In an age progressively characterized by narcissism, Paul’s passionate hope to bless others is still invigorating, if not other-worldly. With a finger to the pulse of his epistle, we can join him.
Paul’s Motive, and Hopefully, Yours
Paul wrote the Romans saying, “I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you” (v.11), and “I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome” (v. 15). That’s the heart that drove the writing of the epistle to the Romans—a longing to strengthen others and an eagerness to preach.
Admittedly, none of us are Paul. Some things are particular to him such as his conversion experience, his commission from God, and his apostolic revelation. Yet Paul did tell average Christians in 1 Cor. 11:1, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.”
Among other things, we can imitate his desire to influence others for Jesus. And we should. Something within us already wants to do it, even if we’re not blessed with a stereotypical evangelist gift pack. The grace we received when we believed in Jesus is never happy squirreled away in our heart. It always seeks to bless others, and always blesses those who participate in blessing others. Grace doesn’t do well in a cul-de-sac, where it is robbed of outflow.
In Victorian England, treadmills like the ones we walk on in the gym were used as instruments of punishment in prisons. They were called treadwheels. Prisoners were made to walk on them all day on an incline. Aside from physical exhaustion, the punishment was partly psychological. The prisoners had nothing to show for their labors at the end of the day. This circuitous grind was meant to reinforce a sense of cruel futility.
This is what a Christian life void of purpose feels like. Our faith can be academically fulfilling and sensory rich. But once these types of gratification become self-contained, even if they are eminently spiritual, they’ll begin to exert a certain sense of pointlessness. Not to mention smallness of heart.
God provided the apostles for us as examples of a better way. Namely, that of outflow. We would do well to learn from them.
Don’t Wait for Incredible Experiences to Move You
First, when Paul thought about influencing others for Christ, he didn’t only rely upon the guideposts of mystical experiences. Sometimes dreams and angelic appearances did occur as recorded in the book of Acts, and led the apostles into evangelism and spiritual labors. But far more often during less sensational stretches of life, prayer, reflection, and planning set the agenda.
Paul wasn’t above thinking strategically. He told the Romans, “First, I thank God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed in all the world” (Rom. 1:8) Granted, the apostle had said something like this to other believers, such as the Thessalonians, but in this passage he said it to a group of committed Christians living in the capital city of the empire. They were positioned in an incredible way.
The old saying “All roads lead to Rome” means all the cumulative culture of the day—news, art, fashions, philosophies, knowledge, and discoveries—eventually found its way to Rome. Then, like a heart, the city would pump it all back out to its citizenry. The faith of Roman Christians was starting to be pumped out as well. Paul recognized the strategic potential in this, and it affected his plans. He sent a sixteen chapter epistle to them, and purposed to visit them.
“As the capital of the empire, of course, Rome would be a locale unthinkable to pass by in a ministry designed to reach all types of gentiles. To pass by Rome in a Roman world would be inconceivable.”¹
Consider how such strategic thinking might contribute to your own hope of being fruitful in the Lord’s work. For instance, those of us who have children already have a gift wrapped opportunity.
Take Susanna Wesley, the stay home mom who had nineteen children. Eight of them died in infancy, and one was accidentally smothered by a maid. Susanna looked at the kids who survived not only with motherly affection, but with eyes of faith, seeing them as her God-given allotment. Susanna purposed to give them an education, teaching them, among other things, Greek and Latin. On Sundays after church, she tutored them in the Bible, where she would go over a sermon outline with them, explaining the pertinent points. Other children in the neighborhood began showing up. And finally, even adults began asking permission to attend as well. Susanna’s group grew as large as two hundred.
One biography says of her,
“…although she never preached a sermon or published a book or founded a church, (she) is known as the Mother of Methodism. Why? Because two of her sons, John Wesley, and Charles Wesley, as children consciously or unconsciously will, applied the example and teachings and circumstances of their home life.”²
Although in many ways, Susanna Wesley had an outstanding character, spirituality, and resolve, we shouldn’t think of her as the sort of wildly gifted evangelical celebrity we see today. She simply took advantage of a God-given, strategic opportunity and pursued it as far as she could.
Other areas of life can yield spiritual fruit if we see them strategically—employment, for instance. Your position in the working world may lend itself to meeting or connecting with people in a special way. Where do you work? Some job sites have a cafeteria frequented by most of the people who work in the building. A Bible left open next to your lunch can lead to some interesting conversations. Where do you live? Houses that spring up in your area and the staccato appearance of moving trucks might justify your coming up with a newcomer’s welcome strategy. Do you have a dog? An amazing number of conversations spring up between strangers out walking their pets.
The point here is not to passively wait for an opportunity to run over you like a bus, but to proactively consider how you might increase the likelihood of gospel impact. When you do that, you’re thinking like Paul.
Prayer is Not a Christian Cliché
Paul also prayed.
9 For God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in the gospel of his Son, that without ceasing I mention you 10 always in my prayers, asking that somehow by God’s will I may now at last succeed in coming to you (1:9-10).
