This is the sermon I preached yesterday, as I intend to preach on Romans for a while.
The year was 386. The place was Milan in Italy. The man was Aurelius Augustinus. He was sitting in the garden of his friend weeping. He had been told that he must renounce his old ways and become a Christian. But he lacked the resolve to do so. Then he heard some children playing nearby, and they were calling out to each other “tolle, lege, tolle, lege.” The Latin words mean “take and read, take and read.” Augustine took up the Bible scroll, and read this passage from Romans 13:13-14: Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealous. Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature.” Augustine tells us that he had read enough. All the darkness of doubt had vanished away, and light flooded his heart. He went on to become one of the most important theologians the world has ever seen.
The year was 1513. The place was Wittenberg. The man was Martin Luther. He was agonizing over his own condition. He was a monk, and was trying to earn his way into heaven. His own words describe it best: “I had greatly longed to understand Paul’s letter to the Romans, and nothing stood in the way but that one expression, ‘the righteousness of God’, because I took it to mean that righteousness whereby God is righteous and acts righteously in punishing the unrighteous…Night and day I pondered until…I grasped the truth that the righteousness of God is that righteousness whereby, through grace and sheer mercy, he justifies us by faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise. The whole of scripture took on a new meaning, and whereas before ‘the righteousness of God’ had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in greater love. This passage of Paul became to me a gateway into heaven.”
The year was 1738. The place was Aldersgate Street in London, England. The man was John Wesley. He was hearing Martin Luther’s preface to Romans, which we have just read. About a quarter to nine, he wrote, while Luther was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for my salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken my sins away, even mine; and saved me from the law of sin and death.”
The year was 1816. The place was Geneva. The man was Robert Haldane. He met by chance some young men studying to be ministers. They were all blind to what the gospel really meant, but they were interested in what Robert Haldane had to say. He taught them twice a week from the book of Romans. One by one, the students were converted to the Christian faith, and their conversion led to a revival, the effects of which can still be seen today in France and Switzerland. Haldane decided to print what he had taught, and the resulting commentary is one of the best on Romans that has ever been written.
The great Swiss commentator on Romans, Frederic Godet once wrote these words: “The Reformation was undoubtedly the work of the Epistle to the Romans, as well as of that to the Galatians; and the probability is that every great spiritual revival in the church will be connected as effect and cause with a deeper understanding of this book. This observation unquestionably applies to the various religious awakenings which have successively marked the course of our century.” It is certainly true that every single revival in history has been linked in some way with this powerful letter of Romans. In this letter we find the very heart of the gospel. The very heart of the gospel is the righteousness of God, which is shown in Christ’s work on the cross, and applied to us through faith, which the Holy Spirit gives us. That is the message of Romans: that the righteousness of God can become ours by faith. Romans is thus the very heart of the gospel. What is so exciting about studying Romans is that what we see here is one of the most influential writings every written by anyone. The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge called it the most profound writing every written. To study this letter is to be changed if we are even remotely open to what it has to say to us. Yes, it will take some careful listening on our part, since not every passage is easy to understand. But the reward of working through this epistle is that we will have a solid grasp of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
To better understand this message, we need to understand why Paul wrote this letter, and the circumstances which surround his writing of this letter. Romans was written about 57 A.D. by Paul the apostle. He was almost certainly in Corinth when he wrote this letter, and it was near the end of his third missionary journey that he wrote this letter to the Romans. Romans is unique in several aspects, but one of the most interesting features about this letter is that, unlike all his other letters, he did not know the Roman church personally. Oh, he knew several people who belonged to the church, as the greetings in chapter 16 show us. However, he had not started the churches in Rome, and he had not visited them yet. We learn from chapter 1 that he had tried on several occasions to go there, but had been providentially hindered from doing so. This probably refers to the fact that the emperor of the time, Tiberias Caesar, had forced all the Jews out of Rome because they had been making trouble about Jesus Christ. Not many Jews had been able to return after the ban had been lifted. So Paul had not been able to go there, because of all the turmoil.
