Romans 1:16 “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes.”
The word “power” conjures up distinctive pictures and feelings. Friends once took me to an Indy Car race at Texas Motor Speedway. The scream of the engines was so loud that I could feel the sound pushing on me. Together with the speed of the cars, the power in those machines was tangible.
When I was 10 years old I attended a Lutheran camp along the Whitewater River in southeastern Minnesota. The last night of the camp it rained so hard, so fast, and so much that the river went from a bubbling and gurgling stream about 4 feet deep to a roaring monster many feet over its banks. The roar of the water rushing past the cabin on highest ground to which we retreated, the sight of the river tossing around the picnic tables and propane tank, left all of us campers feeling rather small and weak next to the power of the river that had invaded our camp.
The gospel is the power God uses for our salvation. Our Lord has other powers for other things he has done. There is the power by which he spoke and an entire universe suddenly burst into existence. There is that power by which he killed the first-born of the Egyptians and divided the waters of the Red Sea. There is the power by which he changed water into wine, calmed storms, and gave life back to dead people. There is that power by which someday he will destroy this present world with fire and bring an end to the universe as we know it.
In all these things the working of God’s power is dramatic and awe-inspiring. It works with an irresistible, nearly violent force that overwhelms and overruns any obstacle in its path. It is a power which leads people to tremble in fear.
But the Gospel is the power by which God carries Jesus’ saving work into our hearts and makes it our own by faith. There is something quiet and hidden about the way in which it works. Our Lord does not cut and slash, push and shove, thunder and threaten to plant this faith within us. It is rather the gentle, winsome movements of the Holy Spirit in his Word, at our baptisms, and in his supper. It woos and wins its way into our hearts and works the miracle of faith. There is a power at work here, to be sure. It is a miraculous power that accomplishes what no forces of nature, no weapons, no laws-of-physics-bending supernatural strength can: it turns doubt and denial to belief, changes fear into trust, and rebellion into faith. But it does so in ways so quiet, so subtle, so appealing, so filled with love that we are often unaware that it is happening, even when it is happening to us.
Maybe you know the words from the last verse of the Christmas hymn Where Shepherds Lately Knelt, words that describe the gentle, faith-building power of the gospel:
Can I, will I forget how Love was born, and burned
Its way into my heart, unasked, unforced, unearned.
Jesus’ love finds its way into our hearts unasked. We were not looking for him, but he came looking for us, uninvited, and found his way in. Yet that power works unforced. He did not violate us. He did not smash the door to our hearts down and take us hostage like a terrorist breaking into a room full of people. His miraculous love unlocked and opened the door, making our unwilling hearts willing. And he does all this for us unearned. He doesn’t wait for us to become worthy before he comes to us in his gospel. He comes to us just because he has chosen to love us, and he desires nothing more than our salvation.
Many have celebrated the “power of love.” I know of at least three pop songs by that title (Sung by Huey Lewis, Celine Dion, and Frankie Goes to Hollywood). In the Disney cartoon The Sword in the Stone, Merlin the magician tells a young King Arthur that love may be the most powerful thing in all the world. Of course, they are all talking about romantic love. The gospel brings us a love far more powerful: God’s forgiving love, love the Holy Spirit brings to us wrapped in the words of Jesus’ story.