Today, we begin a tour through one of the most important and profound passages of Scripture: chapter 8 of Romans. (Why? I’ve been asked to speak on Rom 8:17-28 in a few weeks, and I thought I’d take a bit of a run-up.)
It’s important and profound because it seeks to describe the new Spirit-led life we now have in light of what Christ has done. It encapsulates the truth that the first half of Romans has been building up to.
But today’s title is a little misleading. We’re not going to get to Romans 8 until next week. Why? Because we ourselves need to take a bit of a run-up, looking at what has come thus far.
Why does Paul write Romans?
Paul writes his letter to the Romans in order to pave the way for a visit to them: to encourage the church and be encouraged by them, as well as to use it as a launching pad for a future visit to Spain. (Although we don’t know if Paul ever got there!)
Now there’s already an established church in Rome, and it’s one that Paul didn’t plant. This means Paul needs to approach them a bit more tactfully (compared with, say, the churches he founded in Galatia and Corinth). So in his letter he presents his understanding of the Gospel. Perhaps it’s partly in order to correct some misunderstandings of his teaching – especially in the area of the law and living in obedience. And to show how the Gospel as he understands it is inclusive of both Jews and non-Jews, implicitly calling them to live in unity as recipients of the same Gospel.
What is Romans about?
The theme-statement of his letter is given in chapter 1:
Romans 1:16-17 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. 17 For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”
Why does Paul say he’s not ashamed here? In verse 15 he just told us he’s eager to preach also in Rome, the heart of Gentile territory. So if the gospel were a message about Jewish exclusivity it could get a bit awkward! But his message is for everyone. It reveals God’s righteousness which is – and always was – by faith. (This could mean faith/trust in what Jesus has done, or the faithfulness of Jesus that produces faithfulness in those who have faith – but that’s an argument for another day.) The Jews may have been “first,” historically speaking, but the Gospel is for the nations, too.
And this Gospel promises deliverance from God’s wrath:
Romans 1:18-20 The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19 since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20 For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.
It’s fair that God’s wrath is being stored up, says, Paul, because the nations chose to reject knowledge and worship of the one true God. They were therefore given over to false gods, and to be enslaved by their passions, just as they chose. They are without excuse. (Rom 1:18-32.)
Even those Gentiles who think they are morally superior – they need think again! They are hypocrites who do the same things they condemn. God is fair: he will punish them, too. Not for disobeying a law they don’t have, but for disobeying the law on their hearts. (Rom 2:1-16.)
And what about Jewish teachers who think that giving the law to Gentiles is the answer – they need to think again, too! Even they can’t keep it themselves, so why promote it to others? The law’s only useful if you keep it; otherwise, you’re no better off than the lawless Gentiles. (Rom 2:17-29.)
So what’s the point of the law? What’s the point of being Jewish? Anything?
The answer to that million-dollar question is a resounding “yes and no!” Yes, because the Jews were God’s chosen people, privileged to be “entrusted with the very words of God” as Paul puts it (3:2). But no, because ultimately, Jews, like Gentiles, are under the power of sin (3:9). Being given the law as God’s people showed them how to live the way God intended, but didn’t give them the power to actually live that way. Through the law, they just became aware of their sin all the more! Neither Jew nor Gentile is right in God’s sight, for all have sinned and fall short.
Paul then expands on his initial theme-statement, showing how the Gospel speaks into this hopeless situation:
Romans 3:21-26 But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. 22 This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. 25 God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— 26 he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.
That’s the heart of Paul’s message about the righteousness of God: right-standing with God is given to us on the basis of faith in Jesus (or, the faithfulness of Jesus). He became the sacrifice which turns away God’s wrath and bears the consequences for our sin. This needed to happen, because of all the sin God had not fully punished – and that he continues not to fully punish. Otherwise God would have been un-righteous in declaring us righteous when we are not!
And it leads to his first take-home point: a proper appreciation of the Gospel reminds us that all of us (whether Jew or Gentile) became part of God’s people the same way:
Romans 3:27-30 Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. Because of what law? The law that requires works? No, because of the law that requires faith. 28 For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law. 29 Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles too? Yes, of Gentiles too, 30 since there is only one God, who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith.
Romans isn’t just a theological statement of how it is we can be right with God. It’s practical theology, that should result in an appropriate humility toward God and others, knowing that we are all right with God on exactly the same basis: God’s grace, not our own race or effort or moral “goodness.” All have sinned, and are justified freely.
Tomorrow, we’ll continue our big-picture look at Romans, before we slow down to look at chapter 8 in detail next week.