Romans 1:1-17

Download audio

Download sermon

Text Comment

v.1       Paul begins with this word “gospel” which means “good news” or “glad tidings.” Some form of the word occurs four times in our text for this morning and, as you may remember, many times in Romans and in the rest of Paul’s letters. Indeed, 60 of its 76 occurrences in the New Testament are in Paul’s writings. The gospel was his business, his calling, his life’s work. It was also the great passion of Paul’s life since that moment when the former persecutor of the church met the exalted Lord Christ on the road to Damascus. Once in 1 Corinthians, as you remember, he said, “Woe is me if I do not preach the gospel.”

An apostle is an envoy, someone sent as an official representative. His assignment Paul will define in v. 5. He has been sent “to call people from among all the Gentiles to the obedience of faith.”

v.3       The good news, the glad tidings are about Jesus, “who was born of the seed of David according to the flesh,” is what Paul literally says. Jesus was a descendant of David, important because that was the key identifier of the long-promised Messiah, the coming king: that he would be a descendant of David, Israel’s greatest king.

v.4       Paul does not seem here to be explicitly referring to Christ’s two natures when he speaks of his flesh and the spirit of holiness as some have thought – divine and human – but rather to what theologians call his two “states”: humiliation and exaltation. The man who was during the time of his ministry the Son of God in lowliness and meekness and hiddenness became by his resurrection the Son of God in power and glory. Obviously Jesus did not begin to be God the Son at his resurrection, but as the incarnate Son of God, as the God-Man, he began his exalted life, the life he now lives at the Father’s right hand, at his resurrection.

And it is by the Holy Spirit, descended with power upon the world at Pentecost, that the glory of Christ is being made known to the world. Peter, in his sermon on the Day of Pentecost, said pretty much the same thing as Paul says here. Speaking of Christ’s resurrection from the dead and his exaltation to the Right Hand of God, Peter said that Jesus “received the promised Holy Spirit” and poured him out upon the world. “Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.”

v.5       Paul writes literally “the obedience of faith,” and means by that phrase that all mankind is now summoned to believe in Jesus the Son of God and submit their lives to him. Jesus is not some local deity. He is the savior of the world. His apostles were commanded by him after his resurrection to make disciples of all nations. And so to believe in Jesus is an act of obedience to God. That is why in Hebrews 5:9 we read that Jesus is the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him. “Come unto me,” is not just an invitation, it is a command.

v.8       Now Paul explains why he is writing to the Christians at Rome at this particular time.

v.10     A thanksgiving like this is typical of Paul’s letters. He was a man who rejoiced to hear that the gospel was making inroads in various places, all the more in Rome, the capital of the world of that day. The churches he himself had founded made many demands on his time and energy, but he was a man who kept his finger on the pulse of gospel work everywhere. But there is more. Paul is writing to the Romans, in particular, because he has plans to pay them a visit. We will learn later in the letter precisely what those plans are. He hopes to preach the gospel in Spain and plans to stop in Rome en route. He hopes that they can assist him on his way (15:24).

v.13     As an evangelist, a gospel preacher, he can’t help but look forward to preaching Christ in the capital and to gaining more converts in the world’s greatest city. “As I have had among the other Gentiles” indicates that the large majority of Christians in Rome were Gentiles, not Jews. They had become the followers of Jesus from a pagan background.

v.14     What Paul literally says is “to the Greeks and to the barbarians.” To the Greeks anyone who was not a Greek was a barbarian. But, by this time, the Romans, many of the best educated of whom spoke Greek and recognized and admired Greek civilization as the most developed and sophisticated in the world, were included among the “Greeks” in the conventional phrase “Greeks and barbarians.” Folk in Rome were sophisticated. They certainly didn’t think Paul was referring to them when he spoke of “barbarians!” So barbarians, in conventional usage, would be everyone else. Together with the following phrase the two pairs, Greeks and Barbarians and wise and the foolish, or, perhaps better, the educated and the uneducated, indicates that he is committed to reaching everyone he can. He is their debtor, in the sense that he has an obligation to them to fulfill, and that obligation is to bring the good news of Jesus Christ to them all.

