A good preacher lifts the gospel, takes a scalpel, and cuts it wide open, letting the guts fall out to reveal the insides. What we need is not a surface level understanding of the best news the world has ever heard. We need to see it all, guts and everything. That’s what Paul does in the book of Romans. He cuts deep into the gospel of Jesus Christ and shows us the glory within.
Since it’s writing, Romans has been used by God to launch revivals, both personal and global. In 386, Augustine found in chapter 13 the antidote to an immoral life. In 1515, Martin Luther found grace upon grace in chapter 3 as he struggled with the unsatisfiable law of the God he was growing to hate. In 1783, John Wesley thought he was a Christian. Then one day, as he sat among friends in a small group, he listened as one of them read the words of Luther’s commentary on Romans. His heart warmed, and he was changed. For centuries, God has used these 16 chapters to change the course of individual hearts that in turn changed the course of the world around them. What might he do in us and through us today?
Every Christian must understand the logic of Romans. In it, we find life. So many of our questions, be they existential, philosophical, theological, etc., can be answered with the logic of Paul’s magnum opus. Martin Luther said, “This Epistle is really the chief part of the New Testament and the very purest Gospel, and is worthy not only that every Christian should know it word for word, by heart, but occupy himself with it every day, as the daily bread of the soul. It can never be read or pondered too much, and the more it is dealt with the more precious it becomes, and the better it tastes.”
1 Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for 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, 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 introduces himself as a servant of Christ Jesus. Some translations say a slave of Christ. That’s an accurate translation. Francis Schaeffer points out that in doing this, Paul “introduces a theme central to Romans: that after accepting Jesus as our Savior, we are to live for him.” He has been set apart – that is, he has been separated from his old life and separated to Jesus. His words are the words of any man who has been brought into a relationship with Christ. Who we once were is gone. We are his now.
Therefore, the book of Romans isn’t about Paul. It’s about God. It’s not Paul’s message. It’s God’s message. That’s why Paul wastes no time getting to the news of the gospel. He explains that the gospel isn’t new news. It’s old news now fulfilled. It’s an ancient message, written into the fabric of the Genesis narrative. It’s a story of a Son, promised in history, come in the fullness of time to save his people. He is the Son of God in power who was resurrected after being crucified and gives life to all who will come to him. The message of the gospel is basically this, “You are worse than you think you are, but God is better than you think he is, and as he shows that to you, you are set free by his love.” You and I would not dare to mark ourselves with the title of Saint. But God does because God loves bad people into perfection in Jesus Christ.
8 First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed in all the world. 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. 11 For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you— 12 that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine. 13 I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that I have often intended to come to you (but thus far have been prevented), in order that I may reap some harvest among you as well as among the rest of the Gentiles. 14 I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish. 15 So I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome.
The first thing Paul does, after presenting the gospel, is give thanks to God for these people. Gratitude is so woven into Paul’s heart that he cannot begin thinking about a group of people, despite all their troubles and flaws, without first giving thanks that God has saved them. That’s what the gospel does. It connects us with all believers throughout the world and transforms us into grateful people. We may be different, and those differences may cause tension, but in Christ peace has been downloaded from heaven into the software of our heart.
Every Christian has something to give to another Christian because every Christian has been touched by God, and God always has more to give. That’s why Paul talks about mutual encouragement in verse 12. Paul’s faith encourages the Romans, and the Romans’ faith encourages Paul. In salvation, God did not exile us to an island. He brought us into a community. It is there, among the people of God, where faith rubs against faith and the fire of something bigger begins to burn. The world will never notice the church until the church starts noticing one another. The gospel drags us out into the light and, to our surprise, doesn’t shame us but cleans us. We can be known in our flaws because we’ve become righteous in God’s grace.
That means the community of God is a collection of individuals saved by one God sent out for a cooperative mission. Though we are one community, we have individual callings. Paul was called to both Greeks and barbarians, to wise and foolish. As a gospel preacher and church planter, he was eager to preach the gospel. There is a lesson for us there. Paul is not eager to merely be among the saints of Rome. He has a purpose of going: to preach the gospel. The preaching of the gospel is the sharing of the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ. Alexander Solzhenitsyn said, “One word of truth outweighs the whole world.” It’s that word of truth that he wants to share with everyone. Nothing contains more truth than the gospel.
