MESSAGE FOR MAY 16, 1999-AN OVERVIEW OF ROMANS 1-6

 

          Please turn to Paul’s letter to the Romans.  Paul writes in a very organized, orderly style.  His letters are very logical and his arguments build upon one another.  That’s why, rather than pick up in the same spot we left off ten weeks ago, we first need to get back up to speed with Paul and rediscover his context and trace the flow of his argument.  That’s why this morning we will give a broad overview of what Paul has said through the first six chapters of Romans.  Then, Lord willing we will be ready to begin chapter seven next week.  Obviously, we will not be able to give a comprehensive treatment of these tightly packed chapters, but we will hit on the major themes to get us back into the flow of Paul’s thinking.  If you’ll remember, back when we began our study we said that the major theme of Romans was simply the gospel of Jesus Christ.  In Romans, Paul lays out the most detailed, comprehensive treatment in the Bible of what the gospel is. 

As we look at the gospel, a predominant theological idea or motif is the grace of God.  It rests on God’s grace, it expresses God’s grace and it is received and experienced by God’s grace.  Because that is true, we are going to use God’s grace as the thread which connects Paul’s line of thought through the first six chapters of  Romans.  One of the huge weaknesses of the church of Christ today is not so much that we have too much talk about grace in the church, as some protest.  The problem is that much of the church is operating under a superficial, even distorted and unbiblical understanding of grace.  Today, as we trace Paul’s thought in chapters one through six we will hopefully provide a more balanced understanding of this glorious grace of God.

After Paul gives a long introduction in chapter one, he begins his first section which runs from 1:18 to 3:20.  In this section, using God’s grace as our theme, Paul lays out the NECESSITY OF GOD’S GRACE IN THE GOSPEL.   The first logical question of Paul is, “WHY do people need this grace of God found in the gospel?”  Paul gives two broad answers to that question in this first section of Romans.  The first reason why the grace of God found in the gospel is an absolute necessity for sinners is because God’s wrath burns against unrighteousness.

We know this is one reason for the gospel because right after Paul makes his glorious declaration of the power of the gospel to save those who believe in verse 17, he begins verse 18 with, For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men…”  The NIV leaves out that connective word “for” but its there in the original.  That linking word means that the grace of God in the gospel is necessary because God’s wrath comes against sinners.  We don’t have time to give a detailed treatment of Paul’s doctrine of God’s wrath here, except to say that his theology here is not how we commonly think of God’s wrath.  When we think of the wrath of God, we tend to think of hell and damnation and this surely an expression of wrath, but we don’t do much thinking about God’s wrath revealed now in this life.

Paul says that God’s wrath is expressed in this life in his outright refusal to intervene so as to keep people from sin and its destructive consequences.  Three times he says in chapter one, “God gave people over” to sin.  Sin is the greatest destructive force in the universe.  It makes the atom bomb look like a wet fire cracker.  It destroys individuals, families, cultures and civilizations.  When God refuses to check the sin in the life of a lost person, he is allowing them to gradually and hopelessly, slide down an icy hill of destruction.  Have you ever been on an icy incline and you tried like crazy to inch upward?  No matter how much you struggle and agonize, each step only serves to move your further and further down the slope.  Eventually, you slide down to the bottom.  Unless God intervenes, the sinner’s life is like that downward slide.  They slide down that icy slope of sin, marked as they go down by self deception, emptiness, misery, grief, anguish and finally death which brings them to the eternal fires of God’s wrath in hell.  Generally, we think of God’s wrath in active terms, but Paul here says His wrath is currently seen in what he omits—what he DOESN’T do.   His refusal to stop the destructive process of sin in their lives (and He is the only One who CAN stop it) is as much an expression of his wrath as hellfire and brimstone.  Indeed, the fires of hell are merely the culmination of the wrath begun here on earth—the final consequences of God’s refusal to intervene in their self destruction.

Do we see the unbelievers we know as under his wrath?  Those people who are chasing the almighty dollar, those who are living for the moment, who are trapped in obsessive or addictive behaviors?  Those people are on that icy hill and the gravity of their sin is relentlessly, insidiously pulling them down and they are powerless to stop it.  Their lives are filled with the rotting fruit of sin and the wrath of God rests on them.  One reason the gospel of grace is necessary is the wrath of God.  Through the gospel, God’s grace reaches down from heaven and plucks them off that icy slope and places them on the solid rock of Christ. Another reason for this grace which we will call The sinful depravity of humanity is seen in chapter three. 

