The Relevance of Romans – Rom. 1:1-5
The book of Romans is famous for many reasons. The clarity with which Paul presents the gospel, the fullness with which he deals with the doctrine of justification, and the exalted vision of God’s sovereignty over all things are all features of this letter that rightfully call out our interest and attention. It has been used by God over and over again to bring about great things for his church. It was by this book that God captured the heart of Saint Augustine, the bishop of Hippo, in the fourth century. It was by this book that God radically refocused Martin Luther’s perspective on God’s righteousness and faith in the sixteenth century.
Most of you have probably already heard of the influence of Romans upon Luther and Augustine. But let me tell you a story you have probably not heard, which underlines again just how powerful this book is. In 1816, a preacher and evangelist by the name of Robert Haldane, from Scotland, traveled to Switzerland. Apparently by chance he came there upon a group of young men who were studying for the ministry, but none of whom were actually saved or knew anything of real, personal religion. Nevertheless, he gained their friendship and at their request held a Bible study with them. They would come to Haldane’s room there in Geneva twice a week, and he would expound to them Paul’s epistle to the Romans. As a result, apparently every single one of these young men were saved, and a revival of true religion began from there that influenced not only Switzerland but also France. Several of these young men later became prominent leaders in the church. And it all began with Haldane teaching them the book of Romans.
Of course, every generation needs to hear Romans afresh. But that doesn’t mean that we get to hear it however we want. Yes, Romans is a timeless book, but it is timeless, not because its contents can be reshaped according to the desires of our fallen culture, but because its unchanging truths are timeless. The church armed with the truths of Romans is a church ready to meet the world. But we need to truly hear Romans. We need to understand what the apostle meant to say. We need to hear it as its original audience was meant to hear it, and then take the application from there. This is one of the things we hope to accomplish as we go through this letter together.
However, the first and more basic question is, why should you and I listen to the message of this epistle in the first place? Why is it still important? What does a letter written by a first century man to a first century church in a world that no longer exists have to say to the Christian living in the twenty-first century facing radically different challenges and needs?
This is why Paul’s introduction to his epistle in the first seven verses is so important. It tells us why you ought to listen to what he has to say. Paul is very expansive in these first few verses, unlike many of his other letters, because Romans was different. It was different because Paul had never visited this church. The church at Rome, unlike the churches in Ephesus, Colossae, Philippi, Corinth, and others, was not founded by Paul. Though he obviously knew several Christians in Rome (as chapter 16 shows), he was coming to this church, not as their spiritual father but as a relative stranger. Therefore, as he begins his letter, he gives them at least three reasons why they should hear him out. And what we will see is that those reasons are also reasons for me and you to hear him out as well.
These reasons are presented in terms of Paul’s mandate (1), Paul’s message (2-4), and Paul’s mission (5-7). These things tell us something about the authority of his message, the glory of his message, and the aim of his message. As we shall see, there is truly no higher mandate, no more glorious message, and no more noble mission.
So first of all, let’s consider Paul’s mandate. It is given to us right here in verse 1: “Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God.” There are three things here that underline Paul’s authority to speak, not only to the Roman Christians of the first century, but also to every succeeding generation of Christians, no matter where they are in the world.
First of all, Paul describes himself as “a servant of Christ Jesus.” Now this word “servant” is the Greek word doulos, which is sometimes translated “slave.” Paul thought of himself as a slave of Jesus Christ. That is, he was completely and wholly under the authority of Jesus Christ. Just as a slave doesn’t make plans for himself, Paul didn’t make plans for himself – his life was under the obedience of Christ. Everything in every area of life was submitted to him.
It is important that we see that this is how Paul fundamentally saw himself. This was his identity. Paul thought of himself as a slave of Jesus Christ. This was no put down, either. It was his glory to serve Christ. Before his conversion, he had served himself. Now he served Christ. Later in his letter to the Philippians, Paul would distinguish other so-called ministers from Timothy, by saying that “I have no one like him, who will be genuinely concerned for your welfare. For they all seek their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 2:20-21). Of course, as Paul’s son in the ministry, Timothy was duplicating Paul’s own heart. Paul did not seek his own interests, but the interests of Jesus Christ.
That is why it is so important that we listen to him. Paul was not writing about Paul. He was not writing to advance his own name and career or pad his pockets with other people’s money. He was writing as someone whose every effort was an effort to serve Jesus Christ. Of course, we would do well to imitate Paul. We too are called to be servants of Christ. We too are called to put on the easy yoke of our Lord (cf. Mt. 11:28-30). But the point here is that we are hearing from a man who has no interest in self-promotion. There are no hidden motives here. And that is the kind of man you want to listen to.
