January 27, 2012

The Heart of a Person of God: Romans 1:1-17


Throughout the history of the church, there have been many well-known people who have left their mark because of the change that took place in their lives after studying the book of Romans.

Augustine is one. He was a man leading an immoral life. In 386 A.D., while studying the book of Romans, he came to Romans 13:13-14, and his life was never the same from that point forward. Romans 13:13-14 tells us, “Let us walk properly, as in the day, not in revelry and drunkenness, not in lewdness and lust, not in strife and envy.  But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to fulfill its lusts.”

Another person whose life was changed by the book of Romans is Martin Luther. In 1515, Martin Luther’s life and destiny were changed by the book of Romans. He cited Romans 1:17 as having a profound impact on his relationship with his Lord: “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, ‘The just shall live by faith.’”

John Bunyan, English preacher and writer in the 17th century and author of Pilgrim’s Progress, and John Wesley, 18th century preacher and founder (with his brother Charles) of the Methodist movement, both noted that they were never the same after they studied the book of Romans.

Among church historians, theologians, and scholars, in fact, it is proverbial that the book of Romans has played a key role in every revival and awakening in the church’s history.

Today I want us to look at the heart of a man who was changed to the core by Jesus and who authored the book of Romans. We will look at Paul’s heart for the Gospel, his heart for the people, and we will finish up with what motivated Paul by looking at the theme of the book of Romans. I pray as we study through the book, we will let God change us and become more Christ-like.

Background and Purpose

Paul wrote this book, which is a letter to the church in Rome, in 58 A.D. while he was ministering in Corinth. The purpose of his writing was to let the Christians in Rome know of his desire to visit them (1:10-11, 13; 15:24); to answer the question of God's future purpose for Israel (chapters 9-11); and to present a clear exposition of justification by faith because of the legalistic Judaizers who were attempting to deceive the Roman Christians (Romans 16).

The key thought of the book of Romans is justification (“set free”). Paul uses the terms “justify” and “justification” 17 times, the term “faith” 37 times, and the term “grace” 24 times in the book as he emphasizes that salvation and the ongoing relationship with God on the part of the Christian are the results of God’s grace through faith, and not in any way earned, merited, or deserved.

Paul’s heart for the gospel (Romans 1:1-7)

Paul calls himself a “bond-servant of Jesus Christ” (verse 1). A bond-servant was a person who was enslaved—sold and bound to another person for total submission to the will of the master. This is an allusion that his Roman readers would understand immediately. A large number of people in the first century Roman world were enslaved. His readers understood the total commitment being a bond-servant to Christ was. Paul is saying that he has given himself up to Jesus in this manner.

There also may be a play on words in calling himself a bond-servant. In the Old Testament (Isaiah 20:3, Jeremiah 7:25, Amos 3:7) the word “servant” or “bond-servant” is used for the prophets of God—one who speaks for God. Paul is telling his readers of both his relationship (a bond-servant of Jesus Christ) and the purpose of his commitment to this relationship (to speak for God; i.e., preach, teach, advise, admonish, etc.).

This brings an important question to the Christian’s mind. To what degree do I see myself as a bond-servant of Jesus? Am I completely submitted, as though a servant to my master?  Am I submissive in all things? Do I trust the will of God for me? Am I willing to be used by God no matter what?

Paul also says was called to be an apostle—one who is sent out with the gospel message, a parallel to our service as people who communicate our Savior’s love and grace to others.

Verses 2-6 offer a brief summary of the gospel to which all Christians have responded and which are sent out to proclaim. In these verses he briefly states the gospel’s basic message: the Old Testament prophesied that the Messiah would come and told what he would be like; Jesus, the Son and our Lord, was a descendant of David (a prophecy); Jesus’ miracles and resurrection proved true His claim to be God.

Just like Paul was called to be an apostle, we are called by Jesus to be obedient to the faith and proclaim the gospel. That brings another question to mind for each of us to wrestle with individually: What does it mean to be obedient to the faith?

