Summary: Introduction to the letter to the Romans
I feel a bit like we’ve just climbed on board a jet going from Melbourne to London, or we’re just setting off to drive from Melbourne to Perth. There’s a long journey before us, but there’ll be lots of exciting things to see on the way; lots of varied scenery. And by the end of our journey I hope we’ll have discovered a little more about the nature of the salvation that God has won for us through Jesus Christ, a salvation that comes by God’s grace alone. I hope too that we’ll be a bit more confident of the sure and certain hope of eternal life for all who love Jesus Christ, and that we’ll be a little more confident about sharing our faith with others so they too can share in that salvation and hope.
I thought what we might do today is to quickly go through Romans, looking at the main points of interest. If you like, I’ll be your tour guide, getting you ready for the things you’ll experience as we travel through the book.
Martin Luther in his Preface to the Epistle to the Romans begins by saying that this letter "is in truth the chief part of the New Testament and the purest Gospel. It would be quite proper for a Christian, not only to know it by heart word for word, but also to study it daily, for it is the soul’s daily bread. … The more thoroughly it is treated, the more precious it becomes, and the better it tastes." Well, how can I do anything but agree with that sentiment. After all, it was the reading of Romans that became the catalyst for the whole Reformation. We can only pray that our study of it this year might act as a catalyst for our own reformation.
As we read through this letter, one thing that becomes increasingly obvious is that this is a carefully structured and reasoned discourse. One of the distinctives of the logical nature of the letter is the way that every now and then a certain word pops up: the word "therefore". So as we read through it we need to stop whenever we see that word and think about what’s gone before and how it might impact on what he’s about to say. Well, let’s do that now as we think about 8:1-4. What has he said so far and what does he then go on to say?
Now Paul knows we all have a problem. He knows that the problem we all face in trying to obey God is that we’re fallible, we all have this weakness, this tendency to sin. What we need is a new being, a new identity. It’s what Jesus said to Nicodemus: "You must be born again." The Jews had God’s law to show them how to live, but it was no use. No law-based system will ever be able to overcome our basic human failing. Only if we’re new people, only if we’re made all over again, will we ever be able to relate to God adequately. And that can happen only if someone outside ourselves does it for us. Only if God in his grace makes it possible. Well, Paul says, that’s exactly what’s happened with the coming of Jesus. There’s a new humanity on the scene. With Jesus’ death and resurrection a whole new set of possibilities have opened up. As a result of Jesus death on the cross those who are in Jesus Christ are now dead to sin but alive to Christ. And of course if through faith in Christ we too have been brought alive again then we’ll no longer do the things that go with death, but rather we’ll do what God expects of us - the things of life.
But of course, as we all know, that’s not as easy as it sounds. We still have the same dead body, the same sinful urges. He says it’s like there’s some natural law at work within him, as sure as the law of gravity, so that whenever he wants to do good, evil is close at hand. It’s as though whenever he decides to do some work for God, Satan hands him a crooked tool, a chisel with a chip in it, a broom with half the bristles gone, so that he continues to fail, over and over and over again.
And again we have that word, in 8:1, "therefore". (Rom 8:1 NRSV) "There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus." What’s happened, he says, is that God’s Holy Spirit has come to dwell within us. God is changing us through the Holy Spirit’s indwelling. Here’s what he says: "You, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ." This in fact is what Ezekiel and Jeremiah foretold: (Ezek 36:26-27) "I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. 27And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws." (Jer 31:33-34) "But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, "Know the LORD," for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more." In his book about Judaism, "To Life", Rabbi Harold Kushner’s points out that the reason God gave his law to the whole nation of Israel was that he wanted "to create a community where ordinary people … would reinforce each other’s efforts to do the right thing." Well, that’s an important principle that we need to continue to follow, as we’ll see later, but it wasn’t enough. The nation failed to reinforce good behaviour - in fact the opposite was the case; they actually tended to reinforce bad behaviour - and they ended up earning God’s anger and judgement. So God decided to move to plan B. That is, he’d give us a new spirit, change our hearts of stone to hearts of flesh, so we could obey him.