To all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ.
So Paul has given us his credentials, why he should be given respect, read soberly, and listened to seriously as someone who has received from the one true and living God the office of an apostle – a designated messenger of Jesus Christ. Then here, in the verse before us, he addresses the congregation of Christians in Rome, and we see today how Paul evaluates this particular group of people to whom he is addressing his epistle, and why he takes such care to write so immensely brilliant a letter to them. He is clearly making a distinction between them and the million others who lived in Rome and its vicinity, people who worshipped other gods and had no place in their lives for Jesus Christ. He’s ignoring that huge constituency with all its political, military and economic power. The Puritans would say that Paul is not writing ‘promiscuously.’ He is not addressing Rome at large, he is addressing a specific constituency who live within that metropolis, “to all in Rome”, and who are these folk? He defines them in two ways, they are loved by God and they are called to be saints. Finally he greets them all calling down wonderful divine blessings upon each of them. So that is what we have in our text, this seventh verse of Romans.
- CHRISTIANS ARE THE PEOPLE WHO ARE LOVED BY GOD.
Rome was the most important and influential city in the world, extraordinarily wealthy, a quarter of the inhabitants were slaves. It was full of temples and idols, entertained by the so-called circuses of the Coliseum with its cruelties and utter barbarism involving wild beasts and the slaughter of men and women. Yet this city does not experience fires from heaven falling upon it, consuming it through the wrath of the God who hates all that is cruel and unrighteous. We don’t know who were the first Christians who went there. Paul tells us that the very first Christian in what is now Turkey, and then was the province of Asia was his dear friend Epenetus who had since moved to Rome to live (Roms.16:5). Somehow these utterly anonymous Christians were saved and came to discover one another, and began their first meeting, until they finally constituted themselves as a church. We know none of the details of these things. The greetings in the last chapter are very personal and selective. I guess that I’d have greeted the ministers and elders first, and then the deacons and then the leading women. For Paul that long list names seem to be an utter stream of consciousness as the thoughts of one household or one individual prompt him to think of another man or woman. I’d have been tempted to say something like, “And if I have left anyone out then my apologies . . .’ But Paul doesn’t think like that. He shows in that last chapter that he knows this congregation very well indeed and that helps him as he prays for them, in fact he says, “How constantly I remember you in my prayers at all times” (vv.9&10). Should he not pray to God for those people whom God loves? We are pleased when people ask us how are our children and how are our grandchildren. We talk about them eagerly because we love them. So we talk to God about the people whom God loves in Aberystwyth and in Kenya and all over the world. We know we are raising a subject in which he is very interested, “The people I love.” If people ask us why we pray for one another then we say, “God loves them,” and that is an all-sufficient answer.
God loved these particular Romans from before the foundation of the world. Before he said, “Let there be light” and created the very first molecule then he knew and loved these individual men and women. Because he loved them he chose them to be his own people. He chose them because he loved them, but why he loved them we haven’t the slightest knowledge. ‘Tis mystery all immense and free, but O my God it found out me! He loved them and gave them to his Son to seek and save, to live for and die for, to intercede for at the presence of God, to make sure that they would all be with God and like God for ever and ever. And that was the Son’s determination for he always did whatever pleased his Father. So Father, Son and Holy Spirit are the one God who loved these people in Rome.
It was because of that love that he sent the first Christians to Rome. It was because of that love for these men and women that he led them individually one day to hear the gospel. It was because of his love for them that he convicted them of their need of Jesus Christ. Because he loved them he gave them an understanding of Jesus Christ, a growing admiration and a yearning to know him, to have him teach them, to have him deal with the guilt of their past lives, to have him shepherd and protect them, supplying all their needs richly, working everything together for their good – this was all because he loved them. He promised he would do all that to them, and much more, because he loved them.
