The Gospel, Unashamed: Race Relations in Romans

The epistle to the Romans begins with and unfolds from 1:16–17, Paul’s thesis:

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. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”

Many read this passage without stopping where Paul starts, with “ashamed.” Readers of Romans might push pass to “power of God” without stopping to ask why Paul thought it necessary to declare that he was unashamed. But to be faithful readers of the text, we must ask, what would cause Paul to start his grand epistle with a defensive, “I am not ashamed of the gospel”?

It could be Christianity’s initial jolt to the religious world of the Ancient Near East. To the Jews, Jesus was a scandal. His life was, to say it mildly, controversial. And the notion that the Messiah would come as a disempowered pacifist eventually nailed to a Roman cross? Ludicrous. Blasphemous. Christianity was just as ridiculous to Greeks. At the time Paul wrote to the Romans, the Christian faith was still relatively new. It was still seen as shocking, even shameful, some twenty years after Christ’s resurrection. The idea that there was only one God, who, it turned out, had a Jewish Son meant to bring the whole world salvation. To the Gentiles, this was foolishness and hardly worth leaving the familiar systems of polytheism for.

Now, it’s important to pick up on how Paul moves from “I’m not ashamed of the gospel” to the following clause “for it is the power of God.” That “for” cues us in on the relationship between Paul’s lack of shame and what the gospel is empowered to do. “For” in “for it is the power of God” means “due to the fact that” or “because of.” And Paul writes that he isn’t ashamed of the gospel because it is the power of God to bring about salvation to the Jews first and to the Gentiles. Now we’ve come to it. That Paul would preach a gospel meant for Jews and Gentiles in conjunction—quite literally in conjunction—spelled a racial scandal.

From the Jews, whose view of Gentiles was filtered by Levitical prescriptions for ethnic purity, came accusations that Paul’s Gentile inclusiveness had polluted God’s covenant to His people. After all, the majority of Gentiles led unceremoniously unclean lives and held Judaism’s mores in contempt. From the Gentiles, whose view of the Jews was marked a by derogatory racial superiority, there arose a sense that Paul was futilely pandering to his kinsmen. After all, the Jews rejected their Messiah, seemingly forgoing God’s favor on them. For Paul to conjoin Jews and Gentiles together as the co-recipients of the gospel’s salvific power was to offer a gospel liable to shame from both ethnic groups.

It’s despite what Jews and Gentiles might think of this ethnically inclusive gospel that Paul ministers. And it’s only in this ethnically inclusive gospel that racial harmony lives. In Christ, we’ll recall from Galatians 3:28, Paul says there is “neither is there Jew or Greek.” Romans will show just how racial divides collapse before the cross of Christ. It’s telling that Paul begins his greatest epistle by addressing early Christianity’s greatest social problem. As telling is his belief that the only solution to ethnic divide is atonement theology. Through Christ, racism erodes. And in Christ stand the unashamed, new people of God. Neither Jew nor Greek, but a new righteous creation.

There’s much more to say on this point. What does Paul mean when he says that salvation was to the Jew first and then the Gentile? Till next time.