Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

15 Jun 2012

Did Paul Serve because He Was a Debtor?

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Most of us are familiar with the KJV’s reporting of Paul’s declaration in Rom 1:14, “I am debtor both to the Greeks, and to the Barbarians; both to the wise, and to the unwise.” We are commonly told that the motivation for Paul’s willingness to give himself to the proclamation of the gospel was the debt he owed to the unsaved, described here as the “Greeks” and the “Barbarians.”

What Paul really says is somewhat different. The word translated “debtor” (ὀφειλέτης) in the KJV in this context means “to be under obligation to someone,” according to the standard Greek lexicon (BDAG). This is reflected in the NIV translation, “I am obligated both to Greeks and non-greeks” (also ESV, HCSB, NASB). Paul is referring to an obligation, not that he has to the unsaved, but that he has to God—in this case his apostolic obligation. At the time of his conversion on the Damascus road, God told Paul, “I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles. I am sending you to them [Gentiles] to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me” (Acts 26:17–18). God also spoke to Ananias, telling him, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel” (Acts 9:15).

In Rom 11:13 Paul informs these same Romans that he is “the apostle to the Gentiles.” Back in 1:5 Paul says, “Through him we received grace and apostleship to call all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith for his name’s sake.” When Paul says in Rom 1:14 that he is “obligated both to Greeks and non-greeks,” he means his apostolic obligation to take the gospel to the Gentiles that he received on the road to Damascus and which he previously mentioned in 1:5. Paul owed no particular debt to the Gentile world. But because he was a recipient of God’s divine grace, Paul was obligated to the God who saved and called him, and that obligation was to be Christ’s representative to the Gentiles and to carry the Good News to them.

But in Rom 1:5 Paul goes beyond his apostolic obligation to note an even higher motivation for service: “Through him we received grace and apostleship to call all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith for his name’s sake.” “For his name’s sake” expresses the ultimate focus of Paul’s ministry. Name connotes the person in his true character and significance. Paul’s point is that he ministers not for personal gain or even the benefit of his converts, but for the glory and benefit of the Lord Jesus Christ. John Stott captured the idea well: “The highest of all missionary motives is neither obedience to the Great Commission (important as that is), nor love for sinners who are alienated and perishing (strong as that incentive is, especially when we contemplate the wrath of God, verse 18), but rather zeal—burning and passionate zeal—for the glory of Jesus Christ” (The Message of Romans, 36).