But preaching the gospel can feel crazy. After all, we’re not doing anything. Shouldn’t the church do something? Gospel proclamation is talk – but not merely talk. The gospel is simply good news. It’s nothing more, and certainly nothing less. But news can make all the difference. In our individualized, Western, modern culture, productivity, materialism, and consumerism have so infiltrated our lives that preaching the gospel has become, if not a bore, a relic of the past. We are pushed to become relevant – to reach out and bring in by all means possible. But the work of the church, the occupation of the Christian, is to preach the gospel and let God do the rest of the work. That’s Paul’s purpose in Romans.
16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”
Francis Schaeffer said Romans is split into two sections: chapters 1-8 and chapters 9-16, and the key to understanding the first section is Romans 1:16-17. John Chrysostom summarized these verses this way, “It is the righteousness of God that is revealed here, not yours but God’s, a righteousness both abundant and easily accessible. For you do not receive it by toils and labors, but you receive it by a gift from above contributing one thing only from yourself, namely, ‘believing.’” If he is right, how could anyone be ashamed of the gospel? What else in the world has the power to change us so thoroughly simply by believing?
The gospel is a powerful message, but there are a lot of powerful messages in the world. What makes it unique? Michael Bird explains it this way, “The gospel is a speech-act, in that it not only announces the way of salvation, but actualizes salvation in those who hear it with faith. The same power of God manifested in raising the Son, in creation, in the divine acts of redemptive history, in keeping covenant promises, and in miraculous events is also infused into the gospel. The gospel manifests God’s death-defeating, curse-reversing, evil-vanquishing, devil-crushing, sin-cleansing, life-giving, love-forming, people-uniting, super- über-mega-grace power that results in ‘salvation.’” In short, the gospel is not only powerful in message but also powerful in action. Powered by God himself, the gospel does something even as it says something.
As powerful as the gospel is, we can somehow still become ashamed of it. That’s how deep our sin is. The very message that saved our soul is the same message that we can be embarrassed by. Jesus warned us about this. In Luke 9, Jesus tells us, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me… whoever is ashamed of me and of my words, of him will the Son of Man be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.” We have a choice: embrace the shame of the cross, or become ashamed of the cross. In God’s Kingdom, laying down your life gives life back, and holding on to life takes it away. The choice seems obvious, but it must be made moment by moment.
Paul is proud of the gospel, but it does make him appear odd to the world. He doesn’t mind. Do we? Michael Bird gives us a brief list as a checkpoint:
I am ashamed of the gospel when I am afraid to tell it.
I am ashamed of the gospel when I’m too intimidated to uphold it.
I am ashamed of the gospel when I’m too lazy to teach it.
I am ashamed of the gospel when I’m too selfish to live a life worthy of it.
I am ashamed of the gospel when I make other things the center of fellowship.
I am ashamed of the gospel when I affirm any political, economic, or social position that denies
what the Lord Jesus taught about the poor, the orphan, the sick, the elderly, or the
I am ashamed of the gospel when I make excuses for the unchristian behavior of my political
I am ashamed of the gospel when I spend more money on chocolate than charity.
I am ashamed of the gospel when my social life becomes more important than my church life.
I am ashamed of the gospel when I spend more time combing my hair than active in prayer.
18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.
24 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, 25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.
26 For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; 27 and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.
28 And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. 29 They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, 31 foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32 Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.
We don’t like to talk about the wrath of God. But without understanding the wrath of God, we cannot understand the grace of God. And if we are ever to be saved, we must understand the grace of God. What we need as we dive into these murky waters of the early chapters of Romans is a willingness to truly look at ourselves. We need to see how muddy we really are. Once we’ve seen that, we will be prepared to see how clean Christ makes us.
Since God is righteous, he cannot accept unrighteousness. Therefore, his wrath is an outflow of his righteousness. In order to understand his goodness, we must understand our badness. But notice the first thing Paul mentions here. He doesn’t jump right to homosexuality or murder or gossip. He begins with suppression of the truth because that’s the first pigsty we all roll around in.
Our problems stem not from the things we do externally but from the reasons we do them internally. We have a heart problem before we have an action problem. God has not hidden himself in the shadows of history. He has not taken his place upon his throne as he watches from behind the veil of clouds and sky. He has placed himself in the center of the universe, and all creation points upward to him. Our problem is not that God is unknowable but that we are unwilling to know him. We would rather deny his existence than bow at his feet. Worshipping God is a selfless event. We cannot worship both ourselves and God. So, when push comes to shove, we suppress the truth of God for the exaltation of ourselves. The problem is we don’t really know what we want. We just think we do.