There could have been times in their early lives when they were infatuated with Christ, and all they could think about was him and that they had him, and he had them and they were so close to one another, with ties that naught can sever. They had wonderful answers to simple prayers. They spoke so directly to God and in their early years of discipleship they had remarkable answers. Then testing times came, and they discovered another law in their members that struggled against their love for Jesus and there were periods when they didn’t feel as close to him as once they did, but they persevered, keeping on walking with him and following him and trusting this Lord. It was in fact a maturing time when they understood more of the power of the sin and guilt that was in their hearts. God never allowed them to be tested above their ability to handle it. And always with the trial ways of escape were opened to them by God, and they were able to bear it. All this God measured out wisely because he loved them so much. Increasingly in their lives they felt loved, loved with an everlasting love. They had been led by grace to know that love and they had an increasingly strong inward witness that it was so. If someone asked them what was their relationship with God then they would say, “God loves me.” How do you know this? “For the Bible tells me so,” they said. And if they were probed it would have been possible for them to have been able to answer in the words of our great hymns, that his love for them was “vast, unmeasured, boundless and free.” That his love for them exceeded all other loves, that it was the joy of heaven to earth come down, that it was a deep, deep love, knowing them through and through and yet caring for them, forgiving them, picking them up when they fell down and assuring them that they mattered to God, that they were important to the Father who had loved them before creation, and to the Son who had laid down his life for them, and to the Holy Spirit who had given them life and assured them of his love. Christians are people who are loved by God. Then as Paul addresses them he tells us that they were also called to be saints.
- CHRISTIANS ARE THE PEOPLE WHO ARE CALLED TO BE SAINTS.
This word ‘saint’ occurs almost fifty times in the New Testament. It is the most popular designation for a follower of Jesus Christ. Of course, men have narrowed down the reference of that term considerably. They use it for some kind of elite or a specially sanctified group within the Christian church. Men speak of ‘St. Michael’ or ‘St. David’ a form of speaking which the New Testament nowhere uses and would not condone. I think we ought to avoid that usage very studiously.
In the Roman Catholic church it is a reference to those dead members of the Roman church who have been canonized – made saints – because of their alleged miracle-working powers. Next April, on the 17th to be exact, two recent popes, John XXIII and John Paul II are being declared saints to world-wide fanfares. We believe that all Christians are made saints at regeneration, but these two men had to wait until they were dead to be declared ‘saints’ by the Roman church. Normally she waits a few hundred years for the dust to settle, with slow promotion from the ‘venerable’ to ‘blessed’ before it declares that a soul is now with God in heaven. To establish that this is the case – that someone is now in glory – miracles have to be ascribed to those candidates for canonization. The saints themselves are not said to perform the miracles; this is done by God at their request. So we are told that Pope John XXIII has performed one miracle which the current Pope Francis has said is enough. Pope John Paul II, it is claimed, has produced two. These are the details of one of them; a woman in Costa Rica named Floribeth Mora was suffering with a cerebral aneurysm and given a month to live. However, she claims that she prayed to the dead Pope, John Paul II and on 1 May 2011, the anniversary of his beatification, she was cured. So that is how the souls of dead Catholics are upgraded to become saints. But many modern Roman Catholics seem to ignore these things, and are a bit embarrassed by them maybe. Even purgatory is rarely mentioned in R.C. funerals, and the subject of hell is referred to very infrequently. The priests officiating and all the congregation seem to assume that whoever the deceased is, he or she is now in heaven.
That mentality is not a New Testament attitude. In the Bible every single Christian, no matter how humble or ordinary, is in the sight of God a saint. The whole membership of the Christian congregation in Rome consisted of saints, every single one of them. This is the designation of the membership of a church community. You see it so clearly here in this greeting. Even when there are manifest inconsistencies and serious backslidings, as, for example, in the church at Corinth, you will find that even there believers are referred to as ‘saints in Christ Jesus.’ So Paul is not addressing his words to a certain section of the more spiritual people in Rome whom he acknowledges to be the real saints in the church. Each mere Christian is before God a saint. Let the Roman church reform its ideas in the light of the Word of God. How can we get closer to them with such fundamental departures from the New Testament? So why does Paul refer to Christians as ‘saints’?
i] That title ‘saint’ is given, first of all, because of the status or position of the child of God. He stands in a special relationship to God. He was a holy one as being set apart, or consecrated to some saintly use. God has made a believer his bondservant and so he is a saint. That goes right back to the Old Testament where the concept of holiness and the whole idea of sainthood was used of objects or subjects which had in themselves no moral character. For example, there was a holy land. That did not mean that the land had a moral character. It meant it was unique as an area to God with a special city which had a special building, special furnishings and utensils, all of which were holy before God. They were not holy first of all because they had a character. They were holy because they had a status. They belonged to God. They were set aside for the Lord’s special use, and first and foremost that is always where a saint is in the New Testament. He is somebody who has been set aside, and called apart. He has been consecrated by grace to God for God’s own special use. A man of God is God’s possession. He does not belong to the world, or even to himself. He is no longer his own. He belongs to God to be used in the way the Lord himself thinks is most fitting and proper. So all believers are saints in the sense that they have been set aside by God for his own use.
