Summary: The good news of the gospel is offered to all people without distinction, and the only requirement to experiencing the saving grace of God is to believe in the one who made it possible, Jesus Christ!
Perhaps many of you have seen the billboards around advertising the Marines. One ad for the U.S. Marines pictures a sword, and beneath it the words: “Earned, never given.” If you want to become a Marine, you must be prepared to earn that name through sacrifice, hardship, and rigorous training. If you get it, you deserve it.
But if you want to become a Christian, you must have the exact opposite attitude. Because, you see, the message of the gospel is: “Given, never earned.” You cannot save your own soul. Nor will God save anyone who tries to earn her salvation. Instead, God saves those who humbly receive salvation as a gift through faith in Jesus Christ. If we get it, it’s certainly not because any of us deserve it.
This is the central message of Paul’s letter to the Romans, God’s free gift of salvation offered to all people without price. It is this core, gospel message, which will frame our discussion for the next eight weeks as we delve into a sermon series on Paul’s letter to the Romans. This letter is often called “Paul’s Masterpiece.” What’s interesting to note, though, is that unlike his letters to other Christian communities, at the point at which Paul wrote this letter, he had never visited the Christians in Rome. But, like so many of the other Christian communities of that time, the Christians in Rome were having some troubles, and Paul had an important message to share in light of what was going on there. You see, the Roman Christians were divided between Jews and Gentiles. Tensions rose so high that the Jewish Christians were actually expelled from the city for a time under Emperor Nero because there were so many uprisings. As a result, the Gentile Christians felt superior (because they were not exiled), and the Jewish Christians believed that Gentiles couldn’t actually be Christian unless they were circumcised and followed the Law of Moses. Sound familiar? This was a major problem in most early Christian communities…what exactly was required of a person to be called “Christian.”
It is into this context that Paul addresses his letter to the Romans. Because believers come from varied backgrounds and cultures, at times we are bound to disagree with each other, but that doesn’t mean we have to be divided. So Paul writes this letter to show that there is a power which can overcome all human weaknesses and divisions. That’s why, after his greeting, Paul declares, “…I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith…” Then, as you heard in the subsequent passages, he goes on to explain that the gospel of Christ is a free gift of grace generously offered to any and all who will receive it in faith. Does that sound like a message that is important for a community that is divided? I certainly think so!
Two-thousand years ago, the Christians were fighting about whether or not is was necessary to follow the law of Moses in order to be a Christian. Today, division among Christians continues, but the issues are a little different, aren’t they? Still, I think we are struggling with some of the same problems as the Jewish and Gentile Christians in Rome. Because, you see, when Christians define themselves over and against those in the body who hold different beliefs, division occurs. And it goes without saying that when we are fighting that weakens the witness and work of the church. But when we can focus on what we agree on, it’s a lot easier to work together as the Body of Christ. That’s the approach Paul takes here. Sure, some may believe circumcision is necessary, and some may think that it is not, but whether it is or is not is irrelevant by Paul’s reasoning. All that is necessary is faith in Jesus Christ our Lord. And faith is all that is necessary precisely because of what Christ accomplished through his death and resurrection!
I heard a great story a few months ago. It goes like this. An elderly gentleman went out one morning to get some groceries at a nearby store. His wife had recently passed away, and he was still adjusting to life as a widower. It took him some time in the store as he figured out exactly what he needed. He was rather distracted, even as he left the store to head home. Well, you know the sort of things that can happen when we are distracted. And sure enough, as he pulled out of the parking lot and back onto the main road, he placed himself right in the path of an oncoming car. There was no way the other driver could avoid hitting him. The old man got out of his car and he approached the other driver scared and apologetic. His nerves were rattled, he knew this accident was his fault, but he also knew funds were tight, especially with the recent funeral expenses for his wife, and there was no way he would be able to afford the costs that would surely come. He apologized again and again to the other driver, explaining that he knew he was in the wrong, but he didn’t know how he could pay for the man’s car.