SERMON FOR 2/8/98 FROM ROMANS 1:1-2
This morning we begin our study of Paulís letter to the Romans. It would be difficult to overstate the importance of this book for our growth and development in Christ. Luther, in the preface to his commentary on Romans writes, ď[Romans] is worthy not only that every Christian should know it word for word, by heart, but occupy himself in it every day, as the daily bread of the soul. It can never be read or pondered too much, and the more it is dealt with the more precious it becomes, and the better it tastes.Ē Romans had clearly had a life changing effect on Luther and the same could be said for innumerable saints in the history of the church. This morning as we begin our treatment, I would like, by Godís grace to present an overture of the book. At the beginning of an opera or a Broadway musical, there is an overture and which introduces and highlights the major musical themes of the composition. Likewise this morning, I would like to survey the book to highlight the one main theme and the other major ideas, which flow from it. The intention is to whet our appetite for this letter. We will not answer all your questions about Romans this morning. In fact, if we succeed, we hope to raise some questions. Before we do that, we must first very briefly give some of the background to the book, which will help us understand its contents.
Paul wrote this letter in about 57 AD. He had been ministering to the Gentiles for about 25 years in the Eastern Mediterranean. He is writing from Greece and is headed to Jerusalem to deliver money he has collected from churches to help the struggling church there. He also has a mission to Spain in his future plans and in chapter 15 hints that the Romans could help him with his financial support in that mission. Paul did not plant the church at Rome and he had never ministered there before. The church was made up of mostly Gentiles, but these Gentiles would have been familiar with Judaism because most of them had become believers in Yahweh through their contact with the synagogues. There were some Jewish believers in the church as well. There were no huge problems in the church at Rome as there were in Galatia or Corinth. We know that Paul had several contributing reasons why it was important for him to write this letter as he did to lay out his understanding of the gospel. Among other reasons, he does this to solidify his support and to clarify his sometimes-misunderstood teaching.
With that as brief background, we move to the overture. The theme verse of the book is 1:16-17. ďI am not ashamed of this 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: ďThe righteous will live by faith.Ē Virtually everything else in this letter flows from that and is an exposition of that verse.
I have divided Romans into five major sections (This does not include the introduction and the conclusion). Each of these sections displays something distinct about the glory of the gospel. I have phrased the topic of each section of the letter in the form of a question about the gospel because in each major section Paul is dealing with one major issue pertaining to the gospel. This morning, we will broadly survey these sections. The five questions are (in order), 1. ďWhy is the gospel necessary?Ē The second is, ďWhat is the heart of the gospel?Ē Third, ďWhat is the hope offered through the gospel?Ē Fourth, ďHow can the gospel fulfill Godís promise when most Jews have rejected it?Ē Fifth, ďHow should the power of the gospel affect our daily lives?Ē
The first section, which begins at 1:18 and goes through 3:20, is ďWhy is the gospel necessary?Ē Paulís direct answer is--Because of the presence of the universal and tyrannical reign of sin. Paul begins his masterful treatment of the gospel with the reason the gospel is necessary. This ordering of his approach is instructive for us. Paul is seeking to give us as full an appreciation for the glory of Christís work as possible. In order to give us the fullest appreciation possible, he begins with an exposition of the problem the gospel addresses and solves, sin. He shows both the nature and depth of sin and the dreadful consequences of a holy Godís response to sin.
The starting point of any logical presentation of the gospel is at the point of our sin. Our impulse is to start with Godís LOVE--God starts with sin. Our tendency is to present the mercy and grace and love of God because we know that is what blesses us the most. The insurmountable problem with this approach is this: the height of Godís mercy canít be seen without first seeing the depth of our sin. The level of appreciation a person has for Godís mercy is directly proportionate to their understanding of the depth of their sin. The glory of the radiant light of Godís grace--his unmerited favor--canít be clearly seen without first seeing the darkness of our sin. If you arenít profoundly, experientially aware of the sin, which makes you utterly undeserving of Godís favor, you will not appreciate the grace of God. The blazing heat of Godís love canít be felt until you have first felt the frozen permafrost of your sin-racked heart. The love of God is little more than a warm, fuzzy, insipid, sentimental feeling without a profound, experiential, God-induced awareness of the fact that, there is NOTHING in us for a holy God to love and EVERYTHING in us for a holy God to hate.
Only a supremely merciful God would spare sinners from the wrath they deserve, only a gloriously gracious God gives his favor to those spitting in His face and only a magnificently loving God loves those who are unlovable. That is the God of the gospel and the gospel is first and foremost about God and the display of his magnificence, NOT about man and his need. Its when the radiant diamond of the gospel is shown against the backdrop of the blackness of our sin that the glory of the gospel is seen. Paul knows that and he begins his treatment of the gospel with an exposition of the nature and depth of our sin and the penalty for our sin--the wrath of a holy God. In this section Paul tells us that people donít turn from God accidentally, they flee from Him with the most rigorous intent--they voluntarily, willingly and eagerly suppress the truth of God in their unrighteousness. They do whatever is necessary to get and keep God out of their lives--they build whatever barriers, run whatever distance required to get away from Him and the truth.
