The Christian’s Constitution
Without any reasonable doubt whatever, the greatest theological treatise ever written is the Book of Romans. I personally know of five pastors who each spent more than three years preaching through this book, and even then, they claimed they had done no more than scratch the surface of this spiritual gold mine. One preached for 13 years from Romans and then published a four-volume commentary on the book.
While it is my present aim to work our way through Romans in considerably less time—approximately 40-45 messages—we will not exactly be skimming the great themes of the Epistle. However, we will avoid as much as possible pursuing theological rabbit trails, as interesting and profitable as they may be.
Our outline today is introductory and relatively simple:
The significance and influence of Romans
The occasion, and
But first, let’s read the text together, Romans 1:1-13:
Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God— 2 the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures 3 regarding his Son, who as to his earthly life was a descendant of David, 4 and who through the Spirit of holiness was appointed the Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord. 5 Through him we received grace and apostleship to call all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith for his name’s sake. 6 And you also are among those Gentiles who are called to belong to Jesus Christ.
7 To all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be his holy people:
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ.
8 First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is being reported all over the world. 9 God, whom I serve in my spirit in preaching the gospel of his Son, is my witness how constantly I remember you 10 in my prayers at all times; and I pray that now at last by God’s will, the way may be opened for me to come to you.
11 I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong— 12 that is, that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith. 13 I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that I planned many times to come to you (but have been prevented from doing so until now) in order that I might have a harvest among you, just as I have had among the other Gentiles.
The significance and influence of the epistle to the Romans
F. F. Bruce, noted Greek scholar of our day, has written of the book of Romans, “Time and again in the course of Christian history it has liberated the minds of men, brought them back to an understanding of the essential Gospel of Christ, and started spiritual revolutions.”[i] One of those liberated minds belonged to St. Augustine.
The testimony of Augustine. In the summer of AD 386 Aurelius Augustinus, native of North Africa and Professor of Rhetoric at the University of Milan, sat weeping in the garden of his friend Alypius. He had lived a notoriously wicked life, but now desired to turn over a new leaf. Yet he lacked the final resolution to break with the old life. As he sat, he heard a child singing a children’s song in a neighboring house, “Tolle, lege! Tolle, lege!” (Take up and read! Take up and read!). A scroll lay at his friend’s feet, so Augustine picked it up. It happened to be a copy of the Book of Romans. As he opened it at random his eyes rested on the words: “not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature.” (Rom. 13:13-14). “No further would I read,” he tells us, “nor had I any need; instantly, at the end of this sentence, a clear light flooded my heart and all the darkness of doubt vanished away.” What the church and the world owe to this influx of light which illuminated Augustine’s mind as he read these words of Paul is something beyond our power to compute.[ii]
The testimony of William Tyndale. Eleven hundred years later, the person to whom we owe the largest debt for the translation of the Bible into English, William Tyndale, wrote in the preface to the Book of Romans in his 1534 edition of the English New Testament:
Forasmuch as this epistle is the principal and most excellent part of the New Testament, and most pure gospel, and also a light and a way in unto the whole Scripture, I think it meet that every Christian man not only know it by rote and without the book, but also exercise himself therein evermore continually, as with the daily bread of the soul. No man verily can read it too oft or study it too well; for the more it is studied the easier it is, the more it is chewed the pleasanter it is, and the more groundly it is searched the preciouser things are found in it, so great treasure of spiritual things lieth hid therein.[iii]
The testimony of Martin Luther. In November 1515, Martin Luther, Augustinian monk and Professor of Sacred Theology at the University of Wittenberg, began to expound Paul’s Epistle to the Romans to his students, and continued this course until the following September. As he prepared his lectures, he came more and more to appreciate the centrality of the Pauline doctrine of justification by faith. He wrote,
I greatly longed to understand Paul’s Epistle to the Romans and nothing stood in the way but that one expression, “the righteousness of God”…. 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 to heaven.[iv]
The consequences of this new insight which Martin Luther gained from the study of Romans changed the face of Europe and the spiritual fate of millions.
