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.
Today we will take the "gospel of God" and our praises of God and go to the streets. We will walk and sing and pray and shout our faith and our love to all who will listen. Which will raise for many the question: Am I ashamed to do this? So the Lord seems to have ordered the timing of our series of messages in Romans so that today's text is Romans 1:16, and in particular the beginning words: "I am not ashamed of the gospel." This verse and the next one are the very heart of the book of Romans – a kind of thesis statement of the book. So we will spend at least three weeks on verse 16.
What Makes a Person Feel Shame?
Today we will focus on the words: "For I am not ashamed of the gospel." You see the link with verse 15. The reason he is eager to preach the gospel in Rome is that he is not ashamed of the gospel. Let's begin with the general question: What makes a person feel ashamed? Consider some examples.
1) Suppose a boy brags to his friends that he can outrun the skinny new kid in the neighborhood. So the kids set up a race – say, once around the block. Both boys walk the route and see where all the obstacles are and where the turns are made. Then they line up. The neighborhood kids are all out watching. Someone says, "Ready. Set. Go!" And the bragging boy is simply left in the dust. The skinny new guy finishes 40 or 50 yards ahead of the braggart. When that happens it is very likely that the braggart feels ashamed. He feels that he has made a fool of himself.
2) Or suppose someone you don't like at school has a dad who is in jail. And suppose that you make fun of him for this and call him names and point out to people that his dad is a crook. And you boast that your dad is a successful financial officer at a major bank. Then one day you go home to the terrible news that your dad has been arrested and charged with embezzling hundreds of thousands of dollars. The next day you don't even want to go to school because you are so ashamed – both of your father and yourself.
3) Or suppose you put a lot of stock in how you look – having your hair just the way it is supposed to be and your clothes in perfect taste. You are invited to a party and you check with people whom you think are reliable advisers about what to wear and how to look. But when you get there you realize that you are totally wrong in the way you dressed. You are so embarrassed that you don't want to go into the room.
4) Finally, suppose you have a part in a play – just a small one perhaps, because you are nervous and not very good at acting. Maybe you have two lines at some key point in the play. You memorize the lines. The play begins. Your heart pounds out of your chest. The audience is large. Everyone is doing beautifully and setting a high standard. Your moment is drawing near. And at the exact moment, you freeze. You try to say the two lines. Everybody is looking at you. But you can't do it. Someone whispers to you your lines. To no avail. Somehow they get around you. You run off the stage, and want to run off the planet, you feel so ashamed.
We all know what it is to be embarrassed – or to be ashamed.
What would keep you from being embarrassed or ashamed in situations like that? Well, one answer would be that stronger legs would have kept you from losing the race and being put to shame by the new skinny guy. And a more honest dad would not have embezzled, so you wouldn't be ashamed of him. And with better counsel from your friend you wouldn't have dressed all wrong for the party. And better nerves in front of a group would have let you remember your lines and speak them with excellence. In other words, you could avoid being ashamed if you and your family and friends could always keep yourselves in the best light and never let anyone feel negative things about you.
The Gospel Causes Shaming and Gives Freedom from it
Now when Paul says in Romans 1:16 that he is "not ashamed of the gospel," is this what keeps him from being ashamed? Does he escape being ashamed because he keeps himself in the best light? No. Exactly the opposite. Believing and preaching the gospel constantly put Paul in a bad light. It constantly stirred up other people to shame Paul. He gives us a list of ways that he was shamed in the ministry of the gospel (in 2 Corinthians 11:23-26):
. . . in far more labors, in far more imprisonments, beaten times without number, often in danger of death. Five times I received from the Jews thirty-nine lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, a night and a day I have spent in the deep. I have been on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my countrymen, dangers from the Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers on the sea, dangers among false brethren . . .
In other words, Paul's way of not being ashamed of the gospel was not that he could keep himself in the best light or that he had enough savvy that people always liked him and approved what he did. Look back at Romans 1:14, "I am under obligation [I am debtor] both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish." When Paul looked out on the huge world of unbelief in his day he felt a debt to all. He didn't look with utter disdain on the pagans of his day. Beware of doing this. Our conservative lifestyle has been so politicized in America that we slip easily into feeling disdain rather than debt to unbelieving people. Not so with Paul, though he hated sin. Rather, he felt so overwhelmed with undeserved grace that he knew himself a debtor to all – Greek and barbarian, wise and foolish.
