Christians have often found the apostle dense, unpleasant, and occasionally plain bewildering. He has written half our New Testament. We need to own it.
Folks More Spiritual than You Have Struggled with Paul
In the four gospels we salute the winsome Son of God, His colorful, picturesque parables, His gentle winning way. But the shift to Pauline epistles is jarring. In Romans for instance, we encounter difficult concepts wrapped in polysyllabic terms like justification, sanctification, conformation, transformation. Gone are the pleasant stories, and in their place theology we’re tempted to read right over, dismissing it as “Bible-speak.”
Some fairly spiritual people have had difficulty reading Paul.
Like the Apostle Peter.
You’d think this senior follower of Jesus and fellow writer of the New Testament would decipher Paul’s writing with the same ease as you would solve a third grade crossword puzzle.
Peter observed that in Paul’s epistles there were “some things…hard to understand” (2 Pet. 3:16a). He added that there was a danger in being careless with Paul’s writings “which the unlearned and unstable twist to their own destruction” (2 Pet. 3:16b). Nor was Paul’s complex thinking a good reason to ignore his writings, either. Peter placed Paul’s letters on a par with “the other Scriptures” (2 Pet. 3:16c).
We should seek to understand Paul and read him because his writings are as much the word of God as John 3:16.
Jesus said, Stand By, There’s More to Come
During the days of Jesus’ earthly ministry, He prepped the apostles by telling them, “I have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, He will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come” (John 16:12-13).
After Jesus ascended to heaven, there was still plenty left for Him to say. He planned to speak it in the apostles through the Spirit, transmitting inward enlightenment—truth both revealed and experienced.
It is important to note that this revealed truth was not a product of human academic understanding or religious opinion, and it was not even an invention of the Holy Spirit Himself. As Jesus said about the Spirit, “Whatever He hears He will speak.” The Spirit would receive of Christ (v. 14), and would deliver it to the apostles. The apostolic ministry then, whether of the twelve apostles or of Paul, was not some sort of diluted Christian message.
The implications for us are exciting. By reading an epistle such as Romans, we’re being exposed to and invited into the reality that Paul entered. And in the specific case of Romans, that would mean plunging into the depths of God’s full salvation.
Why Paul is Different
The New Testament is with little exception, not the result of divine dictation. We don’t see writers furiously scribbling while a voice booms a message from heaven. Nor do we see the Spirit seizing control of their hands and moving a stylus on paper, or planting tape recorded messages in their minds to transcribe.
Rather, the Spirit interfaced with the chosen, redeemed, and disciplined personalities of the writers, pouring out on paper their particular learning of Christ, their experience of salvation, their thoughts, feelings, and characteristics, while preserving undiluted the singular truth the Spirit guided them all into.
“In carefully perusing the New Testament we discover that certain words are constantly employed by Paul which were never employed by Peter or John or Matthew. Likewise, Luke has his favorite words, and so has Mark. In their writings, each maintains his peculiarity. The gospel of Matthew is different from that of Mark, Mark from Luke, and Luke from John. Paul’s writings have their own definite ton; Peter’s are in another strain…Pursuing this matter further, we find that each writer of the Bible possesses his own idiosyncrasies. As a physician Luke invokes certain medical terms with which to describe various sicknesses, while the other three evangelists employ common words. Again, because the book of Acts is also written by Luke, medical words once more appear. Each gospel possesses its special phraseology and its particular topics. In Mark, ‘immediately’ is frequently found; in Matthew, ‘the kingdom of heaven’; in Luke, ‘the kingdom of God.’ On each book the writer leaves his indelible mark; yet all are the word of God.”¹
This is why we find Paul’s writings full of difficult and profound concepts—we are encountering the further words of Christ delivered through the Spirit of truth and conveyed through a man who possessed a certain kind of human mind, emotion, and will.
‘Romans’ Really Delivers
When we read and reflect on the deeper concepts of salvation in Romans, we simultaneously encounter Paul, an ex-Pharisee and learned Jew, a sinner saved by grace, made fit for God’s use through the relentless discipline of Christ. Deeper still, we sense a guidance into truth, the further words of Christ.
That is why the theology in Romans will take us further than we’ve ever been before. In fact, this book is so important that it has been called “The Fifth Gospel.”
No better person could have written it than a man trained in the sequential and logical finesse of a teacher, yet at the same time one who never trusted in his own personal strengths. Paul learned that it was “Not I, but Christ” (Gal. 2:20). As with all writers of Scripture, this lesson, so apparently simple to put on a tee-shirt, came at a great and painful price. From the beginning, the resurrected Christ had said of His impetuous, opinionated, stubborn future apostle, “I will show him how much he must suffer on behalf of my name” (Acts 9:16).
And now we approach a sample of the product: his epistle to the Romans.
¹Watchman Nee, The Ministry of God’s Word. (New York: Christian Fellowship Publishers, 1971), 16.