The Gospel of Salvation—Paul’s Vocation (Romans 1:1–17)
The opening verse of Romans announces Paul’s own vocation, the work that God has called him to do: proclaiming the gospel of God in word and deed. So what is the gospel of God? Paul says that it is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith’” (Rom. 1:16–17, NRSV). For Paul, the gospel is more than words—it is the power of God for salvation. He emphasizes that this salvation is not for one group of people only but is intended to help anyone on earth to be among the people of God, by faith. Romans, then, is above all about God’s salvation.
What is salvation? Salvation is the work of God that sets human beings in right relationship with God and with one another. As we will see momentarily, what we are being saved from are broken relation-ships—with God and with other people—that unleash the evil forces of sin and death in the world. Therefore, salvation is first of all the healing of broken relationships, beginning with the healing that reconciles the Creator and the created, God and us. Our reconciliation with God leads to freedom from sin and a newness of life that is not limited by death.
Christians have sometimes reduced Paul’s gospel of salvation to something like, “Believe in Jesus so that you personally can go to heaven when you die.” This is true, as far as it goes, but grossly inadequate. To begin with, a statement like that says nothing about relationships other than between the individual and God, yet Paul never ceases talking about relationships among people and between people and the rest of God’s creation. And Paul has much more to say about faith, about life in Jesus, about God’s kingdom, and about the quality of life both before and after death than could ever be encapsulated in a single slogan.
Likewise salvation cannot be reduced to a single moment in time. Paul says both that we “were saved” (Rom. 8:24) and that we “will be saved” (e.g., Rom. 5:9). Salvation is an ongoing process rather than a onetime event. God interacts with each person in a dance of divine grace and human faithfulness over time. There are decisive moments in the process of being saved, of course. The central moments are Christ’s death on the cross and resurrection from the dead. “We were reconciled to God through the death of his Son,” Paul tells us (Rom. 5:10), and “He who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also” (Rom. 8:11).
Each of us might also regard the first time we said we believe in Christ as a decisive moment in our salvation. Romans, however, never speaks of a moment of personal salvation, as if salvation happened to us in the past and is now in storage until Christ comes again. Paul uses the past tense of salvation only to speak of Christ’s death and resurrection, the moment when Christ brought salvation to the world. When it comes to each believer, Paul speaks of an ongoing process of salvation, always in the present or future tenses. “One believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved” (Rom. 10:10). Not “believed” and “confessed,” past tense, but “believes” and “confesses,” present tense. This leads directly to, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved,” future tense (Rom. 10:13). Salvation is not something that was given to us. It is always being given to us.
We take the trouble to emphasize the ongoing action of salvation because work is one of the preeminent places where we act in life. If salvation were something that happened to us only in the past, then what we do at work (or anywhere in life) would be irrelevant. But if salvation is something going on in our lives, then it bears fruit in our work. To be more precise, since salvation is the reconciliation of broken relationships, then our relationships with God, with other people, and with the created world at work (as everywhere in life) will be getting better as the process of salvation takes hold. Just to give a few examples, our salvation is evident when we take courage to speak an unpopular truth, listen to others’ views with compassion, help colleagues attain their goals, and produce work products that help other people thrive.
Does this mean that we must work—and keep working—to be saved? Absolutely not! Salvation comes solely through “the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of one man, Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:15). It “depends on faith” (Rom 4:16) and nothing else. As N. T. Wright puts it, “Whatever language or terminology we use to talk about the great gift that the one true God has given to his people in and through Jesus Christ, it remains precisely a gift. It never is something we can earn. We can never put God into our debt; we always remain in his.” We do not work to be saved. But because we are being saved we do work that bears fruit for God (Rom. 7:4). We will return to the question of how salvation is given to us in “Judgment, Justice, and Faith” below in Romans 3.
In sum, salvation is the ultimate work of Christ in the world, the goal toward which believers always “press on,” as Paul puts it (Phil. 3:12). Salvation underlies everything Paul and everything believers do in work and life.
N. T. Wright, After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 69.