The meaning of 'gospel' in Romans
The question of the nature of Paul’s gospel has been raised in a lengthy comment by samlcar. This seems important enough to deal with in a separate post. The suggestion is made that the word is used in two distinct ways: i) as referring to the ‘actual traditions of Jesus’; and ii) as a summary of what is ‘believed’ in order to become part of the Jesus community. Neither of these appears to be ‘apocalyptic’ or temporally delimited. Rather than attempt a full survey at this point we’ll begin by looking at the use of the word in Romans, which by any reckoning must have central relevance for Paul’s thought as a whole. I think we will find that the term ‘gospel’ has a distinctly eschatological (rather than apocalyptic) meaning.
Rom. 1:1-6: the ‘gospel of God’ concerns his Son, who was declared to be the Son of God in power by his resurrection, an state of affairs which invites the ‘obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations’. Both ‘resurrection’ and the theme of the obedience of the nations are eschatological (rather than apocalyptic) motifs from the Old Testament linked with the restoration of Israel. The ‘gospel’ here is the announcement not simply that God has introduced universal salvation but that through Jesus he has inaugurated the end-of-the-age (that is, eschatological) renewal of the people of God foreseen by the prophets.
Rom. 1:16-18: the gospel is the power of salvation specifically from the ‘wrath’ of God, both for Jews and for Greeks. Again I think we should resist the universalizing perspective. It is clear from Paul’s later argument that wrath against Israel consists of national destruction, an event which would jeopardize the promise to Abraham (Rom. 9:22). It would then be quite reasonable from his point of view and in the light of Old Testament eschatological patterns to expect a similar ‘judgment’ on the idolatrous and immoral culture of the Greek-Roman world. In Paul’s scriptures the ‘day of wrath’ (cf. Rom. 2:5) is always a historical event, God’s judgment either on Israel or on its enemies. So again, the gospel is an announcement of salvation from eschatological judgment.
Rom. 2:15-16: according to Paul’s gospel, on this day of ‘wrath’ God ‘judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus’. This is part of the same eschatological scenario.
Rom. 10:15-16: Paul quotes Isaiah twice: first, the image of the herald in Isaiah 52:7 who proclaims ‘good news’ that YHWH reigns and is returning to Zion following the devastation of Jerusalem; secondly, the question in 53:1: ‘Who has believed what we have heard?’ Paul’s complaint is that Israel has not listened to the ‘good news’ that the ‘servant’ through his suffering has brought about an atonement for Israel. It is important to note that the servant was ‘stricken for the transgression of my people’, not for the whole world (see ‘Why the emerging church should believe in penal substitutionary atonement’). Israel, therefore, in Paul’s argument, has rejected the ‘gospel’ of eschatological forgiveness and renewal.
Rom. 11:28: the ‘gospel’ is again intimately bound up with deliverance of sinful Israel from judgment. The Jews are enemies of the gospel which, on the one hand, declares that God will forgive them if they repent and believe and, on the other, has opened a way for Gentiles to to be grafted into the olive tree. This is an eschatological narrative: it has to do specifically with what happens to Israel during the present crisis of judgment and renewal.
Rom. 15:16, 19: the point is repeated from 1:1-6 that Paul’s eschatological role as a minister of the gospel is to facilitate an appropriate response from the nations to the judgment-restoration action of YHWH. This response is defined by the prophets. It is an intrinsic element in the climax to Israel’s story.
Rom. 16:25: the ‘gospel’ stands in interpretive parallel with the ‘revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but has now been disclosed and through the prophetic writings has been made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith’. The emphasis here is on the gospel as the announcement that access has been given to Gentiles to participate in the renewed people of God. It has to do with an eschatological sequence of events as one age gives way to the next.
So to my mind, Paul’s gospel in Romans is consistently eschatological in its orientation. The gospel is the announcement, first, that a remnant will be saved from destruction because of the faithfulness of Jesus; and secondly, that Gentiles can find salvation from the God’s judgment on the pagan world by becoming part of the renewed, Spirit-filled covenant people. This is rather different to the interpretation which regards the gospel as a general assurance of salvation for all mankind. We can get to that conclusion in effect - participation in God’s new creation remains open to all people. But my concern is that as long as we try to live anachronistically within the story of eschatological transition, as long as we insist on short-circuiting the logic in the interests of a simplistic spiritual message, we risk severely restricting the creational scope of the church’s ‘mission’.