It is a wonderful thing to have one’s faith strengthened by someone else. It could be a small or a big thing. Maybe it gives you that boost that you needed to start climbing your way out of despair. Or maybe you just needed a little pep in your walk, and someone gives you a word of encouragement. Maybe it’s a worship service that seemingly lifts you to heaven itself. Regardless of what it is, you know that God sent it to you at just the right time. That may well have been how the Romans would have felt on hearing these words from the apostle Paul. Of course, most of the Roman Christians had not ever seen the apostle Paul. However, most of them would have known that Paul was the apostle to the Gentiles. Some of them might have wondered why it was that the apostle to the Gentiles had never visited the capital of the Gentile world: Rome. They might even have felt a little neglected by Paul. So Paul here reassures them that they are in his mind very often, and that he wanted to go see them, but had been prevented until then from going to Rome. For us, as we look at this passage, we will be focusing our attention on the ways in which faith can be strengthened.
First, faith is strengthened by Paul’s words of thanksgiving and encouragement that show that he is impressed with their faith, and thankful to God for their faith. Verse 8 shows us Paul’s attitude towards the Romans. He thanks God for their faith. Now, that in itself is a remarkable thing, for how many times have we thanked God for someone else’s faith? If we thank God at all for anything, usually it’s what He has given us, not what He has given our neighbor. But Paul is very unselfish here. He thanks God for the faith that has been given by God to the Romans.
Notice this small phrase “through Jesus Christ.” Paul never forgets that all our prayers (and thanksgiving is certainly one of those prayers) can only be heard through the mediation of Jesus Christ. He is our mediator, who is our advocate at the throne of God. He pleads with the Father that the Father should hear our prayers. God the Father hears our prayers because of Jesus Christ. In this case, it is the thanksgiving of Paul that is mediated through Jesus Christ, and is then heard by the Father.
Paul commends the faith of the Romans, saying that it is reported all over the world. I’m sure that Paul here means the known world, specifically, the Christians within it. It would be a great encouragement to many people to know that there were Christians at the very heart of the Roman empire. So, Paul thanks God and encourages the Romans by his words. We should encourage one another concerning their faith. We should mention to people that we thank God because of their faith, and the things that they have done for God. We should make it one of our missions in life to encourage other believers. Some of us are very good at this. You would hardly hear a word of criticism from them. Others of us, however, will only speak up to someone if they have a word of criticism. It might feel weird to some of us to encourage someone else, but we should seek to try to get used to saying those kinds of things. Goodness knows we need far more encouragement than criticism in our lives, although criticism has its place. But we should imitate Paul’s example here and thank the Lord for other people’s faith, and encourage them by saying so.
Secondly, faith is strengthened by prayer. And in this case, it is the prayers of other people, the prayers of Paul, that strengthen the faith of the Roman Christians. Paul wants them to know how much he prays for them. In fact, Paul swears an oath here that he has prayed for them many times. He calls God to witness, as in a court of law, that he has prayed for the Romans constantly. Notice in verse 9 that Paul desires the Romans to know that he is sincere in this. He says that he serves God with his whole heart. Paul’s religion is not some window-dressing that masks a heart full of hatred. No, he serves God with his whole being. It is one thing to hear that someone is praying for you. It is quite another to know that this person who is praying for you is a genuine, fervent Christian who is praying for you! It is that kind of assurance that Paul wishes to give to the Roman Christians.
This kind of Christian, in the form of the apostle Paul, is the one praying for the faith of the Roman Christians. And God uses that prayer of Paul to strengthen the faith of the believers there. Hear this truth, then: our prayers can strengthen the faith of other believers. This happens because God is the one who uses our prayers to accomplish His will. It is obviously God’s will that the faith of the saints be strengthened. Therefore, God will use our prayers for other people in order to strengthen their faith. How often do we pray for those Christians we know that their faith be strengthened? All too often, we have this idea that once they’re a Christian, we don’t really need to pray for them anymore. As if regeneration and conversion were all there was to the Christian life! If Romans itself is any indication, conversion is just the beginning. The rest of life is then a constant battle between the old sin nature that dwells within us and the regenerated part of us, which is the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives. We need to be growing constantly in the faith. And prayer is one of those things that is absolutely essential, both our own prayers, and the prayers of others on our behalf. One prayer isn’t enough, either. For notice Paul’s words here. He prays constantly for them at all times (verses 9-10). He does not simply pray for them once, and then forget about them. He prays for them all the time.
Prayer, however, can be a puzzle to us, can’t it, especially the connection between prayer and faith? Let us consider some errors in this area of doctrine before we consider what the truth of the matter is. Many people think that strong faith means prayer is answered, whereas a weak faith means that prayer might not be answered. Know this for a certainty: the prayers of all true Christians, no matter how weak their faith is, will be answered. God might answer “no.” But He answers “no” to strong Christians like Paul, as well as to weak Christians. Paul mentions in verse 13 that he planned to come to the Romans many times, but was prevented. There were good reasons for this, since God had other work for Paul to do. We must remember, then, that if God doesn’t not give us the answer we want, He will have His reason for saying no. Maybe it is to humble us, to help us realize that we are not as indispensable as we think we are. Maybe it is because God has other work for us. Maybe it is because the thing we pray for would not be a good thing for us to have or to do. Faith trusts in God that He knows better than we do. So it is not the power of our faith that fuels the power of prayer. The prayers of even the strongest saint needs the help of the Mediator, Jesus Christ, in order for God to hear it. This, by the way, is the reason why God does not answer the prayers of non-believers. They have no mediator.
