Monday, May 19, 2008
The Mighty and Merciful Message of Romans 1-8
By John Piper September 22, 2002
Paul writes the letter to the Roman church to mobilize their support for his mission to Spain. In Romans 15:24 he writes, "I hope to see you in passing as I go to Spain, and to be helped on my journey there by you." He has never been to Rome and has never met most of these Christians. So he lays out his gospel for them to see in these 16 chapters.
Oh that all our missionaries would know the book of Romans and preach the book of Romans. And Oh that those of us who send would know the book of Romans and live the book of Romans so that we would send missionaries the way Paul wanted to be sent and supported from Rome to Spain. The mighty and merciful message of this book will make rich Americans strip down to a more wartime lifestyle and pour their resources into the cause of the gospel. And the mighty and merciful message of this book, in the mouths of suffering missionaries, will break the powers of darkness and plant the Church of Christ in the hardest places.
The Multi-Cultural, Global Aspect of This Letter
It’s not surprising then as you start to read this letter, there is a multi-cultural, global point to it. In Romans 1:5 Paul tells us the goal of his apostleship: "We have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations." That’s why he preaches. That’s why he is going to Spain. That’s why he writes this letter: to bring about faith in Jesus Christ and the obedience that comes from it – "among all nations!" Romans is about the nations – the people groups who don’t yet believe on Christ. Who are not justified and not yet sanctified and therefore will not be glorified if they are not reached with the gospel.
Then in verse 14 he tells us his apostolic obligation again: "I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish." And lest we think he has left out the Jews, he says in verse 16, "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." Jews, Greeks, Barbarians, wise, foolish! In other words, this mighty and merciful message of the book of Romans breaks through national distinctions and cultural distinctions and educational distinctions.
This is utterly crucial to see in our pluralistic time – a time very much like the first century when the church of Christ spread so rapidly. Christianity is not a tribal religion, but calls for faith and allegiance from every tribe and tongue and people and nation. Jesus is not one among many gods. He is Lord of lords and King of kings, and there is no other name under heaven by which all men must be saved. The mighty, merciful message of Romans is not just one way of salvation among many. It is the way of salvation, because Jesus Christ is the one and only Son of God and Savior.
This claim has always been disputed. And it is especially disputed today in America, even among professing Christians, and, of course, among Muslims and Jews. In Friday’s Star Tribune there was another article rejecting the necessity of faith in Christ. A joint commission of Catholic bishops and American rabbis released a document called "Reflection on Covenant and Mission." The main thrust, the author said, is this: "Efforts to convert Jews are ‘no longer theologically acceptable’ . . . because the Jewish people already ‘abide in covenant with God" (Friday, Sept. 20, 2002, p. A23). In other words, there is one way of salvation for Jews who reject Christ, and there is another way of salvation for Christians who receive Christ.
This is a false and heartbreaking statement from Christian bishops in view of what Jesus said, "Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him" (John 3:36). Therefore, concerning the Gentiles who accept him and the Jews who reject him, Jesus said, "Many [the Gentiles] will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom [the Jewish people who reject him] will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth." (Matthew 8:11-12).
So it is utterly crucial that we see the universal claims of the mighty and merciful message of Romans. We are not dealing here with a human opinion, or a human philosophy, or a self-improvement program, or a tribal religion, or something parochial and limited. We are dealing here with the true news that the one and only God has acted uniquely in history to save people by sending his one and only Son to die for sinners and rise again. To reject this news is to perish.
The Thesis of the Letter: Romans 1:16-17
So Paul states his point in Romans 1:16-17 and then explains and applies it in the rest of the letter. "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.’" First, Paul says that his message – his gospel – is mighty and merciful to save: it is the power of God unto salvation. And this salvation is through faith. The power of the gospel to save penetrates to our souls with faith in Jesus Christ.
Then in verse 17 he explains why the gospel has this power: "For in it the righteousness of God is revealed." The gospel has the power to save those who trust Christ because it reveals the righteousness of God. What does that mean?
Romans 1:18 – 3:20: Why All of Us Need to Be Saved
Before he explains what it means, Paul spends Romans 1:18 – 3:19 to show why all of us need to be saved. You see his summary in Romans 3:9, "We have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin." And verse 19: "Every mouth [is] stopped, and the whole world [is] held accountable to God." So we are all sinners. We are all under God’s wrath (1:18). We have no righteousness that could commend us to him, and 3:20 makes plain that we can never save or justify ourselves: "By works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight." We are sinners. We are under God’s just and holy wrath. And we cannot save or justify ourselves by works.
Romans 3:21-31: Revelation of the Righteousness of God by Faith in Jesus and Its Implications
Now Paul returns to his main point of Romans 1:16-17 and explains what it means that the gospel is the power of God to save believers because it reveals the righteousness of God by faith. He says in verse 21-22, "But now the righteousness of God has been manifested [here he’s picking up the revealing of God’s righteousness in verse 17] apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it – 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe."
