These two verses are the Apostle Paul’s thesis of the book of Romans. Here Paul summarized the gospel of Jesus Christ before he proceeded to explain it through the rest of the book. The book of Romans is the Holy Spirit inspired exposition of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
For I am not ashamed of the gospel (1:16a).
What is it about the gospel that would cause men to be ashamed of it? For one thing, to those who are perishing it is moronic. “For the word of the cross is to those who are perishing foolishness…” (1 Corinthians 1:18). “Foolishness” is from the Greek word “moria” from which we get moron. The gospel is moronic and absolute nonsense to unbelievers who rely on their own reason and rationality. In the reasoning and wisdom of those who are perishing, most men really aren’t all that bad and there must be something that they can do in order to earn God’s favor. Therefore those who would dare proclaim the gospel as it is without adding to it or taking from it are considered fools by those who are perishing because the gospel proclaims man’s utter wretched estate and inability to save himself or aid in any way in his salvation. That message is despised, hated, and foolish to most men who think that there is at least some island of innate goodness somewhere in their being. This would cause some to be ashamed of the gospel because they value what others think of them and they do not want to be considered as morons.
Not only is the gospel foolishness to those who are perishing, the gospel is also offensive to both Jews and Gentiles that are perishing. To the Jews the gospel is a stumbling block and to the Gentiles the gospel is foolishness – “But we preach Christ crucified, to Jews and stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness” (1 Corinthians 1:23).
The Jews had a hard time accepting a suffering and crucified Messiah. Also the Jews had a hard time accepting that the Gentiles didn’t have to observe Jewish customs. So those who were ashamed of the gospel but pretending to be preachers of the gospel preached circumcision as a necessary condition for Gentiles to be saved. But the apostle Paul wasn’t ashamed of the gospel and he refused to remove the offense of the gospel – “But I, brethren, if I still preach circumcision, why am I still persecuted? Then the stumbling block of the cross has been abolished” (Galatians 5:11). “Those who desire to make a good showing in the flesh try to compel you to be circumcised, simply so that they will not be persecuted for the cross of Christ” (Galatians 6:12).
Tampering with the gospel in order to make it non-offensive so that all can embrace it distorts the gospel and then it isn’t the gospel at all. We must remember that those of whom Paul wrote about to the Galatians who were attempting to abolish the stumbling block of the cross by adding circumcision to the gospel were not genuine preachers of the gospel but false preachers who were ashamed of the real gospel. “I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him [God] who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel; which is really not another; only there are some who are disturbing you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed” (Galatians 1:6-8).
Many in our day “want to distort the gospel of Christ” so that they can remove the stumbling block and foolishness of the cross of Christ. This is in order that they can be liked and spoken well of by all men simply so that they will not be persecuted for the cross of Christ or considered foolish by the world for preaching the gospel. However, God’s word says, “For since in the wisdom of the world the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe” (1 Corinthians 1:21). You cannot preach what the world considers a foolish message and not be considered foolish yourself. So the only way around that dilemma is to alter the message so that it does not offend the masses.
Altering the message so that it does not offend the masses is easily spiritualized as “becoming all things to all men so that we may by all means save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22). However, altering the message so that it does not offend the masses is not spiritual and it is the equivalent of opening a wide gate that leads to destruction. No text of Scripture other than Matthew 7:1 has been more twisted and distorted than 1 Corinthians 9:22. The same apostle Paul who wrote Romans 1:16 is the same apostle Paul who wrote 1 Corinthians 9:22 and it is evident and plain that Paul never altered the message to remove its offense but he did do what was necessary to keep himself from being offensive. Paul had Timothy whose mother was a Jew circumcised so that Timothy would not be an offense to the Jews (Acts 16:1-3). Paul refused to have Titus who was a Greek circumcised so that Titus would not be an offense to the Greeks (Galatians 2:3-6). Paul never altered the message because he was not ashamed of the gospel.
Those who are ashamed of the gospel seek to remove the offense of the gospel so that they will not have to be ashamed of it anymore. The gospel is made non-offensive by altering its content and intent. No one is offended by a “smile, God loves you” type of gospel. No one is offended by a “God wants you to have your best life now” gospel. No one is offended by a “God has a wonderful purpose and plan for your life” gospel. No one is offended by a “you’re so valuable to God that He wants you to live with Him in heaven” gospel. No one is offended by a “God wants to make you healthy, wealthy, and prosperous” gospel. But men are offended by a “you’re so wicked that the only way God could save you was to crucify His only Son as a sinless substitute, have Him buried, and raise Him from the dead so that He could be both just and the justifier of whoever has faith in His Son” gospel.
Making the gospel relevant is nothing short of removing the offense of the gospel in an attempt to make it palatable to all men because of being ashamed of the gospel. This is done by offering the world what it wants – happiness instead of holiness, pleasure instead of purity, luxury instead of Lordship, comfort instead of character, and man’s glory instead of God’s glory. When this happens then both the content and the intent of the gospel has been changed and you now have another gospel which is non-offensive but which is not the gospel of Jesus Christ.
