We are often reminded that Christians have a commitment to the world. And we do. Paul himself tells us that he was utterly committed to bringing the gospel to all men: “I am under obligation [a debtor] both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish” (1:14). We should not interpret this sense of obligation in merely psychological terms, for Paul’s obligation had its source in our Lord’s commission. The same is true of all Christians, and though we are not apostles like Paul, yet we are still committed by our Lord’s Great Commission to make disciples of all the nations (Mt. 28:18-20). We are supposed to be the light of the world and the salt of the earth (Mt. 5:12-14).
However, the church cannot adequately do this unless it is the church. That is to say, Christians need Christians to fulfill our great calling. We are not supposed to do this on our own. So our commitment to the world is grounded in our commitment to each other. It is as Christians love each other that they are built up and enabled to love the world. We live in an age in which because of the prevalence of sin the love of many has grown cold (Mt. 24:12). Like the penguins of the South Pole, we live in a morally icy and frozen environment and if we wander off we are likely to become spiritual ice-cycles. We need the warmth of the spiritual gifts of other believers in order to thrive and live productive lives.
We see this dynamic here in Paul’s opening words to the Roman Christians. Apparently, there has been a lot of ink spilled over the seeming tension between the apostle’s words here in the first chapter, where he expresses his desire to minister to an established church, and his words in chapter 15, where he claims that he makes “it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else’s foundation” (15:20). However, we need to keep in mind that Paul’s intention in coming to Rome is not to camp out there and put his face on everything. Rather, his intention was to bring the Christians there alongside as partners in his missionary efforts to go to places where the gospel was not yet named, specifically, Spain. He needed them to help him reach the lost.
Paul is seeking to recruit them for the sake of the gospel among all the nations for God’s name and glory because Paul is sure that they share the same desire for the spread of the gospel as he did. We see this in verse 8, when Paul reminds them that their faith is spoken of throughout the Roman empire. He senses in them a kindred spirit. And this draws out Paul’s heart to them.
Therefore in these verses we see an expression of Paul’s commitment to the believers at Rome. And we see how this commitment was fleshed out in terms of the apostle’s intentions. It is a beautiful picture of what our commitment to other believers in the world-wide church and to each other in our own local church is supposed to look like. And that is what I want to focus on as we look at this text together. We see it in four ways. Like the apostle Paul, our commitment to each other is expressed through mutual praise, faithful prayer, personal presence, and gospel proclamation.
Now I could not think about the apostle Paul’s longing to visit Rome and not think of Martin Luther’s experience at Rome almost 1500 years later. When Luther went to Rome, the church has grown worldly and corrupt. Though it was ostensibly the center of the Christian world, it had also become a sinkhole of iniquity. Luther wrote:
“Where God build a church, the Devil puts up a chapel next door. … It is almost incredible. What infamous actions are committed at Rome; one would require to see it and hear it in order to believe it. It is an ordinary saying that if there is a hell, Rome is built upon it. It is an abyss from whence all sins proceed. … Rome, once the holiest city, was now the worst. Let me get out of this terrible dungeon. I took onions to Rome and brought back garlic.”
It is a reminder that to be that kind of church that can further the kingdom of God in the world, we need to continually resist becoming like the world. The same church that Paul visited in the second half of the first century had lost all semblance of its past by the sixteenth century. I’m saying this to remind us of the fact that our commitment to fellow believers in terms of fellowship and community cannot be divorced from a mutual commitment to God’s unchanging truth. The commitment that we have to other Christians must not supersede the priority of our commitment to Christ and his gospel. But as we hold to the common faith, as Jude puts it, we then must reach out to each other in terms of these four things: praise, prayer, presence, and proclamation.
The apostle begins, “First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed in all the world” (8). Here we have an expression of praise. It is cast, of course, in terms of Paul’s thanksgiving to God for them. But in letting them know about his heart of gratitude to God, the apostle is essentially praising them for the proclamation of their faith. He is letting them know how much he appreciates their work for the Lord. Like Paul, we too ought to let others know how much we appreciate who they are and what they have done for the Lord and for us.
Now it is true that we should not put too much stock in what people think of us. This is true also of other Christians. The fact of the matter is that other believers can praise you when you don’t deserve it; they can also blame you when you don’t deserve it. The fact is, ultimately our allegiance is to Christ, and his opinion of us (which is always 100 percent accurate!) is what we should aim at more than anything else. A word of affirmation from our Lord ought to be worth more than all the praises that all the world could heap on us.
