Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God.
These words are the beginning the greatest letter ever written, the mightiest theological document anyone in the world could study, but I am speaking to you about it because God says to every minister, “Preach the word,” (2 Timothy 4:2). The climactic element in every worship service (after we have addressed God and sung his praise) is that God speaks to us through his word, and Romans, by every criterion, is the word of God. At the end of the fourth century in Hippo and in Carthage a couple of church councils were held and they listed the 27 books which had been recognized for three centuries to be inspired by God. There had been some debate about the little books of the New Testament like the 2nd and 3rd letters of John, but with little emotion and no feelings that they were determining what was the word of God. You understand what I’m saying, that these councils didn’t go through the books of the New Testament and vote for them one by one. “Order! Order! O.K? Let’s start with Matthew. Shall we include Matthew in the Canon? All in agreement raise your hands. Everyone! Good. Now what about Mark . . .” And then on and on through the gospels and Acts with 100% voting for them, and when they came to Romans did the presiding chairman say, “Now let’s look at the letters. What about Romans?” And all except two deaf old men raised their hands and because of that vote Romans was put in the canon of Scripture.
It was not like that at all. A group of saved sinners did not give authority to the books of the New Testament. The New Testament is not under the church. The church is under the word and the church came about and comes about today by the same word. Peter preached the word at Pentecost and God added 3000 to the church. I preach today (as do a million other preachers) and God adds those chosen to eternal life to his church. Those ancient gatherings of some Christian leaders in North Africa were simply recognizing what the church has always recognized, the authority that the Holy Spirit had given to the gospel writers and to Paul and Peter in writing what they did. The authority was not in the church gatherings: it was in the books themselves. It was not man but God who chose what books were to be included in the New Testament by inspiring the apostles to write the books. So I am preaching from Romans because it is the Word of God, and God tells me not to preach my ideas and my convictions when we gather in the name of the Son of God, but to preach the Word.
But I am preaching from Romans because it is a particularly important book in the Bible and as I have little time left I cannot spend it on the twig and leaf books of the Bible but on the great trunk and branch books. Though all the Bible is equally inspired it is not equally crucial. The six chapters of the letter to the Ephesians carry immeasurably more weight than the first six chapters of 1st Chronicles – though they are the same length and have the same spiritual inspiration. The prophecy of Obadiah is not as important as the gospel of John though they are both books amongst the 66 books in the Bible. Paul’s letter to the Romans is far mightier than his letter to Philemon. There are some sermons greater than other sermons, and some Sundays more unforgettable than other Sundays, and so here we stand on the threshold of this epistle to the Romans.
What can you say about it? It has been studied more intensely by more people of great intelligence than any other document in human history. Perhaps there is no one here who has read the Magna Charta (though most of us have heard about it) but many of us read the letter to the Romans frequently, and we are ordinary people. It has been the focus of the profoundest interest wherever Christianity has gone. There has never been an important spiritual movement in this history of the church that has not been connected to this letter. Where this epistle has been ignored then the reality and the durability of an awakening is suspect and the fruit has been smaller. On the other hand churches have been strengthened when Romans is known and loved. Individuals have become men and women of God. The power of the current hostility to Christianity, and the overwhelming apathy concerning Jesus Christ amongst young and old, will not be conquered except as the truths of this letter are declared, understood, applied and obeyed from men’s hearts. I would test the spirituality of any congregation in Wales today by asking that church, “How well do you know the epistle to the Romans?”
1. THE IMPACT OF THE LETTER TO THE ROMANS UNTIL TODAY.
See what Romans has achieved. Look at the change in the life of the greatest of the preachers in the early church, Augustine. He was immoral, living with a woman, lost, despairing and guilty. He was in his garden lying down listlessly, a failure, when he heard children next door at play and chanting, perhaps as they skipped, “Tole! Lege! Tole! Lege!” “Take! Read! Take! Read!” and the repetition got through to him and he got up and went indoors and opened the Scriptures at random. Before him was the letter to the Romans and these words leapt out of the page and zapped him, “Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature” (Roms. 13:13&14). His life was transformed by the righteous demands of the law and by the offer of Christ’s beauty to clothe his naked soul.