ii] That title ‘saint’ is given, secondly, because it does refer to a special kind of character. Every single professing believer in Rome who had been set apart for God’s use, did at the same time possess a character quite different from the world. He was different not only in his functions but he was also different in his moral and spiritual bearing. He had been transformed by the indwelling Spirit, renewed and made into a new creation. God changes every single Christian in the depths of his being, and he beds and roots into his soul new aptitudes, insights and preoccupations. God causes the whole orientation of his life to be radically and irreversibly transformed.
That is why these Romans are saints, because at a particular time the power of the Most High overshadowed them and then they were never going to be the same again. Everything about them was made new. The grace of God touched them at every level of their lives and in all the functions of their souls. Grace made them different people. Not education, nor culture, nor their DNA molecular structure, nor their own self-discipline, but as a result of the invincible power of the Creator God every single one of these saints living in Rome itself had been changed. This extraordinary experience – which can only be explained in terms of a new birth from above – had renewed them from the inside out and from the depths of the hearts up to their minds and to their whole way of life. Their experience was a total metamorphosis.
It was not that they became respectable when they became saints. They became more and more saintly, growing more and more in their wisdom, and self control, and joy in Jesus Christ, in their sorrow for sin, their evangelistic earnestness, their mortification of remaining sin, their knowledge of the Scriptures, and so on. Of course this was achieved by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, omnipotence determined to change us, and so they were being transformed by the renewal of their minds. This congregation were an assembly of such saints.
3. THEY WERE SAINTS IN ROME.
Some of those people had had the most disadvantageous spiritual backgrounds, maybe many of them were mere statistics of beggars and slaves and widows and illiterates in the metropolis. They were folks who had been saved off the streets of Rome; and what the grace of God had done to these poor people was to make them saints. Saints in Rome itself. In other words, when they became Christians Paul did not insist that they all packed up and they went away to live in the countryside miles away from the corrupting city. They were not to live their lives serving God in some sort of disaffiliation from their homes. They didn’t send for a removal company to pack up their belongings and move off to caves or a croft in a mountain fastness in some uninhabited location. They lived to the glory of God in the city of Rome. There was a place on this planet, on the west coast of central Italy, where they had to remain and live their lives as saints, unspotted from the world. Rome was a depraved and sensual city but in such an environment their calling was to be true saints. They had to live with members of their extended family who initially thought they had become fanatical. There were prejudices and misunderstandings to overcome. There was farming and industry and commerce and education all around them in that city, and they were a part of it. They bore their responsibilities, and they exercised their functions in that society which they knew so well, but now they were looking at it and thinking about it with a Christian mind
At Rome they were called to be holy to God and the light of that community. If they were living in a remote valley in the Italian Alps how could they illuminate Rome? They were called to be the salt of Rome by their lives and deaths, and one function of salt is to preserve, and resist putrefaction. There was plenty of decay in the city and God had made them the preservative. Salt gives savour to food; it seasons and overcomes the blandness of some dishes. That was their function in Rome. At a Bible study a Chinese student once observed, “Salt makes you thirsty.” That is a very convicting word. They were called as saints to make the city at the heart of the Roman Empire thirsty for Jesus Christ. So they had to live in their midst.
In this world we saints are to earn our bread by the sweat of our brow. We are acted upon by the world, but in turn we act upon the world, involved in its relationships, its problems and sorrows, and exposed to its pressures and pollutions. Yet this is the only place where we can be saints. I’m sure that there are times when we want to opt out of our own church, let alone out of our community, and live detached private lives, keeping being courteous, but living in disaffiliation from the world. But withdrawal is a betrayal of the greatest commandment of all, to love one another so that the unbelieving world notices. Can we really say before God today that our failings and inconsistencies are due to our environment? Is it because we are living in our own Romes that we aren’t saints? Is it because we are at Aberystwyth that we’re not saints? Or do we stand before this tremendous possibility that we can be at Aberystwyth and be involved in this little town on a number of different levels and be saints here?
