Skip to main content

Why Foreign Missions? 20a2: The Gospel in Romans 1.16-17 and Parallels

Why Foreign Missions?  20a2: The Gospel in Romans 1.16-17 and Parallels

The post in this series labelled 20a1 discussed formulaic sayings in certain verses in Paul’s letters that captured the content of the Gospel.  In that post, I noted the work of two scholars: C. H. Dodd, in the early part of the 20th century, and James D. G. Dunn, much more recently.  Two of the primary examples of these sayings are Rom. 1.1-4 and 1 Cor. 15.3-8.  The purpose of this brief post is to bring to attention another set of texts in Paul’s letters that capture something about the Gospel’s content.

Neither Dodd nor Dunn note the thematic statement of Romans 1.16-17 in their lists of formulaic sayings in Paul.  The point of this post is that these verses state something that Paul states elsewhere in different ways on several occasions.  This repetition suggests to me that they capture some basic teaching about the Gospel.

The Gospel and ‘Power of God’ Texts in Paul

Take a careful look at the content of these verses, comparing each statement to see if they do show an overlap of wording and ideas.[1]  The exercise can be done in English translation (the NRSV is used here).

Romans 1:16-17 For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.  17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, "The one who is righteous will live by faith."

1 Corinthians 1:18 For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

1 Corinthians 1:23-24 ... but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles,  24 but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.

1 Corinthians 2:4-5 My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power,  5 so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.

2 Corinthians 13:4 For he was crucified in weakness, but lives by the power of God. For we are weak in him, but in dealing with [eis—for] you we will live [zēsomen] with him by [ek] the power of God.  [My translation: ‘… but we will live with him by the power of God for you.’  Cf. Rom. 1.17: from [ek] faith for [eis] faith’ and ‘the righteous one will live [zēsetai] from/by faith’ (in the power of God)].]

Colossians 2:12 ... when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.[2]

2 Timothy 1:8-10 Do not be ashamed, then, of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner, but join with me in suffering for the gospel, relying on the power of God,  9 who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace. This grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began,  10 but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.

Several things might be said about what these verses have in common.  First, note that they, like other texts identified by Dodd and Dunn, focus on the redemptive story of Jesus—particularly his death and resurrection.  Second, note that these verses speak of the power of God that is demonstrated in Jesus’ death and resurrection.  Third, two texts mention Jews and Gentiles.  Fourth, note that several texts bring in a theme of not being ashamed.  The logic of this is that death on a cross was shameful, but there was no shame in Jesus’ death on a cross.  Instead, his death brought salvation and was, therefore, a demonstration of the power of God. 

Three Old Testament Texts Explain the ‘Gospel’ as God’s Provision of Salvation

Very likely, the theme of shame just discussed is also brought into the description of the Gospel because of a passage in Isaiah:

Isaiah 28:16 therefore thus says the Lord GOD, See, I am laying in Zion a foundation stone, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone, a sure foundation: "One who trusts will not panic."

English translations such as the ESV, NIV, and NRSV follow the Hebrew for Is. 28.16.  (In the NRSV translation, above, we find the word ‘panic’).  Paul, however, followed the Greek, which ends with ‘The one who believes in it [the stone] will in no way be put to shame [kataischynthē]’ (my translation).  Here, then, is the language of ‘shame’ rather than ‘panic,’ and this likely indicates that Is. 28.16 was a key text for Paul in explaining the Gospel (cf. the texts above, except, perhaps, Col. 2.12).

One might imagine a Jew in the audience when Paul was explaining the Gospel objecting to any salvation coming through having faith in Jesus’ shameful death on a cross.  After all, anyone hung on a tree was cursed (Dt. 21.23; Paul was aware of this argument but used it to explain that Christ became a curse for us—cf. Gal. 3.13).  This message, the objecting Jew in Paul’s audience would insist, did not locate salvation for God’s chosen people in their covenant faithfulness to God’s Law.

To this, Paul would respond with reference to three Scriptures.[3]  The first was Habakkuk 2.4, which stated that the righteous would live by faith (in God’s coming salvation, despite the dreaded Chaldean armies, whose ‘might’ was their god—Hab. 1.11).  Paul twice quoted this passage (Gal. 3.11; Rom. 1.17; cf. Rom. 3.26).  The righteous would live by placing their trust in God’s provision of salvation (in contrast to the Chaldean’s trust in their own might—their own works).