v.16     Verse 16 begins with a “For…” that is omitted in the NIV for some reason. “For I am not ashamed of the gospel…” the “for” connecting the new thought to the one that went before. He will be a preacher of the gospel because he is not ashamed of it. The reason Paul is not ashamed of the Gospel – the good news about Jesus Christ – is because he has been an eyewitness many times to its power to deliver human beings – sophisticated and unsophisticated, great and small, old and young, men and women – from sin and death. He is not daunted by the prospect of preaching to educated people who may think his message beyond silly or to uneducated people who may find it uninteresting or even offensive because Paul knows what a power the gospel is. He has seen the most unlikely people being overcome by the gospel and transformed by it, as he himself had been.

It is a simple historical fact – and, remember, Paul’s entire message is based on what has actually happened in the world – that the good news came first to Jews and only then to Gentiles. Jesus came to his own, the Jews, but he sent his apostles to the ends of the earth.

v.17     Here we get something of a summary of the good news. First, it is something that is revealed. In the language of the Bible this means that it is something that men would never have figured out for themselves. It is not something accessible to human reason. God must make this truth known; he must disclose it. And he has. And what is it that is revealed? Righteousness! The good news is of sinners becoming righteous before God through receiving from God righteousness as a gift. In 5:17 Paul will speak of “the gift of righteousness.” Paul will elaborate the point at length in the argument that follows so we needn’t do so here, but by “righteousness” Paul means “being in right relation to God and to God’s judgment.” A good deal of Paul’s argument will concern itself with how God, just and holy and honest as he is, can declare righteous, holy, accepted, right with himself; how he can declare righteous people who are not righteous in their behavior their thoughts, words and deeds. But God can and he does because of Jesus Christ and what he did for us.

So one becomes righteous by faith, faith in Jesus of course. To say that this righteousness is a gift and to say it is by faith is the same thing. Paul’s phrase “from faith to faith” or “from faith for faith” or “by faith from first to last” as the NIV has it – they all amount to the same thing – is a way of saying what Luther would express with the Latin phrase sola fide, by faith alone. And as will be the case throughout Romans, Paul seals his point with a citation of Scripture, in this case, Habakkuk 2:4, which likewise expresses the point: faith is the key to one’s relationship with God. And those who are right with God become so through faith; which is the same thing as saying they become so because God gives them this gift. There is much more on this to come of course.

Verses 16 and 17 together may be taken as a kind of thesis statement, the theme of the exposition and argument that follows.

There are all kinds of good news. For a great many Americans, the election of President Obama was good news. It caused them to rejoice and feel very differently about life. You send out announcements of the birth of your child: that is good news and you, as it were, shout it from the housetops. You are engaged to be married. That is good news and, like all good news, you find ways to spread the news. And so it was in Paul’s day. The birth of an heir to the Roman emperor, his coming of age, his accession to the throne, his victories in battle, these were announced and proclaimed throughout the empire as good news. In the Old Testament also a victory in battle might be proclaimed as good news by heralds sent to report it to the people. In the prophecy of Isaiah especially “good news” is used of the coming of God’s salvation:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor…to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound….” [61:1]

Isaiah 61:1, if you remember, was the text of our Lord’s very first sermon in the Nazareth synagogue reported for us in Luke 4. It is especially this OT background that defines Paul’s use of the term “good news” or “glad tidings” because, as he goes on to say in v. 2 it concerns something that God had promised beforehand through the prophets. What is more, it concerned the arrival of the descendant of David for whom the Jews had been waiting for a thousand years. All through the ancient epoch and all through the Scriptures, from Genesis to Malachi, God’s people read of something and someone to come; this someone would bring to pass a final and complete deliverance of his people from their bondage: from their sin and guilt and from all the problems of life. They were waiting for salvation and now it has come. Good News!