So in an attempt to make the gospel more palatable and less offensive to unbelievers, those who are ashamed of the gospel distort the gospel and change both its content and intent.
We have already seen that the content of the gospel is the Person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ dealing with His divinity and humanity (the incarnation) for the purpose of penal substitution “for Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit” (1 Peter 3:18) and His resurrection for the purpose of our justification – “He who was delivered over because of our transgressions, and was raised because of our justification” (Romans 4:25). So the content of the gospel is the incarnation of the Lord Jesus Christ (His divinity and humanity) for the purpose of penal substitution (the just would pay the penalty of the unjust) so that we could be justified and brought to God through His resurrection (Romans 1:1-4).
We have also already seen that the intent of the gospel is the glory of God in the salvation of self-centered, self-ruled, and self-loving sinners which transforms them into God-centered, God-ruled, and God-loving saints (Romans 1:5). So the intent of the gospel is the glory of God in the transformation of undeserving, disobedient rebels into loving, loyal, and obedient children! The Gospel brings us to God as His children who love and adore Him and find the satisfaction of our souls in Him.
However, when men are ashamed of this gospel they begin to distort the content of the gospel, the incarnation and resurrection, and misapply the intent of the gospel. I’ll give two examples although there are numerous other examples:
Probably the most famous (should be infamous) for his misinterpretation of the incarnation and atonement would be Charles Finney. Concerning Christ and the atonement Finney said, “He can not plead as our Advocate that He has paid our debt, in such a sense that He can demand our discharge on the ground of justice. He has not paid our debt in such a sense that we do not still owe it. He has not atoned for our sins in such a sense that we might not still be justly punished for them. Indeed, such a thing is impossible and absurd. One being can not suffer for another in such a sense as to remove the guilt of that other. He may suffer for another's guilt in such a sense that it will be safe to forgive the sinner, for whom the suffering has been endured; but the suffering of the substitute can never, in the least degree, diminish the intrinsic guilt of the criminal. Our Advocate may urge that He has borne such suffering for us to honor the law that we had dishonored, that now it is safe to extend mercy to us; but He never can demand our discharge on the ground that we do not deserve to be punished. The fact of our intrinsic guilt remains, and must forever remain; and our forgiveness is just as much an act of sovereign mercy, as if Christ had never died for us” (Charles Finney, Christ Our Advocate, VI. What His plea in behalf of sinners is, Number 7). So according to Finney man could have been forgiven based on the mercy of God alone and apart from the incarnation – “Our forgiveness is just as much an act of sovereign mercy, as if Christ had never died for us.”
Another example of misinterpreting and trivializing the incarnation is seen in writings of many in the postmodern movements of our day, such as Ron Martoia in his book Morph. Seeking to justify being like the world to win the world (cultural relevance), the incarnation is grossly misinterpreted by Martoia as God’s desire to be culturally relevant. He says, “The quintessential example of genius intersection is, of course, the incarnation: God’s presence, voice, and message piercing and penetrating 1C culture. As we simply observe the potency of the incarnation, several things come to mind. God sent Jesus as a person. God could have sent the message packaged any number of ways. He didn’t choose a CD player to herald the good news, a Web page that automatically pops up every time someone logs on, or an MP3 download into our ear canal. The fact that he sent a person bespeaks God’s desire to be relevant, understandable, approachable, and relational (Ron Martoia, Morph, Group Publishing, 2003, pg. 17). Could God have redeemed any other way? According to Martoia, “God could have sent the message packaged any number of ways.” Did God send Jesus for the purpose of cultural relevance? According to Martoia, “The fact that he sent a person bespeaks God’s desire to be relevant, understandable, approachable, and relational.” But according to God’s Word God could not have redeemed any other way, “Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives. For assuredly He does not give help to angels, but He gives help to the descendents of Abraham. Therefore, He had to be made like His brethren in all things, so that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For since He Himself was tempted in that which He suffered, He is able to come to the aid of those who are tempted” (Hebrews 2:14-18). Penal substitution is the only way God can forgive and remain just. “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Corinthians 5:21). Therefore the incarnation was necessary for the realization of penal substitution and that is the primary biblical interpretation for the incarnation. If God could have redeemed any other way, surely He would have done it! But because there was no other way – what a demonstration of the love of God in penal substitution – “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
A distorted gospel which is void of the offense of the cross is no gospel at all and does not have the power to transform undeserving, disobedient rebels into loving, loyal and obedient children of God. All that a distorted gospel can do is cause men to have a form of godliness void of the power of God for actual transformation.
Geoffrey Wilson wrote, “The unpopularity of a crucified Christ has prompted many to present a message which is more palatable to the unbeliever, but the removal of the offense of the cross always renders the message ineffective. An inoffensive gospel is also an inoperative gospel” (Romans; A Digest of Reformed Comment [Carlisle, Pa.: Banner of Truth, 1976], p.24).