Paul says the reason for this is the fallen man, however nice or civil or even religious they may be has room for only one god in their life, themselves. To that end, their lives are spent in the pursuit of self-gratification and self-glorification in its many twisted forms. They fill themselves up with increasingly more and more evil. God shows forth his wrath against them as it is seen in this life, NOT by hurling at them fireballs from the firmament, but in a subtle and yet terrifying way. He manifests his wrath toward sinners in this life by simply refusing to restrain their sin. He allows the natural, sinful, heinous inclinations of the human heart to go unbounded and unchecked. He allows them to plunge deeper and deeper into the septic tank of their own depravity until ultimately they receive what they want, but having it, they find (often too late) it is a dead end street--it does not satisfy. Paul says in chapter three that this tyranny of sin is universal-- ďNO ONE seeks after God.Ē No one comes into this world truly seeking after God. If a person is truly seeking after God it is ONLY because God has put it into their fallen head to do so. Finally, as Paul concludes this first section he writes of the unworthy and ineffective solution for sin the Jews had tragically tried to employ. They tried to find righteousness by following the law. Paul points out that without an inward change of heart, attempts to submit to the holy demands of the law will result not only in failure to conquer sin, but religious hypocrisy and a deep sense of frustration as people try and fail to live up to a standard they are in no way equipped to carry out.
Into that context of frustration and failure, Paul begins the second section in 3:21. ďBut now a righteousness from God, apart from the law has been made known...Ē In light of the fact that you have this horrendous sin problem which you cannot solve--you are utterly UNrighteous, and in light of the fact that it is impossible to be righteous by following the law, God has made a way for us to be righteous apart from the law. This second section answers the question, ďWhat is the heart of the gospel?Ē And the answer Paul provides is, Justification by faith. Weíve already seen that there is nothing within a fallen sinner to enable them to be righteous--they are busy trying to be their own god. As part of that pursuit, they may be trying to be acceptable to God, pridefully trying to be a nice, church-going person in their own strength. But their hearts are evil and they canít possibly be righteous. They are unable to achieve what would be the ultimate in trying to make a silk purse from a sowís ear. In order for a person to be righteous, the righteousness must come from a source outside ourselves. We are spiritually bankrupt inside. The only righteousness which God accepts is this righteousness which comes from God. That is NOT found in trying to be a nice person or a faithful church-goer or by following the law of God. It must come from God and the only way God gives his righteousness to people is when they, by his grace exercise saving faith. That faith is provided by God and it is the conduit through which his righteousness flows to them.
In the rest of this section on the heart of the gospel, Paul gives Abraham as an illustration of Godís righteousness coming through faith. Abraham stands as exhibit ďAĒ in terms of the evidence that God makes people righteous according to faith and not a personís good works or religious deeds. He points out that Abraham, the Father of the Jewish people and the spiritual father of all true believers was declared righteous NOT on account of what he did, (He lived before the law which told people what God required was even given.) He was counted to be righteous by God, He was imputed with the righteousness of God because Abrahamís ďfaith was credited to him as righteousness.Ē This is what makes salvation totally of God--God gives the faith, God gives His own righteousness, Abraham receives both and is made a child of God by faith.
As Paul begins the next section in chapter five, he grounds all this work in the finished work of Christ. This imputation of righteousness to sinners is made possible only because Christ lived a perfectly righteous life and offered that life to God as a substitutionary sacrifice on the cross where He willingly took on our sins. While on the cross, God fully spent His wrath that we deserved on his righteous Son. His holy requirement for the punishment of sin was completely satisfied. Jesusí perfect righteousness offered to God frees God to take of that righteousness and credit it to all those who believe. Christ provides for us the righteousness which we in no way could ever deserve and Christ received the wrath which we in every way deserve. He has taken for us the wrath of God and in exchange He gives to us the righteousness of God. To those with saving faith, He has totally reversed their condition. He has, by His blood made those who are deserving Godís wrath, worthy of Godís mercy and grace. He has made those who were sinful before God, righteous with the righteousness of God. That is justification by faith and it is the pulsating heart of the gospel and it brilliantly displays the glory of God.
The third section of Romans answers the question: What is the hope offered by the gospel? Paulís answer is: The hope of displaying and ultimately sharing in the glory of God. In this section, Paul names four spiritual forces which Satan and our flesh would tell us will prevent His redeemed people from displaying and sharing in His glory. In 5:12-21 he tells us that DEATH cannot stand in the way because, though I once shared in the death sentence which resulted from Adamís sin, now by Godís grace I share in the life which Christ purchased for me in his righteous sacrifice at Calvary. Death cannot keep the believer from the hope of the glory of God. In chapter 6, Paul tells us that SIN cannot prevent the true believer from displaying and sharing in the hope of the glory of God. He tells us that Christís death has not only freed us from the PENALTY of sin through justification, is has also freed us from the POWER of sin through sanctification. The Westminster Catechism says, justification pardons sin while sanctification subdues sin. We are no longer under the reign or domination of sin, but the reign or domination of grace.