Paul is graphic in his depiction of the depth and extreme intensity of the sinfulness of fallen humanity.  He cuts completely across the grain of the world and much of the church which believes people are generally good.  Paul paints a picture of people in whom nothing good dwells—people who are filled with the stench of death and rottenness.  People who go out of their way to actively “invent ways of doing evil.”  The sinner is creative, even downright entrepreneurial in devising new, more vile ways to spit in God’s face.  On the basis of Paul’s analysis here, if he were alive today and witnessed the horror of the massacre at Columbine High School, one thing is for certain, he would not respond with “how could this happen?”  He would say that this kind of behavior is simply what happens when the sin which dominates people is given the proper encouragement to express itself.  The only difference between those two murderers and anyone in this room is that the sin within them was in some way watered, fertilized, cultivated and allowed to burst into bloom.  But make no mistake: the black soil in their hearts which produced that wickedness is precisely the same color as the sinful soil in any other person’s heart.

The depravity of humanity is so comprehensive, so deep, so penetrating that for us to be acceptable to God, for us to be righteous, it takes infinitely more than simply resolving to be different—going through a 12 step program, focussing intensely on self improvement or being nice or religious.  Its not a matter or moral reform or rehabilitation.  There is NOTHING within us to make us righteous.  There is no raw material in us out of which righteousness can be formed.  Looking for righteousness within a sinner is like looking for a pulse on a statue.  There is no source of righteousness within the sinner.  If a person is to become righteous before God it MUST come from outside themselves.  It MUST be a righteousness that is NOT THEIR OWN. 

The grace of God in the gospel is necessary because of the sinful depravity of humanity. From chapters one and three we discover the grace of God in the gospel is necessary because of God’s wrath and the depravity of fallen man.  Chapter two in part tells us that these lethal indictments fall not only on the Gentile, but also the Jew.  Being part of ethnic Israel was and is no protection from a holy God who demands righteousness from those who would stand before Him. 

If God demands perfect righteousness from people in order to be acceptable to him and no sinner even remotely approaches that standard, how does a depraved sinner become acceptable to a holy, righteous God?  This is the dilemma of the ages.  Completely and totally without righteousness and under the wrath of God, sliding irrevocably down to hell under the weight of their sin, and utterly helpless to stop this downward drift to destruction.  The sinner not only needs a perfect, God-pleasing righteousness from outside of himself but he also somehow needs the hand of God’s wrath lifted from him.  But how can that be if God is just and must punish sin?  The glorious answer is detailed by Paul in Romans 3:21-5:11. We get a bird’s eye view of Paul’s answer by reading 3:21.  He says, “But now a righteousness from God apart from the law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify.  This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.”   This is one of the most beautiful truths in the Bible because it answers our most critical need. The second aspect of God’s grace in the gospel is the grace of JUSTIFICATION BY FAITH.  Although this is not the entire truth of the gospel, this is certainly the heart of the gospel and perhaps the most glorious expression of the grace of God.

God, in his infinite grace has solved these lethal problems through the life, death and resurrection of his Son, Jesus Christ and in his decision to transfer the perfection of Christ’s life, the paid penalty of his death and the power of his resurrection to anyone who would believe.  Let me say that again.  The gospel is about God the Father transferring to depraved sinners the perfection of Christ’s life, the paid penalty of his death and the power of his resurrection.  Those three expressions of grace are pillars of the gospel.  We will talk about the power aspect of his grace in the gospel in our third point.  Justification has to do primarily with the legal transfer of Christ’s perfect righteousness to our account. 

First let’s talk about the transfer of the perfection of Christ’s life to sinners.  Jesus Christ lived a perfect life….no sin.  We said last July a good definition for sin and one found in the “Baptist Catechism” is “any attitude, desire or action which breaks a commandment, comes from a heart of unbelief or is not done to glorify God.”  That is a good definition because it brings out that sin is not simply what we do or don’t do.  Its also any attitudes, beliefs and desires and motives which do not perfectly conform to God’s.  When I apply that definition of sin to my own life, I do not believe there is one moment of my life that could be said to be completely without at least a trace of sin.  Can anyone here with integrity claim that all their attitudes are pure, no critical spirit, no prejudices?  Can anyone here claim that any of their motives are perfectly pure—that they live always and only for the glory of God—no self centeredness, always considering the needs of others as more important than their own?  When I place myself under that standard of perfection in action, desire or attitude I am utterly crushed by it. 

