Dear Roman Christians

Romans 1:1-7

Audio Version

Imagine yourself deep down in a dark cave. You brought a flashlight, but you accidentally dropped it and can’t find it again. You start to realize just how dark and deep and utterly quiet this cave is. It is not a cave that you know well. You start to panic, and you start calling out as loud as you can for help, but not really expecting anyone to come and help you out. Amazingly enough, however, someone does hear you, and shines down a powerful light. It is a light that reaches down far enough so that you can start to see your way back up. Slowly, foot by foot, you make your way back to the surface. As you go, it gets lighter and lighter, until when you finally come up out of the ground, you are in the full blazing light of day. The Gospel is a good bit like that kind of an experience. We are hopelessly lost in darkness until that light shines down upon us. Throughout history, more and more light has been given to us through the pages of Scripture until finally the promised Messiah Jesus Christ comes into full view, blazing with life and color. The gospel is Paul’s point in this salutation to his letter.

Letters in those days usually had much shorter greetings at the beginning. Usually it just had the name of the author, the name of the recipient, and some form of “hello.” But Paul wants to do so much more than that. As we can see, his salutation is seven verses long, certainly the longest of any salutation in any of Paul’s other letters. Paul includes nothing less than a miniature version of the entire Gospel in these 7 verses. It is, as John Stott says, the Gospel of God, according to Scripture, about Christ, for the nations, unto the obedience of faith, and for the sake of the Name. These six points help us to understand the true nature of the Gospel. When we understand these points, we will have the full light of day, having come out of darkness, and into His marvelous light.

Paul starts by describing himself in three ways. The first way is the word “slave.” The NIV translates it as “servant.” But the word “servant” sometimes means a paid servant. That isn’t what Paul means at all. He means someone who is bought and paid for. A slave in this case implies a master. Paul gives us the name of that master immediately: Jesus Christ. It is a miracle that Paul is even writing these kinds of words at all. You will remember that he used to persecute the church and attack its members. But on the road to Damascus, he was changed. He was bought and paid for by Christ. Paul could have boasted about himself here, but he chose what is simultaneously the most humble and yet the most dignified thing he could have said about himself. To the Gentile, a slave was a horrible state of servitude. It was a state of humility. Paul knows that his state is lowly. And yet, to the Jew, the idea of “slave” would have brought back memories of their Old Testament, where Moses, David, Abraham, and all the great heroes of the faith were also called “slaves” or “servants” of God. It is no hardship, however, to be the slave of Jesus Christ. For slavery to Christ is true freedom, because of the Gospel.

The second thing Paul calls himself is a “called apostle.” An apostle is someone who witnessed Christ’s resurrection from the dead, and was given his commission by Jesus Himself. Paul witnessed the risen Christ on the road to Damascus, and simultaneously received his calling to be an apostle. The third thing he says about himself is that he is set apart for the Gospel of God. This word “set apart” is the word that describes the Pharisees. The Pharisees were the ones who were set apart for the law. That is what they called themselves. But Paul wants his listeners to know that he is set apart as well, except that he was set apart for the Gospel, not the law. He says in verse 5 that he received grace and apostleship. Not only was he saved from his sin on the road to Damascus, but he also received his calling from God to be an apostle on that same road and at the same time. It came all at once for Paul.

The word Gospel, then, means “good news.” It is the good news that Jesus Christ is crucified and raised from the dead. The good news is the news about Jesus. It is not first and foremost about us, although it has the most important implications for our lives. Indeed, it is all-important for our lives. However, when the NT uses the word “Gospel,” it means what Jesus did. We will see this very clearly in verses 3-4. What is important for us here to see is that it is the Gospel of God. And Paul describes himself completely in relation to that Gospel of God.

The Gospel is not something new. Verse 2 tells us that God promised it beforehand. There are many passages in the Old Testament where God promises that Christ will come. Genesis 3:15 is where it all starts: the seed of the woman will one day crush the head of the seed of the serpent. If we remember that Paul is writing to people who needed to be convinced that he preached the same thing that they knew already, then this is something that would be very important to them to know: did Paul preach the Old Testament or not? He is saying here that he preaches the same Gospel that the Old Testament preached. All throughout the Old Testament, there was more light given to God’s people through the Word. They were at the bottom of the cave, and yet the light was still shining down to them, so that they could eventually make their way up to the surface.

This Gospel concerns the Son of God, Jesus Christ. Verse 3 says this explicitly. That is what the good news is: Jesus Christ. Many people get this confused. They think that the Good News is primarily about something that they do, or a decision that they make. Now, let me be clear: the Gospel is very closely tied to what happens to us. However, the Gospel itself is the Good News about what Jesus did. That is the Gospel. Whether we believe the Gospel is something distinct from what the Gospel itself is. The Gospel is not walking the aisle, praying the sinner’s prayer, singing “Just As I Am,” or going to church. Those may very well be results of the Gospel in our lives, though we have to be careful about some of those things, as to whether they are really marking our conversion or not. But the Gospel itself is simply this: Jesus Christ came to earth, humbling Himself; He led a perfect life and died a cursed death in the place of His people, and was raised again from the dead on the third day, and is now raised into heaven. That is what Paul says the Gospel is. In verse 3, we learn that Jesus Christ was humbled. Literally, the text says “according to the flesh, He was born of the seed of David.” This refers to the time period of His humiliation. Christ entered into the old age of the world, so that He might bring in a new age. The new age is described in verse 4: through the Holy Spirit, Christ was appointed the powerful Son of God by His resurrection. You might notice a footnote in the NIV in verse 4. The footnote, I believe, is the better translation here. The words “in power” describe Jesus’ new state as the risen, powerful Son of God. He was always the Son of God. But in His humiliation, He was the Son of God in the weakness of human flesh. But now, in the resurrection, He is the Son of God in power. The resurrection is the time point at which God said that Jesus Christ was now the Messiah in power. It is at that point that the Messiah becomes Lord of all. We are not saying that Jesus became God. He always was God. However, what we are saying is that Jesus Christ ushered in a new age, an age of righteousness and holiness, the age of new creation that starts in the hearts of believers.

