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.
There are many stories people tell in life. We tell stories about growing up, about our families, about all the events that took place when we were in college, about earth-shattered world events, about the time we met the love of our life, and so on. We resonate with stories, some stories more than others, because stories are usually a step-away from how we actually live and experience the world. A good story encodes thoughts and feelings through word usage, imagination of the action taking place, etc., that resembles what we are already familiar with within our life experience. As a result, stories touch what is familiar within us…. most stories that is.
Occasionally, events occur and stories are told that we have little real prior experience to make sense of. For instance, in psychological trauma, victims are often trying to tell a story they don’t really understand. As they try to piece together all the events that took place that they didn’t understand, their hearts and minds have great difficulty accepting the narrative as it seems to have occurred without falling into an existential sense of fear. Such stories often call forth a feeling of demonic forces. However, on the positive side, some experiences of falling in love are so novel that the only way one can describe it is through the language of the transcendent and the divine. Consider Franki Valli’s classic “Your just to good to be true” that says “You’d be like heaven to touch” and “I thank God I am alive.” These are the type of events and stories that upon first witnessing and hearing that don’t necessarily make sense to us, but rather they become sense-making for us; they come to define our lives. They dramatically alter the course of people’s lives.
This is what is happening in Paul’s letter to the Romans; Paul is telling the story of Jesus in a way that is life-altering that changes the whole shape of one’s life.
My hypothesis about the circumstances behind the letter to Rome is that Paul is addressing Jewish Christians in Rome who perhaps first received the Gospel at the day of Pentecost. However, as they returned to Rome, were exiled from Rome, and then returned to Rome but were all the meanwhile treated derisively, especially for their belief in one God, and often taken advantage of because of their lower social standing (the Wisdom of Solomon may be seen containing some literary representation of this), they began to fit the story they heard about Jesus Christ into a story of God’s Davidic King who would lead the faithful Jews to victory over like the Maccabees. In the story of the resurrected Christ, they saw a sign from God of their coming political victory over Roman powers that Jesus would lead, when God would reward the righteous Jews who stayed faithful to Torah and punish the wicked. The story of Jesus was, essentially fit into the story of the Davidic dynasty and hopes as then refracted through the lens of the Maccabean revolt: now, at last, the Davidic king has arrived in a way he didn’t with the Maccabees, and now God is going to fulfill His promises. (My argument rests on an abductive argument that this makes the best sense of the various features we see throughout Romans in comparison to other second Temple Jewish literature, but this is not the place to try to hash out evidence).
However, for Paul, the story of Jesus is something much more than just a fulfillment of Davidic hopes. It is not just God setting the world into its right place, but it is the story of how God changes history and the world. The good news of Jesus Christ is the story that will go on to define many people’s lives throughout the world. This is a powerful story, such a powerful story that it weaves the power of heaven with what is happening on earth, where believing the story of Jesus, even to the point of his resurrection, is to in effect bring one’s heart into harmony with the work that God is doing through His Holy Spirit. This is the story that defines everything. One is baptized with the Messiah, crucified with Him, raised with Him, will suffer with Him, and will be glorified with Him, and in the midst of all of this, receiving the Spirit of Christ. This story is the shape of our salvation; this story brings to light the way God is bringing His people to glory. So, when Paul says he is not ashamed of the gospel, he is not just saying “Hey, this is a good story that needs to be told.” Rather, he is coming with the boldness of the claim that this story is THE story that defines those who believe, and not the political stories that might have been told in Rome about life.
How often are we like those who try to fit the story of Jesus into other, life-defining stories? We have our pictures of who God is like, what life is all about, what makes up people, and then from these other stories that we tell that make sense to us, we then try to fit Jesus into that story, perhaps because it makes us feel good to believe that God is validating my story and my way of life. We tell smaller pieces of the Gospel story, maybe about God’s forgiveness, maybe about going to heaven, maybe about being children of God, and make those stories the most important piece of the story we are telling about Jesus, and then tell these stories about Jesus to fit within the stories we have already been telling and that we want to tell.
No. If the Gospel of Jesus Christ, His resurrection, His Lordship is not our central, primary story, then there is no salvation. There is only imagination that fits our understanding of God into the categories and values of life that we are accustomed to. Much as the Gospel of John says that Jesus does not come to judge, but only those who actively disbelieved are judged, there is no fear if this is where you are. But, you are not experiencing the salvation in Christ if your primary story is not the story of Jesus Christ. If you try to turn the story into service for wider social and political purposes, your salvation is at danger of being an illusion, not submitting oneself to God’s righteousness but a human righteousness one wants God to endorse. If you try to turn the story into really about some of the smaller sub-stories, such as just about getting your sins forgiven, without concern for fitting it into the story of Jesus Himself, you are distancing oneself off from the fullness of Christ as the Gospel story makes it known to us
Let’s turn this even to the question of our own testimonies about God’s work in our lives. So often the narrative goes “I was lost in some sin and then I found Jesus, I know I am forgiven, and now I am changed person.” However, does your testimony reflect the Lordship of Jesus Christ? Does it reflect events that can be understood through the lens of being forgiven by God, being baptized with Christ, being crucified with Christ, being raised with Christ, suffering with Christ, and moving on towards glory with Christ, and receiving the Spirit of Christ? Does your testimony fit within that? If not, either one needs to probe more deeply to see the glory that God is bringing about in your life that is seen in the face of Jesus Christ that you have yet to see or you haven’t come to believe in *the* Gospel that brings salvation.
To be clear, this doesn’t mean our stories and knowledge about Jesus and our own testimonies have to contain every part of the Gospel story. As we come to Christ and are lead by the Spirit, God leads us to understand the depth of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension in increasingly deeper and broader ways. We don’t have to get it all correct from the get-go, or even have most of it right. But who are you attached to? What story is it that you are really believing in? Is it Jesus Christ and the whole story that reaches into His Lordship? Or is it to ourselves and the small, sub-stories about Jesus and the Gospel that we do want to accept? The former will open our heart to receive more of the fullness from God; the latter will continue to keep our hearts locked in chains, allowing the other stories of our life to be the primary stories that define us.
So, what story are you telling, both in your words and in your life? Who is at the center of that story and what all of that story if significant to you?