Text Romans 1-4
John’s Gospel introduced us to Jesus, the eternal Word of God who came as one of us to show us the way to eternal life. Jesus lived among us doing various miraculous signs and preaching that we must be reconciled to God by believing in Him and receiving Him and his testimony about himself. As he predicted beforehand to his disciples, the religious leaders had him put to death, but on the third day after he was buried, he raised again from the dead, demonstrating that he was indeed Lord, God and Savior. He soon left his disciples again, going back to His Father in heaven, to make ready a place for Him to dwell with all who believe on His name.
Before he left however, He explained that he would not leave them alone as orphans, but would send the Holy Spirit to be their comfort, help, teacher and guide. The Holy Spirit would give them power to be his witnesses and would teach them all things, reminding them of Jesus and his teachings. One of those who most zealously witnessed to the risen Jesus was the apostle Paul. While planting churches throughout the Roman empire, the Holy Spirit inspired Paul to write letters to those young churches which were gathered and recognized as works of the Holy Spirit equal in authority to the Jewish Scriptures and make up more than half of what we today call the New Testament. These letters shaped the church’s message and methods for centuries to come.
Paul’s letter to the Romans has been called “the most profound book in existence” by the poet Samuel Taylor Colerage. Martin Luther called it “the chief part of the New Testament and the very purest gospel. . . . It can never be read or pondered too much, and the more it is dealt with the more precious it becomes, the better it tastes.” Yet for all of the letter’s identifiable magnificence, Paul’s motive for writing the letter was very practical. Paul notes in chapter 1:10 that he has been long prevented from coming to the Rome and longs to see the Roman church and impart to them a blessing that will strengthen their faith. In verse 15, Paul identifies what it is that he longs to do: “I am eager to preach the Gospel to you also who are in Rome.” The book of Romans is Paul’s attempt to do in absentia what he longed to do in person. Through the power of the Holy Spirit and the convenience of letter writing, Paul was going to make sure that his gospel was going to be preached in Rome whether he was able to make it there in person or not. The letter to the Romans is in fact Paul’s gospel – his good message about Jesus Christ, the message that he was set apart by the Holy Spirit to dedicate his life to proclaiming.
Paul says, “for I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation for everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (1:16). Here Paul defines for us what the gospel is – it’s God’s power to save all people. Paul was not ashamed of the gospel, for he knew it to be God’s power to save. A strong gospel inspires strong faith that results in bold proclamation. Any weakening of the gospel cripples our faith and results in timid proclamation. Paul writes Romans so we might more perfectly know the power of the God to fully save us, in the prayer that our faith may be strengthened and our proclamation emboldened.
The gospel is God’s power to save all people, for in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith, as it is written, “the righteous shall live by faith” (1:17). Over the next four chapters, Paul explains with great precision how the gospel saves us. The flip side of the Gospel’s revealing the righteousness that leads to our salvation, is that it also reveals our need to be saved. Even while the Gospel reveals God’s righteousness, it also reveals his wrath upon all ungodliness and unrighteousness of human beings who have turned from God and in our unrighteousness refused to come to him in truth (1:18). As we have already seen in John 3:16-18,36:
"For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God...Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.
This is without a doubt the aspect of the Gospel that most offends people and makes us uncomfortable and, dare I say, ashamed. For if we are to proclaim salvation in Jesus’ name, at some point the question is raised, “What do you mean I need a savior? Are you telling me I’m a sinner?” In this day and age there is no greater sin than to suggest that we are sinners. It seems the only sin these days is the sin of suggesting that we sin.
By the time Paul wrote Romans, he had 20 years of intense evangelism experience among both Gentiles (non-Jewish people) and Jews, and he draws from that experience to write a very compelling and convicting case that we all are in need of salvation.
We all gave up on God: Paul writes in 1:19-23:
For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.
The reason that we all find ourselves in a state deserving of God’s wrath is not because God abandoned us, but that we have abandoned him. The reality of God’s existence is all around us. It’s in the reverent silence that engulfs you walking through a forest glade. It’s in the majestic expanse of the Northern Canadian sky at night. It’s in the miraculous cry of a newborn baby breathing it first breath of life. It’s in the wonder of the creative genius of the human brain, the most advanced computing system in the world condensed into 3½ pounds of flesh. The fingerprints of God are everywhere. Humanity has seen and recognized this, and throughout history the religious impulse of man has never diminished. Yet while it has never diminished, we have often misdirected it. “Claiming to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images” Like the child in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son, though we knew our father, we wanted his blessings without having to live under his household order. That Son approached his father and said, I don’t want to wait for you to die before I can get what’s coming to me, give me my inheritance now so I can part ways and have nothing to do with you anymore.
God graciously let us go: Like the Father in the parable, God honored our request. Three times in verses 24-28 we are told that instead of clinging to us like a pathetic insecure lover, or forcefully compelling us to serve him like a ruthless ruler, God graciously gave us over to be and to do the things we wanted to do. This is indeed grace. We had committed treason against the high king of the universe. Paul writes in verse 32 that “they know God’s decree that those who practice such things deserve to die” but demonstrated His grace to us, showing remarkable patience (3:25).