Sooner or later it becomes clear to all of us that plans and intentions alone are not guaranteed to work. You’re simply not smart enough to engineer fool-proof schemes, nor are you strong enough to make anything happen. Paul prayed that, “I may now at last succeed in coming to you.” A few verses later, he mentioned, “I have often intended to come to you (but thus far have been prevented).” Even he experienced the frustration of foiled plans. Prayer is paramount. It is not a Christian cliché. Nothing works without it.
We Christians pray, but we typically spend a lot of time focused on predictable buckets. Singles pray for marriage. Childless couples ask for children. The financially burdened request assistance. The sick pray for health.
We ask very little when it comes to bearing fruit in others. In fact, these petitions are so rare that once we utter them, we immediately find ourselves outside the mainstream. The believer who prays for the opportunity to help the faith of others will sound distinctly apostolic. The words themselves, even if plainly spoken, will not sound so common as they reach heaven. “Lord, let me bear fruit in someone else,” often translates differently in the ears of God, sounding more like:
“Lord, I want to introduce someone to you, so they could love you.”
“Let me help someone to lift up and glorify your Son.”
“Lord let me feed your hungry children with your word.”
“Let me help someone rebuild their relationship with you.”
“Give me boldness to speak the gospel so you can save a soul from the second death.”
How do you imagine a gracious God responding? Paul must have believed that the Lord of all would bend heaven and earth to answer these requests. He said to the Romans, “I mention you always in my prayers,” and when we do the same, we step into his shoes.
Help Anyone Move Closer to Jesus
Paul had a broad definition of fruitful spiritual labor. Typically, we limit the concept to helping unsaved people believe in Jesus. But he said, “I long to see you [Roman believers] that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you [not save them from the lake of fire].” He also told them in verse 13, that he wanted to reap some harvest among them, or, according to the NKJV, he wanted to “have some fruit” among them.
The idea of bearing fruit encompasses both the saved and unsaved. Consider the entire epistle to the Romans. Most of the book touches on matters well beyond initial faith, yet Paul calls all of it the gospel. When he preaches spiritual truth in Romans chapter eight, or chapter twelve, the domain of saved people, he refers to it as preaching the gospel. Moving anyone closer to Christ is a form of fruit bearing, whether it is helping them to first base or to home plate.
I’ll tell the story of a guy named Hank, a Christian who was in the Army. He was about to be transferred back to the United States from a tour of duty in Europe and he prayed, “Lord, will I have no fruit from being stationed here these last few years?” Not long after his prayer, someone knocked on his barracks door and he opened it. There I was.
I had been saved only a week or two prior. No one had found out about it yet, since I was still mulling over it myself. Through prolonged contact, I knew that Hank was the resident man of God in our barracks. He was the elderly age of 28, and up until then, the most sincere Christian I had ever met. I had always given him a wide berth, not wanting a confrontation with the gospel. But the moment had come for me to stand there, green, asking if we could “Talk about some things in the Bible.”
He didn’t say, “Oh, you’re already saved? I’m not interested.” I mention this, because some Christians prefer evangelistic encounters where wild drama concludes with a sinner repenting, crying, and falling to his knees to pray the sinner’s prayer. Compared to that kind of scenario, my case was tame, and terribly boring. It wasn’t going to supply Hank with any exciting gospel anecdotes to share in front of packed-out churches.
Yet Hank counted this unfinished, young Christian as fruit. He had about three months left before leaving Germany, and so from that moment forward I was on a crash course in discipleship. I had already taken to Bible reading and prayer, but hadn’t yet wrapped my mind around affecting other people with the gospel. Given my newbie status in the faith, I didn’t see how such a thing could be possible.
I was about to learn.
The agenda, which seemed to unfold as much by happenstance as Hank’s conscious design, included visiting people (some of whom didn’t want the visit), personal counseling, friendship evangelism, bearing ridicule for the sake of Christ, and how to hold Bible studies one on one, or with a group.
When the three months were up, Hank drove to the Frankfurt airport to leave the country. His prayer for fruit had been answered. And after I got my head together, I took serious one of his parting injunctions: “Brother, remember your fruit.”
Our emphasis on discipleship is not some evangelical accessory, a cool thing to do with fill-in-the-blank workbooks at the local coffee shop. We invest in the root, shoot, and fruit of others, so they will turn around and do the same for somebody else.
I Can’t Make You Do This
Paul saw fruit bearing as an obligation. His apostleship from the Lord in Romans 1:5 obligated him “both to both Greeks and barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish” (1:14). As Americans, we see the word “obligated” and right away get the sense of something unpleasant, of oppressive legality. But Paul added, “So I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome.” Far from a sense of reluctant dread filling his soul, he felt an excitement and joy in doing it.
No Christian leader can obligate you to go out and influence people for Jesus. Nor can a church or a ministry. Some groups have tried to press the issue with threat tactics and shaming, only to get the opposite results—of members dodging evangelism and being guilted to death over it.
Only the Lord can obligate you. And when you are operating under His requirement upon your life for a person or group of people, the more eager you will be to do it.
Your heart will begin to look like the heart that drove the letter.
¹Zane Hodges, Romans: Deliverance From Wrath (Corinth, TX: Grace Evangelical Society, 2013), loc. 670.
²Susan Pellowe, 2007.