Paul’s Commitment to the Church (Rom. 1:8-13)


We are looking at the opening verses of the epistle of Paul to the Romans, this great exposition of the gospel.  Today, we find ourselves again in verses 8-13, which continue the introductory material of the letter, in which the apostle is expressing his love and appreciation for the saints at Rome.  However, as he does this, he gives us a window into his own personal piety.  Last time, we looked at the piety of the apostle Paul in terms of his commitment to God, which comes out in phrases like “my God,” “for God is my witness,” “by the will of God,” and so on.  Today we want to look at his piety in terms of his commitment to the church.  Now a lot of people would want to stop at God and not want to include commitment to the church as part of one’s piety.  Certainly those who claim that the main thing is just being “spiritual” would not want to go further and commit themselves to the church as the apostle Paul did.  But some folks, perhaps even many folks, who claim to believe the Bible is God’s word and who claim to trust in Christ as their Lord and Savior, also claim that the church as an institution is not something that is important or that should claim their devotion.  

There are many reasons for this today.  Of course secularism as a whole is partly to blame, as is the rampant and destructive individualism of our culture which despises commitment in general to anything or anyone outside of oneself.  Or one could point to the accusation that the church has been responsible for bad things in history and so therefore we shouldn’t commit ourselves to it.  Another is that the church continues to permit abuses of various kinds and that the church is full of hypocrites.  Others would sum it all up by saying that the church isn’t at all useful or helpful in terms of what it means to live a happy and meaningful and productive life.

What should we say to these things?  Well, for those who value individualism over the church, I would just suggest that a quick look at the utterly chaotic state of our culture here in the West should be all the evidence one needs to see that, far from being a good reason to avoid the church, individualism is in fact a destructive tendency. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that the mindset of the extreme individualist is opposite to that of love and uses people instead of serving people.  That is clearly destructive.  And though technology has enabled us to retreat from meaningful relationships with people in our modern world, it has not replaced the real and genuine need we all have for that.  

About the church’s past and present: yes, it is true that the church, considered as a whole, is imperfect and has participated in or turned a blind eye to various societal evils.  But people who use this as an excuse to avoid the church aren’t very consistent, are they?  Unless you are willing to commit to being an anarchist, you are going to be committed to something that has done bad things in the past and is yet imperfect in the present.  We live in an imperfect world, and no society, however well intentioned, is going to be perfect.  Government is everyone’s favorite savior these days, but how many millions have bad governments and bad political leaders killed, raped, and defrauded?  Or one thinks of how badly public schools have failed their students, and yet it is unthinkable for many of these same folks to abandon that project. If you can’t give up on the government or its schools, neither should you be so quick to give up on the church.

Actually, though, people who use this accusation are not only inconsistent, but they are also very forgetful.  Government may be a necessary evil, but this is hardly the case with the church, which is overall a positive good.  And even as it has fumbled and stumbled along the way, at the same time it has throughout history provided the world with many, many goods.  Yes, the church has had to repent in the past.  But that is not the whole story, and it is easily forgotten but true that universities and hospitals almost universally have their origins in the church.  It is easily forgotten but true that many of the relief agencies that exist today and that have helped and continue to help untold millions have their origins in the church and in Christian mission.  We could go on.  Of course the greatest good the church gives to the world is the gospel, the truth that God saves sinners through Jesus Christ his Son.  All other problems are infinitely insignificant to the problem of our alienation from God.  Education, medicine, and social helps are all good, but they don’t in themselves have eternal value.  Only a saving knowledge of God can give us eternal life (Jn. 17:3).  This is what people need the most, and it is the glory and the privilege of the church to hold forth the word of life in Christ (Phil. 2:15-16).

As far as everyone in the church being hypocrites, this simply isn’t true.  How could they know this anyway?  Are they omniscient and omnipresent?  I think this is the worst of the excuses.  Those who label all churchgoers as hypocrites are probably poking at a splinter in the eye of the church when they themselves have a log sticking out of their own.

Finally, what about the apparent lack of usefulness that people see in the church?  Well, I would just say that it’s not that the church has been tried and found wanting, but that the church has never been genuinely tried by many of these people.  Of course, you would have no use for it if you have no use for the Savior of the church.  But Christians who say the church can’t help them are essentially calling the Lord a liar or at least imprudent and insensible, who gave us the church for our good.

However, whatever reason one might have for disregarding the church, texts like this should change our minds, at least for those of us who are Christian and who are committed to the authority of Scripture.  Paul was committed to the church and unashamedly so.  He is a model for us to follow and follow him we should.  