By contrast, Jesus Christ lived every moment of every day in perfect conformity to God’s law, with perfect, unwavering faith in God and with an absolute and unfailing motivation to glorify the Father.  Every thought, word, deed, attitude was done for the glory of his Father.  In justification through the gospel, God’s grace is seen in that this perfect life of the Son of God is transferred to our account so that when God evaluates our life, he sees the very perfection of the life of his Son.  Yesterday you gossiped about your sister in law.  Will that make you unacceptable to God—did he stop loving you?  No, because Jesus NEVER gossiped and you will be legally judged according to HIS performance record, not your own.  Five years ago you had an affair from which you have repented, but it still hangs over your head.  Will that make you a stench in God’s nostrils?  No.  Jesus was never unfaithful and you, by the grace of God will be judged on the basis of HIS performance, not your own.  We could go down every sin you struggle with and have repented of.  Lust, lying, stealing, coveting, profaning God’s name.  Everyone in this room has done all of those in some way, shape or form.  But if you have saving faith, none of them will keep you from the glory of heaven.  None of them will keep you from being able to know God intimately on earth because Jesus never did any of those things and it is HIS righteousness which serves as the basis of God’s judgment of you.  That is the glory of being justified.  If we have placed our faith in Christ, then we immediately receive the righteousness of HIS life imputed to our record.

Paul takes up the transfer of the penalty-paying death of Christ in verse 25 of chapter three.  God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement [or propitiation] through faith in his blood.”  Even if we have been given this perfect life of Christ, how can a holy and just God who must punish sin simply pardon the legal penalty our sin deserves?  His wrath burns white hot against sin.  He can’t simply sweep our sin under the carpet without violating his holy character.  A penalty is due every sin.  A second glorious aspect of the grace of God is that God poured out his holy wrath on his Son and transferred the penalty we deserved onto Him so that we, who deserve the penalty, will never have to pay it.  Jesus is the Lamb of God whose death takes away the sin of anyone who would believe.

You aborted a baby 20 years ago—murdering your child.  If you have trusted Christ, will you have to pay the penalty for that sin you have repented of?  No, If you have trusted Christ, God has already punished that sin and every other sin you have committed before you were born.  Before you were born the Father knew you would commit that sin and he placed the guilt of it on Jesus when He was on the cross and Jesus drank to the dregs the wrath you deserved for that sin.  Once again, the same can be said for any sin we have ever confessed.  Some of you who are here today and have trusted Christ are living your life under a shadow of guilt and shame for sins you have committed.  If you have repented, the question the gospel begs you to ask is, “Why are you doing that?”  Was Jesus’ death inadequate to satisfy the Father’s wrath directed at that sin?  Is the blood of Jesus too weak to cleanse the guilt of that sin?

Let me tell you something and this applies to past, present or future sins.  If you have believed on Jesus Christ and have repented of your sin by the grace of God no sin, no matter how wicked or evil it may be can hold a candle to the infinite power of the cleansing blood of Jesus that paid your penalty for sin.  And no life, no matter how rebellious can ever negate the indestructible force of the perfect life of Christ which has been place on your account.  Hebrews 10:22 says, “let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience…”  This is the conscience-cleansing, grace-saturated gospel of Jesus Christ and those who are under it have “peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”  God isn’t mad at you any more—he placed all the anger you deserved on his Son and gave you the perfect righteousness of his Son.  If that isn’t grace, I don’t know what is!

We’ve seen God’s grace through the gospel in the transfer to all who believe of the perfection of Christ’s life and the penalty of Christ’s death.  In chapter six and a bit in chapter two, along with texts we haven’t yet looked at we see the transfer or application of the power of Christ’s resurrection to us.  The grace of God in the gospel is necessary not only to justify us—to deal with the legal aspect of our sin--make us legally righteous before God.  The grace of God in the gospel is also provided [and this is our third point] to give us POWER TO LIVE OUT FROM UNDER THE TYRANNICAL CONTROL OF SIN on a day to day basis.  This process is called sanctification and will not be completed until we die.  But Paul boldly asserts that the child of God no longer has to live under the dominion of sin, but has been set free to live under the control of grace.