The ground of our freedom from the power of sin is our union with Christ. Because true believers are united with Christ, they share in his death to sin. Therefore, the only power sin has over us is the power we allow it to have over us. Walking in this righteousness is a gradual process and is never perfected in this life, but all the work necessary for this has been accomplished in Christ. Our complete and total victory over sin has been purchased and we can walk in this victory as we by faith count ourselves dead to sin through Christ and alive to God. Sin cannot stand in the way of the hope of glory of God.
Just as death and sin cannot separate us from the glory of God, in chapter seven Paul asserts that THE LAW canít prevent us from displaying and ultimately sharing in the glory of God. Paul clarifies the nature and purpose of the Mosaic law saying that on the one hand the law is good and holy, but on the other hand it cannot justify us or sanctify us. It has become ďthe unwitting tool of sinĒ and actually imprisons us in death. The harder we try to follow the law, the more we fail and find ourselves saying with Paul, ďOh, wretched man that I am.Ē The gospel declares that just as our union with Christís death makes us dead to sin and sets us free from its power, it also sets us free from the law which unwittingly entices us to sin. We are dead to the lawís power to enslave and imprison.
Finally, as he closes this section on the hope of the gospel, Paul in chapter eight declares at the apex of this mountain of the triumph of the gospel that not only are death, sin and the law powerless to keep us from displaying and sharing in the glory of God, indeed NOTHING can do so. The reason Paul gives for this absolutely comprehensive, total victory of the gospel is because it is the Holy Spirit, the third Person of the holy Trinity who lives within all true recipients of the gospel. It is no less than He who enables us to live out this righteousness of God. The gospel, therefore reveals a manifestation of the glory of all three members of the Trinity. God the Father elects those to be saved, God the Son redeems those to be saved and God the Holy Spirit renews, empowers and seals those who are saved through the gospel. Let me ask you, if you have a member of the triune Godhead superintending each element of the gospel, how much room for failure is there? NONE! Paul brings this all to a heart stopping crescendo in 8:31 when he says, ďWhat, then shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us?Ē In verse 37 he concludes, ď...in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us.Ē NOTHING can prevent true believer from realizing the hope of the Gospel...NOTHING.
The fourth section in Paulís Gospel in chapters 9-11 answers this question: How can the gospel fulfill Godís promise when most of the Jews have rejected it? The fact that most of the Jews rejected the gospel raised a serious question. If the work of Christ is so powerful, then why did the people who most expected a Messiah and who had been most carefully prepared for the Messiah, for the most part reject the Messiah and the message of the gospel? Does that fact call into question the gospel or more accurately, the word of God? Romans 9-11 answer that question and Paulís broad response is: The promise of redemption in Godís word are directed NOT fundamentally to a national Israel, but to those who He sovereignly elects. God is not constrained to show His mercy to anyone by virtue of their race or spiritual heritage. It is HE who determines according to His sovereign purpose in election who will be saved through the gospel. There was in Paulís day and is presently a small remnant of the Jews who have been given saving faith, but God is in no way constrained to show the rest mercy. He addresses possible objections to that view in chapter nine. In chapter 11, he brings hope by saying that this small remnant of Israel will, at the end of the age explode into a flood of Jews redeemed by the blood of the Lamb--a number so large, Paul says of it, ďall Israel will be saved.Ē
In the final section of this epistle, its as if someone is looking over Paulís shoulder and says, ďSo what, Paul--how does this impact me on a daily basis?Ē
The final section in chapters 12-15 Paul answers the question, ďHow should the power of the gospel effect our daily lives.Ē And Paulís answer is: The power of the gospel should bring a comprehensive transformation within us which brings a clear display of Christ likeness shown in us as we live our lives in worship to Him. This is summarized in 12:1-2. Paul says, ďTherefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of Godís mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God--this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what Godís will is--his good, pleasing and perfect will.Ē He applies this transformed life to several areas of the Christian life. The conclusion we must draw Paulís final major emphasis is this: The gospel is not simply a glorious manifestation of Godís love, wisdom and power. It is provided so that his people might have a righteousness which comes from God and if that is so, the church should manifest this righteousness. If our study of Romans only gives us a clearer intellectual understanding of the gospel without changing us more into the likeness of Christ, then it will be a dismal failure. Our quest as we study Romans will not fundamentally be to master the truths of this book, but rather, (as someone has said) to allow the truths of this book to master us. May God grant us the grace to submit to His word so it may master us as we surrender to its call on our lives.
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