So what is the revealing of the righteousness of God that gives the gospel its power and saves believers? It’s the manifesting of "God’s righteousness that comes through faith in Jesus." It’s God’s righteousness revealed as a gift to us through faith. It’s what we call justification. So Paul says in verse 24 that sinners who trust Christ "are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus." The revelation of God’s righteousness that makes the gospel the power of God unto salvation is the demonstration and the gift of God’s righteousness to sinners who trust in Christ.
Romans 3:25 explains how God can justify sinners without being unjust: "God put [Christ] forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins." In other words, God ordained for his Son to die in our place so that the Father’s wrath and curse would be on him and not on those who believe. In this way he shows his hatred for sin and his just dealing with it. So now, as verse 26 says, he can be "just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus."
So the death of Christ is the foundation of our justification. If we believe in Jesus, God counts us righteous for Jesus’ sake. We are seen and treated as just. That is justification. And in verse 28 he makes clear that this right standing with God is not by works but by faith, "For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law."
And right here don’t miss the global, missionary, multi-cultural implication of this. Paul himself draws it out in verses 29-30, "Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles [the nations] also? Yes, of Gentiles also, 30 since God is one. He will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith." Justification by faith in Christ is the mighty and merciful global message we have for all the nations and all the people groups and all the people we will ever meet. There is one Savior, one cross, one resurrection and one way to be right with the one God: having his righteousness imputed to us by faith in Christ, not by works.
Romans 4: Abraham’s Justification by Faith apart from Works
In chapter 4 Paul makes the case for justification by faith apart from works by using Abraham as an example: "Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness" (verse 3). One of the most precious verses in the book is built off Abraham’s example (verse 5): "And to the one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness." Not work but faith justifies. And not the godly but the ungodly are justified. This is good news indeed – this is the mighty and merciful message of Romans.
Romans 5: Hope and Security in the Face of Suffering and Death
In chapter 5 Paul sums up with verse 1, "Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ." Then he opens the reality of suffering and death for the justified – and anticipates the huge emphasis on suffering in chapter 8. Verse 3 tells us why we can rejoice in tribulation – it leads to patience and approvedness and hope.
Then against the backdrop of this tribulation he argues exactly the same way he does in chapter 8 – from the greater to the lesser – if God can do a hard thing, he can do an easy thing. Recall in Romans 8:32 he says, "He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all [the hard thing], how shall he not with him freely give us all things [the easy thing]?" That’s exactly the way Paul argues here in Romans 5:9, "Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood [that’s the hard thing], much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God [that’s the easy thing]." Same kind of argument in verse 10: "For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son [that’s the hard thing], much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life [that’s the easy thing]."
The point is our hope and security in the face of suffering and death, just like it is in Romans 8. Normal Christianity is tribulation. "Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God" (Acts 14:22). Don’t ever forget that the mighty and merciful message of Romans is put forth in the context of expected suffering.
Death is a massive reality in all cultures. If you have a gospel you must have some explanation of death and some hope in the face of death. That is what Paul takes up in Romans 5:12-21, and he does it by comparing Adam, whose disobedience brought sin and death, with Christ, whose obedience brought righteousness and life. Verse 19 states the contrast most clearly: "For as by the one man’s [Adam’s] disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s [Christ’s] obedience the many will be made righteous." Adam’s sin and condemnation were imputed to us because we are united to him by birth; so Christ’s obedience and exoneration were imputed to us because we are united to him by faith.
Then Paul sums up the triumph of grace through Christ in verse 21: ". . . So that as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord."
Romans 6: Union with Christ Is Death to Sin and Deliverance from Slavery
Which led to a problem that had to be solved: If we are really justified by faith alone and where sin abounds grace abounds all the more, then why not sin that grace may abound? And Paul answers this in chapter 6 with the teaching that faith unites us to Christ in a real way so that we actually experience with him a death to sin and a deliverance from its slavery (6:6, 17-18). All justified people are being sanctified.
Romans 7: Dead to the Law that We May Belong to Another
Then in chapter 7 Paul argues that it is not an orientation on law-keeping that sanctifies us – or makes us like Jesus. No, "you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God. . . We are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit" (7:4, 6).
The Christian life is lived in the free gift and earnest pursuit of a relation to Jesus Christ "That you might belong to another!" (7:4). He is the might and the mercy and the model and the mandate of the Christian life.
Romans 8: Nothing Can Separate Us from the Love of Christ
This brought us then in these recent weeks to Romans 8 – the great 8. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ (verse 35)? Do you see the connection between that and Romans 7:4? Dead to the law so that we might belong to another – to him who was raised from the dead, Jesus Christ. That is the key to living and the key to dying. Who then shall separate us from the love of Christ. Answer: Nothing. Who shall separate us from the love of God in Christ? Answer: Nothing.
"So whether we live or whether we die we are the Lord’s, for to this end Christ died and rose again, that he might be Lord both of the living and the dead" (Romans 14:8-9). Live under his lordship, die under his lordship. And always sing to the invincible love of God in Christ.
© Desiring God
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way and do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction. For web posting, a link to this document on our website is preferred. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Desiring God.
Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: By John Piper. © Desiring God. Website: desiringGod.org