Paul was living in the days, as he says in 1 Corinthians 10:11, in which “the fulfillment of the ages has come.” Good News!  Imagine for a moment Paul’s viewpoint and what he thought when he used that phrase, that single word in Greek, Good News! He had been like all others of his time going on about his life. He had hoped for the coming of the Messiah but, in all honesty, he probably didn’t think the Messiah would come in his lifetime. He hadn’t come for many generations. He had heard, of course, something of Jesus of Nazareth; who hadn’t? But Paul had dismissed him as a crank at best, as a positive danger to the spiritual life of the Jews at worst. And after Pentecost, as the Christian movement began to gather steam, Paul became the man the Jews looked to put a stop to it. Paul was a gifted man and possessed of a great measure of drive. He was a zealous Jew. He was perfect for the job. And Paul undertook that assignment with a vengeance. He was, not to mince words, something of a kind of Gestapo chief, hunting down Christians and throwing them into jail, and, on at least one memorable occasion, overseeing the mob execution of one of their leaders. For Paul Christians were heretics and his job was to hunt the heretics down and put an end to their sect. He didn’t have good news to proclaim himself, but he certainly didn’t think the Christians had any good news either.

And then, in a way almost as dramatic as he had entered the world in the first place – with the announcement to the angels near Bethlehem, the star, the magi from the east, and so on – the Son of God appeared to Paul as he was en route to Damascus to locate and imprison Christians there. And in that moment of shattering revelation Paul became the herald of glad tidings. He had met Jesus Christ and seen his glory and understood in a moment that everything the Christians had said about Jesus – that he was God the Son now become a man; that he was not only the Messiah but the Savior of sinners; and that the message of his saving love and power was now to be proclaimed throughout the world – it was all true. There really was good news to proclaim to the world. And as the love of Christ filled his heart, as he came to realize the glory of salvation – not a salvation men earned by their paltry, pedestrian works but one that came from heaven, that cost God the life of his only Son, that utterly annihilated man’s sin and guilt and not only reconciled him to God but made him a child of God, a child beloved of his Father – this good news took hold of Paul’s heart and life.

These historical facts became Paul’s message: 1) the visitation of this world by God the Son, the second person of the Triune God,; 2) his suffering and death in our place, bearing our punishment on our behalf; 3) and his resurrection from the dead, proving himself the conqueror of sin and death for all who believe in him. Paul had a theology but that theology was simply the explanation of events in history, of what had taken place in the momentous years when the Son of God was physically present in the world. The good news is the tidings of Jesus and what he did for us. The good news, as we read in vv. 1-6 is Christology, the truth about Jesus: who he is and what he did.

Most people nowadays think of religion as man’s quest for God. I cannot tell you how many times I have read that phrase in the description of the religious life of human beings, “man’s quest for God.” But the gospel is not a message about how we can find God. It is a message about how God found us and continues to find men in the darkness and despair of their lives – crushed first by the problems of this life and then by the certainty of death – and lifts them out of that darkness into his wonderful light. There is drama in the good news. There is this epic history of a terrible struggle to the death and a greater victory.

What Paul is going to say, unpacking his terse statement in vv. 16-17, is that by faith, when a person believes in Jesus, commits himself or herself to him as Savior and Lord, the consequences of that great victory – Christ’s righteousness, his moral perfection, his acceptance with the Father – becomes his or hers, and, at that same moment, the Spirit and the power of Christ erupt into his or her life to begin a process of transformation that moves on relentlessly until at last, in heaven, we are completely Christ-like. We have not only been rescued, we have been reborn, remade, perfected until we are what human beings ought to be.

