This means that the gospel was promised long ago from the beginning of time, throughout all the centuries of Old Testament history. This gospel was prophesied and promised throughout the pages of the Old Testament from Genesis to Malachi. It was announced to Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. It was believed by Abraham when he reached the promised land. It was received by Moses at Mount Sinai. It was pictured by the Levitical sacrificial system in the Law. It was proclaimed by the prophets of Israel. This is not a new way to heaven that has recently appeared in New Testament times. Paul wants us to know that the gospel is not ‘Plan B’ in the New Testament. It is not an addendum added to the first testament. There is only one way of salvation in both the Old and New Testaments, and it is exactly the same gospel message.

 

Anytime anyone anywhere has been saved, from the dawn of human history to the last of the elect to be saved, it has always been by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. There was not an Old Testament way of salvation that is different from the New Testament way of salvation. There was not an Old Testament path to God, and now there is a New Testament path to God. There was not a Jewish gospel in the Old Testament, and now a Gentile gospel in the New Testament. No, there was and is and will always be only one way of salvation, which was “promised beforehand through His prophets.” There is no other way to be right with God.

 

“By Faith Alone”

Whether a person lived in Old Testament times looking ahead to the coming of Christ, or whether they are in New Testament times looking back to the coming of Christ, we are all saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. It is all about Christ. That is why, when Paul comes to the end of this prologue in verse 17, he affirms salvation is by faith alone by saying, “as it is written.” He then quotes the prophet in Habakkuk 2:4, “but the righteous man shall live by faith.” By this Old Testament citation, Paul is driving home this truth deep into our minds. The Old Testament gospel is the New Testament gospel, which is the only gospel.

 

Later in Romans, Paul will establish the doctrine of justification by faith alone by using two Old Testament figures, Abraham and David. He is like an attorney in a courtroom who calls to the witness stand Abraham and David and submits them as evidence for our understanding of how we may be made right with God in New Testament times. The point that Paul makes is that the way that Abraham was saved is the way David was saved, and it is the same way that you and I are made right with God. It is through this one gospel, whether a person lives before or after the cross. This is why it is so critically important that we get the gospel right, because there is no other rope to grab hold in order to be saved from perishing. There is no other way that leads to God. There is no other access to the throne of grace, but through the gospel of Jesus Christ.

 

Live with Eternal Purpose

As Paul was set apart for the gospel, we too are separated from the mundane things of this world unto the eternal realities that surround the gospel. We must live to make Jesus Christ known, whether in our families, workplaces, or ministries. This is why God has left us here after He saved us. It is to be His witnesses for the gospel of Jesus Christ. We must commit ourselves to spreading the gospel by every means possible.

 

The story is told about Mr. Armour, who was the head of the Armor Meat Packing empire. He was a man well-known to be successful in his enormous business. One day, he boarded a plane, and a young salesman sat next to him. To make conversation, the upstart businessman introduced himself to Mr. Armour, not realizing to whom he was speaking. “And what do you do for a living?,” he asked. The famous, older Mr. Armour replied, “My name is Mr. Armour. My job is to tell other people about Jesus Christ. I just pack a little meat on the side.”

 

The same is true for you and me. We may teach school or practice law. We may raise cattle or drive a truck. But our business is to tell others about Jesus Christ.

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.