Then there was Martin Luther, the greatest figure at the time of the Reformation when there was such ignorance of the gospel and decadence in the church. He had wanted to please God, and he thought the way of doing it was to physically starve and beat and abuse his body, but the more he denied himself the more elusive was deliverance from despair. Instead of growing closer to God he found himself rejecting him. Instead of coming to love God, he found himself hating God. What did the righteous God think he was doing in demanding that we be first righteous before we could be forgiven? It was all too impossible. He couldn’t live with God and he couldn’t live without him. In his desperation Luther turned to this letter, and in this first chapter and in the seventeenth verse of chapter 1, he found the solution: “For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith.’” What does it mean? God made clear the meaning to Luther, that the righteousness Luther needed was not his own righteousness built up by self-denial and prayers and good works, but the righteousness of our Lord which is freely imputed to all who’ll receive it. Luther’s righteousness could only be the righteousness of Jesus Christ. Luther was saved by how Christ had lived and what Christ had done in taking away his guilt and blame on the cross. Behold the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world! And this righteousness had to be received, not through our deserving by our good living in specially perfect ways, but by entrusting ourselves to this Christ alone – faith alone in Christ alone was life and salvation. Faith meant taking God at his word, believing him. Luther did this, and as he did he knew himself to be reborn and to have entered Paradise.
Here is how he put it: “I had no love for that holy and just God who punishes sinners. I was filled with secret anger against him. I hated him, because, not content with frightening by the law and the miseries of life us wretched sinners, already ruined by original sin, he still further increased our tortures by the gospel. . . . But when, by the Spirit of God, I understood the words – when I learned how the justification of the sinner proceeds from the free mercy of our Lord through trusting in Jesus Christ . . . then I felt born again like a new man. . . . In very truth, this language of Saint Paul was to me the true gate to Paradise.” The words of Romans were the cause of the glorious Reformation and life and liberty coming into the people of God.
William Tyndale was the Luther of England, that beloved martyr who gave his life that the ploughboy could read the Bible in his own language. Tyndale translated this letter into English virtually for the first time ever, and he wrote an introduction to it where he said that this letter was “a light and a way into the whole Scripture.” In other words if you understood the epistle to the Romans then you would understand the message of the whole Bible.
Again think of the Evangelical Awakening and the wonderful change that took place in Wales and England and Scotland and Ireland and America. Think of Daniel Rowland preaching not far from this spot and one of his sermons on Romans 8:28 on God working all things together for good and the impact of such preaching on this whole area. One of the events to trigger this spiritual movement took place in the city of London not far from St. Paul’s on May 24th 1738 in a religious gathering in Aldersgate Street. John Wesley was at a cross-roads. He had been to America, to Georgia, to teach the Indians Christianity but the whole enterprise was a disaster. He did not understand the gospel, and preaching the law of God to the Indians was a total failure. On his voyage back he came into contact with Moravian Christians who in the midst of a fearful storm in mid-Atlantic showed a spirit of peace and praise that he did not possess. He wrote in his diary, “Alas, I have a fair-weather Christianity.” He then wrote, “I went to American to convert the Indians but who will convert me?”
Conversion occurred when the Moravians invited him to one of their meetings. This was not an emotional meeting of brow-beating brain-washing. Not at all. It was very sober. They were very quiet and the leader told them he was going to read to them the introduction of Martin Luther to Paul’s letter to the Romans. So he read intelligently and spiritually, and this famous response is what Wesley wrote in his diary that night: “About a quarter before nine, while Luther was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.” The impact upon Wesley of those words of Luther as he explained the message of this epistle to the Romans was enormous. It turned Wesley’s life right around. It was so powerful that for the next fifty years he traveled all over the British Isles preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ to the endless good of tens of thousands of people. It has been claimed that his ministry and that of other men like George Whitefield, delivered Britain from the horrors of the French revolution. That is what this letter to the Romans has done. One more example.
Let me give you just one other example of the Spirit’s use of the Epistle. There was a remarkable evangelical movement on the continent of Europe at the beginning of the nineteenth century. It was amongst students at university in Geneva, and then it spread to France and also had a certain influence in Holland. In fact it helped create there a Christian political party, the ‘Anti Revolutionary Party’ which still exists in Holland today. That was Abraham Kuyper’s party when Kuyper became Prime Minister of the Netherlands. Dr. Lloyd-Jones says, “Protestant life on the Continent had become very dead and very formal, but suddenly this new light came, this reviving took place, and it led to a very notable movement. I wonder how many of you know that it happened in the following way. There were two Scotsmen of the name of Haldane – Robert and James Alexander Haldane. They were laymen, but they were both greatly used of God in Scotland and elsewhere at about that time. Robert Haldane went to stay in Switzerland, in Geneva, and as he was sitting in the open air one day, he began to listen to the conversation of some young men who were seated beside him. He realized that they were theological students; he realized further that they were ignorant of the truth in an Evangelical sense, and therefore ignorant of its power. And this weighed upon his heart. He met them several times, and at last decided he must do something to help them.