It is God’s calling for us to pursue our vocations as electricians, and plumbers, and taxi-drivers, and translators, and lecturers, and joiners, and housewives, and that as we are involved in our society there is this tremendous possibility of being saints. Not in the 18th century but in the 21st; not in a rural village but in a rationalist college town; not in a Bible school but in a university; not in a monastery but on your street. The believer is to be a saint at 9.30 on Monday morning in what he is doing in the appointed place. He is never to use his involvement as a pretext for unsaintliness. He is never to give way to the temptation of thinking that if only he could detach himself from the world then it would be much easier to be a saint. It is God’s will that at our Rome day by day we live as saints, and then each Lord’s Day we come out of Rome, that with Christ we come apart, we close the door, we meet with God and we rest a while and are refreshed. Then Sunday turns to Monday and we return to our own Romes where the unbelief and blasphemy is, and the assassinations, and the suicide bombers, and there in that dark world we are called to be saints. There we shine as lights, and there we function as the salt, and we hold forth the word of life.
In this community we relate to people as human beings. We’re not ashamed at all of our Christian position. We don’t live our lives in separate compartments, half in the church and half at work with never the twain meeting. But we live to God here on the Lord’s Day when we particularly relate to the Bible, and to singing to one another in hymns of praise, and we pray together, and so here we are saints on Sundays, because if we are not saints here we shall never be saints. Then when we return to our families and places of business and education for the rest of the week, there we are also saints, living with the same obedience to God and a real love for our neighbours. The same saints in this holy place are set apart to honour God, and to love our neighbours as ourselves.
4. THEY WERE SAINTS IN CHRIST JESUS.
This is Paul’s familiar designation in a number of his other letters, for example, at the beginning of his epistles to the Philippians and to the Corinthians. It is not in our text but it is relevant and important. They were saints in Rome and saints in Corinth and saints in Philippi and everywhere else, and always they were saints in Christ Jesus! Here we see some polarity and tension. What a paradox for these saints! In Rome . . . in Christ Jesus. Rome, when Paul was writing this letter, was in a period of sex, scandal and suffering. Rome was filled with depravity and inequality, its streets thronged with prostitutes, and its houses played home to seduction, sickness, shady backroom deals and conspiracies of every variety. They are not allowed to make a choice of either the one or the other. They were not allowed to say, “I will be a saint but it must be in a nunnery or in a Christian commune.” When God called them to be his children then they were to remain in the place in which they were called and live out their vocation there. They were not permitted to make an either-or choice. It was both. All the saints have to be in Christ Jesus and saints also have to be in the place where God met with them. God’s work is the explanation of their saintliness. That is why they are different, and that is how they can function in Rome because they are also united to the Lord Jesus Christ. Some of you are saints, but you are visitors, you are not from Aberystwyth. Then some of you are from Aberystwyth but you are not yet saints. Yet the majority of you I believe are saints in Christ Jesus in Aberystwyth.
“How do I get united to Jesus Christ?” someone asks. You must get out of your sin and into Christ. There was a man whom Pastor Frank Joshua of Neath once caught red-handed in a shady deal. In self-defence the man said, “You know, I’m good at heart.” “No!” said Frank. “That is just where you are not good; if you were good there you would be good all through.” That is true for all of us. Sin is in your heart, and your heart is in sin, and you need to come out of sin and be put in Christ. There is that change when you have handed over your heart and life to him. You entrust that old sinful heart to Jesus. He will replace it with a new heart. Of course you do this by God’s grace, but you must do it. You must entrust yourself to Christ.
Think of something of great value, like the deeds on your house, and many people have handed them over to a bank or a solicitor that they might keep them safe in a fireproof strong room. Or think of exchanging houses with someone from Canada for three months. You leave the country and you give your car and the keys of your house to someone else who sleeps in your bed and sits in your chairs. Or think of a missionary family in west Africa. They have an only son who is a teenager and he needs to be educated in this country. So they place their only son in the home of another family for a few years. What enables people to hand over items of such value in this way? How do they dare do it? They do it because they have reason to trust those to whom they give the person or object. What reasons might they have for such trust? Their knowledge and experience of those institutions or people. They know that they are trustworthy.