Everything, every part of this grand prospect, circles around this person and his personal achievement. The gospel does not present us with a way to God; it proclaims the way God took to reach us in our great need. The glad tidings are not that there is something for us to do, but that what needed to be done has already been done for us by another and we have only to acknowledge that fact from the heart and, with gratitude and love, confess Jesus Christ, God’s Son, as our Savior, which is, after all, what Paul means by “faith.”

“Romans is ultimately a book about God: how he acted to bring salvation, how his justice is preserved, how his purposes are worked out in history, how he can be served by his people.” [Leon Morris in Moo, 43]

It is imperative, all the more in our day and age when the pluralistic spirit is so deeply fixed in the mind of the culture, that Christians recognize this immense difference between their faith and that of every other believer in some religion or philosophy of life. We can far too easily take for granted this gospel, this good news, and begin to treat it as if it were like the other religions of the earth. We can fail to remember what extraordinary, what utterly captivating tidings the gospel is. None of the other religions or philosophies of human life has anything remotely like this good news: this proclamation of a great victory won by our champion at a terrible cost to himself, a victory that secures our entrance into everlasting joy and perfect goodness. None of the other faiths, none of the other philosophies is good news in anything like this way. None is the proclamation of a great love and a great power and of great events by which God delivered man from his just deserts, from a fate from which he could never have delivered himself. The gospel is utterly unique in this way. It stands absolutely alone. There is little good news in a message that effectively says: Do this and do that and maybe God will do something for you. This is what the other religions and philosophies of life tell you including secularism. But it is hardly good news to be shouted from the rooftops. Nobody as a herald runs to shout breathlessly to people: “You can maybe do some of this and maybe do some of that and then maybe God will do something for you.” That is not good news! No one thinks that glad tidings!

The hundreds upon hundreds who attend the Compline Service at St. Mark’s in Seattle on Sunday nights attend the service, so they tell newspaper interviewers, for the ethereal music and the “spiritual” atmosphere. The texts that are sung, the creed that is read, all contain impossibly  good news about Christ and salvation, but nobody at that service hears it any more. The utter uniqueness of the message, the splendor of it is completely lost on them, as if the Christian message were some predictable collection of platitudes. It is not! It never was! It is good news!

As one 20th century theologian put it, “All other forms of religion – not to mention philosophy – deal with the problem of [man’s] guilt apart from the intervention of God, and therefore they come to a ‘cheap’ conclusion. In them man is spared the final humiliation of knowing that the mediator must bear the punishment instead of him. To this yoke he need not submit. He is not stripped absolutely naked.” [Brunner, The Mediator, 474]

Yes, that is right. But there is more. In all other forms of religion and philosophy it is man’s love for God, or at least his obedience to God or his service to God, not God’s love for man that is the operative principle of salvation. There are no glad tidings, no good news, nothing to herald throughout the world in those faiths. Nothing surprising, breathtaking, or heart-stirring. In what other faith could the kernel of the message be described as Paul describes his gospel as “the unsearchable riches of Christ?” Where is the great miracle in them that is in the gospel? Where is the great, the sudden, the dramatic reversal of man’s fortunes? Where is a loving God making terrible sacrifice for man’s sake in those other faiths and other philosophies? God becoming a man, the God-man suffering for men, his rising from the dead to ensure the eternal life of all who trust in him: these are the greatest conceivable miracles and they lie at the center of everything. These are glad tidings indeed!

Even the enemies of Christianity, those who do not believe it to be true, have sometimes acknowledged the radical difference in its message. Carlos Fuentes, the Mexican novelist – no friend of Christianity or of the Spanish conquest – has nevertheless admitted:

“One can only imagine the astonishment of the hundreds and thousands of Indians who asked for baptism as they came to realize that they were being asked to adore a God who sacrificed himself for men instead of asking men to sacrifice themselves to God, as the Aztec religion demanded.” [Robert Royal, FT (May 1999) 37]

Glad tidings indeed! Good news indeed. Life transforming, culture transforming, world transforming good news! And so it has been for countless multitudes of human beings through the ages. In his great work on the History of the Expansion of Christianity, the Yale church historian, Kenneth Scott Latourette, described the blessing that Jesus and his loving sacrifice for sinners has been to the world.

