“I am debtor both to the Greeks, and to the Barbarians; both to the wise, and to the unwise. So, as much as in me is, I am ready to preach the gospel to you that are at Rome also. For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek. For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith.”
As we survey the pages of the new testament epistles, what we come to find is that the apostle Paul actually operated under several different names. These names, to be more accurate, were more like self given titles that were designed to highlight some aspect of his relationship to God, to the Church in particular, and sometimes to all men in general.
For example, some of his titles include, “Paul the aged,” “Paul the servant,” “Paul, the prisoner of Jesus Christ.” In 2 Corinthians 3:6 he’s “a minister of the new testament,” and in 1 Timothy 2:7 he’s the “teacher of the Gentiles in faith and verity.” According to Paul, he was not only “a wise master builder,” but he was also “the least of all the apostles,” and “less than the least of all saints.”
And, it almost goes without saying that if we didn’t have all these names, and titles, and descriptions of the apostle Paul, sprinkled throughout his letters, we’d lose quite a bit! Because we’d miss out on so much of the practical wisdom that was packed into Paul’s theology. These titles give shape and color and texture to the whole portrait of what a true biblical worldview should look like. When they are rightly considered, we might even say that taken collectively, they present to the believing reader, a distinctly Christian view of God, a distinctly Christian view of self, and a distinctly Christian view of those whom we’re called to serve – in this world.
Why do I point this out?
Well, I mention all that because in this passage the apostle Paul adds yet another title to his great collection of names. And here, he’s not just the servant of God, or the prisoner of the Lord, but in addition to all of that, he’s now: “Paul, the debtor of all men.” And the way he states that for us, is by utilizing the age old classification invented by the ancient Greeks, which divides all men into two basic groups: “Greeks and Barbarians.” In much the same way as the Hebrews divided all men into Jews and Gentiles, so the Greeks had their own classification.
But, it’s important to understand that the idea behind this classification was not so much a matter of racial supremacy, as it was of cultural superiority. Originally the term “barbarian” (βαρβαρος) was used describe what the Greeks perceived to be primitive, or uncivilized people groups, but the term itself came about in their attempt to capture the sound of the incomprehensible languages of the nations around them. In fact, that seems to be way Paul uses the term in 1 Corinthians 14.
Speaking to those who said they had the gift of tongues, and yet attempted to exercise that gift, in the church, and apart from an interpreter, Paul says in verse 11,
If I know not the meaning of the voice, I shall be unto him that speaketh a barbarian, and he that speaketh shall be a barbarian unto me.
There you can see the original idea that a barbarian was a person characterized by unintelligible speech.
But by the time we get to the New Testament, the definition of a barbarian was expanded, and as a result of Hellenization, the term was more often applied to any people group who failed to assimilate the prominent features of Greco-Roman culture. So in addition to language, now we’re talking about things like the arts and the sciences, government and politics, education, religion, and of course, philosophy. The search and love for wisdom was a major hallmark of Greek culture – so much so – that 1 Corinthians 1:22 Scripture tells us that while “the Jews require a sign, the Greeks seek after wisdom.”
This is why here in our text Paul goes on to describe the difference between Greeks and Barbarians as “the wise and the unwise.” The main point is that he is a debtor to both. In effect, the emphasis of verse 14 is that the apostle Paul sustains a universal obligation to the souls of men. Because God is no respecter of persons, Paul’s obligation as a Christian, and as a minister of Jesus Christ was not limited to any particular class of men. In the broadest possible sense of the term “all,” Paul was a debtor to all men.
But that still leaves the question as to what it means, specifically, that Paul was a debtor? If you think about it, there’s at least two ways that any person can acquire debt. Either he can borrow something from another person, or he can receive something for another person. Let me give you an illustration.
If I were to borrow a thousand dollars from you today, I would become your debtor. And I would be indebted to you, until I paid it back. And yet it’s equally true, that if your friend came to me, and handed me a thousand dollars to give to you, then once again, I would become your debtor. I’d be indebted to you until I hand it over. In the first case, I acquired my debt freely, by a personal decision to borrow money. In the second case, my debt was imposed upon me by the will and action of a third party.
When it comes to Paul, I would say that he was a debtor to men only in the second sense. Biblically speaking, Paul’ debt was imposed upon him by the sovereign will and purpose of God, who by His own authority called him into the ministry of Jesus Christ. But notice also that Paul isn’t speaking in monetary terms; Paul’s debt was a gospel debt, his ministry was a gospel ministry, and it’s described in Scripture as an irrevocable stewardship responsibility.
In 1 Corinthians 9:16 Paul declares,
For though I preach the gospel, I have nothing to glory of: for necessity is laid upon me; yea, woe is unto me, if I preach not the gospel.
In Colossians 1:25 he writes,
I was made a minister according to the stewardship from God which was given to me for you.
Putting those two passages together we can see that Paul was a debtor by sovereign imposition. He says, “I was made a minister,” and again, “necessity was laid upon me.”
