The Piety of Paul (Rom. 1:8-13)


We’ve talked about the apostle Paul, the man behind the message of Romans, in terms of how his life, in particular his conversion and commission as an apostle, gives us a reason to not only read this epistle, but also to believe it and apply it to our lives.  Today, I want us to look at this great apostle again, but this time from the standpoint of his piety and how this is an example for us to follow.  It comes out in verses 8-13, where the apostle is telling the Roman Christians how much he thanks God for them and longs to see them.  As Paul writes this, he gives us some insight into his commitment, first of all to God, then to the gospel, and finally to the church.  

Though we have to be careful about taking any man or woman as a pattern to follow, it does not follow that this is never wrong.  We need heroes, even as we recognize their mistakes.  Now I’m sure Paul had his mistakes.  But he ought to stand out for several reasons to the Christian.  First of all, as we’ve been saying, he is writing authoritative Scripture, and this applies as much to what he says about himself as to anything else.  But second, he explicitly gives himself as an example for us to follow.  To the Philippians he writes: “Brethren, be followers together of me, and mark them which walk so as ye have us for an ensample” (Phil. 3:17).  Or, as he puts it to the Corinthians: “Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). So what we read here about the apostle’s walk with the Lord is important.  These are not just words to skip over for they give us a pattern to imitate.

I’m putting this in terms of the apostle’s commitments.  These commitments, to God, to the gospel, and to the church, were all entities outside himself.  How important it is for us to take even that to heart.  Our culture teaches us constantly to be committed to one thing, and to one thing only: ourselves. It tells us that if we want to have a meaningful existence, we need to put off all external commitments or at least to hold them with an open hand.  The order of the day is to “go find yourself.”  What a stupid thing to do.  And if you obey that and apply it to your life, you are going to end up with a very small life, disconnected from the greatest realities in the universe.  You are not the greatest reality in the universe; God is.  And so it Is the suicide of meaning and greatness to disconnect yourself from him and his gospel and his church.  Let us find true importance by giving ourselves not to ourselves but to God and his truth and his people.  

My plan for today is to look at the first of these things, namely, Paul’s piety in terms of his commitment to God.  Lord-willing, next time we will look at his commitment to the church as they are expressed in these verses. And when we look at verses 14-17, we will consider his commitment to the gospel.

Paul’s Commitment to God

There are a number of things we can say about Paul’s piety here in terms of his commitment to God in this passage.  

He had a personal relationship with God.

Note the way he talks about God here.  As we look at this, it’s important, I think, for us to be asking ourselves the question: Can I talk about God this way?  For example, he says in verse 8, “I thank my God through Jesus Christ for you all.”  Now it is true that God is the God of every man, woman, and child, as their Creator.  But when Paul says, “my God,” he is doing more than just giving a bare acknowledgement that God is his Creator.  He is alerting us to the fact that he had a personal relationship with him, that he trusted in him, loved him, obeyed him, and sought to honor him with his life.  You will sometimes hear people say about a particular U.S. President, “He’s not my President.”  Well, if you are an American citizen, he is your President, whether you like him or not, whether you agree with him or not.  But though that statement is formally incorrect for anyone who is a citizen of this country, we also recognize that what they mean is that they don’t agree with him, don’t believe in his vision for the country, don’t like the way he is leading the land.  They don’t identify themselves with him; they would rather that someone else be President.  In the same way, when someone says of the God of the Bible, “That’s not my God,” that is not formally true, for God’s kingdom rules over all.  However, we know what they mean: they do not trust him, believe in him, obey him, or honor him, etc.  They don’t identify themselves with him.  Not so the apostle Paul: he willingly identified himself with the God of the Bible.  He took God to be his God.

King David in the opening of Psalm 18 illustrates the attitude of the apostle Paul at length.  There, David writes, “I will love thee, O Lord, my strength. The Lord is my rock, and my fortress, and my deliverer; my God, my strength, in whom I will trust; my buckler, and the horn of my salvation, and my high tower” (Ps. 18:1-2).  God is your God in this sense when he is more than just a theological concept.  He is your God in this sense when you worship him, when you take him as your strength, protection, deliverer, the one in whom you trust.  Again, the question we need to ask ourselves is this: “Do I relate to God this way?”  Do I truly know the God of heaven in this way?

