I am obligated both to Greeks and non-Greeks, both to the wise and the foolish. That is why I am so eager to preach the gospel also to you who are at Rome.
The title of this chapter has two parts: (1) the whole gospel, and (2) the whole world, but I am going to spend most of it on the second part. The reason is that “the whole world,” rather than “the whole gospel,” is the new idea at this point in the exposition. As far as the gospel goes, we have already learned a great deal about it in the opening verses of Paul’s letter, and we will learn more as our study proceeds. Indeed, the letter of Paul to the Romans is the best treatment of “the whole gospel” in all Scripture. The point I want to emphasize in this study is that this full-orbed gospel is for everybody.
Our text expresses it from the perspective of Paul’s personal experience: “I am obligated both to Greeks and non-Greeks, both to the wise and the foolish. That is why I am so eager to preach the gospel also to you who are at Rome.”
Actually, the gospel has always been for everybody. Thom Hopler in his excellent book on cross-cultural evangelism, A World of Difference: Following Christ Beyond Your Cultural Walls, shows this from the Bible as a whole. As early as Genesis 3, we see that the gospel is for both male and female, the first announcement of the gospel being made both to Adam and to Eve (Gen. 3:15). In Daniel we find that it is for the dreaded Babylonians as well as for the persecuted Jews. In the ministry of Jesus Christ the gospel was taught to “publicans and sinners” as well as to those who had the privileges of education and high birth, like Nicodemus. It was disclosed to the Samaritan woman of John 4. Later, at the time of the expanding apostolic ministry, God reminded Peter that the gospel was for Roman military officers, like Cornelius, as well as for those who, like the Jews, were ceremonially “clean.” On that occasion Peter made the point by declaring, “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him” (Acts 10:34–35). Jesus showed the geographical scope of the gospel’s proclamation in Acts’ version of the Great Commission: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
How easily we forget this! Christians forget, or at least willfully ignore, that the gospel is for people other than themselves. Unbelievers argue, as an excuse, that the gospel is for other types of people.
To Wise People Everywhere
In Romans 1:14 the first persons to whom Paul says he is obligated as an ambassador of the gospel are Greeks, whom he contrasts with “non-Greeks” or, as some of our more literal versions say, “barbarians.”
There is a second contrast in this sentence, “the wise” and the “foolish” (or “unwise”), which indicates how the first category is to be understood. If Paul had contrasted Greeks with Romans—which he could have done, since he was writing to Romans, we would have to understand the distinction between Greeks and non-Greeks in terms of nationality. If he had let the comparison end with “Greeks” and “non-Greeks,” not mentioning “wise” and “unwise,” the distinction would have been primarily an ethnic one. However, Paul adds the words wise and foolish, and by doing this he shows that what he is chiefly thinking of is culture or education. Because of their language, long-established Greeks had access to the great historical, epic, dramatic and, above all, philosophical writings of the past. Even the powerful Romans got the bulk of their education through this channel. Apart from the Greek language, others—people of all kinds—could never be considered learned or wise by Greek standards.
So Paul’s first claim is that the gospel God sent him to proclaim is for the learned of this world. It is for the wise, whether they are Greeks or Romans or Americans or even the elite among university professors.
The gospel is for you if you are among the educated of our world. You need this ancient Christian gospel. Whatever your educational attainments, however wise you may be, you are still a sinful man or woman and are cut off from the God who made you and to whom you must one day give account for your many sins. You are mortal. One day you will die. You will enter eternity with or without the Lord Jesus Christ—just as surely as any other man or woman.
I know the evasions you might make, because I have been to the same schools and have taken the same courses. I have heard the arguments. You can say, “I was taught in my sociology courses that religions are all relative. They are to be understood by the cultural forces that give them birth. You are a Christian only because you have been born in the West and are the product of an historical stream descending from the Reformation. If you had been born elsewhere, you might as well have been a Buddhist or a Muslim.” That is quite true, of course; at least the last part of it is true. But the issue is not where you or I have been privileged (or not privileged) to be born, but whether there is a God and whether or not he is as Christianity presents him. If there is a God, he obviously has some character. He is not everything and nothing all at the same time. Is he the Bible’s God? Did God send his Son Jesus Christ to bring us salvation? You cannot escape those questions by mere sociological comparisons.
The Greeks tried to do that even in Paul’s day. When he traveled to Athens, the intellectual capital of the world, and spoke of Jesus Christ there, the Greek intellectuals were politely amused by this religious novelty. They thought Paul a proclaimer of “foreign gods.” None of this daunted Paul, however. He proclaimed the true God anyway. “Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you,” he said (Acts 17:23). He finished his address by speaking of the final judgment and commanding his listeners to repent of their sins.
So also must you.