Before we look at the various ways his commitment to the church comes out in these verses, I do want to deal with another objection and then consider two further observations.  The objection is that we shouldn’t commit to the church today, because though the church started off good and wholesome but that it has become unchangeably bad and therefore we should no longer have anything to do with it.  It is a failed experiment.  And in answer to that, we must admit that the church has periodically needed times of reformation and repentance.  The church has in fact experienced this.  There have been times of reformation and revival.  There have been times when the church corrected past doctrinal and ethical abuses.  This actually has been true from the very beginning, as Revelation 2-3 shows.  It’s not that the church started out pristine and became rotten to the core, but that it has always had to cut away rotten pieces of itself from the get-go.  The church, after all, is made up of people who are sinners, and yet who are also neither demons who can’t be corrected nor angels who need no correction!  

But the real answer to this objection is the promise of Christ that the church will endure to the end: “And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Mt. 16:18).  Or there is the promise of Christ to the church in the Great Commission: “I am with you always, even unto the end of the world” (Mt. 28:20).  The church will never go out of existence because Christ will never abandon the church.  At the end of the day, this is all we need to know to stay committed and connected to the church: we should never give up on what the Lord will never give up on.  He died for the church in order to save her and make her beautiful (Eph. 5:22-25).  How can we ignore or despise what Christ died for?

Now we are talking about the church here, and that leads us to two final observations before getting to the ways we are to be committed to it like Paul.  The first observation is this: the church is not some abstract concept but a concrete and real thing.  You are not committed to the church if you are not committed to a definite body of believers.  I’m not saying there aren’t exceptions to the rule, but this is the rule.  If you are a Christian, you need to belong to a church.  You need to become a part of it and involved, you need to be willing to be held accountable by fellow believers.  You need to know and be known.  Church is not for anonymous participants but for people who can exhort one another and encourage one another and comfort one another.  Church is not supposed to be an entertainment experience, but a life lived out with fellow believers through the wilderness of this world as we travel together towards Canaan.

The second observation is this: Paul’s commitment to the church in terms of his commitment to the Roman Christians, was not rooted in the kinds of things many Christians look for in the church today.  It grieves me when I see people church shopping because they can’t find people like them.  As if they are the center instead of Christ!  They want a church full of people of a similar age to themselves, or who have common life experiences, or who enjoy similar hobbies.  But that was not what drew Paul to this church.  It couldn’t be, for the simple reason that he had never met many (probably most) of them.  He knew nothing about them apart from this one thing: their faith in Jesus Christ, which is the one thing he mentions about them in this passage.  Did you notice that?  In verse 8, he says, “I thank my God through Jesus Christ for you all, that your faith is spoken of throughout the whole world.”  Then in verses 11-12, he writes, “For I long to see you, that I may impart unto you some spiritual gift, to the end ye may be established; that is, that I may be comforted together with you by the mutual faith both of you and me.”  He thanks God for their faith, and he is confident that their faith will benefit him as his faith will benefit them.  Brothers and sisters, I want to say that this ought to be enough to draw us together too, shouldn’t it?  Now I’m not saying it’s entirely wrong or sinful to be drawn to people with similar tastes and so on, but something is wrong if faith in Christ can’t trump all of that.  

In fact, if we love the Lord Jesus as we ought, we ought to love his people with the same kind of fervent love.  If I love my hobbies more than my brother or sister in Christ or am more concerned about my particular problems than I am about the burdens of my spiritual family members, the problem is probably not in the brothers and sisters but in our own hearts.  I think the apostle John would wonder if you’re even born again: “Whosoever believeth that Jesus is the Christ is born of God: and every one that loveth him that begat loveth him also that is begotten of him” (1 Jn. 5:1).

We ought to love the church.  We ought to be committed to it.  What then are some of the things that should characterize our commitment to the church?  I see at least three things that characterized Paul’s commitment to the church: praise, prayer, and presence.


Paul begins by praising the Roman Christians, which is expressed in his gratitude to God for them: “First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for you all, that your faith is spoken of throughout the whole world” (Rom.1:8).  Now the praise here is directed at the fact that their faith is spoken of throughout the whole world.  The word which is translated “spoken of,” literally means to be proclaimed.  That seems to indicate a measure of excitement that might be missed by translating it merely, “spoken of.”  And though I know that “the whole world” might make one think that literally the whole world of pagans and Jews and Christians were abuzz about the fact of this one church in Rome, more likely Paul is referring to the fact that Christians throughout the Roman empire were encouraged and excited that God had planted this church of faithful believers in the very heart of the empire.