However, that doesn’t mean that we should go around withholding praise from others, especially when praise is due. We don’t want to become slaves to human opinion, true; but the fact of the matter is that we all need a word of affirmation from time to time, a hand on the shoulder, a slap on the back. If all you hear from someone is blame when you go wrong but never praise when you do right, you are probably going to develop a sense of distrust and suspicion towards that person. This is true of the relationship of parent and child; it is also true of the relationship of believer to believer. Notice what Paul will say much later in this epistle: “Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor” (12:10). This is especially true if a brother or sister is “fainthearted.” Such people really need to be encouraged (cf. 1 Thess. 5:14), and often the best way to do this is to show them honor through praise.
The failure to be this way is probably a signal that we think more highly of ourselves than we ought to think (cf. 12:3). People who give too little praise with their mouths almost certainly harbor too much pride in their hearts. We shouldn’t want to be first; we shouldn’t be waiting until we feel like we have been shown the appropriate honor before we show honor to others. It is important that other believers know that we value them; it draws us closer to each other and makes the kind of fellowship that builds up more likely and possible.
It’s important for us to be able to praise others because if we don’t we will inevitably focus on the wrong things. We will tend to blow out of proportion their bad qualities while we ignore their good qualities. We might even forget they have any!
It is also important to learn to praise others because in doing so we are not only showing love to them, but we are also imitating our heavenly Father. If our Lord is willing to say, “Well done, good and faithful servant,” we should not hesitate to praise them as well. Remember that Christ receives us freely and completely by grace. He receives us, not because of our moral worth, but despite all our moral warts. And yet, despite all our past titanic failures and shortcomings, he is willing to forget it all and give us praise when we are faithful in our little ways. Let us do the same with each other. In the final analysis, this is the outworking of the relationship as members of God’s family. As such, we are committed to each other, and we partly show that commitment by mutual praise and encouragement.
Next, Paul writes, “For God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in the gospel of his Son, that without ceasing I mention you always in my prayers, asking that somehow by God’s will I may now at last succeed in coming to you” (9-10). Paul had expressed his praise as thanksgiving to God. This implies that he prayed for them. Thus he writes, “For . . . without ceasing I mention you always in my prayers.” Paul’s commitment to the Roman Christians meant that he prayed for them. But not only did he pray for them, but did so “without ceasing” and “always.” Such was his commitment to them that when he prayed, the Roman Christians were never far from his thoughts.
Paul’s witness to this is God himself: “for God is my witness.” When Paul prayed, he was confident that God listened. This is the key to persevering prayer. And I think the reason why the apostle was so confident God listened was because he served him “with my spirit in the gospel of his Son.” Paul’s life, and his prayer life, was lived in the service of God and the gospel. His prayers therefore weren’t selfish laundry lists of wants and wishes. They were messengers sent to the heavenly Capitol City for the advance of the God’s kingdom and will upon the earth. And that meant that his prayers included praise and supplication for the saints.
Now we don’t pray for the saints because God needs the information we give him in our prayers. Nor is God somehow dependent upon our prayers as if they were some kind of magic potion that gives God the power to fulfill his will upon the earth. No, rather, God allows us in prayer the privilege of cooperating with him in advancing his kingdom. When God does this, it is not because he needs us, but because he loves us – there is nothing more exciting and invigorating than getting in on the one thing that will last into eternity. And so the Lord allows us to help each other through prayer: “You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many” (2 Cor. 1:11).
I can think of few expressions of love more powerful than faithful and persevering prayer for one another. When you care for someone and want to help them with some problem, you will want to recommend them to someone who can help them, if you can’t yourself. Perhaps they have some medical problem and you know a doctor that will help them. Maybe you even ask the doctor yourself on behalf of your friend. In some ways that is what prayer is like. There are so many ways in which we cannot help others. But God is able when we cannot. He is strong when we are weak, wise when we are foolish, and all-seeing when we are blind. And so we bring our friends in prayer to the throne of grace. Let us therefore pray for each other. It is an enduring expression of our love and commitment to each other.
One of the things the apostle had been praying is that he could be with them in person: “that somehow by God’s will I may now at last succeed in coming to you. For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you – that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine. I want you to know, brothers, that I have often intended to come to you (but thus have been prevented), in order that I may reap some harvest among you as well as among the rest of the Gentiles” (10-13).