There is only one way you can know God in this way, and the apostle Paul alerts us to this when he says, “my God through Jesus Christ.”  Now I realize that, technically speaking, the phrase “through Jesus Christ” probably modifies the entire phrase “I thank my God,” and not just “my God,” but nevertheless you have to take this sentence as a whole, and doing so it follows that you cannot thank God or relate to him in any meaningful way apart from Christ.  The Bible doesn’t teach that we are basically good, but that we are basically bad, and that we have all sinned and come short of the glory of God.  We can only relate to God through Christ because he did what we can’t do: he the eternal Son of God came to earth and became a man, and as the incarnate Son he obeyed God perfectly, then died on the cross in the place of sinners by taking their guilt upon himself and purging it, expiating it.  He met all the demands of God’s law, both in terms of its demands and its punishments.  He satisfied the justice of God on our behalf, on the behalf of all who believe in him.  The Bible teaches very clearly, and we’re going to see it as we go through this epistle, that we don’t relate to God on the basis of our good works or merit, but only on the basis of the righteousness of God received as a gift of grace in the empty hand of faith.

There is no other way to relate to God.  You can’t relate to him through Buddha or Confucius, or through Mohammed or anyone else.  Speaking of the Lord Jesus, the apostles said, “Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).  Jesus himself said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me” (Jn. 14:6).  There are not many ways to say, “My God;” there is only one way, and that way is Jesus Christ.

Thank God for the gift of Christ!  Why anyone would reject him is from no defect in the gospel, but only in our own blindness.  As the apostle Paul said, “But if our gospel be hid, it is hid to them that are lost: In whom the god of this world hath blinded the minds of them which believe not, lest the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine unto them. For we preach not ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord; and ourselves your servants for Jesus' sake” (2 Cor. 4:3-5).  Oh, that through Christ all would be able to say, with the apostle Paul and with King David, “My God.”  It is the pinnacle of the blessings of the New Heaven and the New Earth, that the saved will be able to know this reality: “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God” (Rev. 21:3).

He lived in the sight of God

The apostle goes on to say, after thanking God 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” (9).  In calling God as his witness, he is not only confirming the truth of his devotion to them in his prayers for them, but he is also helping us to see that he lived always before God, in the conscious knowledge that God saw all that he did, and with the purpose of wanting to please him in all that he did.  He didn’t live to please men but God.  He tells the Corinthians, that he has “renounced the hidden things of dishonesty, not walking in craftiness, nor handling the word of God deceitfully; but by manifestation of the truth commending ourselves to every man's conscience in the sight of God” (2 Cor. 4:2).  

It's not that he didn’t care what people thought, but rather that he cared more about what God thought.  He wanted to please him, no matter if it ruffled the feathers of others, no matter how much hot water it got him into, no matter how much persecution it bought him.  We need to be more that way, brothers and sisters.  Again, I’m not saying this mean we can be obnoxious. But it does mean that we care infinitely more what God thinks of our words and our actions than what men think of them.

This is also a real test of how much we really believe in the sovereignty of God.  A person really believes in God’s sovereignty over all things when they live like it, and a person lives like it when all of life is lived under the holy eye of God, to please him and to glorify him.  It really doesn’t matter how committed a person is to the doctrines of sovereign grace if they live like an atheist, or if they live like God really isn’t in control and doesn’t have the right to tell them what to do.

Do we live in the sight of God?  Do we live to please him?  Are we really his servants?  “Whom I serve,” I Paul says.  I love the way he describes God to his fellow passengers in that ship in the storm: “God, whose I am, and whom I serve” (Acts 27:23).  Does that describe us?  The proof that you belong to God is that you serve God.  Do we?

His service to God was spiritual and not merely external

But how does Paul serve God?  He tells us: “whom I serve with my spirit,” or “in my spirit.”  When Jesus was teaching the woman at the well about worship, he said this to her: “the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him. God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth” (Jn. 4:23-24).  There is no other way, because God is not just the God who sees what we do and hears what we say.  No: God is the God who knows our thoughts before we even think them (Ps. 139:2).  We can only properly serve him when we serve him not only with our hands but with our hearts.  As our Lord put it, in condemning the Pharisees of his day – very religious folks, by the way – “Ye hypocrites, well did Esaias prophesy of you, saying, This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me. But in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men” (Mt. 15:7-9).  Any other type of worship is vain, empty, useless.  It would be like bringing a rabid dog to the altar as a sacrifice.  Totally repugnant to God.

So this means, first of all, that we love God, the God who is revealed to us in the pages of Scripture.  It means that we seek to honor him in our hearts, in our thoughts, and in our attitudes.  It also means that we are responsive to God impressing upon us to do something or not to do something; it means that we do not quench the Spirit – all of course within the context of complete obedience and submission to God’s written word.  It means that we are doing what the apostle John tells us to do: “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof: but he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever” (1 Jn. 2:15-17).  And then positively, it means that we are seeking and setting our affection on those things which are above (Col. 3:1-2).