The testimony of John Bunyan. What was it that turned a simple Bedford tinker into the author of one of the great pieces of English literature, Pilgrim’s Progress? Certainly not the intellectual capacities of a Francis Bacon, nor the literary gifts of a Shakespeare. But in prison John Bunyan laid hold of the truths set forth in the Epistle to the Romans and then put them in allegory form. The human race was likened to a pilgrim, uprooted from his natural home and on his way to a far country where truth and righteousness dwell. Romans was his source and his road map.
The testimony of John Wesley. Wesley returned to England from a preaching trip to Savannah, Georgia, a discouraged man. He had run into difficulty in dealing with the colonists and became troubled by the lack of assurance of his own salvation. On the evening of May 24, 1738, he went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where someone was reading Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans. He wrote in his journal,
About a quarter before nine, while he 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.[v]
Armed with this message he embarked on 40 years of ministry which launched the evangelical revival of the eighteenth century in England and America.
These testimonies could be multiplied a thousand times. The ground upon which we are about to tread is holy ground.
The writer of the letter (1). Surely the writer of such a profound and influential epistle must have been a person of unique abilities and spiritual insights. He was indeed. He was none other than the greatest missionary statesman, theologian and pastor that Christianity has ever known—the Apostle Paul. Converted when he met the risen Christ face to face on the Road to Damascus, this militant Jew became the leading spokesman for the faith he had once so ardently tried to eliminate. For three years Paul re-evaluated his life and the Scriptures he had grown up with, before he launched his ministry career in Antioch.
Years later Paul was released from his duties as a pastor in Antioch to conduct a wider ministry as a missionary to the Gentiles in Asia Minor. Three great missionary trips filled the next ten years of his life, all to the cities and towns surrounding the Aegean Sea. But Paul had an unfulfilled dream—he wanted to take the Gospel to Spain, the farthest frontier of the Roman Empire. Not only would that allow him to continue as a pioneer missionary, but on the way, he could satisfy another long-standing ambition—to visit the great metropolis of Rome.
And so, toward the end of his third missionary journey, while in Corinth, probably in the year AD 57 or 58, Paul dictated to his friend and personal secretary, Tertius, a letter destined for the small Christian community in Rome. The letter was to prepare them for his anticipated visit to their city and to explain the purpose of his coming. And he judged it only wise and proper to lay before this small church in the most strategic city in the world a full and complete statement of the Gospel as he understood and proclaimed it. We are indebted to him for his wisdom in so doing.
For a person of such noble heritage, remarkable ability, and great accomplishments, it is interesting how Paul identifies himself in the very first verse of the Epistle: “Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God.” Ancient letter writers had a more rational approach to letter-writing than we have in that they identified themselves at the very outset of the letter. After all, what do you do immediately upon opening a multi-page letter? You always look at the end to see who wrote it, don’t you? Well, Paul saves them the trouble by identifying himself in the opening words: Paul, a servant.
He is a servant. The term is harsher in Greek than comes across in English. It literally means “slave,” and often refers to those who were sold into slavery because they could not pay their debts. Rather than allowing bankruptcy, which often tends to encourage irresponsibility, the Mosaic Law provided that the insolvent debtor become the actual property of the creditor. But this kind of slavery had a termination point. When the seventh year rolled around, all economic slaves were liberated. Some of them, however, realized that their own lack of ability made it impossible for them to survive in the rugged economy of a cruel world. They remembered that when they had been free, they had not eaten well, but that now, under kind masters, they were well-housed and well-fed.
The Law provided a way for the slave of a kind master to remain the property of his master if he so desired. He was taken to the tabernacle where the priest would lead him to the doorpost and bore a hole in the lobe of his ear with an awl. From that time on he was a slave of his master. He could have been free, but he chose to remain a slave. Wherever he walked, his ear proclaimed the character of his master.
Paul calls himself the bond-slave of Jesus Christ. He had voluntarily submitted his life and ministry to the control of Christ. He belonged to Christ in the fullest sense of that term.
But if there is a ring of humility in the use of the word “servant,” there is a balancing note of authority in the following phrase, “called as an apostle.”
He is an apostle. The word “apostle” means literally “a sent one,” an ambassador, an official representative. Ambassadors always serve at the pleasure of the chief of state—no one ever appointed himself to the position. Nor did Paul. He says, “I was called as an apostle.”