Paul’s heart for people (8-15)

One mark of active faith is that we are known by others for having it.  We are different.  People notice it in our lives, our demeanor, and in our words.  We tell them about Jesus not only with our words, but in the way we live. In other words, if Jesus is important enough to me—if I am truly His bond-servant—then other people will notice.  People have learned to rely on the fact that I won’t put God aside when He is inconvenient, that I won’t compromise. And if I do not demonstrate my commitment to Him with my actions, people have the right to question whether I indeed have the relationship to my Savior that I claim.

Paul also gives us a great example to follow by letting his readers know he always prays for them. One of the marks of active faith is that we pray for each other. Paul is not referring to the public prayers in the worship service every Sunday, but to the private, heart-to-heart talks with God.

In this instance, he is not only praying for them, but also praying that he would be able to visit them. Paul had not yet been to visit the Roman church, and he wanted to do so in order to help put the church on strong doctrinal footing.

The church at Rome most likely started from converted Jews returning 25 years earlier from Pentecost in Jerusalem, where Peter’s preaching resulted in thousands of visiting Jews to accept Jesus as Messiah (Acts 2). Paul wanted to help them become more “established” (verse 11; literally “to strengthen, make firm, stabilize”). It is no surprise, then, that we find a lot of doctrine in this letter, especially in light of some legalistic tendencies of the church in Rome.

The same is incumbent on Christians and especially Christian leaders today—to know and understand what is accurate doctrine and what is not. For the pastor and teacher, the responsibility is not to preach or teach soft, “feel-good” sermons and lessons, but to teach the truth of the word of God. It is attempting to live up to this responsibility that has motivated me throughout my years of preaching and teaching to present mainly expository messages—the verse-by-verse exposition of the Bible and the resulting impacts the teachings of Scripture should have on what we know to be true and the way we live.

Paul’s motivation and the theme of the book of Romans (verses 16-17)

Paul points out that he is proud that he is a bond-servant of Christ his Lord. He sees his faith for what it is—a special honor to be called a follower of Christ and to proclaim the gospel. Just a few years later, Paul was in Rome, not as a visitor, but as a prisoner.  He was still proud of calling himself a Christian and being able to proclaim the gospel, writing to the Philippians from his place of captivity in Rome: “Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ” (Philippians 3:8). It was still his privilege, he was telling the Philippians, to serve his Lord even though he had suffered so much because of it.

In Romans 1:17 Paul gives us the reason he felt so proud: in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed. According to Paul, his faith is not the result of just a story or a fable, but of the truth. He wants the people in the Roman church to fully realize that to know Christ is to know God and His righteousness. In Christ is power, the power to know God, to know what He is like, and to know how we, too, are not only declared righteous by our faith (justified), but also how we can become righteous in our thinking, our motivations, and our actions. It all happens not through our human efforts, but through the power of God. The gospel has the power to save people from eternal separation from God and that power can be evidenced through us.  People don’t just hear the gospel from us, but they see its power in our lives. We have a power that not even world leaders and their armies have: the power of God for salvation and the power of God to preach His message of love and grace.

Paul also gives us one of his key doctrinal teachings in verse 17: “The just shall live by faith.” This truth provided the foundation of the protestant reformation.  It is the one verse Martin Luther points to that changed him from a discontented Roman Catholic priest to a firebrand proclaimer of the truth—that faith and trust is a matter between the individual and God.

Paul had the privilege of teaching doctrine and proclaiming the gospel.  But once he understood that the just shall live by faith, he never again saw himself as a mediator or a Christian with special rights and privileges. Rather, he saw that each Christian—that is, those that are the “just” (lit. “the justified ones” or “those who are justified”)—lives by faith and the resulting one-on-one communion with God, with no human intercessors needed and no human intercessors either required or empowered to impart special benefits to the masses of Christians.

These are the two key truths of the book of Romans: (1) God’s grace in calling us righteous and (2) our faith as His bondservants. Together, they give us a heart for God, a heart for God’s people, a heart for proclaiming the gospel with our words and the way we live, and a desire to be His bondservant, making His will our will. All this is not a burden but the highest privilege of the child of God.