Paul starts with creation. God is made plain through what he has made. Whittaker Chambers was a Soviet spy who became, “the most important American defector from Communism.” He married a woman who was an anarchist, and she became pregnant. He assumed they would have an abortion because so many of his party believed it was more evil to bring a child into this terrible world than it was to kill the baby inside the womb. His wife would not consent, and they had the baby. In his book, Witness, Chambers recalls his former atheism as he gazed upon his little girl.
“I was sitting in our apartment on St. Paul Street in Baltimore.... My daughter was in her high chair. I was watching her eat. She was the most miraculous thing that had ever happened in my life. I liked to watch her even when she smeared porridge on her face or dropped it meditatively on the floor. My eye came to rest on the delicate convolutions of her ear—those intricate, perfect ears. The thought passed through my mind: “No, those ears were not created by any chance coming together of atoms in nature.... They could have been created only by immense design.” The thought was involuntary and unwanted. I crowded it out of my mind.... I had to crowd it out of my mind. If I had completed it, I should have had to say: Design presupposes God.”
Though Chambers eventually came to saving faith, in this instance, he suppressed the truth. His daughter clearly pointed to God’s existence, but that was too much for him to handle. It went against everything he believed. So, instead of changing, he just put it out of his mind. This blunt explanation is the sin Paul is describing. It is not that God is hard to find. Like the child ignoring the “F” on his report card, we just don’t want to acknowledge him.
We all believe in something. Some of us believe in God. Some of us don’t. But the difference is not in believing or not believing. We all believe. For the truth-suppressor, the belief leads to foolishness, thought they think it is wisdom. They believe they know the way to life. The way of the world is the path of foolishness that leads to heartbreak and disappointment. No matter how bold the signs may be along the way, we ignore them, cover them up, or mock them. We dance our way into hell, and only when we arrive are we willing to recognize that our heart longed for something more all along. It’s not that we never knew, it’s that we never wanted to know. We all believe something. The question is: what do we believe? Are we God, or is God God?
To be out for ourselves is to sin, and sin separates us from God. If we sin long enough, boldly enough, with enough violence against the throne in open defiance, God just might give us over to that which we love so much. The proof is found in verses 21-23, “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.”
When we fail to honor God, or give thanks to God, or exchange the glory of God for other things, we place ourselves in mortal danger. God might give us up. The abandonment of God to ourselves is the very worst thing that could ever happen. To suffer a thousand crucifixions but to be with God would be better than to enjoy the physical pleasures of sin in this world but to be without God.
Some of us may be walking the tightrope of sin, thinking that we can jump off whenever we want. That’s foolishness. If you’re relishing in sin on Saturday and singing to God on Sunday, you’re not worshipping. You’re mocking. And that mocking will end one day. If you want God, you can have him. But you cannot have God and sin together. No one can serve two masters. If you want the master of sin, God might let you have it, but Paul is here to tell you that you don’t want it, and you don’t have to have it. There’s a much better alternative.
But before we can see the alternative, we must first see the fullness of our sin. Look at verse 32, “Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.” We live in this reality today. Most of us are heterosexual, but the pressure is on to accept every sexual orientation as worthy and honorable. Lady Gaga sings at half-time of the Super Bowl,
It doesn't matter if you love him, or capital H-I-M
Just put your paws up 'cause you were born this way, baby
My mama told me when I was young
We are all born superstars
"There's nothing wrong with loving who you are"
She said, "'Cause he made you perfect, babe"
"So hold your head up girl and you'll go far,
Listen to me when I say"
I'm beautiful in my way
'Cause God makes no mistakes
I'm on the right track, baby I was born this way
No matter gay, straight, or bi
Lesbian, transgendered life
I'm on the right track baby
I was born to survive
God makes no mistakes, that’s true. But you and I do. In fact, we don’t make “mistakes,” we make sin. Let’s call it what it is, because only in truth telling will we find the truth teller. Mistakes imply innocence, but none of us is innocent. Our sin damns us to hell. Will we go there on the 50-yard-line dance floor, flaunting our made-for-TV identities, or will be bow before the King on his throne and accept the weakness of the flesh with the power of the gospel?
For every person who flaunts their sin, there is a grandstand of supporters who may enjoy a different flavor but cheer others on in their pursuit of happiness. Maybe you’re not a bold sinner. That’s good. But are you an encourager of those who are? Do you give approval where you should give warning? To always love is not to always accept. It does matter who you love and how you love. True love without real warning is only abandonment to creaturely tastes. True love includes real warning. Do you feel warned? Then Paul – and God – must really love us.