In our governmental system there are career diplomats who lobby for ambassadorships. They try to rub shoulders with all the influential people and use any means possible to communicate to the President their desire to serve as his official representative to some particular foreign country. Sometimes it works. On the other hand, there are times when the President passes over all the career diplomats, goes out into the private sector, finds a person who is quite happy with his work and doesn’t have the slightest desire to work for the government, and says, “I want you.” That person has been “called” and must then decide whether he will serve. Almost always it means a cut in pay, an uprooting of one’s family, perhaps even danger.
The Apostle Paul was definitely in the latter category. He not only didn’t lobby to be an apostle—he was actually busy persecuting Christ’s ambassadors when the finger was pointed at him and Christ said, “I want you!”
Not everyone accepted Paul’s claim to the office of apostle. Some Jewish Christians in particular, reacting to the fact that Paul was doing missionary work among the Gentiles, challenged his authority and forced him to publicly defend his apostleship. In 2 Cor. 11:5 he states, “But I do not think I am in the least inferior to those ‘super-apostles….'” (speaking of the Twelve). So important to Paul was his calling as an Apostle that he mentions it in 10 of the 13 New Testament books he wrote. His calling was unique, and it gave him an authority direct from God.
Now Paul’s calling to be an Apostle may have been unique, but we must realize that every believer receives a special calling from God. First, we are called to salvation, then we are called to maturity, and thirdly, we are called to a particular work. It may be as an engineer or a teacher or a plumber or a doctor or a housewife or a pastor—whatever it is, I believe we should have a settled conviction that what we’re devoting our life to is what God has designed for us, and we should have a firm desire to honor Him in that calling.
He is set apart for the Gospel. Paul considered himself to be “a Gospel man.” In fact, he says in Gal. 1:15 that he was set apart for the Gospel from his mother’s womb. This means that he looked at his heritage, his education, his personality, and his gifts as all being part of God’s overall plan. It was no accident that he had Roman citizenship, Greek culture, and Jewish training. All of these factors enabled him to present the Gospel to all kinds of people and with great effectiveness. Next Sunday we will examine the Gospel further and discover why Paul was unashamed of it.
Once one discovers who has written a letter, the second most important question is, “to whom was it written?”
The recipients of the letter (1:7)
The recipients are mentioned in verse 7: “To all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ.” Two descriptive phrases here bear a closer look: “loved by God,” and “called to be saints.” Both tell us that Paul is writing to all the Christian believers in Rome.
How did this group of Christians develop in Rome? Paul had not been there, as we noted earlier, and it is virtually certain none of the other Apostles had visited. Where, then, did the church in Rome come from? Turn to Acts 2 for a moment. The time is just a few weeks after the death and resurrection of Christ and perhaps 25-30 years before Paul is writing the Book of Romans. The setting is Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came upon the Disciples and they began to preach the Gospel in languages they had never learned.
The purpose of this miraculous gift of tongues was so that thousands of foreign visitors to Jerusalem might hear the Gospel in their own language. And in verse 8 these visitors marvel, “How is it that each of us hears them in his own native language?” Then the next three verses mention about fifteen different countries from which these visitors originated, including “visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes.” Later that day 3,000 souls were saved following Peter’s great sermon (2:42), including, no doubt, some of the visitors from Rome.
Probably these newly converted Christians carried the gospel back to Rome and planted the church there, most likely in the Jewish community in Rome. How fast the faith grew we do not know, but we do know that the Emperor Claudius expelled all the Jews from the capital sometime in the 40’s. Acts 18:2 mentions that Aquila and Priscilla, Jewish Christians, had come to Corinth because of this mass-expulsion order by Claudius. However, the exile of Jews from Rome was short-lived, and by the time of Claudius’ death in A.D. 54 the Jewish community in Rome was flourishing once again, as was the Christian church there.
When Paul writes his epistle to the Romans three or four years later, Aquila and Priscilla are back in the capital and the church is meeting in their house. If you want to meet some of the members of the Roman church you can do so by turning to the last chapter of Romans, where Paul greets more than 25 of them by name and refers to a number of others as well. Apparently Paul had met these converts in other cities during his missionary journeys, but since “all roads lead to Rome,” they are now back in the capital city.
Returning to 1:7, let’s meditate for a moment upon the two phrases Paul uses of the Roman Christians.
