Everyone today has a message and a cause and an offense. For those of us tired of the drama, try switching channels. There’s something better on.
The Problem of Yesterday is the Scandal of Today
The Apostle Paul didn’t plant the church in Rome and had probably never even been to the city. At best, he knew some of the key players there from previous involvement. The rest were believers who had heard about him, but never entered his personal periphery.
Paul spent most of his extended introduction to the Romans (which is the longest and most complex of all his writings), introducing his message rather than himself.
He likely wrote under the assumption that the church had not received prolonged apostolic teaching. Though certain traditions credit Peter with founding the church and spending a great deal of time there, no compelling evidence exists to corroborate that claim.
More than likely, Jewish “visitors” from Rome who were present in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost heard the gospel through Peter and took it back with them (Acts 2:11). A best then, we can say that Peter only indirectly planted the church.
Upon their return to Rome, these Roman Jews who had freshly believed in Jesus, were alone with their new faith, and left to their own devices with minimal or no apostolic follow-up. Most of what they knew would have been limited to that initial Petrine gospel message of Acts 2.
In Paul’s eyes, the Roman believers might have looked like an unfinished work, and so he moved with good natured apostolic concern, to fill the gaps in knowledge he imagined must exist among them. Maybe this is why he said multiple times in his letter, “Do you not know?” (c.f. Rom. 6:3, 16, 7:1, 11:2). Certainly this question could have been used rhetorically, meaning Paul asked something he assumed the Romans knew. On the other hand, his passion in laying out the gospel with such didactic precision suggests his concern that they still might not have had the facts straight.
It is scandalous that even today Christians may not have the gospel message straight. In the most technologically privileged time in history, with Bibles available on every cell phone, we still manage to have only a blurry understanding of the faith. Judging from frequent bestseller lists, our Christianity is often only vaguely apostolic in nature, as we use the New Testament to figure out how to get rich, or fulfill our dreams, or just get through suffering. Yet without the unvarnished, unadjusted picture offered by Paul or John or Peter, it is impossible to spiritually develop. There is no such thing as accidentally growing right.
We tolerate theological quilts with patches and rags from all over, including such disparate pieces as Chicken Soup for the Soul, Anthony Robbins, Jesus, dead Greek philosophers, inspirational lines from movies, Buddha, Confucius, Oprah, and Facebook memes. We add what we want and eliminate whatever bores or challenges us. It’s amazing the leeway we believe we have with the faith.
The bottom line is this: The message of Christ is supreme, perfect in power, and we should obey it, as is.
Paul gave three excellent reasons why we should do this, implied as they are within his introduction.
The Message is Greater than the Messenger
1:1 Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God,
In this opening line, when the Apostle says he was set apart for the gospel, he was basically saying, “I belong to this message. I don’t use it. It uses me. I don’t make it. It made me.” And when he goes on to lay it out in the next few verses, he’s not trying to infuse God’s message with the credibility of his own intelligence or gifts or reputation. One gets the distinct impression that he hopes it will give him credibility in front of his readers. The message and its implied agenda clearly outrank him.
If a lawyer contacts you to say a rich uncle has left you seventy million dollars, you won’t say, “Wow I’ve never met a lawyer before.” Ultimately you’ll be occupied with the message, because it is so much bigger than the messenger.
Paul was clear on this point. In fact, before he had encountered Christ and the gospel, he had been known as Saul, a name hearkening back to the first king of Israel who had stood head and shoulders taller than all the rest of the people. But after running into the message of God, he preferred to be known as Paul, which literally translated means “little.”
Where we’re concerned, this can be a problem. The gospel message is so big and makes so many audacious claims, it feels awkward. We’re tempted to adjust it.
Your Hindu friend who sits in the cubicle next to you is the nicest, most sincere person you’ve ever met. When at last, the subject of religion comes up over lunch, you feel a desperate need to tame that giant Gospel and reduce it to a non-offensive pocket-size replica. You’d like to sing Kumbaya with him, and talk about how wonderful it is that we all can live according to the bumper sticker message of “Coexist.” But the Gospel presumes to speak to him and call him, because it is bigger than your Indian friend, and bigger than India. It is bigger than the Apostle Paul, and you, and the rest of the world, as well.
This is something you must come to terms with. Either the gospel message is the most arrogant cultural product ever devised and should be kept on a short leash for the sake of political correctness, or it actually is more transcendent than any other message on the planet, and should be obeyed.
The Message is not a Human Invention,
therefore It Doesn’t Run on Human Power
…the gospel of God, 2 which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, 3 concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh 4 and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord,
“The Gospel of God” means this message is of God, it originated in Him, and it belongs to Him. By default that makes it the most primary message of all. In fact, God promised it for centuries before Jesus came, “through His prophets.” The record of these prophecies can be seen “in the holy scriptures,” going all the way back to the beginning of the world (c.f. Gen 3:21). It predates all world religions.
