Many see the book of Romans as a long presentation of the gospel as the New Testament explains it. There are many people who will reference the Romans Road, and explain that this great epistle is one large gospel-presentation. It is Paul’s largest evangelistic tract, and it tells us his gospel outline to a tee.
However, while it’s true that there are many essential truths pertinent to the gospel in the book of Romans — the sinfulness of man, justification by faith, reconciliation, regeneration — these are not the message of the gospel per se. So while I would say that the gospel is covered in Romans, the outline is not the gospel itself.
Actually, most of the book of Romans is an explanation of how the message of the gospel transforms believers in it. It is not so much a gospel presentation, but an exploration of how the gospel saves. In other words, how does the content of the gospel change us from the inside out? If we pay attention, this is in fact Paul’s thesis in Romans 1:16, that “the gospel…is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes”. He will then go on to explain just how the gospel is the power of God to save. Is this surprising? Hopefully you can see it right there in Romans 1:16!
What this means though is that we have to distinguish the content of the gospel with benefits of the gospel. We have to distinguish between the gospel message and what the gospel does. Paul explains to us the benefits of the gospel in Romans 1:17 through chapter 11. But it is only in Romans 1:3-4 that Paul explicitly lays out the content of the gospel.
And what Paul tells us in verses 3-4 that the specific message of the gospel concerns God’s “Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh, and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection”. Here we find that the content of the gospel is not about personal faith or conversion whatsoever. Neither is the gospel about you or me. Rather, the content of the gospel is an objective message about what Jesus has accomplished in the cross. As Douglas Moo says: Romans 1:3-4 “introduces Christ as the content of the gospel” (1).
What this means is that Jesus’ actions in his incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and exaltation constitute the message of the gospel. Douglas Moo expounds on these two verses, saying that Romans 1:3-4 “depict…two stages in [Christ’s] existence” (2). First, Jesus humbled himself and became a man, bearing the sin burden of mankind in his life and death. But second, Christ rose from the dead, and was declared to be the Son of God through his resurrection. Moo continues by saying that Christ’s resurrection marked a “new era inaugurated by Christ’s work of redemption…[where] he became the ‘Son-of-God-in-power'” (3). What he means is that because Jesus rose from the dead, he gained power over sin and death, thus entering in a new state of existence. And he became King over death, Victor over sin, willing and able to “dispense salvation to all those would believe in him” (4).
This is the message of the gospel: that Jesus humbled himself to the point of death, “even death on a cross” (Phil 2:8), and he rose from the dead, victorious over sin and death, and is now King of kings, Ruler of the cosmos, “first born from the dead” (Col 1:18). And the result of this message of that he is able to powerfully save any and all who would believe in him (Rom 1:16).
We cannot and must not muddle “the gospel of God” (Rom 1:2) with “salvation to all who believe” (Rom 1:16). Jesus himself is the content of the gospel. And we, as sinners, lost and hopeless in our fallenness, are invited to benefit through faith in his accomplishment.
Scot McKnight rightly says that many “have created a ‘salvation culture’ and mistakenly assume it [as] a ‘gospel culture'” (5). Salvation comes from gospel, but is not the same as gospel.
The gospel in its most basic form concerns God’s Son (Rom 1:3a), and salvation is a benefit of that very gospel.
(1) Douglas Moo, The NIV Application Commentary: Romans
(5) Scot McKnight, The King Jesus Gospel: The Original News Revisited