But of course that raises another question. If Paul was under divine obligation to fulfill his ministry, does that mean he did so against his own will? The answer to that question is found in verse 15, where Paul demonstrates that obligation and willingness are not to be viewed as two incompatible motives. A man can be motivated by debt and desire; by law and by love. Therefore Paul can say, I owe you a debt and I can’t wait to pay it. I am required to bring the gospel to all men, “so, as much as in me is, I am ready to preach the gospel to you that are in Rome also.”
Theologically speaking there is no contradiction here. And practically speaking, we need to embrace both sides of this equation. As Christians, those we should be ready, willing, and even eager to share the gospel of Jesus Christ with everyone we come in contact with. Regardless of race, gender, and socio-economic status. It doesn’t matter if they’re rich or poor, family or friend, or even if they would persecute us in the process, our desire should be for the forgiveness of their sins and the salvation of their souls.
With Peter and John in Acts 4:19 we should be able to say,
We cannot help but speak the things which we have seen and heard.
But here’s the thing. Even when we don’t have the desire, or we don’t feel the joy, or we can’t find the courage, we are still required to be faithful to Jesus Christ.
In 1 Corinthians 4:1 Paul writes,
Let a man so account of us, as of the ministers of Christ, and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover it is required in stewards, that a man be found faithful.
So even in those times where you would prefer to just sit at the feet of Jesus and take it all in for yourself, you have to remember that the will of Christ for you is more than your personal sanctification. Just like in the case of the demoniac in Luke chapter 8, who wanted nothing more than to be in the company of the one who healed him, Jesus would not allow that man to become a traveling spectator of his ministry. So instead, Jesus gave him a ministry of his own, by imposing upon him his own personal debt. In Luke chapter 8:38 we read, “Now the man out of whom the devils were departed besought him that he might be with him: but Jesus sent him away, saying, Return to thine own house, and shew how great things God hath done unto thee.” There’s the same debt, there the same duty, there’s the same sovereign imposition of a ministry to Jesus Christ.
But notice that it goes on to say in verse 39,
And he went his way, and published throughout the whole city how great things Jesus had done unto him.
Here’s an example where we find service beyond the call of duty. So by way of application we might say that, The gospel of Jesus Christ is where duty and delight come together. It was so for the apostle Paul – and it must be so for us.
Now, in verses 16 and 17 Paul goes on to give us three additional points to consider. And the way he does that is in what we might call, explanatory form, meaning that He gives us a series of back to back statements – each of which explains the reason for the statement before. First in verse 16 he tells us why he is so eager to preach the gospel to the Romans. He says, I am eager to preach the gospel to you, “for I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ.” And at this point, we don’t gain much more than we’ve already seen from his eagerness in verse 15, except for the fact that he states his point in negative terms – for added emphasis. What you’ll find is that in many cases, a negative statement is more forceful than a positive statement of the same proposition. Or to say it another way, we can emphasize that which we want to affirm simply by denying the opposite.
So for example, we might want to affirm that Jesus Christ fulfilled the law of God, that he kept all of its precepts, so that in everything he obeyed the will of His Father. Or, to turn it up a notch, we might simply declare that Jesus Christ never sinned. The proposition is identical, but there’s a certain emphasis when we state it in negative terms. What Paul is affirming is that he takes great pleasure in the gospel. He takes great delight in the gospel, so that in a certain sense – he’s proud of the gospel; his boast is in the gospel of Jesus Christ. But, to turn it up a notch, he simply declares, “I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ.”
But then in the second half of verse 16, Paul goes on to explain why he is not ashamed of the gospel, and he says, because, or “for it is the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believeth.” In other words, (and this is an important reminder for all of us) the gospel is a message which can never be the cause of our embarrassment, because it is the only appointed message by which God Himself powerfully saves.
Paul knew that there were other messages in the world of his day, even as we know that there are still other messages in the world today. But Paul also knew – even as we know today – that every other message than the message of the Grace of God in Jesus Christ is nothing more than a message that comes to men in word only, and that in the end it is absolutely powerless to save.
In 1 Thessalonians 1:5 Paul writes,
For our gospel came not unto you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Ghost, and in much assurance.
The difference between Paul’s gospel and the gospel of this world, is that only Paul’s gospel is able to provide exactly what it promises. The promise of the gospel is “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved” (Acts 16:31) which is why Paul goes on to specify that the gospel is the power of God unto salvation, “to everyone that believes.” Once again, Paul highlights the indiscriminate nature of the gospel call. As we saw before, God is no respecter of persons, so that salvation being promised to you and to me, and to every man, woman, and child – upon the sole condition of faith in Jesus Christ.
But if the gospel call is truly indiscriminate, and the offer of salvation is truly universal, then why does Paul add the phrase, “to the Jew first, and also to the Gentile.” After all, doesn’t seems to suggest that the Jews had some priority over the Gentiles, in God’s plan of redemption?