I suppose that Paul could have accomplished his purpose in soliciting the help of the Roman believers for the work of missions in the West by correspondence only. But he is not content with that. He desperately wants to come to them and be with them in person. The apostle recognized what we all know intuitively: that personal presence is really important if we want to establish and maintain community and friendship. There are ways that we can only build each other up by being present. The apostle John also recognized this: “I had much to write to you, but I would rather not write with pen and ink. I hope to see you soon, and we will talk face to face” (2 Jn. 13-14). Face to face is always better than pen and ink. It is also better than Twitter, Facebook, or a text message.
In particular, Paul wants to be “mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine” (12). This can only happen, according to the apostle, by being personally present. I think it is important to notice that the apostle saw his own personal need of this. He began verse 11 by saying, “For I long to see you that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you” – and then he says that they are not the only ones who will be strengthened; he too will be encouraged and strengthened as well. Now if the apostle, with all his giftedness, saw the need to be encouraged by other saints, and believed that this could only happen by being with them, then we should see the folly of thinking that we can do just fine without the church. We need each other. We need community. We simply cannot be committed to each other in real, meaningful ways unless we are willing to be with each other.
There is a greater temptation in our day, I think, to get along without being with other believers and just “do church” by watching a service on the internet. Now I do not want to discount the blessing of being able to do just that. But beware of replacing the church with the internet. God did not ordain the internet to do the work of the church; he ordained the church to do the work of the church. Beware of acting as if you are wiser than God. You cannot replace the church with technology, as good as the technology might be.
However, I am afraid that a lot of people go to church without ever doing church. In other words, they go to a place to watch an event without ever becoming part of a community. Here’s the deal: if you are not ministering to others and being ministered to, then you are not really personally present in the way the apostle is thinking of here. And think about it: if the apostle thought he needed this, how much more do we?
Paul saw it as his obligation to come to Rome, not to advance his cause but his blessed Lord’s. Thus he wanted to come to preach the gospel: “I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish. So I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome” (14-15). I love the way the KJV expresses verse 15: “as much as in me is, I am ready to preach the gospel.” The apostle strained every nerve in his body and soul to faithfully preach the gospel to all men.
Now, the interesting thing in this context is that Paul is saying this because he wants to preach the gospel in Rome to other believers. I assume he wanted to reach the lost in Rome as well, but his main mission in Rome is to bless those who had already embraced the gospel with the gospel. He wants to have a “harvest among you as well as among the rest of the Gentiles” (13). That is very important.
It is important to notice this because we sometimes think the gospel is only for the lost. However, it is for believers of all stripes, at every level of spiritual maturity. We never outgrow the gospel; we never reach a place where we do not need to hear it anymore. It is crucial for our spiritual growth and sanctification to keep constantly in our mind who we are in Christ and what resources we have in him. The gospel is not just for the initial embrace of Christ by faith; it is for every step along the way. We must never forget that Romans was not written for unbelievers, but for believers. The “Roman Road” may be a good evangelistic tool, but the initial intention behind it was to bless the saints. The apostle Peter implies that it is a loss of this vision that is responsible for spiritual declension: “For whoever lacks these qualities [faith, virtue, knowledge, self-control, steadfastness, godliness, brother affection, and love] is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins” (2 Pet. 1:9). I take this to mean that when we forget what we have been saved from, we inevitably forget what we are saved to. A failure to keep embracing the gospel is a recipe for spiritual disaster.
I don’t think the apostle only thought of himself as communicating the gospel to the Romans. It is implied, I think, in being mutually encouraged by each other’s faith – a faith that is in the gospel – that this preaching of the gospel is in some sense mutual. Thought it is true that not all are called to preach the gospel in an official capacity, yet we should all strive to remind each other of gospel realities. In doing so we are encouraged (12) and strengthened (11).
Let me give you an example of how Paul does this in this epistle. In Romans 6, after reminding us that in Christ we have died to sin and risen to righteousness (which is at the heart of what the gospel is all about), then he says, “So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions” (6:11-12). In other words, Paul is telling them to let the logic of the gospel move them to mortify sin. If you believe the gospel, you are going to kill the sin in your life. If you do not believe the gospel, if you forget its truths, you are going to be more vulnerable to sin. We need to be reminding each other of these truths.
I am so thankful that the Lord has put us in each other’s lives. We all need each other. I do not have all the spiritual gifts; I need yours and you need mine. However, the way we help each other and express our mutual commitment is by doing what that apostle indicates in this text: by encouraging each other through praise, by holding each other up through prayer, by building each other up by personal presence, and by reminding each other of gospel realities by proclaiming its truths.