Paul served God with his spirit.  He was not an actor.  He was not a hypocrite.  He was real and sincere.  As Martyn Lloyd-Jones put it, he was not merely an advocate for the gospel; he was a witness to the realities of the gospel.  Again, let us ask ourselves: does this describe us?  Does what Paul say here resonate with us, or are we strangers to these realities?  

He had a robust prayer life

He goes on to say: “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).  Now Paul is only talking about a part of his prayer life here, but notice how he does it: “without ceasing.”  That amazing.  This can only be true if the apostle was almost, as it were, in constant prayer.  Of course this is the way he exhorted other Christians to live: “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17).  Later in this epistle, he will ask them to “strive together with me in your prayers to God for me” (Rom. 15:30).  He prays for them, and he asks them to pray for him.

The thing is that you cannot have a real relationship with God and not have a prayer life.  As John Gill once put it, prayer is the breath of the regenerate soul.  If you really do trust God and love him and believe that he is sovereign and good and wise, how can you possible not come to the throne of grace to obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need?  How can you not want to draw near to God?  

Now this doesn’t mean that we have to spend hours and hours on our knees, but it does mean that life is lived in a constant attitude of prayer.  It means that we bring every need to the Lord.  Are we anxious about something?  Then we bring it to the Lord in prayer.  Are we overwhelmed?  We bring it to the Lord in prayer.  Do we feel defeated?  Bring it to the Lord, pray about it!  Are we feeling weak in our fight with sin?  Take it to the Lord in prayer.

His life was completely submitted to the sovereign will of God

In verse 10, he says that he is “Making request, if by any means now at length I might have a prosperous journey by the will of God to come unto you.”  Paul is showing us here how his life was submitted to God’s sovereign will.  This again is a crucial part of piety.  There is no real piety before God where there is no submission to this aspect of God’s will in one’s life.

Now there are two ways God’s will is spoken of in Scripture.  One is God’s will of command.  The Bible is full of God’s commandments.  This is God’s revealed will for our lives.  It’s what Paul is referring to 1 Thess. 4:2-3 when he says, “For ye know what commandments we gave you by the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, even your sanctification, that ye should abstain from fornication.”  And certainly, as God’s servant, as one who lived before God, as one who lived to have always a conscience void of offense toward God (Acts 24:16), Paul strove to live in accordance with God’s commandments.  He didn’t pick and choose which parts of the Bible to believe and obey; he sought universal obedience, and we ought to do the same.  Oh, my friends!  That we would seek to drive out every sin, every evil thought, every evil impulse, every lie, every falsehood from our minds and hearts.  That we would rise up and drive a dagger through the heart of our dearest sin!  

Nevertheless, I don’t think that’s what Paul means by “the will of God” in verse 10.  What he means there, I think, is the will of God’s unchangeable purpose, his decree.  It’s what James is referring to in his epistle when he says, “Go to now, ye that say, To day or to morrow we will go into such a city, and continue there a year, and buy and sell, and get gain: Whereas ye know not what shall be on the morrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapour, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away. For that ye ought to say, If the Lord will, we shall live, and do this, or that” (Jam. 4:13-15).  This will of the Lord in is eternal purpose and decree is always done, as opposed to God’s will revealed in his commandments, which are constantly broken.  James is saying that we need to recognize God’s sovereignty over all things, and part of that recognition is the acknowledgement that I can’t live even for a moment, or “do this or that” – a universally encompassing expression! – apart from God’s will.  It is the acknowledgement that God rules and that not even a sparrow falls to the ground apart from his will.  It is the acknowledgement that there is not a maverick molecule (to borrow an expression from R. C. Sproul) in the universe.

Paul recognized this.  And, by the way, this is true even when the devil is at work in our lives, throwing up obstacles, and hindering us in any way.  The apostle will say in verse 13 that he was often hindered from coming to them (the meaning of “let” in that verse).  His purpose was frustrated.  And we know that Satan often had a hand in frustrating Paul’s purposes, as he put it to the Thessalonians: “Wherefore we would have come unto you, even I Paul, once and again; but Satan hindered us” (1 Thess. 2:18).  However, when you put that with verse 10, you see that Paul understood that Satan couldn’t do anything apart from God’s permission.  Satan may try to hinder Paul, but if it is God’s will for Paul to get to Rome, it will happen.  

Now we know that what Satan does is evil, and God does not make Satan do anything evil.  But God does permit it for good and wise and holy purposes.  Satan no doubt worked through Joseph’s brothers to sell him into slavery, but God was working in that very thing to save the lives of the very ones that sold him into slavery.  “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good,” Joseph would tell his brothers (Gen. 50:20).  Satan had to get God’s permission to afflict Job, and he couldn’t do one thing apart from that permission.  And we see that even that God meant for good.  The demons in the demoniac had to get the permission of Christ even to go into a herd of swine.