Perhaps you have another method by which you are trying to evade the gospel’s implications. You consider the details of Christianity to be magical or absurd and therefore easy to reject, just as some of the Athenians did. “Who can believe in miracles today?” you protest. “No intelligent person can believe in divine-human beings, people walking on water, resurrections, and such things. We have to reject those old superstitions.”
But intelligent people do believe these things. They do today, and they always have. What is more, they are convinced that it is those who reject the supernatural who are really the unintelligent.
Let me echo one other “educated” objection. There are people who have taken religion courses in college or graduate school and who now know enough to turn a rather superficial knowledge of biblical studies against the Bible itself. They can speak of “Pauline” verses and “Petrine” theology. They can speak of first and second Isaiah. They think, just because they have a slight acquaintance with such things, that they can sit in judgment on the Bible rather than having it the other way around. “After all, Paul was just a male chauvinist,” they say. Or, “If Moses lived when the Bible says he lived, he couldn’t even have known how to write—least of all have given us the Pentateuch.”
These critical theories have been answered well by conservative, believing scholars, some quite conclusively. Besides, if you honestly want to learn about Christianity, why go to an unbelieving professor to learn about it? Is that not in itself an evasion? Would you not learn more about true piety from that believing pastor who once wanted to help you come to Christ? Or from your believing mother or grandmother who has been praying for you all these many years? Has your skepticism really made your life more comprehensible?
Let me make this first important point again: the gospel is for you—however well educated or intellectually endowed you may be. Your intellect and education are great gifts. But it is God who has given them to you. And if you do not thank him for these gifts and use them in ways that honor him, you are more deserving of judgment than those who are unintelligent. You need a Savior.
The apostle Paul had one of the best educations of his day, having been taught in the wisdom of the Greeks as well as in the religious traditions of Israel. He was a Roman citizen, too! But Paul learned that the gospel of the crucified Son of God alone was true wisdom. It was to people in an important Greek city that he wrote:
Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.
1 Corinthians 1:20–25
To “Ordinary” People Everywhere
The Greeks called “barbarians” all who were not Greek, the next category of people to whom Paul says he was obliged to preach the gospel.
“Barbarian” did not have quite the negative overtones to the Greeks as it has for us. The word actually had to do with speech patterns, for when the Greeks heard “foreigners” speak, what they said sounded like babbling, or stammering: bar, bar bar. (The Greek word barbaros also is linked to the Sanskrit barbera, which referred to inarticulate speech.) So barbarians were people who did not speak Greek. But although the word did not have quite the negative overtones it has for us—some of the “barbarians” were quite cultured people—it nevertheless had some. Greek was the language of the educated. Since the histories, epics, and plays were in Greek, to be a barbarian was to be cut off from this cultural storehouse.
Perhaps you are a person who feels yourself similarly disadvantaged. I suppose there are more people today who feel themselves to be cut off from the mainstream of society than there are people who feel a part of it.
You may feel cut off because of a lack of educational opportunities. So many people have been to college. You have not. You have not read the books they have read and talk about. You are not at ease with the buzz words of the intellectual establishment—terms like, well, “buzz word” itself or “interface” or “existential.” You do not speak as educated people do. Perhaps you have regional patterns to your speech or make mistakes in grammar.
You may feel cut off because of your race. No matter that others of your race have made it; they are exceptions, you think. You have not, and those who belong to other races, or who belong to your race and have made it to the top, never seem to let you forget your place.
You may feel cut off because of your low income, which shows in the clothes you wear, the neighborhood you live in, the car you drive, and many other distinctions.
For those and other reasons you feel left out. So you look at what the world calls “Christian people” and say, “Those are not my people. I don’t belong in their company. Christianity is their religion. It is not mine.”
Here I must ask forgiveness for what has become a terrible sin of the twentieth-century church. Somehow many people feel cut off from the fellowship of believers. As the gospel has succeeded in reaching people and transforming them, bringing them to new levels of opportunity and achievement, it has often taken on these new cultural overtones—just as you have seen. Christians too often forget that Jesus Christ did not go first to the wise, wealthy, or influential citizens of his day, but to the everyday people, whoever and wherever they were. The important people did not like him for it! They called him a friend of drunkards and sinners. Nevertheless, that is where he went. His friends were carpenters, fishermen, tax collectors, and others who worked hard for a living. After his death and resurrection, when the gospel began to spread beyond the geographical borders of Israel, it was among the working people—often among slaves—that it advanced most readily.
I apologize on behalf of any Christian who has given the impression that Christianity is only for the educated, influential, or wealthy. At the same time I urge you not to miss believing on Jesus Christ because of that sadly wrong impression.
In Paul’s day there were not many who had the advantages of what we would call a university education, but Paul wrote to the others to say that God had chosen them to expose the foolishness of merely human wisdom:
Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.… Therefore, as it is written: “Let him who boasts boast in the Lord”.