“In this world of men, with its aspirations and its struggles,…there appeared one born of woman…. To most of…his contemporaries he seemed a failure…. Yet no life ever lived on this planet has been so influential in the affairs of men. From it has grown the most nearly universal fellowship, the Christian church, that man has known….

From that brief life and its apparent frustration has flowed a more powerful force for the triumphal waging of man’s long battle than any other ever known by the human race. Through it millions have had their inner conflicts resolved in progressive victory over their baser impulses. By it millions have been sustained in the greatest tragedies of life and have come through radiant. Through it hundreds of millions have been lifted from illiteracy and ignorance, and have been placed upon the road of growing intellectual freedom, and of control over their physical environment. It has done more to allay the physical ills of disease and famine than any other impulse known to man. It has emancipated millions from…slavery and millions of others from thraldom to vice. It has been the most fruitful source of movements to lessen the horrors of war, and to put the relations of men and nations on the basis of justice and peace.” [Cited in Stott, The Incomparable Christ, 174]

There would be many nowadays who would complain that Latourette is overstating the case; that Christianity has been a negative force in the world as well. What of the religious wars they would ask? And what of the contributions of unbelievers to the life of mankind? But, however deeply imperfect or incomplete in its present effect, the power of the gospel in human life has been as great as the great scholar said it has been. Neither secularism nor the other faiths can produce the virtues that the Christian gospel has taught the world are the true goodness of human life. They can’t humble men and they can’t transform them and make them good. Only the gospel has proved its power to do this. Secularism in our present day lives on the momentum of the Christian faith that once ruled the Western world. So much of what is genuine philanthropy and the genuine spirit of goodness, one man to another, results originally and fundamentally from the gospel of Jesus Christ; the account of a great love being shown to undeserving people, a love to be imitated in our treatment of others.

Paul says that he is not ashamed of this good news. Some think he is only using a figure of speech here. He puts his positive point in the negative. He means that he has complete confidence in the gospel. Well no doubt he did. But I think he spoke as he did precisely because he understood, no doubt he himself felt, a temptation to be ashamed of this good news, this message about Jesus the Son of God. Rome was Rome. It was the vaunted home of worldly power and philosophical sophistication. And here comes a Jew, of all people – the Romans didn’t have the best opinion of Jews – with a message about an amateur Jewish rabbi who was crucified some years before outside Jerusalem, a real trouble spot in the Roman Empire. People were as exasperated with the Jews in the Greco-Roman world of the first century as many in the world are today. People will scoff at this message. They will laugh. No one likes to be laughed at. We know the temptation to be ashamed of the gospel very well, don’t we?

But then Paul caught himself. Ashamed of this gospel, these glad tidings? Ashamed of the Son of God? Ashamed of the cross of Jesus Christ, the empty tomb and the victory over sin and death? Ashamed of this magnificent future that lies before us all because of what Jesus has done and given to us? Ashamed of this divine power that Paul had so often seen transform human lives from darkness to light, from sin to righteousness, from despair to hope? No, he could not; he would not be ashamed of any of that!

Did you notice what Paul said in v. 5? “Through Jesus Christ and for his name’s sake, we received grace to call people to faith. Christ has done the impossible for us; in the most stunning way he has conquered every one of our enemies; he has secured the eternal fulfillment of every one of our longings, our hopes, and our dreams as human beings. Everything that we wanted to be true about us, everything we wanted to happen to us! We embrace the gospel and we share it with others for his sake.

He deserves that from us. In other words we have a debt to pay. There is nothing we can do to repay it of course. Let there be no thought of that. We will not, we cannot balance the scales. But we can love him and tell others what he did for us. We can do that for him. We can and we shall!