Why would other Christians have been so excited about a church in Rome?  We must not think that it was because the Roman church was filled with powerful people, movers and shakers in society.  No, my friends, more likely this church was filled with powerless people, slaves, the despised of society.  It is most probable that one could have walked through the streets of Rome all day and never noticed the presence of the church.  Rather, I think people were encouraged that a church could even exist at the very center of Roman power.  Rome, remember, was not the friend of the church, it was most definitely her enemy.  Rome persecuted the church.  Rome wanted to extinguish the church.  And yet, here right under the nose of the emperor himself, was the church.  That was significant.  That’s what made people everywhere proclaim the news of the faith of these believers in Rome.

I think that encouraged Christians in other places.  I think they would have thought, “Well, if a Christian church can be there, surely a church can be here,” wherever that here was in the Roman empire (or even outside the empire).  They thought that if Christians can flourish where paganism has its strongest hold politically, it followed that it could flourish elsewhere.  

Paul thanks God for that, and he lets these believers know that.  He wants them to know how much he thanks God for them and for their faith.  

Here, brothers and sisters, is a lesson for all of us.  When we consider what it means to be committed to the church how many of us would think of being thankful for the faith of our fellow brothers and sisters?  Personally, I think a lot of church disagreements would not become so serious if we focused more on thanking God for each other than we did in criticizing one another.  I think of the church at Philippi and how Paul was concerned over the fact that there were these two women in that church, Euodias and Syntyche, who were at odds with each other, who apparently didn’t like each other very much.  I want you to listen to the way the apostle frames this problem: 

Therefore, my brethren dearly beloved and longed for, my joy and crown, so stand fast in the Lord, my dearly beloved. I beseech Euodias, and beseech Syntyche, that they be of the same mind in the Lord. And I intreat thee also, true yokefellow, help those women which laboured with me in the gospel, with Clement also, and with other my fellowlabourers, whose names are in the book of life. (Phil. 4:1-3)

He bookends his comment on their disagreement by alerting them to his own love for them and gratitude for them.  I think he probably wanted Euodias and Syntyche, who didn’t think very well of each other, to hear what Paul thought about both of them.  He calls them “dearly beloved” twice in verse 1, his joy and crown, and then reminds them that they had both labored with Paul in the gospel, and that their names were in the book of life.  He is modeling for them how to love one another, even in the face of disagreement.  Remember, the apostle seems to be saying, how much you have in common.  Your names are in the book of life!  You are both wanting to labor for the same thing, the advance of the gospel!  Don’t think of each other as enemies, but consider each other a joy and a crown, dearly beloved.  

I don’t care how well established and prosperous a church is, there is always room for disagreement, isn’t there?  The danger is that Satan can so easily use these disagreements to cause a church to wither on the vine or to disintegrate.  Now, I’m not saying that we should avoid disagreements.  We need to be willing to listen when others disagree with us.  That’s not the problem.  That is healthy, in fact.  The problem is the way we respond to them.  The problem is when we begin to think of a brother or a sister as an enemy instead of a fellow heir of the grace of life.  The problem is when we can only see their faults and not see them, as God does, as a joy and a crown to the church.  The problem – and the problem most often is with us as much as it is with the other person – the problem is that we stop seeing them as dearly beloved.

And the way to kill this ungodly and ugly divisiveness is to cultivate the attitude of gratitude for one another.  Let us learn to thank God for each other.  Let us not take each other for granted.  Let us look for the ways God has blessed us personally and the church corporately through the other person.  Don’t just criticize; there may be a need for that, and that may in fact be the most loving thing to do at a particular time.  But don’t stop there.  Praise them too.  Let’s obey the injunction of the apostle Peter, when he says, “Finally, be ye all of one mind, having compassion one of another, love as brethren, be pitiful, be courteous” (1 Pet. 3:8).  Or when he says, “And above all things have fervent charity among yourselves: for charity shall cover the multitude of sins” (4:8).  Love one another; be thankful or one another.


Last time we noticed prayer as part of the apostle’s commitment to God.  Here we notice it again in terms of his commitment to the church.  In some ways, this whole passage is Paul letting them know how he has been praying for them: “For God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in the gospel of his Son, that without ceasing I make mention of you always in my prayers; making request, if by any means now at length I might have a prosperous journey by the will of God to come unto you” (Rom. 1:9-10).  Paul’s commitment to the church is proven and displayed in his commitment to prayer for them.

