Today, we officially begin our year-long journey through Romans and James. I am not going to lie: we have laid before us a daunting task. To cover Romans in only a year, in broad sections, is tough. Generally speaking, this is probably a book best studied verse-by-verse, in an expository manner. That would take much longer than a year, though, and others have, more or less, done such things. For those sorts of studies, I encourage you to look here and here (you’ll need to scroll down the page a little bit on that second one).
What we are doing is something that, I believe, is much harder. To look at Romans as broadly as we will be requires much more discipline. It is easy to look at the first seven verses and put a separate emphasis on each of the points that Paul makes. It is easy to see the doctrines taught in them and expound upon them, giving lengthly theological lectures about election and incarnation. But to give an overview of those ideas and move on next week is much harder. It leaves much left unsaid. And that is sometimes very hard on the conscience.
The text of Romans
Romans was written around 57 or 58 C.E (or A.D. for those of you who are old school). It was probably written from Corinth while he was on his third missionary journey. In fact, a couple of early manuscripts of the letter contain subscriptions from a copyist stating that the letter was written in Corinth.
Christ, the cross, and the gospel are central themes to the book. In fact, Christ permeates the book in ways that modern preachers would do well to emulate. I am willing to go so far as to say that if Christ does not permeate your pastor’s preaching the way it does Paul’s, then you need to be looking for another church. Paul sets an example for all of us to follow as he seeks to follow Christ, and that includes letting Christ be central to all that we say and do, especially in relation to the gospel.
Most likely, Paul wrote the book to address the tensions between Jewish and Gentile Christians within the church at Rome. Around 49 C.E., then emperor of Rome, Claudius, expelled Jewish Christians from the province. This brought about a growing Gentile church in Rome, and, as the Jewish believers trickled back in, tensions about Law and ancestry grew. And these are the sorts of dilemmas that Paul addresses in the letter.
Romans also offers us Paul’s most extended theological treatise in the Scriptures. In fact, the majority of the book is laying the theological foundation for the church and the gospel. It is apparent in the letter that applying the gospel comes only after the establishment of a firm foundation of what the gospel actually is.
A brief look at today’s text
Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh 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, 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, including you who are called to belong to Jesus Christ, 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. (Romans 1:1-7 ESV)
In these first seven verses, Paul lays out in brief the story of the gospel. The “gospel of God” was prophesied of long before Paul’s day. Obviously, to Paul, the entire OT pointed to Christ as the true culmination of Israel’s story. According to Paul, it is through this Messiah, Jesus, that we have received grace.
The reason? To “bring about the obedience of faith.” But what does this mean? The ESV Study Bible explains it this way:
Obedience is required, but it is an obedience that flows from saving faith and is always connected to ongoing faith.
In other words, Paul is speaking of the obedience that is the direct result of having faith in the gospel. He is not speaking of a one-time faith, such as what is given at conversion, but rather the obedience that is formed by that faith that keeps the faith in the gospel.
I am going to go so far as to say that it is nearly impossible for one to keep their faith in the gospel if they are not obedient to it. The gospel calls us to radical submission to God, a radical loving of the other, a radical turning of the mind to something outside of ourselves. If we refuse to do what God says, refuse to love others (especially those whom we find ourselves hating), and refuse to see beyond ourselves, then, eventually, our faith will waver, we will fall, and, as the author of Hebrews says, it will be impossible for us to find our way back.
Paul’s gospel, while one that centers on Christ and the very real and true fact that we are saved by faith apart from works of the law, is a sober reminder that what we do in this life really does matter and that a changed life is absolutely vital to the spreading of the gospel and the redemption of the people of God.