Summary: Paul ambition was to preach the gospel where it has never been declared.
I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else’s foundation, but as it is written, “Those who have never been told of him will see, and those who have never heard will understand.”
Paul concluded the main section of his letter (Romans 1.18-15.13) with his prayer-wish, May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope. He now concludes his missive with some personal comments. While it is evident from the body of the letter that Paul’s own life is powerfully affected by the doctrinal content of his belief system (e.g., 1.8-16; 7.7-25; 8.38-39; 9.1-4; 10.1; 11.1), it is in his personal closing comments that Paul models what it means to be a believer who is completely devoted to the Lord Jesus Christ. “Beginning with 15:14 Paul becomes intensely personal. In a very natural—one might almost say unintentional—manner he shows us, by his own example, what kind of a person he, this justified-by-faith individual, has become. In reading even the opening verses of this conclusion we are arrested by his tact, modesty, prudence, humility, and concern for the feelings of others” (William Hendriksen, Exposition of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, p. 481).
A BOLD REMINDER (15.14-16)
Paul’s letters are often something a balance between direct, some would say abrasive, confrontational and avuncular affirmations designed to both instruct and encourage the reader in his or her faith. Timidity is certainly not an attribute one would assign to Paul. The history of his travels throughout the Roman empire in Acts and his own account of his ministry (e.g., much of 2 Corinthians) gives testimony to a man of extraordinary courage and conviction. At no point could one legitimately claim that Paul’s letters were written to ingratiate himself with his readers. Indeed, the majority of his letters were written to confront either doctrinal error or sin. Even when this was not the primary reason for writing (as in the case of the letter to Rome), Paul is bold to set forth the core of the gospel and to offer instruction about proper Christian conduct. Nevertheless, Paul was never reticent to encourage and offer meaningful praise to his readers. Such praise, though at times amplified when it was given, was grounded in the evidential work of the Spirit in their lives. Knowing Paul’s penchant for candor, one would imagine that his readers would receive his affirmations as a proper measure of the Spirit’s work in their lives.
The Roman epistle contains some weighty things and Paul was forthright in laying these things before the church. This is not to say that he considered his readers to be deficient in either the content of their faith nor in its execution. But as an apostle to the Gentiles (cp. Romans 11.13; Acts 9.15) he accepted responsibility for the purity of the gospel in the Gentile church. This would be particularly important for the church at the heart of the Roman empire. So while he boldly sets forth the content of the gospel and how that gospel should look in the church, he also commends their faith and action. Paul opens his letter with an affirmation (1.8); in his concluding remarks he offers this encouragement: I myself am satisfied about you, my brothers, that you yourself are full of goodness and filled with all knowledge and able to instruct one another. It is interesting to observe that Paul’s praise of the Corinthian church was decidedly restrained; for example, unlike the Romans he did not endorse their ability to instruct themselves. It is clear that he did not seek to ingratiate himself with any church. He is an overseer of the Gentile churches. So while he reinforces good behavior, he is not given to empty flattery (cp. 2 Timothy 3.1-9; 4.3). Paul had been commissioned by God’s grace as an apostle to the Gentiles, a fact that would have been known and appreciated by the church in Rome. But Paul is writing for yet another reason: he intends to invite them to participate in the advancement of the gospel by helping to underwrite the expenses of his missionary endeavors to Spain (15.22-32).
Paul speaks of his ministry to the Gentiles metaphorically as a priestly function. The image of the Gentiles offering themselves up to God as a living sacrifice (Romans 12.1) fits well with this metaphor. While the imagery is unusual for the New Testament, it does emphasize the sacredness of the proclamation of the gospel. As a fitting aside Leon Morris makes a noteworthy observation regarding Romans 15.16: “We ought to notice here the way the three Persons of the Trinity are introduced. This is not yet the full doctrine of the Trinity, but it was from such expressions as these that the church in due time came to formulate this doctrine” (Leon Morris, Romans, p. 511).