I have bought my cars for the last 35 years from Gwyn, and when a farmer didn’t see me coming and drove in my path I needed a new car and his insurance company was very generous. So I called Gwyn and I asked him if he had a recent Nissan 1600 cc. without high mileage. “Yes, I’ve got a Primera,” he said. “When can you bring it up?” “Saturday,” he told me. So the next Saturday night he and his wife turned up at the Manse. We talked about our churches and families and had a cup of tea, then I asked him the price and wrote him a cheque. Then he said to me, “Come and see it.” So he took me outside and showed me the car which I still have. I learned a little later that he had told some friends, “Geoff Thomas paid me for a car without looking at it.” I never thought twice of doing that. I have known Gwyn for 35 years. I know his church. I have heard him pray in Prayer Meetings. I have seen him go through hard times with dignity looking to God without murmuring. I can trust Gwyn because I know Gwyn. Without trust, and reasons to trust, and things to be handed over in trust, human life would be terrifying.
Trust is something you have or don’t have. When you wake up in the early hours of the morning and look at the digital figures on your bedside clock-radio you know how accurate it is. It says 3.35 and it is 3.35. Your knowledge of that clock enables you to trust it. So you read the New Testament and you meet there this person of the Lord Jesus Christ, and as you learn about him you begin to trust what he is and what he says. As your friends speak of him, and his preachers tell you about him, you learn to trust in him more and more – this utterly uninventable Saviour! Many institutions and individuals you can’t trust, but when he says, “Come to me”, then you know you can trust Jesus, and you come. Coming is a movement of your heart and soul enabled by the Spirit of God. You hand over your soul, your very life to the Lord Christ. You keep back nothing. You hand him your brain – your mind – and you say, “Inform me of what I am to live for. Tell me what is the good life, and who is God, and what lies beyond the grave.” As he answers you, then you trust in him more and more, and you entrust yourself to him. That is the evidence that you have been joined to Jesus Christ, that is, that you are in Christ Jesus. Those who are in Christ Jesus are joined to him by trust.
In Rome . . . in Christ Jesus. We have to keep those two realities in our own lives. Let me expand it a little like this. A group of managers meet together for a week-end conference. The introduce themselves to one another; “I’m So and so and I’m in engineering . . . I’m sos and so and I’m in publishing . . . I’m So and so and I’m in forestry . . .” And so on. Most of us could identify with such descriptions of our calling but we would secretly be acknowledging in our hearts, “and I’m in Christ Jesus.” Whatever our calling is it cannot contradict our union with Christ Jesus. We would not say, “I’m So and so; I am in Christ Jesus and I’m in gambling,” or that we are in pornography, or in night clubs, or in marijuana production. That would be impossible if we are saints in Christ Jesus. The gambling or the night clubs are going to kill the union with Christ or the union with Christ is going to kill the marijuana.
So every single Christian has entrusted himself to this dying, rising, exalted Christ Jesus. It means that we are in the righteousness of Christ, that there is no possibility of condemnation, any more than the possibility of further condemnation falling upon the exalted Christ. It means that we are in the newness of Christ, that that same power which defeated death and gave him life has been at work in us giving us life too. It means that we are in the great range of privileges that there are in Christ Jesus, because God has come to bless you as he has blessed his dear Son. So we are in his righteousness, and his newness and blessedness. We are in Rome or in Aberystwyth, but we are in Christ Jesus too. We are saints in Christ Jesus living in the fallen world.
5. THEY NEEDED GRACE AND PEACE FROM THE FATHER AND THE SON.
Of course they did, if they were to continue to live in Christ Jesus, in Rome and be saints there. The only way they could survive was by divine grace and peace coming to them from God the Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. This had come to them for the first definitive time when they came to trust in the Saviour, but then they needed that same grace to get by and to survive every day and every passing moment. Without this grace and peace they could do nothing, they could never prosper saints in Rome by themselves, and Paul knew that from his own experience and longed that they would know God’s divine blessings coming upon them. John tells his readers, “of his fulness we have received and grace for grace.” Grace to be patient, grace to turn the other cheek, grace to act wisely, grace to forgive 70 times 7. And peace too, when Satan accuses you then to face your fierce accuser and tell him that Christ has died, that there is no condemnation, that you have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. The peace of a free pardon; the peace of complete justification, knowing and appreciating this reality and increasingly so as the years go by, “What would I do without the Lord Christ?” The peace of assurance that he is yours and you are his for ever; grace and peace to ford the river and climb the mountain and resist the temptation.
When Satan tempts me to despair and tells me of the guilt within
Upward I look and see him there who made an end of all my sin.
Grace and peace to you all from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
20th October 2013 GEOFF THOMAS