Summary: The faith of the Roman Christians gave them a reputation that was worth having. Paul shows us two qualities about their faith that gave them a reputation worth having.
Benjamin Franklin once said, “Glass, china, and reputation are easily cracked and never well mended.”
William Shakespeare’s Othello lamented the loss of his reputation after he had acted foolishly, “Reputation, reputation, reputation! O, I have lost my reputation! I have lost the immortal part of myself; and what remains is bestial!” (Othello, Act II, Scene 3).
Reputation is a strange thing, isn’t it? How are we to think of reputation? Is it fragile like glass and china? Is it immortal? Is it worth having? Or is it better for us not even to be concerned about such matters?
The answer, it seems to me, is that it depends on what we have a reputation for.
In his letter to the Romans, Paul commends the Christians in Rome for the reputation they had acquired. In fact, the reputation of their faith is the very first thing Paul notes as he begins the body of his letter. We read about this in Romans 1:8:
"First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is being reported all over the world" (Romans 1:8).
Paul commends the Roman Christians for their faith. Their reputation was for their faith in Jesus Christ. Paul tells us that their faith was being spoken about all over the world.
This does not mean that every individual in every remote corner of the world had heard of the faith of the Roman Christians. But it does mean that their faith was becoming increasingly widely known—no doubt because people were talking to one another about it.
“Have you heard about the group of Christians in Rome?” they asked one another. “Have you heard how strong their faith is, how faithfully they are serving Jesus Christ in that wicked city?”
Since Paul thanks God for the reputation of the Roman Christians, it seems that however worthy or worthless worldly reputations may be, a reputation for faith is worth having.
Now, what is it about their faith that gave the Roman Christians a reputation worth having? I want to suggest two qualities about their faith that gave them a reputation worth having.
I. Their Faith Was Genuine
The first quality about their faith that gave the Roman Christians a reputation worth having is that their faith was genuine.
It was a true faith. It was an authentic faith. It was the real thing. Now, this is an important place to begin, because there is so much so-called faith that is non-biblical faith and is therefore a flawed and invalid basis for any reputation.
A. What Genuine Faith Is Not
Before I show you what genuine faith is, let me show you what genuine faith is not.
First, genuine faith is not subjective religious feeling, entirely divorced from God’s written revelation. I remember talking to a man who thought like this. He told me he was a Christian. But as we talked I learned that he did not believe in the deity of Jesus, his bodily resurrection, and several other cardinal Christian doctrines. When I asked him how he could deny teaching central to Christianity and still call himself a Christian, he said he did not know but that deep down in his heart he believed he was a Christian. Clearly this is not genuine faith. Genuine faith is not subjective religious feeling entirely divorced from biblical truth.
Second, genuine faith is not credulity. This is the attitude of people who will accept something as true only because they strongly wish it to be true. Sometimes a faith like this is fixed on a miraculous cure for some terminal disease, like congenital heart failure, AIDS, or cancer. But credulity does not make a cure happen. Wishful thinking is not genuine faith.
Third, genuine faith is not optimism. Norman Vincent Peale has popularized this false faith through his best-selling book, The Power of Positive Thinking. Peale suggests that we collect strong New Testament texts about faith, memorize them, let them sink down into our subconscious, and then recall them and recite them whenever we find faith in ourselves wavering. He says, “According to your faith in yourself, according to your faith in your job, according to your faith in God, this far will you get and no further.”
In this statement, however, faith in yourself, faith in your job, and faith in God are all apparently the same thing, and what this means is that the object of one’s faith is irrelevant. Author John Stott challenges this distortion accurately:
"He [Peale] recommends as part of his “worry-breaking formula” that the first thing every morning before we get up we should say out loud, “I believe” three times, but he does not tell us in what we are so confidently and repeatedly to affirm our belief. The last words of his book are simply, “so believe and live successfully.” But believe what? Believe whom? To Dr. Peale faith is really another word for self-confidence, for a largely ungrounded optimism."