They are “loved by God.” Someone may object that all people are loved by God, for John 3:16 specifically says so: “For God so loved the world ….” Well, there certainly is a sense in which God loves everyone, and we too are enjoined to love everyone. But, of course, the love we have for our own children is much deeper and far-reaching than the love we might have for those who are mere acquaintances, or even enemies. So too with God. I John 3:1 reads, “How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!” To join that great company, the company of God’s children, one must come to God through faith in the sacrifice of His Son. That is the kind of love Paul is speaking of in verse 7.
They are “called to be saints.” The term “saint” is one of the beautiful words in the Bible, but it has been terribly corrupted by organized religion. We wouldn’t think of referring to one another as Saint Bob or Saint Carol or Saint Andrew. However, the New Testament constantly refers to ordinary Christians as “saints.” The reason that sounds so strange to us is largely due to the fact that certain churches have assumed to themselves the prerogative of canonizing certain individuals as saints, leaving everyone else out. I don’t know the rules in the orthodox church, but in the Roman Catholic church among the requirements for becoming a saint are:
1. The person must be dead for at least 5 years, except in unusual cases.
2. They must survive a rigorous investigation to see whether they were sufficiently holy and virtuous.
3. The person must be recommended to the Pope by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints.
4. At least two miracles must be directly attributable to prayers to that person.
5. He must first be beatified.
6. The Pope must declare him or her to be a saint.
We Protestants seem to have accepted this restriction of the term “saint” for those deemed to be religious superstars, and so we will say from time to time, “So-and-so is a Christian, but he’s far from being a saint.” I’m afraid Paul would scratch his head if he heard that and respond that it’s impossible to be a Christian without being a saint. That’s because the word “saint” means “one set apart from the world and unto God.” All Christians are set apart as God’s people.
Now obviously some saints act more saintly than others. So the best way to think about it is that “saint” refers to one’s position, while “saintly” refers to one’s behavior. Paul is writing to people who have been called into a position of sainthood, but at the same time they need to grow in saintliness.
The occasion for the letter (1:8-13)
Nearly every letter we write is occasioned by some particular factor; virtually no one takes the effort to write a letter if they have no reason. We may end up saying a lot of things that were unplanned, but there are always one or two issues of immediate concern that motivate us to write in the first place. Three factors motivated Paul to write his letter to the Romans, and all three are stated in verses 8-12.
Paul desires to express thanksgiving for the remarkable faith of the Roman Christians. “First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is being reported all over the world.” This Roman church was famous for its faith. You know, I can’t think of a single thing that would be a greater compliment to a church than to say it was famous worldwide for its faith. That’s better than being famous for its growth, better than being famous for its beautiful architecture, better than being famous for its eloquent pastor, better than being famous for its history and tradition.
True faith is believing God’s Word and acting on it. Very simple. That’s the kind of church I desire First Free to be. And since faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God, we must continue to be a church of the Book. God has never promised to bless oratory, though He sometimes uses it. And He has never promised to bless music, though He certainly does often. But He haspromised to bless His word.
Paul desires to communicate his personal love and concern. Look at verses 9 & 10: “God, whom I serve with my whole heart in preaching the gospel of his Son, is my witness how constantly I remember you in my prayers at all times; and I pray that now at last by God’s will the way may be opened for me to come to you.” Paul prayed constantly for his own converts. This is conveyed in nearly every one of his epistles. But here we note that he also prayed constantly for churches he had never even visited. And one of the things he prays for is the opportunity to visit them in person.
The goal Paul had in visiting Rome is well-motivated, according to Verse 13: “I planned many times to come to you … in order that I might have a harvest among you, just as I have had among the other Gentiles.” The goal of obtaining a harvest is, of course, related to the winning of more souls to Christ. And why is that such a compulsion to him?
1. He sees himself as obligated to share the Gospel with everyone. (14)
2. His own eagerness supplements that obligation. (15)
I have sensed this same drive in Julio Serra in regard to his homeland of Cuba. He feels under obligation to go back there now that there is limited opportunity, but he also is eager to do so. He came back this week wired, due to the response of people to the Gospel, and he can hardly wait to return in June. Even if we don’t want to share the Gospel, we have an obligation to do so. But how much better to have the desire in our hearts!