One of the things I’ve noticed that Elder Bradley does in counseling, especially if it has to do with marriage problems, is that he’ll ask the husband if he has been praying for his wife.  Or he’ll ask the wife if she is praying for her husband.  I’ve learned that it’s a good and important question to ask in situations like that.  In fact, I asked someone that just the other day, a Christian husband who came seeking help with some marriage problems.  And I asked him this question.  His response was amazing; you could almost see the light-bulb over his head appear.  He realized that he had been praying for everything except his wife!  Of course the question is, how in the world can you navigate difficulties with your spouse if you aren’t even praying for them?

The same goes for the church, doesn’t it?  So often we limit our prayers to our own personal problems.  Of course we should lift our needs to God in prayer.  But no Christian should stop there.  We are commanded to pray for each other.  Here is the way the apostle Paul put it in his letter to the Ephesians: “Praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, and watching thereunto with all perseverance and supplication for all saints; and for me, that utterance may be given unto me, that I may open my mouth boldly, to make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in bonds: that therein I may speak boldly, as I ought to speak” (Eph. 6:18-20).  How are we to pray?  There are four universals in those verses: always, all prayer, all perseverance, and all saints!  We are to pray for all saints.  For Paul, this meant for praying for all the believers in all the churches he had established, as well as some (like Rome) that he hadn’t!  Look, if you’re looking for things to pray for, here’s a very good place to start, isn’t it?  And then Paul goes on to ask them to pray for him, that God would bless him in the preaching of the word even when he was a prisoner.  

I wonder if people so easily jump from church to church because they’ve never committed themselves to pray for the church where they are at.  How much have we invested in this church in terms of prayer?  Now I know that many of you do make a practice of praying for each other.  Many of you pray for me and for each other often, and I am so thankful for that.  And I want to encourage you to continue in that: this is exactly what it means to love the church.  Keep on keeping on!  We cannot emphasis enough the importance of prayer.  God hears the prayers of the church.  The book of Acts proves this.  Go through that book and you will see two things: the church often prayed together, and God honored their prayers.  Brothers and sisters, let us pray together and let us pray for each other.  God help us if we ever get to the place where we think a Bible study is more important than prayer.  I hope that the Lord will put it on all our hearts to want to pray for the church in our closets and to pray with the church in our assemblies.


Paul prayed that he might be with the church: “For I long to see you, that I may impart unto you some spiritual gift, to the end ye may be established; that is, that I may be comforted together with you by the mutual faith both of you and me. Now I would not have you ignorant, brethren, that oftentimes I purposed to come unto you, (but was let hitherto,) that I might have some fruit among you also, even as among other Gentiles” (11-13).  Here he was communicating with them in this wonderful letter.  We are thankful for that!  But Paul wanted more than long-distance communication.  He wanted to be personally present with these believers.  It reminds me of how that apostle John longed for the same thing with his correspondents: “Having many things to write unto you, I would not write with paper and ink: but I trust to come unto you, and speak face to face, that our joy may be full” (2 Jn. 12).  Face to face!  That’s what John wanted and that’s what Paul wanted.

We need to hear that today perhaps more than ever.  Though I am very grateful for livestream for those who can’t physically make it to church, the fact of the matter is that many folks think they can replace being personally present in the assembly of the saints with virtual participation via the internet.  But if you are able to be physically present, and choose instead to stream the service, you are not demonstrating Biblical commitment to the church.  It would be like saying that you belonged to a soccer team, but you never showed up to the practices and you never showed up for a game.  How could you legitimately call yourself a member of the team?  If you never come to church when you are physically able, how can you legitimately call yourself a member of the church?

The fact of the matter is that if you belong to Christ, if you are a part of the body of Christ, then the church needs you.  Notice why the apostle wanted to come to the church at Rome: he wanted to impart a spiritual gift to them.  And the fruit of the exercise of his spiritual gift would be the establishing, the building up, of the church.  Yet that wasn’t all.  He goes on to say that he – an apostle of Christ! – would be blessed not simply in terms of giving but also in terms of receiving.  He believed that he would benefit from the faith of the saints as they ministered to him: “that we may be comforted together by the mutual faith both of you and me.”  If this was true of an apostle – if an apostle looked at the church as Paul did, and said, “I need them,” how much more do you and I need the church!  

