What I want to do today is to look at these opening verses of this letter to the Romans and think about why Paul wrote it. What we’ll find is that Paul’s motivation comes from a sense of responsibility for the great gift God has given him in the gospel, his confidence comes from the power of God he sees at work in the gospel, which brings a righteousness that comes from God alone and overarching it all his single focus and the primary focus of the gospel proclamation is Jesus Christ and his victory over death. We’re going to start at v7 rather than v1, but I assure you we will return to the first section before we finish.
An Occasional Letter (7-13)
It’s always worth paying particular attention to the opening few verses or paragraphs of Paul’s letters because you’ll often find there a summary of what he wants to say, or the reason that he’s writing. And so it is here. As we read vs7-13 we discover that this is something of an occasional letter. That is, it’s written for a particular occasion. Now we’ll also discover that it has a more general purpose, that is, to clarify the nature of the gospel, but the first reason for writing appears here: he’s writing because he’s hoping to come to visit them. He’s preparing the groundwork for a possible visit, which we discover when we get to ch 15, will be en route to Spain.
But he also says that he’s writing because he longs to share with them some spiritual gift to strengthen them. In fact he hopes that he too might be encouraged by their faith so that their encouragement might be mutual. In other words he isn’t coming as the great guru to dole out spiritual riches that only he possesses. There’s a mutuality about his ministry that’s part of his motivation for wanting to come to them.
What does it mean for you, to share the gospel? Does it sound like something that’s a bit threatening? As someone said after we’d read Jesus’ call to begin to fish for people a couple of weeks ago, does it feel like you’re supposed to go out and bag a few trophies? We were talking yesterday at out vestry planning day about how scary the ’E’ word can be. Well, it’s instructive to see how Paul expresses his desire to share the gospel with the Romans. He isn’t wanting to chalk up a few more victories. He isn’t looking to bag some dumb fish in the net of the gospel. What does he say?
He says "I am longing to see you so that I may share with you some spiritual gift to strengthen you." We’ll see in a moment that he wants to share the gospel with people because it will bring them salvation. This is a gift from God that he brings. When we tell people about our faith in God, we’re inviting them to receive that same gift from God that we’ve received, the gift of eternal life. This is a service we’re doing them, out of love.
Well, let’s think about his motivation, because he tells us about it in the next couple of verses
His Motivation (14-15)
He says "I am a debtor both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish 15--hence my eagerness to proclaim the gospel to you also who are in Rome." Now what does he mean when he says he’s a debtor? In what way is he indebted to all people? It’s obviously not a personal debt. It’s too generalised for that. When he talks about Greeks and barbarians he simply means everyone. So why is he indebted to everyone?
Well, clearly, part of the answer comes from his call by God to be the apostle to the Gentiles. God has saved him and inherent in that salvation was a call to take the gospel to the Gentiles. So he bears a responsibility for the way that task is carried out. He says he feels under obligation to those who haven’t yet heard the gospel.
But you have to think from what he goes on to say that this isn’t just an obligation that arises from a sense of duty. Rather it’s the sort of obligation that a medical researcher might feel if they make a great discovery. An obligation to let people know. To publish their findings so people’s illnesses can be cured. I remember hearing about some research that was being done some years ago to test the effect of aspirin as a blood thinner for people suffering from heart disease. The test involved a double blind test with one group taking half an aspirin a day and the other group taking a placebo. As the tests progressed the researchers discovered such a marked improvement in those taking the aspirin that they actually cancelled the rest of the experiment because they didn’t think it was fair for the control group to miss out on the benefits that were clearly flowing to the first group from taking the aspirin. They felt they had an obligation to all their patients to give them the best treatment possible. Well, that’s the sort of obligation that Paul seems to feels as he thinks about the benefit that can be derived from hearing the gospel. And so he talks about his confidence in the gospel.
His Confidence (16)
He says he’s not ashamed of the gospel. Why? Because it’s the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith. I guess being unsure of whether it’s OK to preach the gospel to people isn’t a new phenomenon. In Paul’s day preaching the gospel would have been in the context of a multitude of gods that people would have made offerings to on a regular basis, perhaps even daily. Christians were even more of a minority then than they are today, not to mention that they were also generally speaking poor and without much social status. So to preach the gospel, to tell people that there’s only one true and living God, the one they worshipped, no doubt sounded just as presumptuous and even arrogant as it sometimes sounds today, or at least as it’s often portrayed today.
But, he says, he isn’t ashamed of preaching a gospel that’s unique, that makes exclusive claims on people. The thing is, this gospel holds the answer to our great dilemma. It holds the power of God to bring salvation to everyone who has faith.
People throughout history have been seeking ways of being right with God, of knowing that beyond this world was another where we might enjoy the presence of God forever. You think about the multitude of religious systems that have arisen in the history of the world and what you find in almost every case is people trying to placate God or gain his blessing or find a way to enjoy eternal bliss when this tough life is over. But the reality is that we’ve never been able to do it. Paul is about to go on to show how badly we’ve failed. Even the Jews who were given a special insight by God into the way he wanted them to live were unable to do it. Yet here in the gospel we find a power that no-one even dreamed was possible: the power to be made right with God. The power to be saved from ourselves, if you like. And all that’s needed is faith. All that’s needed is that people believe the promises of God. God does all the rest. God has already done all the rest. And do you see the reason Paul gives for his confidence in the gospel?