Returning to verses 9-10, I want you to be aware that this fervent prayer of Paul’s that he might visit the Roman Christians was eventually answered, but not when he planned or the way he planned. When he finally arrived in Rome it was in the custody of Roman soldiers. And following several years under house arrest and in prison, he was finally executed there.
There will be times in our lives as well, when we step out in faith, but the door will be shut. That shouldn’t discourage us, for every prayer we utter should include the thought, if not the words, “Not my will but thine be done.” Then if God delays, or says “no,” or says “yes” in a way different than we expected, we can accept it and praise Him anyway.
Paul desires to share his goal of mutual ministry. (11-12) Paul knew that he had an important ministry to the churches, but he never viewed that ministry as a one-way street. He never saw himself as a spiritual doctor doling out prescriptions to the sick and disabled, while somehow remaining immune to their diseases. Rather he constantly saw the importance of being ministered to as well as ministering to others.
Notice how he puts it in verses 11-12: “I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong—that is, that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith.” Any honest pastor or Sunday School teacher worth his salt will acknowledge that he is ministered to as much or more by his people than they are by him. That’s how the church functions.
An overview of the Letter
The book of Romans deals with some great and profound themes.
The universal problem of original sin. (1:1-3:20)
The universal solution of justification by faithin the death of Christ. (3:21-5:21)
The process of spiritual growth through sanctification (6-8)
The place of the Jews in God’s plan of salvation. (9-11)
Application of doctrine to ourselves, to the church, to society, and to government (11-15).
Concluding greetings. (16)
Let me share this overview in paragraph form by quoting Stuart Briscoe:
Man is exposed as the shameful sinner his actions clearly demonstrate him to be. God is revealed as at once just, merciful, and gracious. The possibility of salvation from the consequences of sin and emancipation from the pernicious dynamic of sin is clearly set forth. The principles of salvation are stated unequivocally in terms of grace and faith.
Human history is declared to be the arena in which the cosmic plan of the Sovereign God is moving relentlessly to its eternal conclusion. And the clarion call to commitment to the God of our salvation in terms of sacrificial yielding of ourselves to Him in glad gratitude for unmerited grace is shown to be more than a pious concept. It is in fact a call to a dynamic lifestyle. The committed Christian is given clear instruction concerning his consecrated behavior in the home, the church, the political arena, and the marketplace.
The Epistle ranges effortlessly from awe-inspiring expositions of the majesty of God to deeply intimate statements concerning His compassion for sinners. On the one hand the degradation of a fallen race is exposed in all its sordid detail; yet, on the other hand, the way of love and the possibilities of human understanding, tolerance, gratitude, and sacrifice are clearly delineated. Man as an individual, naked before His God, guilty and without excuse is also shown to be a creature of infinite worth capable of functioning through divine grace as leader, encourager, and responsible community participant.
The erstwhile sinner is pointed unerringly to the path of the saint; the fallen sons of Adam’s helpless race are lifted joyfully into the very presence of God and launched on the breathtaking life of “heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ” (Rom. 8:17). The hopeless and the helpless are introduced to the gospel of hope and the Giver of help.[vi]
In short, Romans is a marvelous statement of the message every one of us needs. I hope you’re as eager as I am to mine the treasures the Spirit of God has placed here.
Conclusion: I would like to return to the simple greeting Paul gave to the Roman Christians in 1:7. “Grace” was the Christian way of saying “hello.” “Peace” was the equivalent Jewish greeting. But to him this meant far more than “hello and hello.” Grace is the unmerited favor of God which He extended to us by sending His Son to be the sacrifice for our sin. It always comes before peace with God is possible. We are by nature enemies of God, and it is only by His grace that that enmity can be changed to friendship.
During World War II Churchill cabled Roosevelt, “Give us the tools and we’ll finish the job.” Well, God has given us the tools in His grace and peace; now it’s time to become serious about being disciples and ambassadors of Christ.
DATE: November 20, 1994
[i] F. F. Bruce, The Epistle of Paul to the Romans, citation lost.
[ii] Bruce, 58.
[iii] Bruce, 9.
[iv] Bruce, 59.
[v] Bruce, 59-60.
[vi] Stuart Briscoe, The Preacher’s Commentary, Romans, 11-12.