Our behavior is the result of our rejection of God: Verse 28 says very clearly something that has often confused people:
And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done.
Here is the truth that is sometimes obscured. We are not separated from God by our sinful behavior, we engage in sinful behavior because we are separated from God. To make sense of this, let’s consider Jesus’ metaphor of the vine. God is the source of all light, life and love. While we remain abiding in God’s vine, his light, life and love flow through us so that we can bear fruit, obey his will and have much joy. Yet if were we to cut ourselves off from that vine, we are spiritually dead and cut off from the source of light, life and love. We still may look alive, but we are dead and fit for nothing but to be thrown away. We no longer can bear the fruit of love. Here’s Paul’s description of our human state apart from God:
They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Though they know God's decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.
That is life without God. We commit sin because we are separated from God. Thus we cannot overcome sin by trying to clean ourselves up. No matter how much the cut-off vine tries to find life in itself, its only hope is to be reconnected to the vine, the source of life. We need to find a way to be reconnected.
You cannot save yourself
In chapter 2, Paul gets very personal.
Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things. We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things. Do you suppose, O man--you who judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself--that you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God's kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God's righteous judgment will be revealed. (2:1-5)
Paul here is talking a particular breed of people here. There is a certain type of person who sees sin in others very clearly but are not able to see it in themselves. In Paul’s day, the Jews boasted that because God had chosen them by giving them his law, they were uniquely immune from all of this talk of condemnation and wrath. Yet Paul argues that not only are they not immune from it, but that they will come under a unique judgment for even though they of all people knew what God required of them, they turned away from God as well. Thus Paul says, we are all in the same sinking boat, whether we are Jews, Gentiles. Atheists, New Agers, whatever, as he says in 3:9. “all are under sin.” The law wasn’t given to Jews so that they could demonstrate their moral superiority, but so that they could be a case study for the rest of the world illustrating that human beings will always fail to live up to a perfect moral law. Verse 19-20 state, “Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.” This is the wrath of God that is revealed in the Gospel: that we rejected God and in turning away from him became turned to things that led to our destruction. We have become so warped in our sin that our heart is bent toward evil to the degree that even if we were to try to obey God’s requirements, we could not do so.
God’s did not give up on us. Although God gave us over to our sin when we rejected him, he did not give us up completely but has provided a means by which we can once again live righteously in relationship with him.
But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it-- the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. (3:21)
This righteousness does not come from obeying the law, but from coming into contact with Jesus, whom the law was given to point us to. Remember in the book of John, Jesus told us that if the Jews would have truly believed Moses who gave them the law, then they would have believe in Him, because Moses wrote of Him and bore witness to Him. Paul highlights that this salvation is for all:
For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. (ESV)
Paul uses a couple of theological terms in these few verses that are necessary for us to understand.
1) We’ve fallen short. I often use the analogy of a high jumper. No matter how high we jump or how much better I can jump than you, we all fall way short of the mark.
2) We’ve been justified. To justify means to declare somebody or something innocent or righteous. It is as if we jumped and fell woefully short of the mark, but God marks us as having made it over the bar.
3) By His grace as a gift. Obviously, since we didn’t in fact make it over the bar, God did treated us to something we did not deserve: showed us grace. In fact, since none of us could have cleared the bar, showing us grace was the only way that we could have justified us. The problem is, grace is scandalous. If this were really a sporting competition we’d all be crying foul! Cheater! If I didn’t clear the bar, how can God say that I did? Is he an unfair judge? Do we really want to serve a God who is such a pushover?
4) Through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: Redemption is a word that means, “to buy something back” or to “offer deliverance”. That is, Jesus purchased us for God in such a way that made up for our inability to meet His standard and allowed God to be just in declaring us righteous, as it says in verse 26, “that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus”
5) Whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood: Propitiation simply means that Jesus’ payment for our sins satisfied God’s wrath. Thus it was entirely fair that God declares us righteous, because Jesus, the only truly righteous one who ever lived, has more than made up for our inability to make it over the bar ourselves. Though we deserved to be separated from God forever because of our sins, Jesus fully paid for each of those sins so that we could be connected to God once again.
6) To be received by faith Jesus having paid for our sins removes the obstacle that kept us from God, but does not automatically bring us into relationship with God once again. While nothing stands in our way of receiving God’s righteousness, just as we once exchanged the truth of God for a lie, we must exchange the lie we’ve been living for the truth. Because righteousness comes by faith apart from our righteous acts, we cannot boast in anything we have done, but only in what He has done for us.
To support his argument that this is God’s way of salvation, Paul point us to Abraham, who was justified before God as righteous because he believed in God’s promise that a son to be born to him and his wife would someday be a blessing to the entire world. Romans 4:20-25 reveal:
No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. That is why his faith was "counted to him as righteousness." But the words "it was counted to him" were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.
All who turn to Jesus Christ in faith will be justified freely. Turn from faith in yourself to justify yourself and turn to Jesus Christ.