So the Gospel is God’s Gospel, it is according to Scripture, and it concerns Jesus Christ. Fourthly, we can see that the Gospel is for the nations. Verses 5-6 prove this point very clearly. The NIV has “among all the Gentiles.” The literal text reads “among all the nations.” Paul clearly means that the Gospel is for all people. It is for people of every tribe and nation. This will create a new people of the Gospel, a new people walking according to the light. Paul was called by God to do that very thing: to bring the Gospel to the nations. Paul’s point to the Romans is to include them in this also. That is the point of verse 6: “You also are among those who are called to belong to Jesus Christ.” For us reading these words, even though we might think we are reading someone else’s mail, this is still God’s Word to us. We also are called to be among God’s people. That light shining down into the darkness of the cave is a call to come up into the light.

Fifthly, we can see also that the obedience of faith is what is required. Now, we have to be careful here, because it is easy to get confused. We cannot be saved by our works. So why does Paul use the term “obedience of faith?” The NIV translates it this way, “the obedience that comes from faith.” This is certainly one very legitimate way of translating it. If our faith does not result in obedience to God, then we must certainly question whether or not it is true faith. However, there is another way to see this as well. The older Puritans used to call this “evangelical obedience.” It wasn’t obedience to the law, but rather to the Gospel. The Gospel calls us to submit to the Gospel. Believing the Gospel is obedience to God’s call. It is not an obedience that earns us anything: God forbid! However, we can say that it is a submission to the call of the Gospel. The Gospel of what Jesus did for us calls us to put our trust in Him, and to submit to His Lordship over our lives. There are some people out there, and this is an old error, who think that Christ can save us from the guilt of our sins, but then He leaves us under sin’s power so that we can do what we like. We can’t have only part of Jesus Christ. If He is our Savior, then He is also our Lord. We are, like Paul, slaves to Jesus Christ, which is ironically true freedom. Oh that we would see that in our lives! Are we also among those called to belong to Jesus Christ? Are we loved by God, as it says in verse 7? Are we saints?

The word “saints” here is one that we don’t usually use of ourselves, for we tend to have the wrong idea of what a “saint” is. When we hear the word, we usually think of people who aren’t merely “Christians,” but also super-holy people. But that is not how Paul uses the term here. He means that all who are loved by God, and have been given the light of the Gospel, are saints. All Christians are saints. Although it might feel a bit odd to go around and say, “Hello, saint so-and-so,” this would not be wrong! Paul says that all who are loved by God (and he means in a saving way) are also saints. We are saints because the Gospel makes us holy. It keeps coming back to the Gospel, doesn’t it?

The Gospel is once more summarized for us in the last part of verse 7 with the words “grace and peace.” Grace is a beautiful word in the Bible. It puts the Gospel into a nutshell for us. It is not merely that we don’t deserve the saving favor that God bestows on His saints. It is actually that we deserve the opposite of favor. That is the amazing thing about grace. This grace is God reaching down His light into the dark deep cave of our sin, and shining His light upon us. When that light shines into the blackness of our hearts and changes us, it results in peace. When Paul says “grace and peace,” what he really means is that grace leads to peace. We are no longer at war with God, but at peace. This is the Gospel of peace. It makes us all saints.

1 Comment

  1. johnbugay said,

    August 16, 2010 at 8:00 am

    Grace is a beautiful word in the Bible.

    Lane, this is a very fine message. I have a question, about the word “grace”. Are you aware of any thorough, exegetical studies of the word grace in the Bible? I’m not talking about “the doctrines of Grace” as in the five “tulip” doctrines of Calvinism. I mean, the actual concept and word as found in the Bible.

    One that I’m aware of is the 1947 study by T.F. Torrance, as a part of his work, “The Doctrine of Grace in the Apostolic Fathers.” In that work, he traces the meaning of the word charis in Classical Greek usage (where it had a meaning different from its New Testament meaning as demonstrated by Jesus and as articulated by Paul), and also as it merged with the concepts of tsedeq and hesed in the Old Testament, and finally charis as a terminus technicus in the New Testament.

    Torrance notes that charis in the NT “is such a new word that it cannot be interpreted in terms of antecedent roots or ideas” (20). The “singular event” upon which it is based must rather be the Incarnation, when God personally intervened in human history “in such a way that the ground of man’s approach to God, and of all his relations with God, is not to be found in man’s fulfillment of the divine command, but in the final act of self-commitment on the part of God in which He has given Himself to man through sheer love and in such a fashion that it cuts clean across all questions of human merit and demerit.” (21).

    Torrance’s is an excellent study, but I believe it has two flaws: 1. It is probably strongly influenced by his Barthian tendencies (and I am in no position to assess this in any way, though I tend to think this may be one concept that we can learn from Barth), and 2. it is too short. That is, if this were a comprehensive study, it would be incredibly useful, I think.

    If you, or anyone here, are familiar with such a study, I’d appreciate knowing about it.

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