In the first message, we considered the overall nature of the book of Romans and the fact that it was a fund-raising letter. In this letter, Paul set out his gospel in a systematic fashion so that the Roman Christians would know the nature of the gospel that he desired to preach in his mission to Spain. If we want to understand the gospel in Paul’s terms, as Paul sets it forth here, we have to take in the background of one other thing—the life of Saul or Paul himself.
“Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, separated unto the gospel of God, (Which he had promised afore by his prophets in the holy scriptures,) Concerning his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, which was made of the seed of David according to the flesh; And declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead: By whom we have received grace and apostleship, for obedience to the faith among all nations, for his name: Among whom are ye also the called of Jesus Christ: To all that be in Rome, beloved of God, called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 1:1-7)
The Background to Romans
This letter is from Saul of Tarsus, commonly known as Paul. He identifies himself in the first place as a servant or slave of Jesus Christ (v. 1). He had been called to be an apostle, which means “one commissioned and sent out,” and the nature of the commission is made evident in that Paul was consecrated or set apart for the gospel of God (v. 1). This gospel was not a new idea that had been cooked up between the testaments, but rather was promised in the Scripture by the prophets (v. 2). Specifically, the gospel concerned God’s Son, Jesus Christ our Lord—a Davidson in his human line (v. 3) and declared to be the Son of God by His resurrection (v. 4). It is important to add that this declaration was done with power, and in accordance with the spirit of holiness. This same God is the one through whom the apostles had received grace and apostleship in order to glorify the name of this God, by seeing obedience to the faith among all nations (v. 5). This process was ongoing, and the Roman Christians were included in that ingathering, being called of Jesus Christ (v. 6). The letter is addressed to all in Rome who were beloved of God and called to be saints (v. 7). Paul blesses them with grace and peace from the Father and the Son in his initial benediction.
In our overview of the entire book of Romans, we noted that chapter one shows the Gentiles were under sin, chapter two showed the Jews under sin, and chapter sin showed them both up to their necks in the same kind of sin. This is important for us to note at the beginning of this book because the gospel set forth here is a gospel that liberates the nations from wickedness, evil, sin, immortality, and so forth. This will be important for us to understand when we get to chapter seven, and Paul’s description of himself there as a representative Jew, but it is also important for us to see the nature of Saul’s conversion to Christ rightly. Otherwise, we will get everything confused. For now, we need to see that the gospel directly addresses what preachers in another era used to call sin. Paul is grappling with all ungodliness and unrighteousness (1:18), vain imaginations (v. 21), vile affections (v. 26), a reprobate mind (v. 28), along with envy, murder, and deceit (vv. 29-31). There is much more than this. Among the Jews, Paul was concerned about hypocritical double standards (2:1), hard and impenitent hearts (v. 5), thievery (v. 21), adultery (v. 22), and much more. Put them both together, and no one does good (3:12), they have throats that are open sepulchres (v. 13), cursing and bitterness (v. 14), and no fear of God at all (v. 18). Nothing is plainer than that Paul sets his gospel over against all the doings of the carnal man, and not against the expectant but faithful Jew.
One of the more serious errors found in what is called the New Perspective on Paul is that it tries to put these moral issues on the back burner, and make the central thing a question about the boundary markers of Torah— circumcision, and other marks of Jewishness. In this view, when Luke tells us that Zacharias and Elizabeth were blameless according to the law (Luke 1:6), and when Paul says something that sound similar (Phil. 3:6), they must be referring to the same thing. But this is plainly false. Zacharias and Elizabeth were conscientious and faithful old covenant members, looking forward to the Messiah as did also all the prophets, Simeon, Anna, and our Lord’s mother. Luke is praising them in Luke 1:6.
But Paul is referring to his previous “blamelessness” as so much dung (Phil. 3:8), and wants us to know that those who were still holding to what he used to hold to are dogs, evil workers, and flesh mutilators (Phil. 3:2). Before his conversion, Saul of Tarsus held himself to have been an awful man. He describes himself as a chief among sinners (1 Tim. 1:15), as a blasphemer (v. 13), and insolent (v. 13, NKJV). When Christ appeared to him on the Damascus road, He was showing great kindness to a vile man. Christ delivered him from much more than an overly sentimental attachment to the boundary markers of the old covenant. Unless this is understood, the book of Romans will never be.
Not Healing the Wound Lightly
The prophet Jeremiah describes those who would say peace when there is no such thing. He talks about those who heal the wound of the people lightly (Jer. 6:14; 8:11). We naturally flinch from any treatments of the wound that really get down to business. A great deal of contemporary scholarship on Paul is dabbing around the edges of humanity’s gangrenous wound with a damp washcloth, not really wanting to admit the obvious. To change the metaphor, the solution will be to take the book of Romans like whiskey—straight. Let the gospel make you cough and catch your breath.
The Gospel Itsel
Christ Jesus was declared with power to be the Son of God by His resurrection from the dead. The fact of death reveals that we are dealing with no minor problem. The measures that God took to save us indicate the greatness of our dilemma. God Himself took flesh and dwelt among us, born into the line of David. This was not to help us figure out how to dispose of our phylacteries.
We considered last week how the gospel is for the nations, and not just for individuals as individuals. But let us never try to hide from the holiness and graciousness of God by taking refuge in some corporate shelter.