So, my friends, when we encounter difficulty, hindrances, even tragedy (as in Job’s case), we need to bow the head and submit to God.  We tend to speak against God, to blame him, to accuse him.  Don’t do it!  We need to take the mindset of David, when he said, in response to a difficult trial that had come into his life: “I was dumb, I opened not my mouth; because thou didst it” (Ps. 39:9).  What did God do?  Read the next verse: “Remove thy stroke away from me: I am consumed by the blow of thine hand” (10).  When God consumes you by the blow of his hand, don’t speak against him; rather, submit to him.  Let us say, with the hymn:

Whate'er my God ordains is right
Though now this cup in drinking
May bitter seem to my faint heart
I take it all, unshrinking.
My God is true, each morn anew,
Sweet comfort yet shall fill my heart
And pain and sorrow shall depart.

Praise God, for the sovereign God whose will brings pain and sorrow into our lives will one day fill our hearts with sweet comfort.  

It is sad and tragic when people walk away from the Lord because they don’t understand the path that God is taking them down.  They don’t understand, and it doesn’t seem right to them.  But my friends, let us not measure God by our own understanding.  Let us take the example of Job who lost everything short of his life: his children (all of them!), his property, and his health.  And this is what he said as he sat in the ash heap, almost overwhelmed with despair: “Behold, I go forward, but he is not there; and backward, but I cannot perceive him: on the left hand, where he doth work, but I cannot behold him: he hideth himself on the right hand, that I cannot see him: but he knoweth the way that I take: when he hath tried me, I shall come forth as gold” (Job 23:8-10).  What faith!  He goes on to say: “My foot hath held his steps, his way have I kept, and not declined. Neither have I gone back from the commandment of his lips; I have esteemed the words of his mouth more than my necessary food” (11-12).  What obedience!  Oh that our trials would be draped in this kind of faith and followed by this kind of obedience.

My friends, you must run to God because won’t have comfort any other way.  To walk away from God is to walk away from the only one who can fill our hearts with sweet comfort and who will one day cause all pain and sorrow to depart.  

Does this describe us?  Do we submit to God’s will?  Do we trust in him to lead us?  You know, the way this submission to God’s will works its way out in the life is through trust.  We trust in him.  It works its way out in the application of Proverbs 3:5-6 in our lives: “Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths.”

However, I can hear one saying, “But wait a minute – didn’t you just say that God’s will of purpose is always done?  If that’s the case, then how is his directing our paths dependent upon our acknowledging him?”  Well, I think the way to put it is like this.  God will sovereignly bring glory to himself in your life.  But there are two ways he can do this.  He can either glorify himself through you like he did through Pharaoh, who hardened his heart against God.  Or he can glorify himself through you like he did through Moses who put his faith and trust in God.  In other words, God can direct your paths in a good way or a bad way.  The good way is always connected to faith and obedience.  This is what is meant by God directing your path when you trust in him.  And by the way, that good way doesn’t mean no problems.  For Moses had to endure a lot, didn’t he?  The epistle to the Hebrews says that he suffered affliction with the people of God.  But he trusted in the Lord and God directed his way.  Pharaoh didn’t put his trust in the Lord, and God directed his path too, right down into the depths of the Red Sea.  Either way, God’s purpose will be done.  Either way, God will be glorified.    

So this is what piety looks like.  It means you have a real, vibrant relationship with the living God.  It means that you walk before him, in sincerity, with your heart and not just outwardly.  It is evidenced by a real, ongoing, and meaningful prayer life where every need is brought to God’s throne of grace.  And it is evidenced in a trusting submission to God’s will in and over our lives.  

Let me ask it one more time: does this describe us?  Does this resonate with us?  

If it does, then brother or sister, I want to encourage you to press on!  Don’t give up!  Grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Draw closer to the Lord.  

And if it doesn’t, then, my friend, I want to say to you that a relationship with God is possible through Jesus Christ.  It is not something based on personal goodness.  It isn’t something based on accomplishments.  It isn’t based on your achievements in any way.  Christ doesn’t save the righteous; he receives sinners, and he justifies the ungodly (Rom. 4:5).  He takes sinners and gives them the righteousness of God.  And he then begins to take us and to sanctify us and to conform us to his image.  He grants us fellowship with him and gives us joy.  Come then to Christ and delay not!  And when you do come, you will know that all along he was the one drawing you with cords of love.  He showers us with his sovereign grace from first to last.  Oh that you might know him, this wonderful Savior of ours!


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