But did they want him to pay them his debt? Do the unbelieving neighbors and colleagues around you want what you have to give? Not many. In 1 Corinthians 1:22-23 he says, "Jews ask for signs and Greeks search for wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness." Paul had a debt to pay to Jews and Greeks and barbarians, but most of them – as today – did not want his message of love and grace and hope. It was foolishness and a stumbling block.
So, before we can see in Romans 1:16 that the gospel is the basis of Paul's freedom from shame, we see that it was first the basis of his being shamed. The gospel does two things: it brings out shaming behavior in those who will not believe it. And it gives freedom from shame to those who do believe it.
Paul knew both. He was like Jesus. Jesus was abandoned by his friends, falsely accused of blasphemy, beaten with rods, ridiculed and taunted, stripped of his clothes, scourged with a whip, tortured in public, and made to look like a fool as people hollered at him on the cross: "You who saved others, save yourself."
What Did Jesus and Paul Do with the Shame Poured on Them?
What did Jesus do with all this shame – this shaming behavior? What would you do with it? Hebrews 12:2 tells us what he did with it: "For the joy set before Him [he] endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God." Jesus despised the shame. What does that mean? It means that when shame began to threaten his heart and to tempt him to abandon a clear and obedient witness to God and to the gospel, he said to shame, "Shame, I despise you. I will not yield to you. I will not give to you any satisfaction. You may do with me whatever you please – in the short run – but I will not obey you or follow you or give in to you. I despise you, shame, and will not let you rule me."
How could he do that? How can you do that? Hebrews 12:2 says he did it "for the joy that was set before him." Shame was stripping away every earthly support that Jesus had: his friends gave way in shaming abandonment; his reputation gave way in shaming slander; his decency gave way in shaming nakedness; his comfort gave way in shaming torture. So, if his present supports were all being stripped away in shaming persecution, how did he not capitulate to such shame? Hebrews 12:2 says, he set his heart not on the supports of the present, but on the joy of the future where very soon he would "sit down at the right hand of the throne of God."
Though he was being shamed, Jesus was not ashamed of his God and Father. Why? Because God had power to save him from death and give him all-satisfying glory at his right hand forever.
Now, I say Paul was like this. What did he say in Romans 1:16? "I am not ashamed" – in spite of all the cultured Greeks who mock me as preaching foolishness and all the unbelieving Jews who deride me as preaching a false Christ – I am not ashamed of this gospel. Why? "For it is the power of God unto salvation." In other words, this message of Christ crucified for the sake of sinners, of Christ raised from the dead as the Son of God in power (1:4), of grace given freely to those who will trust in Jesus – this message will bring all who bank on it to everlasting salvation.
Shamed, but not Ashamed
How then do you overcome feelings of shame when you are shamed for believing and sharing the gospel? Answer: ponder the power of the gospel to bring forgiven sinners to final, everlasting joy. Nothing in the world can do this except the gospel of Jesus Christ. Judaism (that stops short of Jesus), Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam – they do not have a Savior who can solve the problem of separation from a holy God through sin and offer sinners hope by grace through faith and not works. Only one message saves sinners, and brings them safely into the presence of God – the gospel of Jesus Christ. It alone is the power of God unto salvation.
Therefore, Paul would say – Jesus himself would say – suffer, yes. Be misunderstood, yes. Be shamed, yes. But do not be ashamed. You will be shamed, but you need not be ashamed. Because the message of God's saving work in Christ is the only final triumphant message in the world. Short-term pain. Long-term gain. For the joy (of salvation!) set before you, take up your cross, follow Jesus, be shamed and despise the shame.
In closing, let me put a point on it for what's left of the '90s. How do people shame you today for believing and sharing the gospel? It's not exactly the same as the way they did in the '60s. I heard Alistair Begg say recently that his unbelieving friends criticized him in the '60s because they did not believe that the gospel was true. In the '90s they criticize him for claiming that there is any truth. In other words, today the shaming is not to say that you are wrong, but to say that you are arrogant if you think others are wrong. Not that you have bad thinking, but that you have a bad attitude. The greatest weapon of shaming today in the world of religious claims is the accusation that you are intolerant and therefore mean-spirited and egotistical.
To that we must steadfastly respond: It is the most loving thing in the world to tell the truth about the way of salvation. If Jesus has said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life; no man comes to the Father but by me" (John 14:6), then, for the sake of love, we must pay our debt to the world, and despise the shaming of the "tolerant" '90s and tell them, "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). The gospel of Christ alone is the power of God unto salvation.