“And so Robert Haldane invited these students, and they brought others, to come to his room, and what he did with them was just to take this epistle to the Romans and to expound it verse by verse to them, and to take them through its mighty and glorious truths. The Holy Spirit, who led him to do this, honoured him as he did it, and those simple meetings led to the conversion of some great men. One of them, Merle d’Aubigne, was famous for what is in many ways the standard history of the Protestant Reformation. There was another man called Gaussen, the author of an excellent book on the inspiration of the Scriptures. Both of these men were converted in those meetings. Another man named Malan was also converted, and among others Monod and Vinet — once familiar names in France. As a result of this exposition of the epistle to the Romans by Robert Haldane they all ultimately became mighty men of God, and the great teachers that they were” (D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Romans; Exposition of Chapter 1, The Gospel of God, pp. 5&6).
Let me bring this up to date with three little contemporary stories. Three years ago, when Scotsman Dr. Sinclair Ferguson was 62 years of age he was the pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Columbia, South Carolina. He had been a minister and professor for over 35 years, but he had never preached through the epistle to the Romans and so for his swan song at that church before his retirement this past summer he did that and went chapter by chapter through this great letter. He told me that as he got into chapter 15, just before the end, people in the congregation were saying to him, “Slow down! We are getting to the end of Romans too quickly.” Now he has returned to Scotland and has been succeeded by a former deacon from our congregation, Derek Thomas.
Twenty years ago I took my daughter Fflur and my niece Gwennan to America for a summer trip. Gwennan fell in love with the USA and returned and finally married an American pilot in the US air force. They live there today and have five children. Four or five years ago he was sent to Iraq for six months, a dangerous place at a dangerous time, and to prepare himself for all the possibilities of being there he memorized the letter to the Romans in its entirety so that if he were captured and deprived of the Scriptures he would have hidden the word of God in his heart. Last year when he spent six months in Afghanistan he did the same thing with the letter to the Hebrews.
I was in Kenya a couple of years ago, and I spent an hour or two with Sukesh Pabari a theological teacher in Nairobi. He was born in Kenya and had been raised as a Hindu in an Indian family, but that religion gave him no deliverance from his guilt and darkness. Then one day he picked up a Bible and he began to read the letter to the Romans, and this epistle showed him himself and it showed him the living God and how that God had been reconciled to sinful men and women by the life and death of his Son Jesus Christ. He began the letter to the Romans as an ignorant unbeliever; he ended it as a man whose hope and trust was in the Lord Jesus Christ. So before us are the mighty works that this letter has achieved. You can see how practically important it is for everyone to read this epistle and ask God to help them to understand its message.
2. THE TEACHING OF THE LETTER TO THE ROMANS.
Paul wrote this letter to the Romans in order to make Christians strong (v.11). Some were to be thrown to the lions or hacked to pieces by gladiators. Others had their bodies covered in pitch and they were set alight. They endured all sorts of cruel abominations, but they survived because the truths of this letter had made them very brave. This letter is the most basic and comprehensive statement of true Christianity, and Christianity is the most powerful and transforming force in the history of mankind. It makes weaklings strong. In what ways?
i] They had a strong grasp of man’s depravity. In the second half of the first chapter Paul describes how people were behaving in the Augustan age in Rome and throughout the empire. The apostle characterizes their lives as those of ‘godlessness and wickedness.’ He tells us that men were suppressing the truth by their evil (v.18). They knew God because he had revealed himself to men in creation, making his eternal power and divine nature fully known (v.20), but men clamped down on that revelation, and their thinking became futile. They exchanged the glory of God for idols and images of men and animals and they worshipped them. Then God gave them over to the pursuit of the flesh, all kinds of sexual aberrations. They believed lies and rejected the truth. They became filled with every kind of wickedness. Don’t you observe that today as you read of the depravity of men all the world over and the incredible cruelties that men inflict upon their fellow men and women and children and animals? Paul tells us that this was true for the Gentile world, but it was true for the Jews also so his great conclusion is this, “that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin. As it is written: There is no one righteous, no not even one” (Roms3:9&10). You search Aberystwyth for one person as righteous as God and you cannot find even one. You search the United Kingdom and all of Europe; is there someone who is blameless in their living? No, not even one. You go to Asia and Africa, the Americas, Australia and New Zealand, can you find a single woman or child there who is wholly righteous? No, not even one. All, throughout the history of the human race, have turned away from God.