His Reason (17)
His confidence is based on this simple fact: that in the gospel "the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ’The one who is righteous will live by faith.’"
Now it seems to me that this is a power packed statement. How is the righteousness of God revealed in the gospel? Well, there are a number of layers here, aren’t there? First of all, as we’ll discover when we get to ch 3, God is shown to be righteous on two levels.
At one level he’s shown to have been righteous when he forgave people’s sins in Old Testament times, even though the sacrifices they offered were merely the flesh and blood of dumb animals. He was righteous because the basis on which he could forgive their sins was the same basis as that on which he can forgive ours: that is, Jesus’ death on our behalf. But he’s also shown to be righteous in that all the promises he made to his people over the centuries have now come to pass in the life and person of Jesus Christ.
But it isn’t just God’s righteousness that’s revealed in the gospel is it? The righteousness he talks about is also a righteousness that God grants to everyone who has faith in God’s promises.
You see, if the great desire of people through the ages has been to find a way to ensure their gods were pleased with them, then the gospel has the answer. Yes, it’s impossible for us to live the sort of life that would make God pleased with us. No matter how good we are our efforts will always fail at some point. There’ll always be a flaw of some sort in us. That’s just how human beings are. But through Jesus’ work on the cross those flaws have been eradicated. Now a righteousness that comes from God has been revealed. Now there’s a righteousness that’s gained not by a long life of self discipline and struggle against our sinful nature, a course that’s doomed to failure, but by faith, by believing that God will do what he says he will do.
Paul will go on as he develops this theme of salvation by grace alone to explain how this righteousness comes about. He’ll talk about the way Jesus’ death acts as a substitute for our own death, how Jesus takes our place, standing in as the representative of the whole human race, in a way similar to the way Adam acted as our representative when he first chose to disobey God. And he’ll go on to show that everything centres around Jesus Christ. We’re going to go back now to the first 6 verses where we discover the central focus of Paul’s message.
His Focus (1-6)
There’s no doubt as you read through those first 6 verses that Jesus Christ is clearly at the centre of this gospel message. Yes, it’s a message that comes from God. It’s God’s righteousness that’s being proclaimed. This is a message that God proclaimed beforehand. But the focus of the message is Jesus Christ the Lord. Look at what he says in vs3&4: "the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh 4and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord." The message of the gospel is all about God’s Son, Jesus Christ. If you hear someone preaching the gospel and Jesus Christ isn’t at the centre you should start to get worried.
You may not have to go far to hear it either. There are plenty of people around today who’ll want to convince you that you can be a Christian and worship God without ever worrying about whether Jesus was really the Son of God, whether he really did all those miracles, whether he really rose from the dead. They’ll try to convince you that being a Christian is mostly about being a good neighbour, or being part of a loving community, or caring for others. They’ll couch it in religious terminology. They’ll supply uplifting worship settings. They’ll use all the religious paraphernalia they can think of. But Jesus will be missing, and so will the power of the gospel for salvation to all who believe.
No, the gospel is first and foremost Christ-centred. And why?
He was truly human, v3: ’descended from David according to the flesh.’ That’s important for us, because only one who is fully human is able to understand what we experience as we seek to follow God. It was important that there should be a human being to experience all the temptations that we experience yet be able to obey God fully, to stand as our representative in restoring all humanity to the possibility of full obedience to God.
But at the same time he’s also divine: v4: ’he was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead.’ Jesus is uniquely able to bridge the gap between God and humanity because he is both divine and human at the same time.
And finally, Jesus must be central to the preaching of the Gospel because he’s Christ (the Messiah), our Lord. As Paul puts it in Philippians 2, God has given him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus, every knee shall bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth. If we fail to tell people that in our preaching of the gospel, how are we preparing them for the life to come? We’re not are we? All we’re preparing them for is a great shock; what may well be a fatal shock.
Do you sometimes feel embarrassed at the thought of sharing your faith with others? Well, what we’ve begun to discover here is that there’s no need to be. We have a message that can bring hope out of hopelessness. We have the cure to the greatest disease of the human heart. If half an aspirin a day can hold off heart disease, it’d be unfair, even cruel, not to tell someone who had a heart problem about it. Well, if faith in God, trust in the saving work of Jesus Christ, can save a person from the day of judgement and bring them to a position where they can enjoy the presence of God for eternity, it’d be equally unfair, even cruel, to deny them the possibility, simply because we’re worried about how they’ll receive the message.
Don’t be ashamed of the gospel. Rather understand the responsibility, the obligation, we all have to share this saving knowledge with our friends and neighbours. And be confident in the power of the gospel: it’s the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith because it brings with it a righteousness that only God can give.
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