Then Paul would discuss two verses in Isaiah that spoke of God’s coming salvation despite foreign invaders (all three texts have God's salvation from foreign invasion in view).  These texts in Isaiah are related because they both use the word ‘stone’ (lithos).  A common Jewish technique for interpreting Scripture was to bring a second text into any discussion if the two passages shared a particular word.  The two verses are Isaiah 28.16 and Isaiah 8.14.  Paul actually combines these two verses in Rom. 9.33 to explain why Jews have failed to attain righteousness by pursuing it through the Law instead of Christ.  Isaiah 28.16 was quoted above, and Is. 8.14 reads:

Isaiah 8:14 He [the LORD] will become a sanctuary, a stone one strikes against; for both houses of Israel he will become a rock one stumbles over-- a trap and a snare for the inhabitants of Jerusalem.
Jesus, Paul would explain, was God’s means of salvation.  (Paul might have explained that Israel’s enemies were allowed by God to punish them for their sins.  Thus, if the enemies were to be kept at bay rather than allowed to invade, it would be because God would deal with Israel’s sinfulness.)  Jesus, Paul would suggest, was the precious cornerstone or foundation that Isaiah 28.16 mentions.

One should note parenthetically that Paul just might have brought in a third ‘stone’ text, Ps. 118.22.  Jesus and various New Testament authors did reference this verse (Mk. 12.42//Mt. 21.42; Lk. 20.17; Acts 4.11; 1 Pt. 2.7).  This third ‘stone’ text was taken in reference to Jesus: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.’  Note that the word ‘cornerstone’ appears in Is. 28.16 and Ps. 118.22 and therefore the passages could be read together (according to Jewish rules of interpretation).


Jesus was the one in whom Israel should put her faith (or trust)—Hab. 2.4.  He, the stone of Is. 8.14 and 28.16, was God’s provision for (or servant of) salvation.  (Note the similarity in Hebrew between ‘stone,’ ‘eben,’ and servant, ‘ebed’).  Yet those who do not have faith in Jesus but who put their trust in their own covenant faithfulness to the Law—in their own works—would find Jesus to be not the precious cornerstone of faith but a stone of stumbling (Rom. 9.30-33).  Through the shameful cross, however, no one should be ashamed: by Jesus’ death and resurrection came the power of God for salvation.  This was the Gospel.  Through passages such as Rom. 1.16-17; 1 Cor. 1.18; 23-24; 2.4-5; 2 Cor. 13.4; Col. 2.12; and 2 Tim. 1.8-10, we see that this was a typical presentation of the Gospel in Paul’s teaching.  As he says in Rom. 1.16, ‘the Gospel … is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith.’

[1] I have not checked all commentaries on Romans, but the ones that I have been able to check so far do not capture the point I am making about the relationship of these particular texts in Paul.  This seems to be a major point to miss.
[2] Otherwise, the phrase ‘power of God’ is only to be found with reference, in some measure, to the Gospel in 1 Peter 1.5.  (It is also a phrase found in Mk. 12.24//Mt. 22.29; Lk. 22.69; Acts 8.10.  The phrase is also to be found in Judith, Wisdom, and several times in 2 Maccabees, but not in the Old Testament.)  Thus it can be seen to be an important theme of Paul’s in regard to the Gospel.
[3] The interpretation that I am suggesting here has a significant contribution to make to current debates about a ‘new perspective’ on Paul.  This new perspective has suggested that the Jews believed that they entered God’s covenant through God’s grace and that they remained in it through grace and the Law.  The position further argues that Paul’s problem with the Jews was not their pursuit of righteousness by works but their insistence on the importance of the Law even for Gentiles.  Thus the primary problem Paul had with the Law, the argument goes, was sociological: works of the Law that divided Jews and Gentiles (food laws, observing special Jewish holy days, circumcision) hindered a mission to the Gentiles.  That there was a sociological dimension to this whole matter for Paul and his mission is clear, as we see in Gal. 2.1-10 or Rom. 14.1-15.12.  Yet this is only part of the issue.  My argument here is that the Jews’ rejection of Jesus was a rejection of God’s provision of salvation, and this rejection of faith in Jesus came with Jewish trust in the Law--in the sufficiency of the covenant of God with Israel.  Paul, on the contrary, points out that the Law was powerless to overcome sin (Rom. 7.7-25)—only knowledge of sin comes through the Law, not deliverance (Rom. 3.19-20).  Thus, works of the Law cannot deal with sin and are quite the opposite of faith in God’s gift of righteousness (Rom. 4.4).  God’s gift of righteousness is not simply the status of justification.  Nor is it simply an alien righteousness—a righteousness that is not our own but Christ’s—although I would agree that Paul taught the notion of an imputed righteousness of Christ.  However, the Gospel is also the 'power of God,' as Paul often taught, that not only is a forgiving grace but is also a transforming grace.  The righteousness that God brings demonstrates the power of God to overcome sin (this is, after all, Paul’s point in Rom. 6-8).