The book of Romans is a monumental work. It was in the reading of the phrase “the just shall live by faith” in 1:17 that the German reformer Martin Luther’s heart was stirred against the practices of the Roman Catholic Church. He went on to post his ninety five theses on the church wall in Wittenberg in 1517 and the Protestant Reformation was set in motion. The theme is justification by God’s grace through faith rather than by a priest administering sacraments, circumcision or obedience to God’s law. Salvation depends on God alone.
Paul did not develop this doctrine, for it was clearly taught by Jesus and throughout the Old and New Testaments, but he did develop it more extensively. We can think of some parables Jesus told that illustrate this truth: prodigal son, Pharisee and tax collector, and the laborers in the vineyard.
Paul did not found the church in Rome nor had he ever visited the city, but it was in his plans. Paul had just finished collecting his offering for impoverished Christians in Jerusalem and is on his third missionary journey. He writes from Corinth, and Gaius the Corinthian is hosting him at the time. Paul writes Romans to prepare them for his first visit. He has planned to visit for some time now but has been prevented. He wants to strengthen the Roman Christians in their faith and also win their financial support for a future trip he plans to make to Spain.
The date is around A. D. 57 or 58.
The church at Rome was a Gentile church although some commentators say it was mostly Jewish. It is possible that the church had been started by Jews who had come to faith during Pentecost but some scholars doubt this and maintain that its origin is obscure.
Chapters 1 through 11 deal with doctrines we should believe: the sinfulness of man, forgiveness through Christ, freedom from the grasp of sin and Israel’s past, present and future. Chapters 12 through 16 address our personal responsibilities. The mega themes are sin, salvation, growth, God’s sovereignty and our service.
Writing a letter to someone you know as opposed to someone you have never met requires a different opening. Paul begins with his credentials: a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle and separated to that Gospel. Again, Paul had not founded this church nor had they had any contact with him or him with them. One point of contact between them, however, was that he was a servant of Christ and so were they.
The Christians in Rome were certainly familiar with the slave or servant idea. The Rome of Paul’s day was populated by some 1.2 million people, half of whom were slaves. The Greek word for servant (doulos) actually means slave, bondman or man of servile condition and suggests Paul’s consciousness of who he belonged to and who he was obligated to serve. It was not a service of bondage, and like Paul, we do not serve out of drudgery but with a sense of excitement and anticipation. Paul served out of wholehearted obedience because he realized he had been bought with the blood of Jesus Christ. His Master was quite different than the ones the slaves served.
Like with Paul, our redemption involves surrender. We belong to the one who purchased us with his blood, not money. The more we understand the sacrifice of Christ, the greater will be our desire to serve him faithfully, and the greater will be our realization that we belong to him and owe our very existence to him. When we do not have a high view of Christ’s work on Calvary, the chances are very good that our dedication to him will parallel that stance. Weak views of the atonement (such as that what Christ did was only a good example but really accomplished little beyond that) lead to weak experiences of commitment and faith.
Paul was also called to be an apostle-it was not just something he decided to do. On the Road to Damascus, the risen Lord had appeared to Paul, and he had moved from mere religion to a relationship. God had then called him as an apostle to the Gentiles. Paul was not one of the original twelve Jesus chose as his disciples. In fact, he describes himself as one born out of due time or at the wrong time. (I Corinthians 15:8)
God still calls people into full time Christian service in offices such as pastors, teachers, missionaries and in other ministry positions. But he also commissions all Christians with work to do. A failure to realize this will lead to complacency and missing many opportunities he sends our way. It can also lead to a “paid staff” mentality. The work we do as Christians is because we have a calling from Almighty God.
Then Paul says he has been separated to the gospel of God. God set him apart and consecrated him to preach the gospel to the lost-particularly the Gentiles. Paul has been ordained by the church, but his real ordination came from God. We think of the laying on of hands that takes place during the ordination of a person to ministry or as a deacon. But if God has not separated this person to the particular ministry, what we do is a hollow mockery.
Paul’s Description Of The Gospel
In verses two through five, Paul describes this gospel in a threefold manner. The gospel he preaches originated with God, not him or any other human. Something from man has no power to change lives; only a message that emanates from God can do that. As Paul will deal with in great detail later, ritual or heritage will not suffice. Nor is Paul’s gospel new. It was promised by God long ago through the prophets. It fulfills and continues what they spoke of in the Old Testament.
As we read the Old Testament, we interpret it in light of the New. One completes the other. This gospel concerns the Son of God, Jesus Christ. Christ is the sum total as well as the substance of the Gospel. After all, the gospel is good news, and it is the good news of what God has done for us in Christ. The written word is of no value apart from the Living Word. John spoke of this living Word in his gospel. (John 1)
Paul expands his reference to Christ and in so doing gives us a passage of great Christological importance (3-4). He was born of the seed of David and declared to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead. As he speaks of in another epistle, Paul emphasizes the importance of the resurrection for our faith-it is essential. The Greek word that is translated “was born” denotes transition-changing from one state of being to another. This is a clear statement of the incarnation of Jesus-he went from being the Son of God to a human form yet maintained his divinity. He was the God man. It was by the resurrection that he was designated the Son of God yet he did not become such because of it for he was already that. Rather, the resurrection proved that he was the Son of God and was proof that God accepted his payment for our sins. During his earthly ministry, Jesus fulfilled the office of Messiah, and in his risen state he proved himself to be the Son of God.
Paul Describes His Mission
Christ gave him the mission, and it was his mission to share the gospel with Gentiles at large. There is a rich connection between the words grace and apostleship. It was only by God’s power that Paul had the ability to carry out God’s mission. God’s grace enabled him to do what he had to do every day. This grace also constituted a summons to service.
The above has an intimate bearing on our lives as well. Christ calls us to carry out a Great Commission, but it is only by depending on his grace and strength that we can even hope to achieve success. Like Paul, we are bound to live for the one who lives in us and died for us whether we have been called into full time service or not. Our real calling is to glorify our Lord and Savior no matter how we earn a living.
Paul Greets His Readers
Paul’s readers have been made the recipients of the blessings of the gospel. He describes his audience as Gentiles, divinely called, beloved of God and saints. Rome was certainly not a heavenly city-iniquity and wickedness abounded. Yet, Paul’s audience was the object of God’s love but they were living in a pagan and sinful environment.
Paul wanted his readers to be keenly aware that they were the peculiar property of the One who redeemed them. It is no different for us. We belong to Christ and him to us. Our goal should be to become experientially what we are positionally. We need to become what God sees us as already. The best way to achieve such character is to remember who we belong to, that it was his grace that bought us, and it is his Spirit working in and through us that will enable us to live for him and carry out his work. The just will live by faith-it is the only way.