Over the years I've heard the phrase "I'm not ashamed of the gospel" (the first part of Romans 1:16) many times. Generally speaking, when people have used that phrase what they've meant is, "I'm not ashamed to make a stand for my moral convictions." They quote this phrase and use it in their proclamation that we Christians need to "stand up for what is right!" You've perhaps heard this phrase used as a mantra in political and social rallies in support of various moral causes and agendas.
My question is, is that what the gospel is about? Is that what "not being ashamed" of the gospel is all about? Is that anywhere close to what Paul was trying to communicate?
The gospel was never meant to be used as a means of protesting the sins that are committed in the world. That's not what the gospel is about. The gospel is a declaration of God's love and grace toward people and it's the power that defeated sin - not protested it! As Paul says in the second half of the sentence, the gospel is the power of God for salvation! The law's job was to protest sin, so to speak, but it never had any power whatsoever to help with the problem of sin. In comes the gospel of Jesus Christ - the good news - and what the law could never do, God did by sending His own Son! (Rom 8:3-4).
What gets even more interesting for me is what Paul says in the sentence that follows "I am not ashamed of the gospel." In Rom 1:17 he writes, "For in it (the gospel), the righteousness of God is revealed..." Contrary to being about man's morality and righteous deeds, the gospel is a revelation of God's righteousness, which can only be received by man as a gift. It's not something man does. It's something he receives and walks in freely. To be ashamed of the gospel is to be ashamed of the gift that God gives and instead to try to attain it by your own deeds.
But Paul's only getting started in Rom 1:17 with his talk about the gospel being a revelation of God's righteousness. Now, Paul does do some important backtracking, and takes some time to make sure his readers really get a grip on the unrighteousness of ALL of mankind, to set a foundation before digging into the meat of what "the gospel" and "God's righteousness" is all about. You have to skip all the way ahead to Rom 3:21 before Paul gets back to his original point, but he does get back to it, and he then builds on it for several chapters. Rom 3:21 - "But now, the righteousness of God is revealed... through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe... being justified freely by His grace..."
If we look and see what "the gospel" really is, we'll see that it's all about the free gift of salvation, by grace through faith, and the receiving of God's very own righteousness as we chuck aside any and all of our own sense of morality and righteousness. I love how Paul, in Philippians 3, showed how this all had played out in his own life. He first gives seven reasons why he originally trusted in his own sense of morality and righteousness - including having considered himself blameless in his law-keeping! He essentially says, "Man, I was the stuff! No one could hold a candle to me!"
But just as soon as anyone might begin to be impressed with his superior moral credentials, he takes a complete 180º turn and says, "But what things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ... and count them as dung that I may gain Christ." (Phil 3:7-8). My own paraphrase: "Forget my own morality and righteousness! I might as well shovel the floor of a cow barn and offer up my findings to God if it's going to be about that!"
Unfortunately, dung is often what is being presented as "the gospel" today. Paul's words, "I am not ashamed of the gospel of Jesus Christ," and all his words that followed, were very bold words that flew in the face of the religious, morality-conscious people, as he defended his stance that the gospel was not about man's morality. Let's keep on being bold like that as we count our own righteousness as dung and lay hold of the free gift of Life!