Next, Paul describes himself as a “called apostle.” Paul was an apostle. He was a messenger of Christ, sent not to proclaim his own religion, but to faithfully relay the words of Christ to others.
And he was called to do this. Now when we hear the word “called,” we often think of someone who is called to the ministry. Unfortunately, the origin of that kind of “call” is more often than not located in the gut of the would-be preacher rather than in heaven. But Paul was not called that way. His call was something very objective. It was not an office or ministry that Paul gave to himself, it was not something he just felt like he had to do; rather, it was something God gave him of his own sovereign prerogative.
Nor was it even something the churches gave him. It is true that there were men who were called apostles in the sense that they were messengers of the churches. However, this was not the case with Paul. As an apostle, he received his commission directly from Jesus Christ himself, after his experience on the road to Damascus. As Paul puts it in his letter to the Galatians, he was “an apostle – not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead” (Gal. 1:1). Moreover, the message he was given to relay was not received “from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ” (Gal. 1:12).
The bottom line here is that Paul was not speaking his own message. He was speaking the message of Jesus Christ, and therefore his words are inherently clothed with the authority of Christ. To reject his words is to reject the words of Christ. What this means is that you cannot be a Christian and reject the words of Paul, as some people try to do. Christianity is spelled out in Romans just as authoritatively as it is in the gospels.
Paul adds an important expression at this point, “separated unto the gospel of God.” This spells out what he was sent to speak. It tells us his message – it was the gospel, which he is about to spell out in the next few verses. Again, this is not “the gospel of Paul,” it is the “gospel of God,” meaning that God is both the subject of this message and the origin of it. The fact that he was “separated” to it underlines again the objective nature of Paul’s call. Paul was an apostle of God to speak the gospel of God. He uses similar language to describe his calling in Galatians. There he describes God as the one “who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace,” and who “was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles” (1:16). It was not accident that Paul was called to be an apostle. It was God’s plan for him, even before he was born. One must not miss here the obvious analogy of Paul’s experience to that of the prophets (cf. Jer. 1:5).
God set Paul apart. God gave him a message. As a faithful servant of Christ, Paul gave his life to live and preach that message. What we have before us, therefore, is the word of God, nothing less. It is our life to receive it and our death to reject it. Here we have the mandate of Paul. It doesn’t come from Paul himself. It didn’t come from a denomination. It came directly from God. It behooves us therefore to listen to what he has to say!
Now, I imagine someone saying at this point, “Okay, so what if Paul claimed to have a message from heaven. So did Mohammed and Joseph Smith and host of others. How is Paul’s claim to authority any different from theirs?” In answer I would point you to the message of Paul itself. Be willing to hear it honestly! Compare it with the message of Mormonism or Islam or any of its competitors, and I claim that there is no real comparison. The gospel is the only message that points you away from yourself to the grace of God, and therefore is the only message that contains any real promise of hope. Instead of telling you to build a ladder to heaven, it brings heaven to you in the form of the Son of God. The cross is our way to heaven, not our own good works, which if we are honest with ourselves, we know will never be enough. The gospel tells you that you don’t go to heaven by being good enough but because Christ has been good for you. That is truly good news.
Or compare the fruits of Paul’s message to the fruit of their messages, and I claim that there is no real comparison. Yes, I know there have been people who claimed to be Christians (falsely, in my judgment) who have done really bad things in the name of Christ. But you must be willing to distinguish between what Christ actually said and what some of his followers claim in his name. The religion of Christ, followed consistently, as history shows, does not lead his followers to be persecutors or hateful. It leads them to love their enemies and lay down their lives for others. It calls them to a kingdom which is not of this world; and it does not mistake the kingdom of Christ with political power. It gives its followers a wisdom that is from above, which is “pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere” (Jam. 3:17).
Or compare the origins of their messages with the origin of Paul’s message and there is no comparison. Smith and Mohammed’s claim to authority rests upon a revelation for which there is no real evidence. But Paul’s gospel did not rest upon his own testimony but upon real, historical events that could be verified in Paul’s own day and for which there were many witnesses. Even today, two thousand years later, the best explanation for the empty tomb is the resurrection of Jesus Christ, which is the basis of Paul’s message and ministry. I don’t think any other religion even comes close to this kind of evidence for its claims.