Then Paul speaks of the extent of the depravity in every individual and he shows that sin has affected every aspect of our lives. Our throats and tongues and lips and mouths in what we say (Roms. 3:13&14). Where our feet take us (vv. 15-17), and what we look at (v.18) is affected by sin, and the fear of our mighty Creator has no impact on how we live. There is no way we can defend ourselves and say to God, “Yes . . . but . . .” Would you dare to say that to God? “Yes . . . but . . .” and excuse yourself for how you have hurt the people who loved you the most, the people you relied on the most? The people who read and believed this letter have a strong grasp of the plight of man. They needed mercy.
ii] They also had a strong grasp of who Jesus Christ was and what he had done. Paul sets this out from the very beginning. He affirms as powerfully as he can the deity of Jesus Christ, not that he is merely the best of men and a great healer and a wonderful teacher. Paul says this; “his Son, who as to his human nature was a descendant of David, and who through the Spirit of holiness was declared with power to be the Son of God, by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord” (vv. 3&4). Jesus is God the Son, conqueror of death. Jesus Christ our Jehovah. So all he did was suffused by the fact that he was infinite, eternal and unchangeable. All his achievements were infinite, eternal and unchangeable; his teaching, his sacrifice and his victory over Satan were all infinite, eternal and unchangeable. So whatever terrible trials these Roman Christians had to pass through they knew that the one they served had gone through much worse and had emerged alive and vindicated by God in his resurrection.
What had God done for us in sending his Son into the world? This is the answer in the letter to the Romans: “God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement through faith in his blood” (Roms. 3:25). That is the way sinners are forgiven. They trust in the sacrifice of Christ, in the atonement he made when God made him to be sin for us, and condemned him in our place, so that he could freely pardon us. His condemnation was ours. The wrath of a sin-hating God can have nothing more to do with us – for whom the Lord Jesus has made full atonement.
iii] They had a strong grasp of how this salvation became theirs. And that is the theme of chapter four. Think of how Abraham was declared righteous in God’s sight. He trusted the God who’d spoken to him and told him to go to a land he had prepared from him, and off went Abraham. He obeyed God in faith; “Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness” (Roms.4:3). What is saving faith? It is a connecting grace which joins us to the great Saviour. Some faith is as strong as a woven iron cable that holds up a suspension bridge. Some faith is as thin as a line of cotton, but we are not saved by the strength of our faith but by the one to whom we are joined by faith, and that is Jesus Christ. Our faith plugs us into the great achievements of the Son of God. Nothing can destroy that union.
iv] They had a strong grasp of the blessedness of being in Christ. They knew that once they had been joined to their father Adam. He was their federal head in the sight of God, and his decisions had had an enormous affect upon them, like the decisions of a President or Prime Minister affect the people he governs. If he declares war or increases taxes then all the people over which he is the head are involved. Your head says to a limb in your body, “Be lifted up” and the arm or leg is raised. You cannot undo the union of body and head. Our human race is joined to Adam and he defied a loving God and brought sin and death into the world and that is where all men are, dying in Adam, but one can be transferred from the powerful influence of Adam into the mightier influence of Christ, and in him you are safe and secure. As in Adam all die so in Christ shall all be made alive, and that is the theme of the fifth chapter of Romans.
The sixth chapter of Romans describes the radical cleavage with sin that being in Christ achieves. We are delivered from sin’s headship over us. What we used to be as unbelievers no longer exists, I mean that man who disbelieved and would not have Christ as his Lord. He is gone and now we yield our bodies to our Saviour to do works of righteousness. Their tongues were not afraid to say to Roman magistrates that ‘Jesus Christ is Lord’ even at the threat of a hideously painful death. Our new Lord helps us from within because we are in him and he is in us.
v] They had a strong grasp of the battle that needed to be fought with remaining sin. And that is the theme of chapter seven. Sin no longer reigns over us, but sin is still active within us. So when fellow Christians let them down then they had an explanation. When they behaved as wretchedly as it was possible for a Christian to behave then they had an explanation. It was not that they had never become believers. When they found themselves troubled by angry and bitter and lustful thoughts, then they asked how could real Christians think in that way? Surely they weren’t believers at all, but Romans chapter seven described the tensions and warfare of the Christian life. They had good reasons to keep following Christ in their imperfection and falls.
vi] They had a strong grasp of the blessedness of our comprehensive salvation and the mighty work of the Spirit in us and the assurance that nothing could separate us from the love of God, and that is the theme of chapter 8. Chapters 9, 10 and 11 deal with the sovereignty of God and the place of the Jews. Chapters 12 through 16 describe the moral and ethical life of those who profess to have received the mercies of God and present their bodies as living sacrifices to him. That is the theme and structure of the letter to the Romans.