By the way, the word “comforted together” there in verse 12 is the word sunparakaleo, which not only carries the connotation of comfort but much more than that; it carries the meaning of encouragement more generally.  The church is a place where we are to find encouragement from each other’s faith.

Now there are several ways this can happen.  The apostle will say later on in this epistle that faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God (Rom. 10:17), so you can’t divorce the exercise of faith, in the sense that the apostle is thinking of, from God’s word, the Scriptures.  How do we encourage each other?  How do we comfort each other?  How do we strengthen each other?  Well, we do so first of all by speaking the truth to each other in love (Eph. 4:15), truth which we find in the Bible.  This happens first and foremost through the preaching of the word, but it also happens in every setting where God’s word is opened by believers.  We are to exhort one another daily on the basis of the realities of God’s word.

Then it can happen through the way faith is lived out in the life.  Growth in the Christian life is not just a product of intellectual development, though it’s not less than that, but it is also being encouraged by the example of other believers as you watch them live out their faith through difficult times, and by walking with them through it.  It happens as we bear one another’s burdens – kind of hard to do exclusively over the internet!  This is why the word Paul uses is sunparakaleo – the prefix sun means “with.”  How do we encourage each other?  We do it as we are with each other.

This is why the author of Hebrews says what he does: “And let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works: not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching” (Heb. 10:24-25).  What are we to do?  What does commitment to the church look like?  It means that we consider one another, that we provoke (or stir up) another to love and good works, and it means that we exhort one another.  And we do this “as ye see the day approaching,” which in the context is the coming of our Lord and the Final Judgment.  I think one reason church isn’t important for many Christians is that they really are lacking the Godward part of piety; they aren’t living in light of eternity.  Paul did, and we ought to.  If we do, we will find that suddenly the church has far more importance for us than it previously did.

Brothers and sisters, may we first of all be committed to the Lord and then to his church.  Not to one or the other, but to both.  You really can’t divorce these commitments.  But my prayer is that we will look at it like the apostle did.  This is not another thing to do: the church is the community of God’s people on earth in which we will truly be encouraged and comforted and strengthened through the outworking of our mutual faith in Christ and his word.  This is for our good; it is for our joy.

A few years ago, when Emma was still in the NICU, several families were invited by a local steakhouse to come and enjoy a four-course steak dinner together.  We were one of the families invited.  We were all seated around a table, strangers all of us, and yet we were united by this one experience of having a child long term in the NICU.  It’s amazing how it united us and how far from being an awkward experience, you felt immediately connected with this people you had never met before.

Now consider the reality of the church.  Who makes up the church?  Sinners saved by grace.  What unites us?  What unites us is this: we were dead in our sins, dead to God.  We didn’t love him or want to obey him or serve him.  We were slaves to Satan, to the world, and to our own sinful desires.  Our sins weighed us down to hell.  Left to ourselves we would have perished forever, and justly so.  It was not just that we were experiencing some temporary trial but that we were exposed to eternal punishment.  We were without Christ, having no hope and without God in this world.  There is no way we could have ever saved ourselves.  We were, as the apostle puts it, “foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving divers lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful, and hating one another” (Tit. 3:3).  What a terrible place to be!  And then the grace of God appeared in Jesus Christ.  Christ came to earth to do God’s will.  And that will was to accomplish a rescue mission.  The Lord Jesus saves sinners like you and me from our sins by living for us and dying for us.  By his life he kept God’s law perfectly and provided a righteousness which he imputes to those who trust in him.  By dying for us he provided redemption from sin and complete forgiveness for those who belong to him.  And he gives it to us by grace.  Freely, without merit, because of what Jesus Christ did for us.  And he sends his Spirit to apply the redemption of Christ to us, and now through the Spirit Christ dwells in us.  He will one day raise us from the dead, and to undo all that sin has done.  We will live together with him throughout all eternity in never-ending, ever-increasing joy.

That’s what every Christian has in common with every other Christian!  Do you want that?  The Scriptures say that all who put their faith in Christ as Lord and Savior will be saved.  But do you have that?  Do you not see that what you have in common with other believers is far, far more significant and meaningful than anything else!  Are you then a disciple of Jesus and yet you have not joined his church?  Why?  Why would you not want to join with those who have a common faith and a common hope like this?  Can you not see that united to Christ you are united to every other believer?  Let us all be committed to the church, to God’s people, as we are committed to God and to his Son the Lord Jesus Christ.


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