However, Paul’s mandate not only gives us a reason to hear him out, but also his message. It is the gospel, which the apostle goes on to elucidate in verses 2-4: “the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord.” This is rightly called the gospel – good news – because it is good news, the best of news. It is just the thing you should want to hear, because it is the news of what God has done to bring sinful men and women who deserve his judgment back into fellowship with himself.
It is interesting, then, to note that the gospel is not primarily about something we do. It is not an algorithm for salvation. It is not a self-help program. It is “concerning his Son” – it is about God’s Son, which Paul identifies at the end of verse 4 as “Jesus Christ our Lord.” Any “gospel” which does not point you to Jesus Christ is a false gospel. And any gospel which replaces Jesus with something else, whether it be health, wealth, and prosperity, or anything else, is not the true gospel. The gospel is about Christ and what he has done for us. The gospel does not call us to look at ourselves so much as it calls us to look to him.
It is important to see how Paul describes Jesus. He is fundamentally the Son of God (3). Christ did not become the Son of God when he was born into the world. No, God the Father sent the one who was already his Son into the world (Rom. 8:3). This points up to Christ’s exalted status as God the Father’s eternal Son. He has always existed, and from eternity he has enjoyed the fellowship of the Father and the Spirit. Jesus is not just another prophet. He is not another wise man. You cannot have Christianity with a merely human Christ.
However, that does not mean he is not truly man, for Paul goes on to say the he “was descended from David according the flesh.” He was truly man; otherwise, it would be false to call him a descendent from David. Jesus was the son of David, for he was truly human, and in his human nature he was descended from David. This is important because the Messiah, the Christ, was promised in the OT to come from David. In Isaiah 9, for example, the Christ is the one who will sit on the throne of David (Isa. 9:6-7).
But that is not all, for Paul goes on to say that he “was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead.” His tenure upon the earth was one of humiliation. He was the Son of God all along, but in some sense his deity was hidden. As the hymn puts it, “veiled in flesh the Godhead see.” His glory was veiled and his life up to the cross was a life of weakness. But all that changed at his resurrection. Now he became the “Son-of-God-in-power.” In other words, I think the words “in power” are meant to go with “the Son of God” as explaining the difference between the Son in his state of weakness and his state post-resurrection, which is an exalted state of power and glory. The incarnate Christ rose never to die again: “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold, I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades” (Rev. 1:17-18).
The second thing that we need to point out in terms of Paul’s description of the gospel, is that it is connected to the OT. This is underlined in Paul’s words “which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures.” The “holy Scriptures” here are a reference to the OT. You also see it in the words “descended from David,” which we noted points also to OT prophesy. It is important for us to hold to the fact that the religion of Jesus Christ is not something that originated in the first century A.D. It goes all the way back to Abraham; indeed, it goes all the way back to Adam and Eve. The protoevangelium, as it is sometimes called, the first promise of the gospel, of Christ, is given in the third chapter of Genesis in the record of the fall of man into sin. It is the promise that the seed of the woman (Christ) would crush the head of the serpent (Satan). Interestingly, Paul alludes to this in the 16th chapter: “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet” (16:20). He will do this because of what Christ has done for us on the cross. For Paul, Christianity is not some upstart religion, but the continuation of God’s promises to the prophets. What Jesus did in his life and death fulfilled multiple OT prophesies. We think most notably of Isaiah 53, probably the clearest OT exposition of the doctrine of substitutionary atonement.
Now this is especially important in our day, because you have some so-called evangelical pastors who are literally trying to unhinge the NT from the OT. You simply can’t do that. The fact of the matter is that the NT doesn’t make any sense apart from the OT. You can try to start with the resurrection of Christ, but the only way to interpret what happened in his death and resurrection is to read the NT through OT lens. Who is Christ? He is the “lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn. 1:29) – and that conjures up the massive amount of imagery coming from the OT sacrificial system. It makes no sense any other way! If you want to understand Christianity, you don’t just read the NT, you must also read the OT.
Paul’s gospel is about Christ, the Son of God, who is our Savior (Jesus) and Lord. The gospel is effective and powerful (1:16) because it is about Christ and who he is and what he has done. This is what Paul is going to tell us about. This is not only a word from God, it is a word about God and what he has done for us through his Son. Surely there is nothing more important to hear and understand. To know the mysteries of the universe is nothing compared to the self-revelation of God to us. That is exactly what Paul claims to be doing here. There really are only two appropriate responses to this. Either he is wrong, and this is totally useless and should be discarded and ignored, or he is right and there is nothing more interesting or important in any corner of the universe than this. I believe he is right. I hope you do, too. Let us therefore give our entire attention to what he has to say.
