As a trained New Testament scholar, I have long been fascinated by Romans. It has been the focus of much of my scholarly research. More than any of Paul's Epistles, Romans seems to transcend the first century historical situation. This is in part due to the fact that it is not clear precisely why Paul wrote Romans. There are very few indicators in the letter what the historical circumstances were both in Paul's life and in the life of the Roman church that gave rise to Romans. One thing we do know is that Paul wanted to come to Rome and be helped by them on a missionary journey to Spain. But Paul also says cryptically that he has written to them "boldly" on some matters to remind them (15:15), without telling us what this bold reminder entails. When we compare this feature of Romans with, say, Galatians, where the problem is clear, the difference is striking. All of this has led to one of the great scholarly debates of the 20th Century--"the Romans debate," or the reason (or reasons) Paul wrote Romans.
For fourteen consecutive years, first at Gordon College and then Reformed Theological Seminary, I taught Romans at least once a year. But in more than ten years of pastoral ministry, I had never preached through Romans. So when I took a call to my current church, I knew that eventually I wanted to preach Romans. Romans sermons have been circulating and pulsating inside me for many years. As a scholar I wanted to continue to formulate my own understanding of why Paul wrote Romans (more on this later). Even more, my love for this great letter, and for the God whose righteousness is revealed in the gospel, compelled me to preach Romans.
Circumstances in my church, as well as in the church universal, also led me to preach Romans at this point in my ministry. First, I want my people to be gripped by the gospel message. I had just completed a sermon series on the 10 Commandments, and although I had emphasized the grace of the law, I believed it was time to focus on the grace of the gospel. Romans presents the glorious message of justification by faith apart from works of the law. It teaches that sinners are right with God only because of Jesus Christ and his finished work. As I declared one Sunday morning, "Justification IS by works--Christ's works, not ours." Those who belong to Christ do indeed "fulfill the righteous requirement of the law" (Rom. 8:4) and walk in love by keeping the commandments (13:8-10). But our good works can never save us. Only God, in Christ, can save us.
I pray that several months of reflection on the gospel will lead to greater love for God and more fervent worship. We had seen in our study of Exodus that God's people were redeemed to worship. The same theme is prominent in Romans as well. In chapter 1, Paul points to the failure to worship the one true God, and the consequent improper worship, as being at the heart of human sin. It is not surprising then in chapter 5, when Paul begins to discuss the implications of justification, that three times in the first 11 verses he says, "we rejoice." As he reflects on the mysterious nature of God's sovereignty in salvation he breaks out in doxology (11:33ff). And in chapter 15 he describes Christ's work, the in-gathering of the Gentiles and the unity of the body of Christ as being for the purpose of worship (vv. 6, 9-11). I'm preaching Romans because I want my congregation to be characterized by fervent, heart-felt worship--worship that is not detached from profound theological truth, but rooted in it.
But there is another aspect of worship that reflection on the gospel and God's work in Christ should lead to, namely, the presenting of our bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God (12:1). This applies to many aspects of the Christian life, but it primarily refers to evangelism and seeking to fulfill the Great Commission. We see this most clearly when Paul later speaks of his own missionary endeavors as his "priestly service" (15:16). His priestly work was not that of animal sacrifice like the priests of old, but the self-sacrifice of giving his life over to Christ and seeking to make Christ known. Paul had a gospel debt (1:14) that came with his particular call to be the apostle to the nations. Yet all who know the grace and mercy of God reaching out to sinners should be gripped by the gospel and compelled to make Christ known. Like Paul, all who know the Savior are debtors to bring others to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. And this means being given over to God as a living sacrifice.
Paul's affirmation that he is "not ashamed" of the gospel is a call to the Roman church--and to us as well--to be bold in speaking for Christ (1:16; cf. 2 Tim. 1:8-12). Paul tells the Roman Christians of his desire to come and preach the gospel to them (1:15). This is not because he believes that they were second-class Christians who had the gospel wrong, but because he knows that those who know the gospel are compelled to make the gospel known. In lieu of a personal visit, in letter form, Paul preaches the gospel to the Roman believers--in fact, Martin Luther called Romans the purest form of the gospel. So in my preaching of Romans, it is my prayer that my congregation will be so gripped by the gospel message that they will be compelled to make the gospel known to others.
One aspect of Romans that I believe is often missed by interpreters of Romans is the evangelistic struggle that the Roman Christians would have been going through. In A.D. 49, the emperor Claudius had expelled Jews from Rome because of a disturbance in the Jewish community that most scholars agree is the result of Jewish Christian evangelistic activity. Claudius died in A.D. 54 and now, a couple years later, many Jewish Christians (including Aquila and Priscilla) have returned. And one of their key questions surely would have been, what do we do now? Paul writes to assure them of the truth and power of the gospel, to give them confidence that God is working out his plan for elect Jews by the gospel going to the nations, and in general to give them a vision for missions. It is no accident that Romans begins and ends with the assertion that the goal of Paul's ministry is to bring about "the obedience of faith among the Gentiles." Romans is driven by missions.
Thus, it has been my goal in preaching Romans to give my church a vision for evangelism and missions, to drive us out into the world to be the hand of Christ reaching out to bring in God's elect.
But finally I'm preaching Romans because the gospel is under attack and a "new perspective" on the gospel and justification is making in-roads into the church for which Christ died. This new perspective is causing confusion and division in the church. This grieves me. Confused Christians lack assurance, prove unfruitful and are in a place of spiritual danger.
I share with many in this new perspective a desire to read Romans in light of God's plan to bring in the nations and to build one body in Christ. But I do not agree with the massive redefinition of fundamental biblical doctrine that is taking place. It is exegetically flawed and theologically dangerous. The distorted gospel of the new perspective ceases to be "the power of God unto salvation." It cannot bring sinners into a right relationship with God and it cannot bring unity to the body of Christ. And so I'm preaching Romans because I want to remind my church of the truth of the gospel and exhort them to stand firm in it.
Deep love for God, fervent worship, a commitment to evangelism and missions, the ready defense of the gospel--these are the reasons why I am preaching Romans.
William Barcley is the Pastor at Sovereign Grace Presbyterian Church and Adjunct Professor at Reformed Theological Seminary.
William Barcley, "Preaching Romans", Reformation21 (March 2010)
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