1 Corinthians 1:26–29, 31
To Religious People Everywhere
In our text, Romans 1:14–15, Paul limits his “categories” of those who need the gospel to Greeks and non-Greeks, the wise and the foolish. I do not know why he stopped at that point. But it is significant that in the very next verse Paul adds another important category, when he distinguishes between the Jew and the Gentile (v. 16). In the first instance he was probably thinking of the Romans, who were largely Gentiles. But when he gives the full statement of his thesis in verse 16, he adds this additional category to indicate that the gospel is indeed for the entire world.
Isn’t it surprising that Paul feels a need to mention Jews specifically? The gospel is about a Jew, Jesus of Nazareth. It was taught, at least in the early days, exclusively from the Jewish Scriptures. The Old Testament is a Jewish book. The apostles and the early preachers of the gospel were all Jews. Why, then, should Jews specifically be mentioned?
The answer is that Jews as a whole, even more than Gentiles, resisted the gospel. Why? Because it did not fit their strong religious traditions. It is true that the gospel had been promised to Jews in the very Scriptures they defended. But they had imposed their own expectations on those Scriptures and handled them so as to build their own feelings of self-righteousness rather than as a way to recognize sin and their need for the Savior whom God had promised to send. As a result, when God sent Jesus they resented his “independent” spirit and fought him when his moral perfection exposed their own deep sin.
It is the same today, in the sense that the gospel of salvation by Jesus Christ is resisted most by those who are “religious.” Of all persons, religious people often have the least sense of personal need. Above all others, they especially think themselves to have achieved God’s standards and deserve commendation by him. They resent being taught that they, too, are sinners, that they, too, need a Savior, that they, too, must come to God through simple faith—just as others. Yet they desperately need Jesus.
Are you one of those people? Do you feel secure in your religion—apart from Jesus? If so, you need to learn that no religion, even Christianity, can save you. Only God can save you. He has made provision for that through the work of Jesus Christ, his own Son, who died for you. That is the gospel. That is what you need. It is needed by everybody.
To Everybody Everywhere
At the close of his statement of obligation to the Greeks and non-Greeks, the wise and unwise, Paul explains his views by declaring, “That is why I am so eager to preach the gospel also to you who are at Rome.” When he mentions “you who are at Rome” Paul is not adding a new category, for the Romans fit within the earlier Greek or non-Greek, wise or foolish groupings. The church at Rome included every conceivable type of man or woman and was therefore itself all-embracing. So I think that when Paul says that the gospel is for those at Rome “also” he is actually saying, “The gospel is for you, whoever you may be and wherever you may find yourself.”
I present it to you in that way.
You may be a very young person with your whole life stretching before you. You have great plans, and you may have very little place for God in those plans. If so, I tell you that the gospel is for you and that you need it, just as others do. Charles Haddon Spurgeon once said in a talk to children, “You may be young; but you are old enough to sin, and you are old enough to die.” As long as that is true, you need a Savior.
You may be an older person, perhaps very along in years. You are thinking that life is almost over for you and that decisions of this scope are for young people. You may be thinking that it is too late to make changes. But you especially need the gospel. Soon you will stand before God, your Maker, and you will have to give an account for your many long years of sinning. You have heard the gospel. Will you have to tell God that you rejected it, that you spurned the offer of grace through his crucified Son, the Lord Jesus? It is not too late. Today can be the day of your salvation. If you turn to him now, you will find that the last years of your life will be the most important and precious of all.
Perhaps you are from a non-Western, non-English-speaking country. You may be reading these words in part because you are a guest in the United States or because you want to learn about America. You may think that what you are reading is something uniquely American, that it is not for you, not for one from your country or from your background. I tell you that it is for you. It is the gospel of the one God and of the one Savior. It is a gospel that has already permeated the entire world. It has come to you now. It is time for you to trust Jesus.
Perhaps you are an American, and you think that you already are a Christian—just because you have been born in a so-called Christian country. Being an American will not save you. Having a Christian tradition or even Christian parents will not save you. Belonging to a church will not save you. You need the gospel. You need to believe in Jesus Christ as your Savior.
The gospel is for those who live in Philadelphia. It is for those in New York. It is for those in Paris or Bombay or Beijing or Mombassa or Bogotá. Whoever you are, you need the gospel. The whole world needs the gospel, and the gospel it needs is the whole gospel of God’s grace to sinners through the atoning death of Jesus Christ.
If you are not a Christian, you need to hear this and come to the Lord Jesus Christ as your Savior.
If you are a Christian, you need to make this great good news known to other people, as Paul did.
 Boice, J. M. (1991–). Romans: Justification by Faith (Vol. 1, pp. 93–100). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.