Finally, we should hear what the apostle has to say because of his mission, which he tells us about in verse 5: “through him [Jesus] we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations.”
The immediate end or purpose of Paul’s mission was the conversion of people to faith in Christ, the “obedience of faith.” The gospel requires a response, and the appropriate response is the response of faith. This is what Paul spent his whole life and every waking moment striving for: to bring men and women to bow the knee to Jesus Christ, to embrace him as Lord and Savior, so that they might have eternal life. As Paul explains his commission to Agrippa, the purpose of his ministry to the Gentiles was “to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me” (Acts 26:18).
I also want to point out in passing how Paul puts faith and obedience together, in such a way that obedience springs from faith. You cannot have true faith in Christ and not want to follow him in obedience. If you have no desire to follow him, you really have never believed in him. For if you truly see him for who he is – Lord and Savior – who will inevitably give your heart to him to rule over. As our Lord himself puts it, how can you call him Lord and not do the things which he commands?
However, the immediate end (conversion) is not the only end. The ultimate end of Paul’s ministry and mission was the glory of God: “for the sake of his name.” It is Paul’s ultimate end because it is God’s ultimate end. It is why Paul ends this epistle with the words, “To the only wise God be glory forevermore through Jesus Christ!” (Rom. 16:27). Paul knows that God is the ground not only of our existence, but also of every blessing that we can have or will have. He is the only all-sufficient fountain of peace and joy. Neither I nor any other human being or created thing can rightly hold ourselves up to anyone as an object of glory and admiration and praise because no one and nothing can give anyone life in the fullest sense if the word either in this age or the next. We are finite and people who look to other people or things for their life and happiness will soon find their fountain dry. Only God can be that for us. And therefore only he is ultimately worthy of praise and worship and admiration and love. Anything else is a distraction from the true source of life and peace. And that is why Paul wants others to see the glory of God as well, as they come to believe in the Son and obey him. It is only as we see God’s glory – see him for who he truly is – that we will move towards him in true faith and love. Therefore, God is not only glorified in the fact of our conversion, but in the very act of conversion itself, as we move from people blinded to the glory of God to people who truly see it and really love it for the very first time.
Paul wanted that for people “among all the nations,” and so should we. Here we see the main reason Paul is writing to the Romans. He is planning a mission trip to Spain (Rom. 15:24), and he desires their support. He wants them to join him in this great mission, this great purpose. That is why he is going to spend so much time opening up the gospel to them. He is telling them the message that he will be carrying with him into Spain. Paul understands that it is not just about getting people into the church. It is about getting them to see the gospel and to believe it and to love it and obey it. And if the Romans are going to get on board, they are going to want to know what Paul is going to be preaching, what he is calling men and women to embrace. And thus we have the letter to the Romans.
So why should we pay attention to Paul? We should because of his mandate, by which he gives us a message from God. We should because of his message, which is a message about God's Son. And we should because of his mission, which ultimately is for the glory of God among all the nations.
And how should we respond? To Paul’s mandate as an apostle of Christ, we should respond in a humble and attentive spirit. To Paul’s message which is centered on Christ, we should respond with an eagerness to know our Lord Jesus Christ more, to love him more, to believe him more, and to love him more. To Paul’s mission, which was to bring the lost to Christ, we should respond with a desire to join him in this endeavor and mission. Of course Paul’s mission to Spain (if it happened at all) is something in the far past. But we should still have his missionary spirit, both in a desire to support those who bring the gospel to the unreached, as well as a desire to be gospel witnesses in the places where God has in his providence placed each one of us.
We thank God for the gospel. We thank him that this gospel is not limited to one particular place or people, to a particular socio-economic strata of the population, but that it is for “all the nations,” and for all who will believe in the Son of God and to receive him as their Lord and Savior. Have you done so? He is your Lord, whether you embrace him or not. If you fail to do so, there is nothing for you but a fearful looking for of judgment which will devour his adversaries. But if you embrace him as Lord and Savior, there is life eternal and never-ending, ever-increasing joy for you through him – freely given to you as a gift of grace. May the Lord call all who hear this to himself for the sake of his name!