However, Paul very much wanted to go to Rome, and that for several reasons. Firstly, he wanted to have fellowship with them, as it says in chapter 1. However, it was not only the Romans that he was interested in. He also wanted to start a missionary tour to Spain, as we read in chapter 15. Paul wanted to make Rome his home base for a missionary operation in Spain. The Romans had, of course, heard about Paul. But they didn’t necessarily trust him. They had heard reports of the trouble that seemed to follow him wherever he went, and they would have wondered whether this partnership with Paul would be a good idea or not. Suppose the message that Paul preached wasn’t what they had heard from those who had founded their churches? They wouldn’t want to partner with Paul if that were the case. So Paul has to convince the Romans that he preaches the pure Gospel. And since he had never been to Rome, he needed to provide a fairly comprehensive overview of his gospel. The letter was sent to pave the way for him. Of course, we know that Paul had one thing to do before he went to Rome, and that was to take the offering of all the Gentile churches to Jerusalem. When he did so, he was arrested in Jerusalem. The only way he could get to Rome after that was to appeal to Caesar to judge his case, since he was a Roman citizen. Therefore he wound up in Rome, but as a prisoner. He stayed in Rome under house arrest until eventually he was martyred for his faith. So the purpose of Romans is for Paul to convince the Roman Christians to partner with him in the Gospel. He does that by giving them his entire salvation message.
As we have said, then, the message of Romans is about the righteousness of God. The thesis statement of the letter is chapter 1:16-17: “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written, ‘The righteous will live by faith.’” The righteousness of God, which we have by faith, that is the main point of Romans.
Paul develops this statement in several major sections of Romans. In chapters 1-3:20, Paul shows us that we do not have the righteousness of God. Neither Gentile nor Jew is righteous before God. The way of our own righteousness is closed to us. Then in chapter 3:21-5:21, Paul lays out for us how we obtain that perfect righteousness from God. Chapters 6-7 show us how that righteousness from God works out in the rest of our lives after we come to faith. Chapters 8-11 show us that God is still righteous even over His people Israel, and in His sovereignty over all the earth. Then in chapters 12-16, we see that the righteousness of God works itself out in our lives in very practical ways.
We should notice then, that even though there are several sections of Romans, that is a larger and simpler outline to remember: Romans 1-11 is the doctrinal aspect of God’s righteousness, and Romans 12-16 is the practical aspects of God’s righteousness. These two major chunks of Romans are quite inseparable. For we must never separate doctrine from practice. God saves us: that’s Romans 1-11. Therefore we must live for Him: that’s Romans 12-16.
So what can we take away from the book of Romans as a whole? Firstly, and most importantly, we need to understand the gospel. We need to understand our desperate condition as human beings under the reign of sin and death. We need to understand that our works cannot save us. We need to understand that Christ fulfilled the law on our behalf and then died in our place as a substitute for us.
Secondly, we need to understand that the gospel is our motivation to do good works. Why should we do what is right? Why should we obey the law? Why should we do good deeds and help people, loving God and loving our neighbor? Because we have been saved. Our lives have not only been spared, but we have entered into a relationship that promises eternal bliss.
Thirdly, we need to recognize that there are tremendous depths of riches in this epistle. One reading through the letter, while being a very worthwhile thing to do, is not going to be enough to understand everything in it that will be useful to us. We need to read it slowly and carefully, as well as reading the whole letter straight through sometimes. In fact, I would recommend that we read the whole letter through this week. If you read about two chapters a day, you can get through most of the letter. You’ll have to read 3 chapters on two days in order to do it. But to get an idea of where Paul is going, it will be excellent to have this overview of the landscape.
Fourthly, we need to be open to the teaching of God’s Word. There is no book in the entire Bible that will change us as much as Romans will, if we will but let it! The righteousness of God given to us as a free gift is the most life-changing truth there is. Just because this letter has some very challenging things in it does not mean that we should close off our hearts to its life-changing message. We should come rather with eager expectation. And even if we do not understand everything right away, surely we can learn more than we know right now.
The book of Romans towers over the entire landscape of the Bible. It is rightly said to contain the entire message of salvation within its pages. Even if we had no other book of the Bible, we could still be saved from death to life by knowing and believing what Romans says. It is purest Gospel, as Martin Luther says. And the more we study it, the more we will love its profound truths. Let us then press on eagerly to learn more.