3. OBJECTIONS TO THIS LETTER CONSIDERED.
i] It’s too easy. The Jews complained that it did away with all the ceremonial and food laws of Moses. Paul writing to the Romans was teaching a soft doctrine to curry favour with the people and make himself a leader. Then the Gentiles asked what is this religion in which God justifies the ungodly who believe in Jesus? Celsus spoke of the Christians he observed and heard, ‘Whosoever is a sinner, they say, whosoever is unwise, whosoever is a child, and, in a word, whosoever is a wretch – the kingdom of God will receive him.’ And there goes the neighbourhood. Or, consider poet W. H. Auden’s line, “Every crook will argue: ‘I like committing crimes. God likes forgiving them. Really the world is admirably arranged.’” It is all too easy.
ii] It’s too hard. But that same fact that we are saved by grace alone makes the gospel seem too hard, too pessimistic, to another group of people. Those are the ones who have had drilled into them that human beings are essentially good and that most of their troubles come from failing to think well enough of themselves, whether because of bad genes or a toxic early environment or a host of troubles that are not, after all, their fault. Such folks are offended at the very thought that their sins are sufficiently bad that only the sacrifice of Jesus on a cross could provide a remedy for them. What could a bloody, unjust death have to do with it, anyway? It is all too hard to believe. Actually, Paul himself was perfectly clear that the gospel was an offence to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles: such objections are hardly fresh and startling. The only startling thing is what our Lord has done for us and then asks of us – hard, implausible demands.
iii] It is not enough. Romans is not enough to satisfy your curiosity or answer various pressing questions or deal with certain personal concerns. It’s not enough to answer the problem of global warming, or wind-farms, or cloning, or nuclear waste. The letter to the Romans says little on these things. How, then, could it be enough?
iv] There has to be a better way. “This letter is old and primitive. We have come of age and we need to grow up. Times have changed and we have made much scientific and technological progress. Surely we must have come up with a more adequate way of salvation.” The trouble is that all of these objections and achievements, seductive though they are, do not, in the end, address our most fundamental problem. We hunger for a universe in which we matter, in which what we do and who we are has some larger importance. Without that, we will be restless and dissatisfied, no matter how comfortable and secure we manage to make our earthly lives. We are as helpless to become truly better people by our own wits and decisions as we ever were.
I am saying, “Hold fast to the gospel found in this letter to the Romans. You see, it does not really matter whether this genuine gospel of Christ is easy or hard, whether it fails to satisfy our curiosity, and cannot answer all our contemporary questions, refuses to submit to our efforts to nail it down rationally, or declines to put on an altogether modern dress. The only thing that matters is that the gospel is true. Is it a fact that our ultimate help comes from one place alone—from Calvary? The other alternatives show themselves again and again to fail. They abandon us in our moral impotence and final futility. There is no other gospel – no other truly good news – than that Jesus Christ was born of Mary and lived and died and rose again for our salvation, to save us from our sins, to remake us at last to be like him, and to give us the sure hope of a new heavens and a new earth and of us being with him forever. There is no other gospel than this, that salvation is by grace, by God’s free gift of Jesus Christ.
The gospel of Romans is easy enough to be available to the worst, most broken, most helpless sinner, who knows he has no righteousness to offer to God, no hope of making himself better, indeed, nothing at all that he can do for himself. This letter is hard enough to challenge the most successful person’s illusions about being in control of his own life, hard enough in its demands that we live lives of service rather than seeking to be served, hard in its clear-eyed view of our relentless sinfulness. The letter to the Romans remains up-to-date in addressing the perennial human need for meaning in a universe that seems to run on with blind indifference to the hopes and fears of its occupants. The letter to the Romans is complete with respect to the one thing we need most, so complete that nothing fundamental can be added in its provision for our salvation. As a hymn puts it,
I need no other argument,
I need no other plea.
It is enough that Jesus died,
And that He died for me.
22 September 2013 GEOFF THOMAS