Does prayer do anything? Yes, it does. It does two things. Firstly, prayer is what God uses to accomplish His will in our lives. That is the relationship between our prayer and the sovereignty of God. When our prayers line up with God’s revealed will, then God will use our prayers to accomplish His will. Furthermore, prayer changes us. Talking to God is always something that will change us. James Montgomery Boice told the story of a missionary who had served long and hard overseas, seeking to make converts to the Gospel. When he came home to America, he happened to be on the same boat as Theodore Roosevelt, who naturally got all the attention. There was, in fact, no one to welcome the missionaries home. The missionary was offended by this, until his wife told him to take the matter up with God. After praying to the Lord, the missionary felt much better. He said to his wife that he had told God how he felt, and it was as if God had laid His hand on the man’s shoulder and said to him, “But, my son, you are not home yet. When you come home, then I will give you a royal welcome.” Prayer changed him, and it changes us. It changes our attitude. It can be very useful, for instance, if we are having a dispute with someone, and our attitude is getting out of hand. We may not even realize it at the time, but if we can only remember to pray right then, we will find that our attitude will change in the circumstance. So prayer changes us, and God uses it to bring about His will. That is especially true with regard to other people. When we pray for others, that their faith will be strengthened, God will answer that prayer with a yes.
Praying for other people is therefore essential. However, sometimes there is simply no substitute for being with the other person. And that is our third point. Faith is strengthened by the communion of saints. That is one of the things we say in the Apostles Creed. We believe in the communion of saints. Here in verses 10-13, we have a beautiful picture of what the communion of saints looks like. It starts with prayer. That is how our second point leads to our third point. For Paul was praying that he might at long last, finally get to see the Roman Christians. He has been very eager to get there, but has been prevented until then. What good will the communion of saints do to the Roman Christians? Verse 11 tells us that there will be an impartation of spiritual gifts from Paul to the Romans, and that such a gift will help to make them strong.
Notice how humble Paul is here. Paul immediately corrects himself in verse 12. The Roman Christians might think that the strengthening might go only one way: from the great apostle Paul to the Roman Christians. But Paul wants the Romans to know that he needs encouragement and strengthening as well. So that is why he says in verse 12 that the strengthening goes both ways. Even the apostle Paul, one of the strongest Christians ever, still needs strengthening and encouragement. The faith of Paul and the faith of the Romans will strengthen each other’s faith. That is the beautiful thing about the communion of saints, isn’t it? It is like how geese travel. They travel in a V shape so that the air lift that comes from the one in front helps the goose that comes behind. And no one is at the front of the V for very long, before it is relieved of its post, so that it doesn’t get too tired. They help each other fly, and in that way, can cover much longer distances. So it is with the Christian faith. We all have something about our faith that will help someone else’s faith. It doesn’t matter how small we think our gift is. It will help someone else. Even if it’s just a small lift, that is important. Let’s ask ourselves this question: is my faith encouraging other people’s faith? It is one of the most important aspects about faith, the effect that it has on other people. Faith believes in the God who gives us the communion of saints.
Finally, faith has obligations. Paul says here that he is obligated, or under debt, to everyone, that he preach the gospel to them. To understand how this works, we need to look at two different kinds of debt. If person A borrows money from person B, then person A owes that money back to person B. That is one kind of debt, what we might call “direct” debt. However, supposing person A gave something to person B in order to give that something to person C. In that case, as long as person B has the item, he is in debt to person C in order to give it to them. This is what we might call “indirect” debt. It is the debt of having something entrusted to us, that we might give that in turn to someone else. That is the kind of debt Paul is talking about here. Paul was entrusted with the gospel in order that he might give it to all other people. He had never simply been given the gospel to keep it to himself. And here we see the last aspect of faith that Paul writes about here: the indebtedness of faith. When God gives us faith, He tells us that that faith is not ever meant to be kept to ourselves, but must also be given away to others. We are in debt to all other people to give them the knowledge of what faith is. Paul says he has to give this to Greeks and non-Greeks, to the wise and to the foolish. This is everyone in the world. He is in debt to everyone in the world. It is never wise to live in constant debt. Therefore, we must pay off that debt by sharing the gospel to everyone. We need to make sure that everyone has heard the gospel and knows what is the true nature of faith. Has everyone in Hague, Strasburg, Pollock, Linton, and Herreid heard what the gospel truly is? I think not. Our way forward is clear. Probably everyone in those towns is known by someone or other in our congregations. That means that we have the opportunity to reach every single person in those towns for Christ.
Our problem here is that we can tend to have the wrong idea about what faith really is, and it is on this point that I will close. Faith is not the same thing as sincerity, although we certainly want faith to be sincere. But people can be sincere, but sincerely wrong. We are not saved by sincerity. We are saved by faith. Faith is not the same thing as emotional feeling, either, although there again, faith includes our emotions. But emotional feeling can be just as wrong as sincerity. Muslims are sincere, and they can be very emotional! But that does not mean that they are saved. Faith is knowledge, assent and trust in Jesus Christ. Faith knows Jesus personally, agrees with the truths concerning Jesus Christ that are laid out in the Bible, and entrusts itself to Jesus Christ. That is true faith: knowing Jesus, agreeing with the truth, or believing the truth, and then entrusting oneself to Jesus, as the crucified and risen Lord. That is the only thing that will save. It is that faith that we need to seek that others should have. And it is that faith that needs to be constantly strengthened by encouragement, prayer, and the communion of saints.