Paul says in chapter six the reason we no longer have to live under the control of sin is because when Christ died on the cross, he (verse 10) “died to sin once for all.”  That is, he was transferred out of the dominion or realm of sin.  It could no longer even tempt him as it had, unsuccessfully in his life.  His resurrection provided the proof that he had defeated sin because death, which is the sting of sin (Paul says in First Corinthians 15) could not hold him down.  Paul’s point in chapter six is that we who trust in Christ have been (verse five) “united with him…in his death, [we will] certainly be united with him in his resurrection.” Now, by the grace of God in the gospel have the freedom to choose not to sin.  He says in verse 18, “You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.”  Therefore, we are free to, (verse 19) “offer the parts of our body…in slavery to righteousness leading to holiness.” 

So many people in the church today understand and have by faith appropriated the perfection of Christ’s life.  They understand justification.  They understand and have by faith appropriated the penalty of Christ’s death. But they have never realized that the grace of God found in the gospel is also intended to give us the power of Christ’s resurrection.  This is a learning process.  Paul says in Philippians three that he wanted “to know the power of his resurrection.”  He wrote in Ephesians 1:19 that part of our hope as Christians is that Christ’s incomparably great resurrection power is “for us who believe.”  It is clear that God expects that kind of power in his saints.  He says in Romans 1:5 that his apostolic call was for the purpose of calling Gentiles “to the obedience that come from faith.”  His call was to call people to obey God.

Obedience can never save anyone—this is not the obedience under the law—that condemns.  This is the obedience of faith and God expects this obedience BECAUSE he has given us His grace through the gospel.  Today in the church you hear a whole lot about the grace of justification—the application of Christ’s perfect life and the penalty of his death.  But you don’t hear much about this aspect of grace—grace to obey—grace as Paul will tell us in chapter eight to “fulfill the law.”  You have so many people in church who think God has applied the LIFE of the Son to them and the DEATH of the Son to them, but who are living as if Christ stayed in the grave.  There is no power in their life.  We must understand that if you TRULY have been given the perfection of Christ’s life and the penalty payment of his death, then you have also been given the power of his resurrection.  This is something that, unlike the others is learned, but God has given us the grace to live this resurrection life just as certainly as he has given us the benefits of Christ’s life and death.

Where are you in this?  Are you enjoying the gospel-imparted grace to live above the control of sin?  If we aren’t, we are only receiving an incomplete part of the grace God intends to give out in this gospel.  The plain and simple truth is this, if you are not seeing the controlling power of sin fade in your life to some degree, then you have reason to question whether you have truly received the grace of God found in the gospel.  Chapter 2:13 says, “…it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.”  This is not a contradiction with what Paul has said elsewhere.  He is merely declaring that if you have received the grace of the gospel, your life will change and you will [verse 14]  do by nature things required by the law.” 

Maybe you are one of those people who live as if God will judge you on the basis of your performance.  You spend much of your life in frustration, quivering before God because you believe you are acceptable to God on the basis of what YOU do for Him.  The gospel screams that our acceptability before God is on the basis of what HE has done for us, NEVER because of anything we could do for Him.  By faith, claim that blessing as your own and refuse to allow yourself get back on that performance treadmill.  That brings discouragement and death.  Bask in the free grace of God and in response to what He has done, offer your body as a living sacrifice to Him.  As you accept HIS love, you will find that you are more able to love.  As you accept His mercy, you will find your capacity for mercy will be enlarged.

Finally and most importantly, PRAISE the Lord for this gospel.  What a wonderful God we serve who would do this for us—who would “demonstrate his love for us in this, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”  If this glorious good news has in any way become blasé or old hat to you, then you need to ask God to refresh your memory about the depth and horror of your sin because somewhere along the way you have forgotten how helpless and desperately needy you are.  If you are in touch with your sin and its enormity before a holy God, these simple truths will never tarnish for you.  They will just keep getting sweeter and sweeter.  If you have never trusted Christ to save you from your sin, you need to do that today…May God give us grace to live as those under the glorious gospel of grace.

 

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