The short answer is that the only priority that the Jews enjoyed, was historical. More specifically, they had a covenantal priority. Remember, it was the Jews who first received the promise of the gospel formalized in the Abrahamic Covenant, and for that reason alone, it was necessary for the Jews to first receive the fulfillment of that promise. The announcement of the gospel therefore was to begin with the Jews, as a matter of historical priority to demonstrate God’s covenant faithfulness to fulfill His Word.
In Acts 13, where the Jews rejected the message of the gospel, we read in verse 46,
Then Paul and Barnabas waxed bold, and said, It was necessary that the word of God should first have been spoken to you: but seeing ye put it from you, and judge yourselves unworthy of everlasting life, lo, we turn to the Gentiles. For so hath the Lord commanded us, saying, I have set thee to be a light of the Gentiles, that thou shouldest be for salvation unto the ends of the earth.
But here’s the thing we often miss. Covenantal priority is really nothing to boast in. To the contrary, it’s a very sharp and dangerous double edged sword.
Because, as Jesus tells us in Luke 12:48,
to whom much is given, of him much shall be required.
So for the believing Jew, salvation was to him first, and then also to the Gentile. The implication there is that for the unbelieving Jew condemnation also, will be to him first, and then, also to the Gentile.
This is precisely what Paul says in Romans 2. In verse 8, 9 he writes,
Unto them that are contentious, and do not obey the truth, indignation and wrath, Tribulation and anguish, upon every soul of man, of the Jew first, and also of the Gentile.
In other words, by virtue of the privileges associated with their special covenant status, those who had a priority in salvation, will have that same priority in the judgment. As Reformed Christians, we need to consider carefully the implications of that particular truth. Our covenant status only makes us more accountable on the day of judgment.
And then finally, we come to verse 17, where Paul gives us – what I think – is the most important explanation in our passage, as he explains Why the gospel is the power of God to save. What is it about this message that gives it the ability to save sinners? He says, it’s the power of God unto salvation, “for therein is the righteousness of God revealed.” The gospel is able to save because it reveals “the righteousness of God.”
Now here’s the 25 million dollar question: What does Paul mean by the righteousness of God?
Some commentators see the righteousness of God as a phrase referring to God’s own attribute of justice.
So in Romans 3:25, 26, we read,
Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus.
Others taught that “the righteousness of God” here refers only to the righteousness which God approves.
For example, John Calvin, commenting on verse 17 writes,
Notice further, how extraordinary and valuable a treasure does God bestow on us through the gospel, even the communication of his own righteousness. I take the righteousness of God to mean, that which is approved before his tribunal.
Now, of course, I agree wholeheartedly both of these descriptions of God’s righteousness have their rightful place in any extended discussion of the gospel, and yet I hesitate to affirm that either one of them is distinctly, and exclusively revealed in the gospel. It seems to me that all such righteousness – that which characterizes God’s own nature, and that which God Himself approves, are already fully revealed to us in the law. So I think we need something more specific here, especially because in Romans 3:21 Paul tells us first, that this righteousness of God is being revealed “apart from the law” and secondly, he describes this righteousness of God as being “unto all and upon all them that believe.” In other words, by faith, this righteousness of God is something that we actually possess.
For those reasons (and more) I prefer to take the phrase, the righteousness of God to mean specifically “the righteousness which God provides for sinners in the obedience and suffering of Jesus Christ.” That’s very specific, but I think that’s exactly what Paul is getting at here, because only in the gospel (and not in the law) is it revealed to sinners, that the very righteousness they stand in need of has already been provided for them, by the Person and work of Jesus Christ. In the law we learn, “cursed is the man that continueth not in all the things written in the book of the law to do them.” And that “even if a man keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all.” So that “by the works of the law there shall no flesh be justified in God’s sight.”
But it’s only in the gospel that we learn that “What the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God did – by sending his Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh.” It’s only in the gospel that we learn that “Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us, for cursed is everyone that hangeth upon a tree.”
If the righteousness of God here is only that which is already exhibited in the law, then instead of helping us – the Gospel of God only leaves us in our sin and misery, and in effect, is no gospel at all. Therefore I maintain – that the righteousness of God revealed in the gospel is nothing less than the righteousness of Jesus Christ for us, and imputed to us by faith alone.
In conclusion, I would only point out that at the end of verse 17, the apostle Paul quotes Habakkuk 2:4 – “the just shall live by faith,” and he does so in support of his statement that the righteousness of God – which we need for our justification is “from faith to faith.”
What that means, once again, is that salvation is from first to last, from beginning to end, given to us through simple faith in Jesus Christ. And it has to be that way, because even as our Heidelberg Catechism reminds us in question 30,
either Jesus is not a complete Savior, or they who by true faith receive this Savior, must have in Him all that is necessary to their salvation.
In other words, the gospel of Jesus Christ presents to us the complete righteousness of a complete Savior, who saves completely – those who believe.