As we wonder what is in this celebrated message, Paul introduces the super dense core of it, the power plant. The gospel of God as it turns out, pivots on the very Son of God. The message is a Person. When it reaches you and you begin to interact with it, it brings the reality of a Person to you. What kind of Person? Paul says it is the Son of God…who was also “according to the flesh.” Christ is both powerfully divine and beautifully human.
Further, this Son “was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by the resurrection from the dead” (1:4). Prior to Jesus resurrecting, He was the Son of God already, but the glory of His true identity was veiled within a weak human body. After death and resurrection, He was shown to be the Son of God in power with no more physical infirmities, limitations, or death.
Christ has come as God promised, Son of Man and Son of God, who died and has been raised. This is what we find at the core of the gospel.
Think of it like an onion. At first the onion appears to be nothing more than a bulb with a papery outer coat. But the more you unpeel the layers surrounding it, the more intensely you’ll react with watery eyes, and plugged sinuses.
Much the same, when the gospel first arrives within your earshot, it seems not much more than a bundle of words and teachings and propositions. That’s what it’s like before you unpeel it. But the more you unwrap those outer layers, considering it, allowing it to speak to you, and opening your heart to it, the more intense it becomes. Joy springs up, perhaps tears and repentance, because at the core of the message is the power of a resurrected man. That’s what makes it unique in this world of competing messages, and worthy of obedience.
This Message Can Do What No Other Can Do
5 through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations, 6 including you who are called to belong to Jesus Christ, 7 To all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Paul goes on to say that “we [the apostles] received grace and apostleship.” Why? “to bring about the obedience of faith.” God intends His message to be received, not merely checked out, still less to be ignored. Through the apostles (especially in books like Romans), God holds up His Son in front of the world and rightly calls not only for obedience as a one-time act of belief in Jesus, but obedience that continually flows out of that faith.
When this happens, two things are made possible: First, glory and honor “for the sake of his name.” Every time a sinner believes, or a saint chooses the hard road for the sake of commitment to Christ, it brings glory to His name. That is what happens to Him.
This is what happens to us: When we respond to the gospel message, we are swept into a palpable sense of being “loved by God,” and a renewed awareness of having been “called to be saints.” We are graced by a certain enjoyment of His presence that is not limited by our imperfect personal condition. We will know peace—a reprieve not only from the hollering without, but from the broiling within. It is rest from the sinking suspicion that God got it wrong, or from the anxiety that you got it wrong—so wrong that your stupidity is irrecoverable. Love, calling, grace, and peace—this message delivers like nothing else can. That is, if you believe and obey it.
Sinners at all times and in all places have been bothered with this thought, especially in America, where the word “obedience” almost naturally links with humiliation, subjugation, and shame. The American Dream squares more with planning, hard work, independence, self-direction, entitlement, and the ascendancy of personal opinion. The merest appearance (real or imagined), that the autonomous self might fail to reign supreme is sure to meet with drama. Obedience, even to the gospel, threatens us like a breeze might endanger a house of cards. We cry out, What if I don’t agree? What if something offends me? What if I don’t get my way? When these concerns rule a man, that’s proof he sees the gospel only in terms of taking away toys, not of bestowing mighty gifts.
As ISIS killings began to proliferate years back, it was a turning point for me. I had read stories about Christian martyrs, but now I could see photos, images of people who were about to die for their faith. Looking at them, I wondered Brother, what is going through your mind right now? Do you disagree? Are you offended?
I had heard some of them were given a chance to recant their faith, and to disavow Christ in order to be freed. My western mindset, ever the player, said, Just pretend to do it. Secretly remain a Christian. They’ll never know.
But the people in the photos refused to even pretend. They stood firm. Their faces didn’t register happiness. No cheesy smiles. No glee. What the naked eye couldn’t see was apparently a reality within—obedience flowing like a river out of their faith through the subterranean channels of their hearts. This unseen current was bringing them a heightened awareness of the love of God, of their calling, of eternal peace.
Compared to such souls, I feel like an arm-chair quarterback, pontificating on things I don’t really know. At times I suspect I’m a complete stranger to that kind of grace. But then I realize I’m not. And if you live in North America, neither are you. We’re just in another part of that same grace “pool,” a part that requires us at the moment not to die for Christ, but to live for Him.
Our obedience to the gospel at present is to follow Him in a land of plenty, without worshiping material glut, and in a time of repose without being lulled to sleep. A powerful form of grace and peace always trickles out of this obedience, enabling us to grow into a longer and deeper obedience. No other message in the world can activate dynamics of this kind.
It is a shame when Christians get co-opted by lesser messages. The current political environment for instance, with its hydra-headed issues and shrill voices, seems especially good at evoking sin in all its forms. But not grace, peace, the love of God, or transcendent calling.
There’s an old saying: “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” Instead, let’s “Do as the Roman Christians would do” by reading Romans with an open heart, and a fresh determination to believe and obey the gospel message unfurled within it.
Part 1 of a series in the book of Romans.